Because our pet birds are living longer, what sorts of behavior changes come with age? I questioned the members of the Parrot Division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and many of their comments are included here.
Activity Levels In Older Pet Birds
Like pet, geriatric pet birds tend to decrease their physical activities. Certified parrot behavior consultant and aviculturist Kashmir Csaky said, “I’ve had my wild-caught hyacinth macaws for 17 years, and they are slowing down a little bit. I doubt most people would notice it because they are still very playful, but I can see it.”
This has been my experience as well. Despite being fully flighted for the last 30 years, my 50-plus-year-old blue-and-gold macaw female, Sam, now prefers to walk instead of fly. She has arthritis in her legs, so the impact of landing must be uncomfortable for her, but I have never seen her limp.
There seems to be a wide range of individual reactions with aging parrots, especially in terms of whether or not advanced years make them more sedate and easygoing. Certified parrot behavior consultant Chris Davis has lived with a sulphur-crested cockatoo for more than 25 years. Sigfried is at least 35 years old and, according to Davis, he hasn’t mellowed out at all. “He is as feisty as ever and can be downright ornery when he wants to be,” she said.
Some senior pet birds appear to become more cantankerous with age. During the 35 years we have been together, Sam seems less tolerant of people who are inexperienced with parrots. Years ago, she was patiently good-natured about interacting with newbies, but now she is more inclined to simply scare them away by lunging and other threat displays. It’s as if she couldn’t be bothered with educating them about psittacine birds. Her behavior, however, has not become grouchier with the many people she knows and loves.
Pet Birds Dealing With Change
Old age in various parrot species can extend over many decades and, over such a long period, there is little chance a parrot can avoid the changes that life brings. Their old age likely attests to their ability to adapt to the changeability of life.
Dutch avian veterinarian and certified parrot behavior consultant Jan Hooimeijer was amazed to see how easily senior pet birds adapt to new situations and seem to have little problem with things like handling or hospitalization. “I don’t think they are getting more mellow,” Hooimeijer said. “They have developed that behavior as part of their survival strategy.” If birds were not adaptable, they would not have survived into old age.
Rehoming organizations that find new homes for older parrots have also found this to be the case. Ann Brooks, founder and president of the Phoenix Landing Foundation, has had similar experiences. “ We’ve [re-homed] 800 parrots,” Brooks said, “and in most cases, the birds adapt quite well and very quickly.”
I have known geriatric pet birds that are not just tolerant of change but were actually invigorated by it. Years ago, I knew a timneh African grey named Peter. He had been a member of his human family for more than 50 years. His owner was a child when her parents purchased him. Peter had always been a good talker but had not added any words to his vocabulary in many years until a young woman moved in with them. The owner laughed and said she hadn’t appreciated it before, but, in retrospect, she realized that Peter became bored to tears by their dull, sedentary lifestyle.
When the young woman arrived, Peter simply lit up. Like an old dog that becomes rejuvenated by the company of a puppy, Peter suddenly became much more active — playing enthusiastically, swinging upside down and banging on his bells. The most dramatic change was in his vocabulary, which the owner said he doubled in only a couple of months.
Literature about geriatric mammals has extensive discussions regarding the mental deterioration associated with senility. I have not noticed any such decline in the geriatric pet birds. Jamie Whitaker, certified parrot behavior consultant and co-owner of ABC Pets in Houston, Texas, boards a 65-plus-year-old double yellow-headed Amazon that was purchased as a juvenile in Panama in 1942. Poncho has been in the same family ever since. “At 9:00 every night, Poncho announces, ‘It’s time to go to bed, everybody go to bed,’ and continues to repeat it every five minutes until he is covered for the night. No senility there, and he doesn’t look old either.”
Reproductive Behaviors In Older Parrots
Nesting behavior in geriatric pet birds is another issue, and it appears that parrots do not go through anything like menopause. My old macaw, Sam, still gets broody and lays anywhere from two to four eggs every year. She eats an excellent diet, so this has not caused any problems for her. According to a study of aging in the population of macaws at Parrot Jungle, Susan Clubb, DVM, found that viable eggs are rarely produced after the age of 35. Even if Sam had a mate, it is unlikely she would produce live chicks at her advanced age.
There is one gynecological note of interest that new owners of older birds often encounter. After many years of a substandard diet, senior female pet birds can start into reproductive behaviors once their diet improves. There is no question that their bodies celebrate achieving a healthy nutritional status. Jody Bright, veterinary technician and certified parrot behavior consultant in California, knew a client with a recently adopted 50-year-old Amazon parrot that abruptly started laying eggs for the first time once she was switched to a proper diet.
Behavior Vs. Health In Senior Pet Birds
A significant factor to consider when evaluating the behavior of senior birds is that it can be difficult to separate the issues of behavior and health. According to German avian rescuer and certified parrot behavior consultant Ann Castro, “many older birds have been kept in less-than-ideal conditions. They often have been eating the wrong foods for many years with all the adverse health effects, so when [people] tell me their bird has slowed down and is not as active as before, my first reaction is to send them to a vet. Usually the slowing down seems to be poor health induced.”
As we of the baby boomer generation get older, we hope to be treated with the respect due our advancing age and increased wisdom. Senior pet birds deserve no less. Look at how many years they have been putting up with the foibles of humanity. With patience and kindness and more than a little empathy, we can enjoy the enriching experience of living with our geriatric birds for many incredible years to come.
You Can Teach An Old Bird New Tricks
Literature on geriatric behavior in dogs and cats suggests that one important characteristic of aging in these animals was an extreme resistance to change, even if it is for the better. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the case with senior parrots. While it may be accurate that some parrots dislike adjusting to new things, older pet birds seem to have no difficulty with it at all. This might be easily explained by their extremely long life spans.