I can barely remember a time when I didn’t have cockatiels – they are one of my very favorite parrot species. As long as I have kept them, however, I have dealt with their night frights – a sudden disruption to their sleep that causes them to thrash in fear in the middle of the night. (Night frights are not limited to cockatiels, but they seem to be the species which suffers from them most.)
It’s a frightening experience for us too – the house is completely quiet and, suddenly, you are woken to the frenzied commotion of your terrified parrot. If you keep multiple cockatiels, they are all frightened into flight and it becomes chaos in the cage.
I always hurry to them to get them calm and settled. I know that the longer they flail around in terror, the higher the likelihood of injury. Parrots do not see well in the dark and cages are filled with hanging things that can entangle the wings of a bird that is unaware of their presence. Perches are obstacles that can break bones or blood feathers in a fall to the bottom of the cage. There is danger everywhere when a cockatiel is blinded by both darkness and fright.
Most cockatiel owners have had to contend with night frights at one time or another. We usually have no clue as to what exactly causes them because we are almost always sound asleep when they occur. But we can make some educated guesses and make appropriate changes to the birds night-time environment – if the night frights stop, or slow in frequency, we know we are onto something!
WHAT COULD FRIGHTEN A COCKATIEL AT NIGHT?
Birds sleep differently than we do. As prey animals, they do not fall into the deep sleep that humans are known to do. Further, they experience unihemispheric sleep – they can rest one side of their brain at a time keeping the other alert as needed – perhaps determined by what predators may be lurking about.
I remember reading a study about unihemispheric sleep several years back that explained that birds that roosted at the outer edges of their flock were much more likely to sleep unihemispherically than those who were kept sheltered at the center. Often the birds at the outside perimeter would keep one eye open throughout the night.
I suspect that our companion birds, knowing there is little threat, may allow themselves to sleep more deeply at night than wild birds. I wonder if this doesn’t play a role in the night frights of a cockatiel – imagine how scary it would be to a prey animal aroused from a deep sleep to what might be perceived as a predatory attack. I am a predator and I don’t like things that go bump in the night.
Cockatiel owners report that the most common things they have determined to be the cause of night frights are:
- Other household pets
- Rodent or insect infestation
- Moving shadows
- Headlights from passing cars
- Drafts that cause movement in cage covers or curtains
- Sudden noises
After my cockatiels had experienced a few bouts with night frights, I found myself paying very close attention to possible causes. In my house, movement plays a bigger role in night frights than sound. Neither storms, loud neighbors or even 4th of July fireworks ever frightened my birds into flight at night.
However, if I opened the door to the bird’s room without first announcing myself, or if the beam of a car headlight moved across the room, the motion would send them into a panic.
My solutions to night frights were very simple. I put the tiels into a sleeping cage at night that was kept in a spare bedroom. This placed a closed between the birds and the other pets in the event that they were the problem. The sleeping cage was small, and had only a single main perch that the birds shared, lessening the possibility of injury inside the cage during an episode.
The AC or heating vents caused drafts in that room, so I replaced the curtains with blinds that were heavy and immobile and stopped using a cage cover so there was no fluttering of fabric from the air current. The blinds also eliminated the potential problems with car headlights or shadows caused by trees.
I also placed a small night light in the corner of the room. The dim illumination allows them to see just enough that they aren’t confused or taken by surprise by things that happen in the dark, and it doesn’t cast enough light to disrupt their sleep. I put a baby monitor in the room so that I was aware of any disturbances. Small changes made a huge difference.
HOW CAN I CALM MY FRIGHTENED BIRD?
Should your bird experience an episode of night frights, turn on the light and call softly to it as you approach the cage. It’s a bit frightening to see the condition they are left in afterwards. Your bird will probably be on the cage bottom, pacing and hissing . Its chest will be heaving and it will be breathing heavily. It will look like it has been through a horrible ordeal.
Stay with your bird until it is calm. They seem to recover fairly quickly and are soon willing to go quietly back to sleep. On your way out the door, take a quick glance around to see if anything catches your eye that might possibly have caused the incident, and make a note to check the room thoroughly in the morning.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.