By Dr. Barbara Nefer
Many of us are aware that we’ve fallen into unhealthy habits like working too much, consuming an excess of fat, carbohydrates and caffeine and getting too little sleep. For example, one out of every two people in the United States works more than eight hours a day, according to a 2008 study by the Sleep Foundation. This spills over into limited time to prepare a healthy dinner; it’s so much easier to grab fast food or simply to survive on snacks. We might even add a cigarette into the mix as a way of calming our frayed nerves.
This hectic schedule also means staying up into the wee hours to fit in a little more work or to grab some precious wind-down time before bed. People who are caught in this cycle pay the price with effects such as stress, anxiety, lowered immunity and obesity.
We might not realize that we often impose our own bad habits on our pet birds, and the results can be just as disastrous for them. Because pet birds live so closely with their human flock, our behaviors directly affect them. They adapt to our sleeping schedule, they often share bits of our not-so-healthy snack food, and some pet birds have no choice but to inhale their owner’s cigarette smoke. Our birds also absorb our stress, since they are intelligent and sensitive creatures.
No Quick Fix For Bad Habits
Freely dispensing treats to make up for being away for much of the day or overstocking the cage with toys might seem like a quick fix, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. Just as overwork, a poor diet and skimping on sleep eventually backfire and affect your health and well-being, those issues also take a toll on your pet bird.
You have the ability to recognize the damage you’re inflicting on yourself and to make healthy lifestyle choices. Instead of superficial fixes, you can make fundamental changes that result in a lasting difference. Your pet bird, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same freedom of choice. It depends on you to provide for its needs and to maintain a healthy environment. If your habits are spilling over onto your feathered friend, you have to be the one to take the initiative.
There are three common areas where bad lifestyle habits often develop. Let’s look at some ways to make practical changes in these areas for our benefit and our pet bird's:
Sleep is the most logical starting point because when a person is chronically fatigued, it causes ripple effects in many other areas. Chronic sleep deprivation can result in stress, irritability and concentration problems. It can even weaken your immune system and take a serious physical toll.
Despite the dangers posed by fatigue, most Americans do not get enough sleep. Although the usual recommendation is eight hours per night, a 2008 report by the Sleep Foundation revealed that the average person sleeps less than seven hours.
Many pet birds require a longer sleep period than their owners, ranging from nine to 12 hours depending on species and age. If a bird is surrounded by a household that rises early and goes to bed late, the resulting light and noise interferes with its rest time.
Combat this by getting your bird a special sleep cage that you keep in another area of the house. The cage should be bare of toys and distractions, since it’s your bird’s sleep area. Pick a quiet, isolated room. If possible, keep it dark or cover the cage. By moving the bird to a dedicated sleep environment, you can get it on a regular schedule and provide a suitable atmosphere for uninterrupted rest.
If using a different location isn’t practical, cover your bird’s cage at bed time. Some species, such as conures and quaker parrots, seem to enjoy having a secure sleeping place inside the cage. Offer them a sleepy hut. (Introduce it slowly to give them time to get used to it. Some birds go weeks, or even months, ignoring a hut before suddenly falling in love with it and snuggling inside of it every night).
Snacks is another area fraught with pitfalls where we impose our own vices on our pet birds. Most people in the U.S. are fortunate enough to not have to worry about getting enough to eat. In some ways, food has become a luxury item, and it carries a strong emotional attachment for many people. We’re taught to associate eating with warm, safe feelings, as shown by the term “comfort food.” Often we use sweet goodies as rewards for our children or even ourselves.
Stress and fatigue also increase the tendency toward unhealthy food choices. For example, 58 percent of the people in the Sleep Foundation’s study said that they turned to caffeinated beverages and 38 percent admitted to indulging in high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. Grabbing junk food or a can of soda offers a quick fix, and we soon learn to self medicate with food.
We carry this tendency over in the way we treat our pet birds. Birds are smart enough to play on an owner’s guilt. If we hand out treats every time our birds give us a forlorn look, they soon learn how to make “Puss in Boots” eyes. If we give them a treat to stop a tantrum, they quickly realize that negative behavior can have its rewards.
Food is an area in which you must be firm. Provide a healthy, well-balanced diet for your pet bird, supplemented with appropriate fresh food and monitor treats. It’s okay to offer an occasional treat, but birds quickly learn to hold out for the good stuff, just as a child fills up on dessert if it’s offered before dinner.
Instead of handing them out arbitrarily, use treats as a reward. This encourages more interaction time and reinforces positive behaviors. For example, make your bird earn its one or two pieces of Cheerios or pistachio by performing a series of step ups or working on a new trick. By associating treats with rewards for work or good behavior, they won’t become an expectation.
You can also give your bird a treat while bringing out its natural instincts and giving it some exercise at the same time by providing it with forage toys. These come in many varieties, but all of them require the bird to work for the payoff. Foraging opportunities mentally challenge a bird and in some instances requires some physical agility, which helps ward off boredom.
As stressors build in other areas of your life, your social contacts are likely to suffer. According to the Sleep Foundation, fully 20 percent of Americans bring an additional 10 hours of work home with them each week. Even if you’re not one of them, it’s easy to get caught up in everything from neighborhood committees to volunteer work to playing taxi for the kids. This sucks up your precious time and energy, with no time left for you. Often this means you don’t have enough time to give to a pet.
Birds are social creatures that generally live in flocks in the wild. When you bring home a pet bird, you are essentially taking on the responsibility of becoming its flock. If you don’t give it enough attention, it can develop neurotic behaviors like screaming, plucking and other forms of self mutilation. Even if the bird is tame, it might lose its sweet nature and become nippy and cage aggressive if you don’t interact with it regularly. You might provide a spacious cage packed with stimulating toys, but nothing takes the place of personal interaction.
Unfortunately, the stress of being overworked and under-rested saps your free time and can take a toll on your personality. The Sleep Foundation found that 40 percent of its study participants said that their fatigue makes them impatient with others. Birds are sensitive animals that quickly pick up on their owner’s mood. If you try to interact with your bird when you’re in a frustrated or irritable mood, it’s likely to respond in kind.
Many people feel guilty about not being able to spend enough time with their bird, which leads them to seek ways to make it up to their pet. You've probably known indulgent parents who try to “buy” their children’s affection to make up for physical absence. The same thing can happen with birds in the form of an overabundance of treats and toys that are used in place of quality interaction time.
If you cannot adjust your schedule, look for alternative ways to provide your pet bird with attention. Is there a neighbor or local pet sitter who has experience with avians? Does your bird accept other people? If so, instead of over spending money on material indulgences, put it toward a pet sitter’s visits. Even though birds don’t need to be walked, they can benefit from dedicated attention to break up a long, lonely day. If your bird doesn’t do well with strangers or it’s not practical to have someone come in, schedule a regular playdate with your bird. Even if the time is short, make sure you’re able to offer focussed time. Devote your attention entirely to your bird, snuggling, playing little games, working on new tricks, or simply hanging out while you read a book or watch T.V.
Whenever possible, look for opportunities to multitask. There are many ways in which you can combine attention for your pet bird with other activities. For example, if you’re bringing work home, place a portable play gym close by so your bird can be near you. Even if you can’t give undivided attention, your bird will enjoy being near you.
Does your bird enjoy showers? Let it join you a couple times a week as you’re getting ready in the morning. Not only is regular bathing healthy for your bird, but it will also benefit from sharing an activity with you.
Try playthings that will keep your pet busy, such as shreddable or chew toys. If you’re stretched for time and have run out of toys, some appealing items can be found in and around your home, such as straws, Popsicle sticks, drink cup lids or rolls of adding machine paper. (When offering household items, make sure that they don't contain any toxins, sharp edges, holes, or other potential hazards.)
If your pet bird doesn’t like change, be patient when introducing new toys. Hang them outside the cage first, then move them inside once your flighty friend has accepted them.
People make their own lifestyle choices and accept the consequences, but a pet doesn’t have that same freedom. In the immortal words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery in his classic, “The Little Prince,” “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” When you bring a bird into your life, you make a commitment to protect its well-being. Make sure that your own bad habits aren’t creating an inadvertent threat. The healthier lifestyle your lifestyle, the healthier your bird’s.