Can Birds Lose Their Minds?

Credit: Chris Khamken, Flickr Creative Commons
Simon & Schuster
Credit: William Warby, Wikimedia Commons

Can Birds Lose Their Minds?

Laurel Braitman dishes on her new book, “Animal Madness.”   

By Chelsea Harvey
Published: 08/05/2014

Feather-plucking parrots, suicidal dolphins, and anxious gorillas: these are the characters that populate Laurel Braitman's new book, "Animal Madness." Inspired by her own experiences with a neurotic pet dog, Braitman traveled the world exploring the complex psychology and emotions of the animals around us, describing her encounters with a variety of troubled critters and the people who care for them. Interspersed with historical accounts of disturbed animals and the latest research into what causes and solves their behaviors, Braitman's experiences offer some insight: maybe humans and animals aren't so different after all.

Braitman recently spoke with Audubon about what she learned while reporting and writing "Animal Madness."

Simon & Schuster

Audubon: Throughout the book, you encounter many interesting people and animals. What was your favorite bird encounter?

Laurel Braitman: One parrot expert--she was actually a breeder for a really long time, but now she fields questions online about parrot behavior. Her house has become a way station or a retirement home for a lot of birds that can't be released into the wild, who were either in abusive situations or not, and that have been retired. She had a realization 15-20 years in as a parrot breeder that she really shouldn't be breeding birds in captivity--she couldn't keep them happy. So she created an open door policy for all of the birds she once bred--whatever the case, she would accept them back with open wings. And she has.

I really don't think we should have parrots as pets--I think it's too hard to replicate their wild environment--but now we have some, maybe millions, of parrots living in captivity who can't be reintroduced, and so what do you do? So [Phoebe Greene Linden] kind of "halfway houses" it, where parrots can lead the most parroty lives without being free, but they have enough mental stimulation, they socialize, they exercise.

A: Can you talk about some of the patterns you've seen? What are some of the most common problems you've witnessed, and what do you think are their causes?

LB: I think we should talk about birds as individuals. We tend to talk to about humans at the individual level and everybody else at the species levels. What sends one bird down the path to emotional distress is really not going to stress out another bird.

Plucked macaw
Credit: William Warby, Wikimedia Commons

Two birds I wrote about are macaws. One of them was named Charlie. She's actually in the animal suicide chapter because she developed a really self-destructive behavior, but the birds around her did not. She started plucking in the wake of the death of her main human. Feather-picking isn't always a sign of emotional distress, but it usually is. It's related to human OCD-type behavior.

Every bird, just like every person, is totally different. One bird may start plucking after the loss of a mate, another may only pluck during thunderstorms.

A: In all of your research, have you ever witnessed this kind of behavior in wild populations?

LB: I never found someone who could tell me definitely whether they've seen any wild birds develop plucking compulsions. Part of that is because in order to be observed, you have to be spending a lot of time with a very particular flock of birds, which is difficult.

They tend to do it when something's wrong. More things tend to be wrong in captivity, but that's not necessarily always the case. Certainly wild birds are exposed to all kinds of stress, so it's likely that they also develop their own little forms of abnormal behavior, but it's hard to know.

A: Would you have any advice for birders who might witness self-destructive or disturbed behavior in a wild bird? Is there anything that can be done?

LB: That's a good question. I don't know, I honestly think that if you were going to call Fish and Wildlife and report a few cases of necrophilic geese, I think they would actually laugh at you.

A: Do you believe that captivity in and of itself is what provokes a lot of these disturbed behaviors in the animals?

LB: I do, but I also think it's more complex than that. I don't think that mental distress is always a function of captivity, and that's especially true when you look at domestic animals whose natural environment is to be with us. I wouldn't say that a dog or cat is captive, and many of them wind up with problems who have never been mistreated.

A: At the end of your book, you leave the reader with some ideas for how we can change the way we live. What are your hopes for the future?

LB: Some people have to stay inside to read my book--they're reading it on a device. What I really hope is that it's only our generations that's obsessed with these tiny devices and technology. A good friend told me the other day she thinks that "looking it up" has replaced "looking up." I think that's so unfortunate, particularly for those of us interested in bird life.

I don't want to see us become even more divorced from nature. Getting curious about the emotional lives of other animals is one way to do that. Curiosity is the best thing about being a human being. I hope this stuff makes people more likely to put down the device and to go outside and start to look up.

A: Is there any kind of general strategy for helping an animal who is obviously sad or distressed?

LB: First of all, I would try and make sure that you've ruled out any physical problems. Once they've been checked out, you've made sure it's not an allergy or disease or infection, then it really depends on the animal that you're trying to cheer up.

Definitely distraction works--it's not a cure-all, but it's one of many things. A lot of birds are getting psycho-pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. That can sometimes be helpful to help a bird through a particularly rough spot. I'm not a big fan of using those drugs as a final solution, but sometimes that creature is so anxious or scared or upset that you can't even distract them with a new friend or favorite new toy or snack, and if that's the case sometimes that's the direct help.

It's remarkable the power of friendship, or even giving somebody an enemy. That takes a lot of energy and can distract from doing things like hurting ourselves. Exercise, always. Interesting things in your environment. Novelty. Sex. It really runs the gambit, and in that way it's so similar to us--what works to rouse someone from a deep depression or from a crippling anxiety disorder is not going to work on someone else. You really have to do the work to understand the individual animal you're trying to help.

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Chelsea Harvey

Chelsea Harvey is a freelance writer with a special interest in wildlife conservation. Follow her on Twitter @chelseaharvey91.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


To say that feather

To say that feather destruction in parrots is "usually" psychological is irresponsible. In the majority of cases there is some underlying medical problem, sometimes as simple as inflammation of the follicles or due to poor diet. Now, as the thousands(?) of bird owners read this and see your remark they won't even bother to get it checked out by an avian vet because "oh, it's just emotional"

I believe the author did say

I believe the author did say that you should always get the bird medically checked first to ensure there is no underlying medical problem causing the bird to pluck.

I think I might have observed

I think I might have observed feather plucking with a wild duck. He was young, about four or five months old, and his mother and siblings just separated. I think another, bigger duck was picking on him and might have pulled out a few feathers in the smaller duck's chest. The smaller duck kept pulling at feathers around that area on his chest, making a bare patch. The bigger duck, I think, ended up breaking the smaller duck's wing, eventually, in a fight.

When the bigger duck died, all the feather plucking stopped.

Great read. I started

Great read. I started rescuing parrots in 1989 and immediately tried to educate people and especially the breeders of what harm WE humans are doing to these birds we've put into captivity. I was abruptly ignored, hated, and unliked. Needless to say, that didn't stop me. If I had journaled my speaking engagements, I, too, might be liked today as is so many who are now preaching what the preacher taught 25 YEARS ago! But, HAPPY to say that the word is out and everyone is preaching the TRUTH without disrespect, hate, being hugely,unliked, and now it's being accepted all over the world. I'm not saying that I'm the only one to have started this teaching, but certainly was one of the first, if not the first in the US. We incorporated as a 502(c)3 in 1994. It was a timely and strenuous elscapade dealing with the IRS, but finally, now, more of us have an easier road to accomplish this task. Let's all keep up the great work, and I do mean work. PS: I still suffer from the hurt people have piled upon me for so many years. I am undecided if I should name myself or not.

Words cannot express how

Words cannot express how grateful we in the parrot rescue/sanctuary are to see parrots joining chimpanzees, elephants, etc. in the recognition of their high intelligence and their potential to suffer in captivity. Thank you for this book and for the coverage of this issue in this article. As a parrot sanctuary we at Foster Parrots have long believed that way too many parrots suffer from captivity to justify their continued imprisonment for human gratification.

Thank you,

I had a severe macaw that

I had a severe macaw that started plucking out its feathers during the night time one day. I was working nights & it was my habit to go out on our patio to change on Chico. I saw all these feathers, blood & it's tail feather pulled out. I was able to locate an aviary vet from a zoo it short order in the next town, whom helped out Severe Macaw to recover. Though we did not determine what caused the bird into this behavior, it way touch & go for a week. She almost needed a blood transfusion. I had met a man that had a bird sanctuary & he thought it may be related to the "call of the wild" & captivity & the fact I was have my own babies & these birds usually become very close to their owners & my attention was on our babies. Not sure though.

birds are just like people in

birds are just like people in many ways -- for example, scientists study birds to learn more about vision, perception, learning and memory, just to name a few big research areas. since a number of studies have found that 50% of the adult human population in the USA suffers from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives, and since a large number of them suffer chronic mental illness, i would argue that it is illogical to think that parrots and passerines are significantly different, whether living in the wild or in captivity. so i argue that "mentally ill" (feather-destroying) parrots and other birds are likely killed in the wild before they reach maturity, or a crisis point in their lives, whereas captive birds almost always reach adulthood. (the mortality rate amongst wild birds is actually quite high, with a minority of chicks actually reaching adulthood.)

I think that the environment

I think that the environment that the parrot lives in has a major impact on its mental state, the same as humans. One of the major contributors to mental health disorders (mainly depression) in humans is their lifestyle; long hours at work indoors and little (if any) time off and vacations. It's not how the human race has evolved for thousands of years and we are thus, poorly adapted to such a lifestyle. Take a parrot out of its natural environment and it stands to reason that it can't find the same mental stimulation it could in the wild. It's not far fetched to think that that could easily lead to mental disorders.

i've definitely added your

i've definitely added your book to my must-read-and-review list! i am also eagerly awaiting your interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC this thursday!

Looking forward to reading

Looking forward to reading your book! Parrots have been in my life for more than 50 years and I used to breed them. But the more I learned, the more I realized that parrots do not make good pets. This can be witnessed by visiting any sanctuary in the United States. They are at capacity, mostly with cockatoos and macaws. Yet the breeders don't stop! They introduce upwards of one million more birds into the marketplace EVERY YEAR. Most parrots will have a minimum of three homes in their lifetimes, and their last home often will be a rescue/sanctuary. We have the ability to stop this, but breeders care too much for the almighty dollar. They will tell you they do it because they love birds or because it's for conservation. But exploitation is NOT love, and it's not conservation if the birds are living in people's living rooms.

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