Many bird species kept as pets, particularly parrots, are highly intelligent and very sensitive to their environment. Being a bright spark is all well and good when you can explore the wide world, but can become a problem when you are confined to a cage or aviary. Caging a bird inherently places it in an abnormal world, away from a flock and all the social interaction that entails. Food is provided on tap, caging or trimming of wings often prevents flight, and natural behaviours are altered.
Birds become bored easily and can also develop unnaturally close bonds with owners, to the point where they consider them a mate. This creates stress when the owner is away for long periods. Stress and boredom potentiate many medical and behavioural problems. One of the most commonly seen behaviours in stressed birds is feather picking - where the bird tugs out feathers, usually from over the breast, leg and wing tips. Habits such as feather picking are difficult to break and, left unchecked, can result in an alarmingly naked bird. Much can be done to improve a bird’s mental health and reduce stress and boredom.
1. Appropriate Caging
Many birdcages are inappropriate and a direct cause of stress. Tall cylindrical cages may look pretty but, as birds are not helicopters, they do not allow space for flight. Cages can be placed in a window or near a busy thoroughfare so that the bird has plenty to see. Cages should also have a less exposed area that will allow the bird to hide from its environment if it should feel intimidated. As an example, a canary kept in an office had a morbid fear of the fax machine and started pulling all the feathers from his wing tips. Pushing the cage against the wall and providing a small compartment to hide behind, so the bird did not feel completely exposed, solved the problem. Radios and television can also be used to provide background noise when you are not at home. Perches should be of different diameter and preferably of natural wood with lots of bark to be shredded off. The cage layout should be changed regularly.
2. Encourage Foraging Behaviour
Encouraging foraging behaviour helps prevent obesity and boredom. In the wild, birds must constantly forage for food. This natural behaviour provides a varied diet and exercise. In captivity, a food bowl is provided – reaching the food bowl is hardly a workout and the bird can quickly gorge until full and then has nothing to do to fill his day. Provide a stimulating and varied diet with lots of fresh vegetables, some fruit and a complete pelleted ration. Try things such as corncobs, capsicum strips, carrot tops and wheat grass that can be hidden inside things or strung on a leather strip. Place a vase in or next to the cage and fill it with small branches and natural vegetation.
3. Exercise and Training
Parrots can quickly learn to ‘step up’ onto your finger and ‘step down’ back to a perch on command. This home step aerobics helps reinforce the owner as boss whilst simultaneously stimulating some mental gymnastics.
Provide a variety of toys and rotate them. Include ‘destructible’ toys, such as wooden clothes pegs and leather strips that can be chewed. Hide food inside toys to encourage play.
5. Daily Misting
Lightly spraying the feathers with a fine mist of water encourages natural grooming behaviour and can help direct a bird’s attention away from damaged areas.
Any bird that is feather picking should always be checked by your veterinarian as there are many conditions besides behavioural problems which can result in feather loss.