A stressed bird will reflect its anxiety in both subtle and overt ways. It may cower in a corner of its cage, or it may strike at anyone who comes near. It may engage in self-destructive behavior such as pulling or shredding its feathers. Even worse, if left untreated or corrected, self-destructive behavior can lead to physical disease.
An emotionally stressed bird will act out in ways that are difficult to ignore. It may scream or bounce up and down endlessly. A normally calm, affectionate bird may suddenly bite unexpectedly or strike and bang its beak on whoever comes near. It might even begin to bite viciously. Your job is to find out why and fix the problem.
Body language is a good indicator of avian stress. A bird with a fanned tail and upraised wings might be in a defensive/aggressive posture. Remember, however, that your bird could simply be playing with you; it’s important to know how to read your bird.
Some birds reflect a change of mood in their eyes. Many birds “pin” their eyes when they get excited. The African Grey is a prime example of this behavior—the size of its pupils changes rapidly. When this happens, you need to be on the alert because the bird is frightened, angry, or excited. The bird understands the situation from its point of view and is communicating the idea to you. You must then find out what the bird wants you to know. An Amazon Parrot also uses its eyes to indicate its emotional state. When its eyes are light in color and the pupil is dilated, an attack or bite may be imminent.
Body language is always a good indicator of a bird’s emotional state. Many large birds move their head and neck slowly like a snake and hold their wings away from their body as they fan their tail to make themselves look larger than they are. Because smaller birds are more fearful and are less likely to attack, they may fly about their cage or aviary, bashing themselves against anything in their path.
Emotional stress can easily lead to physical disease. We know that to be true for ourselves. Doesn’t it often seem like you become ill when you can least afford to? This often occurs when you have been working overtime developing your new pet project when your children are having problems at school when your parents become ill or perhaps when you move into a new home. These are some emotional stresses that can lead to disease for us.
Your bird is no different. If you used to work only part-time but have taken a full-time job, your bird will become emotionally stressed. If you bring a new pet into the home, there will be less time for your bird. If you develop a new relationship with someone, the bird will feel neglected; they know you are diverting some of your love and time from them.
Look at the section about proper care for your bird. If any of these needs change (perhaps you have changed the location of the cage in the house), your bird will be emotionally stressed. Emotional stress will lead to behavioral changes. If you act early to correct the stress, your bird won’t become physically sick down the road.
One of the first signs of emotional stress might be a bird that starts to preen its feathers abnormally. Normal preening is calm, systematic grooming of the feathers. Grooming should make you feel calm when watching your bird do it. Each bird uses a pattern as it moves all over its body.
Birds that are stressed emotionally might develop a frantic, forceful, or overly aggressive pattern of preening. When watching them preen, you might start feeling a little edgy yourself. This is because over-preeners are nervous, angry, or irritated, and they demonstrate this as they groom. They may keep going back to the same location rather than evenly preening all over. The feathers may become frayed, bent, distorted, or discolored from their constant over-preening at the same location.
Look at your bird’s interaction with you. Is it normal? Does the bird want the same amount of playtime with you, petting from you and generally the same inter-action with you as in the past? Perhaps your bird has become a bit of a recluse, wanting to stay in its cage more frequently. You might see your companion wanting to sit on your shoulder all the time rather than actively playing with you.
Maybe you are even getting a few bites when you ask your bird to do things it would usually do. Think of yourself: Don’t you tend to get grumpy when overly stressed? Don’t often want to hide out and just be by yourself when your emotions are out of control, when you are frightened or when something is crushing you down or frustrating all the time? When a bird is emotionally stressed, with keen observation, you can see the same behaviors we exhibit ourselves when life has dealt us the emotional “bad hand.”
Pay attention to vocalization—a bird that is suddenly less vocal usually has at least some mental stress developing. Even more commonly, emotionally stressed birds start to scream much more frequently. They are frustrated and yet have no outlet to relieve their frustration.
SUBTLE SIGNS OF STRESS
Feathers often reflect stress. In addition to shredded feathers, bald spots are common in stressed birds that preen nervously. The growth of feathers in a stressed bird is often quite different from that of a normal bird.
Stress marks or stress bars can form in a feather as it grows. These marks look like bars of a color different from the rest of the feather, or they may be “lines” made up of spaces. These marks can develop because of nutritional deficiencies as well as from emotional stress. Feather bronzing, a condition in which the normal color is replaced by a dull brown or gray, is another indication that your bird is stressed. If your bird has abnormal feathers, begin to look at the whole situation in which it lives—from diet to exercise and other factors in its environment. You have created a stressful environment, and you must change it.
Other subtle signs include a bird that plays less than usual or that sits listlessly during times when it should be active. The activity level will be unique to your particular bird, and you must know what’s normal for your bird. A Lovebird that sits still may be stressed; an Eclectus that sits quietly may be acting normally.
No one can know better than you what is normal for your bird. Sleeping more than usual and abnormal times is another stress indicator. Most birds wake in the morning and
remain active until an afternoon nap. After the nap, they remain busy until bedtime and often relax during the evening. Again, the exact pattern is unique to each bird.
A bird that hangs forlornly on the side of its cage is unhappy. Other signs of unhappiness in a bird include constantly climbing in circles around the cage, half-heartedly flapping of its wings as if looking for a place to fly, and trying to find a way out of its cage. If your bird has begun to behave in these ways, it’s time to evaluate its overall health and happiness.
Another sign of a stressed bird is the “dancing” bird. People often think it cute when their bird dances back and forth on its perch. In actuality, the dancing is a perverted activity exhibited by a bird desperate to get away from where it is, to go do something else or to find a secure place.
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