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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
By Alicia McWatters, Ph.D.

In the wild, animals and birds look for the proper plants to heal and nourish themselves. Very likely, the native plants to which our birds originate would have similar properties to the plants/herbs we can cultivate and use in our own country. Herbs can provide many solutions to improve health and prevent illness, if used in the correct manner. Since stress is such an important issue among bird owners, I would like to address this topic and offer some ideas on how to cope with it.


When we talk about stress, we must also invariably talk about the immune system. Immune deficiencies are one of the problems commonly found with breeding and pet birds, and often stress plays a major role in this disorder. The immune system is essentially made up of white blood cells called B cells and T cells. T cells are responsible for cellular immunity against a variety of illnesses and diseases, such as fungi, parasites and viruses. B cells produce antibodies that aid in the attack of bacterial or viral infections. When incorporating the proper foods, vitamins, minerals and specific medicinal herbs, we increase the activity and/or number of T and B cells which keep our Greys' bodies healthy and strong. We greatly improve our birds' constitution, help relieve stress and build better function of their immune systems, by implementing the above items with a clean, comfortable environment.


Problems related to stress or anxiety may manifest in only psychological and behavioral ways, or in physical symptoms such as self-mutilation of feathers or infection. Stress can cause many types of disease as there is a link between emotional and physical illness. The symptoms of this imbalance are usually emotional at first (agitation) then may become physical (feather picking) and may eventually lead to illness (bacterial, viral, or organ damage). We and our birds are all carriers of yeast, bacteria and viruses, but they remain in small amounts and harmless under healthy conditions. However, at stressful times when the immune system is weakened, these opportunistic microorganisms may proliferate and our birds then become more vulnerable to the development of an infection. These microorganisms are the result of DIS-EASE, NOT the cause of it.

When our birds are experiencing stress, either physically or emotionally, their metabolic response to this stress is to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is a component of the autonomic nervous system which prepares the body for action during the fight or flight response. The physiological changes which take place are increased sugar and fats into the bloodstream, the production of more adrenaline and glucagon into the blood, a decrease in the digestive function, increased blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing rate, muscle tension, and thus the creation of more energy. In our Greys' captive environments there is usually little physical outlet for them, other than chewing (sometimes themselves), eating, playing with "toys," climbing, or sometimes flying about their cages. Consequently, a bird may react to stress by channeling the body's response to physical destruction, such as feather picking itself or a cage mate, which is often quite difficult to eradicate, once it becomes a normal psychological response to stress. Stress may also manifest itself inward to one of the organ systems, such as the nervous system, circulatory, or digestive system. Stress increases the metabolism of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. There is an increased excretion of protein, potassium, and phosphorus and a decreased storage of calcium. Vitamin C and other important nutrients are also excreted at a faster rate. During stress, nutrients are depleted from the body rapidly, and the immune system becomes depressed. In essence, when our birds are stressed, the whole body is affected.

A proper diet is extremely important as disorders which can arise from stress are often the result of nutrient deficiencies; the body does not metabolize nutrients well at these times. Chronic stress can harm the nervous system, thereby causing digestive and intestinal upsets. Stress also leads to hormonal imbalances--adrenal, pituitary, thyroid, thymus and others that further interfere with immune function. Respiratory infections, allergies, eating disorders, skin and feather problems are a few of the outward symptoms of stress, therefore, additional supplements are useful.


It is very helpful to investigate and detect any subtle, or not so subtle disturbances/changes/threats to your bird's environment which may be causing stress. Is your Grey experiencing any psychological or biological problems or adverse environmental conditions? Are your Grey's needs being met? Think about how you can improve any of the things you feel may be negatively affecting your Grey's life. Determining the causes of stress requires your on-going observation and keen insight, in order to adjust the situation to alleviate the stress-causing factor(s) as soon as possible.


Remember that some stress-related cases are easier than others to correct. Begin with the generalities of the individual bird's situation, and then narrow them down to specifics. For instance, take note of when (time of day) and where (location) is your Grey noticeably experiencing stress symptoms, (i.e. feather chewing/picking)? Is the diet you are feeding providing optimum health for your Grey, or is it only maintaining its health? Does the diet contain additives which may be causing exciting effects? Is your Grey uncomfortable with its environment in any way (i.e. location of cage, perches, food bowls)? Is there an object or toy within the cage that frightens them or is there something outside the cage that may be causing discontentment? These are just a few of the questions that you can ask yourself. Remember the main focus should be on the underlying cause of stress instead of the stress symptoms.

All birds, but particularly our Greys who seem to be more prone to stress by nature with their sensitive, intelligent personalities, require that we take their emotional health, as well as their physical health, into consideration. In this way, we are truly using a holistic approach for their health needs and are far more more likely to succeed in providing them with a stress-free life. I hope the following supplements will be useful.


Nature has provided us with many plants which can benefit the nervous system, boost immunity, and reduce stress. There are herbs which can be successfully used for our birds to prevent the need for potentially toxic synthetic psychotropic drugs and other invasive means. Whether it be the nervous system or the immune system that becomes compromised, natural medicine has much to offer to aid in the recovery from stress. The typical allopathic (mainstream medicine) treatment for chronic feather plucking caused by stress is one which is suppressive, not curative. I would always rather see a natural remedy used for behavior modification, than a synthetic drug which is potentially damaging to the health of any pet. Herbs can be one way to safely ameliorate stress, but will also be palliative and rarely remove it. They may exert a calming and restful effect when dealing with stressful situations, but will often require that you also seek help from various caring professionals, such as a nutritionist or avian behavior consultant, to help discover the root cause of the stress your Grey is experiencing.

It must be acknowledged that if your bird is presently under the care of an allopathic veterinarian and has been receiving any type of medicine, this information must be released to your holistic vet who will take it into consideration, prior to the selection of a natural remedy. The detoxification of an allopathic drug is often begun immediately through diet and vitamin therapy. If your Grey is being treated for a chronic disease, your holistic vet will prescribe a remedy which will work positively in conjunction with this medicine and, if possible, slowly wean it from the allopathic medicine (over time) to the natural remedy.

The following herbs (easily incorporated into the diet) are used to calm birds and provide them some relief during times of stress. Best known for their calmative properties and also known as nervines, they are: chamomile, passion flower, oat straw, skullcap, valerian, lemon balm, St. John's wort and Siberian ginseng. Skullcap, lemon balm and St. John's wort are noted for their mild anti-depressive abilities. Certain herbs, such as ginseng, are known as adaptogens.

What is an "adaptogen?" Adaptogens help us cope with stress and a changing environment in a positive way. Herbs which can strengthen and balance the functioning of the nervous system, hormonal system and consequently affect the immune system are also known as adaptogens. An adaptogen enhances adrenal gland function, possibly pituitary gland function, relaxes or equalizes the nervous system, and improves the body's reactions against a variety of stressors, whether they be metabolic, physical or psychological in nature.

We purchase the previously listed herbs in capsule form or extract. These products have been standardized or quality controlled for optimum results. They may also be purchased fresh-dried in the bulk herb section of a natural food store, or home grown. Herbal supplements are generally available in a combination of two or more herbs or sometimes as a single herb remedy. We have found valerian/passion flower to be the most helpful for advanced stress-related feather-picking. Be sure treatment is given no longer than two (2) weeks at a time. The other calmative herbs listed have been helpful for mildly stressed non-feather-picking birds.

The Echinacea herb is highly regarded for its use as a natural antibiotic and immunity enhancer by its ability to increase the mobility of leukocytes (WBC's). By far, the quickest and simplest way to provide an herb to your parrot's diet is in capsule form. We use a combination herbal preparation consisting of: Echinacea, Astragalus and grapefruit seed extract.

An herbal extract, which tends to be more potent than capsule powder, is offered over fresh food, mixed in formula, mixed in drinking water, or diluted with filtered water or organic apple juice and offered by syringe. We use an extract of Echinacea, golden seal and vitamin C (alcohol free!).

Herbs in the fresh-dried form of stems/leaves/flowers can be made into liquid by infusion-- (place 1-2 teaspoons of dried herbs into infusion ball [stainless steel or porcelain], then place in 1 cup of boiling water, steep for 10-15 minutes), or decoction (seeds/root/bark should be crushed or cut and boiled for 20 minutes). Serve the liquid warm. When preparing herbs in this way, we offer by syringe, add to the handfeeding formula, or to the water source. Always begin by offering herbs in minute amounts and increase gradually. When illness is caught in the early stages and the proper products are given immediately, we can often expect a quick recovery.

When using herbs, it is wise to determine whether the compound is to be used therapeutically or by way of tonic. If an herb is to be used therapeutically (for acute illness/infection/stress) it is best to use it for a short period of time (1-2 weeks), five days on, five days off, while reevaluating the bird's overall health. While used as a tonic (for chronic illness/infection/stress) it is best to use for a longer period of time for its mild effects and ongoing benefits. Dosages will vary from bird to bird and may be adjusted overtime.

Another method used for adult birds is the "herbal mist"--a very simple preparation of an herbal infusion or decoction with the herb(s) of choice. Pour the liquid into a clean mister bottle and shower each parrot thoroughly. We use 4 cups water to 3 teaspoons of dried herb. It acts as a nebulizer/drink when offered warm, soothing the mucous membranes, which provides improved respiratory function, while being a refreshing experience for your birds. The birds will also consume some of the herb while preening themselves. The herbal infusion can be kept fresh in the refrigerator for 2-3 days and offered chilled in the warmer months. We sometimes offer our Greys just a sprig or two of a particular herb fresh from our garden; but just like anything new, your Greys may be skeptical. Some herbs are sweet, others bitter, and your birds will certainly let you know which ones they like or don't like. Disguising the herb(s) may be necessary in cases where they continuously refuse them. This is accomplished by mixing or mashing thoroughly in a fresh food meal. The fresh herbs our parrots receive are in our "mash" diet (see Winter 96 GPR), or sprinkled on top, and so are readily consumed. Herbs also contain varying amounts of vitamins and minerals and provide nutritional support so vital in times of stress.


The adrenal glands are the most affected by stress and require that we offer higher levels of the following anti-stress supplements to support their function. The vitamins and minerals which are effective in reducing stress in your bird's life are the B complex vitamins (particularly B5, the anti-stress vitamin). Brewer's yeast, seeds, legumes and grains are good sources. Vitamin C (citrus fruits, berries, melons, kale, collards, parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas), vitamin E (nuts, grains and seeds) and essential fatty acids (seeds, nuts, grains, wheat germ oil, flax oil seed and evening primrose oil) are beneficial for strengthening immunity which is lowered at stressful times. Now let's not forget vitamin A (many veggies and fruits) for its ability to strengthen the cell walls, protect the mucous membranes and prevent allergies, thus helping your Grey's body resist infection at times of stress when resistance is lowered. This is particularly helpful to birds prone to respiratory problems. The amino acid particularly helpful during intense stress is tyrosine, while the amino acid trytophan is known for its calming effect. Be sure quality protein foods, such as seeds/nuts, grains/legumes/greens combined are a part of the diet. Foods such as vegetables, legumes and grains are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium and zinc.

It is very important during stressful times to maintain proper levels of these minerals. We also use an electrolyte solution called Miracle Water by Alacer Corporation which contains several valuable minerals. This can be added 50/50 to water. Stress uses up the minerals in your bird's body and therefore, replenishing them is essential. We use Calcium Magnesium Liquid, with natural vitamin D3, by Nature's Life for its calming effect on the nervous system, particularly during stress. We add 1 teaspoon daily to our "mash" diet for each pair of Greys. Remember that birds under stress (which includes extreme heat or cold) need additional calcium, as well as an increase in all essential nutrients.

Recognizing or even anticipating stressful situations in advance will certainly help to ease the times which are fraught with change, anxiety, fear or even depression. If a period of stress is predictably about to occur, you can plan ahead to have proper herbs on hand. We go a long way in making the transitions in our Greys' lives more tolerable and in helping them handle stress more effectively, by providing additional vitamins, minerals, soothing herbs, the proper foods and positive life-style changes. Then, all we need to add is ...LOVE.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and it is not intended to replace medical care. For all conditions requiring medical attention, see your avian veterinarian immediately. The products discussed in this article are, in my experience, very effective. However, it is not my intention to endorse the use of these products without the assistance of a holistic veterinarian or other qualified individual.

This article was published in the Spring 1997 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® African Grey Magazine: ; ;


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