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Does My Bird Have Tourette’s? – Wing-Flipping, Toe-Tapping & More!

This article could very well be entitled "Balancing Your Bird's Nutrients," but that wouldn't give you cause to read what the overall article attempts to address: "Avian Tourette's Syndrome."

Disclaimer:Information in this article is not intended to diagnose, prevent or treat the human syndrome known as “Tourette’s Syndrome.”

Unfortunately, many of us who care for exotic birds, parrots in specific have encountered unrelenting muscle spasms known as “wing-flipping,” “toe-tapping,” "biting at the feet," or any other number of repetitive movements, mimics or vocal sounds parrots are subject to. These actions/symptoms are not “just” a behavioral exhibition, but they may increase or worsen with any stimuli that cause anxiety.

Examples of toe-tapping and wing-flipping videos follow:

What causes these repetitive movements and sounds? Are they just something companion birds do as “fun activities,” “habit,” “attention-getters,” or is something more sinister at play in the birds who display these actions?

I have studied, researched the nutrition of, and clinically tested parrots who engage in these actions. While this syndrome has been widely blamed, and the explanation broadly accepted that these repetitive movements are due to food colorings and/or synthetic vitamins, I am here to strongly suggest that information is very, very incorrect. Although there may be some truth to synthetic vitamins adding to or causing “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome,” it is not the synthetic vitamins themselves, but instead the “balance” or “ratio” of certain vitamins/minerals in the food the bird is consuming.

Moreover, this “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome” may very well be unique to each, individual bird. This could be due to genetics and/or the inability to metabolize certain nutrients correctly.

You probably understand that caring for very unhealthy birds who arrive as permanent residents to our Providence Exotic Bird Sanctuary can be quite an overwhelming task. Bringing them back to a healthy homeostasisisunique to every bird we receive. Many of the birds who come to our sanctuary are deep into “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome,” requiring a total readjustment to their diet.

Let’s all first understand exhibition of this syndrome, outwardly which is what we see as caregivers, is only an indication of what is taking place inside our bird’s body. As always, as compassionate and caring caregivers we should take notice of any unusual or abnormal outwards signs our birds display. Such signs give us the ability to help ward off further, deeper health problems.

I would strongly encourage anyone who has a bird or birds who engage in this activity to have a full CBC blood panel performed on their bird(s). Specifically ask your vet to test for calcium and magnesium levels, as well as lipid levels. The results of this test are going to give you a hint of what is causing your bird to engage in this syndrome, but the test will not give you the answer as to what to do about it. Why? As I stated, every bird is unique and may require nutrient balancing according to their own genetics and what they currently consume and what they have consumed in the past – specifically the balance of nutrients in those foods and/or how those foods have impacted their overall digestive tract health.

We see this syndrome most often in the Eclectus species, secondly in the African Grey species and third in the Macaw species. Is that only because these are the birds highest in the species we have in our homes, or is it really because these species are the most prone to this syndrome? I don’t know. This does not mean we don’t see it in other species. For instance, we usually see this syndrome in the form of neck writhing/twisting, “stargazing/twirling” in Cockatiels and other smaller birds. There are many forms of this syndrome, but we don’t always “catch the hint” our birds are giving to us.

When I begin caring for a bird who has “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome,” because of my experience, studies, research and laboratory testing I realize that bird most likely has a severe nutritional imbalance. This imbalance can be caused by food that is not properly formulated for that species, or due to a malabsorption of nutrients – this can be genetic, or it can be inflicted by a long term poor diet. My job is to determine which it is, even if it’s a little of both.

When I first started investigating this syndrome, I went along with the current and most popular theories: food colorings and/or synthetic vitamins. I soon learned it had nothing to do whatsoever with food colorings; all of the food we feed contains absolutely no artificial colorings, not even the “natural” food colorings derived from plants. In spite of the absence of coloring in our Origins Wild Diet foods, many of our rescue birds still engaged in this syndrome. I turned to synthetic vitamins as the cause. I soon learned it was not synthetic vitamins because we do not use synthetic vitamins in our OWD species-specific foods. Still, the syndrome persisted even months or years on our OWD foods. “What could be the cause?”

It wasn’t until I began working more in depth on the formulations of our OWD foods that I learned quite an amazing fact! Those birds who engaged in this syndrome where birds who did not receive the correct ratio of Omega 6s to Omega 3s AND did not receive the correct ratio of calcium to magnesium. That fact was mostly due to the kinds of foods they had been fed in the past before arriving at our sanctuary, the imbalance of nutrients in those foods (not the food colorings or synthetic vitamins, but the balanceof nutrients), and how healthy or unhealthy their digestive tract was due to the kind of diets they had been on for the long term prior to arriving at our sanctuary. Whew…that’s a lot to take into consideration, but well worth the in-depth research.

This is a good place to suggest you read my article about "B Vitamins." I have also found, that again the "balance" of nutrients is most important, even over "diversity" and "variety" even though that is very important too. I purposely increased the ratio of B6 in some of our birds' daily diets and began observing increased toe-tapping, wing-flipping, chewing at their feet and plucking. My reasoning for increasing the ratio? I thought they needed more of this nutrient to help with the production of neurotransmitters. As it turns out, the correct ratio does aid in the production of certain neurotransmitters, primarily norepinephrine (exciting) and serotonin (calming), but B6 increases more of the neurotransmitters that excite the brain and overall nervous system. Again, "balance" in nutrition. Too much of a good thing can result in negative results. Once I realized these actions increased only since I added extra B6 I lowered the amount in their daily diets and immediately the negative actions also decreased! While B6 is extremely important in our birds' diets, too much can deliver just as many problems as too little. -I researched which commercial bird foods include a higher level of B6 to their formulations than other commercial foods. To my amazement I found that colored pellets usually contain more B6 than B12! Overall I saw more B6 in colored pellets than non-colored pellets! So I ask, "Is it the color in those pellets or too much B6?"I believe it is largely too much B6 over B12. Plus, in my opinion usually the calcium (nutrient that excites) to magnesium (nutrient that calms) ratio is way off in commercial pellets. Also, most commercial bird foods are extremely high in pro-inflammatory lousy LDL Omega 6s, and seriously lack in healthy HDL in the form of Omega 3s. The take away here is this: While diversity and variety in our birds' diets is very, very important, that fact alone does not necessarily create a "balanced" diet. We seriously need to address the balance of nutrients to ensure our birds are receiving the correct kind of nutrition, not only a varied diet. (You will see me scream this fact on a very frequent basis.) The ONLY way we can be absolutely sure nutrients are balanced is to first educate ourselves on what proper nutritional balancing is. Additionally we must make sure commercial bird foods are formulated to the specific needs of exotic birds, not poultry. Finally we must require laboratory testing of commercial formulations as well as homemade mixes to meet the needs of our feathered friends. And please, don't think just because you feed a totally fresh diet and no pellets that your bird is not susceptible to "hypo" or "hyper- vitaminosis." Too little of a nutrient or too much in ratio to all other nutrients, regardless of fresh or processed can wreak havoc - I know. Back when my husband and I began caring for parrots, even though ours were on a totally raw diet we found our birds to have much, much higher Vitamin A levels that necessary - even though the Vitamin A they were receiving was naturally occurring through the endogenous (within the body) synthesizing process from beta-carotene to Vitamin A. Being a fat-soluble vitamin, if our birds had not been receiving adequate dietary fat that excessively high level of naturally occurring Vitamin A could have potentially killed our birds- but we found out in time to lower the intake of beta-carotene before any damage occurred!

Just as important is addressing the balance of Omega 6s to Omega 3s AND also addressing the balance of calcium to magnesium. After further balancing of these nutrients I began witnessing a lot of engagement in the syndromes drop way, way down. For some birds adjustment to diet took care of the problem completely, for other birds, even though their engagement lessened, more research, clinical testing, and observation ensued.

I began adding, even more, Omega 3s, in different forms; flax seed and flax seed oil along with hemp seed and hemp seed oil. For those who also engaged in feather destruction, I added Krill oil due to the lack of salicylates in that form of Omega 3. I also adjusted their intake of calcium and magnesium. Much to my surprise ALL symptoms of “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome” halted!

Oh, it took time. None of this was overnight. Along with all of the dietary adjustments I made sure that each bird experienced a thorough digestive tract detox to help eliminate prior diet anti-nutrients as well as the removal of unbalanced nutrients. In other words, I helped these birds detox as many of the toxins they carried in their digestive tract as possible. Once their digestive tracts were detoxed, and balanced dietary fats, as well as balanced vitamins and minerals, had been replaced, the symptoms of “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome” simply disappeared!

What do the symptoms of “Avian Tourette’s Syndrome” tell us overall?

Any wing-flipping, toe-tapping, neck twisting/twirling a bird displays is only an indicator of the bird’s overall diet and health. At a much deeper level, this outward sign of ill-health is an inward sign that the bird is lacking in healthy dietary fats and/or an imbalance of calcium to magnesium.

If these unbalanced nutrient levels are not addressed, we are allowing our companion bird to be at high risk for cardiovascular disease such as atherosclerosis. Also, we may also begin witnessing seizures, lack of coordination, falling off perches, and our bird may begin suffering from arthritis and other soft tissue and joint disorders.

The bottom line is that if we do not address the outward signs our birds are giving us, we may be subjecting our bird to more serious health problems in the short or long run.

Again, if your bird is engaging in any symptoms such as wing-flipping, toe-tapping, neck-twisting/writhing, or stargazing/twirling have a complete CBC blood test performed by your trusted veterinarian. Tell your vet that you specifically want a mineral analysis including magnesium and a lipids panel. While your vet may not be able to tell you the amount of Omega 6s to Omega 3s running through your bird’s system, the lipid panel, which tells the overall triglycerides will help. It is normal for Omega 6s to be higher than Omega 3s, so if your bird’s lipids panel returns with exceedingly high triglycerides, it may not be due to too many Omega 3s. In fact, that is probably not the case, but instead too many Omega 6s. High triglycerides alone is not necessarily a “bad thing,” but it will tell you if your bird’s dietary fats need to be adjusted. Or, which may be the case, that your bird is not properly metabolizing fats. If this is the case then your bird probably also suffers some kind of liver damage. –Even if the blood calcium level returns high OR low, this tells you that your bird’s calcium to magnesium levels are incorrect. This may be due to diet and/or poor digestive tract health, unable to absorb these minerals or genetics. Calcium and magnesium not only help control motor skills and muscle coordination and movements but also affect emotions and how our birds deal with anxiety - thus increased or decreased involuntary movements. Most of the time any nutrient problem is due to unbalanced diets and/or an unhealthy digestive tract due to a prior or current unhealthy diet.

Don’t be dismayed, besides genetics, all of this can be corrected. Although it will take time, probably a long time. Even in the case of genetics, if your specific bird, in all of its uniqueness diet can play a positive role in mitigating genetic disorders that cause malabsorption. Don’t just give up; your feathered friend depends on you to keep fighting to find the cause of any disorder it may be encountering!

Happy foraging!

©1.24.17   Passion Tree House LLC – All Rights Reserved

(Revised 4.3.17)

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