Today is a day of reflection and grief for all of us who volunteer in parrot rescue. A couple of years ago, a cockatoo came to PEAC with a long history of feather destructive behavior. On occasion, this parrot would go beyond just pulling her feathers out, and would begin to pull and break small areas of skin on her chest area near her crop. With a change in diet and the loving and knowledgeable care of her foster volunteer, she began to show signs of progress, and she reached a point where the feather destructive behavior was not occurring as often as before.
A wonderful family approached PEAC about this parrot, and thus began the adoption process. The father actually worked with dogs professionally, using positive reinforcement training. We all were so very positive about this possible new home for her. They knew about her FDB and had been educated on all the triggers and ways to work with her, should she begin the behavior again. This family allowed her be a bird, but as we would have expected, they provided her with love and attention and tried very hard to make her a wonderful new member of their family. Unfortunately, though, this was not to be. The attention, though limited, just as they had been instructed, was still too much for her to process, and it triggered her plucking again. The family took her to an avian vet, and extensive lab work was done to try to figure out whether there might be a physical reason that the FDB had come back. Nothing physical was found. The plucking then progressed to self-mutilation; and this time it went beyond just the occasional pinch of skin, to an open wound very close to her crop.
This parrot was sadly returned to the care of her prior foster volunteer. PEAC took her to another avian vet to get a second opinion; in the second veterinary consultation it was discovered that a microchip was improperly placed & changes associated with her blood vessels were noted which could have influenced herself mutilation. Removal of the improperly placed chip was not an option due to its location as the surgery had a low survival rate. All appropriate treatments where tried, from oral medication to teaching her how to play with foraging toys and other toys she could destroy in hopes that this would take her mind off her self-destructive behavior; all measures were unsuccessful. The foster volunteer and I stayed in close contact for almost a year after the parrot was returned to PEAC. We chose not to put her up for adoption again, but to allow her to remain with PEAC until such time as her foster volunteer felt her quality of life deteriorated and she was no longer happy and healthy.
Last week this sad cockatoo, who had all the things a companion parrot could want, was put to sleep by one of the avian vets who works with PEAC. This beautiful, loving parrot has now crossed the rainbow bridge, and her suffering has come to an end.
I pondered whether or not to write this notice. I came to the conclusion that this parrot’s life should not be in vain, but should be a view into the complexity of these amazing animals and how we are all too often the cause of their behavioral problems. The cause of FDB is largely unknown. Physical causes, such as over-production of hormones, an underlying infection or injury, a foreign object that has been ingested, and a poor diet (seed-based), are just a few possibilities. More often, the cause is presumed to be psychological. Some triggers are illness of the owner, an emotionally stressful home (excessive noise, yelling, arguing), life changes in a family that an under-socialized parrot is unable to process in an emotionally-healthy manner, and lack of or an over-abundance of interaction between the parrot and its owner. In the wild, parrots are raised by their parents and the flock as a whole. Ways to deal with the normal stressors in a wild parrot’s life are taught and learned. Some experts in the veterinary field believe there is also an unknown component provided by the parents that is missing or lost when hand-feeding parrots, particularly cockatoos and African greys, which are two of the most common species to develop FDB. So often, we see in social media and around us, that people with cockatoos coddle them and treat them like little human babies. Photos and videos abound of birds being wrapped in a blanket or towel and held and handled as though they were an infant human child. Yes, if a bird has no feathers, the temperature of its environment must be taken into account, since, unlike its fully-feathered counterparts, it has no insulation. However, if we are always there, enabling its need for attention, the parrot loses the skills of being independent and self-reliant that are so necessary for its mental health. Parrots are not domesticated; only a few generations from the wild, they are still wild animals. If we do not teach them how to play with toys and to take frustration out on toys that can be demolished, we are not doing them any justice at all. We are causing FDB to be a way to reduce stress and anxiety. When a parrot pulls a feather out, hormones called endorphins are released, just the same as in a human with “cutting syndrome.” The small amount of instant pain actually brings a flood of these hormones that make the person or parrot feel relaxed, and even somewhat euphoric. Before you know it, the parrot has developed a habit, one that is so difficult to break if no intervention is taken when it is first noticed.
So PLEASE, if you are considering adopting or purchasing any parrot, and especially any species of cockatoo, do your research. Talk to successful cockatoo owners and handlers (not bird pet stores or breeders, who may be financially motivated in their advice). All parrots are a lifetime commitment, but cockatoos require extra expertise. If you work outside of the home, you probably do not have enough time for a cockatoo. PEAC so often has to say no to a cockatoo looking for a new home, because it has FDB that has been going on for way too long, and changing the behavior at such a late date is virtually impossible. Even when intervention is taken in the early stages, medication is often needed for the remainder of the parrot’s life. Parrots are very carefully evaluated prior to entering our foster flock, as PEAC is not a sanctuary, but an educational organization that does what it can to find parrots new homes in the event that their current homes can no longer care for them. Some behavioral issues can be more easily worked out than others, and FDB is one of, if not the most, difficult to diagnose the cause and treat successfully. Think long and hard before bringing a parrot into your home and into your life.