Flight Restriction Impacts Parrots Mental Health

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Clipping or “trimming” wings affects more than just a bird’s feathers or even its body.

Psychological well-being is, in many ways, just as important as physical well-being, as flight is a parrot’s primary means of locomotion. Thus, flight is its most natural way of responding to motivations and coping with its environment.

The inability to respond to basic motivations due to anatomical restriction can lead to stress and the development of stereotypies, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and self-mutilation.

These kinds of behaviours can include pacing, rocking, screaming, feather-picking, and even biting.

Birds who are clipped often perform behaviours and postures that indicate they have the urge to fly, but their owners may not recognise them as such. Some people argue that a bird clipped before fledging, who has never flown, “doesn’t know he can’t fly and doesn’t miss it”. How can you miss something you’ve never experienced? Simple: if it is an instinctual behaviour which you have been genetically programmed to do.

Animals—and humans–respond to stressful situations in a number of different ways. There are active coping strategies, such as fight or flight, and passive coping strategies, such as conservative withdrawal.

Parrots are prey animals. It is in their nature to respond to threats by literally taking flight.

When fleeing from a stressful situation is not possible, an animal who would typically choose flight may resort to fighting instead, much like the clipped birds who bite in situations where they would naturally be inclined to fly away. Some birds, depending upon their individual histories and personalities, may choose to surrender rather than fight when flight is not possible. A human might clip a fearful bird’s wings and assume that “tameness” has been achieved once the bird stops trying to get away. What has actually occurred is that the bird has entered a state of learned helplessness. Like I explained in my section on early development, learned helplessness is a condition where an animal or person is first confronted by inescapable stress or pain. Then, later on, even if it would be possible for them to escape the stress or pain, they don’t make any attempt to.

A bird in such a situation, who has given up on trying to actively avoid the source of its stress, might resort to a passive coping strategy. Passive coping strategies are associated with much higher levels of anxiety than active ones.

A bird who is able to choose the very natural and active coping strategy of flight, therefore, tends to be less anxious and more secure.

Have you ever heard someone say that their bird is “better-behaved” while clipped? Trimming wings does not address unwanted behaviours; it seeks to circumvent and ignore them by forcing the bird into a state of physical dependence and psychological submission. Naturally, if a human is a bird’s only means of transportation—the only way to move throughout its environment, to escape the monotony of a perch, to see and do things—many birds in such a situation will eventually cooperate. Even if the bird is still inclined to bite certain individuals, as long as it cannot fly across the room to attack anyone, most people are content. And yet, what might an animal be experiencing psychologically when it ceases to be aggressive simply because it has lost all choice and control? What if the source of its aggression is past trauma, a stressor in its environment, or even hormonal urges exacerbated by inappropriate husbandry, yet the human has chosen to handicap it rather than address the root of the behaviour? What does it mean for us to take a highly intelligent animal and decide that it cannot even be afforded the ability to move normally within the confines of a single room? Studies have shown that any kind of active coping strategy can help relieve stress, even if it’s fighting with another animal, biting something, or self-grooming. It is not outlandish, therefore, to think that clipped birds may indeed experience stress because of their restricted mobility and that many undesirable behaviours, like plucking and biting, could be at least partially instigated by the need for active coping strategies.

To quote an article published in the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, “It is an accurate oversimplification to say that most behavioural FDB [feather destructive behaviour] is related to a reductive environment over which the bird has little or no control.”

There are many factors which can contribute to the development of this disorder, but the loss of flight does carry with it a significant loss of control which infringes upon a bird’s ability to respond to motivations and cope with its environment. One study on African greys found that birds who were unable to fly were five times more likely to engage in feather-picking behaviour.

Another study did not find a statistically significant relationship between clipped wings and feather-picking, but it did find that cockatoos from pet stores were six times more likely to feather-pick than those from private breeders. The authors hypothesised that this could be due to factors such as lack of stimulation in the pet store environment.

Given that the avian brain has evolved to respond to the visual processing challenges associated with flight, and that regions responsible for spatial and pattern discrimination reach higher activity levels during flight, it seems reasonable to assume that a truly flighted lifestyle would promote higher levels of brain stimulation.

Merely having unclipped wings does not necessarily imply a flighted lifestyle, either. An unclipped bird may be kept under circumstances which allow for precious little flight opportunity. Many pet birds are clipped before fledging, which hampers their willingness and ability to fly later in life, particularly if they are larger or heavy-bodied birds like the cockatoos and African greys used in the aforementioned study. Therefore, the relationship between flight restriction and FDB may not be uncovered on the basis of clipped versus unclipped wings alone, though there is a physical component to the clipped feathers that may serve as a gateway to this disorder. Dr. Marie Kubiak, specialist in zoo and wildlife medicine, points out that the discomfort caused by clipped feather ends rubbing against a bird’s body can serve as a trigger for FDB, and that trimming wings “compromises flight, an essential parrot behaviour”.

There are countless stories of people clipping their flighted birds and immediately noticing a personality change. Owners of these birds usually describe them as depressed. Sadly, when people in this position ask for help, they are often met with comments insisting that the bird will “get over it” and to “just give it time”. If you gradually learned to cope with a new injury or disability, would it be fair to say that you “got over it” and that you didn’t ever want your mobility back? A case study on an eight-year-old cockatiel presented for lethargy, watery droppings, and decreased appetite revealed, after blood tests and X-rays, that the bird was not suffering from a disease. The bird’s owner had recently requested a nail trim at a pet store and, not surprisingly, the employee had also clipped his wings as a matter of routine, even though the owner had not requested it. The veterinarians suspected that the bird’s muscle enzyme elevations were due to attempting to fly and crashing into the ground again and again, while his elevated glucose and watery droppings were likely due to stress. This is the manner in which a bird is expected to “get over” its new handicap: repeatedly failing at executing a natural behaviour until it gives up trying.

I wanted to discuss animal welfare in this section because mental and emotional health, not just physical health, are now considered major criteria for evaluating how well an animal is doing in a captive environment. Strategies for keeping animals in captivity are progressively including more and more considerations for natural behaviours and habitats and, as well as the element of choice, to provide the best conditions possible. Researchers have found that offering animals choices has positive effects, decreasing both stress and the incidence of abnormal behaviours, even if the animals don’t act on the choices provided. A 2018 guide on zoo animal welfare recommends that enclosures “provide for a range of species-appropriate behaviours (e.g., flight, swimming, climbing, and digging)”.

A 2014 paper in the International Zoo Yearbook stresses that “…there is a growing trend towards providing animals with more naturalistic settings that allow and encourage them to perform species-specific behaviours to the greatest degree possible. This evolution necessitates holding flying birds in aviaries, because only when birds are kept full winged are they able to exhibit a reasonable representation of their behavioural repertoire correctly.” Our birds may live with us rather than in zoos, but they are still wild animals. They are still naturally flighted animals. Trimming wings may appear acceptable because it is so common, but there are countless ways we used to keep wild animals in captivity–which seemed perfectly appropriate to people at the time–which are no longer considered legitimate. Trimming wings may also appear acceptable because the birds “seem fine”—but animal welfare can be very poor even in the absence of obvious behavioural signs. Thus, we cannot know the full extent of psychological stress a bird experiences due to the restriction or deprivation of flight, but it would be absurd to assume that one of the planet’s most intelligent animals is content without its mobility. As I said in my section “Built For Flight“: do we really need a study to prove that flight should be an indispensable facet of a naturally flighted bird’s life in captivity.

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