Feather plucking and parrot self-mutilation are very upsetting problems that are rather common in domestic parrots.
Parrot self-mutilation is considered a stereotypical behavior. In other words, the bird seems to be driven to constantly perform a behavior that seems to have no purpose, and may, in fact, be harmful to the animal.
Any form of stereotypical behavior and exotic animals is a sign that the animal is under a lot of duress.
Zookeepers see a lot of stereotypic behaviors, but, so do psychotherapists and behaviorists.
For instance, think of people who cut on themselves or the perplexing problem of pulling one's hair out.
These behaviors are not unlike parrot feather plucking or parrot self-mutilation, and we can glean research about these disorders to apply to our pet birds.
So why is parrot self-mutilation so common in domesticated parrots?
This blog will help you explore the reasons behind parrot self-mutilation and what you can do about it.
I'm going to walk you through evidence-based hypotheses of why parrots self-mutilate.
Oftentimes, we see that these behaviors result from many factors from;
- inappropriate brain development
- wellness issues, including both medical and environmental factors and;
- accidental training
My ultimate goal is going to be to help you, as a parrot caretaker, figure out the root causes of your individual parrots’ self-mutilation habit.
The basis of this blog post will revolve around ground-breaking brain chemistry and brain development research that effects hand-reared parrots.
I'll also explore The Parrot's Hierarchy of Needs based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And, explore common health-related issues that perpetuate self-mutilation in parrots.
Keep in mind that there are numerous theories and treatment recommendations behind feather plucking and parrot self-mutilation all over the internet.
You'll find forums full of advice from lay-people all the way up to highly scientific, research-backed information that is difficult for most people to interpret.
(We have a really great Feather Plucking Help Community on Facebook. Check it out here)
My goal with this blog post is to translate actual evidence-based, scientific information in a way that is easily understood so that you can take real action to help your pet.
People often think that there is only one reason causing the perplexing habit of parrot self-mutilation, but in reality, it results from a number of factors that stress a bird out, biologically, socially and emotionally.
Parrots are just as social as you and I and the concepts of this theory apply to them, too.
All living beings must have their basic biological needs met in order to thrive, and parrots are no exception.
When a parrots' basic biological needs are met the bird experiences a sense of physical and emotional wellbeing, giving it a positive mindset to carry on with daily life.
Being exotic pets, though, it is difficult to ensure that a pet parrot gets the proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise that it needs to thrive. And, these shortfalls leave a parrot susceptible to discomfort, angst, and despair.
One of the best things you can do to manage parrot self-mutilation is to ensure the wellness of your pet.
Prevention sets your pet up for success.
For parrots, that means the following:
Behaviorist Susan Friedman and other experts in animal applied behavior analysis identify that ensuring parrot wellness is the first step when trying to resolve troublesome parrot behavior problems.
By ensuring wellness, you’re setting your bird up for success and enabling it to let free up energy to attend to other activities of daily living.
it's also important that your parrot has a sense of self-confidence. Like all creatures, parrots develop self-confidence when they believe in their own abilities, choices, and skill-sets. we all know that a person with a strong sense of self-confidence tends to be more productive and more emotionally happy.
Your self-confident parrot will be more capable of entertaining itself and keeping itself safely occupied, and engaging in appropriate parrot behaviors. Parrots that lack self-confidence may experience high levels of anxiety which can contribute to the development of problem behaviors.
One of the best ways to enhance your parrots’ self-confidence is to use positive training methods.
I like to encourage my followers to teach their bird tricks using Clicker Training for Birds methods. But, it will also be important to teach your bird manners, in other words, appropriate behavior expectations.
Using clicker training strategies for birds you’ll to learn to quickly and appropriately respond to desired behaviors while ignoring undesired behaviors. The more frequent opportunities that your parrot has to choose behavior and feel rewarded for its actions, the more self-confident it will become.
Imagine yourself teaching your bird a simple, fun trick, such as waving hello. Every time your parrot performs “The Wave” and gets a positive response from you, it learns that you’ll not only notice but that it will be rewarded. That makes the bird feel good about itself and gives it a sense that it has some control over its destiny.
The more positive attention that your birds receive from performing desired behaviors, the more it's going to want to please you by engaging in the behaviors that you've trained it to perform.
Never punish your bird because punishment breaks down self-confidence and results in an anxious pet that is prone to problem behaviors.
In addition to improving self-confidence and allowing your parrot to have choices, you must always be aware that your bird needs to feel physically safe and emotionally safe in your presence.
This involves being attuned to environmental factors that cause your bird stress and anxiety. Research tells us that hand-reared parrots are more prone to anxious and unpredictable behaviors.
They often miss out on important lessons from mom and dad in regard to how to thrive as a parrot causing issues with their brain development.
But, even a bird that's missed out on important developmental milestones needs opportunities to let its inner parrot out.
While I'm talking about parrot emotional health, it is important to note that we are now discovering how removing a young chick from its parental care for hand-feeding purposes results in life-long difficulties.
It is now a known fact that the stress of being removed for parental care affects a parrot's ability to both regulate its mood and engage in stress-relieving natural parrot behaviors, such as play, foraging, and exercise.
This has to do with the bird missing critical developmental milestones that can only be provided for from alike species of bird, while the brain is developing.
Missing these critical milestones results in significant stress for the chick, resulting in a bird with a highly overactive stress response system in the brain.
Think of it as a PTSD response. or this reason, it is more important than ever that handfed birds
One of the fascinations that people have with parrots is that they are so social. After all, what other pet can talk with you?
A well-mannered parrot can be a joy to be around. Their playful, inquisitive nature lends itself to a lot of interaction.
As you probably know, many species of wild parrots live in large flocks, of up to 1,000’s of birds.
Socialization is an important building block of mental health for them. Afterall, flock members offer protection in numbers and they work together to find food sources, nesting sites and the like. Flocks play a huge role in parrot well-being.
Your domestic parrot needs a considerable amount of socialization in order too emotionally thrive in the household environment. Without well-planned out accommodations, parrot care could turn into a full-time job.
It will be important that you provide your pet with numerous opportunities for both interactive socialization opportunities, such as being around you and your family and environmental socialization opportunities that allow it to have a variety of sensory inputs.
What I mean by this is that your bird will need to have routine times when it knows that it won't be able to socialize with you throughout the day and when it can’t be with you it needs to experience visual, auditory, kinesthetic, touch and the like.
To enhance the interactive socialization plan to socialize with your bird at breakfast before you go to work. Take a shower with your bird and engage in grooming activities together. Eat breakfast together before you leave for work.
Then, while you're at work, you can provide auditory in visual sensory input by leaving a television or radio on and provide plenty of novel toys and foraging opportunities that will encourage exercise and movement.
The goal here is to keep your parrot occupied with fun, natural parrot behaviors throughout the day to minimize its sense of isolation. And, of course, you'll also want to develop evening routines to allow your pet to socialize with the family before bedtime.
Given that you've likely acquired a hand-fed parrot that hasn't had the luxury of having Mom and Dad teach it important life skills, your parrot is going to look to you to teach it how to behave and self-regulate.
We already know that parrots are very sensitive and that they thrive with a strong sense of self-confidence.
That is why it's imperative that you learn to use force-free parrot training methods that build a bird's self-confidence as opposed to punishing methods that tear it down.
Force-free training methods ensure that your pet feels safe, loved, and a sense of peace throughout the training process.
Your pet will be able to trust that you'll focus your attention on what it does to please you, offering up positive rewards, rather than reacting with punishment when it doesn't do what you expect it to do.
Finally, when your parrot feels well and its physical needs are taken care of, it feels self-confident because it knows what is expected to get positive attention, it is well-socialized and part of the family, it now has time to focus on intellectual development.
A lot of people tell us that they got their pet in the first place because of the birds’ intellectual capabilities. It's fun to have such a smart pet that can learn entertaining tricks, socialize with you and even talk with you.
Parrots have been shown to have the intellectual intelligence of early Elementary-aged children. That means that your bird can learn all kinds of things, from problem-solving to using tools, 2 identifying colors, and even counting.
Being so intelligent, your parrot will love foraging toys, puzzle related toys, learning tricks, and learning intellectual concepts like colors, counting, etc.
Plus, working with your parrot to learn new tricks and gain new knowledge strengthens your bond with your pet.
When your bird has its needs predominantly met, it will feel less anxious and be less prone to developing maladaptive, stereotypic behaviors such as feather plucking and self-mutilation.
What idea’s do you have to enrich your pet’s life?
Write them down in the comments section to share with other parrot lovers.
Pulling out feathers or biting holes into the skin is very painful. While we don't conclusively know what maintains self-mutilation, recent research explores the changing brain chemistry that occurs when a bird causes itself intense pain.
Just like people who cut themselves or pull out their hair, a sharp pain causes the brain to emit epinephrine, a hormone that stops anxiety in its tracks.
An already hand-reared parrot that has missed the developmental milestone of learning to calm itself may learn to rely on self-injury as a means to calm itself.
That leads us to the question of what is causing the bird anxiety in the first place. To figure this out, it might help to put yourself in the mindset of a wild parrot. Parrots are flock animals, so wild parrots are never alone.
Flock mates work together to ensure the safety of the flock. Wild parrots have a whole rainforest full of varied nutritious, delicious eats.
These birds fly from food station to food station in the rainforest looking for various forms of nutrition. Sometimes up to a hundred miles a day! So, a wild parrot has the luxury of never-ending companionship and fulfilling exercise and diet.
While your bird is a fantastic pet, he or she is also on one or two generations from the wild and has not adapted yet to the human habitat with all of its noise, bacteria, chemicals or to the new social systems to which it must adjust.
Domestic parrots may be locked in a cage with a few flock-mates nearby. They have minimal exercise and a comparatively bland diet compared to their wild counterparts.
We also think that it might be because of bad training systems where the bird is trained by using incorrect reinforcement techniques that may work for children but not necessarily for birds that are just a few generations away from their wild cousins.
Looked at holistically we can deduce that the majority of the issues are caused in some ways by interaction with humans and adapting to our environment.
As soon as you pick up signs of self-mutilation pack your bird up and take him or her to an avian vet for a thorough check-up to rule out any viral, bacterial or fungal cause as well as physiological causes. Self-mutilation often quickly gets progressively worse.
Your vet will also be able to check your bird for signs of stress, malnutrition or other contributing factors and advise you on the best diet, supplements, and enrichment to improve the wellness of your pet.
During this visit be sure to inquire about pharmaceutical-grade medications. Just like in humans, the prognosis of stereotypical self-harm behaviors tends to be better with medications.
It is important to keep data whenever you're trying to change behavior. At first, the idea of collecting data may sound somewhat daunting, but it's actually pretty easy.
For behavioral issues such as parrots self-mutilation, you'll want to collect data on three important behavioral measures;
The key here is to get measurable data regarding parrot self-mutilation. only when you know these three measures will you be able to determine when improvements are happening. That's why we recommend that you keep a logbook.
Have you ever heard of a Likert scale? The Likert scale is often used to measure Behavior. You've probably taken Likert scale surveys in the past. This may sound familiar:
Question: How many times a day do you brush your teeth?
1 - Once
3 - twice
5 - three times +
You can develop similar ratings for the frequency, intensity, and duration of your parrots' self-mutilation behavior.
First, this will allow you to put a numerical number on how severe the mutilation is. You're going to want to get baseline data for a minimum of two weeks prior and making any changes in your parrot care routines.
You're looking for patterns. The idea is to find out when and why your bird picks at his or herself.
Does the self-mutilation happen at certain times of the day? Do certain noises or sights trigger the behavior? A bird that sees hawks from the window or hears scary noises but can't get away from them may resort to anxious self-mutilation.
A carefully kept logbook will be of great benefit in deducing why your bird is engaging in this behavior. Then you'll learn some ways to alter the environment so your bird feels safe.
Your reaction to your bird's feather plucking may well be a contributing factor, so look to make sure that your bird isn't exhibiting this behavior as a way to get your attention.
A bored and lonely bird looking for attention is just as happy to get negative feedback as positive, and you don't want your bird to associate any form of attention with feather picking.
A standard rule of thumb while training birds is to never give negative feedback, especially to a bird who is already feeling lonely and isolated.
It's important to remember that your bird is probably only one generation away from being a wild animal, and so cannot be considered to be truly domesticated.
Birds were not designed to live in cages, or in homes, and are not instinctually programmed to dealing with the daily stressors that a human habitat imposes.
An exhausted bird can't cope with that stress!
So you need to make sure that your bird gets lots of rest, and is allowed a suitable place that ensures a restful sleep each night.
Vets recommend between 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night
A bird can be a great friend and a fantastic companion animal, but never forget that it is only one step away from the wild, and its genetic make-up is designed to live in a large flock for safety purposes.
At the bare minimum, your bird needs to be able to fully stretch his or her wings without touching the sides of the cage.
However, a wild bird has freedom as far as it can fly. While cost is a factor, imagine if you had to live in a cage that was small, confining, and provided little or no stimulation.
The idea is to provide your bird with natural, safe housing that feels like home, not to put him or her in a prison.
As we'll talk about a little later, it has been proven that certain species of birds have the mental capacity of a 5 to a 6-year-old human child, and so needs both freedom and entertainment to keep from being bored, lonely, and stressed out.
Is your bird a Seed Junkie?
Birds get sick from eating the wrong foods just like humans.
They have specific nutritional requirements that are designed to keep them lightweight to fly but supply the energy needed to get too far away destinations.
That said, pet birds are usually fed inferior, fattening diets, and then suffer from obesity. A fat, malnourished bird feels sick all over.
And just like humans, birds tend to love "junkie foods" and can become addicted to a fattening, seed diet that offers minimal nutrition.
Many birds are deficient in vitamin A, which birds need to fuel their immune system. This is more often than not caused an all-seed diet, that your bird will love, but that is full of fat and is nutritionally deficient.
It's important to feed your bird properly and don't let him or her convince you that the only food worth eating is a dish of fatty seeds.
You should be looking at whole live foods including fresh vegetables and fruit as well as sprouted seeds.
Rule # 6: Air quality is killer
Birds are incredibly sensitive to the air that they breathe, and can very quickly become ill or die if certain toxins are present.
These include household cleaning chemicals, paraffin heaters or lamps, smoke from cigarettes - including handling the bird with nicotine on your hands - mold, and possibly the most deadly of all, Teflon coated pots and pans.
Make sure that your bird gets plenty of fresh air and is not exposed to any household odors that could do him or her harm.
If you are concerned that air quality is contributing to your birds' self-mutilation, you may wish to explore purchasing a high-quality air filter.
Check cages, feeders, and toys for signs of unsafe metals, rust, and especially for signs that your bird has been clawing or stripping the plastic coating of objects that have metal underneath.
Zinc and lead are generally believed to be the major culprits although any sort of metal has the potential to harm.
Especially look at chains that are attached to toys, as well as bells, ladders, perches, in fact, check everything in the cage!
Rule # 8: Mold and Aspergillus.
Aspergillus and mold can cause respiratory infections and are very rapid killers of birds. But, they may well contribute to feather plucking behaviors for the duration of the illness.
Malnourished, seed junkie birds are more prone to respiratory infections.
Over time, being vitamin A deficient can cause an abnormal epithelium in the respiratory tract which will make it easier for bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites to invade your bird and take hold.
Birds are very intelligent and can engage in feather destructive behavior out of sheer boredom.
Birds are highly social animals with active minds and a high need for activity. Research has shown that parrots have the intellectual capacity and activity level of a five to six-year-old child and as such need plenty of love and attention to keep them occupied.
You should plan on spending a minimum of 30 minutes per day directly interacting with your bird. It's best that you do this at around the same time each day so that your bird can form a routine in his or her mind.
This interaction time can be spent playing, learning, and practicing new tricks using positive reinforcement, cuddling or horsing around. But it must be direct personal attention.
Apart from the 30 minutes of direct attention each day, it's important that your bird has daily out of cage time where he or she is able to interact with the family. A bird stand is perfect for this and allows your bird to occupy him or herself while still being part of the family unit.
Don't underestimate the recuperative power that interacting and loving your bird has.
All in all, feather picking is a complex issue for bird owners for which there is no easy fix.
Many bird lovers have successfully kicked a nasty feather picking habit with the assistance of their veterinarian, improved nutrition, skincare, calming supplements and by slowly modifying their bird's environment to one that suits its needs and temperament.
Learn more about Treatment Options for Parrot Self Mutilation here.
Do you have some other insights into picking and self-mutilation? Add your comments.
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