TEACH YOUR BIRDS TO FORAGE & HELP AVOID FEATHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS
The following is an article I authored for a local paper and has more extensive information on foraging than what is scattered throughout the rest of this page. I hope it proves useful to the readers.
IS FEATHER PICKING A MEDICAL OR BEHAVIOR PROBLEM?
Often it is both. Without a doubt feather destructive behavior (FDB) is the most common problem I see on a daily basis. I often see a bird after it has been picking for months or even years. At this late stage it is impossible to determine if it began as a behavioral problem or a medical problem. Regardless of how it started, most feather pickers will have a medical component as well that must be addressed. Something as simple as a skin infection is often enough to keep most pickers picking. So, before we can even approach the issue of behavior the health aspect of FDB must be addressed. Every bird showing FDB must be seen and fully evaluated by a veterinarian. Many, chronic and often hidden illnesses can be manifested as FDB. I always advise owners that before we can safely spend the months it may take to alter a behavior we must first resolve any primary and even secondary diseases. It is not atypical for a bird that started picking due to behavior to develop secondary skin infections that must be treated medically. So first please take your bird in for an evaluation by your avian veterinarian. Also, I encourage that the bird be presented to an avian veterinarian at the earliest signs of FDB. The earlier the condition is noticed the better the chance for complete resolution of the behavior.
Not all FDBs are as obvious as the bird a bird that has only a few tail and flight feathers left and a fully feathered head, most are much more subtle. Feather destructive behaviors can range from the bird that over grooms its feathers resulting in a ragged appearance to the feathers, to the bird that plucks large amounts of feathers from its skin resulting in a chick-like appearance with exposed down feathers, to the most serious form, the bird that actually mutilates it’s skin resulting in potentially deadly infections and wounds. It is important to note that while not every feather chewer goes on to mutilate, some do, and we don’t know who these birds are in the early stages of the disease. Also, regardless of the degree of feather or skin damage it is important to realize that feather destructive behavior in all the various forms is a serious behavioral disorder that should be corrected or at least managed to improve the quality of the life of these birds. In short, look for ragged or unusual feathers on your bird, areas on the bird that are actually devoid of feathers, and skin wounds on the bird. Any of these signs should warrant a trip to the Veterinarian.
My bird has feather destructive behavior so does this mean my pet is unhappy or poorly cared for?
Absolutely not, the majority of birds I see with FDB are well cared for and well loved pets. I often stress to owners that they cannot and should not blame themselves for the behavior their bird is demonstrating. Like all behaviors, FDB is caused by multiple factors and not caused by one particular incident, or environmental factor. Factors such as how the bird was raised, socialized, and weaned all greatly influence the behavioral development of your bird prior to the bird even entering your home. In addition, guilt over FDB and having to view the affected bird daily will often cause the owner to place the bird with a new family, because they assume the bird is not happy with them. Unfortunately, this often results in the bird going through several different homes in a short time frame and causes a worsening of the behavior due to the stress of the ever changing family and environment. A better solution is to recognize that the bird has a behavioral problem and then take the steps that we’ll cover below to alter the behavior. FDB appears to be predominately a captive bird disorder. Of course, if wild birds did demonstrate the pronounced feather destructive behavior we often see in our pet birds they would quickly be consumed by a predator. It is now commonly thought that the life of the wild bird is so radically different than our captive pets that FDBs just don’t develop. Wild birds are well socialized by hatching out within a clutch of chicks and fledging within a flock structure that requires a wealth of interaction often between numerous birds. In addition, wild birds spend most of their day foraging or looking for food. Foraging not only exercises their brain but also requires vigorous physical exercise with birds’ often flying miles in search food and water sources.
How are pet birds different than wild birds?
In contrast, our pet birds are kept largely in a cage that even when of generous proportions is unlikely to allow much exercise, they always have a ready source of food and water, and they are often housed alone. The wild bird that spends the greatest part of its day foraging is the same bird that is only provided limited socialization, no exercise and no foraging in captivity. Is it any wonder they pick? I love birds and intend to continue to share my home and my life with them. Therefore, I’m not advocating that birds should only be wild, but I am advocating that if we keep birds as pets than we must find the best way to make their lives as full and rich as their wild counterparts and as rich as they deserve.
Why does it matter how the chicks are raised?
Our pet birds are usually removed from their parents and or flock at a very young age or even when an egg. Their socialization from this point on is largely dependent on the care and knowledge of the breeder who must take over the role of flock and parents. Too many times the pet bird is raised alone and never allowed to learn correct parrot social behavior from clutch mates. Often the chick is adopted out prior to even weaning and many times the chick’s wings are cut prior to the first flight further restricting the physical, emotional, and mental development of the bird. Please understand, I do believe that pet parrots should be hand-raised, because I find it senseless for a being that is going to live in our homes for decades to live frightened of their caretakers. However, I also believe the way in which the chick is raised is vitally important to later behavioral development. Ideally, clutches of chicks should be raised together in a social group during and beyond the time they fledge. Allowing the chick to fledge and safely learn to fly is important for muscular and mental development. I believe that chicks that have learned to fly are more confident adults. I don’t however believe that all pet birds should be left flighted. The decision to trim the wings is largely dependent on the type of home the bird will live in. Hundreds of loved companion birds are lost every year due to an unexpected and inadvertent escape. While in some homes a flighted bird can be safely kept, in most homes it is best to slowly and progressively trim the wings of the fledged chick to the point at which flight and escape is limited.
Okay, so what is foraging and why is it important?
Foraging in the classic sense is the time in which a bird spends its day flying to and looking for food. Little of its time is spent in actual eating and much of the time is spent in the process of looking for the food. Foraging is a great way to stimulate the parrot’s mind and also encourage more movement and exercise.
So, how can a caged pet bird forage?
It is important to note that foraging must be taught to most of our pet birds and advanced foragers take months to develop and not days. Teaching a caged bird to forage involves a series of very simple changes to the bird’s cage and or free standing tree. Keep using the bowl in which the bird was typically fed, but don’t fill it to overflowing, put in just enough food for the day, and don’t put the most favored treats in the bowl. Now add several smaller foraging bowls all over the cage. Place these small bowls in the cage such that the bird must fully traverse its cage to get to all the bowls. Now place only a very small amount of a favorite treat in each of these bowls. It is important that the bird not reach the first bowl and eat its entire daily ration. We want to encourage the bird to move to and explore all the bowls. At this point you are already providing the bird with more exercise than our formally sedentary parrot who sits on its one favorite perch all day. When the bird has mastered finding treats in all the little bowls, begin to add a small piece of paper on top of each bowl so that the bird must push it off to get to the treat. Advance from here to taping the paper on the bowl so the parrot must chew through the paper to get the treat. Some retail foraging bowls come with lids that can be placed tightly so that the bird must work out how to undo the lid to get the treat. The idea being that as the bird masters each stage the foraging is made a little more physically and mentally demanding. Many excellent foraging type toys can be purchased from retail stores such as www.birdsjustwannahavefun.com, but toys can also be easily and inexpensively made at home.
- Paper cups make a great foraging device. Use small paper cups and place a small treat in the cup, wad the cup into a ball and place in the cage or on the tree. The parrot must chew through the cup to get the treat. Advanced stages of this include placing a tie around the cup and suspending it from the tree so that the bird must pull the cup up by the tie to allow access for chewing.
- Tamale wraps can be used to make a great hidden treat. Again, place only a small amount of treat in the corn husk and wrap until fully covered and tie closed. Then allow the parrot to chew the tamale until the treat is revealed. Commercial type piñatas are available from retailers and serve much the same purpose as the tamale wrap, but come in interesting shapes and colors.
- Cardboard rolls are another easy foraging toy. The roll should be appropriately sized so that the bird can easily pick the roll up in its hand and chew out the treat that is hidden inside. Also, thicker cardboard is better as it requires more time for the bird to get the treat out. Many commercial products are available and now come in various colors and sizes.
- Paper can be weaved in the cage bars
- Adding machine tape can be hung on a perch
When your bird has become a master forager you can start to vary the routine somewhat and place a large variety of foraging toys in the cage. Some of the toys are now empty, some are filled with actual toys, and some are filled with small treats. You can also introduce some of the acrylic type toys that require an action such as opening a drawer, turning a wheel, or lifting a lid to get to the treat. A few of the better toy retailers include birdsjustwannahavefun, The Bird Brain, and Parrot island which makes a variety of treasure chests with various toys to fill them with.
So, as a result of these small changes you have implemented you will have a more physically, emotionally, and mentally fit companion bird with which to enjoy your life. The bird has gone from spending its day plucking out feathers and sitting on one perch to roaming all over the cage and discovering many yummy and interesting treats in its now much more exciting world.
The photos used in this article are a combination of patient photos, my own birds and wildlife photos that I’ve taken in AZ and IA. Much of my own education has been through extensive reading on just about anything involving bird behavior. I’ve learned greatly from the published materials of Dr. Echols whose work has contributed greatly to the well being of captive birds world wide. I’ve gathered foraging & behavior information from various journal articles involving avian behavior, the Association of Avian Veterinarians Conference 2006-2009, Exotic DVM, and Captive Foraging DVD . Most importantly, keeping and raising birds throughout my life has provided me with unlimited opportunities for learning. My love and awe of birds is largely what lead me to become a veterinarian and the care I’ve provided my birds has been paid back a thousand fold with the knowledge they have shared with me, allowing me to utilize that knowledge repeatedly when caring for my patients. I thank them all.