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.

Should I buy a Second Bird?

The last time I was at a bird club meeting the speaker was the editor of Bird Talk magazine. She brought up some of the frequently asked questions they receive. As bird club members, we all kind of chuckled at these because they were common knowledge to us. One of the questions they routinely get is “Should I buy a second bird?” She said the fact that the person was even asking the question indicated that the answer was “no.” Most people nodded in agreement at this statement. I beg to differ.

I receive this question a lot too, but most people don’t ask it out of some nagging doubt it won’t work or they shouldn’t do it. In many cases, they want another bird, but are unsure how their first will react. Will the two get along? Will their first bird lose its pet qualities? How soon can they be introduced? What species would be most compatible? To me their question shows that they know enough about birds not to jump into something blindly. They want to educate themselves first. Most people obtain their first bird without doing any research. They learn through trial and error, not really the best way for the pet or the owner, but if they’re trying to rectify the situation the second time around I can’t fault them. There’s nothing wrong with making an informed decision.

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Benefits of Keeping a Flock

I have a personal philosophy regarding this issue – I never keep birds singly. A bird that has its own cage is still kept near others and allowed play time with them. The only time I completely isolate a bird is if it must be kept in a hospital cage due to health problems. This does not mean that I think every owner should run out and buy more birds. Many people are happy with just a single pet. This article is for those of you who are contemplating buying another bird, but haven’t quite made up your mind yet.

I believe it is psychologically beneficial for birds to be kept in a flock. My adopted mitred conure responded extremely well when kept around my flock. He no longer tries to assault other birds. Many people don’t properly socialize their birds. One of my requirements of socialization is that bird know how to be a bird. A handfed reared in isolation with no avian contact may have identity problems later, particularly if its owner expects it to act like a little human. Birds are not humans and never will be. We both share many behaviors but have different motivations. Understanding your bird’s behavior is the key to getting along with it. I think new owners tend to attribute human motivations to their bird’s behavior or simply treat them as if they have no emotions at all. Both views will lead to problems.

When you allow birds to interact with one another you give them a chance to communicate in their own language and to be themselves. As an aside: One of my pet peeves is when people ask me about teaching their birds to talk or want to know if my birds talk. Yes they talk- they speak bird! You’ll get along much better with your animals if you learn to communicate with them. I’ll have you know I’m fluent in “duck” and “chicken.” I’ve made friends with wild ducks using this skill. Don’t ask me how to teach your birds to talk, ask me how you can learn to speak “bird.”

Not everyone can give their bird the attention it requires. Many people will buy their pet a mirror, thinking this will help keep it company. This is worse than keeping a bird isolated. If you can’t give your bird the attention it needs, give it up or buy a second.

I also believe that owners learn more about bird behavior when observing more than one interacting. Owners of one bird only see that single bird’s behavior. They have no point of reference and mistakenly judge their behavior as “odd.” When you see birds interact with one another it makes more sense.

I also cannot overstate how beneficial it is for birds to have another bird, even a different species, around during the day when you’re not home. Parrots are not meant to be kept in isolation.

Will my first bird lose its pet qualities?

No. If your bird is tame and lovable it should stay that way. I have never seen a bird become unfriendly just because it had a new friend. I think this myth has been propagated by owners whose birds hit puberty the same time as a new bird is purchased. Behavior changes associated with puberty have nothing to do with the introduction of a new bird.

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This guy was handfed and socialized by me. He’s an aviary bird and I haven’t handled him on a regular basis for ten years. Still tame.

Let’s say you buy a new cockatiel. You have it for a few months. It’s so sweet and wonderful you just have to get another one. Your first bird is probably around six months to a year old when you decide to introduce another. Guess what time puberty hits? That’s right, around 6-12 months. The new bird is unjustly blamed for problems that would have occurred anyway.

What species are the most compatible?

This is more of a concern if they are to be sharing a cage. Given a large enough cage, you can probably keep any birds of similar size together. I keep conures, budgies, kakarikis, tiels and ringnecks together, but then I have walk-in aviaries. Territorial issues are less of a problem when you are not breeding.

If the cage is smaller you’ll need the species to be more alike. Tiels and budgies have similar care requirements but they don’t get along well in confined spaces, especially if there are only one of each (or one tiel and numerous budgies). Tiels are mellow birds; budgies are pesky and very active. The constant movement alone can drive a tiel nuts in a small cage. Even if it doesn’t, the budgies are likely to harass the tiel endlessly.

When species are very different (in size or behavior) you need to give each their own cage. I would not keep any of the medium or large parrots together in a standard pet cage. You’d need a large flight to do that.

Supervised play is fine with most similar-sized birds, as long as you know how to read body language and prevent problems.

How soon can they be introduced?

Quarantine all new birds for at least 30 days. By quarantine I mean keep them in another room with NO contact with your current birds. You don’t want to risk bringing in any diseases. Feed the new bird last and change clothes/wash hands before handling your other birds again. I also recommend a vet check and bloodwork if you can afford it. You can see a veterinarian for disease testing or submit it yourself.

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How do I introduce them?

Some species can be thrown in together with few problems. Budgies and tiels usually fall into this category. Heck, budgies typically welcome new birds! However, birds that have established territory- especially perceived breeding territory- may have a problem with a new bird suddenly sharing it. In this case it is best to start out with separate cages, in view of each other, and supervised play time outside of the cages. How soon the two get along will vary. If you see any fighting take things back a step.

How do I keep them from breeding?

Don’t buy the same species or the opposite sex, and don’t give them a nestbox.

© 1997-2002 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

The Problem with Giving your Bird a Mirror

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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.

Budgie (aka Parakeet)

Melopsittacus undultatus

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First a word on definitions: Budgie is the correct term to use when referring to (M. undultatus). Though they are parakeets, a parakeet is any small parrot with a long tail. This includes cockatiels, kakarikis, all the birds in the genus Psittcula, most of the parrots in Australia, and many more. But there is only one budgie.

Two more terms you’ll often hear in reference to budgies are “American” and “English.” These are not separate species, just different breeds (Like dogs are all one species but there are many different breeds. The same goes for cats, chickens, and canaries.). Budgies are have the distinction of being the only psittacine with different breeds. English budgies are bred for show. They are large- about three times the size of an American. Americans are your typical pet shop budgie. All mine are American. I breed for color.

In the Wild
Budgies are native to the deserts of Australia. This means two things:

  1. They are hardy.
  2. They breed like rabbits.

In the desert rain is scarce. Birds who live there have to be able to nest and raise young very quickly whenever food becomes available. This ability to breed constantly has made budgies the most common pet bird in America and led to the establishment of hundreds of designer colors.

 

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A male (left) trying to attract a female (right).

Noise
Male budgies chatter almost constantly and this is a good indication of a happy bird. Females don’t make much noise. Budgies are one of the top ten talking birds but none of mine have ever said a word.

Lifespan
They can live 10-15 years, sometimes more. Unfortunately, many don’t make it past age five due to tumors.

Sexing
Budgies are very easy to sex, both visually and by behavior. As I stated above, males chatter more than hens. Males will often show off and chatter endlessly when presented with a mirror, but so will some females kept singly. To sex visually you have to look at the cere- the fleshy area surrounding the nostrils. Adult males have a bright blue cere (unless they are a color that contains no black pigment, such as albino or lutino) and females have a crusty brown cere when in breeding condition (all colors). Hens may also have tan or white ceres.

 

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A male budgie has a blue cere.

 

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A female (bottom) has a brown cere.

 

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Female (left) watching a male feed chicks.

Weaknesses
Budgies are tumor factories. If you take good care of your budgie and suddenly something is wrong with it (paralysis, blindness, etc.) a tumor is a good assumption (of course that doesn’t mean you don’t have to go to the vet). Tumors are usually seen in birds over 3 years of age. I’ve had three cases myself: Moonbeam, age 4, tumor pinched optic nerve and caused blindness; Arnold, age 5, tumor the size of my thumb on his abdomen caused him to stop breeding; Sweatpea, age 4-5, tumor on kidney pressed against spinal cord causing sudden paralysis, looked similar to egg-binding. Psittacosis is also seen frequently in budgies, but this maybe just because they are the most common pet birds.

Husbandry
Budgies are very active and deserve as big a cage as possible. Also, if you plan on owning a single budgie make sure you pay a lot of attention to it. If you can’t please get a second bird to keep it company. Budgies are very social and need other budgies to talk to.

Breeding
Just add a nestbox. Actually you should be more worried about getting them to stop breeding. Usually removing the box after 2-3 clutches will get them to stop, though some hens will continue to lay in their feed dish. Budgies are also prone to all kinds of nitpicky problems when bred communally. Baby budgies usually have stripes all the way down to their cere and a bit of black on their beak.

Diet
Regular psittacine diet. Budgies particularly love leafy green foods like parsely, carrot tops and lettuce.

Personality/Behavior
Budgies aren’t very cuddly, but they make great pets. I started out with one budgie and she’s what got me hooked on birds in the first place. They’re very active and sociable which makes them fun to watch, especially if you have an aviary full of them.

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Pepper and Maggie hang out on my brother.

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