Birds in the wild engage in certain natural behaviors in the course of their daily lives. They learn survival skills from parents and other older birds in the flock. They learn to forage for food. Fifty percent of their day is spent looking for food and twenty to thirty percent of their time is spent eating the food. They fly to water supplies in order to drink and bathe. They bathe and preen to take care of their feathers. They interact with their mate or other birds in the flock. They vocalize and communicate with each other. All of these behaviours are a natural part of their daily existence.
However, in captivity, we inadvertently block some of these natural behaviours. Birds that are frustrated in one aspect of their lives will often over compensate by becoming obsessive about another behaviour. Commonly I see single pet birds eg. budgerigars, cockatiels, sulphur crested cockatoos, galahs etc. who are presented with obesity related disorders. These single birds have become obsessive about eating. They are often inappropriately bonded to a member of their “human” flock and have no natural outlet for their sexuality. Their natural behaviour of interacting with a mate has been blocked, therefore they have become obsessive about another behaviour, eating. With these birds, food becomes the focus of their life. It is difficult to diet these birds that have an obsessive desire for food. With budgies and cockatiels, a “soft introduction” to a mate of the opposite sex can bring back balance into their lives. However, it is not as easy to introduce mates to the larger cockatoos and parrots who have greater space requirements.
Sexually frustrated pet birds can also become obsessive compulsive about drinking. I often have concerned owners bringing their pets to me because they think they have diabetes or kidney disorders. These birds are also single pets without a mate. They are bright, active, alert with no apparent signs of physical illness. However, their owners are concerned that they are passing droppings with lots of excess fluid. When questioned, they admit that the birds also drink great quantities of water. Naturally, this water is passed from their bodies in the form of excess fluid in their droppings. Very often with these birds, the introduction of a mate and a change in the way the owners relate to the bird, results in a more normal pattern of drinking and an end to the excessive fluid in their droppings.
Sexual frustration can also result in obsessive compulsive grooming habits which easily develop into feather picking and self-mutilation. Single pet male cockatiels very commonly pluck their own feathers as a result of sexual frustration. I commonly see single male cockatiels inappropriately bonded to a human member of their flock. Mixed marriages don’t work the bird knows something is not right. Their chosen mate can’t have sex with them and won’t get into the nest to lay eggs. With their mating behaviour blocked, they resort to obsessive grooming to replace this need. Obsessive grooming soon leads to feather plucking and in extreme cases, self-mutilation.
Another cause of obsessive compulsive grooming or feather plucking occurs if there is any change to the flock dynamics. If a family member dies or leaves home, or marries or begins a new relationship or a new pet or baby is introduced into the household, these changes block a bird’s normal interaction with their flock and so they channel their frustrations into obsessive grooming that can result in feather barbering, feather plucking or self-mutilation. Sudden changes in environment eg cutting down a favourite tree or moving home can also cause anxiety related obsessive grooming in birds.
When their foraging instinct is blocked, birds can also become obsessive compulsive about some other behaviour. Single birds kept in sterile, bare cages have no opportunity to forage for food. Seed and water are placed in bowls and the bird has nothing else to do except eat or drink. Without opportunity to forage for food many pet birds become obsessive compulsive about eating, drinking or over-preening. Pet bird owners need to present opportunities for their birds to forage food items. Present your bird with a lot of different types of “bush tucker” that is suitable for their dietary needs. Eg. budgies, cockatiels, cockatoos, galahs love to forage on fresh green seeding grasses. They happily spend time husking each seed and chewing up the juicy leaves and stems of the grasses. All birds enjoy chewing on “browse” i.e. fresh, green, leafy branches of Australian native trees placed in their cages daily. Gum nuts, seed pods, fresh thistle are all forms of natural forage for pet birds. Specific foraging toys can be purchased from the Parrot Rescue Centre online shop. Birds have to use their brain to find the treats hidden in these toys. With the help of an excellent DVD “Captive Foraging” (also available at the Parrot Rescue Centre on line shop) and their own imagination, owners can invent many ingenious and safe ways to encourage their pet bird to engage in natural foraging behaviour.
If a single pet bird is inappropriately bonded with a human member of their flock, they can become obsessive compulsive about calling and vocalizing. In the wild, a mate is never separated from their bonded partner. If such separation occurs, it is natural for the birds to call to each other. If a bird is bonded to an owner who works 9 to 5 it will often call obsessively (and drive everyone else in the household mad) until their mate returns each day.
Birds are complex animals and we need to understand this when we take on the responsibility of owning one of these remarkable creatures. It is very important to maintain balance in their lives and try to avoid situations where natural behaviours are frustrated. Where practical or possible, all pet birds should have an opposite sex mate of their own species to ensure that they have a natural outlet for their sexuality when they reach puberty. Owners should always act as the parent to their bird, not their “lover”. We need to make sure that we guide and socialise our pet birds to ensure harmony within the family flock.
Their environment should be safe and stimulating with plenty of food foraging opportunities. If we can provide opportunities for the pet birds to engage in all of their natural behaviours, we will be less likely to be confronted with dysfunctional obsessive compulsive pets. Our lives and that of our pets will become more harmonious and rewarding.
Information supplied by (c) Currumbin Valley Vet Services August 2010