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Problem-Solving Troublesome Bird Behaviors

You've had your bird a while now. You've perfected his cage and environment to make sure that happy. And you've trained him to make him accept your role as boss. Now, you can start to work on his individual behaviors you can't stand.

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Don't lose patience. Sometimes, behavior adjustments take a little time. And sometimes, what bothers you just can't be fixed. Sorry, but it's the truth. Doesn't mean you should stop learning and trying, though.

Feather-picking

This is the one problem that has bird-lovers, behaviorists, and veterinarians alike pulling their hair out in frustration, a bird's willful destruction of his own plumage.

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The first thing you need to know is that feather-picking is a symptom of something else that's wrong with your bird. The only hope you have of "curing" feather-picking is finding out and treating what's behind the behavior.

Feather-picking relates to a staggering variety of problems; any one or any combination of the following scenarios can be at the bottom of your bird's plucking:

  • Health problems: Medical conditions that cause feather-picking include allergies, infections, abnormal growths (cysts) in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies, and hormone-associated problems. And that's the short list!

  • Low humidity: Many birds come from extremely humid environments, and our houses can't hope to duplicate the conditions of a rain forest (we'd be miserable). The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and can also set the stage for some secondary medical problems.

  • Boredom and pent-up energy: Birds are active and intelligent, and many don't enjoy sitting around in a cage all day. Without things to play with and stuff to destroy, and without being able to get out of the cage and exercise, birds may direct all their energy toward self-mutilation.

  • Psychological problems: A bad wing trim — too short, with no allowance for an "easy landing" — can upset a bird so badly that she starts tearing at herself. True phobias and other obsessive-compulsive disorders do exist in parrots and can result in feather-damaging behavior.

  • Attention-seeking: He starts tugging at feathers and you freak, imagining your beautiful bird looking like a broiler-chicken. Every time he touches his feathers — even for normal preening behavior — you rush over. See how this works? "Aha!" thinks your bird. "All I have to do to get attention is pull a feather!"

So what can be done with the feather-picker?

Call your veterinarian, as soon as the problem appears. You need to rule out — and possibly fix — the medical problems before you can proceed. In general, the longer your bird has been picking, the greater the probability that an unresolvable habit has formed. When the problem starts, start looking for a solution.

After your bird receives a clean bill of physical health, make environmental adjustments to see whether you can ward off the picking. Prepare for this project to be a long one and make changes in small increments. A daily misting with a spray bottle and the addition of a room humidifier may be the solution. Consider different toys, a smaller cage or a larger one, a new cage location, keeping a radio playing during the day, covering the cage to ensure your bird 12 solid hours of sleep, and more interaction and play with you.

The strategies that don't work include all manner of over-the-counter sprays and pesticide treatments for mites that probably don't exist on your bird. In general, you're wasting your money to try these concoctions, and you may be risking your bird's life.

Be patient, work with your veterinarian, and be prepared to love your bird no matter what he looks like.

Biting

Any parrot can deliver a powerful munch with his sharp, strong beak, and nobody likes to be bitten. Birds bite for any number of reasons, including

  • Fear

  • Territorial protection

  • Redirected aggression: They can't bite what they want to, so they bite who's at hand.

  • Dominance: Your bird may just be showing you who's boss.

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Swallow your anger and remind yourself that striking back makes matters worse. Your bird just needs to understand who's the boss and what's expected of him. And even the sweetest bird can have an off day. Learn to read your bird's body language and give him space when he needs it.

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One simple correction for biting is the earthquake. When your bird is on your hand, watch for signs that he's going to bite — timing is everything — and wobble and drop your hand slightly (think minor earthquake). This is more distraction than punishment, but it gets the point across.

Screaming

A certain amount of noise goes with having a parrot. And some species are worse than others — some bird-lovers jokingly say that if you don't like someone, give him a nanday conure, a world-class screamer if there ever was one.

Even relatively quiet birds pipe up at dawn and dusk — the time in nature when they'd be using their voices to "touch base" with the rest of their flock. Birds also scream for some of the reasons they feather-pick: They're bored, they're stressed, and they want attention.

Avoid positive or negative reinforcement of screaming; don't rush to pick up your bird every time he pipes up, and don't go over to yell at him.

You can "adjust" sunrise and sunset by covering your bird's cage, but be fair — you can't keep your bird in the dark all the time. Use the cover for those times when you just have to sleep in or when you think your head will explode if you hear one more scream. Covering your bird is not a permanent solution to screaming, however.

And no, you can't have your bird devocalized surgically — the alteration doesn't work with their anatomy. Success in the screaming category comes from behavior modification, not from the surgeon's scalpel.

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