Behavioral Problems

General Information
There are many types of behavioral problems seen in pet birds. A few common examples include feather picking/plucking, skin mutilation, screaming, destructive behaviors, panic, and aggression.

Often these are maladaptive behaviors in response to something not being right in their health or in their life and they have no healthy way to cope with it. Sometimes the problem will be medical, which is why investigation often includes checking the physical health of a pet bird. More often, these behaviors are the result of some variety of physiological or psychological stress. Some of these stresses are easily recognized or understood by owners (e.g., moving, divorces, lack of toys or activities). Others are easily missed and actually more frequently present, such as chronic sexual stimulation.

What is feather damaging behavior and automutilation?
Feather loss either occurs because the bird is truly losing feathers or because the bird is picking or plucking its feathers. If the owner can tell which is occurring, it often helps narrow down the possibilities of what is causing the problem. Picking is when the bird chews, snips, or overpreens a feather so that it is ragged or chortened. Plucking is when the bird actually rips the feather out of the follicle forcefully. A molting feather slips out of its follicle easily and painlessly, often during the routine of preening. Plucking causes pain and birds that pluck will often become agitated or vocalize. Whether or picking or plucking, the bird will often chew on or play with the removed feather.

Medical causes of feather damaging behaviors and automutilation include underlying infection, tumors, or cardiovascular disease. Generally these types of contributors are expected to cause focused picking over a small area versus the widespread picking often seen with behavioral causes. Although less common in the USA, there is a disease known as Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, caused by a virus, which can cause the growth of very poor quality feathers. Eventually the disease progresses to include the beak and eventually results in death. This disease is easily screened for with a blood test. Finally, liver or metabolic diseases can cause poor feather growth or failure to molt. Your veterinarian can screen for all of these causes.

Why does my bird scream so much?
Most species of parrots are very vocal and can project their voices very loudly. The calls help the birds keep in touch in thick foliage. They are not appropriate for most home environments and loud calls will cause hearing damage to their human caretakers. Some species are naturally louder or call more frequently than others. It’s usually normal to expect some increased calling when house members return home or there are exciting and noisy activities in the home. Screaming incessantly or repetitively for attention may be a maladaptive behavior that requires intervention.

Why does my bird get panicked so easily?

Birds in the wild are presented with a constantly changing environment with many variables far beyond their control. However, they adapt well to a variety of circumstances. If this is the case, why do some birds panic so easily and shy away from new people or new items in their cage? Many pet birds are raised in very mundane, unvaried environments and do not learn how to deal with surprises. On the other hand, birds in the wild also have the freedom of movement to size up new situations from a distance and learn by the reactions of their flock whether something is safe or not. If an item is put directly into a pet bird’s cage, it has not choices for slowly sizing it up –there’s no option of escape! For these reasons, it’s important to expose your bird to new people, new things, and new activities, but it should be done slowly and on their terms –with the option available to disengage long before the situation escalates to panic. A simple example is the introduction of a new toy. This is best done by hanging the toy in the room or near the cage for several days before moving it inside. Also, the reactions of your bird to a new cage item should be read carefully –if there is panic or avoidance then it should not be immediately placed within the confines of the cage.

Why is my bird so aggressive?

Aggressive behavior (biting, flying and attacking, etc.) can be learned –often by reinforcement because it has produced dramatic reactions from people in the past. It can also be driven by sexual hormones (see below). Dealing with aggression should include changing your own responses to the behavior and careful avoidance of scenarios which will encourage or escalate the behavior. If sexual behaviors are involved, then there are also changes that need to be made to the bird’s lifestyle (see later in this section).

Common (easily recognized) stressors:

Much of the time, picking or plucking appears to be a behavioral disorder. Stresses such as drastic changes in home environment, loss of flockmates or human companions, strife amongst the human flock, or unsettling events can cause feather picking to start. Parrots are intelligent creatures and appear to have a good capacity to deal with change, provided that they have been made accustomed to a variety of living situations and are provided options and outlets for adapting to their surroundings. In other words, if a bird is acclimated to multiple caretakers, to travel, to self-entertainment, and to varied surroundings, it will be much better prepared should its living situation change. Birds that are not tame, not interacted with regularly, or that only know (or have access to) a very narrow range of activities, people, or surroundings are much more likely to be stressed by big changes.

Chronic Sexual Stimulation (aka “Hormonal Behaviors”)

Sometimes behavioral problems may occur as a means of coping with the stress of chronic reproductive activity. Birds invest a lot of energy and biological resources to breeding which is why it usually can only be accomplished once every year or more in the wild. While the remainder of the time, their gonads actually shrink and become inactive to save energy. In captivity, life is easy with an abundance of rich foods. This easily promotes the secretion of hormones that make a bird ready for breeding. Certain feedback that they get from their environment, such as certain types of attention from people or mates or the presence of a nest site, further reinforce the secretion of hormones and bring the bird more strongly into breeding readiness. If this occurs over long periods of time, as is often the case, then it has damaging effects on their health and behavior. This can be further compounded if the relationship swings from strong to weak on a rapid basis.

In other words, consider that you may be “telling” your bird (through your actions) that you love them, romantically, and want to marry them, and raise babies. To a parrot, that’s a big commitment and requires a lot of cooperation to pull off. A few hours later, you disappear all day. When you come home, you cuddle and love them again, then disappear again without helping find a nest or lay eggs. Each time you perform nuptial behaviors with them (feeding rich foods by hand, protracted periods of cuddling or

“allopreening”), you are, in essence, making a sexual bond with them. When the cycle cannot proceed through the steps of laying, brooding, and raising young, your bird’s body and mind are severely stressed. Sometimes feather picking may result as a means of coping with this.

Why won’t my bird stop damaging its feathers or chewing itself?

Once feather picking or plucking has occurred for weeks or months, it may be more difficult to reverse. For one thing, each time a feather is plucked, damage occurs to the follicle. This can eventually damage the follicle sufficiently that it cannot grow new feathers correctly at all. Also, the behavior becomes more habitual and there’s even some thought that a low-grade endorphin-addiction is created. This is based on the idea that endorphins are being released whenever pain in caused.

How do you diagnose the cause of feather/skin damaging behavior?

Because there are many causes of feather loss, often a multitude of diagnostic tests must be run. A good history (supplied by the owner) and a thorough physical examination are critical and may help narrow down the list of possibilities. Routine diagnostic tests include various blood tests, fecal tests for parasites, cultures to check for yeast and bacteria, and radiographs (x-rays) to rule out various internal diseases. Sometimes, skin biopsy and culture are needed to get a definitive diagnosis.

How is feather/skin damaging behavior treated?

That of course depends upon the cause of the disorder. Beak and feather disease is a fatal condition that cannot be treated. Other skin and feather infections may respond to antibiotics or antiviral medications. Parasites can be eradicated with an anti-parasitic drug. Behavioral feather picking is difficult to treat; treatment may be attempted with behavior modification and certain types of drug therapy. Owners should be aware at the outset that even if a diagnosis is reached, it may be difficult to cure a bird with a feather disorder, especially if the cause is behavioral.