My house has been a wonderful place to live lately. No one living here has been inundated with work. No family member has had to go into hospital. I haven’t been upset because someone ran into my car in a parking lot and didn’t leave a note. I haven’t blown up any essential electrical appliances like a computer hard drive. My recently acquired expensive replacement high-pressure water cleaner that is essential for cleaning aviaries hasn’t died an early death. I’m getting along with all of my neighbours. My newly diagnosed diabetic cat is overjoyed to see me appear with an insulin syringe. I haven’t run out of chocolate. It’s been nothing but warm fuzzies and bliss around here. Believe me? Funnily enough, neither do my parrots.
We’ve said it before: parrots sense stress. It’s instinctual. You’re their flock. If something is wrong, no matter how wonderful you think your acting skills are, they’re not going to be fooled and will be on high alert. Suddenly your parrot bites more frequently, won’t do the training basics that you thought they had down perfectly (Step Up? Haha – No way!!), you might see some screaming and if it’s bad enough you might even get some agitated pacing happening or worse.
Interestingly, this week I noticed an odd phenomenon. My various social media accounts and inboxes lit up with people complaining that their birds had just randomly bit them or gone into attack mode. The complaints were all coming from Australians and it happened in a concentrated period of about 30 minutes. I myself was fairly distracted at the time. Put simply my own flock were going mental while I was trying to watch the television news. Considering I was already cursing what my own level of stress was causing, I put it together. I fired off a few quick questions to the complaining people and found out that the others with problems were also watching the news at the same time – I doubt that’s a coincidence.
Lately, the news hasn’t been the normal level of doom and gloom; this particular night it was worse. It seems that parrots notice when journalists are dramatically telling you that a significant part of your country is on fire. Birds don’t like the loud dramatic music, the agitated tone of voice of the newsreader or the fire engine sirens wailing from that flashing box on the wall. My birds also wouldn’t have liked my grim face as I looked at the box that was telling me people I know were facing life threatening danger and that this situation is a good indicator of what the coming summer is going to be like. Clearly the world is ending and the birds think we should be fleeing. Crunch. There goes a finger…
We all have horrible weeks sometimes, where problems seem to be never-ending. It’s also very easy to completely overlook something as simple as a news program that might be adding stress to your environment. Stress is often unavoidable but something to be wary of. In fact, in stressful times I’m wary of handling my birds. I expect unpredictable behaviour.
Stress can very quickly cause illness in a bird. It can also trigger problematic behaviours like feather destruction. It’s something you do want to try to minimise. There is something that you can do to help your birds get through a time when your household is under stress.
If your bird is instinctively picking up on stress, you can use their other instincts to help control the effects. Birds instinctually look for a routine. Wild birds rely on a routine to keep themselves safe from predators and also to help them get the basics of food and water at the right time of day. In normal circumstances, pet birds actually benefit from variation in their daily routine – it prevents boredom, it helps them cope with change. If you’re trying to compensate for stress in another area however, it pays to feed your flock on a clockwork schedule. Put them to bed at a consistent time. Wake them up at a consistent time. Have them in the same part of the house at the same time of the day, each day like clockwork.
One of the things I like to do to de-stress is shop for something I love. I’m not exactly a girlie girl so there’s actually only one thing I love shopping for: pet toys. You’d think this means my pets benefit from my being stressed, right? No. When a bird is sensing stress, believe me it’s looking for the source of the problem. Give this bird a weird new toy and you know what the bird is going to blame or be afraid of. It’s not a good idea to introduce something new in a stressful time. So I put the toys I buy in a box and bring them out when my household is back to normal.
It does pay to keep your bird busy in stressful times. I don’t mean by putting in some extra training sessions (interacting with a stressed out bird is a fast way to get bit). Give your flock some familiar independent activities to complete. My favourite is fresh foliage to shred. It’s new foliage, but something my birds are well accustomed to. Cram a cage full of foliage and if the bird feels the need to agitatedly pace – it’s got to finish the healthy activity of getting the foliage out of the way first.
There is one type of training that does still seem to work during stressful times. Speech training. If a bird is sensing stress, they’re eavesdropping to find out what the unseen threat is. If you have a talker in your flock, watch out. Their sponge-like abilities will pick up any phrase that you don’t want them to hear. An example, my musk lorikeet just did a perfect imitation of the trumpet fanfare that the television news uses to make you notice a news flash/update. He may not know that he’s hearing that noise more often because I’m listening to bushfire updates, but he’s picked up that it’s an important noise.
The golden rule when you are stressed is keep it simple. Give your birds their favourite easy-to-solve toys, give them their favourite foods and do what you can to be calm, predictable and methodical around them. You won’t fool your flock but you just might prevent yourself losing a finger.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.