Nobody wants his or her bird so stressed that it becomes a nervous little wreck, plucked bald and on the verge of a heart attack. Even if your bird’s not "acting" stressed, don’t assume it isn’t. If you’re anxious or under too much pressure, or if any of the other stressors mentioned in this article are present in your home, chances are, your bird is feeling some tension. And sooner or later, the stress is going to start impacting its health in a negative way — if it hasn’t already.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to de-stress your bird’s life and help your bird feel more relaxed, secure and happy. What follows are 12 things you can do to reduce your bird’s stress levels. Keep in mind, there are many types of potential stressors, so depending on what’s happening in your home, some tips may be more applicable than others.
De-stress Your Own Life
First, look at your own life. If you’re tensed-up, agitated, nervous or worried, your parrot is going to soak up those negative emotions. Try to find a solution to whatever issues are causing you stress, for your own health and well-being as well as for your bird’s. "One of the best ways you can de-stress your parrot is to de-stress yourself,” said Florida-based bird behavior consultant Kim Bear.
When you find yourself feeling tense or upset, make a proactive effort to snap out of it. Put on some relaxing music. Watch a funny movie. Read a joke book. Exercise. Call up a friend who’s usually cheerful, and chat for a while. Do some meditation or yoga. Think happy thoughts. Write a letter to an old friend you hadn’t heard from in a while. Get your mind off yourself by doing something nice for someone else.
If you’re in a bad mood because you’ve had a stressful day at work, "try to mellow out before you go home,” suggested Michelle Karras, a bird behavior consultant based in Illinois. If cappuccino relaxes you, stop off at a local coffee house and enjoy a cappuccino before you go home. If your thing is sweets, swing by the bakery, and buy yourself a treat. Or stop by your favorite Chinese restaurant and get a carryout dinner so you don’t have to cook when you get home.
Do whatever you can to put yourself in a better frame of mind – before you go home. If you come home in an irritable mood, "your bird’s going to know you’re mad as soon as you walk in the door. He’s going to feel the tension, and he’s going to feed off it,” Karras said. "But if you’re calm and collected, your bird will be, too.”
Certainly, it’s not always easy to stop obsessing, especially if what has you in angst is something major, such as marital problems or an over-demanding boss. Realistically, it may be a long time before things get better. In the meantime, at least be aware of the impact your emotions have on your bird, and try to make your interactions with it as normal as possible.
2) Quality Time
If you believe your parrot is stressed because it’s been spending too much time alone, make a conscientious effort to "find” more time for it. Greet your bird as soon as you come home from work. Talk to your parrot while you cook dinner or do housework.
Let it sit on your lap as you watch television. Take the bird for a ride in the car. Let your bird take a shower with you. Start your bird on a trick-training program. Don’t let a day go by without spending at least an hour of one-on-one time with your bird.
3) Flexible Routines
Maintain a fairly consistent routine each day in terms of when you feed your bird, when it comes out of the cage and for how long, and what time you turn out the lights at night. "This way, your bird knows what to expect and when,” said Gregory Burkett, DVM, an avian veterinarian in Durham, North Carolina.
You don’t have to give your bird breakfast every morning at 7:15 am on the dot or allow exactly three hours outside the cage every day.
"Strive for a flexible routine,” Karras suggested. In other words, keep things about the same most days, but also incorporate some variations into the schedule. "This is important,” she said, "so that when something happens in your life which makes it necessary to change the routines at home, your parrot won’t become stressed.”
For instance, every couple of weeks feed your bird an hour earlier than normal. Or, maybe every couple of weeks, invite a different family over to dinner to get your parrot used to being around a lot of different people. This way, when your schedule changes or new people come into your life, your bird will better be able to deal with it.
4) Bird’s Cage = Safe Place
Your parrot’s cage should be its haven – its own "nest” where it can feel safe and secure. The way to do that is to give your bird some privacy, either by covering part of the cage with a towel or blanket, thus providing your bird with a hiding box inside the cage — or by covering the sides of the cage with so many toys that the bird feels concealed.
"Pet birds feel calmer and more secure when they can’t be seen while in their cage,” Karras said. This is no different than most any species of bird in the wild, she noted. If you go outside, most of the time you can’t see all the birds that might be hiding in a tree, but you can sure hear them. "Wild birds feel vulnerable when they are in full view of people or other predators. Your pet bird is no different,” Karras said.
She recommends you create a "privacy corner” in your bird’s cage by weaving newspaper, paper towels, magazines or corn husks between the cage bars in one corner of the cage. "This gives your bird some privacy, but it also provides the bird something to chew and shred,” Karras said. You can hang a variety of wood, rope and acrylic bird toys on the other sides of the cage.
5) Low-Stress Location
"If the cage is placed such that a bird can be surprised by someone simply entering the room, a bird will be stressed in this location,” Dr. Burkett said. He recommends that the cage be placed in a location where it can see plenty of activity going on but does not feel threatened by it. A corner is often a good spot because the cage will be protected by walls on two sides.
Whether or not you should locate your bird’s cage in front of a window depends on the species of bird. "Your bird is totally exposed when it’s sitting next to a window, which can make some birds feel afraid,” Karras said.
In her experience, African grey parrots and cockatoos often get very nervous when they are in front of a window, but Amazons tend to thrive there. "Often the solution is to give the bird a partial view of the window, but not from all four sides of the cage,” she said. "Most parrots want to be able to get away from the window so they can’t always be seen.” The reason for this is because predators such as hawks, owls and stray cats often can be seen outside, and a pet bird doesn’t know they can’t come through your window.
6) "Flap Off” Some Stress
Just as with people, exercise is a great way to reduce the symptoms of stress in your bird. "It doesn’t eliminate the stressor or whatever is causing your bird anxiety, but it can minimize the physical reactions to stress,” said avian veterinarian Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM, of California. "Exercise can help your bird burn off some tension and keep it more relaxed.”
If your bird’s wing feathers aren’t trimmed and you’re in a situation where you can bird-proof your house so that it can fly indoors under close supervision, give it the opportunity to fly for a 15- to 20- minute period each day. Or, if you have access to an indoor or outdoor flight, use it.
If flying isn’t an option, one way to encourage wing flapping is to attach a free-hanging coil rope or swinging perch from the ceiling, and let your bird play on that. You can also use a hand-held rope toy to encourage your parrot to flip and flap its wings while you swing the rope back and forth.
In addition to swinging perches and ropes, there are many other ways to get your bird flapping. Take your parrot outside for walks while on a harness and leash. Play a game of toss, fetch and catch with your parrot using a soft, lightweight object such as a Koosh ball or soft stuffed toy. Teach your parrot to play basketball using a birdie-sized basketball hoop. Not only are you exercising your bird, you’re also spending quality time together.
7) Don’t Force Pet Interaction
Unless you’ve got an exceptionally brave bird, keep your bird’s interactions with your dog and cat to a minimum. Make sure there’s no shelf, kitty condo, cat tree or other resting place near your bird’s cage where your cat might hang out. If your cat likes to nap on top of a bookcase that’s next to your bird’s cage, either move the bird’s cage or move the bookcase to another location.
If your dog likes to run up to your bird’s cage and wildly wag its tail and bark, either gate the door to the room so your dog can’t go in there or move your bird to another room, like the den or a study, where it will still get some attention — but not from the dog.
Of course, maybe it’s not your dog or cat that’s upsetting your bird, but another bird in the household. If you’ve got a bird that’s intimidated by its more aggressive cagemate, buy another cage so you can separate them. Depending on whether the less-dominant bird is still being frightened by the other bird, it may also be necessary to put them in separate rooms so they can’t see each other.
8) Provide A Sleep Cage
If you’re having a lot of late-night parties, stay up late yourself or have daytime visitors who get on your bird’s nerves, you may want to get your bird a "sleep cage.” A sleep cage is a smaller cage that your bird uses for sleeping in, or to escape to whenever it needs a retreat.
The sleep cage should be put in a low-traffic part of the house, such as a spare bedroom, laundry room or even a large walk-in closet. "If you’re having a people over and it’s 10 o’clock at night and everyone’s talking and laughing in the living room where you keep your bird, you can take your bird out of that cage and put it in its sleep cage in the other room where it can rest,” Bear suggested.
Or, if you know Uncle Fred’s coming over this afternoon and he’s bringing his hunting dogs and they drive your bird nuts, locate your bird to its sleeping cage before they arrive. Once they leave, you can bring your bird back to its regular cage.
9 Don’t Fight
Never have an argument in front of your parrot. "Ideally, you should never yell and fight,” Karras said. "But if you think you’re going to have a fight with your spouse (or other family member), go in the garage, away from your bird. Or, drive to the park and sit in the car at the park and scream. Just don’t do it in front of your bird.”
Or, if you are having a discussion while you’re in the living room next to your bird’s cage and things start to escalate, stop and put your bird in its sleeping cage in another room, before you say another word. It may sound hokey, but you wouldn’t want to argue in front of another person, right?
10) Soothe With Music
Play some relaxing music or a relaxation CD for your bird to listen to. Sandra Levy of Louisiana plays James Galway classical flute music to her cockatiel, Ivan, whenever the bird seems tense.
"Sometimes Ivan will be wildly pacing back and forth on his perch, and, within minutes of playing the music, he calms down,” Levy said. Just about any music you think is relaxing would probably soothe your bird.
CDs specifically recorded to aid in relaxation also work well. Often these are of rain forests, rainstorms or other nature sounds. Any of these can do the trick, but if you choose a nature CD, "opt for one that does not have sounds of predators on it,” Karras cautioned. "If your bird hears an owl on the CD, that’s going to defeat the whole purpose.” Play the CDs whenever you believe your bird feels a little uptight to help it relax.
You can even "pattern” your bird to some piece of soothing music. Simply put, what you do is select a piece of relaxing music. Watch for times when your parrot is resting and relaxed, and play the music. Also play the music when your bird is winding down at night, right before you turn off the lights in the bird’s room or when you first put the bird in its sleeping cage.
Eventually, your bird will become "patterned” to relax every time it hears this particular music. You will then be able to use this music during times of high stress, like when you’ve got company coming over or when the workmen are in your kitchen doing a remodeling project. Playing the music will help put your bird in "relaxation mode.”
11) Homeopathic Herbs
Another idea is to put some Bach flower essences into your bird’s drinking water. This is a homeopathic remedy made of extracts of various flowers. Several types of flower essences are available, but the one Karras recommends for stressed birds is called "Rescue Remedy.”
"It is a combination of five of the Bach flowers,” she explained. "Rescue Remedy is a wonderful, calming essence that works on the emotions of the body to help the bird relax and de-stress.” Rescue Remedy comes in a liquid form, and can be dropped into the birds water, a so it is easily administered. It can be used during any time of stress. (It’s always a safe bet to check with your vet on changes made to your bird’s health regimen. — Ed.)
12) Know Your Bird’s Needs
Just like with people, what stresses one bird may not stress out another. There are differences in terms of species, as well as individual birds within a species.
"What’s stress for one bird may be another’s excitement,” said Washington state avian veterinarian, Cathy Johnson-Delaney, DVM. "Some of the really raucous birds, such as a grey-cheeked parakeet, may have a great time being in the same room with a teenager who’s playing the stereo loudly and having people dance around. But if you bring in a shyer bird like an umbrella cockatoo, it would probably have a nervous breakdown.”
How the bird was raised is also a big factor. "If you’ve got a cockatoo that’s always been babied, it may become stressed if its owner has a baby and now it’s not getting as much attention,” explained Veterinarian Richard Nye, DVM. "On the other hand, a parrot that is more independent may actually be relieved because it doesn’t like having that much attention from its owner and just wants to be left alone.”
The key is to understand your particular bird so that you know what stresses it out and what makes it comfortable and happy so you can care for it in an appropriate way.