Just like people, parrots sometimes find themselves in a place in life where they have a hard time getting around. This might be the result of a deformity, an injury or the struggles of old age. And, just like people, parrots learn to adapt to their circumstances with a little help from those around them.
To most people it makes sense that a parrot hatched with a deformity would be better able to learn to get by. After all, it has never known any other way. But how could a parrot that lost a foot in an injury learn to adapt when everything a parrot does involves its feet? How could a blind parrot learn to navigate it’s cage without hands to guide him in the darkness?
The answer to these questions is quite simple: a parrot makes the difficult adjustment because it must in order to survive. And frankly, it is a lot easier for a parrot to adapt because they don’t suffer from bouts of self pity the way humans do. They don’t waste time or energy thinking “Why me?”, or considering “If only…” They see a task ahead of them and they get to it. The footless parrot plots out another means of getting from point A to B. The blind parrot learns to rely more heavily on its other senses.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t do everything we can to make the cage more practical for our special needs parrots. Our highest priority should be in the matter of safety. Until which time the bird recovers or has adapted to its infirmity, we must be certain they are not in danger when perching or moving around the cage.
A few years ago, a friend took in two handicapped african greys. Shortly after hatching, their parents bit off their feet, for reasons no one will ever know. If I remember correctly, the breeder’s solution to the problem was a river and a bag of rocks, but fortunately someone stepped in and they wound up in the care of my friend. Each bird had a different degree of “disability”. One had remnants of feet, one had only stumps. They both needed special considerations for their care.
Obviously, the biggest obstacle was finding a way to offer comfort and stability in perching. Below is a photo of a starter cage that my friend modified to suit the needs of one of the birds. The cage is large enough to encourage active play, but small enough to prevent injury during a fall from any real height. Everything is padded for comfort, while offering help with balance. The climbing ramp is wound with rope to add traction for footless-ness.
Aside from the obvious special caging and perching needs of the greys, some unanticipated problems arose, such as how to confidently step up a footless bird. It is difficult for a human to be a stable perch for a bird with no toes to grasp fingers or wrists. This resulted in some trust issues as the birds struggled to feel secure when being held by humans, but it was sorted out with patience and diligence. There is more to tending to special needs than meets the eye but the birds did remarkably well and have since gone on to new homes.
Recently, someone contacted me because her bird was going blind. She was very upset, but I explained to her that this was not the end of the world – for her or her bird. She sent me some video footage of her bird’s cage and in the end we decided to change nothing. Her bird had been in that cage for its entire life and was quite aware of where the food bowls were and how the perching was laid out. As its vision declined, the bird was showing that it was quite capable of navigating the cage without any problems.
I think one of the biggest challenges with having a special needs parrot comes from within ourselves. Very often, their physical shortcomings are a bigger deal to us than it is to them. Birds are very reactive to the stress levels of their people, and wouldn’t it be ironic that while we fret over making their lives livable in the face of their handicap, that we are actually making it more tense with our own stress?
Once we have tended to their health issues and to their safety, we really must learn to back away and let the bird take it from there. Their perseverence will astound you. It’s important that we don’t over-assist our birds. In doing so, we might take away opportunities for exercise, which might be somewhat limited anyways. Once your bird has adjusted to his new way of life, be sure to allow him opportunities to explore and play like any other bird. We want to help make life do-able without crossing the line to where it is sedentary or boring.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.