Birds and Toddlers Learn in Similar Ways

Boston, Mass., | July 14, 2001 | Birds and toddlers often learn the same way. So the next time someone calls you a “bird brain,” don’t get your feathers ruffled and feel as though you’ve slipped a perch or two in the pecking order. Birds are smart. They like to match wits with their owners. “Several studies have proven a human level of intelligence in birds,” said Thomas Tully, Jr., a veterinarian at Louisiana State University’s Small Animal Clinic.

While some people may find the studies amazing or hard to believe, Dr. Tully just laughs and smiles. “I know birds that are ‘toilet-trained’ and fly to the bathroom on the ‘potty’ command,” he said. “I have an avian patient that will announce it’s ‘time to go to bed,’ fly to his cage, and close the door.” Dr. Tully, who treats 700 to 800 birds in an average year, in addition to 1,200 wildlife cases, was among the featured presenters at the 138th Annual Convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), July 14 -18, at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

All birds, he says, are intelligent, but African Grey parrots are more easily studied because of their unlimited vocabulary and ability to express their thoughts. “A bird’s cognitive ability is comparable with that of a human toddler,” Tully said. “They respond in a way that they have not been trained for, understanding an idea and relating it in another context.” For instance, a parrot may nip his owner’s earlobe and hear, “That hurts!” Days later, that bird may repeat the same phrase when he drops a toy on his own foot.

In a landmark study by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, University of Arizona, an African Grey parrot named Alex was able to discern shapes and colors using nonbiased psychological testing methods. In other words, he told researchers what he wanted. However, Dr. Tully cautions, birds use their intelligence to indicate what they want, but also to get what they want. Fine-feathered manipulators? “Yes,” he said. “Birds will try to train their owners, and often succeed.”

Cockatoos and macaws may exercise their impressive vocal powers to gain the attention of their owners by “screaming.” The more screaming, the more attention received. Instead, owners should attempt to modify the behavior by turning off the lights, covering the offending bird’s cage, or by returning it to the cage — although this may be what the bird really wants. “Sometimes,” Tully said, “a bird will decide it has had enough human interaction, so it starts a ruckus, knowing that it will be placed back in its cage.” One possible solution is to use another “time-out” cage in an isolated area of the house.

Aberrant avian behavior is also exhibited through biting and feather picking. While hand-raised, domestic-bred birds make the best companions. any bird can bite, according to Tully. Avian behaviorists recommend that biting be addressed using the “earthquake” procedure: after the bite, while still holding the bird, drop the hand or arm quickly a couple of inches.

Feather picking is quite another matter. Feather loss through self-induced trauma is one of the most difficult disease presentations to diagnose because of the number of factors involved. After medical reasons are ruled out, veterinarians will search for behavioral stressors, such as diet, surrounding environment, cage position, and new family members. “I was treating a macaw that had pulled out all his feathers after the owners had a new baby,” Tully said. “He adjusted, the feathers grew back, and then the cycle repeated itself when a new puppy was brought into the home.”

Over-stressed people may talk about pulling out their hair, but birds actually do. Unlike most other companion pets, birds are both flock and prey species, and changes to the “family flock” may prompt behavioral problems due to a bird’s inability to rationalize or comprehend the situation. Pyschogenic feather picking may also stem from other lifestyle changes, including a recent move, high levels of noise, or loss of a mate. Veterinarians sometimes attach an Elizabethan collar to temporarily stop a bird’s feather picking, but it may just take time for the bird to adapt to the new environment. If feather picking continues, then therapeutic options are available.

“With avian behavior problems we have to modify what we can,” Tully said. “Owners frequently make the mistake of letting the bird dictate how their home is run.” Discipline needs to be consistent, and to include verbal admonishment, because birds know right from wrong — they understand the word “no.” Praise is also very important. Adequate nutrition may have a beneficial effect in encouraging desired behaviors. “Bird owners need expert advice. There are 9,000 species of birds, unlike dogs which is one species with many breeds,” Tully explained. “The avian mind is a wonderful thing, but as with any other species, it comes with vices. The sooner a problem is addressed the quicker it can be modified.”

The AVMA is a professional organization of 66,000 veterinarians. More than 750 seminars were presented during the 138th annual convention, which is one of the largest gatherings of veterinarians in North America. The next AVMA convention will be in Nashville, July 13-17, 2002.


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