Lonely pet birds parrot human lifestyle ailments

Abizarre combination of loneliness, space shortage and the sheer gorgeousness of exotic avians has resulted in a new epidemic—bird depression. Other than mental illness, these birds are also being diagnosed with human lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

A growing number of people are adopting exotic birds as pets, prefering them to dogs and cats because they are easier to manage in small flats. The popular choices are African grey parrots (average cost Rs 40,000), Australian cockatoos, South American macaws (both for around Rs 1 lakh)—all known for their incredible colours and their ability to chatter. But many of these birds are ending up with human-like medical conditions. Avian vets have ramped up their clinics to include equipment such as bird ICUs–specially designed temperature-controlled intensive care units for these fine feathered creatures.

“People find that birds are easier to keep,” says Dr Shiwani Tandel, an avian vet, adding that rich lonely people also find it comforting because the bird can talk. Exotic birds live up to 60 and 70 years, so they become life-long companions. They have the intelligence of a four- to six-year-old toddler, and they can recognize and respond to people. “I used to clip the nails and trim the wings of this African grey. Whenever I entered the house he would chime, ‘naughty girl, go away!’ so he knew exactly who I was,” says Dr Tandel.

Catering to these bird-lovers is an enormous number of bird breeders all over the country, who keep hundreds, even thousands, of birds in their aviaries and farmhouses, says Dr Tandel, whose avian training took her to the Dubai Falcon Hospital, where she witnessed bird obsession on another level. The Indian wildlife laws apply only to indigenous birds. There is no law to prevent the breeding and sale of foreign birds. The biggest aviaries are in Kolkata and Chennai. Some breeders want to have a bird of every colour; or they might obsess over a particular species.

Since these birds are bred in captivity, they have never experienced “normal” birdie activities such as foraging for food or soaring into the open skies. If they were to be left outside, they would scarcely cope, and would probably die. Considering that they get their food in captivity, they don’t need to expend any energy. Sheer boredom and a lack of activity often leads to depression.

Vets say a happy bird will clean and preen its feathers. But when a bird is depressed or lonely or bored or sexually deprived, it takes to obsessive self-preening, plucking its own feathers and causing itself pain to get some adrenalin rush–much like a depressed self-destructive human might behave.There are various ways in which the depressed birds are treated. Since these birds are intelligent, and need a lot of attention, owners are advised to spend more time with them or find other ways to stimulate them, by leaving the television or radio on or keeping mirrors inside the cage. There are special toys and puzzles to help the bird cope. Homeopathy is supposed to work very well. “If it is a very complex case, then you have to use mood-elevating drugs,” says avian vet Dr Henna Ganjwala. She describes the case of an African parrot which had serious anger-management issues as soon as it realized that its owner wanted to give it up for adoption.

Besides mental illness, vets are finding birds coming to them for ailments ranging from cancer to diabetes to heart disease. “The problems occur not because people don’t care for the birds–they are adored as if they were family–but because of the lack of knowledge about how to handle them,” says Dr Ganjwala. “Yesterday, I had a patient–a metallic blue and gold macaw–called Toto. His owner had brought him in all the way from Ratnagiri. That’s how much he cared.”

Problems occur when the pet owner feeds the birds human food like roti or pasta which the bird cannot digest. Even if the birds are given bird food formula, it has to be at the right temperature. If it is too hot, the bird can suffer ‘crop burn’–or tissue burn, and if too cold, it gets ‘crop stasis’ which is similar to constipation.
Christopher Liang, a bird enthusiast and breeder, says, “In the end, whatever pet you keep, you must understand what the pet is all about. It’s a life, after all, and it is a life in your hands.”


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