Beginner Guide to Genes, Mutations and Hybrids: Part 1

Disclaimer: This guide is meant to be a very basic overview of these topics. Terms are kept as generic as possible, and some things are vastly oversimplified.

genetics

Photo by Jeff Coffman

Part 1: Genetics

Physical characteristics are controlled by genes. We get two sets of genes from our parents. If our parents both have brown eyes, we will likely have brown eyes too. But what happens when one of our parents has blue eyes and the other has brown? What color will our eyes be? Both genes will not be displayed at the same time. Our body controls which genes show up through gene expression. There are several kinds of gene expression, but dominant, recessive, and sex-linked are the three we’ll worry about.

Dominant and Recessive Genes

A dominant gene is expressed no matter what. If your body contains a single copy it will show up visually. A recessive gene can only be displayed if BOTH the genes received from the parents are the same recessive gene. Think of it this way: a dominant gene is like the sun and recessive genes are like the stars. If the sun is in the sky, the stars cannot be seen even though they are there. Likewise, when a dominant gene is present the recessive genes are all hidden. But if there are no dominant genes around we can see recessive genes.

In humans, the gene for brown eyes is dominant and the gene for blue eyes is recessive. So if we received one brown gene from dad and one blue gene from mom only the brown gene would be expressed. Our eyes would be brown.

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The only way to get blue eyes is if you get TWO copies of the gene for blue eyes.

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So far all of our examples have carried two copies of the same gene. Not all parents are like this. When a brown-eyed person and a blue-eyed person have a child, even though that child has brown eyes they still carry the gene for blue. What if that child decides to have children? Which gene will they inherit? Luckily, there is an easy method to find out.

A Punnett square (below) is a quick way to find out the chances of a child inheriting a certain gene. The father’s genes are each entered at the top and the mother’s genes are entered on the side. The four boxes in the center are the possible combinations of those genes. Let’s try one together.

First, draw a square like the one below.

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Our father here will be a man with brown eyes who carries the gene for blue. Mom will have blue eyes.

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Enter the information on the parents. We use capital letters to symbolize dominant genes (in this case a capital “B” for brown), and lower case letters to symbolize recessive genes (in this case a little “b” for blue).

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Now we combine the parents’ genetic information in the boxes to find out how the children will look.

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The results out of four children:

  • two are Bb (brown eyes, carrying gene for blue)
  • two are bb (blue eyes)

Let’s try some more. What if both parents have brown eyes, but carry the gene for blue? You’d get the following:

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Results:

  • one BB (brown eyes)
  • two Bb (brown eyes, carry blue)
  • one bb (blue eyes)

Now let’s see if you can do some on your own:

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Click here for answer.

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Click here for answer.

Give yourself a big pat on the back if you got them right. Now we can move on to the third form of gene expression…

Sex-linked Genes

Sex-linked genes act just like recessive, except they also bow to the will of the sex of the child. To understand sex-linked genes, it helps to know what they look like. Genes are just sections of DNA code that tell the body to do something. DNA itself is coiled tightly and contained in a structure called a chromosome.

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Most people already know that in humans the man has an X and Y chromosome and the female has two X chromosomes. This is the reason that the only the man can determine the sex of the child. Women can only provide X chromosomes while a man can provide either. The X chromosome is physically bigger and can carry more genetic information on it than the Y chromosome. This is where sex-linked traits come in. Because the X is bigger it means that some genes carried on it are not carried on the Y chromosome. These genes can be expressed even without a corresponding partner on an X chromosome. They also cannot be blocked out unless there is another X chromosome carrying a dominant partner.

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One human sex-linked gene is hemophilia. Hemophilia is a disease that keeps a person’s blood from clotting when they are cut. Because hemophilia is a sex-linked disease, most of the people who have it are men. Women can carry the gene for hemophilia but will not be affected by it because their second X chromosome will block it out with a healthy gene. Women must have two copies of the defective gene to be affected by the disease. Inheriting two copies is highly unlikely. Since a man only has one X chromosome (from his mother), if he gets a copy of the gene he will have the disease. Mothers carrying one gene for hemophilia have a 50% chance of sons being born with the disease. Here’s how it works:

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As you can see, at least half of her children (boxes 1 and 2) will inherit the gene. One, a daughter, will only carry the gene. The other, a son, will have the disease hemophilia. The last two children (boxes 3 and 4) will carry healthy genes. Of course these are only the possibilities of what her children could end up with. She could very well end up giving it to all her children or none at all. It’s just a matter of chance. Now let’s take a look at what will happen if this woman’s hemophiliac son has children with a healthy woman:

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ALL the man’s daughters will be carriers and all of his sons will be safe. The daughters could end up passing it on to their children. It is in this way that sex-linked genes can disappear and reappear from generation to generation.

Not all sex-linked traits are bad. Many of the colors you see in birds like lutino, pearl, and cinnamon are controlled by sex-linked genes. But before we can get into bird sex-linked traits there’s something you need to know: BIRDS DO NOT HAVE X AND Y CHROMOSOMES. Birds carry different sex chromosomes than humans. Instead of X and Y, they have Z and W. That’s not really important and we’ll stick to X and Y for our examples here. What IS important is that in birds the male carries two of the same chromosome (like XX) and the female carries two different (XY). This means that it is hens who determine the sex of the chicks in birds and that they are more likely to show up with sex-linked traits. The punnett squares and such all work the same way, you just have to remember to reverse the X and Y’s from that of humans:

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Let’s try another punnet square, this time for birds. I have a lutino male and I want to see what I’ll get if I breed him to a normal hen. In order for a male to display lutino he has to be carrying it on both X chromosomes. We’ll color the lutino X’s with yellow to tell them apart.

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All of the babies will be carrying a gene for lutino. The cocks, however, will only be “split” (carry the gene) and will not show up lutino. The hens will all be visually lutino because they have no second X chromosomes to block out the gene.

The results:

  • 50% normal males split for lutino
  • 50% lutino hens

Let’s try one more. This time I want to mate a cinnamon hen to a cock split to cinnamon (carrying but not displaying). She will only need the one gene to show the color.

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Half of the babies will be cinnamon (both sexes), one will be split (a male) and one will be normal (female).

The results:

  • 25% normal males split to cinnamon
  • 25% cinnamon males
  • 25% cinnamon females
  • 25% normal females.

One of the great things about sex-linked traits is that they may allow you to sex birds very young without having to DNA test. A male that is carrying lutino, when mated with a hen that is not lutino, will always have lutino daughters. If he is lutino himself then ALL his daughters will be lutino. If he is not visibly lutino then any lutino you find in the nest will be a hen for certain.

Sex-linked genes allow you to get visual colors much faster, as you only need a male to be carrying a single copy. This is why Pineapple green cheek conures are more common than colors like turquoise. Pineapple is a combination of two sex-linked colors, while turquoise is recessive. However, it also drives up the price of males who show sex-linked traits. Hens are far easier to come by. To get a visual male you need two copies of the gene.

Well that’s it for now. Congratulations, you survived part one!

All articles and images contained on this site are ©2017 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Containing the Mess

Birds are extremely messy pets. Even with products like seed guards they will still get food and poop everywhere. Here are some helpful tips to keeping your house clean.

Secure the Area

One of the first things I did after moving was start prepping the bird area. Even fairly neat birds can splatter food on the walls and that stuff turns into cement when it dries. Buy some cheap clear plastic shower curtains and tack them to the wall behind your cages.

Consider your floors. Poop is very annoying to remove from carpet, especially if it has had time to dry. For carpet I have used chair mats with great success. They are easy to take outside and hose/scrub. If you have a large cage you will need several to cover an area greater than your cage. This may cost a bit more but the mats last a long time so it’s a good investment. I have mats that are ten years old and still going strong.

If you have a flat surface like wood, vinyl, or tile it will be fairly easy to sweep clean and spot scrub. Still, it can be useful to protect these areas (especially wood). Chair mats also work for this (just make sure you get the kind meant for flat floors), but you can also go cheap with plastic drop clothes or more shower curtains. You can use painters tape or masking tape to keep it from shifting around.

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Six mats to cover two large cages.

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I hose off the mats, scrub them down, then let them dry in the sun.

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Temporary set up in my garage prior to our move.

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Shower curtains for the wall. Drop cloths for the floor.

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Clear shower curtains behind the cages make a good incognito way to protect the paint.

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I used drop cloths on the floor, but these became problematic over time.

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You must leave a gap between the cage and the wall! Otherwise they’re going to be grabbing the shower curtain and chewing it. Also, the weights at the bottom of the shower curtain are magnetic, and will stick to your cages if too close.

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The problem with drop cloths. They shift and bunch over time when your roll the cage for cleaning, even when taped.

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Solution: leftover vinyl scraps from a remodel.

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Vinyl scraps.

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Done!

Preventing Food Splatter

High dishes will result in a wider “splash zone” from the cage. If your dishes are on the floor the the cage the mess is easier to contain with shielding like cage skirts. However, lower dishes are also more at risk from fecal contamination, so you need to be careful about placement. Most cages these days come with outside access feed doors about midway up the cage.

Covered feeders are another option, though one must be careful that a bird cannot get trapped inside.

seed corral

Minimizing Poop Damage When Out of the Cage

Unless your bird is always on a perch or in its cage, you will have poops around the house and probably on your person. Some people train their birds to poop on a specific area. You can also teach your bird to poop on command, though this can lead to problems if it refuses to go when no command is given.

If your bird is allowed to perch on furniture like couches or chairs, a cover should be used. Towels and sheets will suffice but if you want to spend more on fancier covers you can do that too. We have a long runner style rug behind the couches to catch stray poops.

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Shoulder Cape

For yourself, there are a couple of options. I personally use a “poop shirt.” It’s just an oversized t-shirt that I no longer care about that is worn over my actual shirt. This way my shirt is protected and I can just remove the poop shirt when I’m done carrying my bird. Many other people use a sort of shawl or shoulder cover like this.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Breeding: It’s Not Easy

A friend of mine was just lamenting all the posts she sees online that make breeding out to be a simple affair. Things like “there is nothing hard about breeding birds as long as you know you have a male and female” and “breeders are just looking for easy money.” Make no mistake, it is incredibly difficult to make a living at this.
 
For many of us, this is not our day job. I bought my pet Goffin from a breeder friend of mine. Her day job was a custodian. Most of the breeding I’ve done was while going to school and working as a bank teller. I’ve always operated on the level of “my birds pay for themselves, and I have a little bit leftover to reinvest/upgrade.” My breeders pay for their own upkeep. They pay for the birds that don’t quite fit in as either a pet or a breeder, but still need a decent home. They pay for the retired birds and the special needs birds. They pay for the species that no one has ever heard of- sometimes endangered, sometimes not. Aviculture is a passion, not an easy way to make money. There is nothing easy about this.
 
This year in particular I’ve had so many chicks reach pipping and then become trapped. Some I’ve managed to assist and they’ve gone on to develop into beautiful, happy, healthy babies. Others have died trapped inside their eggshell prison. It’s heartbreaking to see them that close to the end and find them dead. You think, “if only I’d intervened sooner maybe it would have been okay.”
 
People say it would be wonderful if everyone stopped breeding. It would be a catastrophic loss, both in the level of expertise and the captive gene pool. I’ve been retired for 12 years. In just that short time span, all my own cockatiels have become too old to breed. I’ve seen species that were quite common in aviculture slowly drop off the map. Kakarikis- the species in my logo, the feisty little New Zealand birds that gave my aviary its name- have become even rarer than they were back when I began working with them. I can’t even find yellow fronted kakarikis that haven’t been hybridized with their red fronted cousins. I cringe when I see very rare species kept back from breeding programs by well-meaning rescues. I feel like Indiana Jones crying out “It belongs in a museum!” These birds need qualified people working with them.
 
When you see a bird for sale, think of how much work went in to get to that point- pairs that may not have worked out, years of waiting for birds to mature, infertile clutches, dead chicks, disease testing, all the costs associated with keeping live animals (housing, feeding, veterinary care), the learning curve (both for the breeder and the birds- chicks, like human babies, don’t come with instruction manuals!), and TIME. Are you willing to feed a chick every 2 hours around the clock? Because I am. It takes a toll you.
 
Aviculture needs us all working together- pet owners, breeders, veterinarians, rescues, behaviorists. We each bring something to the table. When one group doesn’t take the time to understand or listen to the others, the birds are the ones who lose.

Handfeeding Crash Course

For the accidental breeder or the person who got suckered in to doing the breeder’s job for them.

This is intended to be an emergency guide. It is not comprehensive! If you plan on handfeeding routinely you need to get a copy of Parrots: Hand Feeding & Nursery Management by Howard Voren and Rick Jordan. In Australia they prefer Incubation & Handraising Parrots by Phil Digney.

What does your baby look like?

  1. Naked
  2. Down feathers (fluffy feathers, but no proper feathers)
  3. Pinfeathers
  4. Mostly feathered

chick development

Feather development varies from species to species. Some, like Indian ringnecks, move from naked alien babies to pinfeathers with no real down stage. LOOK at your baby and see what level it is at. #1-3 NEED SUPPLEMENTAL HEAT.

Temperature for baby

  1. Naked- 93-97.5°F. Exact temperature depends on the age and size of the chick.
  2. Down- 85°F
  3. Pinfeathers- 78-82°F
  4. Feathered- Room temperature, so long as it’s not too chilly

You MUST have a way to accurately measure temperature! Make sure your thermometer (or the probe reading the temperature) is placed in the same location as the chicks, otherwise your reading will be off.

WATCH your baby

  • Shivering = too cold
  • Panting = too hot
  • Adjust accordingly!

How to Keep Baby Warm

Ideally you would have a proper brooder like this:

brooders

You can also make low budget versions with fish tanks/critter keepers and a heating pad or lamp:

brooder

Here are some links on how to make a brooder:

Feeding

Supplies needed:

  • thermometer
  • handfeeding formula
  • syringe or spoon with sides bent up
  • kleenex or other item for wiping off baby

How to Feed

  1. Heat water separately.
  2. Add hot water to formula until desired consistency is achieved.
    • Very young chicks take thinner formula
    • Consistency should be similar to applesauce- thick, but drips easily from spoon
  3. Stir well to eliminate lumps and hot spots
  4. CHECK TEMPERATURE with a candy thermometer or digital kind.
  5. The safe window is 100-110°F. Any hotter and the crop will be burned, which can lead to death. Any cooler and the chick will refuse the formula. Ideally you want to be around 106°F.
  6. Do NOT heat formula in the microwave. This causes hot spots.
  7. Add hot water to formula, check temp, add cool water if necessary, or wait until formula cools. It may take some trial and error until you get the hang of it.
  8. Hold the chick steady.
  9. If using a syringe, aim it from the bird’s left to the bird’s right. The esophagus is on the right. If you shoot toward the left you may unintentionally aspirate the bird. Aim toward the right.
  10. Chicks, especially older chicks, may pump vigorously and make a huge mess.
  11. Do not overfeed. Doing so can stretch out the crop, preventing it from emptying properly. Crop should be a nice bulge but not sag.
  12. Chicks may cry for a brief period after feeding, as it can take time to register that they are full. Crying all day is a sign that something is wrong.

Feeding Schedule:

The table below is not mine, and it is made with cockatiels in mind. Larger species will eat more and develop at a different rate. Adjust accordingly!

handfeeding chart

This is for COCKATIELS.

I personally listen to the chicks. If they’re crying a lot and the crop is empty then they need to be fed. If they’re refusing food (and it’s at the right temperature) it may be time to bump back the feeding time. Listen to your chicks!

Please visit my YouTube channel for videos on brooding and handfeeding, or watch the playlist below:

Fledging & Weaning

Once the chick is fully feathered it begins the fledging and weaning process. Chicks may start to refuse feeds and drop a bit of weight prior to fledging. This is normal, as slimmer birds have an easier time flying. At this point you can move them to a cage and start offering foods. I begin with soft, warm foods or things that are easy to manipulate. You want to offer a large variety of foods and textures- vegetables, pellets, and seed. Initially food will get picked at and stepped on but eventually the chicks will learn to eat it.

It is important that all birds learn to fly properly. If you plan to clip your bird’s wings, give it time to learn to fly well before clipping. It should be able to take off, land, and fly with purpose and accuracy. Once it can do this for some time you can clip.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Introducing New Birds

How does one go about introducing new birds to your flock?

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Fresh out of quarantine and on their way to meet the flock.

Step 1: Quarantine

ALWAYS QUARANTINE FIRST!

New birds can potentially bring disease into your flock. Diseases can range from mild an annoying to very expensive and possible deadly. Quarantine is your first line of defense. How does one quarantine? You need to keep the new bird(s) isolated in an area away from your other birds for at LEAST 30 days. Sixty days is better. During this time, new birds should be tested for diseases and observed for signs of illness. I recommend testing because many of the nastiest diseases, like PBFD and Avian Bornavirus, can go for years without any clinical signs. Quarantine birds should be fed last. Generally you also want to wear different shoes while in this area, or go through a foot bath of disinfectant when exiting. Disease testing kits can be ordered here. More detailed quarantine procedures can be found here. Once quarantine is over you can safely move your new birds into the main bird area.

Step 2: Introductions

How you do introductions depends both on your set up and what species you keep. If you are a pet owner, your birds are likely housed in (relatively) small cages where each bird or birds has an established territory. If this is the case, side-by-side introductions are best. The new bird is placed in a separate cage within sight and sound of the current birds. There will likely be some curiosity or even aggression through the bars of the cage. Over time, bickering should diminish. At this point, birds can enjoy SUPERVISED time out together. Accidents can happen in an instant so be on alert, especially if the two birds are not friendly toward one another. Try not to let birds crawl onto each other’s cages, as even a mellow bird can defend its home turf. If you hope to eventually house the birds together, they should be placed in a new, neutral cage at the same time only after they’ve shown an interest in one another for awhile.

If you have large cages (I mean LARGE, like full flights or walk-in aviaries) with many different birds, adding new birds can be done immediately after quarantine, providing you keep species that are NOT super aggressive.

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Two new cockatiels were just introduced into this established flight. Cockatiels are generally not aggressive, and aside from some squabbling over preferred perches, there were no fights.

If you’re introducing many new birds at one time, it is usually safe so long as the cage is neutral. A lone bird coming into established territory is at far greater risk.

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Side-by-side introduction of a new Indian ringneck.

In the above picture, we have a single new bird being introduced. The cage on the right contains six ringnecks, which came from three different sources. They were all introduced at relatively the same time to this cage, which means there was no fighting. However, this grey male is a late arrival. These birds have already been in this cage for a few months- more than enough time to become territorial. Ringnecks can be very aggressive, so he must be introduced slowly.

Some birds are independently aggressive, and you won’t know who until you put birds together. I recently tried pairing a green cheek hen with a male in a neutral cage. She immediately began to attack him. This was a large cage. I scooped her up and removed her, and tried a different hen. No issues. However, the first hen continued to do aggressive displays towards the introduced male, who was now in a neighboring cage with a friend of hers (the other hen). I had to place barriers at the back to help neutralize the aggression.

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New cage with cardboard barriers at the back.

Barriers are definitely something to consider if there is excessive aggression. When a bird feels threatened it will make aggressive displays. This is stressful to the birds, and should be curtailed if possible. When I introduced Lando to my Goffin, Loki, she was very agitated and yelling constantly. I kept cardboard between their two cages for a few days until she settled down. He was an invader of her space and it took time for her to get over that. Introductions are fine, but you don’t want the birds to be overly stressed.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

 

Armchair Warriors

I’ve seen several people upset lately that they can’t post anything fun online without being criticized. Here’s the thing: misinformation kills.

Last weekend I picked up two cockatiels from a woman. When I asked if she had any other birds, she told me that she had a blue & gold macaw, but it had died.

“What happened?”
“We poisoned it.”

Turns out they painted their house and left the bird inside. After a while the bird went into respiratory distress. She moved it outside for a bit and “tried to comfort” it, but then brought it back inside, at which point “she got so scared of going back into the house that she had a heart attack.” The bird didn’t have a heart attack out of fright, but died of respiratory problems caused by exposure to fumes.

A third cockatiel I picked up last weekend was in good condition. However, the seller also had an eclectus kept in a carrier barely big enough for the bird to turn around in. It was also on an all-seed diet (not great for any bird, but eclectus have specialized digestive systems and need a different diet). It had stress bars and black feathers all over its body from unintentional abuse.

DAILY I see posts about birds that flew away.

If you make a post and someone mentions something you’re doing that could potentially be harmful, please swallow your pride and think about why. Many people post fun things and DON’T know that what they’re doing is harmful. We don’t know if you know, and those of us with more experience have a duty to educate. But it’s not all about the OP. There are newbies everywhere reading these posts and THEY need to be educated. If nothing is said, if the risks aren’t brought up, then they will think everything is 100% okay and perfectly normal. This is why I try to add disclaimers to my own posts that could be taken the wrong way (eg. “this is a travel cage, not their actual cage”). Those of us with more experience can do better risk analysis when it comes to our actions, newbies cannot.

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Fry was on a safflower diet for years.

I know people can takes these criticisms personally, but it is anything but personal. The sad fact is that there are still so many uneducated pet owners out there. Those of us who work in the industry, be we breeders, rescues, veterinarians, or pet store owners, deal with the fallout when a bird has been cared for incorrectly. You may not see that side of it, but we do, and we try our best to prevent it through the dissemination of accurate information. We’re not trying to be killjoys.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Sexing

If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.

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Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.

If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.

DNA

DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.

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A blood card for Avian Biotech.

All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.

Surgical

This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.

Behavior

Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.

Rehoming Culture

 

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I recently bought a pionus. I am at least his fifth home. Let that sink in. This poor bird has had FIVE homes. The first home I have a history for kept him “under a porch covered with a blanket.” Next he spend a “year or two with a lady and a bunch of birds.” After that was a year with a woman, Courtney*.

Courtney loved the bird but her reason for giving him up was sadly very common- she just didn’t feel that she had the time to give him the attention he needed: “I just have no time as I work a lot and have two dogs and just took in my mother and her dog. He needs someone that can give him more and more experienced.” I contacted Courtney back in April. I explained that I’d love to have him but that I was moving soon, and didn’t want him to have to go through a double transition. If she still had him in a few months I could take him. I didn’t hear back, was busy with the move, and forgot all about the conversation.

Flash forward to November and another woman, Pam, is selling a pionus. I was still looking for a new pet so I contacted her. We met up and I got the bird. A week later I got a PM from Courtney. Apparently it was the same bird and she was rather distraught that he was being rehomed again after only seven months. I explained that I already had him and that he was in quarantine. I reassured her that he was doing fine.

Pet ownership is not something I take lightly, and barring positive disease test results, this little pionus will be a permanent addition to my flock. He apparently was fairly standoffish with Pam and her husband, but within two days he was asking me for head scratches and regurgitating. Courtney was relieved, “I have a feeling he will be perfect to you if he is already regurgitating to you…he did that to me! And would try to fly to the other room if I left him lol…he was very sweet…I had to work full time and lost my daddy and had to look after my mother so didn’t have the time he wanted.”

Buddy Bird’s tale is sadly commonplace. Birds get passed around so frequently from home to home. I used to think that it was mainly due to impulse buys, behavior problems at the onset of puberty, or changing life circumstances. Good owners like me would never just part with their beloved pets, right? We drill into people the idea of a “Forever Home.” Come what may, our pets stay with us!

That is not the case. Since joining online bird groups I have seen that good owners giving up birds for minor reasons is frighteningly commonplace. Many times the birds go to other good bird owners. They get passed around to other members within the group, just as Buddy Bird was, and it’s all good, right? Because we’re all good bird parents?

I find the trend incredibly disturbing. Birds like routine and consistency. They like their favorite person in the household. They don’t understand the reason when they are suddenly uprooted and sent to a new home. Again. And again. Buddy has lived in three different homes this year. Yes, they were all good homes, but no bird wants to be passed around like that.

I breed and sell birds, but I have never “rehomed” a pet. Not a bird, snake, dog or cat. My home is the last stop for them, come what may. I was in my early twenties when I bought Loki, my Goffin cockatoo. She has lived with me through college, marriage, several moves, and the birth of my children. When I began having human babies I probably came as close as I’ve ever come to rehoming her, in that I at least thought about it. She and Verde, my other pet bird at the time, basically got zero attention from me. I had neither the time nor the energy. So why didn’t I rehome her?

Because I didn’t want her to end up like Buddy Bird, and I didn’t want to end up like Courtney.

If I, the most stalwart “Forever Home,” could rehome a pet, then who’s to say the next owner wouldn’t? What then? Would she be passed around from home to home? What if they didn’t feed or house her right? What if she was abused? In my home she might not have been getting enough attention, but I knew that was only temporary. She had Verde for company. She had a big cage, toys, and a good diet. Her basic needs were being met. I kept her, and when my last child turned one I was able to start making up for lost time.

Let me put it another way, if you suddenly found that you had to work longer hours and couldn’t spend as much time with your human children, would your first thought be to send them to foster care? Why are pets any different? If they are truly “family,” as so many owners profess they are, then why are so many rehomed at the drop of a hat?

Now, there are absolutely many very valid reasons to give up a pet- sudden illness or death (Courtney was dealing with a death in the family), change in finances, change in living situation, etc. I just don’t think working full time hours qualifies. You can absolutely work long hours and still retain your pet. I worked and went to school full time for years. You can easily let your pet hang out with you when you come home and do homework, or watch TV on the couch. They want to spend time with you and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing together.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there also seems to be a culture of “not good enough” when it comes to birds. Remember, these are good owners giving up their pets. They know birds are a lot of work and that they require a lot of attention. So when they suddenly find they can’t give their pet ALL THE ATTENTION they think their bird would be better off elsewhere. Again and again I see the reason cited as “I can’t give them the attention they deserve.” Rather than stick it out as I did for a few years and make up for it later, people are getting rid of their pets.

So how do we fix this?

Set realistic expectations. Understand that you’re not going to be able to always spend all day every day with your pets. That is very unrealistic in the long run. Life circumstances change and birds live a long time. Birds need to know how to entertain themselves, and people need to make peace with the fact that they can’t be there all the time. Even if you’re home all the time, your bird shouldn’t be out all day every day. They need to know how to entertain themselves and to do so for periods in their cage. It doesn’t have to be a long time, but they do need to be used to it. If you don’t like the idea of your bird being cooped up in a small cage then get a larger one, or an aviary.

Recognize that a dips in attention are bound to happen over such a long life. Life is full of ups and downs. Parrots can share our entire lifespan and that means a lot of opportunities for life changes. I’m not going to get rid of my first child just because I had another and she now has to compete for my attention. Understand that most things in life are temporary and that this too shall pass.

Do not set humans up to be 100% of your pet’s social circle. We humans love our pets and the affection they give us, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want that affection to be at our beck and call. We want it when it’s convenient for US, and we set ourselves up to be our pet’s sole source of interaction because we are afraid that otherwise they won’t be tame enough or affectionate enough. We set ourselves up to be 100% of their social circle and when we can no longer fulfill that need we get rid of the pet. That is not fair to the animal.

Get your bird a buddy. Birds should not be kept alone! They need a buddy. Loki had Verde. They weren’t very close, but they kept each other company when I was too busy to interact with them. If you find yourself spending less time with your pet, get it a buddy. They don’t have to share the same cage or even be the same species (Verde was a mitred conure). They just need to be there, in the same room, existing as part of the flock. Even if you can give your bird plenty of attention now, get your bird a buddy. Don’t be selfish. You don’t know what the future holds or if you’ll be able to keep up your current rate of interactions. Getting a buddy will ensure your pet has someone to talk to when you can’t. You can go to work and not feel guilty. You can have a life and not feel guilty.

If the birds are bonded enough, they won’t even need you at all. That may be scary to some people, but it is absolutely psychologically healthier for the birds. You should not be your pet’s “mate” anyway. It doesn’t negate your relationship with your bird. It merely puts you on a more realistic and equal footing with other members of the flock, and that is a good thing.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to harp on people who rehome. In some cases it is absolutely necessary. Courtney was dealing with a death in the family and it is quite understandable that she felt she didn’t have time for Buddy. It’s not her fault that Pam decided to sell him again after only a few months, and Pam was under no obligation to notify Courtney about her intentions. Once your bird leaves your hands it’s no longer yours and the buyer can do whatever they want with it. Buddy happened to find his way to me, but he could just as easily have found his way to someone less caring or less willing to put in the time. Not all stories have a happy ending.

So please, if you are an owner who houses their birds correctly, feeds a good diet, and offers them enrichment, consider keeping your birds even if they can’t get quite as much attention. You can make it up to them. At the very least you can meet all their basic needs and then some. If you rehome there is no guarantee they won’t get passed along to other homes and who knows where they might end up. The Perfect Home is a myth. The standards are so high that no one can meet them all the time. We need more true Forever Homes.

buddy

*names have been changed

Copyright 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.

The Misuse of Antibiotics

This article was originally published in 1999 and has been my most frequently requested article for reprint. Most human physicians have woken up to the fact that over-prescribing antibiotics is a bad thing. Antibiotic resistance is a huge global problem. Sadly, some aviculturists have not yet caught on and continue to broadly apply antibiotics where none are needed. Please read and share to spread awareness. 

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E. coli bacteria. Photo by NIAID

It has been brought to my attention that most people are ignorant as to what exactly antibiotics are, what they do, and what the consequences will be if they are continued to be misused. This article seeks to educate aviculturists on antibiotics and their effects.

What are antibiotics? Antibiotics are chemical substances which kill or stop bacterial growth. The first antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. Since then many other antibiotics have been found and used to save millions of lives (human and animal) all over the globe. Antibiotics have become one of the best weapons we have against disease. Tetracycline is the antibiotic which most aviculturists use to treat their birds.

What do antibiotics do? Antibiotics get rid of bacteria. Some are targeted toward most kinds of bacteria while others only attack one particular variety. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses and they promote the growth of fungi. This is why veterinarians often use antifungal drugs along with antibiotics.

Inside every organism’s gut live millions of bacteria. Most of these “friendly” bacteria aid in the digestion of food and even produce certain vitamins. Along with the immune system, these “friendly” bacteria keep bad bacteria, called pathogens, from spreading out of control. This natural harmony is severely thrown out of balance by antibiotics. Antibiotics such as tetracycline wipe out both good and bad bacteria, allowing fungi to grow like crazy and letting potentially bad species of bacteria gain a foothold. Because so much damage can be done by antibiotics, they should only be used under the supervision of a qualified avian veterinarian.

What are the consequences of overusing antibiotics? Many aviculturists use antibiotics without the guidance of an avian veterinarian. They treat their entire flock with tetracycline (or another antibiotic) to clear up any small infections before and after the breeding season. This is a very dangerous practice which needs to brought to a halt. A bird which has a fungal infection can die when treated with antibiotics. Healthy birds may become ill when their natural flora and fauna are wiped out. When antibiotics are used uncontrollably in this fashion, certain bacteria become resistant. Every time an antibiotic is used, a few bacteria will survive. These bacteria are not affected by the drug and will multiply rapidly (one bacterium can multiply into 600,000 in only four hours). The next time the bird is treated with the antibiotic, no bacteria will die. Already we are starting to see the effects of the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine. Children with simple infections remain ill because the antibiotics used to treat the infections no longer work. So why are so many breeders trying to ruin the effects of antibiotics on birds as well? Most people just don’t realize that they are doing more harm than good.

How does one prevent bacterial resistance to antibiotics? Never use antibiotics unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Instead of routinely treating all your birds, have them each cultured to detect any infections and then treat according to your veterinarian’s instructions. Most birds remain quite healthy if provided with a nutritious diet, lots of exercise, and a good rest after the breeding season. In six years I have only had one bird become ill because of a bacterial infection. He was taken to my vet, treated, and is now raising four healthy chicks. Let’s use our antibiotics wisely and not ruin avian medicine forever.

© 1999 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without permission from author.

Preventing Hormonal Behavior

Hormones can be the cause of many behavior problems in birds. As a breeder it is very easy for me to identify mating behaviors for what they are. However, most pet owners do not breed and are therefore unfamiliar with typical mating behaviors and their common triggers. Instead they anthropomorphize such behaviors and let things escalate too far. It is essential that you learn everything you can about the particular species that you own- including how they breed. Even if you never plan to breed, those behaviors are embedded in your pet’s DNA. You need to understand what’s going on in order to prevent unwanted hormonal behaviors.

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A pet cockatiel laying infertile eggs. Photo by Adrian Ward.

What happens when mating behaviors are triggered in pet birds?

  • Aggression, even toward favorite people
  • Territoriality
  • Excessive screaming
  • Plucking
  • Frustration and lashing out
  • Egg laying (which can lead to egg binding)

Behaviors like the above often lead to rehomed pets. Back when I first got into birds, you could flip to any pet classified section and see ad after ad for birds around 2-4 years of age. Depending on the species, this is when puberty hits. After years of receiving mixed messages, the birds were finally ready to mate. The problem was that they wanted to mate with their favorite person and started lashing out when their owners weren’t responding predictably.

Plucking, while not usually dangerous, can easily become a habit that is very difficult to break.

Excessively egg laying can be dangerous, particularly if the hen isn’t on a proper breeding diet (most pets are not, nor should they be). When an egg becomes trapped inside the body there is a risk it will rupture, causing a life-threatening infection. Preventing hormonal behaviors in pets is especially important for hens. If your bird is already laying excessively, please see my article on egg laying in pets.

Breeding Triggers

The following are some common ways that breeding can be inadvertently stimulated. Please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Every species is different and it is important to understand how your birds would normally nest.

 

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Photo by Dan Armbrust.

Dark, Enclosed Spaces

Most parrots are cavity breeders- they nest in tree trunks. Pairs will seek out a good cavity, clean it out, and possibly enlarge it. In the modern home any dark, enclosed space will be viewed as a potential nest site. This could be under the couch (see below) or dresser, inside a Happy Hut or tent, a shipping box offered for chewing, or under a blanket. It is important never to offer any item, particularly inside the cage, which could be viewed as a nest site. Troublesome areas (like under the couch) should be blocked off or made off-limits.

Above: (Left) A gap in a couch is a tempting nest site, and potentially dangerous as this couch reclines. (Right) Moving/shipping boxes may offer chewing fun, but they are also seen as nest sites. Loki kept attempting to enter this one.

Nesting Material

Cleaning the nest cavity is a normal part of nest preparation. Some breeders have even found that introducing large chunks of wood into a nest box will help stimulate their pairs. In pets, stredding can be a prelude to nesting. Lovebirds in particular use nesting material. Leaves are tucked into the rump feathers and transported back to their nest site. Quakers build huge communal nests with sticks.

Birds should never have access to the substrate in their cage, but nevertheless may try to shred everything they get their beaks on. Shredding is fine and destructible toys are good, but during the breeding season you may want to offer alternatives if your bird is prone to nesty behavior.

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Black-masked lovebirds. One of the few psittacines that uses nesting material. Photo by Dean Croshere.

Light

Longer days simulate springtime. Many owners keep their birds up after dark, making long days even longer. Birds need at least 10 hours of sleep and I would extend that to 12-14 if they are getting hormonal. Cover your bird’s cage or give them a separate sleep cage in a quiet area to ensure they’re getting enough darkness.

Feeding Soft, Warm Foods by Hand

Bonded pairs regurgitate to one another. Offering treats by hand when training is fine, but try to avoid hand feeding warm, mushy foods. Feed them in a dish. If your bird regurgitates don’t encourage it.

Too Much Protein

Chicks require a lot of protein to grow, and providing birds with too much protein signals that it’s a great time to raise a family. If you have a hen that is already laying eggs you do want to continue offering protein and calcium (especially calcium) so that she is less likely to deplete her own reserves. If your pet is not laying eggs then continue to feed a good diet but do not make a habit of offering a lot of protein. Calcium in the form of pellets, cuttlebone, or mineral block should be offered year-round, especially to hens.

Providing Sexual Stimulation

Mating usually involves the male doing some sort of display- head bobbing, pinpointing eyes, flaring tail or wings. When the female is ready to mate she droops her wings and raises her rump. The male typically mounts her (some species will mate side by side) and they rub their cloacas together. The cloaca is the opening underneath the base of the tail. It is used for passing feces, uric acid (bird equivalent of pee), eggs, and for transferring/receiving sperm.

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Cockatiels mating. Note the posture of both birds. Male is one top and female is on bottom. Photo by dorisalb.

Many of the ways you touch your bird could be interpreted sexually. Mutual preening (head scratching) can be done by flockmates but it is more common in bonded pairs. Petting your hen on the back can be stimulating, as she feels like you are trying to mount her for mating. Touching the cloaca should definitely be avoided. Some birds get excited when pet under the wings.

Always be aware of your bird’s body language while petting them. If they are exhibiting postures like those in the picture above, stop petting them as they are getting sexually stimulated. Males will usually pinpoint their eyes, dip their head, and raise their wings at the shoulder a bit. Hens will raise their rump, drop their wings and coo or shiver. Give them a period to calm down before petting again.

It is entirely possible that your bird will try masturbating on you. This may involve mounting your hand and rubbing the cloaca (in males) or backing up against you and rubbing the cloaca (in females). Masturbation should neither be encouraged nor discouraged directly. If your bird is trying to mate with you, simply move it to another location or place it back into the cage for a while.

Sometimes the object of affection is a toy. Never offer your pet a mirror or fake bird. Birds can become very attached to these items and defend them aggressively. If, however, a bird is masturbating on a wide variety of objects/toys I would be less concerned.

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Goffin hen masturbating on toy. Click here to see video. It’s a very good example of how hens behave.

My Goffin is actually trying to self-stimulate as I write this. Observe:

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This may seem innocuous to you- most pet owners would probably think so- but pay attention to her body language. Her eyes are half-closed, beak half-open, and she has a blissful expression. Where is her back? It’s pressed up against the underside of my desk. She’s using the desk to simulate a male mounting her. It’s more obvious from this angle:

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It’s not full on masturbation, but she’s definitely aroused. Were she to start making clucking or cooing noises I would remove her from my leg and place here elsewhere.

Everything I do is stimulatiing!

It’s not as bad as that. I once read an article that basically said touching your pet bird in any way ever was going to stimulate them, and while that’s semi-true, if you’re careful about stopping petting when your bird is getting aroused, and limiting other factors then you should be okay. I’ve had my Goffin for over a decade and she’s never laid a single egg. Nor has any other pet hen I’ve had since I became a breeder. Part of being a breeder is knowing how to shut your birds down effectively, especially when you handle species designed to bred any time adequate food is available.

My goal in writing this is not to scare you, but to make you aware of how many different things might be stimulating your bird. Again, the key is to educate yourself on their natural lifecycle and body language. Much of this comes down to your ability to correctly interpret body language and provide healthy distractions (toys! exercise! training!) when they’re becoming too aroused.

Hormone Therapy

Some birds get very hormonal every spring and no matter what their owners do, they can’t seem to get things under control. If this is the case and none of the above has worked, I recommend visiting a competent avian veterinarian about hormone therapy. There are certain injections they can do these days that will help limit the surge of seasonal hormones.

© 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.