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The Fundamental Aspect of Care:
Bathing the Psittacine

Donna Hefton

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Mankind has been keeping parrots in captivity for thousands of years. Quite recently a change in attitude has developed and we are beginning to examine the fundamental needs of these creatures with which we share our lives. We are now concerned with proper diets, cage dimensions, toys, and products that exhibit safety and concern for the well-being of our birds. What we have not looked at in realistic terms is the fundamental aspect of their care: BATHING. Routine bathing is essential for the parrot. When you study the areas of the world they have been genetically evolving in for millions of years, you will discover recent rainfall averages of 90 to 1 inches and, more surprisingly, 250 to 350 inches annually. Rainfall in these amounts indicate that daily showers are common and parrots are bathing daily. We have been instructed to "occasionally mist our birds with a spray bottle" and, in light of the areas of the world to which they are indigenous, we may wish to reconsider our position on the bathing of our birds. Generally, we have not been providing them with what they were engineered to receive in terms of water amounts and schedules of bathing.

The How and Why of Bathing

All birds bathe, from the smallest finches to the largest macaws. If water is presented to them they will take advantage of the situation. Since developing Showerbird, I have been studying, researching, and questioning the bathing behaviors of birds both in the natural and the captive environment. As a young girl I was intrigued by the small wild birds that would dust-bathe in soft, loose dirt when there was an absence of rain. "Why would those little birds want to roll around in the dirt?", I wondered. I later learned that it was a method of bathing for them. By rolling in the soft dirt they would absorb excess oils and loosen debris from their feathers. But when the rain would fall they were ecstatic, hopping from tree-branch shelter out into the water, and back again. Wonderful natural behaviors! Our parrots bathe because the skin and feathers of these birds dictate this need. Moisture and humidity play an important role in maintaining the health of the sinus and nasal passages. Water, whether through showers or baths, is essential for the health of the feather.

My admiration and concern has always gone toward the avian feather; the structure and function, its health and hygiene. The most unique aspect of a bird is the feather. Birds possess virtually all of the organs similar to those of mammals with only a few exceptions. The feather is a structure which is unique to birds. They are the only creatures on our planet to be graced with plumage which enables them to survive through flight, warmth, and camouflage. In a natural environment birds will spend a great deal of their time preening to ensure that their feathers are kept in excellent condition. It is their most important means of survival.

Companion parrots are kept in our environment which offers them dirt, dust, pollution, and a significantly drier environment which can effect their feathers adversely. These factors may inhibit a good preening result, leading to feather plucking and tissue mutilation. The most direct route to insuring good feather health is through frequent showers or baths. This is an often overlooked fundamental aspect of responsible bird care. The development of our parrots in hot, humid areas of abundant rainfall reveals the "why" aspect. My intention is to assist with the "how" by looking at several methods of bathing and some species-specific bathing behaviors that your birds may exhibit. It should be noted that each parrot is an individual by its very nature and there are exceptions to every rule where parrots are concerned. Methods cited and specific bathing behaviors may cross from species to species. The best advice is to observe your bird while employing different techniques and see which one it responds well to. For example, what may work well for the cockatoos may cross over to work well for the African grey, and so on. After spending any amount of time with a parrot one comes to realize that nothing is "set in stone".

The Proper Approach

I hear the statement "My bird hates showers!" more often than I would like to admit. Since many of the behaviors of parrots are learned from the parent bird I will take the liberty to assume that many of our hand-reared parrots were not properly socialized to the bathing procedure as chicks and fledglings. In the natural environment, the parent bird would encourage the fledgling out of the nest site during the rains. The fledgling would come to the opening of the nest site, a few drops of water would splash on its head sending the young bird screaming and scrambling back into the shelter. With the encouragement of the adults, the fledge would make another attempt out of the site and gradually be introduced to the showering process. With our captive, hand-reared parrots we must take on the responsibility of teaching them how to bathe by gently socializing them to bathing. Conscientious breeders of parrots in captivity are now working with the young birds in this respect. It is very disheartening to hear someone tell you that the breeder of their bird told them that the bird does not need a bath until it is a year old. To socialize a bird to bathing at this late date could result in a bird that is resistant to what you are attempting to teach it.

With the proper approach many parrots that hate the bath can be encouraged to accept what its ancestors simply took for granted. Patience is a virtue, and teaching an older parrot to bathe will surely make you more virtuous. Patience, patience, and more patience are the necessary tools involved in this process. Your approach in this situation will decide if you are to be successful. Parrots are very suspicious creatures simply by their nature. They are preyed upon by other animals, which is a difficult concept for us to comprehend since we are predators with forward-facing eyes. To understand the nature of parrots it is best to simply observe them and try not to dismiss their actions as that which does not matter. Rushing a situation onto a parrot can be very detrimental in getting the bird to accept what you are trying to teach it. Slow down and think of your every move. If your bird exhibits fright when water is introduced, perhaps you are moving too quickly. Allow the bird to observe the water before rushing to pour it on them. Talk to them, give the object a name ("water", "shower", etc.) and gently ease into it. Do not expect the bird to respond to this new adventure immediately. This process of education may take a year or more of work on your part but generally something in the avian brain just "clicks" and the bird will begin to accept its bath. If you have another bird in the home that bathes well, you may wish to try the "tutoring" method. Allow your "poor bather" to observe the "master bather". Since birds learn their behaviors by observing other birds, this may be the key in teaching your bird to accept its bath. Remember that our expectations generally lead to disappointment. Don't expect too much and don't allow yourself to become discouraged.

Providing Options

Parrots love options and should be allowed as many as possible. When bathing or showering your bird you should provide the option of it being able to go in and out of the water at will. In their natural environment there are shelters in the form of tree branches, large leaves, and "dugouts" for them to retreat to when they've simply had enough of a bath. To follow a bird with spraying water and not recognizing the need for the bird to retreat to a drier area can cause frustration for your bird. I have always suggested that water be sprayed over one area, allowing the bird to enter and exit at will. In this instance the parrot will tend to exhibit a more natural bathing behavior, appreciate your ability to understand his need for this, and a greater level of trust with the human caretaker will be developed.

Many birds are frightened of spray bottles. Parrots that have been "conditioned" by the use of spray bottles as an instrument in behavior modification, such as squirting the bird with water when it screams, may lead to the bird not accepting the use of this apparatus when it comes to bathing it. I will never advocate the use of spraying a bird with water to "modify" a behavior. The use of this behavior modification technique in dealing with parrots can be very detrimental to the psychological well- being of the parrot. In taking something as natural as water and employing it in an unnatural manner may make a bird resistant to the bathing process. If your bird is frightened of the spray bottle, and you are uncertain of the bird's history, it may be safe to assume that it has had a negative experience with this object. Examine another method or approach in bathing and find one that your bird will respond positively to.

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