Introducing New Birds

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

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

Step 1: Quarantine

ALWAYS QUARANTINE FIRST!

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

Step 2: Introductions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New cage with cardboard barriers at the back.

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

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

 

Sexing

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

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Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

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

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

DNA

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

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A blood card for Avian Biotech.

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

Surgical

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

Behavior

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

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.

Handfeeding FAQ

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What kind of brooder do you use?
Unless you are raising chicks from the egg, you don’t need a fancy brooder. Very young chicks need strict temperature control. Older chicks in pinfeathers do not. My preferred brooder is a small fish tank or Kritter Keeper on top of a heating pad. This set up is cheap and very easy to transport. If you’re a hobby breeder this allows you to take chicks to your day job (if they allow such things).

I set the heating pad to Low. Medium can sometimes be alright if the bottom of the container it sufficiently padded. Always test with your hand to make sure the chicks won’t be burned. Chicks can be kept directly in the container or further divided into margarine tubs or baskets. If chicks are kept directly in the container then the pad should only be under 1/3 to 1/2 of it. This allows the chicks some movement from warm and cooler areas, though most don’t figure this out.

For bedding I use a paper towel and then a layer of shavings on top.

Which is best: syringe, spoon, or tube/gavage?
The syringe is my own tool of choice. It allows quick feeding and minimal mess. The spoon is much slower and messier. I don’t care for it because it may involve dipping back into the formula (contamination risk) and because it allows the formula to cool, but mainly because it’s tedious. Many people like the spoon because they think it gives them more of a chance to bond with their chicks. However, bonding can be achieved more freely outside the feeding time.

Tube or gavage feeding is frowned upon by many aviculurists. This is because it is often used by large breeding operations to quickly feed chicks in an assembly-line fashion. The problem is not with the method itself (though this instrument can be deadly in the hands of an amateur), but with the people who tend to use it. Often they won’t properly socialize their chicks at all. It also bypasses the chick’s normal feeding/swallowing and shoots food directly into the crop. I don’t recommend it for day-to-day feeding. Nevertheless, every breeder should own at least one tube. It is invaluable for feeding stubborn/ill chicks who may have no feeding response, and for administering medicine to an uncooperative chick.

How much do I feed?
You want to fill the crop but not stretch it out so much that it won’t drain properly. I suggest looking at parent-raised chicks for reference. My cockatiels are certainly more daring to swell chicks’ crops than I am. By the way, some chicks continue to beg even if they’re ready to burst so begging cannot be used as a reference. This is a good guide on crop health.

How often do I feed?
(based on the smaller species)
For the first few days chicks will take formula every 1 1/2 to 2 hours around the clock. Over the next week you can probably up this to every three hours, still around the clock. By the time the pinfeathers start coming in they should be up to every four hours, with only one night feeding (or none at all if you stay up really late and wake up really early). If I’m home I let the chicks decide- when they cry I feed them.

When do I pull the chicks for feeding?
Some breeders believe that in order to be tame chicks need to be hatched from Day 1 so that the first thing they see is people. This is utter nonsense. Tameness is directly related to how much time you spend with the chicks and what you do. Socialization during and directly after weaning is key. Leaving the chicks with their parents for a while is generally much healthier for the babies. I pull my chicks when they have pinfeathers, but well before the feathers start opening. For something like cockatiels this would be about two weeks. For larger species it will be later. Go by developmental stage.

What temperature do you feed the formula?
I go by Parrots: Handfeeding and Nursery Management with all my measurements. I begin sucking formula into syringes at 110 degrees. It cools quickly. Birds will often refuse formula if it is too cold. Too hot and it will burn them. You can keep formula warm by floating your formula cup within a larger dish of hot water.

What disinfectant do you use?
There are many on the market- each killing it’s own type of pathogens. I use bleach. It’s like duct tape- works for everything. Add one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. The only problem with bleach is that it tends to corrode your stuff over time.

What formula do you use? Do you add anything to it?
I use Kaytee Exact formula. Commercial formulas are designed to have all the nutrition a bird needs and you’re not supposed to add anything to them (it will upset the balance). Still, I add Spirulina because I hear it’s good for the immune system and sometimes peanut butter during weaning (the babies eat less so I want to make what they do eat more fatty).

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Most food will be played with at first. Remove uneaten soft foods after an hour so they don’t spoil.

How do I wean babies?
Weaning is probably the most stressful part of a bird’s life and the most agonizing for the feeder. Weaning starts when your babies start refusing food. They’ll beg to be fed just as usual and then as soon as you point the syringe at their mouth they’ll clamp their beak shut. Even before the bird begins refusing formula you should be adding solid foods to the cage. Try softer things, or things that are easy to pick up. I start with bananas, Cheerios and parsley. Check the chick’s crop a couple times a day (just move those feathers aside) to see if it’s eaten anything. Once they actually start eating the food I offer a wider selection, starting with softer foods and then working up to harder. Expose them to as many different textures and foods as possible.

The chicks should naturally cut back on formula on their own, though many will beg for formula as a comfort thing. In the wild parents may continue to feed their chicks well past the point when they can fend for themselves. I’ve heard that macaws have been witnessed feeding their offspring for up to two years. My own Goffin cockatoo enjoyed comfort feeding until she was a year old. I can’t say when to stop formula completely- whenever the bird is eating completely fine on it’s own. You may still want to offer formula on occasion just in case.

Weaning is not something to be pushed. Birds will wean at their own pace. Forcing them to wean faster than this will result in poorly-socialized chicks with attachment issues.

Additional Tips:

  • Aim your syringe from the left side of the birds mouth to the right. The trachea (windpipe) is on the left. You want the syringe to point over it towards the esophagus on the right.
  • Mixing formula and then heating it in the microwave can develop “hot spots” that can burn your chicks. Instead, heat the water first and add this to the dry formula.
  • Wipe your babies off! Formula turns to cement when it dries. I’ve seen many a chick develop nasty a formula chunk mustache. Tissue paper works good for this. Be gentle.
  • Formula cools quickly as you feed. Make some system to keep it warm. I heat up the water in one cup and mix the formula in another. Then I fill the syringes and drop the ones I’m not using into the hot water cup. This keeps them nice and warm.
  • Dispose of any leftover formula.
  • For sanitary reasons, it is best to use one syringe for each bird. If you absolutely must use the same syringe for multiple birds, at least stick to clutch mates and don’t double-dip.

Links:

Slow, Sour and Yeasty Crop Remedies– Great read that goes into more detail about handfeeding.

Handfeeding Birds from Conure to Macaw

Handfeeding Cockatiel Babies (video)

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.

Acclimating and Taming Your New Bird

Basic Taming

Clip both the wings or have a professional do it for you prior to taming. Once you get the bird home give it about a day to adjust. Taming should be done in a small room without much furniture. Bathrooms, shower stalls, and hallways that can be blocked off work well. The bird should be transferred from the cage to the taming room with as little fuss as possible.

The cage should be completely out of the room. Frightened birds will head for the cage if it is in sight. If you have other birds, the training room should preferably be out of sight and sound of them as well. You basically want an area with you, the bird, the training tools and nothing else. Tools needed for taming include treats, a towel, two wooden dowels (perches) and a something nonthreatening for you do concentrate on (phone, book, tablet, crochet). Millet spray is a great treat for any bird; grapes, nuts and other fruits can be used for larger species.

Lesson 1: I am Not a Predator

The first lesson is designed to demonstrate that you are not some ravenous predator out to kill the bird. The procedure is simple: Place a towel on the floor a few feet away from you and place the treats on it. Place the bird on the floor, sit down, and do your nonthreatening activity while completely ignoring the bird. It will probably move as far away from you as it can. This is why the room must be small- you want the bird in fairly close proximity, not 10 feet away. Feel free to chirp on occasion, but avoid making eye contact. Eating healthy finger foods like carrots or popcorn while you read also helps. Eventually it may get the courage to taste some of the treats, move about, or preen. When the bird starts relaxing around you physically you can start the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Stick Training and the Up Command

The object is to get the bird to step up onto a wooden perch and then a finger. You’ll need two perches that are familiar to the bird. Don’t use anything strange or fancy that could frighten the bird. Wooden dowels from the bird’s cage work well.

Start by holding the perch at the very end and getting the bird to step up on the opposite end. This can take a while. Most birds step up willingly if correctly prompted. The perch should be offered above the feet, slightly lower than mid-chest. Too low or too high and the bird won’t step up. Gently push into the bird to move it off balance, and it should step up. Some birds heroically cling to their current perch, regardless of how off balance they are. You just have to be persistent.

Praise the bird once it steps up correctly, then try again. This time use a word to ask it to step up. “Up” is the standard word, but pick whatever you know you’ll use on a regular basis. I usually fall back on “come here.” Whatever you choose, use it consistently and have anyone else in the household use it as well. Remember to praise the bird profusely after EVERY correct step up.

Eventually the bird should begin stepping up easily when asked. This would be a good place to stop the session, depending on the bird. Some birds get bored with repeated step ups and will simply jump off and head elsewhere. You definitely want to stop before that happens.

Next you want to make the transition from perch to finger. Continue the step ups, but each time slide your hand along the perch a bit closer to the bird. If the bird freaks out move back and inch or two and try later. After a while you should be able to get your finger directly under the bird’s feet while still grasping the perch. At this point you can try switching completely to fingers. Make sure you hold your fingers straight. A crumpled finger isn’t very inviting.

Once the bird is finger trained in the taming room, try it again from the cage. Try to give it something fun to do when it is outside the cage, so it has a reason to come out. A playstand stocked with millet or other healthy treats should work well. If your bird can happily play by itself on a stand with you in the same room then you’ve accomplished a lot. Petting is something people tend to worry about, and it can’t really be trained. Not all birds enjoy being pet, and it’s not something you want to push them into. Cockatiels, cockatoos and conures usually like being pet; budgies don’t. Focus on building a good relationship with your bird. Earning their trust is key.

Types of Untame Birds

Budgies

Unlike most species, budgies don’t usually come handfed. For this reason, budgies are best purchased one at a time. Single birds are much easier to tame than two at a time. Once your first budgie is tame you can buy a second. The first may actually help you tame down the second. Birds watch each other closely, and a frightened bird may relax a bit if it sees a tame bird interacting with you. If you make the mistake of buying two budgies at once they should be separated (sight AND sound) for taming sessions.

The Timid Handfed

No taming problems for you! You wanted a nice friendly bird so you bought a handfed. However, the bird just sits there, not making a sound and avoiding contact. What went wrong?

Chances are that you’ve been tip-toeing around your new bird with the intention of letting it settle in. This is a problem. Birds are prey animals. In the wild they tend to make some level of noise when they feel comfortable. If their environment suddenly becomes silent, it is usually a sign of danger. By avoiding your bird and being as quiet as possible, you are conveying the message that danger is near. There is little in the way of “settling in” that birds need to do. They will need to adjust to their new cage and your daily routine, but that’s about it. Birds are much more adaptable that we give them credit for.

Handfeds need virtually no time to adjust. Don’t avoid them. Instead, immediately talking to them and wait no more than a day to start handling.

Used Birds

These birds usually come with problems. We humans have the tendency to teach our birds all kinds of annoying habits, and then give our pets up when they don’t meet our perception of The Perfect Bird™. I suggest consulting an avian behaviorist for truly troubled birds, as that is beyond the scope of this article. My goal here is to give you a jump start towards building a trusting, civil relationship.

Try to learn as much about your used bird as possible. What did it eat? Was it kept around children or pets? Physically abused? Exposed to toys? Other birds? The answer to each of these questions should influence how you treat your new bird. A bird with limited exposure to children, pets, toys and new foods may show fear at the introduction of any of these. Birds kept isolated from other birds for years probably have no flocking skills, particularly if they’ve been housed with a mirror (mirrors generally make birds antisocial or territorial). In this case you must use extreme caution when introducing it to other birds. A physically abused bird may be very fearful of humans.

Untame used birds are generally either fearful or hostile. A fearful bird will try as hard as it can to get away and will bite if cornered. A hostile bird holds its ground and bites if approached.

fry04Hostile Birds

Given the choice, I’d rather work with a hostile bird. These guys tend to tame down quicker- it’s a simple matter of winning them over while at the same time displaying your authority. Basically you can treat these guys like new birds that just hit puberty and got an attitude. Reinforce the “up” and “down” commands, and give them praise and treats for good behavior. You can also modify the basic taming technique. For instance, a few years ago I adopted a mitred conure who neither liked nor hated people. Fry would grudgingly step up on an arm, but he would not voluntarily interact with humans. I placed him on the back of a chair at the kitchen table. I then read a book and ate a bird-friendly meal (eggs and toast) with my sun conure. My sun would pig out on the egg yolks and Fry would greedily eye the toast from his perch- he loved white bread. Eventually he’d throw caution to the wind, jump down, grab some toast and drag it to the other side of the table. The goal was to force him to interact briefly, while making it seem like his idea.

Fearful Birds

Fearful birds take much longer to tame down. If the bird is cage-bound you may want to keep it in the original cage, no matter how inadequate, to make it feel more secure. If you have to you can always cut a hole in the side of the original cage and physically attach it to a larger one. That way the bird can explore a new area if it feels comfortable. Covering one side of the cage can make the bird feel more secure as well.

In this case taming involves making the bird feel welcome, then gradually introducing hands in a nonthreatening manner. It is essential that you move at a pace the bird is comfortable with. Start out by just sitting near the cage doing a nonthreatening activity or talking to the bird. The object is to very slowly build trust, and this can take a very long time. Since these birds are so fearful of humans, grooming might be best if done by a professional so that you don’t shatter any limited trust you’ve built.

Approaching Your Bird

If you’ve only dealt with dogs and cats then bird mannerisms can seem very alien. Always keep in mind that birds are prey animals- often their first instinct when faced with something new is to fear it. Your attitude and approach will have the greatest impact on how birds respond to you.

andy&loki2

Confident and Calm

Your attitude should be one of confidence and calm. Birds are very good at reading your emotions. If you are confident, the bird will be more likely to do what you ask. If you are calm and relaxed the bird should relax too. Many people are initially nervous about being bitten. These people tend to be overly timid, tense, and will jerk their hand back at the slightest provocation. You absolutely cannot act like this. The bird will sense your tension and become nervous as well. Practice with very tame birds first before approaching strange ones. Keep in mind that birds use their beaks like a hand. They will often reach out with it to steady themselves when stepping up, particularly if you are holding your hand too high or too far away.

The approach is simple. Walk towards the bird with your hands behind your back. Constantly talk to it in a sweet voice. Extend your hand with your fingers straight and your thumb down. Hold your hand up to the bird mid-belly. Do NOT press down on its feet. How is it supposed to raise its feet if you’re pressing down on them? Likewise, don’t hold your hand too high. Sticking your finger in its face is rude. Most handfeds are finger tame and should not have a problem stepping up so long as they are approached correctly. If the bird seems really nervous and tries to bolt, you will need to slow down your approach. Try moving your hand in from the side along the perch. Stop if the bird starts to move away, back up your hand and try again. Remember to keep talking to the bird in a sweet voice.

Birds seem to compartmentalize human bodies- arms, hands, head, face, torso – all can be viewed as separate objects. What your bird thinks of one body part may not apply to another. Many birds fear hands. Hands can grab, restrain, clip and even hit. If a bird runs away from hands, try offering your arm instead. You’d be amazed how many birds that bolt from hands will readily step onto an arm. The presentation of your various parts also makes a difference. As long as I sit or stand upright, my goffin sees my face as another bird. The moment I lie down my nose magically transforms into a chew toy.

Reverse Psychology/Nonthreatening Activities

Nonthreatening activities are an essential part of earning the trust of fearful birds. Remember- parrots are prey! Older birds in particular will be very frightened by new things and new people. UC Davis conducted a study that found that most parrots had a brief window in which they were open to new things. After that window had closed (usually two years for larger species) they became terrified at anything new in their environment. This is because when they are babies they are constantly learning about what is safe and what isn’t. Everything is new. However, once this learning period is complete anything new is assumed to be potentially dangerous. Better safe than sorry.

Acting nonchalant and using reverse psychology can help get around this somewhat. Here, Jennifer was having trouble getting Loki to play with a new toy. Instead of waving the toy in the bird’s face, she completely ignores the bird and concentrates on fiddling with the toy. Loki immediately comes over to see what’s up.

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

Cockatiel

Nymphicus hollandicus

cockatiel-head-shot-2-1310680-1598x1198

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.

nymph-parakeets-741374_1920

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.

linus2

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.

Cockatiel Growth Guide

 

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Day 1
Chick doesn’t do much. It can’t hold it’s head up. Not a very strong feeding response. Down moist.

Day 2
Has figured out where the food comes from. Stronger response. Can sit and hold head up fairly well. Down dry and fluffy.

Day 3
Eyes may just begin to open.

Day 4
Eyes opening.

Day 5
Eyes opening.

Day 6
Feather tracts should be getting more apparent. Chick begins to do defense display (hissing and swaying) when woken up or when the container is moved.

Day 7
Band baby. Feather tracts beginning to bud with tiny pinfeathers

Week 2 (Days 8 – 14)
Pinfeathers grow in. Chicks get better balance, start stretching, standing up and flapping their wings.

Week 3 (Days 15 – 21)
Pinfeathers open, tail and primaries (flight feathers) first. Chicks flap their wings and preen a lot. They also begin picking at things around them (you may want to start providing food items to play with now).

Week 4 (Days 22 – 28)
Weaning is well on its way. Chicks will begin flying all over the place. It’s usually good to wait until they have fairly good control at flying before clipping the wings.

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

Bathing

It is important to allow your birds the opportunity to bathe, though it’s not something you need to force (unless it’s super hot). During those hot summer months it is very important to keep your birds cool. Each species usually has its own preferences when it comes to bathing, and birds from humid climates may do things differently than those from arid regions. Keep in mind that the rainy season signals breeding in some species, and excessive bathing may trigger hormonal behaviors.

Spray Misting

Some birds will run away from the spray in terror while others will flip upside-down and spread their wings in joy. Cockatiels are mist bathers, even if some of them don’t know it. During the summer I mist my flight tiels and most of them enjoy it. One of the ways to get a bird interested in spray baths is not to directly hit them with the spray. Try aiming off to the side, perhaps at another bird. Many tiels get into bathing mode when just a little bit of the mist from the spray next to them floats over. Amazons and other South American species also enjoy this type of bathing. When misting try not to hit the bird in the face or directly unless they are really getting into the pleasure of the bath. Instead spray just above them so that the mist falls down on their back.

tiels_bathing

Cockatiels enjoy spray misting.

Share a Shower

You can put your bird up on the shower curtain rod (just make sure a towel or something is up there so they don’t slip), or buy a shower perch. Many birds really enjoy showering with their owners.

Dish Bathing

Offering a wide, flat dish with water is a great way to encourage bathing, especially if you don’t have time to mist your bird or let them share a shower. Many pets will try to squeeze into their water dish. This is one of the reasons why I dislike water bottles (always provide a bowl of water in addition to a bottle). If your bird is already trying to bath in its water dish it’s just one easy step for you to provide a larger bathing bowl. Some birds are hesitant about bathing in a bowl. I found that playing in the water with your hand or letting a constant stream of water from the sink trickle in helps. I got my greencheek conure to bath in a bowl I’d hold over the sink or in the sink itself. She always wanted the water running.

One thing you’ll notice is that dish bathers tend to be a bit more nervous about their baths. In the wild this type of bathing is dangerous because pools are great area for predators to catch their prey off-guard. Wet birds also can’t fly as well. Cages are considered by most birds to be “safe” areas so this nervousness usually only occurs when a bird is asked to bath somewhere away from the cage. Reassure your bird by talking to it, playing some soft music in the background or playing in the water yourself. Never leave a dish bather alone during a bath- you are their lookout for predators. Leaving can give them a fright and shatter their willingness to take baths in the future.

bathing2

A budgie bathing in wet parsley.

Leaf Bathing

This type of bathing is unique to some Australian parakeets, like budgies. Budgies will actually take wet leaves and roll around on them and wrap themselves up in them. You can sometimes mist them while they are doing this or get them to leaf bath by misting first. Provide large, wet lettuce leaves.

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

Which Bird is Right for You?

Not sure what bird is right for you? Check these genus profiles. If a ? is noted it means I don’t have enough experience with the species to say.

tiel03_wfcinpearl_cin

Genus/Common Name Nymphicus
Includes Cockatiels
Size Small.
Talking Ability Limited. Good whistler.
Lifespan 20-25
Noise Quiet, but their contact call may be annoying.
Dimorphic Yes. See my Guide to Sexing Tiels Visually.
Comments See species profile for more information. The cockatiel is a good beginner bird that enjoys being pet more than a budgie.

parrots-in-love-1351846-640x480

Genus/Common Name Lories
Includes Lories and lorikeets.
Size Tiny to medium.
Talking Ability ?
Lifespan ?
Noise Varies.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Very colorful and playful. Specialized diet (expensive and causes squirts).

loki17 Goffin cockatoo

Genus/Common Name Cockatoos
Includes Cockatoos
Size Medium to large.
Talking Ability Varies.
Lifespan 50-80
Noise Quiet to loud. Large species are typically very loud. My Goffin is very quiet.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Very demanding pets, but playful and highly intelligent. They are the cuddliest birds you can find. Difficult to breed. Males known for killing, maiming, and trapping hens during breeding.

male-eclectus-parrot-1350890-639x852

Genus/Common Name Eclectus
Includes Eclectus
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Varies.
Lifespan ?
Noise ?
Dimorphic Very. Males are green and females are red.
Comments Matriarcal. Stunning colors and odd feather texture.

 

scarletchested04

A female scarletchested parakeet.

Genus/Common Name Aussie Keets
Includes Polytelis (suberb, regent, princess), king, Platycerus (rosellas), Psephotus (red-rump, mulga), Neophema (bourke, scarlet-chest, turquoise).
Size Small to medium.
Talking Ability Varies.
Lifespan 10-30
Noise Pleasant.
Dimorphic Some species are.
Comments Good aviary birds but not commonly kept as pets. Rosellas are curious as pets and love to whistle.

 budgies06Budgies come in a variety of colors.

Genus/Common Name Melopsittacus
Includes Budgie.
Size Small.
Talking Ability Very good.
Lifespan 5-15
Noise Constant chattering. Usually not offensive.
Dimorphic Yes.
Comments See species profile for more information. Great beginner pets, but they usually do not come tame.

 

tovi1

 

Genus/Common Name Cyanoramphus
Includes Kakarikis
Size Small.
Talking Ability Good.
Lifespan 10-?
Noise Pleasant.
Dimorphic Yes, but it takes experience.
Comments See species profile for more information. Kakarikis are high energy pets that require a lot of space and supervision. They rarely sit still for long and make very entertaining pets.

lovebird-1-1379868-640x480

Genus/Common Name Agapornis
Includes Lovebirds.
Size Small.
Talking Ability Limited.
Lifespan 10-20
Noise Like budgie only higher pitched.
Dimorphic Some.
Comments Make feisty and curious handfed pets.

colorful-parrot-1381014-639x957

Genus/Common Name Psittacula
Includes Indian ringneck, African ringneck, Alexandrine, plum-head, blossom-head, Derbyan, Moustached.
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Excellent.
Lifespan 20-30
Noise Loud.
Dimorphic Yes.
Comments See species profile for more information. This genus is unfairly labeled “standoffish.” Ringnecks make excellent pets if well socialized. They are highly intelligent, curious and playful. They do tend to be strong willed and require a more experienced or assertive owner.

 

tovi7

Genus/Common Name Poicephalus
Includes Senegal, meyers, cape, jardine’s, brown-head.
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Moderate.
Lifespan 30-40
Noise Quiet.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Good apartment birds. Senegals are the most popular.

 

parrots-1380029-640x480

 

Genus/Common Name Ara
Includes Macaws (extinct/endangered ones in other genus).
Size Medium to large.
Talking Ability Moderate.
Lifespan 80-100
Noise Loud.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Not as popular as once were, perhaps due to size, expense and noise level. They are the larger relatives of conures. Intelligent and playful.

 

jayjay3Sun conures are very popular due to their color.

Genus/Common Name Aratinga.
Includes Most conures. Nanday in another genus but the profile still applies.
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Limited.
Lifespan 30
Noise Loud.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Very loud for size. Playful, curious pets. Very outgoing and fun-loving. Tend to become one-person birds if you let them.

 

gc conureGreencheek conure

Genus/Common Name Pyrrhura
Includes Green-cheek, maroon-belly, pearl, paint and most other small conures.
Size Small.
Talking Ability Limited.
Lifespan 30
Noise Usually quiet.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Good for someone who likes conures but hates noise. These guys are smaller and generally much quieter.

 

 parrot-5-1250337-639x852

 

Genus/Common Name Brotogeris
Includes White-wing, canary-wing, grey-cheek, and other “pocket parakeets.”
Size Small.
Talking Ability Moderate.
Lifespan 30
Noise Loud.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Used to be available in large numbers. Very limited supply since importation stopped and these birds are difficult to breed. Known to be outstanding pets. Most of these birds should probably be in breeding programs though.

 

exotic-parrot-singing-1354249-639x425

Genus/Common Name Poinites
Includes Caique
Size Medium.
Talking Ability ?
Lifespan ?
Noise ?
Dimorphic No.
Comments South American species. Curious and feisty.

 

parrotlet-1366819-639x553

Genus/Common Name Parrotlet
Includes Parrotlet
Size Tiny to small.
Talking Ability ?
Lifespan ?
Noise ?
Dimorphic I think some species are.
Comments These guys are known as “mini amazons.” They have a large attitude for such small birds. They cannot be bred in colonies.

 

south-american-parrots-1362496-640x480

Genus/Common Name Amazona
Includes Amazons
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Excellent.
Lifespan 50-80
Noise Loud.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Outgoing and boisterous. Some species more mellow (mealy, lilac-crown, orange-wing). Can be very aggressive during breeding displays. Get hyper easily. Some, like double yellow heads and yellow napes, love opera and will make up their own songs.

 

pionus4

Genus/Common Name Pionus
Includes Pionus
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Moderate.
Lifespan 50-80
Noise Quiet.
Dimorphic No.
Comments Good apartment birds. Appealing to people who like South Americans but dislike noise.

 

african grey1

Genus/Common Name Psittacus
Includes African grey
Size Medium.
Talking Ability Excellent.
Lifespan 50-80
Noise Quiet but like to pick up household noises to repeat constantly (much to the annoyance of some owners).
Dimorphic No.
Comments Highly intelligent and excellent mimics, but shy and sensitive. Can be badly affected by change if normally kept on a strict schedule. Plucking very common if stressed.

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