Understanding and Helping Phobic Birds
The Story of African Grey Zabar
By Sally Blanchard
In the late 1980s, I placed an African Grey named Zabar in a family with preteen triplet boys in Berkeley. Many parrots are uncomfortable with new situations and objects. These are not phobic parrots. Phobic parrots become afraid of almost everything — even people they had previously trusted. These fears seem unrealistic and confusing to their caregivers. Zabar had become a phobic parrot.
A major example is a parrot who is suddenly terrified of his caregiver when the person has done nothing to have deserved that response. Although it often has to do with poor early socialization and/or physical pain, phobic behavior is often triggered by a traumatic event. Often the trauma does not seem significant enough to trigger such a severe response but the parrot “was an accident waiting to happen.”
Some phobic birds do not seem to have any problems until they reach the time in their lives when they would normally become independent of their natural parents. With poor early socialization, these parrots have not learned their social or survival skills. Change becomes an ordeal because they have not developed any resiliency to bounce back after a threatening or traumatic situation. With many poorly socialized parrots almost any traumatic event, no matter how small, can push them into excessive fearful behavior.
Since 1990, I have worked with many more phobic parrots and learned much more about what happens with them. Since then I have written several articles reflecting my current thinking about this topic. Much of the advice I gave when I met Zabar has changed. Many of these parrots can learn to trust again with patience and time.
Since parrots are prey animals, it is my belief that poorly socialized birds have not developed the sense of security they need to deal with the variables and changes of living with us capricious humans. Once they develop phobic behavior, any direct attention will simply frighten them more. The caregiver must be indirect or even submissive (unpredatorlike) for their parrot to become comfortable again. Patience is absolutely essential. Please see my article called the Chair Exercise on this website. The link to this and other behavioral articles are at the bottom of this page.
Zabar was originally purchased as a young parrot from a bird store in San Francisco that I would NEVER have recommended. The only time I was in the filthy store, the owner was feeding babies with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Luckily, it is no longer in business. The woman who purchased him lived just a few blocks from the ocean. Zabar had appeared to be healthy when she first purchased him but gradually he started becoming more and more withdrawn and phobic.
His first trip to the vet showed that he had a severe calcium deficiency so I believe that his problem could be both physical and emotional. Because of his posture and the way he moved around, I thought that he may have suffered stress fractures when he was a baby. I had worked with several malnourished young parrots from this same store. At first, Zabar didn’t want to come out of the cage. His caregiver was able to determine that he seemed to have more problems on foggy days. On those days, he seemed to suffer physically and did not want to be handled. He usually welcomed her attention but became afraid if she wore a certain color — I can’t remember if it was yellow or red. Eventually, Zabar was afraid of everyone and almost everything except for the couple’s dog.
Although Zabar was bonded to the woman, he did not like or trust her husband. This was partly because of a series of traumatic situations that occurred when they moved to their new home. The woman was a musician and was starting to travel a great deal for performances and she was also expecting a baby. Every time she left, Zabar seemed to get worse. We did a consultation but, as I recall, the husband had little interest in trying to interact successfully with Zabar. She loved the Grey but knew that she could no longer give him the kind of home he needed with his special problems.
After she had him for about two years, she decided to have me place Zabar in a new home. This was when he came to live with the family in Berkeley in 1990. When I took him there, he bonded quickly to their dog. Zabar had also liked the dog at his previous home. His new family already had a wild-caught Red-lored Amazon, Polly, and a domestically raised Green-cheeked Amazon, Max, so with Zabar, the idea was that each triplet had a bird he could call his own. A short time later, Pascal (the love bappy of my Amazons Paco and Rascal) went to live with this family. My father was dying in southern California and Paco and Rascal and I had to spend a great deal of time helping my mother move. So they went to stay with a “friend” who decided to breed them without asking me. Zabar improved at their home but was still a very reticent parrot. However, he had developed an extensive vocabulary and really enjoyed ambient attention from the people in his life.
Fast forward another 12 years, the boys had grown up and gone off to college. Their parents wanted to travel more and asked me to place their parrots. I placed 3 of the birds with a woman who was starting a rescue but she wanted to have Zabar as a pet. My grand-bappy, Pascal, came to live with me. I have lost touch with the people that Zabar went to live with. There are certain birds that I have worked with that I will always remember and, most of all, I hope that I have helped them to have a better life.