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Avian Behavior - An Introduction

Teresa L. Lightfoot D.V.M., Diplomate ABVP - Avian

The pet psittacine owner's initial impression of an avian practice is often based not on medical knowledge but rather by the ability of the veterinarian or technician to handle their bird during the office visit. Familiarity with the differences in species behavior and of the temperament of the individual bird allows the veterinarian to utilize the most confident and comfortable approach to the handling and restraint of an avian patient. General principles and species tendencies that can be utilized in practice are discussed.

During the past twenty years the origins of our pet psittacine population has changed dramatically. Formerly, imported wild-caught birds predominated. The current bird market is almost entirely composed of hand-raised birds. This has had dramatic impact on their behavior.1,2,3 Many of the ramifications can not be addressed within the time constraints of this lecture. Let us just plant the seed that will hopefully lead the reader to seek more thorough information located in the publications of parrot behavior consultants.

This author was first struck by the similarities of baby birds that are incubator hatched, and the "orphanage baby" syndrome. Both are kept fed and warm with their physiologic needs met. However, the same lack of close, secure and frequent parenteral contact that produces emotional problems in humans later in life may well be occurring with baby psittacines. As discussed by Phoebe Linden, these baby birds are subsequently weaned and generally have their wings clipped prior to the development of flight.3 The tremendous increase in behavioral problems exemplified by screaming, biting, neurotic/phobic behaviors and feather plucking have all paralleled the increase in captive breeding.4,5,6 Does this mean we should not breed birds in captivity? I doubt that is anyone's conclusion. Habitat destruction has jeopardized the future of wild propagation. But a serious look at how these young are raised is in order. (The reader is referred to reference #3 for more complete explanation of development of domestically raised psittacines in a nurturing environment and the results that are obtained). Additionally, after weaning the young psittacine is still very immature. We would obviously be irresponsible if we said that a three-year-old child no longer needs parenting since he can eat and walk on his own. It is also unreasonable for an owner not to accept continued responsibility for and the existence of development and change in their pet psittacine. The knowledge and participation of the bird's owners will determine the outcome of this developmental learning curve. It is our responsibility to give them the knowledge to work with this behavior or to refer them to a parrot behavior consultant for this information.

Species Variations - Tips and Tricks

Budgies, canaries and finches:

Dim the lights and remove excess toys and perches. It stresses the bird and prolongs stress to chase the bird around an obstacle course in the cage.

Medium size conures (Aratinga sp such as Sun, Jenday, Gold-capped, Blue-crown, and Mitred):

These are fast, exuberant and often cage and owner possessive birds as adults. If presented in their cage, the use of a wash cloth to initially restrain them is often faster and involves less stress and less prying of the beak off of your hand.

Amazona sp.:

These birds are generally "steppers". They don't have to like an individual in order to step up onto their hand. As previously noted they will usually get onto anyone's hand to get out of a low, prey position if they have been hand-tamed.5

Pionus sp.:

Often are nervous in the animal hospital but are generally not as aggressive as mature Amazons. One significant note is the sniffing noise that is made in response to being frightened. It is produced with the mouth closed and is often mistaken by owners as a respiratory condition.5

Cacatua sp. (Goffin, citron, and lesser cockatoos):

These range between Amazons and Umbrella cockatoos in their behavior. Some like to step up, some will be cuddled. Be guided by the owner's description of the bird's demeanor and your observations.

Cacatua alba and moluccensis (Umbrella and Moluccan Cockatoos):

Generally prefer being cuddled to stepping up on your hand. After a crest or axillary rub, most will allow scooping up into your chest. Moluccans are a little less predictable than Umbrellas. Warn the owner in advance to expect a loud, usually one-time scream when your cuddling becomes restraint and the bird realizes that it can't move.

Macaws (Ara sp.) - Blue and Gold, Green-wing and Military:

These species can be difficult to calm while restrained if seriously frightened. If a macaw is tolerating the procedures physically, it may be prudent to simply continue and complete the examination after covering the bird's head with a towel. Limiting their visual field may decrease the association between people and the current stress. The "toweling" technique of restraint as describe by Liz Wilson can greatly reduce the initial fear response to restraint.2

Macaws (Scarlet) Ara macao:

Alien beings in my experience, awaiting the chance to nail the unsuspecting veterinarian. You can almost see them contemplating the right moment for their attack. According to Phoebe Linden this is an extremely athletic species and much of what we see as aggression may be displaced energy (personal communication, 2000). Her Ara macao sp. birds raised with abundance weaning are sociable with all people. However, most scarlets in captivity that have had routine domestic raising are at best, unpredictable.

Eclectus sp.:

Nervous in the hospital, much like Amazons. In the home environment they are pensive and tend to study the situation. This can give the impression that they are dull-witted. They are not. Mature females are generally more aggressive than males.

Psittacus erithacus (African Grays - the ultimate challenge):

These birds are very intelligent and therefore seem to suffer more frequently from phobias and related behavioral problems. When restrained, talking softly will usually calm them and temporarily stop the growling. However, the next time you move the growling will start again. Momentarily halting your movement and soothing the bird will give it a break from the stress.5 When you tell the client in advance that this is going to happen, they are impressed with your knowledge. After all, their main concern is that their bird not be hurt, so the more knowledgeable you present yourself, the less nervous the owner will be. Great care should be taken to soothe tame Grays at the end of the procedures and return them to the owner or carrier AFTER you have reestablished a degree of stability to their psyches.


Don't extrapolate from psittacines! It is best not to attempt to handle the larger raptors unless you are experienced with the necessary techniques. If forced to do so, remember that the talons are the primary concern, not the beak. Impaling with the talons is known as "footing". Be sure to restrain the raptor's feet so that it can not talon you or its other foot. The feet must therefore be restrained separately and securely.

Equipment Precautions:

DremmelR sanders and other potentially frightening instruments should be demonstrated to both the bird and owner prior to their use. The owner is less worried when they see you apply the DremmelR sander lightly to your own face or hand. African Grays seem to respond especially well to this technique. It should be noted here that a small percentage of birds will seizure in response to the application of the DremmelR sander to their beak. A disproportionate number of these birds have been Congo African Grays.

Returning the bird to the owners: be humble and let the owners give comfort:

A common complaint from owners is that following the veterinary visit, their usually tame bird will be "Mad at me for a week!" Most often this can be avoided by disassociating the owner from the bird's experience, while still minimizing the stress of that experience.2,4,5,9 Do not attempt to hand the bird down to the owners! You have been the dominant and intimidating force for several minutes. If the bird is now on your hand and you attempt to hand it to the seated owner, often it will not only refuse to go, hurting the owners feelings, but may also attempt to bite the owner. I don't pretend to fully understand what combination of fear, resentment, or just instinctual "staying with the dominant member for survival" are involved here, but the behavior has been repeated in this author and other's practices and is a common reaction. If the bird is bonded to the owners, once the medical procedures are complete YOU should become S2 and let the owners stand. Deliver the bird to the floor and let it run over to the owner to be rescued and comforted. If the bird has been difficult for the owner at home (biting consistently for several years is a common refrain) then use this opportunity when the bird is submissive (and tired). Bring it back to the exam room on your hand, position yourself lower than the owner and forcefully place the bird on the owner's hand. Suggest that the owner not return the bird to its cage (sell them a cardboard carrier). Recommend that on returning home they go directly into the bathroom. Use this neutral territory to continue working with the bird. Give them the telephone number of a parrot behavior consultant and suggest they take their cell phone into the bathroom with them, along with a copy of "War and Peace". They will probably need both.


1)  Linden PG. Teaching psittacine birds to learn. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine. 1999(8) 4:154-164.

2)  Wilson L, Phobic psittacine birds - an increasing phenomenon? Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 1998:125-131.

3)  Linden PG. Behavioral development of the companion psittacine bird. Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 1998:139-143.

4)  Wilson L. Restraint in the Animal Hospital. Vet Clinics of N.A. - Exotic, in press.

5)  Davis C, Lightfoot TL. Avian behavior, Proc Annu Conf Avian Vet, Practical lab, 1996.

6)  Wilson L. Screaming and biting in the psittacine pet bird, Vet Clinics of N.A.- Exotic, in press.

7)  Welle K, Avian Obedience Training. Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 1997:297-303.

8)  Lightfoot TL. Avian behavior, WVC 2000. Audiotape series.

9)  Welle KR. Psittacine behavior. Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 1998:371-378.

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