The Best Enrichment: A Flock

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One of the things I typically ask potential customers is “do you have any birds now?” If they do not, I try to convince them to get two. Wild psittacines live together in large flocks or small family groups. They are not mentally designed to live alone and when you have a single bird, even if you spend a lot of time with it, there are going to be times when you’re not around- work, school, weddings, vacations, running errands. When you make yourself your parrot’s only source of social interaction, you unintentionally set it up to have a stressful life. Toys can keep birds busy, but they only do so much and they don’t satisfy any of the bird’s social needs. When a bird has to rely on humans to be its only flock, it will scream when they are out of the room (contact calling, a bird version of “where are you?!”) and can develop stereotypies (purposeless, repetitive behaviors like pacing or plucking). Stereotypies are an indicator of poor animal welfare.

I have kept birds for 27 years. In my professional opinion, a bird housed in a large aviary with a flock of its own kind is far more psychologically healthy than a single bird kept in a pet cage with a zillion toys. Aviary birds have the benefit of exercise, flight, and socialization. The research agrees with me. A UC Davis study found that: “Paired parrots used their enrichments more, and spent less time screaming, less time preening, and less time inactive than singly housed parrots. . . . Isosexual pair housing resulted in a more active and diverse behavioral repertoire, eliminated the development of stereotypy and reduced fear responses to novel objects without imparting significant risk of illness and injury or jeopardizing the ability of parrots to relate positively with humans. Thus, it appears that pair housing can significantly improve environmental quality and positively affect the welfare of captive parrots.”

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Access to conspecifics, flight, and foraging are all excellent methods of enrichment.

Many people are concerned that if they have more than one bird their bird won’t love them anymore, or that they won’t have as deep a bond. The latter is true, but context is important. When humans speak of bonding to their parrots or being chosen by their parrots, they think of their parrot as their “baby” and themselves as a parent or caretaker. That is not how the parrot sees it. When a parrot bonds to a person they see the human as a mate. This can lead to all kinds of behavior problems when the parrot’s sexual advances are rebuffed or intentionally squashed. It can lead to aggression when the human prefers their spouse, or shows affection to their child. It definitely leads to stress, as mates are typically not apart during the day unless one is incubating eggs. It’s not a psychologically healthy relationship and it’s unfair to the bird. However, if the bird has a mate (same sex is fine!) you won’t see the same issues. (Please note: a mirror is NOT a substitute for a real bird and can be detrimental).

Will the bird still be tame once it has a companion? Yes! Birds still enjoy interacting with humans even if they have a buddy. You can see evidence of this every time I walk into my aviary:

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Vita and her mate.

The relationship won’t be less, it will just be different. You will be someone they enjoy spending time with. Do people stop loving their parents or siblings every time they enter a romantic relationship? Do they love their spouse less because they had a child? Their child less because they had another? No. Love is not a finite resource. People (and birds) can have multiple healthy, loving relationships that are all somewhat different. Each relationship has its own dynamic and fulfills various needs.

To me the ideal is that birds be raised and housed with their own kind from the start- if you’re buying a baby bird, get two. If you do not wish to breed I recommend a same sex pair. Even a mature solo bird that prefers humans can benefit from having a buddy. They don’t have to be housed together, be the same species, or even particularly like one another. They just have to be kept in the same room within sight of one another. My pets ten years ago were my Goffin cockatoo, Loki, and a mitred conure, Verde. They disliked one another. When I first started having children I had little time for my birds. I’m sure Loki and Verde missed me, but they never developed any psychological issues from lack of human contact. In fact, over time I saw their poop piles move towards each other’s cages. When Verde passed away Loki immediately began to scream more. I gave her as much attention as I could but it didn’t really die down until I got her a replacement buddy (my pionus, Lando).

This is something very serious to consider: Birds are long-lived and regardless of how much time you have now, there will always be a point (or more likely, many points) in your life when you just won’t have as much time as you’d like to spend with your birds. These periods are temporary, yet many people rehome their birds anyway, mistakenly believing it is the best interest of their bird. A bird with a companion is easily able to weather these patches of reduced attention, where a solo bird will feel isolated and forgotten and start to show it by screaming, plucking, or otherwise acting out.

If you are on the fence about getting a second bird, know that your concern is quite common, but the best thing for birds in the long run is to have access to other feathered friends. It will reduce their stress, frustration, contact calls, and help alleviate boredom. It will also reduce your urge to rehome unnecessarily when you find you suddenly have a life event that takes a majority of your time.

Copyright 2018 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.

Bringing Home Baby

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Congratulations on your new baby bird!

Things to do before bringing a bird home:

  • research the species to ensure that it will be a good fit for your home
  • set up cage with food, water, and toys
  • research local avian veterinarians
  • have a talk with other family members about what to expect, and any changes that need to be made to accommodate a bird regarding smoking, other pets, etc.

Handling

One of the things I see touted a lot is that you should leave birds alone for a few days to let them adjust. If a bird is a handfed baby, this is terrible advice. Think of it this way. You adopt a young child. You show them to their room. Then you spend the next few days ignoring them so they can “adjust.” No! Birds, like humans, need to feel like part of the family. Your baby is already used to humans. That’s the whole point of handfeeding. Talk to it frequently.  Make it feel welcome!

You can start handling your bird on the second day, or the first day if it seems open to the idea. Keep in mind that while the baby is tame, it doesn’t know YOU. Cockatiels are usually accepting of petting immediately, but other species may want you to earn their trust first. If you go in right away for a head scratch you may be rebuffed or even nipped. It’s like meeting someone right away and asking to hug them, hold their hand, or kiss them. Listen to your bird’s body language and respect its body autonomy. Go slowly and work up to it. Your goal is to create a solid relationship built on trust, not to bully your bird into submission.

Set Boundaries

Set boundaries and use commands to help your bird know what to expect. If you don’t want a bird constantly sitting on your head and pooping in your hair, then don’t allow it to do that. If you want your bird to stay on a play stand while out, return it to the stand whenever it flies out of bounds. Say “step up” whenever you want the bird to step up. Be consistent.

Babies explore with their mouths. They use their beak like a hand and will apply pressure to get a feel for things. Some species, like green cheek conures, will play fight and nip during play. It is important that you do not allow them to mouth fingers, hands, earlobes, moles, etc. Move the target item out of their way, cover it, or distract them with something else (though be careful not to reward inappropriate nibbling). I like to have a bird-friendly snack available when I sit with my birds. It helps with flock bonding because we are sharing a food, and it gives the birds a more appropriate thing to nibble.

Routine, Routine, Routine!

Set up routines as quickly as possible. Birds, like children, love routine as it lets them know what to expect and when. Feed at the time you normally plan on feeding. Let them out when you normally plan on it. This is especially important to reduce the odds of screaming/contact calls. Birds who know when they are normally let out are less likely to scream to be let out at other times.

If your bird has a sleep cage or if you plan on covering the cage at night, you can start doing that from the first day. Birds need 10-12 hours of sleep. If their cage is in a high traffic area like the living room, a sleep cage in a quieter area is a good idea. They can’t sleep well if you’re up late watching television loudly, even if the cage is covered.

Noise

Parrots do not normally live alone. They are always with their flock, family, or mate. When isolated, it is very common for birds to do a contact call. This call basically means “Where are you? I can’t see you!” Some people rapidly get irritated with contact calls and do things that can easily slip into animal abuse, like screaming at the bird or covering it during the day. My pet pionus spent years covered and under a back porch, probably because its former owner was frustrated with the noise and kept escalating “solutions.” Contact calls are NORMAL and birds should not be punished for them.

There are a few things you can do to help mitigate contact calls:

The easiest is to have two or more birds. That way part of the flock is always there and they feel less alone. This is best done when the birds are young so that they grow up together and you don’t have to worry about introductions later.

You can make a noise back. Especially if your bird makes an annoying call (like my pionus), you can try to get them to make a different noise. When my pionus yells I either ignore it or answer back with a whistle, which starts him whistling instead.

Ignore it. This takes far more mental strength. If you have a set routine, your bird will eventually learn when you are around and when you are not, and when it can reasonably expect to have time out of the cage with you. When we first moved to this house my Goffin was calling ALL THE TIME. It took maybe two months for her to get used to the new routine, but eventually she stopped calling all the time. Now she only calls periodically when she knows I’m around and should be available.

Give them plenty to do while they’re in the cage. They do need to learn to play by themselves. It won’t solve the problem completely, because the point is that they want to be able to see/hear you. Having them out on a play stand in a common area is another solution.

If You Have Other Birds

Introductions should be slow. Time outside the cage should always be supervised, especially if either species is known for aggression. It is generally recommended that all new birds be quarantined for 30-45 days to ensure they do not bring any diseases into your flock. If you purchase a bird from a breeder with a closed aviary system then you’re probably okay, but quarantine is never a bad idea.

Health

If you can find a good avian veterinarian in your area, I recommend making an appointment. This allows the vet to see your bird when it is healthy and get a baseline for things like weight. It gives the vet something to compare to if/when the bird ever gets sick. The vet can also answer any further questions you have about avian health.

Here are some external links you may find helpful:

 

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

Care Sheet: Indian Ringneck

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Personality: Playful, inquisitive, intelligent, independent

Experience level required: Moderate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: 12-18mo

Sexing: Dimorphic. Males develop a ring anywhere from 18mo-3 years. If you want to know before that you must DNA sex your bird. Some colors, like albino, never get a ring.

Vocalizations: They can be loud (see video below).

That said, they usually do not make noise all day every day. Vocalizations are typical in the early morning/late afternoon, if the bird feels separated from the flock, or if it is frightened.

Talking ability: Good. Both sexes talk.

Diet: Standard

Minimum recommended cage size: Ringnecks have long tails that are easily damaged in cages that are too small or cluttered. They need large cages with plenty of clearance for their tails.

Cautions: Ringnecks do not form the same strong pair bonds seen in other species. Most parrots will pair off with a buddy or mate. Ringnecks generally don’t do this outside of the mating season. This can make them seem standoffish. Do not buy a ringneck expecting a cuddly, sociable bird!

After weaning, ringnecks go through a bluffing phase in which they bite and show aggression. It is critical that the owner NOT react to the bites. The first year is critical to ringneck development. They go wild very easily if not consistently and amicably handled during the first year.

Don’t get me wrong, ringnecks make wonderful pets, they just aren’t for everyone. I’ve had to steer many potential clients over to conures because they had unrealistic expectations of what ringnecks are like. They are playful, highly intelligent, and curious. They enjoy spending time with people but can also play well by themselves. The best ambassador bird I ever had- the one I could trust to be pet by children and adults alike- was an Indian ringneck. They require an owner who understands their behavior and is willing to give them a lot of time that first year. With ringnecks, you get out what you put in.

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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:

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

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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.

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 Problem with Giving your Bird a Mirror

mirror

You’re worried your bird is not getting enough attention from you. Or maybe it starts out more simple. Perhaps your cockatiel has developed a crush on the toaster or the bathroom sink faucet. What’s wrong with giving your bird a mirror? Everything. Mirrors are very psychologically damaging to your bird.

Birds a very social creatures. It is because of their strong flocking instincts that they can make such great pets. Many owners give their pets mirrors because they are afraid their bird will get lonely. If you are giving your bird its due attention and providing it with toys to play with while you are gone, you have no need to think your bird will become lonely.

So what exactly do mirrors do? The first thing most people notice is increased territoriality. Bird behaviorists are often contacted about cockatiels who are so attached to the toaster that they will viciously bite anyone who comes near it. They will isolate themselves from their owners and throw a fit if not near their “buddy.” Sadly, this is a lesser problem that mirrors cause.

The real problem is this: mirrors give your bird an incorrect perception of reality. They are NOT talking to another bird, they are talking to a reflection. Reflections can only mimic- they do not react in the same manner as a real bird would. Think of it this way: you have a young child. This is your only child so instead of letting him play with kids down the street you get him a mirror. The kid spends all his time talking and playing with his reflection. When he turns fifteen years old you send him to high school. How well do you think he’s going to socialize with real people who may not agree with him, may not like his looks, may look different than him, etc?

It is true that not all birds will eventually come into contact with other birds but let’s be realistic here. How do you know that down the line you won’t want another bird? How do you know that something might not occur that will force you to have to sell or give away your bird? Does the possibility that it may never meet another bird justify improper socialization?

Allow me to give you a case in point. In fall of 1999 I adopted a mitred conure, Fry. A woman had caught him outdoors in Southern California. He had been dive-bombing some local gardeners. He stayed with her a year before she ended up giving him to a friend of hers. This lady had him for six years. During that period he was fed nothing more than safflower seed, apples and white bread, at his request (never let birds or kids choose their diet). He had a mirror on top of his cage and had no access to real birds. His owner had just had a baby when I acquired him. This, and the fact that her husband hated the bird, were her motivations for giving him away.

Fry has the worst flocking skills I’ve ever seen in a bird. I’ve actually had him fly across my room to attack a bird in a hospital cage. He has maimed toes and feet and has no clue how to react to real birds. In the beginning he also had no skills at playing by himself. All pet birds need to know how to keep themselves entertained. I offered him plenty of toys but he ignored them. His cage was located on my dresser, which has a large mirror attached to the back. I covered the mirror with a towel but he chewed it to shreds to get to the mirror. I re-covered the mirror and moved the cage out of reach so he couldn’t chew it while inside. About a week later he started playing with the toys. He also became more interested in people. Instead of hanging out on top of his cage all the time or trying to steal my sun conure’s food, he’d jump over to my desk to watch me and Jay-Jay (the sun).

So what do you do if you have a single bird? Though it is not necessary, you can buy a second bird after the first one is tamed. If you do not want two birds, just make sure to give your bird lots of attention and keep those mirrors away! Birds can be kept singly just fine, but access to a mirror will teach them bad habits, as well as make them territorial and withdrawn.

© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.