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Ask The Behaviorist
Birds: Sally Blanchard answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 6, 1998 | next set


My five-year old Scarlet macaw is a feather plucker. She lets most of them grow back in and there they go again. Any suggestions?

Kathi Miraldi
Hammond, IN

Response from Ms. Blanchard:

There are probably as many intricacies about feather picking as there are birds who exhibit feather destructive behavior. Although it is a very complex topic, I still believe that the two major causes of feather picking in companion parrots are lack of bathing opportunities and inadequate diet. There may be other factors causing your Scarlet to pick her feathers, but it would be difficult for me to go into them at length without more information about your individual macaw. Many people assume that feather picking is behavioral—the sign of a neglected or "neurotic" bird. While behavior can have a strong influence, I believe that picking often starts for physical reasons and then becomes a habit. I recommend having your bird checked by a competent avian veterinarian to make sure some disease process is not causing the picking. Then I encourage you to "maximize" the bird's environment. This means that she will consistently be getting the best care and quality attention that you can give her. Basically this means daily showers, the most nutritious varied diet possible, full-spectrum lighting, an abundance of chewing wood and fun toys, lots of activity and exercise, and quality focused attention on a daily basis.


My 8-month old Rainbow Lory was brought home three weeks ago. He sensed early my inexperience as a bird owner. He has become territorial and bites when I try remove him from his cage or try to change the food and water. When he first started biting, the vet recommended that food be kept out of the cage to make him want to come out. That worked until I could not get home to feed him . . . now he is afraid that I am going to take his food away. I was advised to cover him with a towel when he bites and put him in a place he does not like and say, "No bite." I am afraid that this is not helping him bond with me. His cage as the only place he wants to be. When left for any amount of time out of his cage, he flaps his wings in frustration. He does not bath or play with his toys, which I understand are typical for lorikeets. Out of his cage, he is willing to be hand fed and loves to be scratched on his head. He lets himself be handled by me and others. I hope that I haven't done anything to damage our trust.

(name witheld by request)

Response from Ms. Blanchard:

This is a difficult question to answer in a few paragraphs. While each parrot/human relationship has its own individual characteristics, there is one absolute truth in parrot behavior—parrots are more comfortable with people who are comfortable with them. Parrots can be highly empathic, responding to every nuance of their owner's mood and energy. It may very well be that your lory did sense that you were uncomfortable with him and therefore, was not comfortable with you. It could also be that your Rainbow lory was not really that tame. Lories are generally excitable and sometimes fairly aggressive little birds. They need a lot of handling and guidance when they are young to gentle them and keep them tame. If your lory was handfed but then weaned and not handled that much out of his cage until you brought him home, he might have become quite territorial about his cage because that was what he was used to and where he feels safe. Your statement that the fact that your lory does not bathe or play with is toys is normal for lorikeets couldn't be further from the truth. Lories are one of the most playful acrobatic birds available as pets and normally love to bathe. Most people have to be very careful with containers of liquid around their lories or the bird is in the "drink," so to speak. You are right to question the "quick fix, " but ineffective advice you have been given. Anything that you do that threatens your bird will threaten the trust you are trying to build with him, and that will damage his bond to you. All work that people do with their parrots should be trust-building and encourage tameness. The fact that your lory does not play or really know how to entertain himself suggests to me that he may not have been well-socialized as a youngster. He is still a young bird and most likely capable of developing more curiosity but he will need for you to be his teacher.

The first step when you have him out and he is agreeable to being handled by you is to take him into a "neutral room." This is an area unfamiliar to him where he can't see his cage. As long as he is in familiar territory and can see his cage, he will have an agenda around that cage. But when you are the only "thing" familiar in the room, he will be far more responsive to you. Before you take him into the "neutral" room, plan ahead and place an old sheet or blanket on the bed or couch. Put some colorful, jangly toys on the towel. When you bring him into the room, make sure you are calm and relaxed so he can match that energy. Place him on the sheet and pick up a toy. Let him see you play with it (there is a lot of monkey-see/monkey-do in parrots). Without threatening him with it, drag the toy along the towel until he gets the idea to chase after it. It may take several times before he gets the idea, so don't be impatient and give up too quickly. It would also help him learn to bathe if you placed a shallow dish of water on the sheet and splashed your hand around it a bit to show him how much fun it is. Don't force him into the bowl but let him gradually get the idea. Many parrots do not like showers because they are threatened by the squirt bottle. Teaching them to bathe in a shallow bowl will help them keep clean which is essential for their health and feather condition.

The next step is to start to gain better control of your lory's behavior. Focused play time will really help him learn to enjoy time away from his cage but you will also need to use this interactive time to set some rules and provide guidance for him. Parrots are creatures of patterning which means that the more they do something, the more likely they are to do it again. When he is in the 'neutral' room with you, start using the 'UP' command every time you pick him up and the 'down' command every time you want him to step off of your hand. As part of your calm playtime, you can ladder him a few times from hand to hand, saying "up" as he steps from one hand to the other. You will find after only a few times of doing this, he will most likely start to lift his foot as you start to say the word. Patterning him to step on your hand with the "up" command and giving him a good amount of playful interaction away from the cage should make it easier to get him out of his cage. With some birds, the cage still exerts a strong territorial defense urge and you may have to try some other tricks besides just using the "up" command to get him to come out on your hand. Making direct (but friendly) eye contact can help. Another trick is to hold something unusual in your other hand. A magazine, potholder, washrag, TV remote control - any hand-held object will work as long as he is not afraid of it. The purpose is not to threaten him. Parrots who are defending their territory are on some sort of "automatic pilot," doing something which seems normal to them. If we add another variable - something that distracts them from the patterned defensive behavior - we can sneak in and use the "up" command we have patterned them to while they are wondering what the heck that is you are holding in your hand.

It sounds as if your lory didn't get as good a start as he needed but I think, with playful interaction and nurturing "parental" guidance on your part, you will able to gentle your lory down and have the kind of pet you were hoping for.


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