It is normal for a bird to be wary of new objects, people, or situations. Birds are prey animals, and as such, a healthy fear response is essential to their survival. For example, an African Grey should be fearful of a hawk swooping at him from above. However, some birds develop very intense, abnormal fear responses called phobias, often quite suddenly. Phobias can be specific to a particular object or person (even the person he or she was most bonded to) or generalized to a variety of stimuli. Phobias are more common in African Greys, Cockatoos, and parrots in the Poicephalus group, though all species are susceptible.
A thorough history should be evaluated in phobic patients. Occasionally, the trigger can be identified. For example, was there a certain loud noise, an injury, or a traumatic event in the house or on the television? Sometimes the trigger is something seemingly insignificant such as a change in the owner’s nail polish or hair color. With any change in your bird’s behavior, it is important to consult with your avian veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a medical abnormality. Often the underlying cause cannot be determined. For some birds, a lack of quality early socialization, proper weaning, and guidance during the early formative weeks of life may be contributing factors to the development of behavioral conditions.
Watching your bird develop a phobia to an object or person can be very heartbreaking. However, with time and patience, it is possible to help your bird win back trust and confidence. It is important to realize that this process may take months or even years—there is no magic cure for this problem. Be cautious of any one who promises a quick fix for any avian behavior problem as some methods of ‘treatment’ can actually be very detrimental to the bird’s overall well-being.
The goal of managing a phobic parrot is to gradually help to rebuild trust. For some parrots, this must occur very slowly. Severely phobic parrots are so afraid of their caregivers that they will thrash in their cage at the sight of their owner and hurt themselves. These cases are obviously much more difficult to manage than a bird that is phobic only to a certain object.
The key to helping a phobic bird is to allow the bird to slowly initiate the interaction with the person or object that elicits the phobic response—this cannot be forced! Start with a very low stimulus, then gradually heighten the stimulus as your bird gains trust. For example, if you are the focus of the phobic behavior, start by allowing your bird to study you from a distance. Sit across the room in a submissive position with your head down, avoiding eye contact, and read a book aloud for 10-15 minutes. You may need to do this for weeks before your bird is calm. Don’t try to move quickly—allow your bird to gain trust before moving on to the next step. Once calm from across the room, move 1 foot closer each day until you are sitting outside the cage, reading, singing, or humming. At this point, you may try opening the door to allow your bird to consider coming out of the cage. With patience, you will find that your bird will begin to come out of the cage and may even step onto your arm or leg. Avoid eye contact or sudden movements—allow the bird to initiate this contact and gain trust with you. Only then should you begin to become more actively engaged, offering food treats and directing eye contact towards your bird. If your bird becomes agitated or fearful, return to the previous step. The same principles apply if you are trying to help your bird with a phobia towards an object—start at a distance and slowly move it towards your bird, allowing him or her to initiate the interactions and rewarding calm behavior with treats or praise.
Once your parrot has regained trust, it is important to work on socialization to prevent the development of new phobias. Spend time each day exploring new areas, objects, sounds, and people. Be a good leader—be patient, go slow, and use treats and praise as positive reinforcement. Providing this guidance to your bird will make it easier to manage new phobias if they arise.
Content prepared by St. Francis Animal and Bird Hospital, 1227 Larpenteur Ave. West, Roseville MN. 55113