Avian Behavior Managing Common Presentations
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Thomas N. Tully, Jr., DVM, MS, DABVP (Avian), DECZM (Avian)
Veterinary Clinical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA

It is important to know that parrots and cockatoos form the order Psittaciformes. There are approximately 350 species and 74 genera of this large and distinct avian order. Parrot behavior, for the most part is based on a flock mentality. There is interaction with other birds for nest sites, mates, and the reuse of nest sites if there was successful production the year before. This interaction can expand to feeding the young. It has been noted that there are significant behavior differences in Amazona spp. when feeding their young. Some island species of Amazona feed their young 4–5 times a day while mainland species may only feed their young twice a day. Such a difference of feeding the young by parrot species of the same genus may be a learned behavior due to the quality and quantity of food available within their environment.

The sensory perception by most if not all parrots is very keen and important for survival since these are prey species. With most avian species males showed a higher frequency of aggressive behavior. Of course there were a few exceptions but this is the case with many other avian orders. Again through field observation the avian social status is significantly influenced by size age and gender. It has been speculated that pair bonding increases social status of psittacine birds within a group, but has yet to be scientifically validated. Avian species in the wild have developed complex ritualized postural displays to help solve disputes between birds. Allofeeding, allopreening, and pair bonding are all examples of social interaction of parrot species in the wild. Often the natural diets of parrots are related to appearance, taste, and sensory stimulation. Considerations for selecting an avian diet in order to have a positive effect on its behavior is for one to have knowledge of specific appetites for effective supplementation, maximize food palatability and feed acceptance, and enrichment. It is up to the owner to regularly evaluate their animal(s) eating habits.

Sleep is often overlooked by pet owners and veterinarians alike as an important condition to maintain and promote excellent avian behavior. In birds, slow wave sleep (SWS) is most important for restorative functions. Paradoxical sleep (PS)/rapid eye movement (REM) is suspect to be associated with brain development and learning. Paradoxical sleep always preceded by slow wave sleep in birds studied. In birds that are missing sleep spindles, these are involved in burst of activity that are believed to decrease sensitivity to sensory input. Most orders of birds, as with marine mammals have unihemispheric sleep including half-moon conures. Sleep is the single behavior that occupies the greatest proportion of a parrot’s day, based on scientific studies. In rat pups it was shown that even brief periods of maternal separation, >3 hours during the first weeks of life results in long lasting changes in responsiveness to stress and reactivity to novelty. Therefore, hand­ rearing parrots deprive the birds from parental contact to establish normal social preferences and normal sexual preference. Scientific investigations have shown that when hand rearing parrots this affects males more severely than females. It appears with captive raised psittacine species that hand raised birds had a stronger presence to humans rather than conspecifics. Also there is a tendency for hand raised parrots to develop neophobia. With a perceived behavior problem, the question must be asked if it is truly a behavior problem or a manifestation of normal behavior for that particular parrot species. Parrots are naturally loud, independent, and monogamous which is in direct conflict with desired pet behavior. Companion avian owners should be educated on the birds they own and practice operant behavior techniques. Operant behavior techniques are where the bird behaves in a manner desirable to the owner. With operant behavior, the owner must understand that adverse behavior is directly influenced by the event before and after the unwanted behavior occurs. Behaviors are reflexive and learned, reinforced and are influenced by both positive and negative reinforcement. Punishment is an ineffective training method because the animal is in control to respond and if it does not respond favorably then is subjected to, in many cases, increased degrees of punishment.

Basic Tenants of Behavior Modification

  • Describe target in clear observable terms.
  • Describe antecedent events and conditions occurring immediately before behavior.
  • Describe events immediately following behavior.
  • Examine antecedents, behavior and consequences.
  • Devise new antecedent and/or consequences to teach new behaviors or change existing ones.
  • Evaluate and maintain.

Client Considerations

  • Habitual behavior will continue with the bird.
  • Behaviors may serve a purpose.
  • Behavior modification is a process.
  • Do not expect the bird alone to change.
  • Behavior modification involves consistency and work.
  • Do not reward negative behavior.
  • Parrots will and can change behavior over their lifetime.

Feather Loss

Most self-induced feather loss in companion birds is one of the most common and frustrating avian case presentations. There are a number of causes for feather loss and these cases require a thorough investigative work-up by the attending veterinarian. Differential diagnoses for feather picking birds include hypersensitivity, environmental and nutritional causes and psychological.

Initial treatment is based on history, clinical presentation and diagnostic test results. If a disease process is identified as a primary cause of the feather loss, then it is appropriately treated. If it is determined that the self-induced feather loss is psychological the other medications are prescribed. We start with the anti-depressant and hope that treatment is effective. If we decide that the bird should be treated with the anti-psychotic medication, we have a conference with the owner explaining the serious side effects that may be noted with its use. We never place a patient on a concurrent anti-depressant and anti-psychotic treatment regime.

Psychological Medications

  • Nortriptyline HCL (Aventyl HCL, Lilly) syrup 2 mg/ml
    Dose: 1 ml/4 oz drinking water
  • Amitriptyline (Elavil, Stuart)
    Dose: 1–2 mg/kg PO q 12–24h
  • Paroxetine (Paxil, SmithKline Beecham)
    Dose: 1–2 mg/kg q24h
  • Haloperidol (Haldol, Henry Schein) solution 2 mg/ml
    Dose: 0.2 mg/kg BID for birds <1 kg; 0.15 mg/kg SID–BID for birds >1 kg

Never Administer to Hyacinth Macaws - Toxic

If we feel the case may be the result of an environmental hypersensitivity, there is another treatment protocol that we commonly use. This treatment is listed below and is given concurrently to the patient.

  • Hydroxyzine HCL (Barre-National) 10 mg/5 ml
    Dose: 0.1 ml/100 grams body weight SID
  • Liquid fatty acid (Pfizer)
    Dose: 0.1 ml/100 grams body weight SID


Self-induced feather loss may be initiated by a medical disease problem and resolve when that primary cause is removed or treated. Unfortunately, many times even after the initiating cause of feather picking has been removed the bird still will pull out feathers. It is the behavioral habit of pulling the feathers out that is the most difficult condition to stop once a diagnosis has been made. As with any behavior modification, self-induced feather picking/trauma is very difficult to treat and the owner must continue to stay the course. Diet, surrounding environment, cage position, other birds surrounding the cage and new family members are reasons for initiation or aggravating feather picking problems. There are components that can be manipulated by the owner for possible reduction or resolution of the condition. New therapeutic regimes and behavior modification techniques are being described or advanced as treatments for this multi-factorial disease presentation. If the cause of the feather picking problems is determined to be behavioral, many avian behaviorists believe that self-induced feather loss is misplaced behavior and a response to stress.1

Treatments2 Elizabethan Collar

A rapid effective treatment is the Elizabethan (E) collar. The use of an E collar is not recommended unless the bird is traumatizing the skin or there are epithelial injuries. The E-collar is a temporary treatment, that when removed, often does not result in modification of the


1.  Friedman SG, Edling TM, Cheney CD, Wilson L, Unden PG, Lightfoot TL. Concepts in behavior. In: Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL, eds. Clinical Avian Medicine. Vol 1. Palm Beach, FL: Spix Publishing Inc.; 2006;45–84.

2.  Carpenter JW, ed. Exotic Animal Formulary. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier-Saunders; 2013.


Speaker Information
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Thomas N. Tully, Jr., DVM, MS, DABVP (Avian), DECZM (Avian)
School of Veterinary Medicine
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA, USA