Wednesday, December 3, 2014

For the Birds

Recently, our own Dr. Liz Stelow DACVB offered a talk on avian behavior for the UC Davis Behavior Club, which I felt deserved recapping. The talk mainly focused on Parrots, since they are the most frequent fliers of our Service. 

Many popular birds we keep as pets (more pointedly Macaws, Conures and Cockatoos) are NOT domesticated animals. A domesticated animal is member of those species that have, through generations of selective breeding, become notably different from their wild ancestors to benefit humans.

Most large parrots are either wild caught (illegally) or only a generation or so from being wild. Many owners prefer to get their birds as babies, in order to establish a firmer bond. The problem with this practice is that they would normally spend a couple years with their parents learning natural behaviors and methods for coping with stress. In a human home, they don’t receive this sort of training.

Many people don’t understand these beautiful birds’ needs. They’re social animals that call to each other loudly in the morning and evening. They spend their days searching and obtaining food, flying, and preening. They are typically tropical and need their beauty sleep – at least 12 hours of darkness and rest. In a human environment, we’re not too hot on the vocalizing. We also forget their needs for beauty sleep and place their cages in the middle of high traffic rooms that have *maybe* 8 hours of peace and quiet during the night. Food is offered in bowls, so work isn’t required. Birds are caged and their wings are clipped to prevent destruction of the environment. They don’t have a flock, so many face a life of close bonds with maybe one or more people…and no mating possibilities. Since parrot species are long lived, owners must consider the future of their pet if it ends up outlasting them or the novelty wears off.  Lastly, many owners accidentally feed too many seeds and not enough good greens, fruits and grains such birds would find in the wild, in addition to a quality pelleted diet.

Human interaction can also be a problem. If an owner spends their time sharing food, petting and showering with their bird – their pet is going to get the wrong idea. These birds can become aggressive to other household members since they are seen as a rival.
Training as important with birds as it is with a dog. These are very intelligent animals that need to have their brains challenged on a regular basis. Training is a great brain exercise and often builds bonds with birds, but so many fail to realize its importance.

What is the ideal lifestyle for a captive bird?
  •         Expect vocalization. It can be minimized by not rewarding it with attention. Using Nothing in Life is Free works with dogs and birds.
  •         Offering companionship with other birds is ideal, but this can turn into an arranged marriage that doesn't pan out.
  •      Offer new toys – GRADUALLY. Most birds are fearful of new things, so introduction of the new item may have to start from across the room, and then get closer over weeks.
  •         Variable climbing surfaces, toys, perches and an ability to have a flight area is enriching.
  •         Make eating an activity by using food puzzle, foraging surfaces and so on. Start off simple since some birds have never had to work for their food!
  •         Talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s ideal dietary needs.
  •         Have training time each day. Get creative and your bird will blossom.
  •         Typically, don’t pet your bird below the shoulders since it can be otherwise be misinterpreted as a marriage proposal.
  •         Have a quiet, dark area to provide your pet with 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  •         Keep your home a comfortable temperature appropriate for your avian companion.

Need a good resource for how to make a better life for your bird? Check out Behavior of Exotic Pets – edited by Valarie V. Tynes. This book is a good resource. Making an appointment with a veterinarian who specializes in avian medicine can also be exceedingly helpful in ensuring you’re keeping your pet happy and healthy. A good place to find such a person is the Association of Avian Veterinarians.. If your looking for fun training ideas for your bird, check out Melinda Johnson's Clicker Training for Birds.

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