How (Not to) Sex Cockatiels

Cockatiels are dimorphic, which means males and females look different. They’re pretty easy to sex IF you know what to look for. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of misinformation online. When it comes to sexing cockatiels, mutations matter, and most people simply don’t have the expertise to do it accurately. This is because certain rules of sexing are conditional, and if you don’t know the conditions under which the rule applies, you’re going to be wrong.

Let me give you an example. Pretend you’re an alien studying life on Earth, and one of your fellow aliens tells you that humans are easy to sex. All you have to do is follow two simple rules: Males are tall and have short hair. Females are short and have long hair.

The problem with this blanket statement should be obvious, but in case it’s not:

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Likewise, there are a lot of incorrect generalities when it comes to sexing cockatiels. This has led to a lot of well-intentioned people repeating things they’ve heard without any concept of why they’re applying the information incorrectly:

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Cheek Patch Intensity/Color

Cheek patch color/intensity is one I see commonly, so we’ll tackle that first. Cockatiels have been bred in captivity for a long time, and while this rule might apply to wild cockatiels, it’s useless for sexing pets, which are likely to carry a number of color mutations and are very far removed from their wild counterparts.

All the examples I give here are adult birds. Scroll slowly if you’d like to test yourself.

sexing2 normals

I’d like to point that while both birds are normal, each carries the gene for pied. Again, captive birds are not wild-type!

Above we have two normal colored birds. Male on the left, female on the right. The rule seems to apply, right?

sexing7 cheekOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a very nice orange patch, just like the male above. The bird on the right doesn’t even have a cheek patch.

The problem here is that these birds have obvious mutations. The right is a pearl; left is whiteface. Whiteface birds can’t produce any yellow/orange color, so they don’t have a cheek patch. To someone inexperienced, it might even look like the bird on the left has a facial mask. There’s yellow there, right? Nope.

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This is why knowing the mutation matters. Females keep their pearls into adulthood. Males don’t (unless they’re pied–another rule broken!).

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Progression of a pearl male. Baby, 6 months, a year. You can see how he gains a facial mask and loses many of the pearl markings. He will continue to lose more.

sexing3 cheek colorOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a much brighter cheek patch than the bird on the right.

I hate to break it to you, but that nice orange patch belongs to a lutino pearl hen. The male on the right has the yellow cheek mutation. There are several mutations that alter the cheek patch color like this. Pastelface is another one.

sexing4 cheek color“No problem,” someone says. “I can just look for the facial mask!”

Facial Mask

Go ahead and try sexing the birds below.

sexing5 facial maskOn the left we’re missing the distinct facial mask and the cheek patch is dull. The bird on the right is lutino, so it’s difficult to see if there’s a mask there, but the cheek patch is bright. Which one is male and which one is female?

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Lutinos are really difficult to sex visually, because a lot of their identifying characteristics, like the mask and tail barring, are hard to see. It’s even more difficult if they’re pied lutino, which you may not even know from looking at them.

I cannot tell you how often I see people claim that a pied bird must be male because it has yellow/white on its head. Mutations matter! 

Petrie, the male on the left, is what’s called a dirty-faced pied–he has melanin on his face. Pied males do not get a facial mask, and pied females can have yellow heads. They cannot be sexed visually. Pearl pied males may lose their pearls, but they can also keep them. Pieds should really be sexed by behavior or DNA. Just to give you an idea:

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Pearl Pied Female

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Pearl Pied Male

So, how do you sex your cockatiel?

There are a few methods. If you’re impatient and want to know now, or if you have a pied or lutino, I recommend DNA sexing. It’s important to note that lutino is a sex-linked gene, and it is statistically far more likely to be female.

The other method is to wait until the bird is at least nine months old and has gone through a molt. Males will have begun to show their standard characteristics by then (except for pieds!). At this point you can use my guide to sexing or ask an expert. If you post in a general Facebook forum, you’re going to get a lot of inexperienced people giving you their incorrect opinions about head/cheek color, which is why I’m recommending a professional forum.

For more about how sex-linked genes work, see my article on Genetics.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Starter Pets: What makes a good beginner pet?

I’m tired of people acting like starter pets aren’t a thing. Cockatiels and budgies do well in just about every household. Cockatoos and lories absolutely do not. Would you recommend a macaw as a first bird? I didn’t think so.

Starter does NOT mean disposable. It means easy to for beginners to keep. Starter pets are your most laid back, your most versatile. They’re the chill animals who go with the flow while their owner learns the ropes, and they’re an essential entry point for budding bird people. So stop acting like “starter pet” is an insult. Starter pets are AWESOME. That’s what makes them starter pets.

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What makes an animal a good starter pet?

  • hardy
  • easy care
  • few behavior problems
  • good with children
  • inexpensive
  • (relatively) short lifespan

Hardy

People are going to make mistakes, even if they are trying their best. No one starts out an expert. Some knowledge is gained best through experience than reading (bird body language for one). Researching everything prior to purchase can still leave someone with conflicting advice, thanks in part to the many armchair experts that give misleading information online.

Starter pets are physically hardy. They’re able to withstand mistakes here and there. Budgies and cockatiels are native to the Australian outback. Their bodies are designed to deal with food and water shortages, and greater temperature extremes. They’re tough, unlike kakarikis, who can pass out or have a heart attack if stressed.

Easy Care

All animals have a baseline of care, but for some, this baseline is higher than others. Starter pets are at the lowest possible bar. If an animal has a specialized diet (lories, eclectus) or needs heavy-duty equipment (macaw), then it’s not a starter pet.

Few Behavior Problems

Why are cockatiels starter pets but cockatoos are not? Because cockatoos turn into a neurotic mess if handled wrong.

Some animals are more likely to develop behavior problems if incorrectly handled. Perhaps they are nippy, flighty, or tend to attach to one person. Maybe they don’t take commands easily and need a person who can handle their strong will appropriately. Such animals do not make starter pets. Behavior issues are not the fault of the animal, but simply a byproduct of an inexperienced owner reacting inappropriately to certain innate behaviors.

Good with Children

This quality is important if the pet is intended for a family with children or access to grandchildren. Starter pets should be reasonably tolerant of handling, especially as children tend to be overzealous even when coached. You want to avoid species which are nippy when excited (green cheek conures) or bite hard when their personal space is invaded (Indian ringnecks).

Inexpensive

Budget absolutely matters. Not all families can afford expensive pets. There’s a vast difference between setting up a budgie vs a macaw. Larger birds have larger long-term costs as well. Working within your means is not a crime. It’s sensible.

Short Lifespan

This one is hard, as outside of rodents, you’re going to have a starter pet for at least ten years. Some people may find that birds are not for them, and in this case rehoming is best. A longer lived pet is more likely to run into the problem of major life changes. What happens when a child grows up and moves to college? Gets married? Has kids of their own? Moves? What happens if your job changes and you have less time to spend with your pet? What if your bird outlives you?

The longer a pet lives, the more likely it will encounter situations like these and the more likely it will be rehomed. We can’t always plan for the future, but lifespan should definitely be taken into account when acquiring a pet, especially if there’s a good change it might outlive you.

What a starter pet is NOT.

Disposable.

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Any time you purchase an animal, even if it is a starter pet, you need to consider your life situation and do your research. While starter pets are a good way to find out if a particular type of pet is good for you, that doesn’t mean they should be discarded the moment you feel like you can move on to something better. This is an animal that is bonded with you and your family. It isn’t going to understand why it is being cast aside, and few pets are rehomed just once. Pets, even starter pets, should be purchased with the intent to keep them for the long term.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Bringing Home Baby

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Congratulations on your new baby bird!

Things to do before bringing a bird home:

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

Handling

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

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

Set Boundaries

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

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

Routine, Routine, Routine!

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

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

Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Have Other Birds

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

Health

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

Here are some external links you may find helpful:

 

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

Care Sheet: Indian Ringneck

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Personality: Playful, inquisitive, intelligent, independent

Experience level required: Moderate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: 12-18mo

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

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

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

Talking ability: Good. Both sexes talk.

Diet: Standard

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

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

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

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

Care Sheet: Green Cheek Conure

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Personality: Curious, playful, feisty, cuddly

Experience level required: Intermediate

Approximate Lifespan: 30 years

Puberty: One year

Sexing: DNA test

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

Talking ability: Low

Diet: Standard

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

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

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.

Rehoming Culture

 

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I recently bought a pionus. I am at least his fifth home. Let that sink in. This poor bird has had FIVE homes. The first home I have a history for kept him “under a porch covered with a blanket.” Next he spend a “year or two with a lady and a bunch of birds.” After that was a year with a woman, Courtney*.

Courtney loved the bird but her reason for giving him up was sadly very common- she just didn’t feel that she had the time to give him the attention he needed: “I just have no time as I work a lot and have two dogs and just took in my mother and her dog. He needs someone that can give him more and more experienced.” I contacted Courtney back in April. I explained that I’d love to have him but that I was moving soon, and didn’t want him to have to go through a double transition. If she still had him in a few months I could take him. I didn’t hear back, was busy with the move, and forgot all about the conversation.

Flash forward to November and another woman, Pam, is selling a pionus. I was still looking for a new pet so I contacted her. We met up and I got the bird. A week later I got a PM from Courtney. Apparently it was the same bird and she was rather distraught that he was being rehomed again after only seven months. I explained that I already had him and that he was in quarantine. I reassured her that he was doing fine.

Pet ownership is not something I take lightly, and barring positive disease test results, this little pionus will be a permanent addition to my flock. He apparently was fairly standoffish with Pam and her husband, but within two days he was asking me for head scratches and regurgitating. Courtney was relieved, “I have a feeling he will be perfect to you if he is already regurgitating to you…he did that to me! And would try to fly to the other room if I left him lol…he was very sweet…I had to work full time and lost my daddy and had to look after my mother so didn’t have the time he wanted.”

Buddy Bird’s tale is sadly commonplace. Birds get passed around so frequently from home to home. I used to think that it was mainly due to impulse buys, behavior problems at the onset of puberty, or changing life circumstances. Good owners like me would never just part with their beloved pets, right? We drill into people the idea of a “Forever Home.” Come what may, our pets stay with us!

That is not the case. Since joining online bird groups I have seen that good owners giving up birds for minor reasons is frighteningly commonplace. Many times the birds go to other good bird owners. They get passed around to other members within the group, just as Buddy Bird was, and it’s all good, right? Because we’re all good bird parents?

I find the trend incredibly disturbing. Birds like routine and consistency. They like their favorite person in the household. They don’t understand the reason when they are suddenly uprooted and sent to a new home. Again. And again. Buddy has lived in three different homes this year. Yes, they were all good homes, but no bird wants to be passed around like that.

I breed and sell birds, but I have never “rehomed” a pet. Not a bird, snake, dog or cat. My home is the last stop for them, come what may. I was in my early twenties when I bought Loki, my Goffin cockatoo. She has lived with me through college, marriage, several moves, and the birth of my children. When I began having human babies I probably came as close as I’ve ever come to rehoming her, in that I at least thought about it. She and Verde, my other pet bird at the time, basically got zero attention from me. I had neither the time nor the energy. So why didn’t I rehome her?

Because I didn’t want her to end up like Buddy Bird, and I didn’t want to end up like Courtney.

If I, the most stalwart “Forever Home,” could rehome a pet, then who’s to say the next owner wouldn’t? What then? Would she be passed around from home to home? What if they didn’t feed or house her right? What if she was abused? In my home she might not have been getting enough attention, but I knew that was only temporary. She had Verde for company. She had a big cage, toys, and a good diet. Her basic needs were being met. I kept her, and when my last child turned one I was able to start making up for lost time.

Let me put it another way, if you suddenly found that you had to work longer hours and couldn’t spend as much time with your human children, would your first thought be to send them to foster care? Why are pets any different? If they are truly “family,” as so many owners profess they are, then why are so many rehomed at the drop of a hat?

Now, there are absolutely many very valid reasons to give up a pet- sudden illness or death (Courtney was dealing with a death in the family), change in finances, change in living situation, etc. I just don’t think working full time hours qualifies. You can absolutely work long hours and still retain your pet. I worked and went to school full time for years. You can easily let your pet hang out with you when you come home and do homework, or watch TV on the couch. They want to spend time with you and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing together.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there also seems to be a culture of “not good enough” when it comes to birds. Remember, these are good owners giving up their pets. They know birds are a lot of work and that they require a lot of attention. So when they suddenly find they can’t give their pet ALL THE ATTENTION they think their bird would be better off elsewhere. Again and again I see the reason cited as “I can’t give them the attention they deserve.” Rather than stick it out as I did for a few years and make up for it later, people are getting rid of their pets.

So how do we fix this?

Set realistic expectations. Understand that you’re not going to be able to always spend all day every day with your pets. That is very unrealistic in the long run. Life circumstances change and birds live a long time. Birds need to know how to entertain themselves, and people need to make peace with the fact that they can’t be there all the time. Even if you’re home all the time, your bird shouldn’t be out all day every day. They need to know how to entertain themselves and to do so for periods in their cage. It doesn’t have to be a long time, but they do need to be used to it. If you don’t like the idea of your bird being cooped up in a small cage then get a larger one, or an aviary.

Recognize that a dips in attention are bound to happen over such a long life. Life is full of ups and downs. Parrots can share our entire lifespan and that means a lot of opportunities for life changes. I’m not going to get rid of my first child just because I had another and she now has to compete for my attention. Understand that most things in life are temporary and that this too shall pass.

Do not set humans up to be 100% of your pet’s social circle. We humans love our pets and the affection they give us, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want that affection to be at our beck and call. We want it when it’s convenient for US, and we set ourselves up to be our pet’s sole source of interaction because we are afraid that otherwise they won’t be tame enough or affectionate enough. We set ourselves up to be 100% of their social circle and when we can no longer fulfill that need we get rid of the pet. That is not fair to the animal.

Get your bird a buddy. Birds should not be kept alone! They need a buddy. Loki had Verde. They weren’t very close, but they kept each other company when I was too busy to interact with them. If you find yourself spending less time with your pet, get it a buddy. They don’t have to share the same cage or even be the same species (Verde was a mitred conure). They just need to be there, in the same room, existing as part of the flock. Even if you can give your bird plenty of attention now, get your bird a buddy. Don’t be selfish. You don’t know what the future holds or if you’ll be able to keep up your current rate of interactions. Getting a buddy will ensure your pet has someone to talk to when you can’t. You can go to work and not feel guilty. You can have a life and not feel guilty.

If the birds are bonded enough, they won’t even need you at all. That may be scary to some people, but it is absolutely psychologically healthier for the birds. You should not be your pet’s “mate” anyway. It doesn’t negate your relationship with your bird. It merely puts you on a more realistic and equal footing with other members of the flock, and that is a good thing.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to harp on people who rehome. In some cases it is absolutely necessary. Courtney was dealing with a death in the family and it is quite understandable that she felt she didn’t have time for Buddy. It’s not her fault that Pam decided to sell him again after only a few months, and Pam was under no obligation to notify Courtney about her intentions. Once your bird leaves your hands it’s no longer yours and the buyer can do whatever they want with it. Buddy happened to find his way to me, but he could just as easily have found his way to someone less caring or less willing to put in the time. Not all stories have a happy ending.

So please, if you are an owner who houses their birds correctly, feeds a good diet, and offers them enrichment, consider keeping your birds even if they can’t get quite as much attention. You can make it up to them. At the very least you can meet all their basic needs and then some. If you rehome there is no guarantee they won’t get passed along to other homes and who knows where they might end up. The Perfect Home is a myth. The standards are so high that no one can meet them all the time. We need more true Forever Homes.

buddy

*names have been changed

Copyright 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.

Preventing Hormonal Behavior

Hormones can be the cause of many behavior problems in birds. As a breeder it is very easy for me to identify mating behaviors for what they are. However, most pet owners do not breed and are therefore unfamiliar with typical mating behaviors and their common triggers. Instead they anthropomorphize such behaviors and let things escalate too far. It is essential that you learn everything you can about the particular species that you own- including how they breed. Even if you never plan to breed, those behaviors are embedded in your pet’s DNA. You need to understand what’s going on in order to prevent unwanted hormonal behaviors.

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A pet cockatiel laying infertile eggs. Photo by Adrian Ward.

What happens when mating behaviors are triggered in pet birds?

  • Aggression, even toward favorite people
  • Territoriality
  • Excessive screaming
  • Plucking
  • Frustration and lashing out
  • Egg laying (which can lead to egg binding)

Behaviors like the above often lead to rehomed pets. Back when I first got into birds, you could flip to any pet classified section and see ad after ad for birds around 2-4 years of age. Depending on the species, this is when puberty hits. After years of receiving mixed messages, the birds were finally ready to mate. The problem was that they wanted to mate with their favorite person and started lashing out when their owners weren’t responding predictably.

Plucking, while not usually dangerous, can easily become a habit that is very difficult to break.

Excessively egg laying can be dangerous, particularly if the hen isn’t on a proper breeding diet (most pets are not, nor should they be). When an egg becomes trapped inside the body there is a risk it will rupture, causing a life-threatening infection. Preventing hormonal behaviors in pets is especially important for hens. If your bird is already laying excessively, please see my article on egg laying in pets.

Breeding Triggers

The following are some common ways that breeding can be inadvertently stimulated. Please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Every species is different and it is important to understand how your birds would normally nest.

 

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Photo by Dan Armbrust.

Dark, Enclosed Spaces

Most parrots are cavity breeders- they nest in tree trunks. Pairs will seek out a good cavity, clean it out, and possibly enlarge it. In the modern home any dark, enclosed space will be viewed as a potential nest site. This could be under the couch (see below) or dresser, inside a Happy Hut or tent, a shipping box offered for chewing, or under a blanket. It is important never to offer any item, particularly inside the cage, which could be viewed as a nest site. Troublesome areas (like under the couch) should be blocked off or made off-limits.

Above: (Left) A gap in a couch is a tempting nest site, and potentially dangerous as this couch reclines. (Right) Moving/shipping boxes may offer chewing fun, but they are also seen as nest sites. Loki kept attempting to enter this one.

Nesting Material

Cleaning the nest cavity is a normal part of nest preparation. Some breeders have even found that introducing large chunks of wood into a nest box will help stimulate their pairs. In pets, stredding can be a prelude to nesting. Lovebirds in particular use nesting material. Leaves are tucked into the rump feathers and transported back to their nest site. Quakers build huge communal nests with sticks.

Birds should never have access to the substrate in their cage, but nevertheless may try to shred everything they get their beaks on. Shredding is fine and destructible toys are good, but during the breeding season you may want to offer alternatives if your bird is prone to nesty behavior.

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Black-masked lovebirds. One of the few psittacines that uses nesting material. Photo by Dean Croshere.

Light

Longer days simulate springtime. Many owners keep their birds up after dark, making long days even longer. Birds need at least 10 hours of sleep and I would extend that to 12-14 if they are getting hormonal. Cover your bird’s cage or give them a separate sleep cage in a quiet area to ensure they’re getting enough darkness.

Feeding Soft, Warm Foods by Hand

Bonded pairs regurgitate to one another. Offering treats by hand when training is fine, but try to avoid hand feeding warm, mushy foods. Feed them in a dish. If your bird regurgitates don’t encourage it.

Too Much Protein

Chicks require a lot of protein to grow, and providing birds with too much protein signals that it’s a great time to raise a family. If you have a hen that is already laying eggs you do want to continue offering protein and calcium (especially calcium) so that she is less likely to deplete her own reserves. If your pet is not laying eggs then continue to feed a good diet but do not make a habit of offering a lot of protein. Calcium in the form of pellets, cuttlebone, or mineral block should be offered year-round, especially to hens.

Providing Sexual Stimulation

Mating usually involves the male doing some sort of display- head bobbing, pinpointing eyes, flaring tail or wings. When the female is ready to mate she droops her wings and raises her rump. The male typically mounts her (some species will mate side by side) and they rub their cloacas together. The cloaca is the opening underneath the base of the tail. It is used for passing feces, uric acid (bird equivalent of pee), eggs, and for transferring/receiving sperm.

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Cockatiels mating. Note the posture of both birds. Male is one top and female is on bottom. Photo by dorisalb.

Many of the ways you touch your bird could be interpreted sexually. Mutual preening (head scratching) can be done by flockmates but it is more common in bonded pairs. Petting your hen on the back can be stimulating, as she feels like you are trying to mount her for mating. Touching the cloaca should definitely be avoided. Some birds get excited when pet under the wings.

Always be aware of your bird’s body language while petting them. If they are exhibiting postures like those in the picture above, stop petting them as they are getting sexually stimulated. Males will usually pinpoint their eyes, dip their head, and raise their wings at the shoulder a bit. Hens will raise their rump, drop their wings and coo or shiver. Give them a period to calm down before petting again.

It is entirely possible that your bird will try masturbating on you. This may involve mounting your hand and rubbing the cloaca (in males) or backing up against you and rubbing the cloaca (in females). Masturbation should neither be encouraged nor discouraged directly. If your bird is trying to mate with you, simply move it to another location or place it back into the cage for a while.

Sometimes the object of affection is a toy. Never offer your pet a mirror or fake bird. Birds can become very attached to these items and defend them aggressively. If, however, a bird is masturbating on a wide variety of objects/toys I would be less concerned.

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Goffin hen masturbating on toy. Click here to see video. It’s a very good example of how hens behave.

My Goffin is actually trying to self-stimulate as I write this. Observe:

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This may seem innocuous to you- most pet owners would probably think so- but pay attention to her body language. Her eyes are half-closed, beak half-open, and she has a blissful expression. Where is her back? It’s pressed up against the underside of my desk. She’s using the desk to simulate a male mounting her. It’s more obvious from this angle:

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It’s not full on masturbation, but she’s definitely aroused. Were she to start making clucking or cooing noises I would remove her from my leg and place here elsewhere.

Everything I do is stimulatiing!

It’s not as bad as that. I once read an article that basically said touching your pet bird in any way ever was going to stimulate them, and while that’s semi-true, if you’re careful about stopping petting when your bird is getting aroused, and limiting other factors then you should be okay. I’ve had my Goffin for over a decade and she’s never laid a single egg. Nor has any other pet hen I’ve had since I became a breeder. Part of being a breeder is knowing how to shut your birds down effectively, especially when you handle species designed to bred any time adequate food is available.

My goal in writing this is not to scare you, but to make you aware of how many different things might be stimulating your bird. Again, the key is to educate yourself on their natural lifecycle and body language. Much of this comes down to your ability to correctly interpret body language and provide healthy distractions (toys! exercise! training!) when they’re becoming too aroused.

Hormone Therapy

Some birds get very hormonal every spring and no matter what their owners do, they can’t seem to get things under control. If this is the case and none of the above has worked, I recommend visiting a competent avian veterinarian about hormone therapy. There are certain injections they can do these days that will help limit the surge of seasonal hormones.

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

Egg Laying in Pets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information: Discouraging Breeding Behavior in Pet Birds

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