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Veterinarian Technician August 2007 (Vol 28, No 8) Focus: Exotics

Managing Noisy Behavior in Companion Birds

by Kristen White, CVT

    Excessive vocalization is one of the main reasons that birds are relinquished from their homes. Because of the longevity of many psittacine species, many of these birds have two or more homes over the course of their lives. By becoming familiar with avian behavior, veterinary technicians can help educate bird owners about typical behavior and provide assistance when a behavior problem develops.

    Birds in the wild spend approximately 20% to 66% of their time preening themselves or other birds, 40% to 60% foraging for food, 2% to 5% vocalizing, and 10% to 40% engaging in social interactions.1 Many behavior problems in companion birds are exaggerations of normal avian behavior. The veterinary staff should be knowledgeable about typical avian behavior so they can help the client to have realistic expectations for reducing (not eliminating) an undesirable behavior, such as screaming.

    Causes of Vocalization

    Vocalizing is an innate, normal behavior that usually occurs in the early morning hours and in the evening.1 Depending on the breed of bird, vocalizations can be obnoxiously loud. Possible causes for screaming can include separation anxiety, fear, hormonal changes during breeding season, and lack of environmental enrichment.2 Birds are accustomed to a social environment. Often, when birds scream during the day, it is because they want to maintain flock (family) cohesion for safety reasons or to express a need, such as hunger, or because there is insufficient mental stimulation available in their cage (i.e., they are bored).3 Any possible medical problems need to be ruled out by an avian veterinarian before it can be determined whether the excessive screaming is behavioral in nature.

    Attention seeking is the most common cause of excessive vocalization.3 When a bird starts screaming, the owner may report that he or she tried yelling at the bird, squirting it with water, or covering or throwing objects at the cage. Although this is negative attention, a behavior that is reinforced will continue, and birds would rather have negative attention than no attention. However, technicians must advise owners that physical punishment is neither acceptable nor productive.3

    Managing Vocalization

    When clients seek help with an excessively noisy bird, technicians who are familiar with normal avian behavior can help clients manage the undesired behavior, thereby reducing the possibility that the bird will be relinquished. Behavior modification programs should be considered only after an avian veterinarian determines there is no medical cause for the screaming. Noisy behavior in birds can be reduced and managed by educating owners on how to provide proper husbandry, environmental enrichment, and positive reinforcement.

    Proper Husbandry

    Environment can play an important role in behavior; therefore, it is important to make sure that the owners have selected a proper cage for the bird. At minimum, the cage should allow the bird to spread its wings in all directions without touching the sides, and its tail should not touch the bottom of the cage. A good rule of thumb is to encourage owners to purchase a cage one size larger than that recommended for the species. Perches should vary in diameter and texture.4 Wood branches are recommended because they are multifunctional and provide a chewing outlet as well as a perch. Other husbandry considerations are proper bathing, grooming, and nutrition.

    Environmental Enrichment

    Environmental enrichment is as important as proper husbandry. Al­though it does not replace the need for human interaction and training, it does provide mental stimulation. Even birds that are housed in a stable environment that meets all of their basic needs can develop a behavior problem if their mental needs are not met. A simple thing, such as cage placement, can make a difference in how much stimulation the bird receives. Ideally, the cage should be placed so that the bird can see outside. Care should be taken to ensure that the bird has a hiding place or sleeping hut to retreat to if something outside, such as a predator, scares it.1 Placement by a screened window that can be opened allows for visual and olfactory stimulation.

    It also is important to periodically rotate the bird's toys. Not every bird will play if toys are hung in its cage; some birds need to be taught how to play with toys. To do this, the owner can play with the toy first and then offer the bird a turn. Some birds catch on in only a few days, whereas other birds require more time. If a bird is afraid of a new toy, the owner can be taught to desensitize the bird to the toy, starting by placing the toy across the room where the bird can see it. Over the next several days, the owner can gradually move the toy closer to, just outside, and eventually inside the cage. If the bird shows signs of fear at any point, this process should be restarted — more slowly — from the point when the bird was not fearful.

    Variety is important! Birds need toys that they can chew and destroy. They enjoy entertainment-type toys and puzzle toys that require manipulation to obtain another toy or food.5 It is unnecessary to purchase expensive bird toys. Items that are found easily around the home, including old telephone books and empty paper-towel or toilet-paper rolls, can be used instead of commercial toys.

    In the wild, birds spend a great deal of time foraging for food. To encourage this behavior in captive birds, owners can spread the food throughout the cage using puzzle feeders. They also can cover the food bowl with a paper towel secured with a rubber band (so the bird has to "unwrap" the food) or place the food in paper cones that are twisted closed. In addition, specially designed foraging toys are available. If the bird has never foraged for food, it may be necessary to teach it to do so. The owner should be instructed to start with simple tasks and gradually switch to more difficult tasks once the bird becomes more proficient. For example, the owner can first lay a paper towel over the food bowl without securing it or place food in a paper cone without twisting it closed. This allows the bird to pick up and move the towel or reach in the cone without much work. Another option that provides entertainment as well as food is to push seeds into an apple or orange so that the bird has to dig them out.4 These are self-reinforcing activities that provide necessary stimulation for captive birds.

    Positive Reinforcement

    Birds are social by nature; therefore, toys cannot replace the need for human interaction and training.1 When birds excessively vocalize, it is important that owners make sure their needs are met. The owner should not provide attention when the bird is screaming; this reinforces the behavior. When the bird becomes quiet, the owner should praise it by speaking to it, offering food, or petting it. In order for the owner to be compliant, any behavior modification program needs to be tailored to his or her ability and lifestyle. If the program is too complicated, the owner may get frustrated and give up. It can be helpful to advise clients to keep a behavior log so they can look back and see improvements, no matter how small, on paper.3

    For clients to be successful, it is important to find treats, tricks, and interactions that the owner and the pet both enjoy.1 Birds are incredibly smart, so training provides great mental stimulation as well as an excellent opportunity to have fun. Training does not have to be mundane and limited to "step up," "step down," or "stay on the perch." Most owners take great pleasure in seeing their pet perform tricks. Numerous bird props are available; however, technicians should review all materials before making recommendations for training. Reward-based training, such as clicker training, is popular for teaching birds. The owner should choose a reward that is small and eaten quickly, such as a pine nut or a bite of banana.

    Preventing Undesired Behaviors

    Often, the veterinary staff does not find out about undesirable behaviors until the problem has become significant. Client education is the key to preventing behavior problems and helping to remedy problems once they have begun. Education can begin with prepurchase examinations to help potential owners determine what type of bird would be suitable based on their family dynamics (e.g., children, other pets), schedules, lifestyle (e.g., frequent travel), and space considerations (e.g., apartment, house). For example, a client who lives in an apartment may want to consider purchasing or adopting a smaller bird, such as a cockatiel, instead of a macaw.

    Technicians should keep a list of reputable breeders in case a client wants to purchase a bird from a breeder. On the first visit, the technician should spend time with the new owner to teach him or her how to properly care for the bird and provide a stimulating environment. The Association of Avian Veterinarians also has a variety of brochures on pet-bird care topics that can be made available to clients.4 However, client education does not end at the first visit. At annual examinations, it is important to ask the owner if the bird is displaying any behaviors that are of concern. Many behavior problems require more time than allotted for an annual visit, so if further counseling is needed, clients should fill out a behavior history form and schedule a separate appointment to discuss behavior concerns.

    Conclusion

    By using the techniques mentioned, technicians can help owners reduce and manage noisy behavior in their companion birds. As long as the client knows what to expect and has realistic expectations, technicians can help keep the human"animal bond intact. Hopefully, this will ensure that the bird stays in the same home for life!

    Recommended Resources for Companion Bird Owners .

    1. Lightfoot T, Nacewicz C: Psittacine behavior, in Exotic Pet Behavior. St. Louis, Saunders, 2006, pp 51-102.

    2. Seibert L: Pet psittacine behavior. Proc WVC Annu Conf:1-11, 2003.

    3. Welle K: Nonpharmaceutical therapy of behavior disorders. Proc NAVC Annu Conf:1314-1316, 2004.

    4. Association of Avian Veterinarians: Basic Pet Bird Care. Accessed June 2007 at http://www.aav.org.

    5. Speer B: An introduction to behavioral disease. Proc NAVC Annu Conf:1305-1310, 2004.

    References »

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