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After almost 20 years in a pet store in a very small cage, Fred had pulled out all her chest feathers, as well as most of those on her back.
I had taken a special interest in Fred for many years, as this store was near my home. So when she was relinquished to Phoenix Landing in 2004, my daughter Emilie and I gladly welcomed her for foster care.
There were many behaviors that we needed to address with Fred. Some we wanted her to stop, like plucking her feathers and skin. Others she needed to learn—seemingly simple things like how to move, since her feet had atrophied from living so long on one concrete perch. We wondered if we could ignite a spark of joy in her again.
Initially, she didn’t move much, remaining quite lethargic except for her obsessive preening. But then we discovered that Fred showed a glimmer of interest when we whistled.
Teaching new behaviors can be far more effective if you set yourself up for success. We gave Fred a better diet and time to settle and feel a sense of safety. She had never had a dark night of sleep under the pet store’s blinking lights, or a day without prodding fingers. We gave her the chance for quality sleep, good food and lots of space with comfortable perches.
Initially, she didn’t move much, remaining quite lethargic except for her obsessive preening. But then we discovered that Fred showed a glimmer of interest when we whistled. So we started whistling to her often. She began to associate us with the positive experience of the whistling. Soon she began to bob her head.
We learned her body language so we’d know when she was most likely to start stripping and pulling on her feathers. If we could get her to engage in the pleasure of a whistling game before that, then her attempt to pluck at that moment could be avoided.
We started to dance and encourage her to move even more, since her feet were so rigid from lack of motion. Now we had a behavior that she enjoyed, and we used this behavior to her advantage. When she was bobbing her head or perched with interest at our whistling, she wasn’t focused on her chest or her back; and when she was trying to dance along with us, she was exercising her feet. She was starting to come alive.
We were very careful to sing and whistle and dance before Fred focused on feather picking. If she was already pulling or clipping, then we would actually be rewarding her for this behavior.
This may seem simple and obvious, but think of all the times that we yell at our children or fuss at our pets for behaviors that we don’t like. Wouldn’t it be easier, and certainly more pleasant, if we could find other positive things for them to do instead? Scientists call this concept “alternative behaviors.” It is not enough to simply ignore the behaviors we do not like; we must also provide an alternative behavior to take its place.
Within six months, Fred grew almost all of her feathers back. She now insists on foraging for her meals, hanging upside down from her perch for each healthy morsel. The music of our whistling played a huge part in her change.
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