Can Birds Lose Their Minds?

Laurel Braitman dishes on her new book, “Animal Madness.”   

Feather-plucking parrots, suicidal dolphins, and anxious gorillas: these are the characters that populate Laurel Braitman's new book, "Animal Madness." Inspired by her own experiences with a neurotic pet dog, Braitman traveled the world exploring the complex psychology and emotions of the animals around us, describing her encounters with a variety of troubled critters and the people who care for them. Interspersed with historical accounts of disturbed animals and the latest research into what causes and solves their behaviors, Braitman's experiences offer some insight: maybe humans and animals aren't so different after all.

Braitman recently spoke with Audubon about what she learned while reporting and writing "Animal Madness."

Audubon: Throughout the book, you encounter many interesting people and animals. What was your favorite bird encounter?

Laurel Braitman: One parrot expert—she was actually a breeder for a really long time, but now she fields questions online about parrot behavior. Her house has become a way station or a retirement home for a lot of birds that can't be released into the wild, who were either in abusive situations or not, and that have been retired. She had a realization 15-20 years in as a parrot breeder that she really shouldn't be breeding birds in captivity—she couldn't keep them happy. So she created an open door policy for all of the birds she once bred—whatever the case, she would accept them back with open wings. And she has.

I really don't think we should have parrots as pets—I think it's too hard to replicate their wild environment—but now we have some, maybe millions, of parrots living in captivity who can't be reintroduced, and so what do you do? So [Phoebe Greene Linden] kind of "halfway houses" it, where parrots can lead the most parroty lives without being free, but they have enough mental stimulation, they socialize, they exercise.

A: Can you talk about some of the patterns you've seen? What are some of the most common problems you've witnessed, and what do you think are their causes?

LB: I think we should talk about birds as individuals. We tend to talk to about humans at the individual level and everybody else at the species levels. What sends one bird down the path to emotional distress is really not going to stress out another bird.

Two birds I wrote about are macaws. One of them was named Charlie. She's actually in the animal suicide chapter because she developed a really self-destructive behavior, but the birds around her did not. She started plucking in the wake of the death of her main human. Feather-picking isn't always a sign of emotional distress, but it usually is. It's related to human OCD-type behavior.

Every bird, just like every person, is totally different. One bird may start plucking after the loss of a mate, another may only pluck during thunderstorms.

A: In all of your research, have you ever witnessed this kind of behavior in wild populations?

LB: I never found someone who could tell me definitely whether they've seen any wild birds develop plucking compulsions. Part of that is because in order to be observed, you have to be spending a lot of time with a very particular flock of birds, which is difficult.

They tend to do it when something's wrong. More things tend to be wrong in captivity, but that's not necessarily always the case. Certainly wild birds are exposed to all kinds of stress, so it's likely that they also develop their own little forms of abnormal behavior, but it's hard to know.

A: Would you have any advice for birders who might witness self-destructive or disturbed behavior in a wild bird? Is there anything that can be done?

LB: That's a good question. I don't know, I honestly think that if you were going to call Fish and Wildlife and report a few cases of necrophilic geese, I think they would actually laugh at you.

A: Do you believe that captivity in and of itself is what provokes a lot of these disturbed behaviors in the animals?

LB: I do, but I also think it's more complex than that. I don't think that mental distress is always a function of captivity, and that's especially true when you look at domestic animals whose natural environment is to be with us. I wouldn't say that a dog or cat is captive, and many of them wind up with problems who have never been mistreated.

A: At the end of your book, you leave the reader with some ideas for how we can change the way we live. What are your hopes for the future?

LB: Some people have to stay inside to read my book—they're reading it on a device. What I really hope is that it's only our generations that's obsessed with these tiny devices and technology. A good friend told me the other day she thinks that "looking it up" has replaced "looking up." I think that's so unfortunate, particularly for those of us interested in bird life.

I don't want to see us become even more divorced from nature. Getting curious about the emotional lives of other animals is one way to do that. Curiosity is the best thing about being a human being. I hope this stuff makes people more likely to put down the device and to go outside and start to look up.

A: Is there any kind of general strategy for helping an animal who is obviously sad or distressed?

LB: First of all, I would try and make sure that you've ruled out any physical problems. Once they've been checked out, you've made sure it's not an allergy or disease or infection, then it really depends on the animal that you're trying to cheer up.

Definitely distraction works—it's not a cure-all, but it's one of many things. A lot of birds are getting psycho-pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. That can sometimes be helpful to help a bird through a particularly rough spot. I'm not a big fan of using those drugs as a final solution, but sometimes that creature is so anxious or scared or upset that you can't even distract them with a new friend or favorite new toy or snack, and if that's the case sometimes that's the direct help.

It's remarkable the power of friendship, or even giving somebody an enemy. That takes a lot of energy and can distract from doing things like hurting ourselves. Exercise, always. Interesting things in your environment. Novelty. Sex. It really runs the gambit, and in that way it's so similar to us—what works to rouse someone from a deep depression or from a crippling anxiety disorder is not going to work on someone else. You really have to do the work to understand the individual animal you're trying to help.