Spontaneous fear, or phobic, behavior is commonly seen in cockatoos.
Courtesy Mike Allison, Pennsylvania
I have a 1-year-old cockatoo, Baby, that I got for Christmas. She was hand-fed and such a sweet bird that I fell in love with her even though I knew little about birds. She has solely been my bird, but my daughter and her 20-month-old daughter had to move in with us for a while, because she is going through a bad divorce. (My daughter has a quaker and a sun conure.) After [my daughter] being here for a few days, Baby will not have anything to do with me. She will let everyone else in the house pet her and fool with her but will not tolerate me at all. When I try to talk to her, she shivers and shakes like I have beaten her.
I also have my daughter’s best friend here with her two children. Both are going through divorces. Their apartment will not be ready for a couple more weeks. My daughter’s friend can hold Baby and play with her with no problem. My vet keeps telling me that I will get her back after everyone moves out of the house.
Why has she turned on me? I have had to hold my granddaughter a lot, because her mother had major surgery on her foot and, with all the trauma of the separation and divorce proceedings, I know my granddaughter is upset.
Because I don’t work, she is allowed to have the run of the inside as well as the outside of her cage unless I go out. I still feed her, cover her at bedtime, change her water and clean her cage. I have not been able to bathe her, because she won’t let me near her. I try not to force myself on her. I just don’t understand. Will my bird come back to me when things get back to normal? I hope you can tell me that I will get her back. I love her so much, and I want my bird back.
In more than 30 years of working with bird behavior modification, spontaneous fear, or phobia, is one of the most frustrating behaviors I see. It reduces grown men and women to tears. Interestingly, this behavior was not commonly seen in tamed, wild-caught birds, but instead affects hand-fed, domestically-bred ones. Although it is seen in many species of birds, cockatoos and African greys are at the top of the list.
Birds exhibiting this problem are almost always deeply loved and well cared for and are usually raised, and live in, peaceful environments where there is little stress. Many of them, however, are not regularly exposed to new people, places or situations.
We don’t know exactly why some birds are happy and well adjusted every day and then suddenly, often in a single moment, react fearfully toward the people they love the most. Some birds even injure themselves attempting to get away from their favorite person! Although some birds will be afraid of everyone, often the same ones allow other people to handle them, as if nothing is wrong.
All of the experienced behavior consultants I know — myself included — have theories as to why a previously loving pet bird suddenly becomes fearful. Many triggering factors can lead to this response. One example is that of a single cataclysmic event, such as dogs fighting outside the cage, and the owner screams at them to stop; or a lamp or other large object falls over noisily, frightening the bird when it was sitting with its favorite person.
Birds exhibiting sudden fearful behavior often appear to blame their favorite person for something that someone else has done, especially, if it takes place in the home, where the bird perceives the primary person as its protector. There may be physical triggers, such as construction inside the house or a houseguest who upsets the pet bird’s normal schedule and invades its territory.
For example, the daughter of one of my clients returned home from several months at college and would stay up every night until 5 in the morning, watching television after she got home from work at midnight. The bird’s cage was in the room with the big-screen television, which was usually turned off by 10pm. The bird’s reaction appeared to be a combination of both fear and anger, focused not on the daughter, but on the mother, the bird’s favorite person. He would either try to bite her or ran from her in fear.
Another common situation involves small children, where a child is suddenly introduced to the home and is regularly cuddled by the bird’s favorite person. Accustomed to being the only “child,” the bird seems truly shocked that there is another small being who could warrant similar love and attention. Birds seem to lack the ability cope with their feelings and instead try to simply keep their favorite person away from them. Perhaps that person is perceived to be the cause of the situation and the source of pain the pet bird is feeling. Because birds are so visual, they may be flooded with new feelings each time they see them. No one really knows.
What To Do Now
Unfortunately, several triggering factors in your home all transpired at the same time. After everyone leaves, I suggest you work with an experienced bird behavior consultant to help Baby return to normal and desensitize her to future triggers. There are a few things you can try now to keep Baby from getting worse and increase her receptivity to you and to behavior modification.
In the morning, greet Baby before anyone else. Before bedtime and after your grandchild is in bed, set aside time to talk to Baby. Tell her that you love her “most of all,” that she is your special baby and that you can’t wait until everyone leaves so you can spend more time with her. Be sure to make eye contact while telling her this. Also, several times a day, tell her that you love her, even when just walking through the room.
Baby needs to learn to accept the fact that you love other people and will cuddle them, but watching you do so now will only aggravate her negative feelings. For the time being, you want to get your avian friend back to accepting your interactions in a normal and loving manner. Cuddle your grandchild in another room and not in front of Baby. After everyone leaves and after she returns to normal, Baby can be desensitized to seeing you behave lovingly with your grandchild.
If people stay longer than anticipated, it may be helpful for one of them to condition Baby to a few simple exercises, such as stepping onto the hand or waving on command. Later, you can use her conditioned response to interact with you.
Keep interactions short and positive. The longer the interaction, the greater the risk of worsening the behavior. After everyone leaves, you can do some simple exercises to make Baby more receptive to you. If possible, have her come to you, rather than the other way around. Sit by her cage, and eat something you both love, read or watch television. Look at her, and talk to her intermittently, then become absorbed in whatever you are doing. Often, the bird cannot stand it and will come to you just to sit or to share a piece of food.
Remember not to push too hard. Many short, positive interactions will strengthen the desired behaviors and lessen the possibility of things worsening. This usually works in these situations, but if Baby does not return to normal within two weeks after doing this, seek professional help.
Although being shunned by a loved one is difficult, it can also be a source of valuable learning. It can teach us patience and unconditional love, and it reinforces the fact that birds are intelligent, emotionally rich and expressive individuals, strongly influenced by the events that take place in their environments. Good luck to all of you, and please keep us informed of your progress.