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Can Birds Get ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)?

The symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder include:

  • a short attention span
  • hyperactivity
  • impulsiveness
  • fidgeting
  • frequent mood swings
  • inability to control anger or frustration
  • easily distracted
  • difficulty awaiting turn

Any parrot parent reading this list may wonder if their bird has ADHD. Your parrot is very likely to be fidgety, impatient, easily distracted, and moody. But can a bird actually have ADHD?

No scientific research has been done to show whether a bird can develop ADHD, but it should be kept in mind that birds’ brains function differently than those of humans. If your parrot has the above symptoms, he is probably just being a bird.

When does hyperactivity become a disorder?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder primarily connected to genetics. In humans, it can also occasionally be caused by brain injuries, premature delivery, and exposure to various toxins before birth. Symptoms that could describe almost every child at some point are more severe in children with ADHD, interfering with normal interactions and often failing to subside as the individual matures.

Parrot experts often warn that having a parrot is a lot like having a toddler with ADHD. This is simply because parrots are highly energetic, restless, temperamental, impulsive, easily frustrated, and easily sidetracked. Just as these characteristics are normal to a degree in children, they are normal to a much greater degree in parrots.

Normal vs. abnormal ADHD-like behavior

  • Screaming: Parrots love to make noise. They are often loudest in the morning and evening or when everyone around them is loud. Obviously, they are also prone to making a fuss if they feel they are being left out of a fun activity or gathering. A parrot that screams nonstop, on the other hand, is likely experiencing loneliness, boredom, frustration, or even pain.
  • Activity: Parrots love to fly, climb, preen, bathe, play with toys, and gnaw on and destroy things. These are natural activities that your parrot should be engaging in often. If your parrot is always hanging on the bars of her cage, pacing, or plucking and destroying her feathers, she is likely not getting enough positive interaction and exercise or is sexually frustrated.
  • Anger/Distraction: Parrots only have a few ways to communicate their feelings and desires. If you miss earlier cues, like flattened feathers, retreat, a threatening beak, or a growl, your bird may resort to biting you either in fear or anger. A bird will also be interested in most activities for only a few minutes at a time. This is normal. If a bird is constantly angry, fearful, or uninterested in interacting with you, she may be sick, in pain, or have trauma/trust issues that will need to be patiently worked through.

Trauma and Coping Mechanisms

Birds can suffer from neurological diseases and mental debilitation due to neglect or injury. If they aren’t provided with enough interaction and activity, some may compulsively pull their feathers or injure themselves. Others may develop repetitive OCD-like coping mechanisms like pacing, fixating, fiddling with a leg band, gnawing the cage bars, etc.

active birds

Even a bird that has been cared for to the best of her person’s ability may develop abnormal behaviors such as these. Sadly, these behaviors, known as stereotypies, are due in part to the fact that captivity is not a natural state for a bird. Stereotypies are never observed in wild parrots.

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Why do captive birds develop stereotypies?

In their natural environment, parrots must stay busy to survive. They spend hours foraging for food and fly miles every day. A large wild macaw will commonly fly up to 100 miles a day, stopping at 20 to 30 different feeding or watering sites in the course of her journey.

Wild parrots are almost never separated from their close companions, whether they are part of a small family group or a flock. When breeding season arrives, they are free to follow their natural instincts.

They choose a nesting site, usually an old tree or log, and work hard to hollow it out. They raise young and teach them to forage in turn.

Compare this to the life of a captive pet bird. Their territory is usually limited to one house, maybe even one room, or—heaven forbid—a single cage. Often, their wings are clipped, and they never fly.

Food and water are delivered to them, and they miss out on the stimulation of working for it. Their human flock members often go off and leave them for hours each day, and their instincts to hollow out a nesting site and raise young must be redirected.

How to Avoid the Development of Abnormal Behaviors

Although the development of abnormal behaviors can depend somewhat on your bird’s personality and feeling of connection to you and other members of the household, most birds develop them due to a monotonous environment, boring lifestyle, and/or loneliness. You can do a lot to make your bird’s life as natural and fulfilling as possible in the confines of your home.

Give your bird as much freedom as possible

give birds freedom

Don’t limit him to the inside of his cage or one play stand. It’s great to have at least two or three areas where your bird is free to visit and play either by himself or with your oversight.

If your bird is currently clipped, consider educating yourself on how to safely allow him free flight within your house. Some birds enjoy time spent in an outdoor aviary in warm weather or car rides, as long as they are safely restrained.

Provide outlets for natural behavior

Parrots need things to do and think about. Toys are essential—not optional. Birds especially enjoy toys made out of natural materials they can chew on and destroy.

Foraging toys allow you to hide snacks for your parrot to search out. Fresh vegetables and greens hung from the side of the cage can be both nutritious and fun.

Sturdier toys with bells or beads can entertain your bird with their various textures, movements, and sounds. A variety of perches allow your bird to move and climb, hang from one foot, or flip upside-down (if they’re so inclined).

Feed your bird a great diet

How much a bird’s regular diet affects their behavior astonishes many parrot parents. Making sure your bird is getting proper nutrition is key to giving him a healthy, happy life. Birds should be fed a variety of vegetables, greens, and grains, along with a healthy base pellet. Seeds, nuts, fruit, and other fatty/filler foods should be saved as treats. A nutritious and interesting diet will allow your bird to feel more satisfied and keep him healthier, eliminating many of the medical causes of abnormal behavior.

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Keep your bird company

Keep your bird company

A parrot does not belong in a back bedroom or garage. Birds need to be involved in the life of the home. They need interaction and friendship.

If you are away for long hours every day, you may wish to consider asking someone to look in on your bird and keep him company for a while. Getting a second bird to keep your first company is also an option, although you should be prepared to spend as much time interacting with both birds as possible.

Train and play with your bird

Can you imagine how boring a pet bird’s life would appear to her wild counterpart? Parrots are intelligent creatures that often thoroughly enjoy learning tricks and playing games with their human companions. These types of interactions will also allow your bird to feel connected to you and be interested in what you are doing, fulfilling her family/flock yearnings.

Tips for Dealing with Hyperactivity and Distraction

Although your bird’s hyperactivity and distraction are not due to a neurological disorder—it’s just him being a bird—it can be helpful to know how to direct his energies when they get a little out of hand.

  • First, make sure your bird is getting regular, nutritious meals. A bird that avoids his food dish and begs constantly for snacks may need to be weaned off of the snacks entirely for a while. A bird that gets a solid, satisfying meal twice a day will be less anxious in between meals and more interested in interacting with you in a positive way.
  • Second, make sure your bird is getting enough sleep. Most parrots need between 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. A tired bird will often be an irritated, even uncontrollable bird. If your bird was having a grand old time and suddenly becomes cranky and nippy, he may just need a little time out to take a nap.
  • Third, direct your bird’s energy to positive outlets and keep training sessions short. If your bird just doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself and is channeling his frustration into creating chaos, play a game of fetch or do a little flight training. Offer him a bath or pull out a new toy he hasn’t had a chance to destroy yet. Give him something to think about, something to do.
  • Finally, always be patient. One reason parrot parents sometimes wonder if their bird has ADHD may be because parrots never grow out of the symptoms. You will always need to be the mature one in your interactions with your bird, and it will always be up to you to fulfill her needs to the best of your ability.