Q: My neighbor gave me a 4 year old cockatiel a couple of weeks ago. She couldn’t keep him and knew that I have a cockatiel that I adore. Before I took Luca home with me, I asked a lot of questions about his favorite foods and toys and tried to get as much information about him as I could. I found out that he has never had a bath because he is afraid of water. I didn’t believe her when she told me this because my bird loves his baths, but when I tried to bathe Luca, he seemed terrified. I guess she was right. What should I do? He really needs a bath.
Kimberly G., Lawrence, KS
A: It makes me cringe to think how itchy Luca must be from years of built up dirt and dander on his skin and feathers. Some birds have been known to pluck out their feathers under conditions like these. You are right – this bird needs a bath!
It is not normal for a bird to avoid water. Aside from it being a life-giving substance that all living creatures covet, bathing is a much anticipated activity for a bird and it is a social event among flock members.
Given that bathing is as natural to a bird as preening, a bird would not be born with an aversion to water – it is a large part of the parrot environment. The very fact that Luca is alive will tell you that he is drinking water daily and, therefore, does not fear it.
It is far more likely that your new cockatiel has, over the years, developed a fear of the combination of water and humans – perhaps because his former owner was forceful and inconsiderate in introducing the process of bathing. He may like humans just fine, and he may like water as he should, but put the two together, and bad things might happen from his point of view.
What I would recommend to you is that you take the human element out of Luca’s bathing experiences. Give Luca the means to bath without being any part of it yourself.
Fill a small, shallow dish of water and place it in the bottom of his cage. Don’t feel inclined to show him what it is for. Just place there and walk away and allow him do with it what he wants. He will use it for bathing on his own, eventually, when he feels ready.
Once Luca has become comfortable in your company, you can place a larger shallow dish of water on the kitchen counter a distance away from you while he is out of his cage. He probably won’t use it for a while (hopefully he will be using the small dish in his cage) – its purpose is more to show him that you will not do wrong by him, or exert force, when water is around.
You might try adding some pony beads to the bowl or perhaps some spinach leaves or even ice cubes just to make it interesting and alluring. When he finally does make it over to the bowl, be sure to keep away and let him do what he will without interference.
These steps may seem small and inconsequential to you but they leave a big impact on a bird that is struggling with trust. Repeated good experiences will eventually overshadow the bad experiences of the past and he will come to associate only good things with you when water is in the environment.
This worked very well for my water-hating quaker when I first got her. It took some time, but the results were worth the wait. The other day she jumped into the stream of running water in the kitchen sink while I was washing tomatoes. She decided it was bath-time.
A word of caution for people with birds who don’t like to bathe…
Spray bottles are very often the culprit when it comes to bathing problems with birds. Some birds fear them because their owners have squirted them in temper as a punishment. It’s not hard to figure out why that bird would not see a spray bottle in a positive light and would confuse bathing with punishment.
Some birds object to them because water is being streamed directly at them. They may prefer to bath in a manner where they have more control over how they get wet – or how much they get wet. Allow a reluctant bird to be in charge when bathing.
A good way to introduce a spray bottle bath is by directing the spray stream upward and letting it fall down on the bird like rain. Allow your bird to walk in and out of the “rain” at will and never continue to spray on or over a bird that is trying to escape it. Your bird should feel he has the right to end a bath when he is finished – not when you decide it is time. This way, water won’t feel like it is something he is being subjected to.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.