Parrots and Fear

Yes, there exists a strong relationship between parrots and fear.

Fear is a critical issue with parrots, especially when trying to establish a relationship of trust in a companion animal situation.

Fear is also likely a major cause of stress in companion psittacine birds.

Parrots are, after all, small prey animals and humans are large predators.

Fear can be caused by a variety of stimuli in the captive environment.

There is the low-grade fear generated by a caged bird that is safely out of reach but watched constantly by an intently predatory cat.

There is the fear generated when a cage-bound parrot is asked to leave the sanctuary of its cage space, the fear that is generated when a shy parrot is required to step onto the hand of a stranger, or the fear caused to many psittacine birds by the proximity of a hyperactive child.

Additionally, there is an anxious parrot’s fear when a human shows trepidation when reaching for it, and the fear caused by something new being thrust into a parrot’s personal space.

In other words, fear can be the result of an endless variety of things, many of which humans do not perceive as frightening.

It is undoubtedly difficult for a predator to perceive the world as prey animals do.

Unfortunately, many owners fail to comprehend the validity of parrots’ fear responses.

As a result, instead of being patient and reassuring, they become irritated with frightened birds, apparently believing that the birds will “get over” their fear if the human forces the issue sufficiently.

This bullying tactic is ineffective; indeed, it can increase the birds’ fear exponentially.

Instead, humans must be sensitive to a parrots’ fears and, depending on the stimulus, adjust the environment to avoid frightening parrots or to gradually desensitize the birds to the stimulus.

Additionally, psittacine birds tend to be neophobic, which is understandable for prey animals; parrots undoubtedly survive longer in the wild if they approach new things with extreme caution.

In the captive situation, this type of fear manifests as a terror of a new toy placed in the cage, the owner’s new hairdo, or a new picture on the wall near the bird’s cage.

FEAR-BASED AGGRESSION

Fear manifests itself in the basic fight or flight format, and parrots respond instinctively to a perceived threat by attempting to fly away.

If a flight is impossible due to clipped wings and/or being trapped in a cage, the alternative is to fight, and the birds will respond aggressively, which usually manifests as biting.

Fear-based biting falls into the category of the best defense is a good offense.

This situation will be worsened if humans respond aggressively to this behavioral strategy.

Aggression begets aggression, and trying to get the fear-based biter to back down will only instill more fear and, hence, more aggression.

Instead, people need to study the situation and again look for techniques to gradually desensitize the bird to the perceived fear stimulus, or avoid the situation entirely.

Case Study: The “Suddenly Mean” Grey

Normally sweet and mild-tempered, Lily, a 9- month-old African Grey hen (Psittacus erithacus) abruptly became hostile when her owner’s friends tried to handle her.

She became especially antagonistic with the owner’s new boyfriend, striking quickly and biting hard.

Lily the Grey was biting from fear-based aggression.

Frightened by unfamiliar people, she needed to be better socialized.

If not identified and handled properly, a shy parrot like Lily can blossom into a determined fear-biter.

Lily’s person needed to reassure her that she was safe when interacting with others.

Introducing her to other people in neutral territory with patience and sensitivity, the owner taught Lily that new people are fun and interesting.

Initially, she only expected Lily to step onto the outsider’s hand politely, and then step immediately back onto her trusted caretaker’s hand.

Lily’s good manners were then rewarded lavishly with smiles and praise.

Each time Lily did this successfully, she discovered that positive things happened when she was compliant with new people.

As a result, Lily gradually learned to enjoy interactions with strangers.

“PHOBIC” PARROTS

According to Harvard Medical School, a phobia is a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation. It is a type of anxiety disorder.

Indeed, it is quite logical for a wild parrot to be afraid of a predator, and blatant terror at a human’s approach would be expected in untamed psittacine birds.

However, this is not the case with domestically raised companion parrots.

When there is no precipitating incident and the bird abruptly acts terrified of people, noises, or shadows, the use of the term “phobic” would appear appropriate.

Dealing with the “phobic” or neurotically terrified parrot can be tremendously exasperating.

The classic history involves an excitable young bird that abruptly reacts to specific people as if they were deadly predators.

This is especially disturbing when the primary object of terror is the previously loved owner, and the parrot flails around its cage, screaming and trying to escape when the owner approaches.

Particularly distressing to the avian veterinarian is the bird that demonstrates severe anxiety or phobia as a direct result of a veterinary visit.

People are contacting parrot behavior consultants about increasing numbers of “phobic” birds, but this may indicate either an increase in this phenomenon, increased recognition of the problem, or an increase in the use of these terms.

Certainly, there is much discussion on the Internet about this behavior, and the term “phobic” is increasingly bantered about.

Unfortunately, many people perceive the word “phobic” as a synonym for the word “fear,” which is inaccurate.

Fear is a normal reaction to a threat while a phobia leads to a fear response even when you’re not in danger.

A truly phobic bird is not simply afraid of new toys or new people.

Despite being domestically bred and hand-raised by people, such a bird acts like a wild parrot upon the approach of a deadly predator.

A phobic parrot is hyper-reactive to direct eye contact, often going into what appears to be a full-blown panic attack if people stare.

It is hyper-reactive to sound, movement, and especially human hands.

A phobic parrot has an invisible line around its territory, which identifies its comfort zone.

Once invaded, the bird will thrash wildly in a frenzied flight response.

As a result, broken blood feathers are common, and serious soft tissue damage can result in keel and wing tips.

In extreme cases, parrots can pulverize their metacarpals and phalanges in repetitive frantic efforts to flee.

Nervous psittacine birds are frequently apprehensive of new things but unruffled during handling by trusted humans.

These birds are not phobics.

Confusing the issue further, there appear to be degrees of phobic behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, with a gray area between a bird that is simply very frightened and one that is borderline phobic.

Generally, aggressive birds are not truly phobic.

Aggression and avoidance behaviors are two responses to the same stimulus.

An apprehensive parrot that views itself as being in jeopardy or vulnerable can either flee or attack.

Since fear is excessive in a phobic parrot, a truly phobic parrot would always try to escape.

Phobic behaviors are more likely in certain species, including Poicephalus (i.e., Meyer’s [P. meyeri] and Senegal Parrots [P. senegalus]); small cockatoos like the Rose-breasted (Eolophus roseicapillus), Citron-crested (Cacatua sulphurea citrinocristata), and Triton (C. s. triton); Eclectus Parrots (Eclectus roratus) and African Greys (especially the Congo [Psittacus erithacuserithacus]).

It is not surprising that these species also are prone to feather-destructive behaviors (FDB).

As a rule, phobic behaviors are seen more frequently with juvenile or adolescent parrots.

Nevertheless, it is important to make a distinction between an adolescent parrot demonstrating normal pubescent challenges and the phobic.

It is a hallmark of psittacine adolescence for young parrots to balk at compliancy by running away from hands that request the birds step up, refusing to exit the cage, or throwing themselves around the cage when people draw near.

Theories abound about the etiology of phobic behaviors.

Infrequently, owners describe a specific incident that appeared to trigger this behavior, but this probably is a stressor, not the actual etiology.

The potential for phobic behaviors in high-strung species is likely to increase if neonates are maintained in too much light—for example, in glass aquariums under neon lighting in a pet store.

Indeed, neonate psittacine birds gain weight faster if kept in the dark as Research shows that birds that were subject to more darkness fed more frequently and sharply increased anticipatory feeding when they knew the lights were soon going to dim.

This overexposure to light when parrots are very young appears to predispose parrots to fear-based behaviors.

The use of fluorescent lights around phobics should be eliminated due to the increased sensitivity of avian vision.

Rearing parrot chicks alone in a restricted environment with little handling also contributes to exaggerated emotional responses later in life.

Physical and psychological abuse such as traumatic capture and restraint techniques such as overly aggressive toweling can predispose a parrot to phobic behavior.

Indeed, overly aggressive toweling is considered a direct cause of “fear-induced behavioral disease.”

However, ethologists agree that aggressive handling or “punishment” is not the only reason that parrots become phobic.

There is no history of abuse in most of these cases.

Case Study: The Non-Phobic Phobic

Care must be taken to accurately diagnose phobics since they are handled so differently from the more common problem behaviors seen in companion parrots.

I worked with a “phobic” Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona ochrocephala auropalliata) that turned out to have an idiopathic medical problem that predisposed the bird to fall from the hand because it could not grip properly with its feet.

Multiple falls taught the bird a direct correlation between handling and pain.

The result was a dramatic fear response when people approached.

Interestingly enough, the Amazon’s screaming and flailing were eliminated by the use of the dopamine antagonist haloperidol.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING AND THE FEAR RESPONSE

Birds can learn by pairing neutral and unpleasant stimuli.

An example would be an association of the owner’s hand with restraint or the bad taste of a medication that the owner forced down the bird’s throat.

Another example would be fear shown when scolded because of previous punishment following a scolding.

Classical or Pavlovian conditioning results in the previously neutral stimulus becoming aversive, which is, evoking a fear response.

Owners of high-strung birds must learn to relax before approaching their animals.

Movements must be deliberate and calm so they do not heighten the parrot’s anxieties.

Hyper owners often exacerbate a difficult situation, pushing an already apprehensive bird into a full-blown phobic state.

This is especially true in dramatically frightening situations, such as natural disasters and veterinary office visits.

There have been multiple episodes in California with psittacine birds responding to the horror of an earthquake by becoming phobic with the owner.

 There have also been multiple situations where sensitive parrots become phobic of their owners after a traumatic visit to the avian veterinarian.

In these situations, the suspicion is that the frightened bird is transferring its fear of the situation to the owner.

When parrots are traumatized, it is a natural inclination for the human to rush over to reassure the bird, hysterically worried about the animal’s safety.

As a result, the person’s high anxiety terrorizes the bird even more, and its fear is transferred directly to the owner.

This unfortunate devolution can cause a parrot to become phobic of the person it used to trust above all.

THE VETERINARY EXAM ROOM: ADVICE TO THE CLIENTS

Many psittacine birds, especially youngsters, react very negatively to visits to the veterinary office.

Clients need to understand that they will make the situation worse if they are distressed by necessary procedures.

As a result, they could not only terrify their animals more but also do serious harm to their bond with their parrots.

Consequently, many experienced avian veterinarians suggest—or even insist—that procedures be done away from the owners.

However, care must be taken not to give the impression the veterinarian has anything to hide, nor should the clinician automatically remove the bird from the exam room without discussion with the owner.

If clients choose to be present, they should be counseled against petting their birds while under restraint, as serious bites can result.

The owner should also not tell the parrot “It’s okay,” since being under restraint is NOT okay as far as the bird is concerned.

That phrase should only be used to reassure a bird when something is intimidating but not dangerous (such as carrying a large object through the room).

Using it when a bird is under restraint risks negating the potential of this phrase to reassure since it becomes associated with an aversive event.

To prevent any connection between owners and traumatic office visits, seriously upset parrots should be returned immediately to their carriers, not into the arms of their humans.

Clients can then verbally reassure their birds calmly, without any physical contact.

Once home, the owners should open the carrier door and walk away.

Continuing to reassure in a soft voice, they allow the birds to climb out on their own.

Clients should continue to soothe the birds verbally and observe from a distance.

They should not approach the birds until the parrots’ body language relaxes.

OPERANT CONDITIONING AND THE FEAR RESPONSE

A fear reaction can become conditioned through avoidance conditioning or negative reinforcement.

This is especially true if the owner either retreats (if the owner was the threat) or removes the bird from the frightening stimulus and/or shelters the bird.

The removal of the threatening stimulus is the reinforcement for the fear response.

Behavior conditioned that way becomes very reliable and resistant to extinction.

Birds may also learn to exhibit a fear response in situations where they are not frightened because they learned that they can manipulate or control a situation.

For instance, by acting terrified and quivering, running away, or flailing about, a bird invariably makes humans withdraw rather than allowing the bird to injure itself.

In this way, a bird may prevent being picked up and put back into the cage.

Therefore, exhibiting a fear response can be a clear manifestation of a refusal to interact.

On the other hand, birds rarely learn to exhibit a fear response through positive reinforcement.

Therefore, giving food treats to a frightened bird is very unlikely to condition fearful behavior and is always appropriate (although if too frightened the bird may not take them), and the bird will learn to associate the frightening (but harmless) situation with something pleasant.

It is important to go through a careful diagnostic process to determine the extent to which learning contributes to the performance of fearful behavior.

Videotapes can be especially valuable in these types of cases, as the parrot’s behavior and body language can be observed when it is in its environment.

It is impossible to judge a parrot’s level of fear in its environment by observation in an alien setting such as a veterinary exam room.

Indeed, fear behaviors can change tremendously in a parrot’s environment when a stranger enters the space.

Case Study: The Umbrella That Was “Phobic” about Hands

This situation is exemplified by a consultation the first author (Wilson) did a few years ago, with a seven-year-old male Umbrella Cockatoo (Cacatua alba) that had become “phobic about hands.” The bird was also “terrified” of the owner’s new boyfriend.

Upon questioning, it turned out that the cockatoo would take food from people’s hands but ran away when humans asked it to step up on command.

In this situation, the intelligent bird had learned that people would not press the issue if the cockatoo acted afraid, thus enabling the bird total freedom to do as he pleased.

Working with the bird away from its territory, the owner used positive reinforcement to convince the cockatoo that following commands were a good thing, and the owner’s problems with the bird were resolved.

Fear reactions can also be enhanced through learning if the fear-evoking stimulus is of short duration or if the bird can escape the stimulus.

In these cases, from the bird’s point of view, the fear or escape reaction appears “successful” in avoiding the expected harm.

Fear reactions conditioned in this way are very persistent.

REHABILITATION OF THE PHOBIC OR NEUROTICALLY FRIGHTENED PARROT

Rehabilitation of phobic birds can be a painfully slow process, but phobics can be helped, with experience and exquisite patience.

However, misinterpretation and mishandling of birds with excessive fear behaviors can reinforce terrified and frantic behavior.

The use of anxiolytic drugs is often indicated to speed up the process and reduce the anxiety to a level at which the bird is capable of learning.

The owner has to find a way to give the drugs in a non-traumatic way or the application of the drugs itself will increase the level of fear.

The first task of rehabilitation is to begin to re-establish a relationship of trust.

Blanchard suggests the owner bring a chair as close to the cage as possible without frightening the bird and sit there daily.

Reading aloud quietly or singing (even badly) yields a positive reaction from the phobic psittacine bird.

This procedure uses the phenomenon of habituation: an animal will stop reacting to a neutral stimulus, that is, a stimulus that does not have any pleasant or aversive consequences, through prolonged exposure.

No direct eye contact should be made but instead one should use what Blanchard calls “soft eyes,” where the owners look at the bird very briefly, then turn their eyes and face away (looking away becomes a negative reinforcement for being relaxed.

This procedure often reassures the frightened bird.

Gradually the chair can be moved closer and closer to the cage, and the owner can look for increasingly longer times at the bird.

This procedure is called systematic desensitization and will likely be more expedient once the bird can be rewarded for staying relaxed.

Food treats work well if the parrot is not too frightened to take treats from the owner.

The parrot can also be provided with its favorite food in its cage only during these sessions.

In this way, the times during which the owner sits by the cage become associated with something very pleasant (counterconditioning).

Phobics are often terrified of strong light and are often more comfortable in lower light.

An insufficient dark period can also increase arousal and reactivity, and owners should be recommended to place the bird in a different cage for the night in a dark, quiet room.

Frightened parrots are also easily alarmed by sounds, but soft music often soothes them more than total silence.

Allowing a phobic bird to regrow its wing feathers frequently helps in building its self-confidence.

Owners should be carefully instructed on techniques as to how to keep the bird safe while flighted.

In some cases where fearful parrots are flighted, trimming of the wings may become necessary.

Rehabilitation should also entail letting the bird choose when and how it wishes to interact.

Getting “in the bird’s face” and forcing the issue will only make things worse.

The bird needs to progress at its speed and cannot be hurried. Because rehabilitating a phobic parrot can be such a slow process, it is recommended that clients start keeping a daily diary.

By describing the signs of a parrot’s fears in great detail, as well as recording the minuscule signs of progress, owners are better able to see that actual progress is happening, albeit slowly.

These notes can greatly assist clients later when frustration mounts due to the agonizingly protracted rehabilitation process.

Learned fears can be unlearned, although in birds this may take a very much longer time than, for example, in dogs.

Treatment of fear can be achieved through systematic desensitization, counterconditioning, and response substitution.

The use of anxiolytic drugs as an adjunct to the behavior modification technique may prove useful or even necessary.

SYSTEMATIC DESENSITIZATION

This is a technique used to reduce or eliminate a response (e.g., fear or aggression) to a stimulus.

The animal is trained to quiescence.

In a parrot that may mean sitting quietly on a T-stand or the owner’s hand.

The stimulus is then introduced at low intensity (e.g., recording of noise at low intensity, a stranger from a distance) and the animal is rewarded for quiet behavior.

Once the animal has habituated to the stimulus at low intensity, the intensity is increased gradually, and the procedure is repeated.

The increase in stimulus intensity has to be so small that no fear response is ever elicited.

Although being in full flight may generally increase a bird’s self-confidence, it may be necessary to at least temporarily clip a bird to desensitize it to a frightening stimulus and prevent self-reinforcing precipitous escape reactions.

Systematic desensitization can only be used if the stimulus can be identified, reproduced, and its intensity controlled.

The handler has to be able to present the stimulus initially at low enough intensity that the bird does not react.

Furthermore, the naturally occurring stimulus has to be avoided until behavior modification has been completed.

If these conditions cannot be met, drug desensitization can be useful.

In this procedure, an anxiolytic drug is given at a dose that allows the bird to function normally and without fear.

The dose is very gradually reduced, which is the equivalent of increasing the intensity of a threatening stimulus slightly.

The bird needs exposure to the stimuli he should be comfortable with throughout the treatment.

If the drug dose is reduced gradually enough, the bird never shows fear and can eventually be taken off drugs altogether.

COUNTERCONDITIONING (IN CLASSICAL CONDITIONING)

This refers to a procedure to change the meaning of a previously conditioned stimulus.

For example, a previously fear-evoking but harmless stimulus such as the sound of the vacuum cleaner when always paired with food becomes a conditioned stimulus for food.

Fearful behavior (the previously conditioned response to the stimulus) is replaced by a pleasant emotional response.

RESPONSE SUBSTITUTION

This is often incorrectly called counter conditioning.

This refers to changing the meaning of a discriminatory stimulus (i.e., the fear-evoking situation).

The aim is to replace undesirable behavior with desirable behavior in a given situation.

This is achieved by controlling the contingencies so that the undesirable behavior is no longer successful and the desired behavior is reinforced.

The situation in which undesirable behavior usually occurs becomes a discriminatory stimulus for desirable behavior.

The desirable behavior should be incompatible with the undesirable behavior (e.g., a bird stepping up instead of biting).

Response substitution is often used in conjunction with desensitization (e.g., training for quiescence instead of fearful or aggressive behavior, while exposing the bird to increasingly intensive stimuli).

TRAINING

Clicker training is another way of increasing the bird’s self-confidence and reducing its fear, especially of the owner.

It can be done hands-off from a distance in a non-threatening way.

Clicker training allows for consistent and thus predictable, stress-free interaction between bird and owner.

It allows for efficient communication between bird and owner and provides the bird with the ability to predict and control its environment, thereby increasing self-confidence and well-being.

Most birds enjoy being trained that way.

The only problem might be how to give food treats as rewards to a frightened parrot.

PREVENTION

The methods used to encourage a psittacine bird to develop its full capability as a companion animal are the same ones used to prevent the development of high-strung or phobic personalities.

The development of these skills begins in babyhood with the aviculturist and hand feeder and continues with the future owners.

These techniques include

  • The nurturing of self-confidence and individual potential during early development
  • Normal fledging, then gradual clipping before the sale (if necessary). This enhances a young bird’s self-confidence
  • The abundance of feeding and gradual weaning is based on the bird’s development, not the human’s convenience
  • The establishment of clear and consistent behavioral guidelines in the new home
  • The encouragement of self-sufficiency through independent play

CONCLUSION

Anxious parrots need to learn that they are safe and can trust the humans around them to keep them secure.

Only through infinite patience can pathologically frightened parrots be rehabilitated, and trying to bully a frightened bird through its fear will make the situation exponentially worse.

When working with cases of neurotically terrified birds, often the true function of the clinician is to support the owners while they make the painstakingly slow journey back to a trusting relationship with their beloved companion parrots.

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