In my last post, I mentioned that my Galah/Rosebreasted Cockatoo had suffered from something I called “learned helplessness”. I said how happy I was that she had taken possession of my new parrot stand because that’s a big deal when you have a bird like Morgy. A few people pounced on that and sent me questions saying that their birds also don’t play and should they be worried about that? How do you fix that? I thought it was worth sharing a bit more about what I’ve been through with Morgy to answer those questions.
Morgy literally ran in my garage door and moved in. So I didn’t buy her, she moved in of her own accord. Despite really searching, I never found her previous owner so I don’t know a lot about her history. I know from her legband that she was a wild caught bird put into the pet trade at some stage. She wasn’t tame, but she did talk. At the time an untamed legally trapped wild caught galah retailed for about AUD $50; financially speaking she was easy to replace and probably not valued by her previous owner. I wasn’t really shocked that no one seemed to be looking for such a ‘bitey’ vicious bird.
I knew my neighbours had seen her being chased by cats in the weeks previous to running into my garage and that she hadn’t coped in the wild probably because she hadn’t been wild for many years. She settled in to the cage I bought with an almost audible sigh of relief. Finally the stupid human had worked out that she was supposed to sit in a cage and get a bowl of food.
At the time, the aviculture world was drastically different to what it is now. The average pet store didn’t stock pellets or bird toys. If they did they were tiny plastic things with mirrors designed for a budgie. Birdtricks.com was in its infancy. Chet and Dave weren’t cool yet. (As shown by them wearing the world’s dorkiest shirts in their videos.) The online bird community was tiny. It was safe to say that in most houses, birds ate seed and stared at walls. It wasn’t much of a leap to come to the conclusion that Morgy had been one of those birds. There are two reasons why I explain all of this. Firstly, it’s about time someone made fun of those shirts. Secondly I’m trying to help paint the picture of how Morgy’s behaviour became what it was. It’s likely she spent years without toys or without any stimulus at all.
Patty has already done a comprehensive post on Birds That Don’t Play With Toys. Morgy however, didn’t fit any of the profiles described in that blog. Morgy showed no fear response to toys, she knew how to play (I worked on that), it wasn’t just disinterest because she was offered a wide variety of toys. The difference with Morgy was that she was almost catatonic. I could do pretty much anything to her environment and food and she’d just sit on the one perch and stare off into space, or sleep.
Learned Helplessness is when an animal (or human) becomes conditioned to believe or act like a situation is inescapable or unchangeable no matter what they do. They effectively give up interacting as there is no point in doing so, whatever they do will make no difference, they have no control. They will fail to respond to anything, even if presented with an opportunity that will result in a reward or the removal of an unpleasant stimuli. It is a type of depression.
In Morgy’s case it was as though she had learned you sit on a perch and you go to eat from a food bowl. End of story. Nothing else happens. Convincing her otherwise was like hitting my head against a brick wall. Interrupt her staring trance – she’d bite. She never shied away from my hands. Just stood her ground and stared off into space. There were only 2 things she seemed to want to do, eat from her food bowl and stare into space. She saw a vet and had no underlying health conditions, so that wasn’t the problem.
It crossed my mind that maybe she just didn’t know how to play with toys? Maybe at that stage that was true, but it wasn’t just the lack of playing that bothered me. It was her lack of interaction with absolutely everything that convinced me it was learned helplessness. She’d come in from the wild, yet she didn’t know what to do with foliage? She showed only basic interest in food. You could knock over a chair next to her cage and she wouldn’t even look at you. She was completely disengaged.
I wanted Morgy to be engaged, to play with her toys and interact with her environment but focusing on ‘not playing’ wasn’t the answer to that. A large part of learned helplessness is that the animal has learned that they have no control, no say in anything that happens to them. I needed to develop a way to communicate with Morgy to allow her to be able to say yes and no. I needed to show her that she did have control of what happened to her. To achieve this I turned to trick training. Insert Chet and Dave’s dodgy shirt videos… I started Morgy on the trick training course.
There’s a myth surrounding trick training. If I had a dollar for every time I hear someone say they don’t want their birds to be circus animals, so trick training is a waste of time… To me it’s not about training your animals to perform circus tricks, but a way for both you and your animal to learn to communicate with each other. Ok sure, at the end of the day my bird can wave, bow, spin, nod and shake her head amongst other things but that wasn’t the biggest takeaway from the training. The real result is that I can ask my bird to do something rather than tell it, it must do something. I’m not forcing my animals to perform. Instead they have learned my signals and I have learned theirs, so that I know when they don’t want to do something and vice versa.
In Morgy’s case it really helped. She responded well to going on a training diet and training. It got her interacting. Trick training didn’t completely cure the learned helplessness but it did drastically help the situation. The training gave Morgy and I the basis to start communicating. It was the first step in getting her to interact with the world again.
The thing with learned helplessness is that it’s very easy to slip back. There are days when Morgy will ignore everyone and everything around her. Her tendency to sit on one perch and just stare of into space has made it extremely difficult to control her weight and I have some very obvious concerns about her health because of that. She is easily the most difficult bird in my flock to keep active.
I’ve found adding other galahs to my flock assisted to bring Morgy out of herself more. They look for each other, they call each other and they pass things between the bars of their respective aviaries. That said though, Morgy is caged alone because if left with other more active birds, they destroy all of the activities before she gets to do so (she’s slower at it). I tried a group aviary for a while but found Morgy was left staring off into space. She does have communal ‘out in the house time’ but definitely will tell you when she wants to go back to her own cage to escape the hyperactive craziness that surrounds my most outgoing Galah Merlin.
Continuing to train and interact with her is extremely important on a daily basis. If I am slack about it, she quickly reverts to staring. The training sessions can’t be too hard or too long because she is prone to giving up. Enrichment is something I have to be very aware of with her. When she wants to, she can crack the most difficult foraging toy in seconds but you’d never realise she’s as smart as she is with the way she goes off into a trance.
Varying the way food is presented with the aid of the Birdtricks.com cookbooks has been a very useful trick when it comes to getting Morgy to engage with her environment. I know I sound like a bad commercial in saying that but I don’t mean to. It’s truly exhausting having to be constantly creative with a bird like this and it’s extra exhausting when it isn’t your only high needs bird. A book of healthy ideas is unbelievably helpful. The alternative is a depressed overweight bird and having come from that – I don’t want to go back.
So in answer to the people who are asking me if it’s a problem that their birds don’t play? I’d say yes it is a problem. You don’t want to let that develop to the extreme that I’ve been to with Morgy. I’d hope that it’s just an issue like what Patty covered in her post on Birds That Don’t Play With Toys, but if it’s more general disengagement, then I say from my experience don’t just focus on the toys but look more generally at training to fix the problem. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process but it’s worth it.