When we first bring home a rescued or re-homed parrot, we need to be aware that it isn’t like bringing a fresh new baby bird in. Every one of these beautiful animals – even a young one – can be expected to be unsettled and nervous upon reaching a new environment, but an adopted pet is more likely to suffer from depression, potential aggression, and fear issues, including anxiety. There may also be health issues, so you should be extra cautious with quarantine and any existing flock members you have.
What can our birds’ physical appearance teach us about their pasts?
With a parrot whose history may be unknown, the physical appearance of the bird can show you a lot. For instance, your first trip should be to a certified avian vet to get a complete exam. This can tell you a great deal about a bird’s condition.
X-rays can reveal the health of the internal organs: Are they swollen, such as from the impact of a poor diet? Are there past or fresh breaks, revealing bad falls or physical abuse?
Similarly, blood work will reveal even more about a parrot’s health. Does your new bird have an illness?
Having this knowledge tells you how to proceed. Obviously some may need medications. Others may need special considerations. For instance, if there are multiple severe breaks in the bones, and the bird seems ultra wary of hands or people in general, you could reasonably hazard a guess that he or she had once been subjected to physical abuse, or perhaps falls from a bad clip. You’ll need to proceed differently, and perhaps let your bird take more time getting to know you than you first expected.
Here are the parts owners can look at in order to assess a bird’s history:
Feet, legs, wings – Bobo, our umbrella cockatoo who went to live at a Sanctuary, came from a greenhouse, where he’d been abandoned. Our cockatoo is missing pieces of all but two of his toes. Several of them are far from pretty and are worn down almost to the bone. These are long healed over, but they still look terrible. The owner of the sanctuary thinks that besides being an ex-breeder bird, he was possibly attacked in the nest, or else by a mate. His wings were fine, but not able to support him in flight because of muscle atrophy (indicating that he’d been cage-bound).
Keel bone – the weight is a critical part of assessing a bird’s health. Our cockatoo was still ever-so-slightly underweight at the point when he reached me, but clearly someone had been feeding him something at the greenhouse before he was rescued. Some birds may be overweight from too many sunflower seeds and peanuts, some birds underweight. Many rescue birds will require special attention to diet conversion. A gram scale will help you monitor your flock.
Feathers – by some miracle, Bobo was in full feather. His behaviour told us a lot more than his feathers could. Instead of plucking to combat his boredom and anxiety, he transformed fear to aggression, and began a weird little walking dance where he would kind of…flip… his head – like a fish. This quirk revealed his frustration. His feather quality wasn’t great – kind of rough-looking, especially around the wings and tail.
Face and beak – Bobo also had a small break on his beak that had healed over. The tip had snapped off and re-grown. This may have been a result of a fight, or of poor diet, again. He had no visible scars, but these are something else you can use to piece together a bird’s past history.
Behaviour – our parrots reveal a lot with their behaviour, as these are typically habits formed over time. For instance, the honeymoon period with parrots is usually around 3-6 weeks. During this time, new owners will see very little biting, screaming, or other undesirable behaviours. The bird is basically assessing its situation by being cautious.
- Skipping the honeymoon period: Like many of his kind, Bobo used to go straight from flight to fight, and never stopped. Disguising his fear, he would attack first and think about it later. For him, it was survival. His immediate aggression told us that he was used to people running from him.
- Talking: Wild-caught parrots do not generally mimic human speech. Our cockatoo, however, did – and beautifully, too, indicating that he was almost certainly hand-raised. What they actually say can be a clue: Bobo says his name, ‘hello,’ and ‘darling,’ amongst other short phrases.
- Trying to mate with you, or treating you as its mate: This is an indication that your bird is both an adult, and probably hand-raised. Again, wild-caught parrots typically want little to do with people.
- ‘People skills’: If your bird knows how to step up, go into a travel cage, play with toys, eat vegetables, do tricks, or more, he may once have been a much-loved pet. A lot of birds’ personalities change upon reaching maturity, though, costing them their homes. For many birds – probably even Bobo – this is the case.
If I had to guess Bobo’s past, I’d say that he lost his home to typical cockatoo hormones, possibly passed around for many years, and was eventually bought or maybe taken for free by someone looking for a cheap breeder bird; he then probably did as many male cockatoos do and attacked his mates, causing him to be abandoned until he was rescued once more.
This is how I pieced together my bird’s history, purely for the purpose of helping him move forward. It helped me understand his behaviour more. What about you – if you are a proud rescue mum or dad, how did you puzzle out your bird’s past – or is that something you chose to leave behind?
To conclude a long post, it’s hard to work out the history of a rescue bird, and it does often boil down to guesswork. If you are looking to rescue or re-home a parrot, please know that not all are so difficult as our cockatoo. Often, parrots lose their homes to owners’ own difficulties, which just means that there are many wonderful pets out there in want of a home!
Look for an upcoming post on setting up obtainable goals for rescued parrots.