Q: I have a 14 year old cockatiel who has been my close friend for a long time now. Over the years she has changed a lot. She used to be very friendly with everyone, and now she won’t go to some people. She used to love rides in the car, but seems afraid to go outside at all now. She used to love sweet potatoes but won’t touch them anymore. Have I missed a health problem?
-Bethann, L., Harper’s Ferry, WV
A: Two things you hear us say often at Birdtricks.com are: know what is normal for your bird and whenever you see something different about your bird, it should send up red flags. This is very important information to be aware of because it will alert you quickly to a probable health issue. The two statements need to go hand-in-hand.
When you know your bird you are always looking closely at its feathering – its color, texture and condition. You are familiar with the quality of its droppings and are noting their consistency in color, condition, size and amount every day. You study any behavioral changes to be sure they are nothing more than a grumpy day brought on by hormones or the previous night’s 3AM serenade by the neighbor’s cat. Whenever your bird looks wrong, poops wrong or behaves uncharacteristically, you should be so familiar with your bird that you see it right away.
The wise bird owner knows that when something is starkly different, they need to take a hard look at the environment to determine possible reasons for the changes in their bird and/or make a trip to the vet so that they can find a medical or dietary reason for the changes. What they do NOT do is nothing while hoping for the best.
However, there are other changes that a bird will most likely experience in life that do not fall into the category above which should signify a problem. These are the slow changes to personality that are not abrupt or entirely unexpected.
Birds are long lived animals and, as such, they will go through the many experiences that accompany a long life. Some of these experiences are bound to bring about changes that would be evident in their personality.
For instance, my cockatiels are in their golden years. They have gone through new cages, moves to new houses, the comings and goings of a variety of pets – not to mention been witness to, and affected by, human chaos in their environment such as the presence of a child or the tension of a divorce.
I have noticed over the years that life’s experiences have changed my birds, at least in some small ways. Tinky, who started life being cautious with strangers, will now go to anyone without hesitation. DeeDee was always stand-offish with everyone and that has only intensified over the years. These changes are directly related to the experiences each bird has had. Tinky’s experiences taught him that strangers are good, while DeeDee suspicions about them were somehow confirmed.
Over the years, they have been like teenage girls with regards to their preferences– their allegiance to favorite toys, foods, even people, have not been constant or predictable.
They are older now, a bit more tired, and less tolerant of situations that require patience. They want no part of small children that spew their crazy energy all over the place. They grumpily think lawn-mowing is done purposefully to annoy them. They have had bouts of bickering amongst themselves that has forced me to cage them separately at times. They are different now, but life’s experiences have seen to that. It is inevitable.
The changes that you should worry about will be abrupt and will not have any clear evidence as to their cause. Those changes warrant investigation and often the intervention of a vet. The changes you are speaking of, as long as they have been gradual, are more reflective of life’s influence on your bird. But good for you for taking note of these changes and asking.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.