I never thought about what my birds watched on television or listened to on the radio until a couple of weeks ago. A local radio station did a segment on whether to leave on a television or radio for your pets while you’re at work. I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who leaves on a radio during the day to keep Zack and Bubbles entertained. What did surprise me was that people are censoring what their feather/fur/finned babies watch or listen to. I was surprised at the comments that people called in:
“I only allow cartoons for my dog.”
“Christian radio only for my birds.”
“Classical music, comedies, and occasional local news are all my pets are allowed to watch or listen to.”
“My pets are only allowed to watch shows appropriate for toddlers.”
I was shocked. I rotate the radio stations for Zack and Bubbles through the week, based on what they react to while we’re at home: light rock Monday, inspirational radio Tuesday, rock Wednesday, country Thursday, and free choice Friday (which is often variety rock, or maybe classical if we get a good signal on that station). These callers were limiting their pets to cartoons and classical music, while my birds were bobbing along to classic rock at home.
The only time any of our birds have shown distress over our entertainment choices was when we adopted Chloe, and we watched a scifi show with cybernetic aliens. She screamed at the television and hunkered against my neck until I put her in the cage. I was surprised, because I had tendinitis in my wrist and had to wear a large wrist brace at the time. I actually referred to myself as “bionic mommy,” because that brace looked similar to some of the hardware the aliens on the television had on their bodies. When she squawked, I’d say “they’re like bionic mommy,” and hold up my arm. Soon, just saying “bionic mommy” calmed her down, and she’d ignore the television. I think she was surprised a few weeks later when the wrist healed, and I could finally quit wearing that brace. No more “bionic mommy,” and she was so used to aliens on television by then that it wasn’t a problem anymore.
Zack rarely reacts to the TV or radio at all, probably because we’ve had him since he was six weeks old. He’ll occasionally say “hi” to a recurring character, but otherwise he rolls along without a reaction. Bubbles is the amusing one. She was wolf whistling at Game of Thrones within a week of her adoption. She’ll head bob to dramatic scenes, growl at villains, and tell damsels in distress to “step up” in chase scenes for old horror movies last Halloween. She enjoys what we enjoy as much (or more) than we do.
The most shocking preference for me was Oliver, our budgie who died in 2014. He loved heavy metal music. He would sing to the loudest music we could find, and he loved them more if the band wore masks or costumes. It made me wonder exactly what kind of home he escaped from when we found him. Or maybe he thought it was the circus, and the circus should be fun!
Do you censor what your birds watch and listen to? I never thought about the psychological impact on them, because their awareness is more limited than human awareness. Birds are responding more to sights and sounds than to actual content, but maybe I’m wrong. Should I go PG-13 on my parrots? Zack is 18, so he might object, and Bubbles would have a problem with not being able to mimic those space ships. She loves aliens and space ships. Chloe feared aliens for a while, until I taught her to ignore them. Bubbles whistles at them.
To censor or not to censor? It’s a personal decision that depends on other factors in your home. It’s one thing for a two adult home, where one adult is a sci-fi and mystery writer. There, a sun conure saying hi to aliens and a Quaker parrot wolf whistling at them isn’t surprising. It’s another if you have young children at home. There do need to be limits in place then. Opportunity is another factor that might influence what your birds are exposed to. If you work third shift, or don’t have cable or satellite, then your options are different than those who work weekdays. A bird at home while their parronts work on the weekend might be listening to a football or baseball game on sports radio instead of local news or the country station. In the end, you have to consider what’s best for your entire household. I don’t believe there’s a right answer except what works for you, and the area of entertainment in the bird life is quite adaptable.
A Surprising Manifestation of Grief
by Sherri Moorer
Something strange happened to me in early March: somebody got a bad attitude with me, and I blew up. It was a small thing, but I had a huge reaction that was out of proportion to the offence. I have to admit that I surprised myself. Then I took a look at the calendar and realized something: It was 90 days since Chloe’s death, and it turns out that 90 day mark is significant. That’s the time in the grieving process when anger sets in. You’re sick of people’s nonsense, and you can’t take it anymore. Transgressions are magnified. Offenses are unforgivable. And the world can burn.
Why do we feel anger as a part of the grieving process? First, let’s explore what anger is. Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire.” It’s also defined as “grief; trouble.” Anger is an evolutionary response to threats to our well being and survival. Unfortunately, evolution takes a long time, so human beings have a Stone Age brain in a technological society. Hence, we tend to overreact to perceived threats that might have killed our pre-historic ancestors, but aren’t an issue in modern life. Somebody challenging you with a club or knife would have resulted in death thousands (or even hundreds) of years ago. Somebody being sassy with you now isn’t life threatening, but the human brain reacts as if that bad attitude were life threatening. It’s why you see so much irrational anger and violence in the world.
What does this have to do with grief? Death is an injustice. It’s a loss that directly challenges your right to have something you love in your life, and the injustice of it being taken away from you. The 90 day mark after a death is a point where you’ve processed the loss enough to start adjusting, and your energy levels are rising to allow you to integrate with life again. You aren’t paralyzed by sorrow anymore. You realize the necessity to move on and want to do that, but you still seek to understand why this loss happened. Your awareness is opening up, and it doesn’t seem fair that others can have what they want, but you can’t.
Is it fair that your bird died? Absolutely not. There’s nothing fair about death, and it’s irreversible. Despite some of the crazy fiction you see out there, death is forever, and there’s no coming back from it. You can acknowledge that life isn’t fair and you have to “get over it,” but that won’t happen unless you acknowledge how you feel wronged. The straw that breaks the camel’s back typically isn’t connected directly to the event. It’s some small thing that we can’t handle. I got angry last month when somebody challenged me, and it was a domino effect:
- What gives you the right to tell me what to do?
- I don’t need people bossing me around.
- Everybody makes mistakes. Why are mine such a big deal?
- Why do my mistakes have tragic consequences, while others can shrug and say ‘oops’ and things go back to normal?
- It’s not fair that Chloe died because I made a bad judgement call, while others make mistakes all the time and walk away without hurting themselves or others.
Do you see what happened? One incident pushed down the dominoes, until I came back to Chloe. It didn’t happen quickly, either. This progression happened over a period of two weeks. Realization dawned slowly.
The problem with grief-related anger is that most people don’t understand it unless they’re going through it. Everybody has moved on with life. They aren’t likely to remember your grief unless you remind them, and their initial reaction is usually avoidance because death is uncomfortable. One person was rude enough to say “I don’t need to catch your bad luck!” after our parakeet and Rick’s father-in-law died. People can be insensitive, and that will rub you the wrong way when you hit the 90 day mark. Their problems and drama are shallow compared to the gaping hole in your life, and you don’t understand how they can think they way they do, and get caught up in imaginary or created drama.
Harsh words; but anger is a harsh emotion, and it takes effort to tame it into positive action. The good news is that it’s possible. Here are four tips to help you through that uncomfortable anger stage of grief, so you can find hope and healing beyond the loss:
Talk to a few trusted people. It’s probably evident to everybody around you, but you don’t need everybody’s opinion, especially if they’re going to brush you off and fuel that anger. You need people who will serve as a compass to point you in the right direction. Your anger probably is rooted in truth, but you’re overreacting in grief. People in your inner circle will understand, and have patience for how grief is coloring your emotions. Find two or three people you trust who are disconnected with the trigger event, and confide your frustration. This establishes a small support group who can lovingly and discretely help you work through this stage of grief, and keep you balanced and responsible in day-to-day life. Accountability helps you regain perspective.
Release it privately. Take a time out to release your anger privately. I urge you to take some time alone to pray, meditate, scream, cry, shout, punch pillows, listen to obnoxiously loud music, or whatever you need to do to let it out. Many people feel this is counterproductive, but I respectfully disagree. Anger is a strong emotion, and you need to release the destructive energy before you can move on to directed, productive action. It’s not fair that your bird died. It’s not fair that you suffer while everybody else is happy. It’s not fair that you wonder if you’ll ever feel happy without guilt again. It’s not fair that people can be mean, ridiculous, and rude, and get away with it. It’s not fair that others get their way, and you don’t. Let it out. If it branches out to other injustices, that’s ok. My anger stage last month brought me to the realization that Chloe’s death was one of three major losses I suffered in a period of nine months, and that I was more broken than I realized. Then I got mad, because I don’t want to be broken. I’m a mystery and sci-fi writer! I should be strong, courageous, and an inspiration to others!
Do you see why I needed a time out? This leads to another reason why you need to release it privately: you need to take a break from the instigators. It’s alright to seclude yourself for a while to get a handle on your emotions. So go ahead and be a hermit. It will bring you realizations that lead to healing and positive goals for the future. The world will still be there when you return.
Start your journey on the path to forgiveness. I’ve done a lot of reading and research on anger, and everything comes back to forgiveness. This especially hit home with me when my husband said “you have to forgive yourself for Chloe’s death. It wasn’t your fault, and you need to accept that!” Intellectually, I know he’s right. Emotionally, I’m still working through that process, and realize that my ability to forgive others is directly related to my ability to forgive myself. Obviously, I have more work to do, which is the point of forgiveness: it’s a journey. Maybe you need to forgive yourself for something you did or didn’t do. Maybe you need to forgive others for mistakes that affected you. We all have to forgive the world for being unfair, and realize that everybody suffers from this unfairness when their season comes due. It really isn’t personal, but it feels personal when it happens, and it takes time to understand that life hurts for everybody sometimes. We’re all human, and we’re all imperfect. It means that forgiveness is going to be a constant need in life. It’s hard and most of us struggle with it, but it’s critical to healing.
Take positive action. I’m a believer in the power of small things to make big impacts on life. It’s not a good idea to make major decisions while you grieve, but it’s good to make small changes that lead you in a better direction. Take some time to ponder if there are things you can implement in daily life that will help you feel better or make progress toward a personal goal. You’ll usually find these things when evaluating your anger, and as you cool off you’ll have inspiration for more positive action. One realization I had in my anger last month was that I was frustrated by my low book sales, so I got to work on requesting book reviews and taking advantage of promotional opportunities. The sense of progress I felt over that helped me to stabilize in other areas of life. I didn’t get aggravated as quickly. I found a goal for my energy, and it gave me purpose and opened my eyes to the world around me.
Anger can lead to positive outcomes if you’re patient and give yourself the grace and time to heal. It takes a lot of self awareness to do this, but grief can bring positive realizations about what matters, who matters, and where our priorities lie. We may not actively embrace our anger, but we can channel that energy toward good things if we acknowledge and process it correctly.
And that person who said they didn’t want to catch our bad luck? I threatened to touch her and make her catch it. It’s been four years, and she still won’t come near me. The lesson: if you know somebody who’s grieving a death, note the 90 day mark on your calendar, and tread lightly.
Caring.com “The 5 Stages of Grief: What to Expect; How to Get Support”
Mayo Clinic “Anger Management: 10 Tips to Tame Your Temper”
World of Psychology “3 Ways to Work Through the Anger Stage of Grief”
Stress Management for People and Parrots
by Sherri Moorer
I mentioned in previous articles that I learned the importance of stress management from my birds. While it’s hard to determine what applies to you when the advice is general, it can be still more difficult when you add birds to the mix. How can you best reduce stress for yourself and your birds?
In this article I share three tips I’ve found helpful to reduce stress levels. These tips I stumbled upon in the course of my daily routine, and I hope they help you as well – especially in these days when our birds are hormonal and we need to “turn down the volume.”
Allow extra time in the mornings. I discovered a few years ago when I shifted to a later work schedule, and decided to keep getting up at the same time to allow more time in the mornings, that allowing extra time in the mornings reduces stress. I had a bad habit of getting up at the last minute to dress, eat breakfast, and dash out of the door to work.
But starting the day in a rush sets the tone for the rest of the day. An extra 30 minutes allows me to spend more time with Zack and Bubbles before heading out for the day, which makes all of us happy.
The best part of waking up is snuggling a sun conure and a Quaker! Zack and Bubbles are happy because they get to spend time with me in the morning, and I start the day doing something I enjoy, which helps me start my work day relaxed, happy, and in better balance. It’s a win for all!
Form healthy exercise habits. I’ve never liked working out. The only reason I stuck with it for nearly three years was to establish a daily habit (and see the results). However, my workout provides entertainment for Zack and Bubbles, who love to cheer me on through the routine. Better yet, they like the popcorn snack that comes afterward! I bought an air popper, and we have a popcorn snack every night after my workout. By establishing a habit with a reward at the end, I stay on track, and my birds keep me accountable by waiting for their entertainment and snack time.
Establish a “calming routine.” My mind was in chaos when Ollie, our green budgie, was sick with his spinal tumor in 2013-2014. Not only was Ollie terminally ill, but my father-in–law was declining through the final stages of dementia, and my job was stressful due to changes in my office. The stress was worse in the mornings, when my husband left for work and I had an hour by myself while getting ready for work. I would stew over my problems, and I needed something to focus on that would “ground” me and quell the anxiety: I established a “calming routine.”
My cure was to listen to my weather radio while dressing for work. The mechanical voice soothed me (except during storm warnings), and I could focus on the forecast instead of on my problems. The birds soon learned to expect weather radio in the mornings and also seemed to find radio a calming balm to “wind down.”
People can get “wound up,” and it can take effort to “turn down the volume,” especially when parrots are screaming due to anxiety. When I focus on something calming, my birds experience the same effect.
Classical music worked well with Chloe when she was high-strung, and my other birds have also liked a local station that plays soft music and gives a short synopsis of news, traffic, weather, and items of interest in the area. I’ve also mixed up our morning routine by listening to online college lectures in the mornings or evenings. The good thing about this is I can use it anytime I feel things spinning out of control, and I learn interesting new things. I’ve been known to turn on the weather radio or launch a lecture on in the late afternoon if things are too hectic in the home!
The tips to eat right, exercise, keep a routine, and get enough sleep are universal for overall self-management, but everyone needs to find the specifics that work for him or her.
I hope these tips give you ideas to manage the stress in your life better or inspire you to find ways to establish a baseline of calm in your home for both you and your birds.
by Sherri Moorer
I recently took an online course on how ideas spread and was shocked at how much of a “flock mentality” humans operate on. We pride ourselves on being unique individuals, but the truth is that, like birds, we take our cues from the others around us. Whether we follow or diverge is impacted by observations of the people around us. I even read a Science Daily article that said it only takes 5% of people to diverge from the norm to lead the other 95% in a new direction. This was confirmed by an article in Forbes describing how the individualistic “hipster” attitude has a tendency to conform to nonconformity.
If you live with birds, then it means you literally live with a flock mentality. And this isn’t just anthropomorphism, it’s sociology at work.
I can’t tell you how many times my birds’ reactions have caused me to take a look in the mirror. Zack’s obvious joy and playfulness when I published my scifi trilogy a few weeks ago seemed to be not just a reflection of my own joy, but some relief at seeing me excited and happy over something for the first time since Chloe passed.
It’s true that I made a breakthrough to being more “myself” again, and the relief seemed to literally show on his handsome little face. He played more vigorously. He interacted with me more. And he started to laugh again. Yes, I taught him to laugh, and I haven’t heard that cute cackle in months, until I achieved a goal that brought me joy. His joy returned with my joy. That, in turn, made me happy, and so the healing of my grief continues.
I’ve talked before about how Bubbles and Chloe inspired me to make an “attitude adjustment” on bad days by refusing to interact with me or becoming aggressive when my stress levels were more apparent than I realized. It’s important to understand that to birds, we’re “honorary birds” that are a part of their flock. If it only takes 5% to influence the norm, then your birds can have a lot of influence on your behavior, especially if birds make up 50% of your home!
This is a good thing, because our birds can help us to become better people. Understanding their reactions can shine a light on problems that we might want to avoid, and give us the power to manage our lives in a better, more balanced way. Bubbles aggressive nature when we adopted her inspired me to learn more about stress management, which has benefitted me greatly since she came to our home. I’ve learned how to balance my schedule and implement relaxation techniques to help me get “centered” when the world around me is out of control. That’s a powerful lesson from a Moncks Parakeet!
We have a responsibility to take care of our birds, but taking care of them also means taking care of ourselves. Fortunately, the flock mentality that drives them helps with a bonding process that can drive improvements in us all. Bubbles settled into a new home and bonded with me once I managed my own stress, and Zack’s joy returned when mine did. We owe it to them and to ourselves to be the best that we can be. They’ll be happy to do that, if we tune in to what they’re trying to tell us and see the reflection of ourselves in their behavior.
by Sherri Moorer
There’s one thing birds have in common: they’re mischievous! It seems that something about us brings out the silly side in our parrots.
I have a mischievous streak myself, so I know I encourage this behavior in Zack and Bubbles. There’s plenty to encourage, too, since conures are clowns, and Quakers are feisty. These characteristics serve them well in the wild, where they need a lot of energy and intelligence to seek food sources, create safe homes, and protect their young. But domestic birds don’t have to do any of this. We “human servants” provide shelter, protection, and food, without our birds having to do a thing. What’s there to do with all of that pent up energy? Play, of course, and they have all day to survey their surroundings and think of ways of satisfying their curiosity.
All parrot owners can tell you funny stories. I have a treasure trove of them. The time the tissue box bested Zack, and he wound out stuck inside of it (yes, I took a picture before mounting a rescue. It was too cute). How he bobs his head to music. How cute it was while we were in our apartment to hear him screaming while the neighbor’s dogs barked when I would come home from work. Or how about Bubbles wolf-whistling at the plumber? Or saying “step up” when I fall asleep in the recliner? Or chasing my brother at Christmas?
We all have stories, but we all have scares as well. The down side of this mischievous streak is that sometimes they get into trouble, and we have to save them. One time Zack got his leg tangled in a string in his happy hut while we were at church, and we came home to him hanging out of it and squawking. That was a scare I’ll never forget (and he’s never getting another happy hut again). And Bubbles gave me so many scares flying around the house when we first adopted her that her wings stay clipped all of the time. Their mischief can be fun, but it can also be dangerous.
I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to be vigilant, but you also can’t be paranoid. In fact, we adopt our birds because of the joy they bring, and we should enjoy their antics and embrace their gregarious nature. The key is to strike a balance in knowing when to let them be themselves, and when to exercise caution.
It also leads to another benefit, which is how our parrots teach us about ourselves. On March 1, I’ll continue what I’ve learn from anthropomorphism to show how our birds hold up a mirror to our own soul, and help us to “check ourselves.”
What is Love?
by Sherri Moorer
It amazes me how much personality is attributed to birds in general, even among those who don’t share their lives and homes with them. It’s commonly referenced in scriptural and literary texts: being as fierce as a lion, as gentle as a lamb, as wise as a serpent, as innocent as a dove. This has given way to personality tests that match animal traits to human personality. One test is the DOPE Bird 4 Personality Types Test, which is used in healthcare, corporate recruiting, special needs classes, schools, and youth groups to group people into one of four groups based on bird “personality.”
- Doves are peaceful and friendly.
- Owls are wise and analytical.
- Peacocks are showy and optimistic.
- Eagles are bold and authoritative.
This test isn’t a formal psychological evaluation, but is considered useful as an assessment to identify distinctive traits that clarify personality, values, and tendencies in interpersonal relationships.
Birds do have personality, and the gregarious nature of most parrots lend to the strong bond we form with them. Everybody I’ve talked to with birds says that they have a personality as significant and unique as people do. We see it in how they express themselves and communicate with us through body language. Sometimes they talk, but mostly they communicate through other sounds and body language. Zack, for example, lets us know he’s ready to come out with what I call “the shaky wing dance.” He’ll duck low, point his head at us, and quiver his wings. He trained me with this dance so well, that it got Chloe adopted. The aviary brought her out in a carrier with another sun conure that was aggressively pushing her to the back. Chloe tried to get around the aggressive bird to no avail, so she resorted to the “shaky wing dance.” Everybody was surprised when I said I wanted the bird shaking her wings.
“Why her?” the breeder asked.
“She’s sweet and wants to see me!” I said.
Conures are clowns, but they aren’t the only ones bursting with personality. Bubbles seems to have a gift for saying the right thing at the right time, from “bless you!” when you sneeze, to “step up” when she wants popcorn. She can get attention immediately with a wolf whistle; especially when service people come to the house, or we’re upstairs and she wants us to come downstairs.
I think that’s why we love our birds so deeply. Like people, we gravitate toward birds with personalities similar to ours, and bond in how they communicate. It’s natural to form relationships with personalities that are similar to and complement our own, and it’s no different with our birds than it is with our fellow humans. Sometimes it’s in the similarities, like how Zack and Bubbles share my optimism and tendency for mischief. Other times, it’s in how they balance us out, like how Chloe and Oliver were mild mannered, calm, and low key to balance out my higher energy levels.
Birds are also perceptive and empathetic. It’s in their nature, because they’re prey animals and have to be aware of predators in their surroundings. This behavior naturally extends to us, their human “flock,” that they depend on for survival and well being. This does form a bond as they watch us closely and learn how to react appropriately. For example, after Chloe died, Bubbles surprised me when she walked over to me, stepped up on my arm, and kissed my cheek. She had never done that before! Somehow, she sensed my sadness and reacted with a behavior that she knew would comfort me. Zack did similar things like sitting on my shoulder where Chloe used to sit, and preening me. And both of them attempted to entertain me with vigorous head bobs, rousing vocalization, permitting more pats and snuggles than usual and, of course, the “shaky wing dance.”
Birds might show their love differently, mostly through baby or mating behaviors, but we know how to interpret their natural empathy. Hopefully, they interpret us correctly as well. Every one of my birds has learned the importance of “kisses” and returns them with light pecks while tolerating neck nuzzles and feather fluffing. We have our ways, and they have theirs. Somehow, we know what it all means and share our love in a way that’s truly unique.
Of course, their joyful and curious nature means they’re good at getting into mischief as well! Stay tuned – I’ll have more on that February 15th .
Teach your bird to Come when Called
by Joanna Berger
Training all of your pets to come when called is extremely important for their safety and provides them with lots of great mental and physical exercise. Training your birds to come when called can be a really fun game to play with them.
First, train your bird to do two really important “tricks”: Step-Up AND Step-Down.
Give your bird a small treat when your bird “Steps Up” onto a stick or onto your hand/arm. Use a treat to lure your bird off of your arm/stick/hand/finger (I will refer to this as “arm” for the rest of this article.) and back onto a cage-top, perch or play-stand (for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this location as play-stand for the rest of this article). You can do this by showing your bird the treat that you are holding and gradually, while your bird is watching the treat, moving the treat toward the perch in a smooth motion. Once your bird hops off of your arm, down onto the play-stand, give your bird the treat.
A note about treats: I have used pistachio nuts, pine nuts, nutriberries and even Harrison’s pellets as bird training treats. I have even used the keys from an old computer keyboard as rewards for a cockatoo who wasn’t very interested in food.
You can lure your bird back onto your arm with another treat, giving your bird the treat once they step onto your arm. Then repeat luring with the treat to get your bird to step down onto the play-stand. Make this into a fun game of hopping up and down (a natural bird behavior which provides your bird with entertainment and physical leg exercise) by repeating it many times in a row. Once your bird gets the idea of Stepping Up and Stepping Down, wait to pull out the treat from your pocket until your bird is already standing on your arm. You don’t need to lead with the treat anymore, but do continue to reward the behaviors of Stepping Up with a treat once your bird is on your arm. The same is true for Stepping Down – once your bird gets the idea of hopping off of your arm and onto the play stand, wait to give the treat to him/her until he/she is standing on the play-stand. Repeat this many times until your bird is really quickly Stepping-Up an Stepping-Down. All of this training is done while you stand still, very close to the play-stand.
Pro-Tip: Hold your arm totally still while your bird is stepping up onto it. You need to be like a sturdy tree branch that you bird will feel confident using as a perch. Birds often are startled when they lose their balance and may grab your arm with a beak if they feel the arm moving. That can be painful and startling for many people. Keep your feet planted on the ground, keep your arm still and steady, and pretend to be a tree when you are first teaching your bird to Step-Up.
Here is a video of me playing this Step Up, Step Down game with my hen: https://youtu.be/4P5Ls_IsBxw
After your bird has learned to play the Step-Up, Step-Down game really well, you can make it a little bit more challenging. Very, very gradually, move further from the play-stand so your bird has to hop a little bit further to get to your arm. Always give your bird a small treat once your bird lands on your arm and once after your bird steps down onto the play-stand. Start by taking one step backward away from the play-stand. Practice the Step Up, Step Down game at this new distance until it is going as smoothly as it was when you were immediately in front of the play-stand.
Here is a video of a sun conure being trained to do this Step Up, Step Down behavior at Auckland Zoo: https://youtu.be/62Vftp9svGU
Next, take an additional step backward, away from the play-stand.
Tip: Keep training sessions short and fun. Just ten minutes is an ideal training-session length. You can do two or three ten-minute long sessions per day. End the session by giving your bird something fun to play with like a new toy or some cardboard or paper to chew so that training sessions are always followed by something pleasant.
Each time you take a step away from the play-stand, practice the Step Up, Step Down game multiple times at that distance until your bird is doing really well, then take an additional step away from the play-stand and repeat. Eventually, you will have trained a really beautiful new behavior – flying across a room to your arm and flying back to the play-stand!
Here is a video of a young macaw learning this behavior: https://youtu.be/JmaJNs7b7Iw
Once your bird is doing really well flying to your arm and back to the play-stand, start adding your bird’s name as a cue to fly to your arm.
Put your arm out and hold it still and steady, then say your bird’s name. Hearing the name for the first time might be a little bit distracting for your bird because new sounds can be surprising. Don’t be shocked if your bird gets a bit confused when you say his or her name at this point and doesn’t do the Step-Up/Fly to Me behavior perfectly. To make it easier for your bird, you can go back to standing close to the play-stand and repeat the training as you did the first time, but this time say your bird’s name just before he or she Steps Up.
Gradually move further from the play-stand as before. Continue giving treats for each Step Up and Step Down. The only change is that you will now be saying your bird’s name as a cue for your bird to Step Up.
Once you are able to have you bird fly across the room to your arm after you say your bird’s name, practice that trick many, many, many times so that it becomes very reliable and quick. Your bird should fly at full speed in a direct path from the play-stand to your arm when you say his or her name.
At this point, try to find a treat that your bird likes even more than the treats you have been using and have a bunch of those treats ready in your pocket. It is important that when your bird flies directly to you at full speed after you call his or her name that the good behavior is rewarded with a jackpot of awesome treats. There are many things that your bird likes – be creative and use whatever your bird loves the most as the reward here. We do this so that flying directly to us is something that your bird loves to do more than anything else. You are the amazing treat-dispenser. Flying to you will be associated with the best food and the best toys. Your bird will learn that it is even more fun to fly directly to you than it is to play with different exciting objects in the house.
Start this training in a room that is as empty as possible and has the fewest possible distracting items. Gradually add distractions as your bird gets better and better at flying to you when you call his or her name. For example, you could put a bird toy on the floor in what used to be an empty path to you so your bird learns to fly over the toy to you without stopping to investigate the toy. Then add more toys and then gradually add more distracting items. As a trainer and bird owner, you want to set your bird up for success each time. Don’t suddenly add loads of distracting items because that could set your bird up for failure, but do gradually add items so your bird will learn to come to you even in distracting environments.
Practice, practice, practice this behavior inside of your home. Eventually, your bird will learn to fly right to you when you say his or her name. Taking the time to train this behavior is a lot of fun. It provides your bird with a lot of important physical and mental exercise which is great for your bird’s health. It will help you bond with your bird in a really positive way. It will also make it far less likely that your bird will ever become lost or stuck in a dangerous location. I have heard hundreds of sad stories of birds becoming lost outside or even inside the home. Many birds die or are injured when they become lost indoors or outdoors. If you have thoroughly trained the “trick” of having your bird fly right to your arm when you call his or her name, you are much more likely to be able to call your bird back to you, away from a potentially dangerous situation or environment.
It is also a great way to prevent bites (often birds bite people when people have to grab them or move them forcefully out of dangerous places). Finally, this trick may save the tops of your cabinets and curtains from being chewed. Once the behavior is fully trained, you shouldn’t get stuck with a parrot out of reach on top of your fan blades. You will be able to simply call your bird’s name and he or she will fly down from the fan and land right on your arm.
by Sherri Moorer
Anthropomorphic: ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human.
My pastor recently told me that losing pets hurts because we project our humanity onto them. I believe this is a tendency we all have, and it’s not just limited to animals. Consider, for example, the long-standing tradition of naming boats (it’s actually considered bad luck not to name a boat). And how many of us have named our car, or accused our computer of having a mind of it’s own? The scientific community generally frowns on this, and yet it’s a common thing unique to humanity that helps us to connect with the animals and objects that inhabit everyday life. It’s especially prevalent with the animals who share our homes and hearts.
It’s no wonder this is especially the case with birds. Their natural empathy as flock creatures make it easy to ascribe human capacity of emotions to them. I remember the anxiety that Zack and Chloe exhibited when I broke my foot a little over two years ago: they were clearly distressed to see me wobbling around in an orthopedic boot, and stared at me in concern when I was laid out in a recliner. And a year ago when I was sick with a sinus infection, Bubbles woke me with a command to “step up!” when I fell asleep in the recliner beside her cage for an hour. They do watch us, and are concerned because our condition reflects on the well being of the entire flock.
Does this mean they feel things like we feel them? A 2016 study from Vanderbilt University on bird brains proved that they have primate-like neurons in their forebrain, and the proportion of those neurons is significantly higher than primate brains. In short, they have higher neural activity per capita than we do. No wonder Zack and Bubbles constantly outsmart me with breaking locks and destroying toys: they can think faster than I can! Now that’s an ability I envy.
Does this mean that they see the world the same way we do? Not exactly, but it gives us common ground to relate to them and adapt our behavior so they understand us better. That’s what makes us unique as humans, and why anthropomorphism is a good thing when it comes to living with birds (and other animals). It helps us to relate to them and to fulfill their emotional needs, so they truly integrate with us. It might not entirely bridge the gap between their mind and ours, but it does enough to enlighten them on the love we have for them, and to see how they show that love back to us, even if it means chewing holes in our shirt, and puking on us. Different manifestation, same emotion, even if it requires a bit of cleaner.
Science says that anthropomorphism is a childlike trait we should outgrow in puberty, but I believe the prevalence of it in adulthood shows that it’s a valuable trait to carry with us through life. Love knows no boundaries, and if it helps us to show and express that love, then perhaps making our anipals and favorite objects a bit more human can help us to be better people.
Especially since our computers have a mind of their own –
The Empty Space
– by Sherri Moorer
I think the hardest part of losing Chloe (or any bird) is the empty space.
It’s not just the empty space where the cage used to be. It’s the mental and emotional space in her absence. It’s getting up and going to bed with one less bird. It’s coming home to one less bird greeting you. It’s going upstairs to change clothes after work without her. It’s clearing and washing the dinner dishes without her. It’s turning to my shoulder to say “that’s interesting,” and realizing that the shoulder is empty and that I’m talking to myself. It’s her not sneaking up to grab my bacon on Saturday mornings.
Of course we feel this when people we love pass away, but that space is a daily reminder when it’s a member of our household. We see it everywhere, and there’s nothing for it but to adjust to the space. I don’t think it ever truly heals. We lost Ollie (our budgie), three and a half years ago to cancer, and while Bubbles has been a joyous addition to our family since then, she’s her own bird. I still miss his songs, his cheerful presence, and how he reacted to things around the house, even after all of this time.
The only thing that eases the pain of the empty space is time. That’s the hard part. There is no way to hit the “pause” button or go around it because the only way out of it is through it. Grief is so isolating, but one thing I’ve learned from Chloe’s loss is that it’s like sinus drainage: you have to get it out to move forward.
I tried to shove it in a box and push on when Ollie died, and that didn’t work. I think it made it worse because it was festering inside of me. With Chloe, I can’t do it. She was the bird most closely bonded to me, and everybody knows it. There’s no way for me to hide my grief and sorrow living with that empty space.
Everybody knows I’m struggling with this empty space, and thankfully most people have been generous and kind with me. I feel I’ve received more support and sympathy in the loss of Chloe than I did when my father-in-law passed away with dementia three years ago, just months after Ollie. My only explanation is that I tried to suppress my grief then, whereas I’m openly expressing it now. I thought showing my humanity would be perceived as weakness, but instead the opposite has been true: people are more receptive and understanding than ever. Who knew this tough sci-fi writer would find strength, support, love, and healing from expressing my humanity?
I mentioned that there are no shortcuts through grief, but there are steps to help with the process. In the past few weeks, I’ve found things that have helped me to navigate through this empty space to see some hope for happiness to return in the future:
Set goals. I started setting small goals two weeks after Chloe’s loss, and found that helped me to see life in a better perspective. My first goal was to clean the house, which went easier and faster than expected. Since then, I’ve set small daily goals to keep me motivated to move on and do good things each day to help me heal: gathering up things to give to charity, mailing cards, meeting work goals before I took off for the holidays, rearranging the bird cages at home to give Zack and Bubbles more space and better toys, getting pre-promotion started on my sci-fi trilogy that I plan to publish in the next two months (it’s already on schedule, so I might as well finish it), and working on my other novels-in-progress. The point is for the goals to be easily attainable so they will boost your confidence to move on in spite of that empty space. You have to get used to doing things without your companion, and feeling some small victory helps the grief. There will be successes and failures, but the important thing is to try and to give it your best.
Use stress reduction tips. I was surprised to find that the same tips to relieve stress also apply to working through grief: eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest, and practice relaxation techniques. It seems these four things are a general “cure all” for many things. Think about this: our mind react to stress and grief the same way that our bodies react to illness or injury. There’s pain, but it’s emotional and spiritual as opposed to physical (although it can manifest in physical form). There’s inflammation to protect us from further hurt, but instead of swelling and burning, we feel it through anxiety and worry over other life events. There’s loss of energy, which manifest in a loss of motivation to do the things you used to enjoy.
Self care through stress reduction is a healing balm that helps the mind, heart, and soul to find purpose and healing in that empty space. It helps us to see the lessons from our loss, and the joy of the other blessings we enjoy in life. It helps us to release the sorrow and frustration, and to find a new reality on the other side of tragedy. Treat your soul with the same respect as you treat your body, and you help yourself to heal right and move forward. Plus, you can’t return to your best and give it to others if you aren’t at your best. Healing takes effort on your part, so make the effort to feel your pain, learn, and move forward in wisdom and courage.
Memorialize your bird. The Internet is a strong and dynamic community that gives everybody a space and support for their needs. You can create a website or blog for free through many service providers that will allow you to post pictures and stories about your beloved pet. Give them a space on the Internet to be the star that they were in your life, and to remember the love they gave. If this is too much, then you can keep it simple with a memorial. BirbObserver created a “Remembrances” page for our lost anipals, where you can post an obituary or a tribute to a lost anipal who has blessed your life. Email your obituary/tribute and photo of your bird to BirbObserver@gmail.org to be included.
If an online memorial is too much, then there are other ways to memorialize your pet privately. Express yourself artistically through a story, poem, drawing, or song. Make a photo collage, or plant a garden in their honor. I dedicated my last mystery novel to Ollie’s memory, and I plan to dedicate Trigger, my sci-fi novel-in-progress, to Chloe’s memory when I release it later in 2018. Again, look online to find ways to memorialize your pet, if you aren’t comfortable with something as public or intensive as a website or blog.
Grief isn’t easy to deal with, and the empty space hurts. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and all we can do is our best to move through it, and to help and support our friends who suffer it. The space never heals, but it does lead to wisdom and happy memories that continue to bless us, even after our beloved birds have move on beyond the rainbow bridge.
How to make your own natural wood perches and bird toys
By Joanna Berger, MSc
Step 1: Find some parrot safe wood.
Here are some types of wood that are safe for parrots according to The Gabriel Foundation and Gillian Willis:
- Citrus (any)
- Norfolk Island Pine
- Nuts (except chestnut and oak)
- Palms (areca, date, fan, lady, parlour, howeia, kentia, phoenix, sago)
- Sequoia (Redwood)
- Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)
Tulip Poplar, Tree of Heaven and Pine grow a lot on my property.
Tree of Heaven is invasive to the US and makes it harder for our native trees to grow so I try to cut down as much of it as possible. I then use the wood for bird perches and toys. Because Tulip Poplar trees grow quickly in Virginia, I frequently trim Tulip Poplar back and then use the cut branches to make beautiful perches. When I find fallen pine branches and pinecones, I use them to make perches and foraging toys.
Project Perry, the Central Virginia Parrot sanctuary where I did my Master’s degree thesis research on African Greys, builds all of their perches out of dogwood growing on their land. The Sanctuary also gives their birds big stalks of bamboo to chew.
I have some apple trees in my yard and would love to use the wood for parrots, but those trees have been sprayed – please AVOID using chemically treated wood, especially wood exposed to insecticides.
Once I have gathered appropriate wood and/or branches, I cut or break them apart so they are a size that fits inside my oven. I try to break wood and branches into lengths/sections where the wood is a nice thickness for parrot feet to grip. I prefer branches with varied diameters and angles because these are more interesting for parrots and allow the birds to get more climbing and gripping exercise.
Step 2: Heat the wood to kill “germs”
I stick the branches on my oven rack taking care to arrange them so that no piece touches an element.
(Note: if you have bird-safe baking trays that do not have toxic Teflon, you can place smaller twigs and pinecones on such trays. DO NOT USE trays that have nonstick Teflon coating.)
Once happy with the arrangement, I turn the oven on and set the temperature at 200 degrees Fahrenheit and the timer for 25 minutes. I stay nearby while the branches heat for those 25 minutes, paying attention and making sure there is no smoke or any chance of a fire. On the low setting of 200 degrees Fahrenheit, fire is unlikely to occur, but it is certainly better to be safe than sorry. Once the timer goes off, I turn the oven off. I leave the wood inside with the door closed. I set the timer for another two hours. At this point, the heat is entirely turned off so I can walk away. Because the oven remains warm with the door closed, the wood continues to dry.
Step 3 : Remove wood from oven, check for cracks
I pull the wood out of the oven and plan what do with the wood. I check the wood for cracks that could trap birds’ toes. If there are cracks, I either discard those pieces of wood or I cut off the cracked sections.
Since the wood has been heated and dried, I can now take the branches and just stick them into or onto a bird’s cage.
Or, I can take the wood into my workshop and add perch hardware.
Step 4: Buy safe hardware
Copper, Zinc, and other heavy metals are seriously toxic to birds. Unfortunately, many screws and washers are made of zinc, or contain some zinc. At my Lowe’s hardware store, I noticed that, sadly, all of their metal screws and washers contained zinc. I visited other local hardware stores that had a greater selection and finally found one that sold screws and washers made of steel without zinc. Steel is a metal that is safe for parrots. If you can’t find steel hardware at a local hardware store you can order it online, just triple check that the screws and washers you are ordering do not contain zinc.
Step 5: Drill the wood and add the hardware
Carefully use a saw to cut the ends of the branches into flat surfaces. Carefully use a drill to drill a small hole in the middle of those surfaces. Use a drill bit that is a size smaller than the screw you want to use because the screw needs to grip into the wood. Use hand-held pliers to screw the screw into the hole you have drilled in the wood. Sand any rough edges or sharp corners of the wood with sandpaper to ensure it will be comfy for your birds’ feet.
Step 6: Add extra holes for more foraging fun
To provide extra foraging enrichment and encourage your bird to get more climbing physical exercise and problem-solving mental exercise, you can drill holes along the perches. You can then place pellets or other food items into these holes. After you have drilled the holes, smooth the edges with sandpaper, then shake/knock out any sawdust.
Pinecones, especially pinecones that are still attached to branches, are wonderful foraging toys. Food pellets, nuts and seeds can easily be placed inside of pinecones. Your birds will love finding the treats and working to get them out.
Step 7: Attach the perches and toys to the cage
Choose where you would like to put the perches and toys. Use the washers to attach them to the cage.
Note: Parrots are generally afraid of new items so you may need to allow your bird some time to get used to seeing the new perches and toys before they feel comfortable using them. That is pretty normal. Once they realize that the new item is safe and not scary they will start to explore and enjoy their homemade gifts.
And there’s your DIY toys!
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The Human Side of Me
Don’t blame yourself. We’re human. We all make mistakes. That’s easier said than done, especially when your humanity took a life so precious to you. Our precious sun conure, Chloe, passed away after an accident on December 2. It’s been especially hard on me because she primarily bonded to me, and I always had her with me around the house. She was a sweetheart and really was an “emotional support companion” to me. I feel so empty without her, and yet in that space, I must find myself again. It’s amazing how one moment can forever alter your life.
I’ve heard a lot of people say “don’t blame yourself,” and many other things over the past couple of weeks. There’s been an argument for every way I blame myself. If only I hadn’t walked outside with her on my shoulder (like you did a million times before, and nothing bad came of it). If only I had been more careful (how could you know?). If only I had been more attentive (you can’t control fate – something else could have happened to cause the same end result). It’s my fault; her blood is on my hands (it’s nobody’s fault).
Of course, I blame myself. It was my mistake. I know that you’re right, but so am I. This is a situation where it all comes around to a universal truth: we do make mistakes, and sometimes they’re big ones with devastating consequences. That’s how we learn humility and forgiveness; for ourselves and others. The guilt will always be there, but the mission is to use it to make me a better, more compassionate person.
I had a breakthrough moment recently when I realized that reliving that accident in my head over and over again wasn’t doing any good, but was a waste of time and energy. It is what it is. I have to own the experience, but I also have to forgive myself and move on. I owe it to myself. I owe it to Zack and Bubbles, my other two birds, who need my love and support. I owe it to my family; to my friends; to my colleagues; to my readers; and to you. Nobody wants me to stay in this place, and I sure don’t want to. Grief must be felt, but I also must move on through it. Life goes on, whether I feel it or not. There are times to feel, and times to ignore those feelings and push on through life.
As alone as I feel, I know this has happened to many others. I’ve heard so many stories of people who lost their pets to accidents, as recently as JoJo’s flying away just four days after Chloe passed. How I identified with those raw feelings! The sorrow and anger I feel over Chloe’s loss is overwhelming sometimes. But I can’t rush grief. It’s a process I have to go through. Here are a few things I’ve found fateful in these sensitive days after the loss of my beloved anipal:
Get by with help from your friends. Encouragement and support from family, friends, and you have helped me to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. I am weak right now, but you are strong, and your strength is building me up. This is especially important with the loss of an avian companion because most people don’t understand the strong bond we form with our birds. They aren’t “just another pet,” and it helps to be surrounded with people (like you) who understand that.
Be kind to yourself. It’s tough when you feel that all you deserve is punishment, but we all need a measure of grace for our humanity. Nobody is exempt. The stress of losing beloved pets is overwhelming because they share your home, and you see reminders everywhere. I realize that I need to learn to relax and accept reality as it is if I want to reach the goal of becoming a better person who can support others through this tragedy. It’s okay if I’m slower than usual, or if I cut back on some activities for a while during this healing time.
Feel your grief. Grief is uncomfortable, which makes it isolating. We want to shove it away and flee, but our souls can’t heal unless we embrace the space. Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with death, and I know that you can’t circumvent the stages of grief. I also know that experiencing the process is critical to break through to healing and new life on the other side of loss. It’s important to realize that where there is grief, there is great love, and love is good. I take comfort in knowing that I’m capable of loving this much, and that my life is full and blessed because of it.
Grief hurts, but it doesn’t last forever. Now is the time to call on my faith to bring me through, and to thank you for lending me your strength on the journey. But today, perhaps it’s good for all of us if you see a side that’s rarely seen: the human side of me.
Pet Loss Support Center Hotline: 1-888-332-7738 (Monday – Saturday, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.)
House Cleaning Tips
by Sherri Moorer
Keeping a clean home with birds is a challenge! Yes, they’re messy, but, more importantly, their sensitive respiratory systems mean you need to take extra care with household cleaners. Let’s talk about that!
I also have sensitive sinuses, and I’ve learned that what’s good for them is good for me, too. Cleaning looms battle-like between their sensitive systems and my sinuses that get runny at most strong chemicals or odors, which only exacerbates the holiday stress of preparing your home to welcome cherished guests.
The good news is that it’s a battle you can win, and it’s easy once you get the hang of it. Read on for tips on keeping a clean home, notwithstanding your cohabitation with birds.
Soap and water are the best cleaners. I picked up this tip from a carpet cleaner, who said we waste a lot of money on cleaning products when a soapy rag or brush will clean most messes on most surfaces. No, you don’t get that “fresh” scent, but it gets just as clean. If you have hard stains, use a brush, steel wool pad, or a Brillo-style pad.
Needs to disinfect? Kitchens and bathrooms usually require more power. While our birds aren’t usually in these areas, it’s important to consider that fumes know no boundaries. For hard stains, I have two recommendations: first, use Clorox wipes. They have an “Anywhere Wipe” that’s odorless and pet/kid friendly, and will do a quick cleaning well. If you need more elbow grease, Simple Green is a nontoxic, biodegradable, all-purpose cleaner that you dilute with water to clean most messes with no odor. Simple Green can be used in toilets too, but I usually use a small amount of bleach or Lysol Toilet Bowl cleaner, because it flushes away and repels dirt well. I use bleach lightly, because it sets off my own sinuses, but it’s generally bird-safe. Diluting it with water often helps to clean well without causing me to stare at my birbs with watery eyes.
What about dusting? A feather duster or Swiffer duster picks up dust well. If you need to wipe up a stain or polish, I recommend polishing furniture in other rooms of the house first, and then swiping it over the furniture in the room with your birds using the cleaner already in the rag. Don’t spray anything in the room with your birds, for safety.
A bird owner’s biggest challenge: floors. We have plastic under the bird cages that can be wiped up with a damp cloth or swept, but birds are master food slingers. I sweep our kitchen floors every day, and vacuum frequently. For mopping floors, I recommend a Shark Steam Mop. They’re under $39 at Walmart, and the steam and heat clean stains and disinfect without chemicals. A Swiffer WetJet also works well because you can spray only the amount of cleaner you need. It’s mild, dries quickly, and doesn’t have a strong odor.
What’s that smell? The biggest question I hear is how to keep your house smelling nice when you can’t have candles or sprays around your bird. Brew some cider in a crock pot, or keep it simmering on a back burner of your stove top. Best of all, you can serve it to your guests, and the scent will linger for a while!
Keeping a clean home with birds is a challenge you can win if you’re attentive. Just keep in mind that what’s good for them is good for you, because humans don’t need to inhale those harsh chemicals either!
Happy cleaning, and Happy Holidays!
Clicker Training 101: What is a “Clicker”?
By Joanna Berger, MSc
A clicker is a small noise-making device that you can purchase at pet stores or online. The clicker is not a remote control for your bird. It is simply a device that I use to make a quick sound to mark the exact moment at which a desirable behavior occurs. I call the clicker a “marker” because it marks the precise moment at which a parrot moves his or her body into the exact position that I desire during training. Marking that moment helps me to communicate with birds. Training can be done without a clicker/marker, but clickers are a tool to improve the clarity of our communication.
First, I pair the click sound with a reward (something the bird likes). I often use small food items or toys (including DIY toys like pieces of paper or cardboard that can be shredded) as rewards. Pairing the click sound with a reward teaches the bird the association between the sound and an enjoyable treat. To pair the click and the treat, I click my clicker and then immediately give the treat to the bird. I repeat this click and treat five times in a row or until the bird looks at me expecting a treat after hearing the click sound. I only need to do this the very first time I introduce the bird to a clicker.
One tip: I like to hold my clicker in my dominant hand, behind my back while I’m training parrots. I do this so that the clicker is out of the bird’s sight. I have noticed that many parrots are fascinated by the way the clicker looks (they are often brightly colored plastic objects). I want the bird to be able to focus on training, not be distracted by trying to play with the clicker or thinking that the clicker is a new toy. Some birds are very afraid of new objects and might be afraid of the way the clicker looks which is another reason to hold it behind your back, out of sight.
There are two types of clickers that are readily commercially available. I prefer the style that has a button that sticks up because it is gentler on the hand and makes a quieter click. The quieter click style is less likely to startle nervous parrots. Pro tip: Your parrot may start “parroting” the click which is another reason to choose a slightly quieter clicker. Either style can work and some of my clients prefer using the boxier and louder clicker. Pens can also be used as clickers. The original “clicker” was the whistle used in aquarium dolphin training. Flashlights that can be quickly turned on and off can be markers that are useful for deaf animals.
Before you start using the clicker in bird training, practice using it somewhere away from your bird and out of their hearing-range. I like to practice outside of the house. Click the clicker repeatedly to get your fingers moving quickly. Timing is the most important part of training. It is important to practice the mechanics of using the clicker. You can practice your clicking speed by clicking as quickly as possible. You can practice your clicker timing by clicking while riding in the car as the car passes each road sign. You can choose something and click every time it occurs while you are watching a movie or TV. You could practice clicking every time a meteorologist moves her hands while watching the weather channel. Do all of this practice out of earshot of your bird.
It is important that your bird only hears the click when it is followed by a treat so that the association between the click and the treat stays really strong. I give that advice to my parrot training clients and it what I was taught during my Karen Pryor Academy Foundations of animal training course. Some parrot owners use the clicker in slightly different way that seems to work well for them and for their birds. I love when people train their birds in ways that work well for them. Scout the Senegal is internet-famous and has learned many awesome tricks because his “mom” clicker-trains him, but I know that she uses the clicker slightly differently than I do. Regardless, the clicker is used to mark the desired behavior as it is performed by the parrot and then the parrot is rewarded for performing the new tricks.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT — TEACHING YOUR BIRD TO BE A “GOOD BIRD”
By Joanna Berger, MSc
We have a natural tendency to notice when our birds are doing things that get on our nerves. For example, it is obvious to us when parrots scream. We may yell, “No, bad bird!” when we notice that our birds are doing things we don’t like. Unfortunately, we are often less likely to notice the times when our birds are being calm and quiet and we forget to say, “Yes! Good bird!”
Look and listen for the times when your birds are “being good”. Reward them for that behavior. I use food and toys as rewards, but often simply paying attention to your birds when they are “being good” is effective. Start noticing when your birds are doing things that you like and respond with “Good bird!”
Animals are always learning. Rewarding desired behavior with attention, praise, toys and food makes that desired behavior more likely in the future. Your birds learn the association between doing behaviors and getting rewards. For example, if you are teaching your parrot to say a word in a quiet “inside voice”, listen closely and reward your parrot as soon as you hear her say that word quietly.
One of my current behavior patients is a macaw who spent much of the time screaming. I helped his “mom” train him to say “woof” in a quiet voice. We waited for him to say “woof,” then rewarded him with praise and treats immediately afterward. His saying “woof” was a cute trick, and he learned to make a sound easier on our ears than loud screaming.
If we only pay attention to our birds when they are doing things that bother us, our birds will continue to do those annoying things to get our attention. We must work against our own natural human tendencies and remind ourselves to notice when a bird is being calm and quiet. We tend to lead busy, modern lives; and it’s too easy to ignore our companion animals when they are being good. There is only so much time in one day. We want our birds to spend the majority of each day doing desirable things. Parrots don’t know what behaviors are desirable to us unless we train them by praising and rewarding those behaviors.
Parrots are intelligent and social. They usually want people to pay attention to them. Rewarding birds for good behavior is an incredibly efficient and ethical way to prevent and decrease unwanted behavior. If “being good” is what is reinforced, “good behavior” becomes more frequent, and undesirable behavior diminishes. I challenge you to see how many times you can tell your bird, “Good bird!” each day. You may be surprised to realize that even “bad birds” are actually “good birds” much of the time. Catch those good moments, reward them, and soon even your friends and family will tell you that your bird is “such a good bird!”
Note: There is not really such as thing as a “good bird” or a “bad bird.” There are simply behaviors performed by birds that we humans like or dislike. Birds are just birds: they engage in a variety of activities each day. It’s our job as responsible bird guardians to train them to know when they do things that we think are “good!”
Good job reading this whole article! Well done! You are doing a great job as a bird guardian! 😉
HOLIDAY PREP TIPS
By Sherri Moore
Our birds get excited when the weather cools in the fall. Why? Because they know it means party time! The holidays are an exciting and active time for our avian companions as much as they are for us. Are you ready for the holiday season? What about your birds? Better yet, are your family and friends ready for your birds?
It’s important to realize that you are the liaison between your avian and human companions; especially during the holidays when there’s more activity and your birds will be seeing more people. You have to be the “bird smart” person who bridges the gap in socialization. Here are a few tips to build bridges between your human and avian family for a fun filled, happy holiday season:
Take your birds on regular “visits.” It’s a good idea to let your birds meet the people close to you on a regular basis. Don’t wait for the holidays to introduce your birdey buddies to others: put them in a travel cage for brief visits, and encourage your family and friends to come over and visit them. This keeps your birds well socialized and lets them have an “extended flock” they know and trust. Birds are flock animals, so avian curiosity is natural. Engage that curiosity to make the holidays special!
Know your birds. Like people, every bird has a unique personality. Some are more sociable and will want to interact with people, while others are reserved and more comfortable staying in their cage until the fun is over. Be respectful of your bird’s boundaries, and keep an eye on them. If your bird shows signs of stress or fatigue, then it’s time for a break. Don’t force them to be a centerpiece if they don’t want to be.
Prepare your visitors. Strange but true: many people are scared of birds. I was surprised to learn this, and not all people are comfortable admitting it, especially to someone who most often has a bird on her shoulder! Let people know you have birds who will be joining the festivities and provide any relevant information that they may need to know. Parrots have the intelligence and awareness of a two to five-year-old child so let people know that the bird should be treated with the same respect and care as a toddler to pre-school child. Also let them know of any idiosyncrasies your birds have: for example, Zack will snuggle you, Chloe will run from you, and Bubbles may snuggle or attack, depending on her mood.
And “don’t feed your fingers to my birds” is always good advice.
Remain alert. It’s easy to lose track of things over the holidays, but you must remain aware of what’s going on around you. I mentioned that birds have the intelligence of a toddler to pre-school age child, and you know what this means: they have a penchant for getting into mischief! Be sure to pay attention to your birds so they don’t feel left out and start screaming for attention. Share snacks, take them out from time to time, and give them breaks. Try to maintain as much routine and familiarity as you can through the festivities to keep everybody comfortable.
You also need to watch how people react. If they show signs of stress or fear, let them know that watching and talking nicely to birds is appropriate. In fact, I don’t encourage letting others handle your birds other than people they know and interact with regularly. Be mindful of your birds’ safety, and how other people are interacting with them.
The holidays are all about friends and family, and there’s no doubt that our birds are part of it all. I hope these tips give you the confidence to prepare for a wonderful holiday season, and for expanding your bird’s “flock” in new and exciting ways.
The Last GoodBye
It’s amazing how the death of a companion bird can unravel you.
I thought I was one tough cookie back in 2013-2014: I was juggling a heavy workload, my husband’s various infirmities, my father-in-law’s progressive dementia, and the obligations of the holiday season. I thought, I have life nailed. It wasn’t easy, but I was proud of how I managed despite the surrounding chaos.
Then one morning I noticed that our parakeet, Oliver, had trouble balancing on his left foot. The vet assured me that it was nerve damage from a kidney infection, that Oliver would be ok though healing might take a while, and that an X-Ray could confirm the diagnosis.
I never returned for the x-ray. I said it was because I didn’t have time, but the truth was that I knew it was something more; and I couldn’t take it. I was already living one “long goodbye” with my father-in-law, and emotionally I couldn’t handle the truth that I was looking at another one. It came back to bite me a few months later when Oliver was obviously getting worse instead of better. On February 27, 2014, we learned that, in fact, Oliver had a spinal tumor, and we made the difficult decision to euthanize him.
I lost it. Oliver dying was too much! I cried for days, and the next few weeks required huge effort. My reaction shocked me because I usually shake things off quickly and can move on all right, but this paralyzed me emotionally. It hit me hard because Ollie was a rescue. We had intended for him to enjoy a long, happy life in our home. He was three when he died.
It was a painful experience, and it was also clear that people didn’t know what to say or do in the wake of our tragedy. It takes another bird owner to truly understand the complex bond that we form. It always hurts to lose a bird or other pet. This bond intensifies the hurt because this is a pal who has emotionally and spiritually bonded with you. The death rips a deep hole in your heart because that bond made them part of you. And people just don’t get it.
Death in general is an uncomfortable subject, and there isn’t anything that people can say or do to help you through the process. It isolates you. There’s no formal etiquette or ritual when a pet dies, yet it’s something we all face — whether it’s the death of our own pet, or a friend’s or family member’s pet. I’m sharing what my husband, Rick, and I discovered in the wake of losing Oliver, in the hope it helps you in coping with the loss of a pet. This list of “do’s” and “don’ts” provides general guidelines to help you through that difficult journey. You’ll need support, and sometimes the best support comes from those who have been there.
If you lose a pet:
Do give yourself time to grieve. Expect to feel sadness, anger, guilt, and regret. Grief is grief, whether it’s a goldfish or grandma. You’ll go through the stages in your own way, so grant yourself the grace to have good days and bad days. It’s natural to wonder if there was more you could have done, or if you failed in some way. You didn’t. Illness happens, accidents happen, reality happens, and sometimes it doesn’t end well. No matter what the circumstances, two facts remain: death sucks, and it’s never all right or justified.
Don’t withdraw too much for too long. Of course you’ll be depressed and won’t feel like doing anything, but you have to go on living. You have to take care of your family, home, and other pets. You have to work. You have to fulfill obligations you’ve made. It’s tough, but these very things can be blessings because they help you adapt to life on the other side of your loss. Take one day at a time.
Do realize that it will hit you at odd times. Just when you think you’re over it, you have a memory trigger that brings it all back to you. I burst into tears one day at church nearly a year after Ollie died when they played “On Eagle’s Wings.” It seemed so odd, until I remembered that I heard that song at church shortly after we had him put to sleep. The human mind is a curious thing. You’ll be fine one moment, and the next you’ll see, hear, or even smell something that brings the memories rushing back. Don’t be alarmed. Take a time out if you need it, grieve as you need to, and rest assured that you’ll get back on track.
Don’t feel obligated or rushed to replace the pet you lost. We never make our best decisions in highly charged emotional states. Give yourself a few weeks to cope with the loss and to make a practical decision on whether to get a new pet because birds (like people) can’t be replaced. They all have different personalities and needs, so you’ll have a learning curve ahead of you even if you get the exact same kind and breed as the one you lost.
Do memorialize your pet. I was writing a novel when Oliver died. I memorialized him by creating a character based on him and finished the novel in a way that made him a hero. Do something to honor your pet’s memory in a way that’s meaningful to you. Plant a tree, do a drawing or painting, buy a charm for a necklace or bracelet, make a donation, volunteer at a pet shelter, create a website in their memory – there are lots of ways to commemorate your pet.
If you know somebody who’s lost a pet:
Do say you’re sorry for their loss. It only takes a few seconds to say, email, text, or post. Invest time in small acts of sympathy.
Do ask how they and their other pets are doing. Showing concern for how well they’re adapting to their loss is a way to shine. Most people have a “statute of limitations” of about a week to ten days on negative life events, meaning the condolences dry up as people go on their merry way. A simple “how are you?” or “how are Zack and Chloe?” impressed me as a demonstration that the individual remembered what was important to us.
Don’t try to console them with great news from your own life. I had one “friend” drop me on social media because I didn’t congratulate her on her engagement two days after Ollie died. The truth is that I didn’t see the post because I was crying at regular intervals as I found reminders of him all over the house. That empty space in our den haunted me for over two years.
This isn’t the time to brag about your big promotion, your huge raise, the new house you’re buying, your pregnancy, your kid’s upcoming marriage, your long-awaited vacation, the impending publication of your book, your winning the lottery, etc. “Grieve with those who grieve” is great advice so meet them where they’re at. While we don’t congratulate you on your wonderful fortune, you have to understand that we just can’t celebrate now, and we need a measure of grace. Hold off on exciting announcements for a week or two if you can, and, if you can’t, then don’t get offended if we don’t jump for joy. We do want to be happy for you; we just can’t right now.
Do act like a civilized human being. Maybe you don’t know them well. Maybe you’re overwhelmed with your own problems and can’t squeeze out any sympathy right now. Maybe you can’t stand them, and you think they need a dose of humility. Maybe you’re paralyzed by not knowing what to do. Be a better person, and acknowledge the loss. Ignore it, and, yes, it will go away. But you’ll look like a jerk. That person who dropped me for not congratulating her on her engagement never expressed any condolences over us losing Ollie. So who’s the bad guy? I’ll let you decide.My point is that you never go wrong by doing right, or by expressing sympathy. Preserve your integrity and cough up a condolence, even if you don’t feel they deserve it.
Whether you grieve or are comforting somebody who is grieving, know this: there is hope for the future. The Reaper takes, but Life gives; because of that, Hope remains. When Ollie died, I wouldn’t get rid of his cage because I felt we’d need it again someday. Someday came two and one-half years later when my husband called me at work to say a coworker couldn’t keep her Quaker anymore. After I got off the phone, the person in the next cubical appeared in my door.
“Did I hear you say you’re getting a Quaker?”
“It looks like it.”
He laughed. “I grew up with a Quaker. You’re in for an adventure!”
I certainly was. And that empty space in the den is now filled with happy memories of Ollie, and new life with Bubbles. She is an adventure; and just what we needed!
Meet Me in St Louis, Louis!
My parrot-filled weekend in Missouri
Hello BirbObserver readers! I hope you have had a good couple of weeks. I had a fabulous long weekend in St. Louis, MO, and I want to tell you all about it.
Before I start sharing the story of that exciting weekend, let me give you some background information.
ABMA 2017 Conference welcome sign
I did my Masters of Science degree in Applied Animal Behavior & Animal Welfare, during which I completed a scientific study of African Grey Parrot social and foraging behavior. I was invited to present my research at the Animal Behavior Management Alliance conference in Cincinnati, OH. After my ABMA presentation, Heidi Hellmuth, primate curator at the St. Louis Zoo and owner of three parrots, asked me if I would present my research to her bird club, Gateway Parrot Club in St. Louis. I was thrilled at the invitation! Gateway Parrot Club very generously paid my travel costs and hosted me while I was there.
Flying over the Missouri River
Once I arrived in St Louis, the friendly Vice-President of Gateway Parrot Club picked me up in his car and drove me to St. Louis Zoo, where Heidi gave me a great tour. As it was a hot, sunny day, I especially appreciated the shade provided by the zoo’s beautiful trees. Heidi gave me a fascinating tour of the zoo’s primate areas, and then we visited over lunch.
St Louis Zoo Primate Curator, Heidi Hellmuth, trains lemurs using positive reinforcement
As Heidi had to return to her duties, I spent the next hour visiting the bird areas of the zoo on my own. I watched a Hyacinth Macaw climb around his enclosure to find banana slices that had been pushed onto twigs on his perch branches. I thought that was a nice, simple foraging enrichment idea that BirbObserver readers might like to try with parrots in their homes.
I also saw the historic World’s Fair Flight Cage which is a very impressive and extremely giant aviary. I wish everyone could have one for their birds! The birds had loads of space to fly and lead naturalistic lives inside that massive aviary.
A view of birds inside the World’s Fair Flight Cage
Next, I attended a Parrot Party inside the home of the Vice-President of Gateway Parrot Club. I enjoyed talking to club members about parrot behavior and enrichment and meeting their birbs. I was extremely impressed by the Cockatiel Room where twelve rescued cockatiels shared tremendous space and tons of toys. I was also impressed by the large bird toy workshop which was adjacent to the cockatiel room.
On Sunday, Heidi drove me to Varietees Bird Store. The broad array of parrot enrichment toys and perches that were for sale impressed me!
Parrot play stands and other items for sale at Varieties Bird Store
Lots of people and parrots were there to hear my talk. I stood on a stage-like area in the middle of the store in front of a large screen for my presentation. Projecting powerpoint slides onto the screen, I spoke for an hour and answered wonderful questions about my project. I loved the audience’s great reactions to my talk. I started the talk with background on the natural behavior of parrots in the wild, definitions and explanations of “enrichment”, “foraging” and nesting behavior. The middle of the talk was my scientific study. I finished the talk with information about how my study can be applied to parrots living inside of houses. The audience’s interest and enthusiasm totally energized me! Afterward, I spoke individually with parrot owners and, of course, was delighted to meet their awesome parrots.
Photos of my talk for Gateway Parrot Club and of meeting audience-members to answer questions
After that afternoon presentation, Heidi drove me through Lone Elk County Park, where we saw a big herd of wild Elk in their beautiful natural habitat full of trees that were changing color for fall. I highly recommend you visit Lone Elk Park if you are ever in St. Louis. It is a real treasure and full of incredible animals.
Elk at Lone Elk Park
On Monday, Heidi and I visited World Bird Sanctuary which mainly has eagles, owls, vultures, hawks, and corvids who were injured and could not be released by into the wild after rehabilitation. They also have parrots trained for use in educational performances, but the parrots weren’t on show while we were there. The Sanctuary had one Kookaburra and some storks in addition to native American birds. The Executive Director met with us, and we enjoyed sharing bird enrichment ideas with him.
Elyda, a disabled, non-releasable Bald Eagle at World Bird Sanctuary
Finally, Heidi welcomed me into her home and introduced me to her parrots. She has screened-in both front and back porches so that her birds can enjoy a taste of the outdoors and the feel of natural sunlight. She showed me some of her favorite enrichment items that she uses with her own parrots, two of whom were rescued/adopted. I enjoyed visiting her birds and providing them with some extra social enrichment. I flew back to Virginia that night.
It was a fabulous weekend. I was overwhelmed by the number of birds that I saw during my trip! Although it was a busy trip, I am so glad I could share my research with so many parrot people, and I hope it will give them ideas that will help their birds live happy lives.
Visiting one of my audience-members in Varietees Bird Store after my talk
Pumpkins & Parrots
I hope you are having a wonderful October. I’m excited about fall, so I thought I’d share a fun autumnal parrot enrichment idea with you.
According to avian veterinarian Susan Orosz, pumpkin is good for pet parrots to eat(1).
Parrots have very strong beaks which evolved to tear the flesh of fruits and to crack open nuts, so you can give your parrot a whole, fresh pumpkin and see if they can figure out how to chew the pumpkin open to eat it. A miniature pumpkin would make a perfect seasonal foot-toy. Birds can stay fit by climbing on large pumpkins and perching on their stems and working to chew the thick pumpkin skin and rind is great exercise for jaws and beaks.
After your bird chews through the rind, you will start have a parrot-made Jack-o-lantern! You can show off your birds’ artistic talents. I would love to see photos of parrot-created Jack-o-Lanterns – you can share them on social media with #BirbOb.
If your bird is very small, has a physical limitation like a malformed beak, or is very new to foraging for food, you can make the task easier by carving the pumpkin yourself before giving it to your bird. You can cut a circle around the stem on the top of the pumpkin as if you were starting to carve a jack-o-lantern and let your parrot figure out how to pull the stem to lift this “lid”. If you are carving a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern, you can let your bird climb through the holes and remove the pumpkin seeds and innards for you.
Raw pumpkin seeds are nutritious and safe for your bird to eat. Pumpkin flesh is full of vitamins which are good for birds (1), however, if your birb is obese, limit the number of seeds s/he eats because they can be fattening. Avoid feeding your bird any old, moldy pumpkin because that might make your bird sick. Another fun game is to hide your parrot’s regular food (e.g. Harrison’s pellets) inside of a freshly carved Jack-O-Lantern for him/her to find. You can also hide small wooden toys inside of a carved pumpkin for your bird to find.
Pumpkins are very popular animal enrichment items at zoos. Every fall, zoos all over the world give pumpkins to all sorts of exotic animals as enrichment toys. This is entertaining for zoo visitors and for the animals. Oklahoma City Zoo gave their Rainbow Lorikeets a Jack-o-lantern and miniature pumpkins (2). Wildlife Sydney Zoo gave Princess Parrots raw pumpkin flesh as a treat (3). I conducted a study of primate behavior at Edinburgh Zoo while doing my Master’s degree and I observed the squirrel monkeys interacting with an enrichment pumpkin on halloween.
I hope that this has given you some fun ideas of how to enjoy celebrating the fall with your birds. Jack-o-lanterns are fun to carve and fun for parrots. For safety’s sake, be sure to keep any candles, flames or carving knives far away from your birds. Otherwise, have fun letting your parrots play with pumpkins this October!
I got the shock of my life shortly after we adopted Bubbles, our Blue Monks Parakeet (Quaker ) in the summer of 2016. Admittedly, she came to us at what could be described as a bad time for me. I was in my busiest time of work, my niece had just graduated high school, my parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, a coworker was retiring, and I was promoting the first book in my sci-fi trilogy in what little spare time I had left over after literally having to “party all the time.” I was up to my eyeballs in celebrations and work, when I got the call from my husband: a coworker was no longer able to keep her parrot. Could we have her?
Our parakeet passed away two years earlier, and my husband and I both missed having a third bird to keep our two sun conures (Zack and Chloe) on their toes. The problem was that we were the bird’s third home in six months. Bubbles came to us confused and frustrated after being in two homes that couldn’t handle her feisty personality. So when she saw me, she no doubt thought great, here we go again. At least, that’s what I figured when she went into full attack mode every time she saw me.
I was determined to succeed, and was confident that I could with time and patience. What I didn’t realize was that, despite having birds since I was ten years old (meaning I have 30 years of experience with avian companions), I’d never had a Monks Parakeet. Lesson learned: every time you think you know it all, something happens to humble you. Getting Chloe (our female sun conure) used to living with humans after seven years in an aviary was one thing. Gaining Bubbles love and trust after being bounced around several homes in a matter of months was another thing.
I got by with a little help from friends; specifically, a coworker who grew up with Moncks Parakeets and was able to offer advice on how to bond with this blue ball of energy. It took time and a lot of patience, but she and I learned about human-avian bonding quickly. The most important thing was how my behavior influenced hers. Birds are empathetic, and it didn’t take me long to learn that Bubbles’ anger was my own stress reactions coming back at me. I didn’t realize how mad I sounded until one day when she said “stop it!” harshly after I tried to pick her up. That held up a mirror, and I realized that I needed to deal with my own stress (and attitude) if I wanted Bubbles to love and trust me. She got along with my mild mannered husband right away. It took some time for our feistiness to get on the same frequency so we could bond over it, instead of struggle with it.
I’m happy to report that she has finally accepted me. We still have boundaries, but once I learned how to respect hers, then we got along much better. I think we both learned a valuable lesson: she, about trusting human love, and me in getting my own attitude straight! Who knew that a bird could teach you how to be a better human? She has the cutest reactions when I talk now. My favorite is when I ask a question, and she bobs her head and whistles or chirps, as if she agrees. Or when she wolf whistles. That’s fun! She’s happy, but I had to get happy first before she knew it was safe to express joy to this silly human.
The moral of this story is that we must realize the impact we have on our avian companions. Birds aren’t like cats or dogs: they form bonds with their human companions, and in their mind we’re part of their “flock.” Our behavior has an impact on our birds. I can’t tell you how many times I thought they were acting odd when I was getting sick, or out of sorts, or just not being myself. It happened again this past weekend.
Being our best self isn’t just good for us, but for our birdy buddies as well.