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.

Care Sheet: Green Cheek Conure

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Personality: Curious, playful, feisty, cuddly

Experience level required: Intermediate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: One year

Sexing: DNA test

Vocalizations: Shrieks, but volume is low compared to most parrots. Suitable for apartment.

Talking ability: Low

Diet: Standard

Cautions: Can be aggressive toward unfamiliar birds. Will attack birds many times their own size. Prone to become one-person birds. Can be nippy. Not recommended for children.

Minimum recommended cage size: 24″L x 20″W x 24″H. BIGGER IS ALWAYS BETTER. Keep in mind that birds utilize the space at the top of the cage the most. Tall, skinny cages contain mostly dead space. Width and depth are far more important than height.

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.

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.

Egg Laying in Pets

Ah, spring…sunshine, showers, flowers, and egg laying in pet birds.

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Not all female pets will lay eggs. My Goffin is 14 and has yet to lay a single egg. Others, often cockatiels, will habitually lay every year. So what do you do?

Step One: Remove anything that could be interpreted as a nest site- Happy Huts, boxes, enclosed toys/dishes, tents, etc. Also, do NOT pet your bird on the back or under the tail. head scratches are fine, but touching her back is going to simulate a male mounting her.

Step Two: Provide lots of calcium and protein. Excess laying will deplete a hen’s calcium reserves, which can lead to soft shelled eggs (more likely to fracture internally) and brittle bones. Offer cuttlebone and/or mineral block, and cooked scrambled eggs with the shell. If this has been going on a long time, you may need to see a veterinarian for a quicker form of supplementation.

Step Three: STOP REMOVING EGGS. Birds can count and usually have a specific clutch size that they are trying to reach. Removing eggs means that they never finish their clutch so they just keep laying more. Removing broken eggs is fine. Once her clutch is complete she may try to incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts three to four weeks for most species. Eventually she should realize that her eggs are duds and abandon them. At this point they can be safely removed. Some hens will lay again, others will not. If she does lay again you can try leaving the eggs in longer. At the very least, leaving eggs in will space out the time in between clutches.

Step Four: Decrease daylight hours. Most species are springtime breeders. Even birds that can lay year-round usually become more hormonal during the spring. You can try to shorten their breeding season by fudging their daylight hours. Covering the cage early at night may help, though cockatiels are prone to night frights when covered. For cockatiels I would move them to a room with limited sunlight and get blackout curtains. Close the curtains well before sunset every day.

Do I need to swap out the eggs with fakes? No. You certainly can, but I don’t really see a reason to do so.

For more information: Discouraging Breeding Behavior in Pet Birds

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

O Budgie, Where Art Thou?

Preventing and Recovering Lost Birds

“who can shed light on what happens to a cockatiel loose in minnesota”
– post on Toolady.com
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Few things have ever made me feel quite so helpless as watching an escaped budgie fly off and vanish from sight. Hopefully nothing like this has happened to you and you’re reading this as a precautionary measure only. However, it’s much more likely that your bird is currently lost. Perhaps you’ve found a bird and are wondering what to do next. Whatever your reason for reading this article, I hope it helps enlighten you on how best to deal with this heartbreaking experience.

Prevention

There is one very simple way to prevent birds from escaping. Unfortunately, most people are lax about it and consequently I receive numerous questions about lost and found birds. Smaller, lightweight species can fly well with only one or two primary feathers. Add a gust of wind and you may never see your bird again. Clipping the wings regularly is very important if you want to prevent escapes. However, one clip per molt just doesn’t cut it (no pun intended). Birds do not shed all their feathers at once- they grow new ones a few at a time. This means that it takes a while for the primaries to grow back. It only takes one feather to lose your bird. Waiting until all of them have grown in before clipping can be disastrous, but few people are willing to bring their birds in to be groomed for each individual feather.

I highly recommend learning to clip your own birds. Grooming can then be done at home, per feather. If you have a good relationship with your bird this should not be a problem. Clipping is a painless procedure that takes mere seconds when done correctly. Your bird may be slightly stressed the first few times, but will not hate you for it. After a while clipping becomes routine- your bird won’t like it but will at least know what to expect. Even Fry, the conure that hated hands, did fine during clipping. He would try to run if he saw hands coming and wriggle away once I had him, but he trusted me not to hurt him and would never attempt to bite. If you have a large or squirmy bird like Fry, you can hold it while someone else does the clipping. Birds that are very tame and used to handling may not need to be restrained at all- yet another area where proper socialization helps.

Another way to prevent escapes is to limit outdoor time. Let the bird sit by the window for part of the day or build a sunroom both you and your birds can enjoy. If you must take your bird outdoors, don’t take any chances. Even if your bird can’t fly there are still dangers. What if a hawk or cat gets it? What if the bird is startled and manages to get into a tree, climbing up out of your reach? Or worse yet, manages to get into a neighbor’s yard? What if someone steals it? Murphy’s Law always applies to birds, so plan accordingly. Take you bird outside in a cage or on a harness. If brought out in a cage make sure you secure sliding doors. If you have a young bird, start training it to wear a harness while it is still open to the idea. Older birds are going to be much slower to adapt.

Here’s another tip that won’t prevent escapes, but will make your life easier if your bird does get loose: teach it to sing/whistle a tune. This works best with birds like male cockatiels, who love to whistle along. A unique tune will help you keep track of your bird should it get out of sight. Where did it go? Which tree is it in? If your bird sings you can better pinpoint its location.

Can they survive?

I’m often asked about survival odds. Some people hear about wild flocks of parrots in California and Florida and think that their birds have a pretty good chance. Unfortunately, they don’t.

True, budgies and cockatiels are very hardy. However, all our pet birds are currently bred in captivity. Australia has had laws against exporting wildlife for some time now, meaning that Aussie species are even farther removed from their wild ancestors. Captive bred birds are not very well equipped to survive in the wild. They are not used to the weather. They are not used to avoiding predators. They are not familiar with the native sources of food or where to locate them. Many cannot even fly very well so even if they wish to return they can’t (again proper socialization is important, as is proper clipping!).

The wild flocks of introduced parrots that you hear about were established back when parrots were still imported in large numbers. They were most likely wild birds, caught and imported, which then escaped or were released. Most of these parrots are also larger South American species like amazons and conures. Larger parrots would have fewer predators and be able to access better food sources. It’s not hard to see how larger, wild caught species, introduced as groups into fairly mild environments (Florida and California) could learn to adapt and survive. However, it is unrealistic to expect a single smaller bird, captive bred but native to the Australian outback, to survive a Minnesota winter. Your bird’s best chance at survival is to be found.

Finding Your Bird

There are two scenarios when a bird escapes:

  1. The bird remains in sight, but is somewhere inaccessible, like a tree.
  2. You have no idea where it is.

Scenario #1 is bad; #2 is virtually hopeless. YOU HAVE A MUCH BETTER CHANCE OF GETTING YOUR BIRD IF YOU KEEP IT IN SIGHT. Unfortunately, many birds take off flying in one direction and continue to do so until they run out of energy. Parrots are not homing pigeons and will not find their way back on their own.

Scenario #1- KEEP THE BIRD IN YOUR VIEW. If you can’t see it, keep track of it by sound. Having someone nearby really helps here, as you risk your bird flying out of sight should you choose to go indoors and get something to help you catch it. Aside from keeping track of where it is, it is also important not to startle it into flying again. If your bird doesn’t trust you much, this will be difficult. If within reach, I find that using a long perch helps. Get the bird to step up and then slowly move it to a better location. Attempting to grab an untame bird will only result in it flying further away.

Getting a bird down from a tree is tough. Even tame, loving birds will be reluctant to see what the fuss is and climb down on their own. Amazons are notorious for climbing higher into a tree, or flying to another one as soon as you are about to catch them. In a case like this a hose helps- spray ABOVE the bird so that it rains DOWN onto them. Really soak them. It will make it more difficult for them to fly. Then have someone climb the tree (if possible, ask around the neighborhood) and get the soggy psittacine. Lures can also be used to get a bird down. Leave out a cage with food in it and the door open. Bring out another bird (preferably a friend of the loose one) in a cage and place it next to the first cage. Play a tape of recorded bird noises.

Scenario #2- This is BAD. Your only hope here is to a) locate your bird or b) hope someone else does. First search the neighborhood. Call out to your bird and pray you can find it through sound. If that fails, put up signs around the neighborhood and post on social media lost/found groups. Also contact every local person who owns birds (especially if they keep them outdoors) and let them know to keep their eyes peeled. Birds are attracted to other birds, and yours may very well be attracted by the sound of theirs. I’ve inadvertently adopted several stray budgies this way.

Found a bird?

People are often devastated when they lose their pets, and it is unfair to assume ownership of a lost bird without at least attempting to find the owner. Check the local pet stores, vets, social media, and newspapers for ads about lost birds. If you can’t find the owner you can keep the bird yourself, providing you can properly take care of it, or give it to someone who can.

Case Study: Birds of a Feather…

I keep all my breeders outdoors and they do attract escaped birds. My cat is the first one to notice. He never gives my aviary birds a second glance since he knows he can’t get to them. If I see him staring at something by the aviary I know there’s a loose bird.

I’ve had three escaped budgies hanging around my aviary this year, two of which I managed to catch. The first was easy- I just walked over and grabbed him. The poor thing was starving, emaciated and trying desperately to find a way into the budgie cages. I placed him in quarantine and a day later notice that he seemed to have bulked up, an impossibility. I examined him and found that his skin was stretched taut, especially around the thighs. He had a punctured air sac and the area under his skin was filling with air. I called my vet and made an appointment, then made several pin pricks to his swollen thighs to release the air. Luckily this solved the problem. After a vet visit and 30 day quarantine, he was ready to join my flock.

The second budgie I caught was just last month (December 13th or so). She was much better off, hanging out in the neighbor’s yard up in a tree all day. It was cold out and she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. After about a week I found her eating seed spilled from my aviaries. There’s about a one foot gap between my second aviary and the roof and I managed to scare her from on top of the cages into this space. Once in the gap she was reluctant to leave, though she’d run/fly all over the place trying to avoid my net. It took about 20 minutes and a second person, but we managed to net her. She too went through quarantine and joined my flock.

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

Grooming

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Wing Clipping

Proper wing clipping is essential for pet birds. Too many flighted birds escape, crash into windows, are killed by fellow pets, fly into ceiling fans and open water containers, etc. Some people claim to have “bird-proofed” their home enough to allow free-flight, but there could still be many unforeseen hazards. If you do not live alone, you also have to rely on other people to close doors and windows and keep them closed when a flighted bird is out. One small miscommunication could lead to an escaped bird. In addition, free-flight causes some birds to become territorial and hard to handle.

When to clip:
Birds do not molt all their feathers at once. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to forage for food and escape from predators. Instead, they lose one or two feathers at a time in alteration. Since most birds (especially the smaller ones) can fly with only one or two primary feathers, it is important that you clip each individual feather after it’s grown back. Don’t wait until all the primaries have grown back before taking your bird to be clipped.

Many people seem afraid/unwilling to clip their own birds. It’s a simple procedure that anyone can (and should) learn. Some people are afraid their birds won’t like them if they do the clipping themselves. This is nonsense. I’ve been clipping all my own birds for over 25 years and no one has ever held a grudge. As long as clipping is done quickly and painlessly (don’t cut bloodfeathers) birds will forget about it five minutes later.

How to clip:
I highly recommend getting your birds used to playing with their wings. It makes clipping much easier. If your bird does not allow you to touch or extend its wings, you will need to restrain it. Use a thin shirt for small species and a towel for large ones. Small birds can be held in one hand and clipped with the other. With larger birds an assistant is needed. One person should hold and the other should cut, although an experienced person can do both.

Catch the bird using a towel and position it so that the head is out. You want the cheeks/jaw between your fingers. Do NOT squeeze your bird tight. Grasping the chest is dangerous and unnecessary. The goal is to restrict movement of the wings and the beak. A flailing bird can injure itself and a stray beak will happily take a chunk out of you. The lower mandible needs be between your fingers. If positioned correctly, this prevents the bird from biting. The wings should be held against the body until they are brought out for clipping.

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Small birds easily fit in one hand. I usually catch with my right hand, then move them to the left while I clip (I’m right-handed).

The feathers that need to be clipped are the primaries (1). These are what provides the power for flight. In small birds 7-10 feathers should be cut because these guys can get lift very easily. Large species often fall like rocks when only a few are cut. Two – five is standard for larger species. Never cut too far up (see red line). There should still be some space (at least a cm) between the edge of the cut primaries and the feathers above.

Feathers are made of keratin- the same stuff fingernails are made of- and do not hurt when cut. The only exception would be bloodfeathers. Never cut a bloodfeather!

Nail Trimming

Feathers are easier to clip than nails because it’s easy to recognize a blood feather and much harder to find the vein in a nail. Some people buy cement or sandpaper perches in an attempt to keep nails trimmed. These can actually irritate bird feet. As with all perches, it is important to have a variety of textures and widths so that feet don’t develop sores. A single grooming perch is fine so long as your bird has other options like wood or rope.

When to cut:
Learn to judge on your own. If your bird is tripping or the nails are catching on your clothing then it’s time.

How to cut:
Some birds don’t even need to be restrained for nail clipping. With both my GC conure and my tiel, I can let them sit on my finger while I just reach over and snip. You have to be careful with this though since they can move. For my Goffin I just hold her foot while she’s perched and clip. Routinely playing with your bird’s feet can go a long way toward making nail trimming easier.

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I use human fingernail clippers or nosehair clippers (for smaller species). Get out a towel (or old thin t-shirt for smaller birds) and some flour (in case of bleeding). Some people use Kwik-stop but I’m not a fan.

With small birds that don’t bite very hard you can usually do the job yourself. With major bitters or larger birds it’s better if you have two people. One person should towel the bird and keep the beak out of the way while the other person holds the feet and clips. This should all be done as quickly as possible to minimize stress.

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You want to snip off the tip of the nail. If you clip too far up you’ll hit the vein and your bird will bleed. In black nails the vein can be virtually impossible to detect, though if you’re experienced you can avoid it by just using your intuition. Beginners can try pressing down slightly with the clippers first- if the bird flinches, chances are that’s the vein. Some birds squeal or flinch at any pressure though, with or without a vein. Not all cut veins bleed right away so keep an eye on the bird for a minute or two after cutting. Most veins start dripping once the bird begins walking around. Flour stops bleeding pretty well but you may have to hold the bird still for a few minutes to keep the flour from being rubbed off.

Beak

Healthy beaks do not need to be groomed. Unfortunately, there has been a bit of hype about grooming beaks lately, mostly to try and sell beak sanding tools. Only birds with grossly deformed beaks need any grooming. Scaly mites, injuries and vitamin deficiencies can cause the beak to overgrow. In a case like this the bird should be taken to a vet to have the beak done professionally. The beak is not like a toenail. Though it may look solid and plain, the beak is in fact a highly sensitive structure and should only be trimmed by an experienced professional (i.e. avian veterinarian, NOT a random pet store employee).

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The left conure needs a beak trim, the right does not. If you look closely, the left bird’s beak is not rounded as it should be, but rather angles down in a straighter line. It’s a mild deformity but has led the beak to overgrow (it took 12 years to get overgrown).

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This sun conure has scissor beak, another deformity in which the two sides veer off and do not meet in the middle. Because the upper and lower bill do not grind together during normal use, a bird with scissor beak will need routine beak grooming. As you can see here, the lower bill has overgrown.

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

Feather Health

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Feathers are made up of the same material as fingernails. They help birds regulate their temperature, allow them to fly, facilitate communication, and can indicate the overall health of a bird.

Maintenance/Preening
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Aside from wing clipping, feathers require no extra maintenance on your part. Like cats, birds keep their own feathers clean. They will spend hours a day preening their feathers to keep them in good shape. Preening involves gathering oil from the uropygial gland, located at the base of the tail, and spreading it over the feathers. Each feather is individually run through the beak and straightened.

A few species- cockatoos, cockatiels, and African greys- have specialized down feathers that dissolve into a fine keratin powder. This powder performs the same function as the oil from the uropygial gland. However, it makes these species extremely “dusty.” If you keep these birds indoors you may need a good air filter. If a powder species doesn’t seem to be producing any powder, take it as a sign of illness. PBFD is one possible cause.

You can help your bird keep itself clean by allowing it access to a shallow dish for daily bathing, or by spray misting it. I do not recommend applying any kind of product to a bird’s feathers. There is no need. Birds produce their own oil/powder naturally and do not need any special “conditioner.”

Molting

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Pinfeathers dot this budgie’s head. (X)

Twice a year your bird will molt. Molting is the process of losing feathers and replacing them with new ones, not unlike a dog shedding. It is done gradually, so while you may find lots of excess feathers in your bird’s cage, your bird will not appear to have lost anything. New feathers grow in encapsulated by a waxy sheath. You will see these pinfeathers start to dot the top of your bird’s head where it cannot reach. Pinfeathers can be itchy and if your bird allows head scratches you can help release the new feathers by gently rubbing them between your fingers. Normally this is done by flock mates.

Blood feathers are pinfeathers which are still being fed by a blood supply. Flight feathers grow in as blood feathers and can bleed profusely if broken open while they are still growing in. If a bird has a broken blood feather you can attempt to stop the bleeding by putting flour on it. If that doesn’t work, grasp the feather at the base of the skin with needle nose pliers and swiftly yank it out in the direction it is growing. Only yank as a last resort as you can cause damage to the follicle.

Stress Bars

If you’re finding lines across your bird’s feathers then you have a problem. Stress and malnutrition during a molt can both cause new feathers to emerge with stress bars.

Plucking & Feather Loss

The first thing to do is determine why a bird is losing feathers. Not all feather loss is caused by plucking, and not all plucking is the result of neglect. Giardia can cause intense itching, which can then lead to plucking. Thankfully, it can be treated. PBFD causes severe feather loss and compromises the immune system. There is no cure for PBFD. If your bird is losing feathers it is best to take it to a qualified avian veterinarian first to rule out any medical causes. Make sure your bird is receiving a good diet and that the humidity isn’t too high or low. Many of our pets come from tropical climates, so if you live in an exceptionally dry area this could be exacerbating any problems.

It’s usually quite easy to tell if a bird is plucking itself. Birds can only pluck the areas they can reach, so a bird that is plucking itself will be losing feathers on the chest and back but never the head.

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This African grey exhibits overall poor health in addition to plucking of the chest and back. All the remaining wing and tail feathers are bent, drab, and stressed. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

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This blue and gold macaw had plucked its entire chest and legs. Photo by Rodrigo Soldon.

Feather plucking is a difficult habit to break once it’s begun, so swift intervention is always best. A bird could be picking for any number of reasons: poor health, parasites, stress, or boredom. Birds without anything to do rapidly turn to destructive behaviors like plucking and even self-mutilation. Make sure your bird has plenty of toys/activities AND companionship.

If you adopt a feather plucker, a proper home will go a long way towards halting the plucking, but it can still remain a habit. If this is the case, make sure your bird has plenty else to do. Foraging toys, chew toys, exercise, etc. will all help. You can also get a special vest to help protect the chest.

Some birds are plucked by their mates. This is actually quite common and not a cause for concern, so long as it does not progress to something worse. When a mate is doing the plucking, feather loss is usually restricted to the head because this is where they mutually preen.

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Vita has been plucked by her mate for years. Notice how it is completely confined to the head.

Injury is another source of feather loss. If a bird is severely injured then the feather follicles may be damaged beyond repair, preventing any new feathers from growing.

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Blue boy had a head injury years ago, and retains a quarter-sized bald patch to this day.

Copyright © 2001 by Karen Trinkaus unless otherwise noted and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Cockatiel

Nymphicus hollandicus

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In the Wild
Like budgies, cockatiels also hail from the deserts of Australia and breed very easily when given a constant supply of food. They are also extremely hardy, making them a perfect choice for beginners.

Noise
Tiels love to whistle, or at least the males do. Males are very cute when they’re whistling and showing off. They aren’t great talkers and anything they do say will be more of a whistled version. My male tiel Tootsie used to say “pretty bird” and another bird I knew named Jake could say “Jaker Bakers.” Tootsie actually picked this phrase up from him but would only say it once in a blue moon.

Lifespan
20-30 years

Sexing
Tiels are dimorphic which makes sexing easy. Normal colored males have a yellow head. Hens look just like chicks- they are grey and retain the yellow bars on their wings and tail. Mutations often cannot be sexed visually but can easily be distinguished by behavior. Male cockatiels will sing and show off when presented with a mirror. Hens usually won’t show any interest in it at all. More help sexing various mutations, see Sexing Cockatiels Visually.

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Weaknesses
Cockatiels seem prone to giardia, a parasitic infection that causes itchy behavior and plucking. Other than this they are quite hardy.

Night Frights- Occasionally an owner will be woken up by the sound of their pet frantically thrashing about the cage. Odd noises, movement or lights may set off such a fright (like if you try to sneak past the bird’s cage at night without turning on the lights). Some frights have no apparent cause. Frights can be dangerous because the bird flaps about, refusing to calm down. Thrashing birds can easily break a wing, leg or bloodfeather. Use flour to clot the blood if a feather is bleeding.

If your tiel is prone to frights there are several things you can do. First, try to find out the cause and eliminate it. Is the bird next to a window? Could passing car headlights be the cause? Try covering the cage or leaving it uncovered. Try placing a night light in the room. If nothing seems to help, it would be beneficial to have a separate cage for the bird to sleep in, one without lots of toys and perches for it to knock into.

One thing you should consider for your own health is that cockatiels are very powdery birds. I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone who has asthma or another respiratory condition. If you still want a tiel but have allergies/asthma, invest in a good air filter.

Husbandry
Cockatiels aren’t as active as kaks or budgies so they don’t require as much room. Still, the cage should always be as large as possible. Pets will require a lot of time out with their owners. Pairs will breed in modest-sized cages.

Breeding
See Breeding Cockatiels.

Diet
Regular psittacine diet. Veggies and leafy greens are favorites.

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Personality/Behavior
The cockatiel personality can be summed up in one word: sweet. The cool thing about cockatiels is you get a bird with all the good qualities of a cockatoo or larger parrot without all the vices. Cockatiels are very cuddly, but don’t get so attached to their owner that they develop bad habits like cockatoos.

A tiel’s favorite place to be is on its owner’s shoulder. Like most birds, they love spending time with the family and will call out if separated. Tiels have a very specific call for “Where did you go? Come back!” and will use it when you walk out of the room. Some owners find this call very irritating, and there are a few things you can do to prevent the bird from calling incessantly. First, keep the bird’s main cage in the living room or other actively-visited room. Second, keep the cage well-stocked with toys so that the bird has something to do when you leave. Third, put the bird on a schedule. Like most of us, birds like knowing what to expect. If you come home every day at around the same time, let the bird out, then put it away while you make dinner, the bird will learn that there are certain times it will be out and certain times it will be caged while people are still around. Multiple birds can also help keep each other company while you are otherwise engaged.

Aside from calling and the typical attitude that comes with puberty, cockatiels don’t have many behavior problems.

© 1997-2011 by Karen Trinkaus May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.