Back some years ago after Linus first came to live with me it took me a while to get to know his likes and dislikes. I did a lot of experimenting with different toy types to determine what he liked to play with most. There were good choices and bad at first. Mostly, bad choices were toys that he was disinterested in, but there was one toy that he showed a genuine concern towards. This was unusual because Linus is rarely “fearful” of anything. While he plays the tough guy and prefers things to be afraid of him, in reality, he’s a marshmallow, but you didn’t hear that from me.
Unless it is a duplicate of an older favorite toy, I don’t place new toys directly into my birds' cages. So I placed this toy up on a table in full view to test the waters. He wasn’t exactly cowering in its presence, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it either. That was the first clue that there was going to be an issue with this toy.
When I let him out of the cage he did not want to be in the same area as this toy and would go to extra effort to avoid it. Eventually the toy wound up being called my “destruction deterrent”, and since Linus would not go near it, I just placed it wherever I didn’t want him to be.
It was a clever but temporary solution. After a while he discovered that the toy was harmless. He would simply toss it out of his path (he still didn’t like it) and make his way to areas needing his handiwork. This describes desensitization. In this case it was a process I had nothing to do with.
Desensitizing sounds like it is about forcing your bird to accept something he doesn’t like, but it’s not. It’s about giving your bird the opportunity to learn that something worrisome is actually perfectly safe which replaces the fear with comfort.
Birds living in the human environment are continually faced with things that are strange and suspicious. It is our duty as their guardians to see that our birds do not live in fear. Desensitizing is the gentle art of helping your bird move past a fear that interrupts the quality of its life.
You must be sure not to push your bird out of its comfort zone. In order for desensitizing to be successful, your bird has to learn on its own that there is no cause for fear and take that first step outside of the comfort zone on its own.
Birds learn through experience and desensitizing creates scenarios through which positive experiences can happen. Our job in this process is to open up the doors for our birds to walk through willingly and in their own time. A “hurry up” attitude will cause setbacks in your bird’s willingness to proceed and will ultimately slow you down.
If this is your tendency (be honest), the your best plan is to write down a course of action and stick to it. Unless each step in your program is proven successful and is etched in stone (by which I mean that your bird has consistently shown comfort with that step), then you should delay the start of the following step.
There is no time limit on each step. This is a very individual process and your bird may move slower or faster than someone else's bird. It does not matter if your friend’s bird got over a scary toy in week. Your bird might take a month.
The following are possible signs of fear in a bird: holding out the wings, shifting its weight back and forth, stretching out its neck to get a better view and shrieking. A few less obvious signs might be pacing, climbing laps around the cage or nail biting. If you see this at any time in your process, then you have pushed too far and will have to go back a few steps or even start over from the beginning. Remember, you will only get so many "do-overs" before your bird loses trust in you.
If you are feeling frustrated, keep this in mind: if every time you are successful in teaching your bird that something you brought to them is safe, then each future item will be viewed with less suspicion. You will be the hero that helped your bird feel safe in its environment and will have improved its life.
As I said earlier, this is an individual process and you will have to tailor each step to your bird and your home. If your bird is fearful of new objects, like a toy or a broom, then your outline might look like this (make sure to let your bird observe you having contact with the object throughout each step of your plan so your bird sees that your interactions were all safe):
- Place the new object within view of your bird, but as far away as possible. This could be in another room, but still in your bird’s view. If this item is of concern to your bird, he will know it’s there and will keep his eye on it to make sure it is staying far away.
- Once your bird seems less watchful of the object (this could take days), move it. Do not move it closer but just to a different location. Watch your bird watching the object. When he is no longer focused on it, move it a little closer but just a little. If you push this step too far too fast, you will have to move it back to the original spot and start over. These first steps are important because your bird’s reaction will indicate the level of fear your bird has towards this object and that information will help you make better decisions.
- Over the next few days continue to move the item closer. Watch your bird carefully to be sure you aren’t pushing his threshold of tolerance.
- Eventually you want to be able to move the item over nearer to the bird’s cage. However, if you have a dog or cat, you may not be able to leave a toy on the floor without your other pets slobbering their gram negative bacteria all over it. You may need to involve a chair or something else to put it on as you move it closer to your bird’s cage which might cause further stress to your bird. This will have to be factored into your plan. Your process may be temporarily slowed down to account for the arrival of the chair: or not. Your bird is making the rules. If it is an object that your bird will not have contact with, then you can keep it on the floor. Your other pet’s fearlessness with it might have a positive impact on your bird.
- When you start getting the object within about 10 feet, make sure that you are placing it somewhere that doesn’t interfere with your bird’s willingness to come out of the cage. If that is the case, then you have moved it too close too fast. Remember each step should not cause discomfort.
- With any luck at all your bird will not be at all concerned about the object and will go about business as usual when outside of the cage. If the gods are smiling on you, your bird may be brave enough to go over to the toy on his own. Just don’t make the mistake of bringing your bird to the object just to see how it will go. Let it happen in its own time.
- All movement closer to the cage from this point on might feel very invasive to your bird. Each step must be very deliberate, and your bird closely monitored. If you have carefully and thoughtfully moved from step to step so far, then the approaching object will be concerning but not terrifying. This is because he knows by now you won’t do anything with it that will cause distress.
- If the object is small, like nail clippers or a target stick, you can carry it around with you. Keep it in your hands when you go to visit your bird in the cage, but keep it non-threatening from your bird’s point-of-view. In other words don’t wave the target stick around like you are conducting an invisible orchestra. Simply holding it in your hand with your arm by your side will give your bird a safe, up-close look.
- Don’t put anything against or in the cage until your bird is, without question, okay with its presence. His cage is his sanctuary, and fear has no place there. To do anything else would be cruel.
I know these steps seem painfully slow and arduous, but it goes faster and more smoothly with future things you bring into the environment. That is because you have earned the trust of your bird. Your diligence and patience might spare your bird hours of boredom because of a fear of the toys you put in his cage or a total meltdown over your new furniture.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.