Sunday, June 9, 2013

Don't forget. Birds are dinosaurs.

Well today is one of those posts that one would rather not post. One of my birds was injured last night and I'm writing this even as I am waiting at the vet to see a doctor. The first year I attended Parrot Festival, which I believe was in 2008, one of the speakers asked a question of the audience during the panel discussion. She asked, "How many of you have only one bird?"  I was still a newbie in birds and didn't quite understand the chuckles that immediately erupted from the crowd until I looked around and including me there were only 3 people that raised their hands. Years later, now the owner of 6 wonderful birds, I understand the point of the humor. The speaker went on to relate how rare single bird ownership is. There is something about these animals that draws us in and makes them the potato chips of the pet world (you can't stop at just one). 

What comes with multiple birds is the danger of scuffles. These guys settle their difference with physical force and their beaks can be formidable weapons. My Pacific Parrotlet, Ricki, is bonded to me and anyone whose owned a Parrotlet can tell you that they are the little bulldogs of the bird world. They can be bossy, pugnacious, and territorial -- along with equal portions of fun, full of life, and so impossibly sweet. They also seem absolutely clueless that they are 4inches long weigh only 30 grams. 

Last night, we got home a little later than normal and needed to get he birds calmed down and into bed before we celebrated my partners birthday. There was lots of multitasking going on and I broke one of my rules. Ricki comes out for a while AFTER everyone else goes to bed. We, in fact, almost never have her out of her cage at the same time as the other birds. This is for her and the other birds protection. Ricki had actually, and quite accidentally I might add, killed one of my birds before. Our very first bird, a Red Factor Canary, Pepito. This was a few months after we brought Ricki home. Ricki was outside her cage, exploring at her leisure, and landed on the canary's cage. At some point the canary flew over and hung onto the side of the cage to investigate. Ricki was then presented with a perfectly new toy in the form of a canary toe and she bit. 

A few minutes later, I discovered the canary on standing on the bottom of the cage, which was not normal, and then I saw the quarter-sized pool of blood on the paper beneath the grate. The next 30 minutes were a flurry, with emergency calls to the vet and a 20 minute car-ride, to the office for an emergency visit. Everything was done that could be done to save Pito, and when we left him in the incubator that night he was still alive, but when we called to check on him the next morning, and despite every possible intervention, Pito  slipped away that night, his blood loss just too severe for him to recover. 

Blood loss is an EXTREME concern for birds, small birds especially. Their blood volume is incredibly small, because they themselves are incredibly small. That tiny pool of blood at the bottom of the cage represented an enormous blood volume for a canary. 

So again, back to last night, we broke the Ricki rule. She comes out separately from the other birds. On this evening  I walked into the living room with Ricki on my shoulder. My Gold-Capped conure, Spero, ready for bed, and impatiently waiting to be taken to bed, did something that he is usually inclined not to do. He flew from the play stand on which he had been perching and landed on my shoulder. 

Now, it must be said that Spero, a gold cap conure, which is almost 10 times as heavy as my 4 inch Parrotlet and almost 13 inches long, is a very "chill" bird. In fact, he has one of the least aggressive personalities of any bird I've ever met. He is not inclined to violence at all. He flew to the shoulder opposite of Ricki, and would have been fine to stay right there. Ricki on the other hand would have none of this and immediately charged with the tenacity of a T. rex straight at the naive Spero. No one was allowed to alight upon her human. There was a flurry of wing beats and a tussel that lasted maybe one second. The next thing I hear is loud chirp, chirp, chirp from Ricki who is fast retreating through the air to a perch on the other side of the room. 

I could hear from Ricki's vocalizations that she had taken a hit of some kind.  Spero remained on my shoulder with a countenance that said, "What did I do?"  I quickly took Spero to his cage and went to check on Ricki. To my relief I saw her on her perch full of the same tenacity as usual. And then, I saw it. She was bleeding from the mouth and had taken a bite to the beak. 

The beak is arguably, even more than wings, a birds most vital organ. It is the structure by which they interact with the world, the organ with which they nourish themselves. It is a conundrum. It is hard and sharp, dangerous even. Yet at the same time birds use their beak for their most gentle and tender interactions. It is immensely strong, while, at the same time, a construction of extreme delicacy. Birds have evolved to make use of the most economical physical means being. Much of the redundancy has been removed from their anatomy in order to save weight, a necessary compromise that allows them to grace the skies. So, when a beak is damaged it can be an extreme issue. 

So as one can imagine, the sight of the beak bite and my previous experience with tiny birds and bleeding put me in emergency mode, doing my very best not to freak out, because that little parrotlet is my "sugar-buger."  I have a very close and wonderful relationship with the proprietor of my local bird store and I gave her a call first, to gage the level of immediacy. It looked as though the bleeding wasn't too severe and an after-hours emergency visit to the vets office is tremendously expensive. I took a picture and texted it to her as well to get her advice. She was very helpful in keeping me in good spirits and confirmed for me the potential seroiousness of the injury.  So there was then another call to the emergency line of my vets office with whom I also enjoy a very good relationship.  There was a little delay from the time that I left a message with the emergency answering service and when the doctor called in which time it became clear that the bleeding had stopped and the most immediate danger was over.  I emailed the pictures I had taken to my vet and he was able to give me some good instructions for the evening with a definite prescription for a visit to the office first thing in the morning. 

That is where I am now as I write these lines.  The good news is that Ricki's injuries were largely superficial and none of the major underlying structures of her beak were damaged.  This means pain medication for the week, a little acrylic repair work on her beak, soft foods like cornbread and baby food for a couple of weeks, and six months to a year before the damage to her beak grows out.

Everything, turned out find in this case and all I was out was a little convenience and a few dollars for the visit to the vet.  However a bullet was definitely dodged here and it could have been much worse.  The moral of this story is: never forget that deep inside that cuddly cute bird that you love is a dinosaur.  One must be extra careful with how ones birds are flocked.  It takes as little as a split second for pleasant to become an emergency. Be mindful of your birds and if you know there are issues that could make trouble avoid them. Make some rules and procedures for handling your birds and don't break them.  Like I did. That cuddly cute bundle of feathers can lash out like T-Rex. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Day Cage/Night Cage

Shortly after we brought Maxi home from the bird store, we took her to our avian vet to have her checked to validate our guarantee from the breeder and to make sure she was in good health and that there were no surprises of which we were not aware.  Turns out she was great.  The best thing to come out of that initial visit with the vet, however, was not the medical information, but, rather, the advice we were able to solicite.  This is where we learned about the day/night cage method and for us it has proved really wonderful.

One of the great pillars of common wisdom when it comes to birds as pets is "You need to cover their cages at night so they can sleep."  The idea is that it will create darkness and make the birds feel secure and they will sleep.  This is true to a certain extent.  We, in fact, do cover our birds at night, even in their sleeping cages, and find that they prefer this to sleeping in an uncovered cage.  The funny assumption, though, is that all said bird needs is that magic cover and everything is fine, even if you have their cage in the middle of your home theater where you watch blastingly loud movies all night or you keep your birds in the dinning room and just cover them while the dinner party is going on and a zillion people are laughing and make noise.  This faith in the cover to put a bird instantly to sleep belies the fact that they do in deed have ears as well.  Noise will disturb a bird in the evening every bit as much as it would disturb a human.  Most of us appreciate quiet and peacefulness when we are trying to sleep and our birds are much the same.

Sleep is one of natures conundrums.  We don't really understand what it is, or where it came from, but we do know that it is extremely important to most animals.  It is so important that if an organism goes for extended periods of time with continued sleep deprivation, the end result is almost always a gruesome death.  Birds must sleep, and denial of that necessity will, without a doubt, compromise your birds mental and physical condition.  This will lead to higher vet bills and a much less amicable companion with which to share a life.  Birds get grouchy if they are tired, just like people do.  Trust me!

For this reason, we sleep our birds in sleeping cages that are located in a room other than the one where we spend our evenings.  This means that we can carry on with our crazy late night human antics and the birds can sleep for the twelve hours of tropical time that they would in their native habitat.  Parrots are largely from tropical latitudes, which means that their species have evolved to live their lives without large variations in daylight, no matter what the time of year.  In northern latitudes, if pet parrots are awake for every ounce of light around the time of the summer equinox, they are going to be grouchy, difficult, annoyed birdies.  Our birds clearly do best, when we do our best to give them a twelve hours up, twelve hours down schedule.  In fact, they ask for it! (See my blog about Maxi, for the  skinny on that.)

The benefits of using this system are: that your bird gets a "foraging/roosting" routine that, in some respects, mimics their natural behavior in the wild, and, if you sleep them in their travel cage as we do, they are easily adjusted to their travel cage and don't fuss when the need arise for them to climb in.  As a travel cage, the sleeping cage is much smaller than the day cage, but this is ok.  As our vet explained to us, Diurnal prey birds are very still at night, as one might expect.  In addition, they don't defecate at night either.  They save it up for a BIG "morning poop."  This is also logical because defecation could be a signal for a would be predator at a time when they would be virtually defenseless.  All that together, makes the night cage work out really well for us.

Our birds generally prefer not to perch when they are sleeping.  We had perches in the cages in the beginning but they never used them.  (In fact, the conures clearly prefered to chew them up like toys.)  In the conures cage is a soft snuggly birdie hut that they crawl into or under during the night.  In Beaker's cage (Blue & Gold Macaw) we keep a pile of rags that he loves to toss around and rearrage and snuggle into at night.  (I'll explain more about that in the blog about Beaker.)  Ricki (Pacific Parrotlet) has a small plastic perch, which she uses half the time and a layer of paper shreds on the bottom that she will arrange how she likes and sleep in sometimes.  The sleeping cages are in our bedroom because it is quiet and dark and separated from the commotion of the rest of the house.   We also find that our birds are less freaked out in the mornings, i.e., not as noisy, if we can hear them when they are ready to be let out of their cages, rather than having to sit there, covered in another room, until we wake up and let them out.

Each of our birds sleeping cages are slightly different in content and arrangement and this is because we always try to be aware of our birds and their individual needs.  By carefully and patiently observing their habits, we have settled on cages and contents that they prefer.  Beaker, specifically, was a challenge to understand for sleeping arrangements.  He was a little difficult and ornery, and even had a small relapse of plucking until we figured out exactly how he likes to sleep, but we did figure it out by "listening" to him through patient observation and trial and error.

Our birds respond very well to this system and we have very little trouble getting them to "bed" this way.  They seem to understand and identify with the idea that they sleep in a place other than where they spend the day.  It creates a clear routine for them and breaks the monotony of a single cage.  It helps us communicate with them better as well.  They can easily show us that they are ready for bed, by flying or gesturing toward the bedroom, or, as in Maxi's case, actually saying "Let's go night-night," and their anxiety in the morning is lowered by being able to call to us for liberation to their day cages.  In the end it creates a "family routine" for all of us and gives us all a framework by which to construct our days.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Maxi in 2013 in her mature color
My beautiful, playful, and excitable Sun Conure is named Maxi. We picked that name for her because we weren't sure at the time if she was male or female. Max or Maxi would work easily because it could easily be Maxine, or Maxwell, or even Maximilian. She was our first parrot and we tried to anticipate all eventualities when we purchased her. I've already told you about how we came across her in a previous entry so I want to tell you more about her and what it is like living with a Sun Conure

Maxi at about 2 months old, juvenile coloration

The Beginning

Maxi was hatched in July of 2007 and came home to live with us in October of that year.  She was our first bird we acquired "from the nest," meaning we purchased her when she was a chick.  She was still being hand fed and, therefore, remained with the breeder while she was developing and finally being weened.  This is a very delicate time for these animals. Unless you have extensive experience with raising birds, I'd let the experienced breeder handle this part of your journey together because it is possible to do great harm to the chicks while hand feeding them if you aren't trained in the procedure and weening the birds onto the proper diet can be tricky as well.  A good breeder will be well versed in all of this and will make sure that your baby bird is ready for the world and its new life with you before you take it home.  We did visit her as often as possible while she was still at the store so she could get to know us and bond with us before we brought her home.  It was so heartwarming each time t we went to visit and she would recognize us and get excited that we were there.  She wasn't obligated to do this; there was no biological imperative for her to take to us in this way.  We didn't feed and take care of her at this point.  We weren't "momma."  In a very real sense, Maxi picked us as much as we picked her.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in getting a bird to let the same course of events play out.  Spend time with different birds and let them come to you.  It makes for a wonderful match.

First Couple of Years

The first year and a half or so with Maxi was spent with the three of us learning to relate to each other.  She was very docile and cooperative in just about every conceivable way during this time. Birds, just like people, go through very distinct behavioral/biological phases and a weened conure, ready to go home for the first time, is in no way fully matured.  The first year or so, they are still learning about the world and look to you for guidance.  They are also developing their mature coloration.  You can see the difference in the coloration in the pictures attached to this blog.  Juvenile sun conures are dominantly green while fully developed ones are mostly yellow.

Around eighteen months of age, Maxi became very headstrong.  As she sexually matured, she wasn't as willing to take our lead on everything anymore.  This phase almost felt like "the terrible-twos" in human infants.  She tested her boundaries and demanded more independence. We all had to learn how the relationship worked during this period.  Positive reinforcement was very useful in helping us all get through this part.

These first years were a period of great discovery for Maxi, Jorge, and I.  One of the really interesting things that began at this time and has continued to develop over the years is Maxi's acquisition of language.  Sun Conures are not known as the strongest of mimics, and even Maxi herself  has a vocabulary of maybe 7 or so words; but the amazing thing is she uses those words in context.  At no point did we commence an "Alex-like" program of language training with her.  We simply spoke to her like we spoke to each other as if she was another member of the household and, lo and behold, she started picking up some things.  She quickly learned that "Step Up" meant she got to be with her daddies.  When she wants attention or wants to be with us, invariably she says, clear as day, "Step Up."  The most amusing one though is "Let's go night-night."  Without even thinking about it, when we would put her into her sleeping cage in the evening, we would say those words.  Now she tells us when she's ready for bed by clearly requesting, "Let's go night-night."  It makes us chuckle almost every time.  And she means business too.  If she signals she's ready for bed and we don't act on that with a certain immediacy, she will repeat the phrase again, gradually adding emphasis through tone of voice and volume. When we finally pick her up and take her to her sleeping cage, she hops on and goes right in (although sometimes she sits on top and waits for a "kiss-kiss" before she will go in). Who would have thought?

She has learned another "word," as well.  She figured out through carefully observing us that when the toaster oven emitted its imposing "Beeep," we would go running for the oven no matter where we were in the house.  Now, if she is trying to call for us, she uses that sound.  It's really a fantastic imitation and it definitely gets our attention.

Maxi also knows a few "tricks" that she likes to perform with us.  The funny part is, we didn't teach them to her.  She offered them as part of her interaction with us on her own.  She loves to do "spin-around," which is what we have mutually agreed means a summersault around a branch. Another one is her song and dance.  We sing a song that we made up about her and she dances and honks in rhythm with it.  We have never offered her a "treat" as reinforcement for these behaviors; just our enthusiastic approval, and she loves it.


As for housing, we house Maxi in an HQ Cages flight cage.  The stats for the cage are as follows:
  • HQ Flight Bird Cage Features: 

              Bar Spacing: 1/2-inch 

              Bar Thickness: 1/13-inch 

              Weight: 50 lbs 

              Inside Height: 35-inches

              Dimensions: 62-inch height by 32-inch length by 21-inch depth
              2 front doors with steel locking latch 

              Non-toxic finish 
              Iron-Wrought Steel 

              Baked powder-coated

The HQ cage is our "day" cage.  We utilize the "day/night" cage method with our birds.  They are in their day cages during the day and in their "night" cages with us in the bedroom at night.  We sleep our birds in their travel cages, which makes it easy to get them in to the cages when necessary for other reasons.

In her day cage, we keep a birdie butler full of water, a dry food dish and a fresh food dish.  There are several different kinds of perches and we keep a toy, or two, or three in there at all times, as well as a "boing" (a bird breeder can tell you what this is if you don't know.  It is definitely NOT to be confused with "bong").  Sometimes, we put fresh fruits and veggies on a "bird-kabob" and hang it in the cage to present food and treats in a novel way and provide play at the same time (She especially LOVES apples on the kabob).

Even though, she has a cage, she's not confined to it.  She is out of her cage whenever possible, when we are home.  Her cage door stays open and she is free to come and go as she pleases.  This is made possible in part because she is fully flighted.  We have  not had her wings clipped since she first regrew her flight feathers after her first molt.  This is something we did in full knowledge of the dangers and necessary precautions.  We have STRICT protocols regarding doors and windows and entering and leaving the house. For us, her ability to move about the house at her will outweighs the risks associated with having a clipped bird.  Unless you are willing to take the careful precautions that we do, however, I would think twice about keeping your bird flighted.  I will cover the issue of flighted versus non-flighted pet birds in more detail in another post on this blog.

Personality and the Present 

Every different species of parrot has a different predilection to kinds of behaviors and activity.  Inside of that, each individual bird exhibits variations within the envelope of their own species, truly making every individual bird unique in their behavior and personality.  So, some really good generalizations can be gleaned from observing me with my Sun Conure and how she relates to the rest of the family; but Maxi's routine and habits are her own and should be read as uniquely the result of her environment and her genetic material, just as a we would expect of a human.

Maxi is, in general, very active.  She loves to play and manipulate objects and loves to be with us.  When she is with us, she is usually not content to simply sit on our shoulders, but is, instead, climbing all over us.  She head bobs our noses.  She allo-preens us.  When we wear our bonding necklaces, she is always about playing around on us like walking play gyms.  She calms down as it gets toward evening and loves to climb in under our collar and cuddle with us under our shirts, near our shoulders, as she is getting ready to "go night-night."

Her favorite thing in the world is to spend time with us.  If we would let her, she would be with us twenty-four hours a day.  She is usually the one that wakes us in the morning with her perfect "toaster-oven-BEEP- BEEP.......... BEEP.......... BEEP-BEEP," and she is usually the one that makes sure we know that it is time for bed.  She's the time keeper: twelve hours up, twelve hours asleep.  Unless we need to wake up before 6:30 AM, we hardly even need an alarm anymore.  She's that reliable.  

Most would consider her a "loud," bird.  Although, in comparison to our Blue and Gold Macaw, the sound she actually emits is quiet.  The pitch of her call, is probably what bothers most people.  It's higher pitched and rapid fire:  "Rrawk, Rrawk... Rrawk, Rruawk...Rrawk, Rrawk."  This is part of her personality and is something that needs to be understood.  This is what birds do; and to bring one into my home and not expect it to communicate in it's natural way is, well, CRAZY.  Parrots evolved to be able to communicate to a flock over long distances and, for this, her call is an excellent solution, even though it might come across as over the top when used inside a house.  This is how she interacts with the world.  One should never get a parrot and expect that they'll just sit quietly like a cat all day.  Her squawking happens at five primary times: greetings, departures, alarms, sunrise, and sunset.  When we get home from work, we are met with overjoyed, enthusiastic, and clearly uncontainable screams of joy.  This is her way to tell us that she is glad we are home and she wants to be with us.  Rather than get angry and tell her to be quiet and try to ignore her, we answer right back with enthusiastic cries of "MAXI!!!!" We continue to do this with her as we walk around the house, putting our stuff away and getting settled.  When we finally go get her, she's blissful and immediately starts allo-preening us.   After that initial burst of uncontained enthusiasm, she's relatively quiet, all things considered. The key for us, when dealing with the "noise," is to try and think like a bird, put ourselves in her place, and respond in a way that she understands.  If one can't deal with this kind of noisy love, I'd definitely take a second look at getting a Sun Conure.  That's just not how they "hang."

She loves to do things for praise.  She is particularly fond of training.  I wish we could do more of it with her, but it is difficult sometimes when trying to balance our time across all of our birds.  She is visibly enthralled when she successfully executes a command.  Her treat of choice during these exercises is dried papaya.

In total, she is a joy and we love having her.  Still, she is not without her challenges.  It has been said that parrots possess the intellectual intelligence of a three year old with the emotional intelligence of a two year old; and I find this describes the overall experience of owning her.  She is smart.  She loves to interact, learn, explore, and play, but just like a two year old, it’s all about her and her needs.  If we are late getting up, or in a hurry to get somewhere, or she nips at our neck a little too hard and annoys us, she doesn't consider our feelings for the most part. She needs what she needs and wants what she wants, just like a two year old child.  That is not to say that she and the rest of our birds can't sense our emotional state.  They certainly can, but their response might be more like a "get over it for your own good and let’s play and you'll feel better," instead of the gushy, cuddly, sympathetic gaze of a dog.  In a flock, you snooze. You lose.  In a pack, you have time to relax between the hunt, and aren't likely to be eaten.  Not so for a bird and this affects the way they interact with you.  They live life according to the code of prey, not predator.  It’s different; no less wonderful, but, not like a dog.