The Best Enrichment: A Flock

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

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

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

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

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

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Vita and her mate.

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Home Baby

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Congratulations on your new baby bird!

Things to do before bringing a bird home:

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

Handling

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

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

Set Boundaries

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

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

Routine, Routine, Routine!

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

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

Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Have Other Birds

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

Health

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

Here are some external links you may find helpful:

 

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

Beginner Guide to Genes, Mutations and Hybrids: Part 1

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

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Photo by Jeff Coffman

Part 1: Genetics

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

Dominant and Recessive Genes

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

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

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

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

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

First, draw a square like the one below.

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

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

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

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The results out of four children:

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

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

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Results:

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

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

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Click here for answer.

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Click here for answer.

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

Sex-linked Genes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results:

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

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

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

The results:

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

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

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

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

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

Containing the Mess

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

Secure the Area

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

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

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

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Six mats to cover two large cages.

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

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Temporary set up in my garage prior to our move.

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

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

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

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

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

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Solution: leftover vinyl scraps from a remodel.

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Vinyl scraps.

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Done!

Preventing Food Splatter

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

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

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Minimizing Poop Damage When Out of the Cage

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

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

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Shoulder Cape

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

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

Breeding: It’s Not Easy

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

Handfeeding Crash Course

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

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

What does your baby look like?

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

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

Temperature for baby

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

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

WATCH your baby

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

How to Keep Baby Warm

Ideally you would have a proper brooder like this:

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

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Here are some links on how to make a brooder:

Feeding

Supplies needed:

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

How to Feed

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

Feeding Schedule:

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

handfeeding chart

This is for COCKATIELS.

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

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

Fledging & Weaning

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

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

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

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.

First Aid

It always pays to be prepared for any emergencies, especially if you own birds. Chances are that if something goes wrong it will happen on Saturday night at 2:00 a.m. and you’ll have to wait until Monday morning before you can even try scheduling an appointment. This article is NOT meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. True, there are some things you can take care of at home. Most of us breeders would rather handle things ourselves unless we absolutely can’t, but unless you really know what you are doing you need seek out a qualified vet.

First Aid Kit

Every bird owner should have a first aid kit. In a crisis you don’t want to be running all over the house looking for this or that. You want everything to be in one accessible place. Things to place in your kit:

  • Syringes
  • Gavage feeder*
  • Vetwrap
  • Cotton balls
  • Q tips
  • Tissue paper
  • Nail clippers
  • Very small scissors
  • Flour or Kwik Stop

* ONLY if you are someone who KNOWS how to use it. A gavage can be a lifesaver in the right hands and an instant killer in the wrong hands.

Syringes and gavage tubes can be used to administer medication or feed birds unable/unwilling to feed themselves. Vetwrap is a very neat material that only sticks to itself- never skin, fur or feathers.

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Hospital tank with lamp and under-tank heater.

The Hospital Cage
Everyone needs a good hospital cage. It will where you will be housing birds that are sick and waiting for a vet appointment or recouping from illness or injury. This cage should be small enough to restrict movement, yet larger than a carrier. Plastic animal cages (those cheap ones with the colored lid and handle at your local pet store), brooders and small aquariums work the best. There should be one perch that can be removed if needed, or no perch at all. There should be no toys. The water bowl should be small and shallow to prevent drowning and the feed bowl should likewise be small. There should be no bottom grate. The substrate should consist of paper towels changed twice daily. If you are not using a brooder the hospital cage will need supplemental heating. Tubs and tanks can be kept half on/half off a heating pad set to low or medium. A heating light works better if you are using a cage or if it has a perch.

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While in the hospital cage, make sure you observe droppings and food intake. I would recommend taking pictures of droppings if they seem off. You can show these to the vet if need be. It’s always better to have too much information than not enough.

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Still under observation, but out of the tank. Heat lamp above but no under cage heater.

Injuries
With the exception of toe injuries and broken blood feathers, most injuries will require the bird to spend some time in the hospital cage.

Bitten toes and feet are usually not a problem unless the laceration is exceptionally bad. If a bird has a foot or toe injury with no apparent cause, try examining it closer. Birds can get tiny fibers, string or even human hair wrapped tightly around their toes. This can cut of circulation and cause severe damage. I recently adopted a cockatiel who lost its foot up to the ankle because its owner did not realize there was string wound around it (he thought it was just another bird bite). Close examination is always good with any ailment.

Broken bones require vet attention. Wings are very fragile so any injury to them requires a vet visit to make sure nothing is broken or torn. Keep the bird in a hospital cage until its appointment.

Beak, mouth and sinus injuries can allow infections to enter the brain. It is extremely important to seek a vet in these cases.

Broken blood feathers are not as horrific as they are made out to be. I know many people recommend the removal of any broken blood feathers. I do not, for several reasons:

  • By the time you find out a blood feather was broken, it has usually clotted up nicely.
  • Removing such a large feather is painful and can often cause more bleeding to occur.
  • I’ve never had a problem with one starting to bleed again.

Broken feathers are often caused by night frights. If you do catch one bleeding, I recommend holding flour onto in until it clots. Unless your bird is very skittish it probably won’t knock the feather hard enough to cause bleeding again. The same procedure goes for bleeding. Flour is a wonderful, inexpensive way to stop bleeding.

Splayed legs are easy to fix at home and require no vet assistance. Just use paper tape or vetwrap to bind the chick’s legs closer together (but not so tight that you’re cutting off the circulation). Do this for at least a one week, longer if needed (older chicks). Change the dressing every other day or if it falls off.

Remember, first aid can be a good tool in case of emergencies but for serious problems please consult a veterinarian.

© 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.