Many of these problems are often chronic by the time the bird is presented to veterinarians. Early recognition and treatment of these problems is more likely to result in successful treatment.
Understanding Bird Behaviour
To understand bird behaviour, it is necessary to go back and look at the behaviour of birds in the wild - after all, most pet birds are only a few generations removed from wild birds. However, to generalise and talk about ‘bird behaviour’ is akin to talking about ‘mammalian behavior.’ There are some 9,000 species of birds; approximately 360 of these are parrots. Parrots have evolved in Australia, South America, Africa, and the Asian region. Different environments and environmental pressures have shaped both the physical and psychological development of these birds, and to try and apply ‘rules’ across all 360 species is fraught with danger. However, there are some generalisations that can be made.
Avian behaviour can be categorised into two functional groups:
- Self-maintenance behaviours, designed to accomplish a specific task to maintain the health of the individual. These include feeding, feather care, locomotion, and concealment; and
- Social behaviours, designed to communicate information to another individual. These behaviours include territoriality, concern or fear, and courtship.
Parrots are altricial - the young are hatched near-naked, blind, and perhaps deaf. They live for the first weeks of their life in a quiet, dark hollow, completely dependent on their parents. Social interactions at this stage are limited, confined to their siblings and parents. After fledging, many parrots learn to socialise by contact with their parents, siblings, and other birds (often their own age) in a flock. An example of this is the galah (Eolophus roseicapillis). In the wild clutches of 1–2 chicks, or more than 5, rarely survive. Once they fledge, the chicks are taken to a nearby ‘crèche,’ a tree or stand of trees where other galah ‘families’ are interacting. Here they learn early social skills before joining a nomadic juvenile flock where they remain until reaching sexual maturity. This socialisation period teaches the juvenile birds food recognition (and how to locate it), predator recognition, sentinel duties, grooming behavior, survival skills, and early social behaviours.
As they reach sexual maturity, they learn new skills: how to select a mate, exhibit courtship behaviours, and develop a pair bond; how to select, prepare, and defend a nest site; and how to reproduce and raise their young.
Some of these behaviours are believed to be innate or instinctive; others are learnt. All are reinforced by the reaction the bird receives. Captive parrots, especially those hand-reared as pets, may not have the opportunity to learn these behaviours. Their instinctive behaviours though - particularly as they reach maturity - may bring them into conflict with their human flock.
How Do Behavioural Problems Develop?
Problems seen in clinical practice can be attributable to one of two causes.
- The first basic problem is a failure of the socialisation process. This is usually the result of an individual bird being hand reared in isolation and not being taught basic social skills. Once weaned, the bird is often ignored as its novelty value wears off. This process often results in attention-demanding behaviour (begging calls, screaming, feather chewing, etc.), displacement behaviours such as biting; feather damaging behaviour, phobias, and sometimes even self-mutilating behaviour.
- The second group of problems result as a failure of the human ‘flock’ failing to understand normal parrot behaviour, and expecting birds to ‘fall into line’ with their human expectations. It was once said that there are no abnormal behaviours - just normal behaviours expressed inappropriately. Behaviours such as screaming morning and night, displaying territoriality, and certain reproductive behaviours are examples of normal behaviour that are inappropriate in a companion bird scenario.
So How Do These Problem Behaviours Develop?
The reinforcement of self-maintenance behaviours benefits companion birds - and abnormal self-maintenance behaviours are the most common behavioural disorders seen in these birds. They still have the same self-maintenance behaviours as their wild counterparts. However, they need less time for foraging and feeding behaviours (after all the food is in a dish in front of them every morning), and therefore, feather care, social communication, and displays make up more of their daily activities.
Young captive birds need continued mentoring and behavioural moulding, and require guidance for the establishment of a normal bird-human flock relationship. This includes a range of normal social behaviours of flock interaction, with appropriate rules of conflict resolution and appropriate maintenance and social behaviours.
Failure to be taught - or learn - these behaviours means that many young birds are not prepared for a life in captivity, and may develop behavioural problems. In the absence of imposed rules, the bird will make its own rules, based on immediate gratification and revolving around perceived value; however, these rules may not be socially acceptable. They eventually develop into behavioural problems and the bird becomes unable to socially interact with people without fear or social framework, and therefore, a series of displacement or defensive behaviours develop - aggression, biting, etc. As these behaviours develop, the bird may become even more isolated, and therefore, become more vocal in trying to re-establish contact with their ‘flock.’
And this is often reinforced when owners respond: the bird receives a positive response (e.g., talking, feeding, etc.), it may augment the behaviour; if, on the other hand, the bird receives a negative response (e.g., covering cage, time-out, water pistols) that response may augment the feeling of isolation, and the problem may worsen.
Unfortunately, these problems are often chronic by the time the bird is presented to a veterinarian. Early recognition and treatment are much more likely to result in successful treatment; prevention through education of bird owners is a far more preferable approach. Techniques such as incorporating behavioural training into annual wellness examinations are important steps in preventing problems, and should be pursued vigorously by all those involved in the wellbeing of companion parrots.