When assisting a Foster Bird, learn to think Outside the Box
Hei Hei is a 13 years old male cockatiel, whom displayed plucking behavior but there was no previous history information on his rescue intake sheet to determine the cause of the behavior. During visual review, there appeared to be missing feathers on his back. Hei Hei was brought to a certified avian veterinarian to get a complete medical exam to eliminate any possibility pre-existing medical issues that could contribute to the missing feathers. The veterinarian did complete exam: CBC (Complete Blood Count), Chemistry profile, Cultures, Physical exam, X-rays, and review diet.
As we waited for the test results, Hei Hei adjusted to the new setup of living in my home. Several days later the full exam results came back; no avian diseases, no mites, and no nutrition deficiencies detected. The veterinarian explained that Hei Hei had neurological issues in his tail and wings, but was not in pain, and the neurological issue was not affecting his quality of life. The neurological issue would prevent Hei Hei from flying and cause some balance issue. I needed to be aware of these issue when he fell, he may not be able to up right himself. The veterinarian’s final good note was that Hei Hei was in good health, so the missing feathers(plucking) appeared to be related to behavior issue.
During the first week of observation, I noticed that Hei Hei preferred to be outside the cage. I did not notice any plucking occurring when he was out of the cage. Each morning I would find a few smaller feathers at the bottom of the cage but I could not determine if the feathers were related to molting, preening, or plucking.
The 2nd week behavior started appearing. In the middle of the night, I woke up hearing a loud noise and banging. I went to check on Hei Hei. He was having a night fright. ‘Night Frights’ is when a cockatiel is spooked or anxious during the night, which can cause the cockatiel to try to escape by flying into the cage bars or flailing at the bottom of cage. This is dangerous as the wings could get jam into the bar cage. This was especially dangerous for Hei Hei, because he could not upright himself and could be stuck on his back.
I started adjusting the cage location and added a night light to reduce the ‘Night Fright’.
As well as I started to write a daily log to investigate the cause of the behavior that might be contributing to the night frights or the plucking. After the 2nd month of observations, one key observation started to emerge from my notes, the night frights seemed to reduce when Hei Hei was left out of his cage at night. When I continued leaving Hei Hei out of the cage at night, in the morning I found Hei Hei sleeping on top of the cage with no issues. I never found any feathers at the bottom of the cage.
Over the next month, I rearranged his cage set up so Hei Hei could sleep outside the cage, safely; this included pillows around the cage (just in case he fell).
There appeared to be no further plucking, or night frights after several weeks of Hei Hei living outside of the cage. Hei Hei’s back feathers grow back in, and he was back to being a beautiful cockatiel.
Now, that the “Genie was out of the bottle”, I had get the “Genie back into the bottle”, meaning for safety and adoption purposes, Hei Hei needed to adjust back into the cage.
The plan was not to just place Hei Hei back into a cage and hope he would just get use to being in a cage, again. I still could not determine what originally caused the plucking. I wanted Hei Hei to choose to go back into the cage at his pace. I need to update the environment so not to retrigger the plucking or the night frights.
Hei Hei has been enjoying four interesting foster months at my house. Most of my focus had been reducing the plucking and night fright behaviors.
Now, the next training plan was to start to shape the environment to encourage Hei Hei to move back into a cage. Hei Hei was not interested interacting with humans, and only stepped up on a hand when he fell and needed assistances to up right himself. Otherwise, he would move away from hands and squawk.
I reviewed the current cage to see what might improve the chances to lead Hei Hei back into the cage. When make any changes, I would use a technique I learned from Lara Joseph, The Animal Behavior Center. I would count backwards out loud “3…2…1”, and then move an item. I was cuing Hei Hei of coming change. If Hei Hei Squawked or body position is lowered, I stopped. I began to learn Hei Hei’s posturing when he was not comfortable with the change. I would stop and try again later. When I started back with the counting backwards again “3..2..1”, and move another item. If Hei Hei just watched, I could continue the changes.
The first attempt of change was just positioning the ladder to lead into the cage and having food/water near the entrance.
Hei Hei got on the ladder and approached the front of cage where the food was located, but the location of the ladder shortened the door entrance opening. There was not enough head room for Hei Hei to walk in. He would have to lower his entire body to make the clearance of the opening, so he never went in.
The second attempt, I tried to lower the ladder further down for more clearance. Hei Hei still would not cross the threshold of the cage door. He would pace but never go in, no success. Hei Hei won this battle. I gave him a break from the cage updates for a couple weeks. I had to take a step back and re-evaluate the approach. I will give Hei Hei a lot of bonus points as during the changes to his environment, no plucking or night frights occurred.
New strategy: New Cage
On the third attempt, I introduced a new cage. A taller and more specious cage giving him more space and larger cage door opening. Hei Hei loved being on the top of this cage, but no matter how I set up the cage, I could not get him to go to the lower part of the cage. It was if the cage was too tall for him to venture down. Back to brainstorming for a couple more days.
On the fourth attempt, I tried raising all the food items closer to the top of cage. Hei Hei used the ladder to come off the top of the cage to get his food and water that were located outside of the cage. I placed boxes within the cage to raise the cage bottom, so Hei Hei could easily reach his favorite items within the cage; parakeet millet stick. He would just sit on the ladder and look in. He still did not go into the cage. I took a break and reviewed what I was learning from Hei Hei’s behavior.
On the fifth attempt, I really need to think outside of the box on this approach. I knew that Hei Hei liked being on top of the cage, but there was something preventing him from going into the cage. This prevention could be connected to the cause of the plucking. Was there something about both cages that was an aversive?
I created a new adjustable cage bottom (made from cardboard) that could be adjusted to be closer to the top of the cage. As attached the new adjustable cage bottom to the cage, I noticed that height of the inside the cage was being reduced.
I wandered what would happen if removed the top of the cage to give Hei Hei the choice to go into the cage from the top of cage. I had been adding ladders from the outside of the cage leading to the cage door. What if the ladder was inside the cage to access the placement of food and water? It seemed like an odd approach, but if this worked, I would learn if the cage roof might be causing the issues.
I removed the cage top and set up the ladders inside the cage. I watched Hei Hei check out the new set up. I was getting ready to go back to the old cage set up, and start planning the sixth attempt, when it happened.
Within 30 minutes, Hei Hei was in the cage and eating.
Over the next couple of days, I observed and tracked Hei Hei’s behavior. He appeared to have no issues; no night frights or plucking. He was moving from the top of the cage into the cage very fluently. Hei Hei was making the choice of going in and out the cage. After a week, Hei Hei was settling into the new cage set up. I made a few minor changes that increased the behavior of Hei Hei staying in the cage area. (The Genie was starting to go back into the bottle).
I never forced him back into the cage. I let Hei Hei choose the changes to the setup of cage to gain acceptability. The process and learning adjustments took two months to complete. In the end, the slow adjustment process was successful. There has been no plucking and night frights.
The training process is still not complete as the cage roof still needs to be added back (that is a future training plan). The observations lessons learned will assist in getting the cage roof back on in the coming months. Additionally with working on Hei Hei living back in cage, is working on his fear of hands. Hei Hei is very terrified of hands, so maybe I work on that next.
Positive Reinforcement, small approximating in the environment, and allowing choice at the bird’s pace can lead to amazing outcomes, and even a surprise now and then.