by Fern Van Sant on 06 December
Avian reproductive behaviors observed in the wild......such as pair bonding, courtship regur...
Avian veterinary medicine has become adept at developing effective therapeutic modalities for the most common manifestations of hormonal dysfunction. Experienced clinicians routinely handle medical emergencies related to ovulation. Protracted egg laying, as is commonly exhibited in Budg-erigars, Cockatiels and Umbrella Cockatoos, is routinely treated with leuprolide acetate (Lupron®), a gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist, that acts by down-regulating pituitary GnRH recep-tors. (21,22) It has become increasingly apparent that these therapies, though effective in the short term, may become inadequate as a long-term solution. When faced with the recurrent nature of these prob-lems, many companion psittacine owners become inpatient with the need for return visits and expen-sive injections.
Based on Millam's research, recommendations to restore cockatiels to a short day photoperiod as a remedy to chronic egg laying became common. Building on this, other management-based rec-ommendations, such as removal of the nest box and separation from the male, became common-place. Many veterinarians counseled clients about the role of physical contact in hormonal stimulation. But explanations about the mechanics of how to prevent recurrence is often poorly received and viewed as impossible or undesirable. Reinforcing these recommendations with interesting information about the bird's origins and adaptations has proven to be an extremely useful tool. (21)
If there is one single positive change that pet bird owners can make, it is returning the bird to a regularly recurring photoperiod. Whether in the wild or in captivity, most birds demonstrate a remark-able periodicity to their days. Restoration of a regular recurring day and night cycle usually results in a happier and healthier companion bird. Ideally the photoperiod would begin at dawn when most birds, covered or not, sense the new day and begin to stir. As most birds are from equatorial and subequa-torial latitudes where day length is roughly twelve hours year round, establishing a routine that follows a 12-hour day with a 12-hour night is ideal. Birds have in their brains a finely tuned, light sensitive pin-eal gland. This gland is likely the mechanism by which birds set their circadian rhythm. There is some evidence to support the theory that seasonal shifts are sensed by the rate of change of day length (like those that occur in spring and fall) rather than just keying off of a single day length. Many owners initially anticipate a hardship or a loss of interactive time but instead find that the bird adapts within days to the new routine and quickly demonstrates that the change is a benefit.
One of the easiest remedies to derail reproductive drives is also one of the most powerful. Shredding of paper, cardboard or other bedding material seems to mimic the intrinsic behaviors of nest preparation. Typically regarded as benign, playful activity, shredding instead seems capable of initiating the cascade of hormones that directs reproductive behaviors. As most cages are equipped with grates that prevent access to the cage floor, this behavior is usually easy to control. In cases where a grate is not provided, all liners can be removed and the cage tray simply rinsed daily. In many cases this behavior is one of the earliest warning signs of hormonal behavior. Preventing access to shreddable substrate will usually quickly defuse a hormonal drive.
As reproductive drives escalate, many pet birds will begin to roam and explore seeking a cav-ity. The perceived cavity may be a closet, a drawer or a box. Many birds have attempted to set up housekeeping under a chair or a couch. Owners have found chair stuffing excavated and carpets ripped up by companion parrots driven to find a suitable nest site. Many owners have viewed this be-havior with great amusement and often facilitated the quest by allowing the bird to stake a claim to a certain spot. Cavity seeking should rather be viewed as a serious escalation of hormonally driven be-havior. Many Neotropical species will become very territorial and fiercely guard their homestead. Cav-ity seeking is often a sign of imminent ovulation in the female. Researchers at the University of Cali-fornia at Davis have investigated the importance of this hormonal drive in the cascade of physiologic changes that lead to oviposition. Studies there demonstrated testosterone levels crescendo to their peak levels in male Orange-winged Amazons during cavity exploration. This information dovetails per-fectly with the observed importance of cavity availability to many Neotropical species including Ama-zon parrots and macaws. Curtailing this behavior by not allowing the bird to wander is a simple and powerful solution. Without the cavity, the reproductive drive usually abates. In contrast, female birds that are permitted or encouraged to establish ownership of a "cavity" will often begin a long stint of unrelenting egg production. Often these female birds will lay several lifetimes worth of eggs and be-come quite stressed and - eventually - quite ill from the physiologic demands of egg production and incubation.
The role of physical contact, usually in the form of affectionate petting, can become extremely important in inciting and fueling hormonal behaviors. Physical contact seems to most powerful in cockatoos, cockatiels and budgies. These companion birds seem to crave limitless physical attention. Cockatoos in fact have been recommended and sold as companion birds that will thrive on attention and probably suffer derangement without it. Many birds train their owners early on in the best tech-niques to cuddle and adore them. These birds delight in having their crests stroked and will often elicit attention by lowering their head. Many female cockatoos will demonstrate orgasmic panting and shak-ing while caressed by owners. The significance of this behavior is often missed by owners who may interpret it as anything from a seizure to a sinus infection. Owners who have been warned about the risks of behavioral problems and feather picking that may result from a lack of attention are often dev-astated to see these behaviors develop in their pets.
The role of physical contact in most adult birds is reserved for courting and breeding behav-iors. It is not surprising to find that species that crave physical attention as pets are the same ones that incorporate more physical contact into their courtship rituals. Indeed the crest of cockatoos has been conjectured to be an important lure. Designed to be viewed in profile, the cockatoo crest is truly an emotive signal. The bowing and head lowering behaviors commonly demonstrated by cockatoos are likely signals between the male and female. These signals probably serve to synchronize the be-haviors of the female and male to time nesting, copulation and ovulation. The remedy, of course, is to decrease physical contact with susceptible birds. As these patterns are often very difficult for pet owners to break, efforts must be made to frame the change in understandable terms. Unfortunately, most owners will only start to listen once degenerative signs develop. Offering alternative ways of en-riching the bird's life and environment are essential to success. See clicker training, exercise and feeding.
Contrasting the patterns of food gathering in wild parrots with the feeding styles of pet parrots reveals important and dramatic information. Foraging is thought to occupy a considerable part of every wild parrots day. Even considering environments such as rain forests where food is relatively abundant, parrots have been observed spending considerable time locating and foraging for food. Some biologists have hypothesized that the impressive capacity of the parrot to learn and remember may have evolved in response to the need to locate, recognize and time consumption of a huge vari-ety of foods spread out over considerable distances. When this is coupled with the reasonable expec-tation that many parrots will be triggered to breed by seasonally abundant food supplies, the impact on companion parrots of regularly delivered meals is immense.
When contrasted with wild parrots, the accepted tradition of two or three daily meals prepared and delivered, often augmented with treats and goodies, leaves little else to do during the day but di-gest. Companion parrots are notorious for disrupting meal times, as they demand favorite morsels from the table. Equipped with persuasive volume, most parrots quickly train their humans to deliver the goods. Soon the bird is selecting and eating favorite foods. As many owners think their bird will balance its own diet and life is easier at table times when the bird is happy, many birds end up eating the foods that feel best going down. Bread, rice, pasta, sweets and butter have universal appeal but will not nourish a parrot in a manner that will provide sustainable health.
Many simple methods can remedy these common problems. Varying the foods offered and feeding only the amounts consumed can simplify life and result in a healthier bird. Organic formulated diets can deliver nourishing fare easily and quickly. Supplementation with organic vegetables offers variety. As birds typically feed twice a day, early morning and late afternoon, meal-feeding for a finite time (one to two hours) twice a day can have numerous benefits. Meal-feeding restores one more facet to the regular periodicity observed in wild parrots. Meal feeding avoids a lot of waste and seems to return food to a mode of sustenance instead of entertainment. Techniques that encourage foraging are becoming more popular. Hiding morsels of food among rocks in a bowl can keep a parrot thinking and moving. Stainless steel skewers offer a handy way to hang vegetables. Careful timing of feeding times can turn a loud morning or evening "power hour" into a quiet mealtime.
Parrots have evolved to fly. Most of the unique physiologic adaptations of a bird are geared to this very physical activity. Flight demands vigorous health. From physical structure to mechanisms of gas exchange in their respiratory system birds, including parrots, are all about flight. The drive to ex-ercise is seen in companion birds. Many aviculturists advise allowing a young bird to successfully fledge as an important developmental milestone. Certainly flight in most homes is indeed more haz-ardous than a physically unchallenging sedentary life, but the fact remains that real sustainable health in parrots requires exercise and physical conditioning. Flight can be taught to any bird. Taking off is innate, landing and navigating are learned. The opportunity to fly can sometimes be offered in the home, or outdoor enclosures can offer an alternative. Techniques teaching recall and navigation as a part of free flight are available. There is no doubt that allowing flight is risky in many or most situations and owners should educate themselves thoroughly before choosing this option. Whether exercised indoors or outdoors, clipped or flighted, physical activity is imperative for sustainable health. The lack of exercise in most companion parrots lives must be considered to be a significant risk factor itself for sustainable health.
Clicker training has emerged as a very easy and rewarding way to enhance the life and learn-ing in many animals. When the clicker is used with a food reward to develop new lines of communica-tion between a parrot owner and a bird, the capacity of the bird to learn is usually astounding. Most owners can be trained to teach simple behaviors quickly and easily. The real beauty of this technique is that it offers redirection of attention towards learning and exercise. Clicker training has the potential to replace quality-shared time between an owner and a parrot with skills and learning instead of cud-dling when circumstances make that necessary.
Like so many traditions of pet parrot care, the notion of an enriched environment has become static even though the results of these recommendations have not resulted in long-term success. The notion of consistent cage arrangement, regular abundant foods chosen by preference instead of nutri-tive value and quality time usually consisting of late nights and cuddling, has likely contributed in a major way in undermining the chances of a long term successful pet relationship. Replacing these old notions with methods that have replaced degenerative conditions with sustainable health should be easy. Developing ways to succinctly present alternatives backed up with real information about the natural history and innate behavioral tendencies of companion parrots could change the lives of birds - and their owners - dramatically.
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Avian reproductive behaviors observed in the wild......such as pair bonding, courtship regurgitation, cavity seeking, nest building, territorial ag...