PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILE OF A PHOBIC COCKATOO
|by Sam Foster|
This article is reprinted from The Pet Bird Report, with permission from the author.
The term phobic is being used with increasing frequency to label various avian behaviors. Depictions of “phobia,” as supplied by caregivers, range from a mere hesitancy to step up to dramatic accounts of obvious terror, accompanied by panicked screaming, attempts to flee or hide, and a thrashing of the wings in an effort to escape a perceived threat or danger. My personal interpretation of the word phobic, as it relates to companion cockatoos, is based upon personal experiences and observations, and documented cases of this oftentimes preventable behavior.
"Jane Hallander and I co-authored an article concerning phobic behavior in cockatoos and greys, which appeared in PBR Issue #42, and included the following definition of phobia that was quoted from Webster’s Dictionary: “an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of an object, class of objects, or situation.” Someone recently asked me the question, “Is an avian phobia really illogical, or is the fear justified?” This comment made me much more aware of the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of the traditional definition. While I continue to agree with the fore quoted meaning, I believe that our perceptions of parrot behaviors are often based upon the human comprehension of words or phrases.
A segment on the television show “Good Morning America” earlier this year detailed new conclusions concerning phobic behavior, and inspired me to more closely consider human vs. avian phobias. According to this report, extensive studies have shown that a phobic response is actually an uncontrollable physical reaction to an object or situation. While the emotional stimulus that activates this impulse to recoil or escape may or may not be rational, the result is the same.
The study indicated that one of the most effective recent methods of treatment for severe human phobias has been the use of virtual reality. For example, the situation documented on this program concerned a woman terrified of spiders. Placed in a “virtual” world, she viewed a plastic spider that appeared to be just in front of her face, with the objective of eventually feeling confident enough to touch the dreaded menace. Although she knew that this spider could inflict no harm, her initial reluctance and physical repulsion were real.
It appears that a primary reason for the success of this approach has been the ability of humans to analyze and deliberate. No matter how extreme the cases, the capacity of the “patients” to verbalize their insecurities and anxieties, speak with therapists during the process, and hear constant reinforcement that they are safe and can proceed “if and when” they are comfortable doing so, gives them some feeling of control.
Herein lies a fundamental difference, inasmuch as our avian companions are unable to digest our explanatory dialogue. They may sense compassion and kindness in our tone of voice, or be calmed by our non-threatening demeanor. Yet, as intelligent as they are, parrots do not have the capacity to logically examine the situation and differentiate between a real versus a perceived danger. Instead, they see a situation or a person as either safe or threatening.
It was reported that, ultimately, many people undergoing virtual therapy are able to overcome their phobias to varying degrees. While not every patient may be comfortable enough at the end of this type of treatment program to confidently hold a real spider, dive fearlessly into the sea, or stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon unaffected by vertigo or nausea, a high percentage did conquer their fears with notable success.
When hampered by the inherently limited communication capabilities between humans and parrots, along with frequently unknown historical information, how do we structure a realistic and attainable recovery for a phobic bird? I’m sure that all of us wish this question could be easily answered. Unfortunately, when a bird reaches this state and the condition is diagnosed with accuracy as a true phobia, the traditional methods of working with a shy, insecure or mildly apprehensive parrot sometimes seem to be ineffective, at least initially.
There are those who would say that such cases are beyond help, or that the cockatoo is hopelessly “neurotic.” I have difficulty accepting the premise that some birds are by nature neurotic, and feel that the labeling of any parrot species as such is unjustified and inappropriate. Among cockatoos, the Umbrella, Rose-breasted, Ducorp’s and Major Mitchell’s frequently bear the brunt of this designation. However, since “neurotic” is a term with which we humans are familiar, perhaps it is used inadvertently by some to describe what is an otherwise incomprehensible avian “state of being.”
I remember well hearing a veterinarian refer to a female Umbrella who was feather plucking as “just another neurotic cockatoo.” Sadly, this term is used many times to describe cockatoos displaying assorted behaviors when no other justification can be identified. I do not doubt the possibility that birds born with some type of genetic disparity could exhibit a form of neurosis, and this is perhaps one of the risks we run when breeding parrots who have hereditary links. In addition, there are potential accidents or physical and/or emotional traumas that could lead to infirm mental health. However, evidence indicates to me that the behavioral phobias most often encountered with pet birds are the result of some form of human engineering.
There are various levels of “fear,” and the reactions seen in our avian companions are not always the same. The fear behaviors exhibited by cockatoos are commonly induced by the presence of or contact with humans. Certain birds may become uncharacteristically aggressive when they lose trust in humans. Others seem to associate their fear with only one person, or a select group of people and circumstances. Then, there are examples where deep-seated fear renders the bird unable to distinguish which individuals can and cannot be trusted.
Term for Severe Cases
Hereinafter, use of the word phobic is reserved for severe cases, when there truly seems to be no available avenue for providing the bird with any type of positive human communication or interaction. In extreme situations, a parrot might appear to have retreated permanently into a world where we are neither trusted nor wanted. The rising numbers of such instances are quite disturbing.
It is possible for any cockatoo to suffer from a phobia, and there does not appear to be a preponderance of either males or females. Documented cases include the Lesser Sulphur-crested, Citron-crested, Ducorp’s, Goffin’s, Rose-breasted, Bare-eyed, Major Mitchell’s (Leadbeater’s), Eleonora’s (Medium Sulphur-crested), Umbrella, Moluccan and Greater Sulphur-crested. My research indicates that overall, the percentage of cockatoos manifesting phobic behavior seems substantially higher in birds between the ages of six months to three years, than it is in birds over the age of three. This may be due to the consistently rising numbers of young cockatoos being purchased as pets; however, it will be important to see if this trend continues over time.
Extensive long-term record keeping might lead to substantiation or dissolution of these theories:
1) It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for baby birds raised in a human environment to learn differentiations between real and perceived threats.
2) Based upon percentages, the incidence of phobic behavior is significantly higher in hand-raised cockatoos that in those that are parent-raised or who were wild caught.
3) Many of the currently accepted methods used in hand-raising particular species of cockatoos should be analyzed and perhaps modified.
4) Certain human personality traits are best suited for maintaining optimum psychological health in a cockatoo.
5) Certain cockatoo species are less adaptable to life as human companions, than are other species of cockatoos or parrots.
6) Specific species and individuals blossom in an unconstrained, more natural, less rigid environment.
7) Even with generations of captive breeding, we cannot totally eliminate instinctive behaviors in these wild creatures.
In reviewing numerous scenarios of phobia in cockatoos, two primary instigators repeatedly surface. The first of these has been recognized for some time by leading aviculturists and involves a bird feeling cornered or trapped with no avenue of escape from a potential predator, whether real or perceived. Today, we more clearly understand the importance of avoiding situations where our avian companions may feel vulnerable to physical danger or “attack.” Sally Blanchard has written in-depth articles detailing the “harpy eagle syndrome,” and a widespread recognition of parrots as prey animals has helped many to modify their physical approach and response to certain behaviors. (See PBR Issues Vol. 3 No 3, #15, #41, #42, #44, for additional information on the instinctive nature of parrots, preventing phobia, and reestablishing trust with phobic parrots.)
I find another increasingly prevalent direct cause of severe phobic behavior to be physical pain. The negative consequences of this type of deeply ingrained fear may be dramatic and long lasting. This is the specific phobia I would like to now address.
For comparison, consider the negative and sometimes long term human reactions connected with severe pain and/or trauma received in an accident. I myself can relate well to the “uncontrollable” physical reaction earlier described in relation to human phobias. Nearly twenty years ago, I was traveling along a highway as a passenger in the front seat of an automobile, when the driver failed to stop for a car stalled in the road, running into that vehicle at full speed. Miraculously, there were no serious physical injuries aside from some broken bones and bruising. Yet, to this day, when I am riding in a car and anyone else is driving, the only way I feel totally secure is to look to the side, read or close my eyes. The fact that these people are extremely cautious drivers does nothing to ease my fear. When I see brake lights unexpectedly appear on a car ahead, I have an immediate and uncontrollable physical reaction, typically a sharp intake of breath accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, and an automatic reaching for the dashboard. I know full well what causes this reaction and that my distress is unwarranted, and afterward I am able to rationalize the incident and even laugh about how foolish it is for me to behave in such a way.
It is therefore difficult to fathom the emotional anxiety a cockatoo might feel when confronted with an activity or circumstance similar to one that previously caused intense pain. Moreover, when repeated bodily suffering is experienced, the risk further increases that the bird’s long term psychological health will be compromised. The inability to escape such a situation automatically conflicts with a basic survival instinct, and the addition of physical trauma has the potential to dramatically transfigure the personality of even the most social, active and trusting bird.
Although several pain-related instances can be identified, I have found that the predominant, and frequently concurrent, events linked to phobic behavior in cockatoos are broken blood feathers, having feathers pulled, and repeated falling. Unfortunately, these occurrences are often joined in a continuing circle of distress.
Consider the following summary of events: A six-month old Rose-breasted Cockatoo with clipped primary feathers falls from the playgym onto the floor. The owner discovers that a blood feather in the tail has been broken. As a result, a towel is wrapped around the young bird and the feather is pulled. The young cockatoo is then placed gently inside the cage and after a few minutes all seems well. Several days later the bird screams loudly after falling to the bottom of the cage, where another tail feather is broken. This time, the caregiver transports the bird to the veterinarian’s office to have the feather pulled. The following day, the Rose-breasted is uncharacteristically hesitant to step onto the owner’s hand from inside the cage. After finally doing so, they begin to walk away from the cage and the cockatoo jumps to the floor, hitting its beak and one wing on a table during the process. The bird then runs around on the floor, trying to elude capture behind a piece of furniture. Eventually, the cockatoo is coaxed from the hiding place, is held carefully against the chest of its owner and returned to the cage. A steady pattern then develops wherein the bird becomes frantic, clinging to the side of the cage and screaming pitifully when the cage door is opened or someone approaches too closely.
Sadly, the condition can become much worse. A bird in this emotional state will frequently fall to the bottom of the cage when feeling nervous, consequently breaking or damaging additional feathers. Some owners then feel it is necessary to remove the bird and pull those feathers. There are also cases in which veterinarians recommend the extraction of all tail and/or primary flight feathers in order to avoid this recurrence of broken feathers. This controversial procedure, even when done under anesthesia, inherently creates another set of problems including loss of balance and self-confidence, which often leads to further injury. Even when these feathers are not pulled, the reinforced association of pain (from the fall and broken feather) with humans (whose presence precipitated the fall) fuels the phobia.
Another associated behavior recurrently seen in cases of pain-related phobia is feather shredding or chewing. The breaking or pulling of feathers can have such a strong psychological impact that some cockatoos feel compelled to chew off damaged or broken feathers. In some instances, the frayed edges of a feather or shaft might be a source of discomfort to the bird, thus the feeling that it must be “removed”. Healthy and newly emerging feathers may also be included in this feather destructive behavior.
Recovery time from an intense pain-related phobia can be months. It would be rare for birds of this description to return to their normal behavior in only a few weeks. Indeed, there are cases where after several years the bird’s trust has not yet been recaptured. Unusual examples? Exaggeration? Unfortunately, similar episodes with a variety of parrot species are not infrequent.
Many severely phobic cockatoos are also described as inactive or motionless, whether inside or outside of the cage. Sitting in only one location or on a specific perch is not uncommon. When out of the cage, some of these birds will seek shelter under or behind a piece of furniture, perhaps under the bed, and will remain there for long periods of time.
When movement occurs, it is oftentimes accompanied by frightened vocalizations. Tragically, these creatures eventually begin to associate possible pain with even the simplest, most routine actions. This fear then negatively influences virtually all aspects of the bird’s self-assurance and activity. For example, walking across a perch might lead to bumping unexpectedly into a toy, creating a “fear” of being harmed, and thereby a “fear” of toys. Lifting a wing could result in hitting it against the side of the cage, which is another reminder of pain, so he learns not to do so. Walking on the bottom of the cage or floor may hurt his feet due to bruises or broken toes suffered from repeated falling, so he avoids unnecessary motion. If the cockatoo is startled or suddenly feels threatened when walking across the floor, it may instinctively react by jumping, causing it to flip over onto its back or bump into the wall or furniture, thus increasing the level of both anxiety and pain. Normal preening methods may be forgotten, commonly replaced by chewing and shredding as a result of continually breaking feathers and the associated discomfort.
Therefore, as guardians we may find that our initial challenge is not only to guide these birds through their cloud of fear, but in some cases to also help them relearn basic skills such as walking, preening, or flapping their wings. This can be a difficult and lengthy process with a cockatoo who has, through fear, developed an avoidance of activity. Our efforts must focus on the creation of a serene, non-threatening environment, and effecting a physical setting that eliminates, or at the least minimizes, the risk of physical harm.
The protocols for working with a phobic bird must be flexible and lenient. There may be times when our instincts tell us that it would be more beneficial to allow a particular bird to remain where it feels safe, than to force it into a situation where there is obvious and excessive anguish. For example, reaching into the cage of a phobic cockatoo who is terrified of us or our hands and asking it to “step up,” might well erase any positive steps forward we have made until that time. In this situation, we might even determine that toweling a bird to retrieve it from the cage is causing more harm than good. The “rules” for dealing with phobic behavior in cockatoos are not always circumscribed, and we must be prudent with the introduction of any change, no matter how minimal it may seem. Individual birds may feel more secure when perching at the highest level possible, while others show a preference for the floor or low perching area, such as a heavy wicker basket sitting on the floor or cage bottom. Some are clearly calmer when able to hide behind items such as large toys, a cover placed over a corner of the cage or inside a box or sleeping tent. On the other hand, there are those birds who are terrified by such objects.
Subtle Signs of Willingness to Advance
One of the prime difficulties we encounter is recognizing subtle signals that indicate a bird’s willingness or receptiveness to advance. While we want to stimulate behavioral progression, we need to pace our own actions to those of the bird. As an illustration, when a phobic cockatoo develops enough trust to make the slightest move toward a hand or arm, our inclination is to slowly reach out for them, speaking softly with words of reassurance. An alternative approach is simply to remain still offering only verbal encouragement, allowing the bird to maintain control and come to us, if and when it is comfortable doing so.
At this point, the immediate reaction of many of these birds is to run up, in order to perch on a shoulder, and sit closely against the face of the person they are learning to trust. In this event, as well as others involving phobic birds, the traditional guidelines of “acceptable” behavior are best suspended.
In order to begin the healing process, it is critical for the cockatoo to feel as confident as circumstances allow, and in control of his or her life and surroundings. In multiple-bird homes, this recovery may be aided over time by observing fellow avian flock members interacting happily and positively with the human flock. A relationship involving some form of regular verbal or physical contact between the phobic cockatoo and another bird may also prove beneficial, whether this is merely an amicable coexistence or a close kinship.
When there is more than one person in the home environment, even notably phobic birds may ultimately show a preference. It is not surprising that when this occurs the “person of choice” is frequently someone other than the primary caregiver, who is typically the individual the bird associates with ongoing fear and trauma. In this eventuality, every step should be taken to nurture and protect that developing relationship, allowing it to be the groundwork for other successful human associations.
The psychological profile of any emotionally healthy cockatoo can be misguided into a world of darkness, terror and even hopelessness. I can think of nothing more heartbreaking than looking into the vacant or terrified eyes of one of nature’s most exquisite creatures, knowing that this was very likely the result of someone’s incognizance, or in some cases their negligence or apathy. Yet, the greater tragedy is when those responsible have neither the patience nor commitment to help the victim, and instead choose to blame the “neurotic” bird.
What can happen when you do commit to the task of working with a phobic bird? While love, compassion and good intentions are a necessity, those things in themselves may not be enough. You must be prepared for a prolonged journey that will most likely be inconstant and disheartening, testing your patience to the limit while draining you emotionally. There will be days when you feel void of any optimism, and other times when you are inspired to continue your efforts by the slightest gesture of trust. One moment you want to shout your anger aloud asking “Why?” and the next your heart cries tears of despair for the precious creature who did nothing to deserve such a fate.
Disappointment is not a word that can be part of this process if we are to maintain the proper perspective, even though the wish for our cockatoo to recover is totally selfless. There can be no timetable, nor can we have any expectations of a truly phobic bird. Each sign of improvement should be considered a gift, a reward for our diligence and for our willingness to accept whatever they are prepared to offer at that time, and we must treasure the faith shown in us when any overture is made.
Throughout this entire process, it is necessary to remind ourselves that what works today may or may not work tomorrow, and that the behavior of a seemingly improved phobic cockatoo can digress for no identifiable reason. Time alone will answer the lingering question... “Can we ever feel certain that a formerly phobic bird has completely and permanently recovered?”
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