Budgies: Popularity With a Problem
by Mariah Hughes
Budgerigars – or, affectionately, budgies – may be the most popular pet bird species in the world: most major pet stores sell them for the cost of a quick lunch and aviculturists breed them with ease. Their minute stature makes keeping a small flock cheap and relatively easy. Though they are tiny, budgies are true parrots with big, bold personalities and complex social and emotional needs. Unfortunately, popularity and ease of access poses a particular threat to the well-being of these quirky, intelligent birds: there are many, many forgotten budgies, purshased as a quick, cheap pet, languishing in too-small, under-stimulating, lonely enviornments across the globe.
The first budgie I ever met was a green cock named Bubbles. I was seven years old and Bubbles was my many cousins’ pet. Kept in a tiny, pink, square cage with only a mirror for stimulation, Bubbles could wolf whistle on command and said a garbled “pretty bird”, “hello, Bubbles”, and “cut that out!”, the latter of which was learned when he was yelled at to stop screeching – a behavior he likely adopted out of frustration and boredom. At first, Bubbles – the sole pet of twelve rowdy children – was showered with affection, but when his wing feathers grew back a few months after being clipped at the pet store, he was no longer permitted out of his cage.
When Bubbles began screeching and whistling late into the night, Bubbles was relegated to the corner of a non-functional bathroom.
I was only a small child, but I felt Bubbles’ pain: I made a point of putting my face close to his cage and speaking to Bubbles for hours each time I visited.
I still remember how Bubbles would close his pale, grey eyes and grind his beak as I spoke to him. Eventually, my mother (a biologist) became concerned about Bubbles and asked if we could bring him home, but it was too late: an older cousin, perhaps motivated by a misplaced sadness at Bubbles’ distress, had taken him outside and let him go.
Bubbles was released in October in Indiana. After being purchased for less than $30 – including his cage – and enduring a life of loneliness, Bubbles was dead.
Bubbles’ plight stuck with me as I grew. Throughout my school age years, I constantly begged my mother to let me adopt a bird, but our house was already full of animals and another animal – let alone a bird – would not have been a good fit. In college, I bred budgies but found that it was difficult to sell them at the (unreasonably high) price that I was asking.
More recently, I discovered that our local avian vet had a beautiful budgie surrendered to him. I quickly adopted him and named him Fondue. Shortly thereafter, I discovered two young hens available for adoption at my local shelter, and adopted them as well, naming them Skillet and Queso.
Happy to rescue both these hens, I still more their adoption fee far exceeded their comparable pet store price. The disparity struck me: how can adoption save budgies– reduce the number of budgies sold at pet stores — when adoption fees exceed pet store prices?
Of course, those who are passionate about birds will eagerly spend extra money to save a homeless bird, but what about those who are tempted by the $15 budgies, bred in massive factory farms, available at pet stores?
The solution is threefold:
- Seek out budgies available for adoption through adoption services and encourage others to do the same. A simple Google search for “budgies available for adoption in (your state)” will almost always yield numerous results. Websites like Petfinder.com also facilitate bird adoption. If you are not interested in adopting another budgie, consider seeking out a nearby adoption agency and donating money, time, toys, cages, or food.
- Education. Many budgies are purchased at pet stores and quickly forgotten because well-meaning families purchase them believing that they are bringing a cuddly, low maintenance pet that can talk into their home. The ease of access to budgies along with their low-cost, makes them especially susceptible to spontaneous purchase which ends in disappointment and, eventually, neglect. If you frequent pet stores that sell budgies, engage and educate those observing budgies about proper housing, toys, socialization, and budgie longevity. Encourage them to join Facebook groups, forums, and other online groups to research before buying. On Instagram and Twitter, make a point of including a quick message with your posts and photos: my bird may be cute, but a lot of work goes into keeping him happy and healthy!
- When adoption isn’t an option, seek out reputable breeders or be a reputable breeder yourself. Provide an educational care sheet with each bird that you sell and offer them for a price that competes with local pet stores. Interview prospective owners, rejecting unprepared and under-educated candidates. In your contract of sale, include a clause that, in the event the placement does not work out, the bird must be returned with violations subject to a $500 small court claim.
- CAVEAT: Do not hesitate to travel a great distance to support reputable breeders and spread the word when you do find one. Do not purchase budgies from pet stores, even to “rescue” them, as this only creates more demand for more budgies that are at high risk of being neglected.
The Do’s and Don’t’s of Enjoying Time Outside
by Mariah Hughes
As winter’s chill melts away, giving way to long-missed sunny days, bird owners often feel eager to let their feathered family members enjoy the warmth and fresh air of spring. As tempting as it may be to place your bird’s cage outside as you go about your day as usual, outside time can be dangerous unless special care is taken to protect your birds. With a bit of preparation, your companion can safely relax outside – they will even enjoy the same benefits that you do when provided with sunshine, fresh air, and a change in scenery.
Do: Secure Your Birds
The first and foremost precaution you must take when introducing your birds to the outdoors is to ensure that they have no possible means of escaping and getting lost. Even with clipped birds who are unable to fly, it is absolutely essential that your birds never goes outside without first being secured in an escape-proof cage. No matter how much you trust your birds or your ability to catch them, their being unsecured outside for even a moment is far too dangerous to be worth the risk: tame, bonded birds can and will still fly away, clipped birds can get lost, predators and wild birds can quickly attack unsecured birds, and any number of accidents can happen in an instant. If your birds are going outside in a wire cage, all doors must be secured with a parrot-proof clip or tie. Fabric carrying cages with zipping, mesh doors are also available and prevent escape when properly zipped shut. If you suspect that your birds have any chance of escaping, opt to place their cage beside a window rather than risking time spent outside.
Don’t: Expose Your Bird to Extreme Weather
Although your birds likely are species that hail from naturally tropical or arid climates, they live in your home, which is most likely climate-controlled and protected from direct sun, rain, and wind. When introducing your well-secured cage to the outdoors, take care not to expose your birds to drastic changes in temperature, cold or frequent wind, rain, or direct sun. More than a fifteen degree difference in temperature can stress your birds — a general rule of thumb is that birds shouldn’t be placed outside when it is above 85 degrees or below 65 degrees unless they have been slowly acclimated to those temperatures over several days or weeks. If it is particularly sunny outside, don’t place your birds in direct sunlight – even if there is a cover over part of their cage. Instead, place your birds in partial shade and cover part of the cage, as direct sunlight creates a spike in temperature that can quickly harm your birds. The same is true for rain and wind: both will quickly stress your birds and chill them. Skip outside time in the case of unfavorable weather.
Do: Always Supervise Your Bird
If your birds are spending time outside, they must always, always be directly supervised. Wild birds and outside cats pose a threat to your birds even when properly caged, as they can attack and spread disease through cage bars and mesh. Outside time must be time spent with your birds: speak to them, read beside them, enjoy your coffee as you sit near them. If you must go inside, even for a moment, bring your birds and enclosure inside with you.
Don’t: Forget About Other Hazards
Before taking your birds outside, observe the area in which they will spend outside time and make sure there are no hazards. Smoke from cigarettes or a nearby barbeque, fumes from sprays or fresh paint, or lawn treatments can quickly make your bird sick. Wild plants should not be in reach. Overhanging trees can contain birds that can spread parasites and disease if their droppings fall in the cage. The cage can fall if placed on an unsecured surface. Make a mental checklist of any potential hazards and always err on the side of caution.
Do: Keep Your Bird Comfortable
While properly introduced birds surely benefit from being outside on a beautiful day, alleviating boredom and enjoying the health and mood enhancing effects of broad-spectrum light, you must keep in mind that the sudden change in environment can be frightening. Introduce your birds to the outdoors with a cover over the back, top, and sides of their cage so they don’t feel too exposed. As you bring them outside, walk slowly and talk to them gently as you explain that they are coming outside to enjoy the beautiful day. If your birds panic when you bring them outside, calmly reassure them and slowly bring them inside and place then by a window or open door – you may need to slowly introduce the concept of being outside. When outside, observe your birds’ behaviors. If they cower, shiver, scream, or try to hide, gently reassure them and be prepared to bring them inside if they don’t acclimate within a few minutes. Chances are, with preparation and reassurance, your birds will delight in spending time in nature just as much as you do.
Birds as Meditation
by Mariah Hughes
Life can be challenging. The world is increasingly fast-paced and complicated. The landscape that we attempt to navigate for ourselves and our loved ones is rapidly changing. In the hustle and stress of day-to-day life, it is easy to lose sight of ourselves. Days run together and the weight of the world becomes daunting when we forget to stop, breathe, relax, and practice mindfulness. Some mornings, I open my eyes – often, before the sun has risen – and feel a deep tiredness wash over me, trying to pull me back in to the comfort and safety of sleep. I fold in to myself, my baby stirring in the other room, and hug my knees to my chest. Some mornings, the weight of the world feels like too much. I don’t want to read the news, drive the car, pay the bills, clean the house – but something beautiful cuts through the groggy dawn each and every day: birdsong.
When the baby is fed and cooing in his swing, the coffee is made, and the early-morning chores are done, I carefully remove the dusky-sky print cover from my cockatiel’s cage, sweetly saying “Good morning, beautiful birds. Did you sleep well?” I open each cage and speak to my companions softly, watching as they leave their cages and commune in their favorite spots. One bird offers her head to be scratched, and I gladly scratch her cheeks with the tips of my fingers, marveling at the detail in her feathers. I carefully offer food dishes and millet sprays. I gently mist them with warm water. When caring for birds, it is always gentle, soft, quiet, careful. Always mindful.
On the days where I’m in a rush and can’t seem to catch my breath, I have no choice but to pause and practice mindfulness – my birds wait impatiently to be released from their cages, pacing and whistling. On the days where I can’t seem to unplug and unwind, once again, my birds serve as a gentle reminder to step back and enjoy the little things. Birds are just that: little beings that inspire clarity and peacefulness in their very nature. This idea is not novel: Bob Marley’s mention of “three little birds”, Bukowski’s “Bluebird (in my heart)”, and Emily Dickenson’s suggestion that “to help a fainting robin / into her nest again / I shall not live in vain” all touch on the notion that birds are symbols of hope, love, and peace.
Birds can be a form of walking meditation if you strive to find a sense of centeredness in caring for them. Play your favorite music softly and observe how the music effects their movements and mood. On warm days, open a window and, to the delight of your feathered companions, bring the smell of fresh air and sunshine into your home. If you have a bird that will let you touch them, relish in the unique experience of holding a bird on your finger – note their weight and the palpable energy running though their slender legs, look closely at their intricate, delicate feathers, listen closely for their breath, and take great care to find their absolute favorite ways to be scratched. If your bird won’t let you hold them, hold a millet spray in your hand and find delight in the fact that a bird trusts you enough to eat from your hand. Watch as your bird flies and hops from perch to perch as if your home contains your own personal rainforest. Listen to their songs and allow them to transport you to somewhere wild, free, and uncomplicated. In this fast-paced, complicated, troubling world, you – the lucky owner of a bird – have the astute privilege of having your very own master of meditation in your home. Look and listen very closely each and every day: they are trying to teach you lessons that are more important now than ever before.
The Bourke’s Parrot
by Mariah Hughes
The Bourke’s Parrot – also known as the Bourke, Bourke’s Parakeet, pink-bellied parrot, blue vented parakeet, or sundown parrot – is a nomadic parakeet that thrives across the diverse landscapes of Australia. These small, diurnal, pink-and-brown birds can be observed in tight-knit flocks anywhere from eucalyptus forests to dry scrubland to harsh cityscapes, but their preferred habitat is arid scrub. In captivity, they are rapidly gaining popularity, largely thanks to the stunning, bubblegum-pink color of the opaline (or “rosy”) mutation and others like it. Aviculturists who have had the privilege of bringing a Bourke in to their home seem to have one thing in common: whether their first Bourke was a hand-fed companion or an aviary specimen, they remain captivated by these quiet, gentle, intelligent birds.
Bourke’s Parrot in the Wild
The Bourke’s Parrot is a unique species, not only due to their behaviors, but also taxonomically. Bourkes – formally referred to as Neopsephotus bourkii – are the only member of their genus, having been classified as a member of Neophema (all grass parakeets) until recent years. Bourke’s Parrot came to be classified as its own unique genus after it was concluded that, unlike other members of Neophema, the Bourke cannot cross-breed with any other species of grass parakeet. Their unique genetic distinction from similar bird species in their home range arises from their equally unique behaviors.
Bourkes are diurnal, gentle, quiet birds that fly and forage in small flocks of five to fifteen birds. Few Australian hookbills favor dawn and dusk, and fewer still subscribe to no set territory, allowing the Bourke to remain relatively isolated from other species. This preponderance for early morning and evening means very little competition from larger bird species or predators, and this has enabled Bourkes to adopt a passive, peaceful nature. During their dawn and dusk foraging sessions – which often involve traveling several miles across unfamiliar territory – Bourkes seek out seeds, grasses, small insects, and young, sprouted plants, which account for the vast majority of their dietary liquids. Highly adapted to drought and always traveling great distances in search of food, wild Bourkes have no need for access to permanent bodies of fresh water, which, over many generations, has further isolated them as a species.
Bourke’s Parrots also have unique reproduction habits. Bourkes are monogamous in nature, raising clutches of 3 to 6 young in nests within the rotted pits of low-lying trees year after year. Eggs are incubated for only about 18 days and young usually fledge within a month. Preferred nesting sites generally do not compete with the nesting sites that other birds prefer, further enabling the Bourke to remain peaceful and undisturbed while incubating and raising chicks. Predators like snakes and invasive feral cats are subjected to uncharacteristic aggression from male Bourkes as they defend their nesting sites, partners, and young – a survival technique brought on by a surge of hormones at the beginning of each breeding season. With a particularly broad wingspan relative to their 8-inch long bodies, chicks are strong flyers. Their striking, large eyes give them acute low-light vision, well adapted to their diurnal lifestyle.
As young birds, all wild Bourke’s Parrots are brown with a pinkish belly and breast and a blue rump. As they mature, they exhibit sexual dimorphism – the males become visually different from females, as they develop blue feathers on their crowns. They form complex, lifelong bonds with their flock mates: wild pairs have been observed spending the duration of their lives, which last up to 25 years, side by side.
Bourkes as Pets
Bourkes are, despite the ease with which they breed in captivity, a relatively unknown, widely unattainable species among bird owners and breeders. Most Bourke owners seem to have found their beloved “Bourkies” after becoming introduced via interest in some other species. Private aviaries – not pet stores – are the most common source of pet Bourkes in the United States. Despite the fact that they are somewhat unpopular, those that do know Bourkes are deeply devoted to them, their care, and education about the species.
Bourke owners (most easily found in their highly supportive, informative Facebook group – “Bourke’s Parakeet Fan Club”) are eager to sing their praises: they describe their birds as sweet, gentle, musical, and charming. Their song is passive and particularly quiet, similar to “distant rainforest sounds”, and even a small flock of Bourkes is quiet enough for apartment living. They thrive on a diet of high-quality seed, fresh fruits and vegetables, boiled eggs, and sprouted seed. They are gentle and passive, making them ideal additions to peaceful flocks, but more aggressive or busy species like budgies may bully or even kill Bourkes when left unattended.
Untamed aviary specimens are skilled flyers and are prized for their mellow, quiet nature and singing that “brings the outside in”. Hand-fed Bourkes make wonderful pets, as they are not aggressive or needy but rather prefer to casually enjoy perching on a shoulder, listen to human speech, or just sit near their human companion. Generally, they are said to not enjoy being scratched or touched, but there are always exceptions. They come in a variety of mutations: “rosy”, or opaline, is the most well-known, as it produces a stunning, bright pink bird. Other common colors include lutino (which produces a bright pink and yellow bird), and modifiers that produce more yellow, green, or blue coloration.
Bourkes love to fly and perform aerial acrobatics, so they must be kept in as large a cage as possible and permitted as much cage-free time as possible. They are not skilled beak climbers and prefer to fly or hop from perch to perch. They are not known to bite, but are capable of doing damage if they choose to do so. They should be handled frequently to maintain their pet quality. When properly cared for, Bourkes can comfortably live for over 20 years. Their peaceful nature, unobtrusive singing, and unique appearance has earned them a rapidly growing following of loving, devoted fans – for these blushing, gentle birds, love really is in the air.
The Mystery of North America’s Lost Parrot
by Mariah Hughes
The Carolina Parakeet, or, more accurately, the Carolina Conure – conuropsis carolinesis – is the subject of nearly 100 years of intrigue among scientists and bird enthusiasts. Once endemic to an expansive range sweeping from New York to the Great Lakes to Colorado to Texas, the Golf of Mexico, and Florida, they inhabited the northernmost territory of any known parrot species. In the mid-1800s, massive, thriving flocks of over 300 birds were observed across their entire natural range. By 1900, they would be confined to the swamps of central Florida. By 1910, the very last wild Carolina Conure was observed by naturalists, and eight years later, on February 21st, 1918, the last captive specimen passed away. The species was declared officially extinct in 1938, its rapid disappearance never to be completely understood.
Original natural range
North America’s Wild Parrot
Although the first documented accounts of Carolina Parakeets are found in the letters of Spanish explorers as they traveled the coast of southern Florida in 1583, the species was well known and revered by Native Americans for centuries before colonists landed in the Americas. Not only did each tribe within the Conures’ natural range likely have at least one word for the birds – they also had an intimate understanding of their behavior that was, unfortunately, never formally recorded and, thus, lost with their extinction. The Chiksaw, who referred to the Carolina Parakeet as “kelinky”, puzzled settlers by refusing to hunt or eat the birds despite the damage their thriving flocks caused to crops and foraging grounds. Moreover, the Chiksaw protected the flocks that habitated their home range, leaving food for them and driving away predators that pestered or harmed them. It took several hundred years for colonists to record the fact that cats would pass away after eating a Carolina Conure. The Chiksaw, along with other tribes, had observed America’s only parrot species engaging in a behavior that was totally novel, not only for American birds, but for parrots as a whole: they gorged themselves on highly poisonous cocklebur seeds, rendering their flesh toxic.
Due to a combination of a lack of interest in conservation before the 20th century, the rapid extermination of the native American peoples who thoroughly understood their native fauna, and the birds’ preponderance for devouring entire crops in a matter of hours, little is known about the Carolina Parakeet beyond what preserved specimens, illustrations, and a handful of written accounts provide. Overall, Conuropsis carolinesis was very similar, both in color and stature, to a Sun Conure. On average, these brightly colored birds were 13 inches tall, weighed 10 ounces, and had a wingspan of about 22 inches. Juveniles were entirely green, their yellow, orange, and red plumage appearing with age. Little is known for certain about their reproduction, but they likely cared for 2 – 5 young in rotting trees along the banks of rivers and lakes, as well as swamps and wetlands. One couple of birds, captured as adults long before people knew how to properly feed and house captive birds, lived for 35 years in captivity, so they likely lived very long lives. They flew in noisy, erratic flocks of up to 300 individuals, their calls able to be heard from over 3 miles away across flat, open land. Other than poisonous cocklebur seeds, the Carolina Conure seemed to enjoy a diet typical to parrots: nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, grasses, and greens. Flocks were known to destroy acres of farm land in a matter of hours and would return again and again once a reliable food source was found, making them a common source of discontent for farmer
JJ Audubon[/caption]JJ Audubon
Conuropsis carolinesis was the bane of farmers across the early United States, earning the species the reputation of being “pests”. Birds were shot and poisoned in massive numbers to prevent irreparable damage to important food sources. Nesting grounds were cleared for logging, settlement, or simply burned. Juveniles were removed from nests and kept as pets. Adult birds were hunted for their brightly colored plumage. J. J. Audubon noted a marked decline in Carolina Parakeet numbers in his notes in 1832, but in the 1860’s, soldiers fighting in the American Civil War detailed massive flocks of parrots in their letters home. In 1896, large flocks were still observed with fledglings across the deep south – but by 1900, there would be a curious lack of parrot activity across the United States. In 1904, the only confirmed sightings of the Carolina Conure were in inland swamps in Florida and, occasionally, Georgia. Their decline was far too rapid for the usual subjects – deforestation, hunting, and the pet trade – to be what caused tens thousands of birds to disappear within less than a tenth of their natural life expectancy. Something else was killing America’s only parrot, and by the time naturalists took interest in their rapid decline, it would be far too late to preserve the species.
On February 21st, 1918, eight years after the last confirmed sighting of a wild Carolina Parakeet, the last captive specimen – a male bird named Incas – passed away in the Cincinnati Zoo. The final member of Conuropsis carolinesis died in the same cage that Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died in four years earlier. The species would not be officially declared extinct until 1938. The cause of the rapid extinction of North America’s only parrot would never be known, but the most commonly accepted explanation is that they succumbed to a disease that rapidly spread through their huge, highly social flocks, the few individuals that survived incapable of replacing their numbers after marked territory loss coupled with the stress of the sudden disassembly of their complex social structures.
Legacy of the Lost Parrot
Conservation efforts have grown enormously since the time of the Carolina Parakeet. The late 19th and early 20th century was an era of conservation that yielded more to human curiosity than to efforts to preserve the lives of animals or species as a whole. This “Teddy Roosevelt” style of “conservation” provided a great deal of beautifully preserved specimens, which were hunted, stuffed, and mounted as a means of “bringing nature to the people”. Some specimens of the Carolina Parakeet are so well preserved that the scientific community has recently announced that there is enough genetic material to bring the species back from extinction through cloning. The prospect of bringing species back from extinction, aided by the shortsighted methods of early naturalists, is exciting – but what about modern American bird species on the brink of extinction and their battles with the same forces that eliminated the Carolina Conure?
The fate of Conuropsis carolinesis may have been more favorable had the habitats they clung to in their rapid decline – wetlands and swamps, particularly those in close proximity to human settlements – been protected. These habitats provide bird species an oasis among the hardships associated with life among human beings, as they are, no matter how small, a complete and diverse biome for an expansive array of both plant and animal species. In these marshy ecosystems, undisturbed by human activity, plant species that will grow nowhere else can thrive despite being separated from more expansive bodies of water. The protection of tangled limbs and low-lying vegetation provides an ideal location to raise vulnerable young. Fresh water abounds, even in drought. Unfortunately, humans, in their drive to build and expand their settlements, tend to destroy wetlands, believing them to be useless. Fortunately, revolutionary conservationists and developers have introduced a means of protecting vulernable wildlife while enriching the lives of those in urban areas: urban wetlands.
Preserved specimen, Chicago Field Museum
Through the protection, implementation, and advocacy of urban wetlands, water runoff – once destined for underground sewers – can be sustainably purified by bacteria, flora, and natural filtration. Algae and rapidly-growing wetland plants can purify the air. Areas prone to flooding can be protected by the natural “sponge” of marshy land. Bird species that are struggling, much like the Carolina Parakeet, can find refuge from the concrete jungle on a small piece of earth that mirrors what much of the United States looked like before expansion and human development. The Carolina Parakeet is long gone, a victim of forces far beyond its control, but there are countless other, equally beautiful species that are clinging to life in a rapidly changing landscape. To picture a raucous flock of parrots in Atlanta, or Indianapolis, or Nashville, is to picture the surreal – but it didn’t have to be this way. Only with many small efforts can something big – like World Wetlands Day, February 2nd – become reality. With efforts to change the American landscape to be more sustainable and cohesive to life for both people and animals, we can be a part of an America where no species, each and every one as beautiful and fascinating as the Carolina Parakeet, becomes a victim of extinction again.
To learn more about World Wetlands Day, visit www.worldwetlandsday.org
Budgie on Board: How Flapjack Learned to Skate
by Mariah Hughes
Flapjack, my four month old budgie, was unusually mellow for a parent-raised bird from day one. After years of breeding budgies and rehabbing both wild birds and domestic parrots, Flapjack was the most trusting parent-raised bird I’ve had the privilege of owning. When I reached in to his cage to give him a spray of millet just hours after bringing him home, he hopped on to my hand and happily snacked away. Within two days, he was stepping up when asked and approaching me of his own volition. Naturally, I soon found myself browsing through listings on Amazon in search of a budgie-sized skateboard, eager to test Flapjack’s trainability and my ability to train him.
When the skateboard — specifically marketed as a skateboard for birds — arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by how sturdy and appropriate it seemed. It was large enough that Flapjack could easily spread his entire foot across the deck, which was covered in lightly textured paper. The wheels made no jarring movements or sounds. I introduced it to him by placing it in my hand with a spray of millet underneath, lifting him with my other hand to be at eye level with the board. Flapjack nibbled at the millet after only a few moments of hesitation, then made a couple thoughtful jabs at the board before returning to the millet.
Next, I introduced the concept of standing on the board by holding it at Flapjack’s chest and asking him to step up. He hesitated for a few moments, eyeing the board, but stepped up anyway. I immediately gave him millet and lavishly praised him. We practiced “step up” with the skateboard for several short sessions, always with millet and plenty of praise. Flapjack quickly began associating the skateboard with treats and praise and showed visible excitement whenever I showed it to him, chirping, pacing, and hopping. His understanding that standing on his skateboard was an enjoyable experience let me know that he was ready to start the next step of his training.
I wanted Flapjack to be able, eventually, to walk across a surface and step on to his skateboard — ideally after I gave him a special vocal command. The logical first step was to get him comfortable with jumping from my finger to the skateboard on a flat surface. I took him to my kitchen counter and placed the skateboard about three inches from the edge, towels on either side because I wasn’t sure if it would immediately begin rolling when he hopped on to it. Here, I held him with the skateboard at chest height and said, in a cheerful, clear voice, “let’s shred!” Flapjack didn’t budge — he just glanced up at me, looking a little concerned. I held a chunk of millet behind the board and repeated, “let’s shred!” He hopped right on, and the board didn’t budge. I let him nibble on the millet as I praised him. I then offered him my finger, and we practiced this same command over several quick training sessions. Occasionally, I would move the board farther away.
The moment came where Flapjack would need to walk to get to the skateboard, which was positioned about a foot away on the kitchen counter. He had been faultlessly performing “let’s shred!”, but when he realized he would need to walk to the board, he became self-conscious and feigned disinterest in the game he had been eagerly playing for several days. I realized that I couldn’t even get him to step on the kitchen counter – he would scurry up my arm when I pushed the issue. His fear of walking on the kitchen counter puzzled me until my husband suggested that the counter may be too slippery for Flapjack to be comfortable walking on it. Sure enough, when I placed a thin, flat blanket (actually one of my daughter’s old burping cloths) on the counter, he craned his neck to look dramatically at the floral-print fabric, then promptly shuffled over to his little skateboard, adjusted it with his beak, and hopped on.
Flapjack now performs “let’s shred!” effortlessly – wherever the skateboard is placed, he enthusiastically makes his way to it and hops on board. I credit this to a simple, effective combination of short, frequent training sessions and constant positive reinforcement (as well as Flapjack’s easygoing nature). When Flapjack showed any distraction or disinterest, the skateboard was removed. When he showed any fear, I backed off and continued where he was last comfortable. The entirety of his training took place over the course of about three days. With patience, sensitivity, and millet, Flapjack learned to perform – and enjoy – his first real trick.
Of course, not every bird is as trusting, eager, or trainable as Flapjack. Even if your bird is extremely tame and food motivated, it is perfectly reasonable for him or her to be frightened or unsure when presented with a foreign object – let alone when they are expected to step on that object. Birds are, after all, highly intelligent individuals. The truth of the matter is, training a bird is a matter of respect and patience. Your success relies less upon skill and more upon the comfort and trust established between you and your bird. Moreover, your bird – possessing free will and a complex personality – may decide that he or she simply doesn’t want to step on a skateboard. This is why training a bird is so rewarding: it is a privilege to have the trusting, understanding relationship that is required to successfully train your pet – especially when that pet could easily fly away when presented with a challenge. Expect nothing of your bird when you begin the training process and instead expect more of yourself. Your bird is not obligated to do as it is asked. You, however, are obligated to be patient, consistent, and compassionate if you hope to have the love, trust, and, especially, trainability, of your feathered companion.
Depression in Pet Birds
by Mariah Hughes
Depression is, in the most basic understanding, a psychological condition in which a series of “feel good” hormones fail to do their jobs for any number of reasons. Despite the common perception that depression is a “human illness”, or, moreover, not an illness at all, depression has the ability to affect any sentient being. In birds, many common and often chronic conditions – over grooming, anorexia, shrieking, aggression, and more – are often (if not usually) a symptom of an underlying issue that has caused psychological stress and, ultimately, depression. Birds are especially susceptible to the effects of depression, as they are highly intelligent and require a great deal of mental stimulation to thrive in the unnatural setting that is a human home.
Symptoms of Depression
Birds, like humans, have a wide range of remarkably complex personalities. Some birds will display unmistakable symptoms that are widely understood to accompany depression, while others will mask their discomfort and express it only through subtle changes in behavior. In all cases, long-term psychological stress can, unabated, result in secondary issues. This, along with your responsibility to provide the best care you possibly can to your feathered family member, is why it is important to understand and learn to recognize the symptoms of depression in birds, whether they be obvious or more subtle.
To someone who is experienced with birds and is familiar with their behavior, a “textbook” example of a depressed bird is obvious. To a less experienced owner, these symptoms can be mysterious and troubling. Birds who are suffering from depression often:
- are sedentary, disinterested in toys, or usually sleeping
- frequently scream, screech, or make distressed noises
- often appear fearful or distressed
- pluck, over groom, or fail to care for their plumage
- act uncharacteristically aggressive
Any one or combination of these symptoms is concerning and warrants a checkup by a qualified avian vet to rule out illnesses that can also cause these issues. In the event that the bird has a clean bill of health coupled with unusual behavior, depression is likely the cause. Less obvious potential symptoms include:
- frequent night frights or bouts of terror
- disinterest in treats and / or most foods
- obesity or anorexia
- failing to properly care for offspring
- disinterest in leaving the cage
- any chronic, obsessive, problematic behavior
While these issues are not always symptomatic of depression, they are often caused by stress or are adopted during times of great stress and, thus, often accompany depression.
The Ideal Environment for a Happy Bird
To understand what causes depression in pet birds, you must first understand the ideal environment that any commonly kept bird – wild or domestic – lives in. Pet birds are not truly domesticated but are, rather, wild animals that have been adapted to life in captivity. It makes sense that a captive bird would have similar needs to a wild bird and that creative solutions can be found to adapt your home and lifestyle to the needs of a domestic bird.
The ideal environment for a bird is, over all:
- safe (or perceived to be safe) – protected from the elements and dangerous or frightening animals, housed in a secure cage, always approached slowly and with respect for the bird’s boundaries, free from loud, distressing sounds whenever possible
- engaging – given ample opportunity to engage in a wide variety of stimulating activities, including playing with diverse toys, flying freely in a large flight cage or safe room, and socializing with a bonded human, other bird, or both
- reliable – fresh food and water is always available, the cage is uncovered and covered at relatively regular times, the home is relatively quiet but not always empty, socialization is frequent
- comfortable – roomy, bright, free from extreme temperatures, and clean, with special attention being payed to the bird’s health and special needs.
These are less ideals and more requirements for a psychologically healthy bird. Wild birds fly freely, searching for food, problem solving, and socializing for the entirety of their days. While pet birds can be easily and thoroughly entertained to the point at which they thrive in their domestic environments, it is equally easy to accidentally fail to provide an essential component to your bird’s mental wellbeing – or to be faced with obstacles outside of your control that make keeping your bird happy more challenging.
Common Causes of Depression and Their Solutions
Bird keeping poses a unique challenge – a highly intelligent, tropical animal that needs to be able to fly is being kept in a home and needs to be supplemented with light, socialization, toys, and the space to fly. Because of their unique needs, there are several common causes of depression that can be easily identified and, usually, easily remedied.
Boredom: The most common cause of depression in pet birds is, undoubtedly, boredom. Well-meaning owners purchase a small selection of toys and assume that their bird will be satisfied with them as they occupy the same space in their cage for months on end. Others underestimate the need for diverse play opportunities and provide too few toys. If your bird is exhibiting signs of depression and you haven’t provided a wide variety of toys that are frequently moved around the cage and play area, this may be the cause. Try purchasing new toys that fill a variety of needs – a foraging toy, a shredding toy, a toy that makes sounds, an edible toy – and moving old toys to new locations. Remember to rotate toys frequently. Birds who are over grooming, acting aggressively, or being sedentary are especially likely to benefit from the introduction of new toys. Toys that provide the opportunity to shred, tear, and pluck at different textures are especially well-received by a great deal of parrot species.
Lack of Space / Inability to Fly: Unfortunately, another common cause of depression in birds is a lack of room to stretch their wings and fly. Birds are cramped into small, convenient cages in which they don’t have the ability to fly freely and flap their wings more than a few times without needing to land, resulting in frustration, discomfort, excess energy, and eventually, stress behaviors and depression. Tame birds kept in any cage – but especially those kept in relatively small cages – should be given as much out-of-cage time as possible each and every day so that they may fly and explore their environment. Those that are not tame enough to safely fly about a room in your home must be provided with a flight cage that enables them to fly without the risk of hitting their heads or wings on perches or cage bars. A cage that is too small, coupled with a bird that isn’t given cage-free time, often results in a sedentary, obese, aggressive, agitated bird that is excessively protective of its cage. Clipped birds may also suffer from depression, as their drive to fly remains unsatisfied and they become frustrated and bored – for this reason, a clipped bird must be provided with a fall-safe play area until their flight feathers grow back.
Lack of Light: This cause of depression is easy to overlook – while you may be comfortable with the lighting in your home, your bird would naturally live in an area in which natural sunlight is abundant were it a wild bird. Broad spectrum light, be it through an open window or a special lamp designed for growing plants or lighting animals, is important for your bird’s emotional wellbeing. A dimly lit environment is a surefire means of causing depression in birds. The area in which the cage is kept should be as bright as a sunny day in natural sunlight and must be supplemented with cool, indirect light in a bird-safe lamp if it is not (broad spectrum bulbs are readily available online, at pet stores, and in home supply stores). Birds who exhibit a state of malaise or disinterest will greatly benefit from improved light quality, and a spot near a draft-free window can provide a great deal of mental stimulation and, if a secure screen is in place, natural, unfiltered light through the opened window.
Loneliness: Birds are highly social. In the wild, they develop numerous complex, lifelong relationships that fulfil their need for frequent social interaction. Birds are also extremely fond of being touched and groomed, and pairs of birds greatly enjoy preening one another as a means of comfort and bonding. When a bird is both untamed and solitary, its mental health quickly declines as its need for social interaction, understanding, and physical touch is neglected – this is why solitary birds often “fall in love” with their mirrors, becoming obsessed, protective, and sedentary as they spend hour after hour gazing at their reflections. Solitary hand tamed birds also experience loneliness when their owner, who serves as their surrogate life partner, neglects to touch them and speak to them each and every day. Unless a bird is being handled and spoken to numerous times a day, a properly introduced, compatible partner is the best way to make sure that your pet is not suffering from loneliness. The loss of a bonded partner, be it a human or avian friend, also inspires depression and should be remedied by frequent attention and replacing the lost partner (preferably, with a partner of the same species and sex). If your bird is tame or you are working on taming your bird, make spending as much time as possible with your bird a priority. The more time spent with a solitary bird, the more readily your bird will accept you as a member of their flock and the less likely they will suffer from the psychological repercussions of a lack of social interaction.
Stress: Birds are easily stressed – some much more so than others. An unsuitable environment (such as a chilly room or a filthy cage), frequent visits from a predator species (such as a cat), or a great deal of loud noise can all cause stress behaviors and depression. Plucking is a classic sign of stress, but other signs include screaming, thrashing about in the cage, refusing to eat, and aggression. If you live in a home that may be exerting undue stress on your pet bird, consider moving their cage to a quiet area that is free from whatever stressor may be present. Visit the quiet area often and read to your bird or speak softly to it. Play soft, rhythmic music for your bird when you are away. In some situations, such as frequent stalking by a predator species pet or another bird, forbidding contact between the stressed bird and the stressor may be the only means of comforting your bird and fixing the problem.
Illness: When all of your bird’s needs are met and they continue to act disinterested, tired, agitated, or otherwise, unhappy, a thorough checkup is absolutely necessary to ensure that your bird isn’t suffering from an undiagnosed ailment. Pain from injuries or arthritis can be stressful, but are easily remedied by changes in cage setup and pain relief methods. Parasites can be readily diagnosed by testing fecal matter, skin scrapings, or blood samples. Nutrient deficiencies can be diagnosed and addressed through shots, supplements, or changes in diet. Most health issues can be remedied by a qualified avian vet, readying your pet bird for many years of health and happiness.
If you suspect that your bird may be suffering from depression, make an appointment with your vet to rule out health issues that you may be overlooking. After assuring that your pet is injury and disease free, investigate their environment. Imagine a day in your bird’s life from their perspective. More often than not, an agitated, angry, sedentary, unhappy bird can easily be inspired to thrive in a captive environment with only a few small tweaks to their daily routine, cage, and overall environment.
Welcome to our Newest Writer – Mariah Hughes!
BirbObserver is excited to introduce our newest writer, Mariah Hughes to our blog flock! Mariah and Linda (Quarkybirdy) will be providing unique perspectives on different birb species, their special needs, bird rehabilitation, and other info on raising and living with birbs!
Mariah is a stay at home mom, bird owner, and rehabber. She studied English at Indiana Univeristy and spends much of her free time writing essays and short stories about her experiences working with wild and domestic birds. She has two birds – a cockatiel named Babazee, and Flapjack the budgie. Welcome Mariah!
“Try a Little Tenderness”
by Mariah Hughes
It was an already sweltering Sunday morning in June when I stepped into my mother’s empty garage to retrieve a jug of water. This house – a tall, modern farmhouse nestled in the middle of the sweeping southern Indiana farmland – seems always to be at odds with the forces of nature, standing sturdily against the onslaught of springtime’s wind and hail, serving as a pillar on which swallows build their generations-used nests, waking every morning entangled in dew-laden spiderwebs soon to be abandoned due to relentless sun. On this morning, the two small, square garage windows were entwined in haphazard spider webs that gently stirred in the nearly still morning air, as they faced the opressive sun. A loud buzzing eminated from one of the windows, causing me to fetch the water jug with haste, as I am allergic to bees. A hornet sting at this far-off house could be disastrous.
As I stepped back through the assertively chilly threshold of the house, the buzzing faltered oddly. I stood, half inside, and listened to the momentary silence. The buzzing began again, stopped, and an almost inaudible squeaking began to occupy the space between. I closed the door as I carefully stepped back toward the webbed window. There, something larger than a hornet formed a straining silhouette against the summer sun.
A hummingbird, thickly wrapped in webbing, hung upside down by her feet on the other side of the glass. One delicate wing hung limp above her head, the other was held close to her body by the sturdy silk. She hung there, troubled eyes wide, for a moment, then beat her wings furiously before emitting several delicate squawks in futile protest. I sat down my jug of water and quickly stepped outside through the open garage door, paddling delicately across the gravel on my swollen, maternal feet.
Removing the hummingbird was easy: she was exhausted, so she watched me curiously as I cradled her tiny body in one hand and snapped the thick web that suspended her with the other. She stopped struggling, either aware from her frequenting my mother’s many feeders that humans meant her no harm or resolved to her fate at the hands of a giant.
Untangling her was more difficult. I sat on the back porch, overlooking alfalfa fields that had gone to flower, the beetle-green bird laying on her back and wrapped protectively in my palm as my daughter played happily unaware in the wet morning grass. Her right wing was thickly wrapped in silk, her slender beak held nearly shut, her minute legs, feet, and toes – no larger than the thorn on a rose – were so thoroughly tangled that they were simply a mass of web. With a sweep of my finger, I removed the web from her beak, to which she responded by turning her head to me and staring at me thoughtfully. She blinked and held her eyes partway open, clearly tired, and I noticed with a passive delight that she had eyelashes. Next I set to work on her legs, using the tip of my pinky and saliva to gently push what I could from her skin. I picked delicately at her toes with my fingernails, careful not to cut her skin, as I shot quick glances at Hazel as she splashed in a small, plastic pool. I stepped inside to make a cup of coffee and saw to my amazement that I’d been working on the tiny bird for an hour and fifteen minutes. Still, one foot was held shut in a small, painful looking “fist”. I stepped back outside and set to work on the next.
When her feet were finished, I finally untangled her wing with the gentleness one might employ when touching a fine piece of glass. I found that I was sweating as I pushed silk off of he shining, perfect, all-important flight feathers. As I pushed one of the last bits of silk from her wing, she turned herself over and stood on my hand as if to say you’ve done enough, I’m free. But still, she didn’t fly. I carried her to a hummingbird feeder, freshly filled with sugar water, and held her before the flower-shaped holes. Again she cocked her head at me and fluttered her eyelashes. Then, she drank. And drank. And drank. For several minutes, she drank deeply and stopped only to breathe – to my amazement, I could hear the most delicate little gasps for air, like a puff of breeze escaping from under an oak leaf. At last, she stopped and began to preen her wing feathers.
I held her into the air and snapped a photo just before she chattered at me and departed, floating lightly into a stirring breeze.
As I watched her fly away, I felt as if nature itself had sent me a message of tenderness. This was an occasion in which gentleness and patience were the deciding line between the tiny heart I could feel racing in my palm and its stopping – a broken foot, a slipped wing feather, an injured beak, and this tiny creature would have perished. With my hands so massive and fumbling compared to this tiny being, I ensured her life: even more, I ensured the lives of her children, their children, and more. This delicate bird was likely harvesting spider webs to build a nest when she fell in harm’s way. It was curiosity and tenderness that saved her in a world that encourages haste and callousness. In this world of money and war and inconceivable loss, the female ruby-throated-hummingbird may not really matter – or maybe it matters more than it ever has before to use our hands for righting even the smallest wrongs so we may send joy floating like a feather into the summer air.