Veterinarian Richard Nye, DVM, remembers an umbrella cockatoo brought into his clinic that had plucked every feather off its body in a 24-hour period. “The bird was totally denuded to the skin, from the chin to the belly and vent,” recalled Dr. Nye, who has a practice in northern Illinois. But if that wasn’t enough for the owner to be concerned about, the cockatoo had literally turned aggressive overnight. “Several times in one day, the cockatoo bit the owner when she put her hand in his cage,” Dr. Nye related. “This was rather unusual behavior for the bird because, up until that point in time, he had never shown any aggression toward the owner or anyone else.”
As he always does during a consultation, Dr. Nye started asking the pet owner some questions about the cockatoo’s history. One of the first things he asked was, “Has anything unusual been going on at home?” The owner told Dr. Nye, “Well, my husband and I are getting a divorce, and we had a knock-down, drag-out fight night before last.” Not coincidentally, that was the same night the bird decided to pluck himself, and the next morning is when it “suddenly” became a biter.
“It turned out that for several weeks this woman had been having daily arguments with her husband, but the extra loud, final screaming match that night was just enough to push the bird’s stress levels through the roof,” Dr. Nye said. The cockatoo’s way of coping was by picking out his feathers and biting anyone who tried to approach him.
It’s just one case, but Dr. Nye has seen many other stressed birds over the years, just like that umbrella cockatoo. “Family tension and fighting can really be hard on pet birds,” he said. “Birds can sense when their owners are upset, worried or stressed. If a bird is closely knit with its human family and sees them as its flock, it’s going to feed off their emotions. If the humans are upset, the bird’s going to feel anxious, too.”
The stress the pet bird might sense could be anything from a strained or contentious relationship between family members, to the owner’s anxiety about financial difficulties, job pressures, a natural disaster that is impacting the community, a death or serious illness of a relative or a chronic health problem that the owners themselves might be facing.
“The pet bird may not know exactly what is happening at home, but it can sense that something different is going on,” noted Florida-based bird behavior consultant Kim Bear. In other words, a parrot might not necessarily think to itself, “Oh, no, my owners are getting divorced! What’s going to happen to me?!” but it may start to feel unsettled because its favorite person is behaving differently.
“When the owners are under stress, the bird’s routines usually change as a result,” Bear continued. “For instance, the owners might not take the bird out of its cage and play with it as much as normal, and, when they do get the bird out, they may be distracted and not really paying attention to it.”
If the owners start screaming at each other ?especially if they’ve never yelled at each other before ?their pet parrot is definitely going to know something is wrong. A parrot can also pick up on its owner’s body language. Feet stomping, pacing back and forth, sighing, crying, sniffling, frowning or tensing up facial muscles all can send the message to a pet bird that the owner is upset or worried, and the “flock” is in trouble.
Negative Effects Of Stress
Stress can take its toll on a pet bird. Just like people who are tensed-up, a stressed bird can become irritable and short-tempered.
“The bird will probably have a shorter fuse for everything,” Bear said. “Things that the bird would normally see as minor annoyances are now big problems for the bird and more than it can deal with.”
For instance, under normal circumstances, your parrot may not be bothered by your 8-year-old nephew coming over and jumping on his pogo stick for two hours just a few feet from its cage. But if the parrot is already frazzled from hearing you fight with your teenage daughter every night during the past week, a boy jumping on his pogo stick may be all it takes to push the bird “over the edge.” The stressed bird might show its aggravation by vocalizing more than it normally would, or it might be more likely to bite people who approach it.
Other stressed birds might pick their feathers or mutilate their skin when sensing a stressful event. “This is a behavior birds learn to cope with their anxiety,” Dr. Jenkins explained. “It starts out with a bird just grooming itself, but then it accidentally pulls a feather too hard and it startles itself. The adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bird’s system, and then its anxiety disappears. It doesn’t take long before the stressed bird figures out that pulling out feathers is the way to feel better.” When all the feathers are gone, the bird might start biting its skin, he said.
If the bird is only facing occasional or minor stressors ?maybe the owner throws a big holiday bash once a year that gets really loud, or maybe your parrot has to go to the “dreaded” groomer every couple of months to get its nails trimmed ?the stressed bird may just get cranky for a couple of days or pluck out a feather or two and that’s it. There’s no real or lasting harm to the bird.
“Most birds can endure an occasional stressor ?as long as the bird is in overall good health and if these kind of stressful events aren’t a regular occurrence in the bird’s life,” said Washington state avian veterinarian, Cathy Johnson-Delaney, DVM. However, she added, “If the bird’s constantly under stress, a physical and mental toll happens on the bird, just like it does in people.”
A seriously over-stressed bird may start to feel worn out and fatigued. Sometimes the feathers stop growing, and molting cycles cease ?leading to tattered and worn-out feathers, dull plumage and abnormal markings, or “stress bars,” on the feathers. The bird’s immune system may become suppressed, making it more susceptible to infections and other disease. Over-stressed birds can also suffer arteriosclerosis and heart disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal ulcers, high blood pressure, anorexia and weight loss.