Enrichment for Breeders vs Pets

What is enrichment? 

Enrichment is an animal welfare principle that aims to increase a captive animal’s quality of life by going above and beyond the bare necessities (food, water, shelter). In particular, it strives to address the mental health of the animal as much as the physical.

Some common methods of enrichment:

  • providing toys/manipulatives
  • changing how food is offered
  • providing a more natural enclosure
  • training
  • opportunities to socialize
tiger-tug-of-war

A tiger plays tug of war with guests.

Techniques are going to vary depending on what species you are working with, and why the animal is being kept. You would not enrich a parrot’s life the same way you would an elephant or a snake. Some methods of enrichment can satisfy multiple drives for an animal, such as this vinyl ball for a giraffe. It encourages the giraffe to stretch its neck and simulates wild foraging behavior. It also provides something novel to explore.

In pet birds, enrichment often takes the form of toys.

Foraging has gained popularity in recent years, and not just with birds. The concept of foraging is that it makes the animal work to get its food, as it would have to do in nature. One of my veterinarian professors fed his dogs out of a tool box filled with rocks. They had to shift rocks around and to get every bit of kibble, rather than wolfing everything down in seconds.

Many foraging toys are available on the market. The options below are designed for repeated use, but it’s important to have destructible toys as this better mimics how parrots forage in nature.

Most psittacines have a desire to chew. Their beaks are specially designed to eat fruit/seeds in their green state. This gives them a competitive edge against other species that have to wait for food to ripen. Offering destructible items, be they wood or paper or food, can fulfill this need to chew.

With the wide variety of toys available to pet owners, it can be easy to associate enrichment with toys alone. This narrow view of enrichment has resulted in many laypeople criticizing breeding enclosures based on their distinct lack of toys. There are several problems with this.

Toys are dangerous. 

Safety is a huge problem with toys. Although things have gotten much better in recent years, the fact remains that birds, like children, are great at finding ways to injure themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen birds hung up on toys, either by their band or a toe or a foot. Yes, they can get hung up without a band. Leave the band alone and check the cage and toys for hazards instead.

toe caught in toy

This is especially dangerous for breeder birds, who are generally not tame and may panic if approached, injuring themselves further.

As fun as toys may be for pet birds, they are still an unnatural element designed by humans and there are risks of injury, toxicity, and death. I’m not saying toys are bad, I’m saying breeders often employ safer enrichment options.

Nesting birds often ignore toys. 

Pairs that are actively nesting are generally too preoccupied with the business of raising the next generation to be bothered with toys. An incubating hen isn’t going to be playing with toys, but what about the male? Males will usually sit on guard duty outside the nestbox when they are not feeding. Play is not a concern for them at that time- safety and security of the nest site is. As soon as chicks are pulled for handfeeding, pairs will go back to playing with toys.

Safer, Alternative Methods of Enrichment

Tony Silva gives several ideas here. I’m a big fan of food enrichment. Psittacines are naturally destructive and offering whole food items is a great substitute for manufactured toys.

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This is a Brussels sprout stalk. I tie a rope around it and hang it in the cage. The right image is what it looks like after my ringnecks have been at it for a week. They LOVE edible toys.

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Here Loki is destroying half a pumpkin.

For smaller species, leafy greens work well. Skewers are also a favorite. I can throw several whole carrots in with my ringnecks and they will have great fun destroying them. It’s safer and gets birds to try a wide variety of foods. Chop is nice, but my birds have much more fun with whole items.

Planted aviaries are very difficult to do with psittacines. I tried putting a ficus tree with my kakarikis once and it didn’t go well for the tree. Tree clippings are a more realistic option. We have numerous citrus trees around our property and they give us plenty of fresh branches for play. Just make sure your clippings are from nontoxic species and haven’t been sprayed or collected next to a road (exhaust builds up on the plants).

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Social Interaction

Flocking is another method of enrichment. Pet birds are often kept isolated in small cages. Their owner may be their only source of social interaction. If the species is naturally very gregarious, this can lead to stress if, like most humans, their owner has a job away from home. This is why I recommend having at least two birds.

Many parrot species live together in large groups and break off into pairs for breeding. This can be mimicked by housing birds in smaller cages for breeding and then flocking them together during the off season. It gives them a chance to socialize, but also exercise.

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Which brings me to another source of enrichment…

Aviaries

My first batch of show cockatiels came from a breeder whose husband developed Bird Keeper’s Lung. She already sold most of her stock by the time I got to her, and was considering taking the leftovers to a bird mart. But then she lamented that pet owners might buy them and keep them in tiny cages. After living the good life in an aviary, fully flighted with an actual flock, being stuck indoors in a pet cage seems a cruel fate.

I want to be clear–there’s nothing wrong with keeping birds indoors, in pet cages, or clipping wings. My own personal pets are kept that way. BUT, nothing beats an aviary for enrichment. Nothing. They can fly–not in a house, where there are lots of hidden dangers–but in a space designed for birds. They can feel the sunshine and fresh air. They can feel the seasons change (yes, even winter). It’s a whole different level of care, and if you have the ability to build an aviary, even just for nice summer days, I highly recommend it.

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Green Cheek Colors

These are some of the colors we produce. All of these are babies from previous seasons. We do not get all of these colors every year. Normal, yellow-sided, and yellow-sided dilutes are our most common colors. Please check here for availability.

32c

normal

48Fb

yellow-sided

50F

dilute

49F

cinnamon

42a

pineapple (cinnamon yellow-sided)

27d

yellow-sided dilute

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From left to right: yellow-sided, yellow-sided turquoise, yellow-sided dilute

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normal (left) and turquoise (right)

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turquoise

36a

cinnamon turquoise

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yellow-sided turquoise

51a

pineapple turquoise (cinnamon yellow-sided turquoise)

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. 

Indian Ringneck Colors

These are some of the colors we produce. All of these are babies from previous seasons. Ringnecks are seasonal breeders, so we have a limited quantity each year. In 2020 we should be able to get cinnamon, green, lutino, and albino as well. Please check here for availability.

blue and violet

Blue (left) and violet (right)

blue pallid

blue pallid (white head with sky blue wash)

grey turquoise

grey turquoise

grey

grey

turquoise2

turquoise

violet pallid

violet pallid (white head with faint lavender wash)

violet

violet

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Available Indian Ringnecks

Please read the care sheet before contacting me to purchase a ringneck. They are intelligent, independent birds. They are not cuddly. If you want a cuddly bird, please see my green cheek conures. Ringnecks are great for the right person, but they are not for someone who wants a super affectionate bird.

Breeding season for ringnecks is Dec-Mar. I set my pairs up in Feb or March, once it starts warming up. I have a limited number of babies every year, as ringnecks typically don’t double-clutch. Please contact me to get on my waitlist.

Colors I can produce:

    • Blue
    • Violet
    • Blue pallid
    • Violet pallid
    • Grey
    • Grey Turquoise
    • Turquoise

Click here to see examples of each color.

Last updated: 2/13/2020

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. 

Available Cockatiels

I am all out of tame babies for 2019. I will not have any more until spring 2020. Please PM or email me to get on the wait list for next year. Facebook is the fastest way to reach me.

Last updated: 1/18/2020

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

How (Not to) Sex Cockatiels

Cockatiels are dimorphic, which means males and females look different. They’re pretty easy to sex IF you know what to look for. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of misinformation online. When it comes to sexing cockatiels, mutations matter, and most people simply don’t have the expertise to do it accurately. This is because certain rules of sexing are conditional, and if you don’t know the conditions under which the rule applies, you’re going to be wrong.

Let me give you an example. Pretend you’re an alien studying life on Earth, and one of your fellow aliens tells you that humans are easy to sex. All you have to do is follow two simple rules: Males are tall and have short hair. Females are short and have long hair.

The problem with this blanket statement should be obvious, but in case it’s not:

kit harrington

Likewise, there are a lot of incorrect generalities when it comes to sexing cockatiels. This has led to a lot of well-intentioned people repeating things they’ve heard without any concept of why they’re applying the information incorrectly:

bad advicebad advice2bad advice3

Cheek Patch Intensity/Color

Cheek patch color/intensity is one I see commonly, so we’ll tackle that first. Cockatiels have been bred in captivity for a long time, and while this rule might apply to wild cockatiels, it’s useless for sexing pets, which are likely to carry a number of color mutations and are very far removed from their wild counterparts.

All the examples I give here are adult birds. Scroll slowly if you’d like to test yourself.

sexing2 normals

I’d like to point that while both birds are normal, each carries the gene for pied. Again, captive birds are not wild-type!

Above we have two normal colored birds. Male on the left, female on the right. The rule seems to apply, right?

sexing7 cheekOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a very nice orange patch, just like the male above. The bird on the right doesn’t even have a cheek patch.

The problem here is that these birds have obvious mutations. The right is a pearl; left is whiteface. Whiteface birds can’t produce any yellow/orange color, so they don’t have a cheek patch. To someone inexperienced, it might even look like the bird on the left has a facial mask. There’s yellow there, right? Nope.

sexing8 cheek

This is why knowing the mutation matters. Females keep their pearls into adulthood. Males don’t (unless they’re pied–another rule broken!).

pearl progression

Progression of a pearl male. Baby, 6 months, a year. You can see how he gains a facial mask and loses many of the pearl markings. He will continue to lose more.

sexing3 cheek colorOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a much brighter cheek patch than the bird on the right.

I hate to break it to you, but that nice orange patch belongs to a lutino pearl hen. The male on the right has the yellow cheek mutation. There are several mutations that alter the cheek patch color like this. Pastelface is another one.

sexing4 cheek color“No problem,” someone says. “I can just look for the facial mask!”

Facial Mask

Go ahead and try sexing the birds below.

sexing5 facial maskOn the left we’re missing the distinct facial mask and the cheek patch is dull. The bird on the right is lutino, so it’s difficult to see if there’s a mask there, but the cheek patch is bright. Which one is male and which one is female?

sexing6 facial mask

Lutinos are really difficult to sex visually, because a lot of their identifying characteristics, like the mask and tail barring, are hard to see. It’s even more difficult if they’re pied lutino, which you may not even know from looking at them.

I cannot tell you how often I see people claim that a pied bird must be male because it has yellow/white on its head. Mutations matter! 

Petrie, the male on the left, is what’s called a dirty-faced pied–he has melanin on his face. Pied males do not get a facial mask, and pied females can have yellow heads. They cannot be sexed visually. Pearl pied males may lose their pearls, but they can also keep them. Pieds should really be sexed by behavior or DNA. Just to give you an idea:

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Pearl Pied Female

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Pearl Pied Male

So, how do you sex your cockatiel?

There are a few methods. If you’re impatient and want to know now, or if you have a pied or lutino, I recommend DNA sexing. It’s important to note that lutino is a sex-linked gene, and it is statistically far more likely to be female.

The other method is to wait until the bird is at least nine months old and has gone through a molt. Males will have begun to show their standard characteristics by then (except for pieds!). At this point you can use my guide to sexing or ask an expert. If you post in a general Facebook forum, you’re going to get a lot of inexperienced people giving you their incorrect opinions about head/cheek color, which is why I’m recommending a professional forum.

For more about how sex-linked genes work, see my article on Genetics.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Starter Pets: What makes a good beginner pet?

I’m tired of people acting like starter pets aren’t a thing. Cockatiels and budgies do well in just about every household. Cockatoos and lories absolutely do not. Would you recommend a macaw as a first bird? I didn’t think so.

Starter does NOT mean disposable. It means easy to for beginners to keep. Starter pets are your most laid back, your most versatile. They’re the chill animals who go with the flow while their owner learns the ropes, and they’re an essential entry point for budding bird people. So stop acting like “starter pet” is an insult. Starter pets are AWESOME. That’s what makes them starter pets.

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What makes an animal a good starter pet?

  • hardy
  • easy care
  • few behavior problems
  • good with children
  • inexpensive
  • (relatively) short lifespan

Hardy

People are going to make mistakes, even if they are trying their best. No one starts out an expert. Some knowledge is gained best through experience than reading (bird body language for one). Researching everything prior to purchase can still leave someone with conflicting advice, thanks in part to the many armchair experts that give misleading information online.

Starter pets are physically hardy. They’re able to withstand mistakes here and there. Budgies and cockatiels are native to the Australian outback. Their bodies are designed to deal with food and water shortages, and greater temperature extremes. They’re tough, unlike kakarikis, who can pass out or have a heart attack if stressed.

Easy Care

All animals have a baseline of care, but for some, this baseline is higher than others. Starter pets are at the lowest possible bar. If an animal has a specialized diet (lories, eclectus) or needs heavy-duty equipment (macaw), then it’s not a starter pet.

Few Behavior Problems

Why are cockatiels starter pets but cockatoos are not? Because cockatoos turn into a neurotic mess if handled wrong.

Some animals are more likely to develop behavior problems if incorrectly handled. Perhaps they are nippy, flighty, or tend to attach to one person. Maybe they don’t take commands easily and need a person who can handle their strong will appropriately. Such animals do not make starter pets. Behavior issues are not the fault of the animal, but simply a byproduct of an inexperienced owner reacting inappropriately to certain innate behaviors.

Good with Children

This quality is important if the pet is intended for a family with children or access to grandchildren. Starter pets should be reasonably tolerant of handling, especially as children tend to be overzealous even when coached. You want to avoid species which are nippy when excited (green cheek conures) or bite hard when their personal space is invaded (Indian ringnecks).

Inexpensive

Budget absolutely matters. Not all families can afford expensive pets. There’s a vast difference between setting up a budgie vs a macaw. Larger birds have larger long-term costs as well. Working within your means is not a crime. It’s sensible.

Short Lifespan

This one is hard, as outside of rodents, you’re going to have a starter pet for at least ten years. Some people may find that birds are not for them, and in this case rehoming is best. A longer lived pet is more likely to run into the problem of major life changes. What happens when a child grows up and moves to college? Gets married? Has kids of their own? Moves? What happens if your job changes and you have less time to spend with your pet? What if your bird outlives you?

The longer a pet lives, the more likely it will encounter situations like these and the more likely it will be rehomed. We can’t always plan for the future, but lifespan should definitely be taken into account when acquiring a pet, especially if there’s a good change it might outlive you.

What a starter pet is NOT.

Disposable.

budgie

Any time you purchase an animal, even if it is a starter pet, you need to consider your life situation and do your research. While starter pets are a good way to find out if a particular type of pet is good for you, that doesn’t mean they should be discarded the moment you feel like you can move on to something better. This is an animal that is bonded with you and your family. It isn’t going to understand why it is being cast aside, and few pets are rehomed just once. Pets, even starter pets, should be purchased with the intent to keep them for the long term.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Green Cheek Conure Growth Guide

These are several different babies. They don’t magically change color from day to day. Remember when looking at weight that these are averages and that a full/empty crop influences weight.

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© 2018 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.