Parrot ownership is an experience like no other. Bonds between a parrot and their owner can be described as being similar to a parent with their human child. Their intelligence puts me in a state of awe even after many years of working with them. The emotional connections run incredibly deep. For those who own parrots—or are owned by them—you know of the hardships involved. Keeping up with training, proper diet, cleaning, and enrichment come to mind. Taking vacations can prove difficult; it’s not easy to find a trustworthy person familiar with parrots and you feel a tinge of guilt leaving your feathered family member behind. The bond that forms with these animals make everything worthwhile.
This article isn’t about the average healthy parrot. I want to discuss the joys and hardships of caring for birds that are so emotionally and spiritually damaged, they feel the need to physically do themselves harm. The rise of plucking and mutilating birds in captivity is concerning at the least. Their minds are fragile like a toddler’s. Traumatic things that happen to them stick with them for life. Every bird is different. Yraumatic experiences range from being left home alone for a week during vacation to complete abandonment and abuse. Some will pluck if simple emotional or physical needs are not met. Several begin this behavior when breeding season comes along and they become frustrated. Certain measures can be taken to avoid these behaviors but many will never be cured.
As a small parrot rescue who specializes in special needs parrots, we come across this all too frequently. Take Betty for example; she originally came from a hoarding situation that was so severe you could smell the stench from outside of the home. It is our understanding she may have been used as a “breeder bird”. “Breeder bird” is a term commonly used by uneducated people who believe once the birds are paired, they are to be used for breeding only and cannot be taught to interact with humans. This belief is entirely false. They are typically left with little to no toys due to a common misconception that toys will distract them from creating more babies, thus lessening profit. This is where Betty came from. Her featherless body found our rescue in January 2012. As of this writing in January of 2014, Betty still struggles daily with her past. Not one day goes by without my heart breaking just a little more for her. She is healthy and free of disease. Her daily diet is varied and of the best quality. She takes showers regularly, gets misted with diluted aloe for her dry skin, and listens to relaxing music when I am away from home. Toys are rotated weekly and a jungle gym full of ropes hanging from our ceiling is available to her when we are home. She is not bored. She is not ill in the manner most people would consider a parrot ill. Her mind and spirit are damaged.
Despite the damage being done by a person other than themselves, the loving owners of a parrot such as Betty still feel an immense amount of guilt. It was still a human—someone of our kind—who caused this damage. Owners of these birds have huge hearts with an endless amount of love to give. We do everything in our power to make things right. Amanda, a treasured volunteer at Foster Parrots, Ltd, adopted Peepers the citron cockatoo despite her dark past. It was love at first sight, but the journey has not been easy. Amanda says “We have tried a number of supplements, natural remedies, creams, outfits and additives to try and get Peepers to stop plucking. We discussed the use of medication with our vet but I am not convinced of the merits of pharmaceuticals with her, especially as the vet warned me that the drugs might make her sleepy, slow, and generally lose her spark.”
It is not only the expense and effort that makes plucking parrots difficult. There is a range of heavy emotions involved. Experiencing these emotions and feeling them through their parrots is mentally exhausting. Amanda and I can relate; “The absolute most heartbreaking part for me about her (Peepers’) plucking, which other people just do not seem to understand, is that she makes this horrendous cry/yelp/groan sound when she does it”. Consistent high and low points are prevalent as Amanda describes the feeling of failure that is too common of an occurrence; “It's so tough emotionally to watch new feathers, almost always in her crest; sprout, begin to grow, and then become bloody holes when she rips them out. It's difficult not to get attached to each new feather and think ‘Ohh, this is it!’ and then feel like dirt when you see her chewing on it”.
Living with a plucker leaves constant worry in your mind. Maggie, one of our rescues at Hurlin’s Parrot Rescue, goes farther than plucking: She mutilates. The true reason behind her behavior is unknown. Like others, her past is a dark one. A soft felt collar must be on her at all times while not supervised. Scar tissue on her left shoulder runs so deep that she cannot move her left wing. Surgeries are being performed to remove and reform the scar tissue in order for her to gain movement. Once surgeries are complete the scar tissue will continue be sore, itchy, and irritating for years to come—leaving potential for more mutilation. Every morning before work my husband and I triple check her collar to make sure she cannot chew through it while we are away. If she gets through the collar to her incisions we could come home to a bloody disaster. This is in the back of our minds every second of the day when we are away. Maggie doesn’t know what she does is wrong; it’s of no fault of her own. Her soul has been damaged by another human.
Having these special needs birds is not all heartbreak and hardship. They will bring more joy to your life than you ever thought possible. There is no other feeling in the world that compares to saving and rehabilitating these birds. Being amazingly intelligent creatures, they know you are there to help. They know you rescued them from the dark past they had. There are days that will bring you down and make you feel like you have failed them, but those days will also be backed with the feeling of joy and love. Expect their silly antics to make you laugh. Betty never lets our day go by without laughter with her goofy personality and playing on her jungle gym with her friend Buddy, the red lory. “What attracted me to Peepers were her big dark eyes, her very visible facial expressions, happy peeping, and general air of being the head bird in charge,” Amanda says, “it's hard not to fall in love with someone with such an ebullient spirit.”
And spirit they do have. Maggie is known for her cheerful “Hello! Hello Maggie!” and waving “Bye bye!” If she is not feeling well she will put her head in our hands to sadly say “oh, Maggie.” Our home would feel empty without her in it—her spirit brings life and light to our lives.As plucking parrot owners, all that we want is for our little loved ones to know they are safe,they are loved, and we will never give up on them—not only know it, but FEEL it. Perhaps if they feel this way long enough the self-destruction will stop. Only time will tell.