For years, Casper the African grey lived happily alongside DOT SCHWARZ’s other parrots. Then suddenly he grew depressed and plucked his flight feathers. Why?
I’ve been proud of Casper, my African grey. He lives an enriched life for a captive parrot. He has human and bird companionship, a conservatory indoors and an aviary outside. He enjoys a varied diet. So what went wrong? What caused him to pluck his primary and secondary wing feathers so that he was unable to fly?
I enjoy showing off my well-socialised African greys. Artha hatched in 1999 and Casper 18 months later. They’ve always been friends. Artha met Casper at their joint breeder’s house before he was weaned. I had a bird on each shoulder. Artha hopped across my back and groomed the baby’s eyelashes. The first night we brought him home some weeks later, the two birds insisted on sharing a cage. However, they’ve never bonded to the point of mating.
A large part of my life is organised to please the birds. My kids have left home. I teach part time and spend most of my free time either in the conservatory where the four pet birds live, or the aviary where I have 20 more birds. Parrots have become my main interest. My husband claims the birds eat better than he does. (No comment.)
Casper and Artha share pet life with Perdy and Lily, two lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo (LSC) hens. They live uncaged in the conservatory and are in the house when it is their “out” time. Most evenings we watch television together. The large aviary, built in six interconnecting sections, is mostly DIY. In warm weather Artha and Casper share it with various rescues, rehomes and birds that I’ve bought for unsound reasons like wanting a bird that colour.
Last May, Artha, Casper and I were invited to a Parrot Society seminar at Tywford Zoo. The greys listened to eight presentations, including mine – apart from Casper giving his wild bird calls recital during one vet’s presentation. They were admired by participants for their willingness to step up to strangers. Casper did fly onto one bald gentleman’s head, but that was someone he knew already. I showed Malcolm Green of Birdcare Company that Casper had pulled a few chest feathers. Malcolm suggested an accelerated course of calcium for six weeks, five days on and two days off. Casper did not enjoy the syringe of Calcivet mixed with orange juice but, well behaved as he is, accepted it.
In the aviary, my two pairs of rescue orange-winged Amazons – Basil and Cybil, and Archie and Lena – have separate flights. On occasion, the section doors are open and the birds mingle with the pet parrots and parakeets. I usually keep the two pairs of Amazons separate in spring, though they’ve never bred successfully.
One morning, the young Amazons’ flight door was opened by mistake. Casper and Basil fought. I found Casper on the ground, bleeding, but not seriously wounded. I kept him inside for a day and when he next went to the aviary I kept Basil’s flight door closed. Casper and Basil made angry-sounding noises at one another.
After the calcium treatment was finished, Casper had a blood test, which gave a calcium count that was low, but within normal limits. I told the vet that Casper did not swing on his special swing or give his wild bird concert – he seemed depressed. A physical examination showed nothing amiss.
Some back story is relevant here. For most of his 10 years, Casper has been top bird in both house and aviary. However, in September 2007, Vernon Timneh arrived as an aviary companion for Timi. Within a year, Vernon had established an ascendancy over the rest of the birds and would expect Casper to vacate a perch. However, they never fought. The aviary is more than 30m (98ft) long when all the sections are open, so there is enough room for any fit flying bird to vacate the space of another. (Vernon did not mate with Timi either, but that’s another story.)
The next week I took the four pet birds out in the carrier and let them out in the aviary. I came to fetch them in the evening. Casper had apparently remained in the box all day. Once indoors, I checked him over. When I stretched out his wings I could barely believe it – both wings had been chewed to under half their length. Casper had rendered himself flightless.
Next day, the vet pulled out as many stubs as he could under anaesthetic and left the shortened primaries. I asked everyone for advice on the telephone, by emails and by visits. Everyone who knew Casper was as astonished as I was. I took the advice, and dusted flour on his wings to discourage plucking, gave him regular calcium and flax seed oil, and kept him with me as much as I could.
I took him to a local art show, wearing his harness as usual. Before this plucking behaviour Casper had enjoyed meeting new people. His posture was alert – he’d make that wheep sound that greys do. But that evening he remained mute on my shoulder, his head tucked under his wing.
By now, the amputated stubs were growing through and Casper wasn’t plucking them. But then one evening he squeezed through a tiny gap in the window and vanished.
He could not have got far, since he could only fly six or seven metres. Yet when I went round and round the garden whistling like a demented banshee, with harnessed Artha on my shoulder, no contact call was returned. Then at 5.30am next day, a wheep came back from one of the oaks behind the aviary. Casper climbed half way down the huge oak trunk and flew back to me. Joy – but his garden jaunts were over.
As the secondary feathers regrew, Casper still pulled a little on his chest. We were into September by this time. I was reluctant to believe that his plucking was behavioural, but what physical cause could be found? The vet agreed to make further more detailed blood tests. Once again, the results were normal. We then tried a skin biopsy – could there be some underlying infection? No, there wasn’t. We could go on and do an endoscopy, but we both agreed: why run the small risk attached to an anaesthetic procedure when there were no obvious physical symptoms?
While Casper was flightless, he appeared more timid than he had been. Once the feathers regrew, he regained his old personality. Now, for the past seven years, Artha has shown signs of wanting to mate. She has a pretend nest box in the linen cupboard. She and Casper, although they’ll preen and eat from the same bowl, never roost together. Since the frightful occasion when Casper fell into the bath and almost drowned while trying to mount her (he was 30 months old at the time), he’s rarely tried to mate with her. However, for about one week this autumn she grew snappy and chased him onto the floor of the conservatory. I found Casper hiding from her in a corner. Then she too went back to normal.
I can only suppose Casper’s weird self-mutilation was hormone-driven, possibly sparked off by the attack from Basil the Amazon. I am open to any other suggestions.
Dot Schwarz has kept parrots and parrots for many years, and is particularly interested in positive reinforcement training.