Parrots Have Feelings Too

Pete Wedderburn
8th June 2020 - 7 min read

One of the biggest challenges of my job as a vet is that my patients can’t talk to me. Every day I encounter an animal with a vague disorder which is impossible to define precisely. I would love to be able to ask “where is it sore?” or “what are you feeling?” My job would be far easier in some ways, although perhaps some doctors wish that their human patients would talk a little less.  The job of a vet is purer in some ways: there’s no distraction from false information being given.

Bird Vet Specialist

There is one group of patients in my clinic that do talk: parrots, and other similar types of bird. I don’t specialise in this area, and with cases that are complicated, I will usually refer them to a vet who has a particular interest in avian health and disease. But there are some old regulars that I have seen for years, and I will continue to see them as a first care giver, even if I need to send them on to the specialist at some point.

African Grey Parrot

Charlie is a good example. He’s an African Grey parrot who is now twenty five years old. I got to know his owner through his dog originally: a lovely Doberman who died of heart disease at the age of only nine. His owner, Bren, was so devastated at the loss of his dog that he vowed never to get another. And then he chose an African Grey parrot as his next pet partly because he knew that the bird’s life expectancy could be up to sixty years. He’s still hoping that he’ll outlive Charlie so that the bird will end up grieving for the man, rather than the other way around. Or perhaps they’ll go together, their simultaneous demise denying all possibility of grief.

Intelligent Birds

Charlie was a hand reared parrot, bred in captivity. African Greys are highly intelligent birds, and perhaps their most remarkable attribute is the fact that they can mimic human speech. Charlie started to talk soon after arriving in Bren’s house, and he soon had a rich vocabulary, with a range of words, phrases, and idioms, in a variety of accents. Bren was convinced that Charlie knew what words meant, and to listen to him, it certainly seemed that way.

Talking Parrot

So when Bren took out the car keys, Charlie would shout “Where are you going?”, then he’d whistle the tune of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. When Bren came back, Charlie would say “I know where you’ve been, you naughty boy”. In the evenings, Charlie would say “What’s on tv?” or “Have you got my dinner ready yet” or “Is it nearly time for bed?” Of course, sceptics would say that Bren was accidentally teaching Charlie to say these phrases by giving him specific clues (such as jangling car keys) and then rewarding him with praise and attention when he said the right words. But to anyone witnessing Charlie talking, it was difficult not to believe that the bird knew exactly what was going on around him.

Charlie was unusually close to Bren: he even slept on his bed. This started when the bird was young: he was restless and agitated when left in his cage, and Bren discovered that he settled quickly if allowed out to fly around the bedroom. When Bren switched off the light to go to sleep, Charlie fluttered down to his bed, settling down on the top of the duvet, and tucking his head under his wing to sleep.

Toilet Trained

Charlie didn’t always have to talk to let Bren know what he wanted. One of his party pieces happened regularly in the middle of the night. Charlie would wake Bren up by striding up to his pillow, then using his beak to gently tweak the end of his nose. Once Bren was awake, Charlie fluttered his wings in front of him, and Bren knew exactly what had to be done. He allowed Charlie to perch on his hand while he turned on the light, and went from the bedroom to the bathroom. He then extended one finger, holding it above the open toilet. Charlie balanced on the finger and aimed his droppings straight down the pan. Many mothers would wish that their children could aim as well and be as neat and tidy about their toileting as this smart bird. Bren could never recall how this bizarre but useful behaviour started: it was just something that Charlie had learned to do.

Parrot Husbandry

The first fifteen years of life together for Charlie and Bren went smoothly: Bren had read up all about parrot husbandry, so he had the bird on a top quality diet, and he paid attention to his psychological needs, spending time training him to do small tricks, as well as playing with toys together. Charlie was one of the highlights of Bren’s life. He used to come in every year for an annual health check when I’d take bloods to review his routine biochemistry and haematology. The blood sampling was slightly surreal. When I took out the syringe and needle, Charlie said “Uh-oh”, moving back to hide inside his owner’s jacket. I took the blood sample from the inside of one of his legs, and Charlie gave me a running commentary as I did this. “Stop Stop Stop Stop” he shouted as I inserted the needle, and then “Owwww” in a loud shriek as the blood flowed. It was unnerving, but I knew that the bird didn’t really mind, as he always allowed me to do the procedure without struggling. There are many birds that would need to be chemically sedated for blood sampling because they’d be so nervous and agitated about the procedure.

Charlie’s blood results were always normal, which Bren found reassuring: he had the bird’s nutrition and health care fine tuned so that was as good as it could be. Charlie’s crisis started when something simple yet traumatic happened: Bren had a girlfriend. Jade was a glamorous blonde woman in her thirties who met Bren through his hobby of playing bridge. She started to come round to play cards with Bren, and they were soon spending more and more time together. Bren had been worried about how Charlie would take this new social aspect to his life. He had expected shrieks of abuse or fluttering skydives in an attempt to fluster Jade. To his surprise, Charlie reacted in a far more worrying way. He went completely quiet. Whenever Jade arrived in the house, Charlie would return to his cage, turn his back to the room, and go silent. Bren tried to get him to talk or sing or interact, as he was proud of his friendly bird. But Charlie refused to engage completely. It was only when Jade left the building that Charlie would liven up again, starting off with a loud wolf whistle before chattering inanities.

Jealous Bird

Bren persuaded Jade, who was nervous about birds, to try to engage with Charlie, equipping her with treats to offer him, and getting her to sit quietly beside his cage to try to placate him. Charlie, however, completely refused to interact.

As time passed, Bren and Jade grew closer, eventually deciding that it was time to share a home. Jade moved in, and at this stage, Bren was even more worried about how the bird would react. He hoped that Charlie would simply accustomise to the situation, returning to his normal cheerful self, but in fact, the reverse happened. Charlie withdrew completely, sitting in his cage all day, refusing to talk even when Jade wasn’t there. It was as if he was depressed. He even started to pick at his food instead of eating hungrily as normal, and he began to lose weight. Bren brought him to me to see if something could be done.

Bird Behaviour

I started by repeating the routine blood tests. This time, for the first time ever, Charlie was silent as I collected my sample. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the bloods had come back showing that he had some sort of virus. He really wasn’t himself at all. In fact, the bloods were normal, as they had always been. Yet it was distressing to see Charlie the way he was: he was clearly not a happy bird.

I discussed his case online on a parrot discussion board for vets. There are some vets who specialise in bird behaviour and their advice to me was simple: this bird is depressed and he needs to be treated for this disorder.

Treatment For A Depressed Bird

How do you treat a depressed bird? The starting point was not dissimilar to advice for a human: anti-depressant medication and one-to-one talking therapy.

I started Charlie onto a low dose of Valium (diazepam), given as fragments of tablet hidden in a chunk of banana.  I also prescribed “talking therapy” which seemed strange for a bird that was refusing to talk. What this meant, in practice, was that Bren had to spend half an hour, twice daily, specifically engaging with Charlie. He bought some new toys, and read up about some new tricks to teach Charlie.

For the first week of the treatment regime, both Bren and myself felt a little foolish. Were we out of our minds, treating a parrot like a depressed human? Then to the surprise of both of us, Charlie began to improve. It started with an increased appetite: he began to nudge Bren with his beak, looking for more when he’d scoffed all the grapes he’d been given. And from then, he began to talk more, using some of the same languages that he’d used in the past. The chatting started during the one-to-one sessions with Bren, but Charlie soon began to talk randomly, throughout the day. He was still reticent about Jade flying back to his cage when she came into the room, and grumbling quietly, almost under his breath, rather than talking loudly. But on the advice of the specialist, Jade started to take part in the daily training sessions, and it was as if Charlie gradually learned to like her. Within a couple of months of his treatment regime starting, Charlie was fully back to his old self, and I was able to reduce, then to stop, his valium medication.