How To Tell If a Bird Is Stressed, Depressed, or Anxious

Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP
By Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP. Reviewed by Jessica Hockaday, DVM on Jan. 3, 2024
woman holding a cockatoo on her finger

While it’s often difficult for bird parents to tell whether their pet is sick (because birds commonly hide signs of illness), it’s even harder for most people to tell if their bird is stressed or unhappy. Birds can certainly feel these emotions—and hide them until these feelings become so extreme that they are manifested either physically or behaviorally.

Birds can express unhappiness and stress in several different ways. Here’s how to tell if you’ve got a stressed or depressed bird—and how you can help.

Signs of Stress in Birds

So, how can you tell that your bird is unhappy? Here are some common signs of stress in birds:

1. Biting

While many people misinterpret birds’ biting as an act of aggression, this behavior is often a sign of stress and fear. Birds will frequently bite and lunge to try to protect themselves when they are afraid; they may bite humans, other birds, or the bars of their cage.

Because biting also may be a sign of pain or discomfort, a bird that suddenly starts biting a lot should have a complete veterinary examination to ensure there’s no underlying medical problem for this new behavior.

2. Vocalizing

Normal parrots, depending on their species, make loud noise. However, a sudden increase in screaming, repetitive chirping, alarm calls can be linked to distress, and screeching may indicate that a bird is bored or unhappy.

But just as biting can be indicative of pain or discomfort, so can vocalizations. Any bird that suddenly starts screaming—or has any change in their vocalizations—should be checked out by a veterinarian to ensure there is no medical basis for this behavior.

3. Decreased Vocalization

While screaming can indicate underlying stress or unhappiness in birds, so can decreased vocalization. Birds that suddenly start to vocalize less may be stressed, depressed, bored, or ill.

It’s imperative that any bird who suddenly vocalizes less be examined as soon as possible to make sure that there is no medical cause for this change in behavior.

4. Feather Picking

Feather picking is a very common outward manifestation of stress and boredom, particularly in larger species such as Eclectus parrots, cockatoos, and African gray parrots. But this is also seen in smaller birds, including Quakers parrots and lovebirds.

Some birds will start picking as a result of an initiating cause, such as a loud noise or construction in the house, changes in their routine, boredom, or metabolic stressors (nutritional or medical). They may continue to pick even when that initiating stimulus is removed or the condition is resolved.

Feather-picking birds should have a thorough medical examination, including blood work, to help rule out other causes of illness.

5. Self-Mutilation

Some stressed birds will go beyond feather-picking to chew on their skin or even dig deeper into muscle and bone, causing severe trauma. These birds must not only be examined by a veterinarian immediately, but they must also be started on anti-psychotic medication and/or fitted with a recovery cone to prevent them from doing further damage while the veterinarian figures out what’s going on.

6. Stereotypical Behaviors

Some species, especially cockatoos, manifest stress as stereotypical behaviors such as pacing, toe tapping, and head swinging (or any abnormal repetitive behaviors). Often, birds perform these behaviors to stimulate themselves because they are bored.

While these behaviors may be harmless in some cases, they can be a sign that the bird is unhappy, and pet parents should pay attention to these actions before they progress to more destructive activities such as feather-picking or self-mutilation.

7. Decreased Appetite

Birds that are severely stressed or depressed may eat less and lose weight. because a decreased appetite can also be a sign of medical disease, birds whose appetites change should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to make sure they aren’t hiding an underlying illness.

What Causes a Stressed or Depressed Bird?

Regardless of how they manifest unhappiness, birds, like people, may become stressed for a variety of reasons.

1. Lack of Attention

Many parrots, especially extremely social and intelligent species such as cockatoos and African grays, need a great deal of attention. When they don’t receive regimented attention and stimulation, they become bored and stressed and may scream, feather pick, or self-mutilate.

2. Environmental Changes

Often, environmental changes can upset a bird. Some potential stressors include:

  • A recent move to a new home

  • New people or pets in the house

  • Diet changes

  • Loud noises (such as from construction or thunder)

  • A change in the location of the bird’s cage in the house

  • Repainting your home’s walls a new color

Indoor birds also can become stressed from the sight or sound of unfamiliar wild animals, such as hawks or raccoons, outside a window.

3. Changes in Routine

A change in the bird’s daily routine, such as from an alteration in the pet parent’s schedule, can upset a bird. Changes in light cycle, such as if a bird’s cage is moved to a dark room or is suddenly kept covered, can also throw a bird off.

Basically, because birds are such creatures of habit, anything that alters their routines can stress them out or make them unhappy.

Regardless of how they manifest unhappiness, birds, like people, may become stressed for a variety of reasons.

The Effects of Stress on a Bird

Chronic stress and unhappiness can affect birds’ physical health. Birds that are constantly stressed and sad may eat less and may lose weight or suffer nutritional deficiencies.

Extremely anxious birds that feather pick and self-mutilate may permanently damage their feather follicles, preventing regrowth of feathers and scarring their skin.

In addition, reproductively active female birds that produce eggs, such as cockatiels, may have difficulty laying if they are stressed or unhappy. These birds may become egg-bound and may require veterinary intervention with medication or even surgery to get them to lay.

Finally, chronically stressed birds also may suffer compromised immune system function, making them more susceptible to contracting infections and other diseases.

How To Help a Stressed or Depressed Bird

If you suspect your bird is stressed or unhappy, there are several ways you can help. The key is to try to find the cause of the bird’s anxiety or sadness so it can be addressed and enable the bird to get back on track.

1. Get Help From a Vet

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a bird’s stress, but working with an avian-savvy veterinarian or bird trainer can provide insight and may help an you get relief for a bird more quickly.

2. Give Your Bird Enrichment

Birds that are feather picking, screaming, or biting because they are bored or lacking attention should be provided with interactive toys and other stimulation, such as a TV to watch or a radio to listen to. Pet parents should give them extra attention and as much out-of-cage time as possible.

3. Provide a Safe Space

Pets that are frightened by loud noises or outside animals should have their cages moved to a quieter, interior location, away from windows. Stressed birds whose cages have recently been moved should be moved back to where they were before.

4. Don’t Rush Introductions

If there are new pets or people in the house who are stressing or upsetting the bird, seek the help of a veterinarian or bird trainer to help gradually acclimate the bird to the new individual. Use positive-reinforcement training, in which the sight or sound of the new individual is paired with a yummy treat or favorite toy.

Birds are psychologically complicated creatures, as they are very smart and socially very needy. When well-adjusted and provided with adequate attention and mental stimulation, they can be terrific pets for many years.

But bird parents must be prepared to adapt to and change with their birds as they age. Remember that, like people, birds are living, thinking beings whose needs and desires change over time—and who must be attended to accordingly.

Featured Image: Pawzi/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

References

More than just a pet in a cage: exotics need enrichment too. DVM 360. Published June 17, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2024.

Meehan CL, Garner JP, Mench JA. Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica). Developmental Psychobiology. 2004;44(4):209-218.

References


Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP

WRITTEN BY

Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP

Veterinarian

Originally from New York City, Dr. Laurie Hess is one of approximately 150 board-certified avian (bird) specialists worldwide. After...


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