This article was previously published in Bird Breeder magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Asking for Advice and Sharing Information
by Laurella Desborough
Asking for Advice
Most of us who keep and breed birds feel the need to seek advice from other bird owners from time to time. Unless the advisor is personally known to us, the advice, if followed, may be of little use or even harmful. Advice should be followed with caution. What are our concerns with advice? If we are asking about the behavior or needs of breeding pairs, does the advisor have one pair, two pairs or many pairs on which he or she bases the advice? How many years has the person been working with the species? Two years, five years or 10 years? Time and experience with a number of pairs of one particular species makes a great difference in the understanding of the species' behavior. Individual birds behave differently with different mates and under different circumstances.
Are the birds housed indoors or in outdoor flights? Are pairs of the same species in the next flights or is the pair next to different species? What about cage furniture? What kinds of perches are used, and where are they located? Are there any toys in the flights? Where are food bowls placed? What are the ingredients in the diet? How much is fed daily and at what time of day? What is the age of the pair in question? Younger than 5 years? Older than 5 years? How long have they been together? What is the pair behavior? Are the birds wild-caught or domestic-raised? When we ask for advice on our birds, answers to these questions are helpful to the advisor and set the stage for a more comprehensive answer.
Information Sheets For Clients
Clients who have not previously owned a bird greatly appreciate printed sheets with information and are most likely to read them carefully prior to or upon first acquiring the bird. Some pet bird owners may have several birds, but without benefit of transition information. It is important that we who sell birds give some sound advice on settling the bird into its new home.
First, caging should be correct for the species in terms of size and perches. Perches should be useful for the bird, not only for perching but also for working their beaks to keep them properly shaped. Inform new bird owners that they should expect to change perches when one is destroyed. Also, they need to know that they should scrub the perch at least weekly because the bird will clean its beak on the perch.
Locate the cage with its back next to a wall in order to increase the bird's feeling of security. Cages placed in the middle of a room can cause stress in birds. Cover the cage at night if the cage is in a room where the occupants stay late into the night.
Daily food content, and amount and placement of the food dishes is critical for the successful transition of a new bird into a new environment. When the young parrot is placed in a new cage, it will select a place to perch that feels most comfortable, most probably the highest perch. Food and water dishes must be placed next to this chosen spot so that the dishes are easily accessible, i.e., the bird just has to reach down and pick up food. People unfamiliar with the strong instincts for preservation in birds may not fully appreciate the young bird's need to seek the highest point. I have known of new bird owners who placed food bowls on the bottom of the cage and wondered why the birds did not go down to feed. Birds that fail to eat sufficient amounts will become thin, weakened and vulnerable to bacteria.
Even adult birds, when placed in a new cage or flight, may refuse to go down from a high perch to a lower level to feed. Place the food bowls right next to the highest perch, at least until the bird passes through the anxiety of the transition period.
The daily diet should contain foods that are the same as those the bird is used to eating, prepared in the same fashion, i.e., sliced or diced in similar sized pieces, sprouted, etc. The new owner should be given an information sheet detailing information on the diet. New foods can be offered after a few weeks when the bird is well-settled. It is not advisable to change the diet at the time a bird is moved into a new cage. Even the color of the food or water bowl can be disturbing to a bird in transition. If a bird is used to a stainless steel bowl, bright red or yellow ceramic or plastic dishes can be frightening. For young birds, bowl shape is also important; wide shallow bowls are preferred over narrow deep bowls. Otherwise young birds tend to drop foods outside the bowl and cannot retrieve it.
Moving Breeding Pairs
Depending on the species, it can be extremely critical to place a pair in a cage or flight sufficiently large to accommodate the species. This cage size is not based on the size of the bird, but rather on the species pair behavior and needs. Successful cockatoo breeders report that their birds are most productive in long flights (15 or more feet long).
The male is less likely to successfully catch and harm the female in such a long flight. Cockatoo breeders in Australia and other countries where the birds are housed in large flights do not report the type of fatalities related to aggression during the breeding season. Therefore, it is very important that the seller inform the buyer of the size and type of cage in which the birds have been housed. Placing a pair of parrots from a large flight into a smaller flight can have a very negative effect on the pair. In some species, such as Eclectus, this may result in excessive stress and aggressive behavior. There are cases where previously happy and compatible pairs have become hostile and aggressive when placed in smaller cages. It is also important to place caged breeding pairs above your eye level rather than below it. Placing caged birds below your eye level increases their stress.
Transporting Adult Birds
Preventing aggressive behavior during transport should be accomplished by placing each bird in a separate compartment or container. Individual birds in even the most bonded, compatible pairs can become disoriented, frightened and then aggressive when placed together in a crate. In a matter of minutes, fatalities have resulted from this ill-advised practice. It is good management and good business to prepare for the safe transportation from one facility to another for a pair of birds by making sure each one is crated in its own compartment.
Smooth Selling —The Importance of Transition
Birds For Sale
Most of us who breed birds also sell birds, and sometimes we buy birds. Probably the majority of birds sold are young birds, raised to be companions in a home or family. Some are young birds raised to be future breeding birds. Sometimes we also sell older birds or pairs we have decided not to keep. Perhaps we are reducing our breeding stock to reduce our workload; or we are removing some species from our breeding program to make room for a different species. In all these situations where birds are sold or purchased, the birds are going from an environment with which they are familiar to an environment that is completely new and unknown. This is a major change in the life of pet birds or breeding birds that should be considered seriously and planned carefully by both the seller and the purchaser.
Field biologists report that in the wild, young parrots grow up and learn about their world with assistance from their parents. After fledging, they remain with their parents; they learn the location of various food sources and how to collect the food. During their early development, they learn behaviors that are appropriate and acceptable from their parents and the flock. Although new, unusual and seasonal events occur in their daily lives, the locations of food sources remain relatively constant, and their same-species daily companions are known to them. Basically, they live in a world that contains a great deal of familiarity.
Our hand-raised baby birds go from the known to the unknown. Weaned baby parrots are old enough to eat on their own but still expect to receive support and guidance from their parents. Bird breeders who deal with the public need to prepare the baby birds and the new owners for this major transition from their original home into the new home. Bird breeders generally have a great deal of basic knowledge about the birds they raise, while the person acquiring a companion bird may have very little knowledge about birds, much less "bird" common sense. We who breed birds often forget what we originally did not know when we acquired our first bird. We had to learn the hard way, sometimes at the expense of the birds.
It helps a young bird feel comfortable in a carrier if the bird has had the chance to spend an hour or more in a carrier on several occasions with its bowl of food and a toy. The carrier then becomes nonthreatening. Young birds that have traveled in a car feel more at ease when traveling. When a young bird is raised with a variety of toys, it may have a favorite. Sending a favorite toy home with the baby bird helps it transition into the new home. For breeders who have the time and interest, having the new owner visit the baby bird on several occasions increases the comfort level of the baby bird with its new owner. This is not always possible for those of us who ship birds across the country. However, there are preparations we can make which will help the bird transition well first.
Over the years I have seen and heard of some serious problems resulting from improper wing trims. Of course, the worst is when the entire flight feathers are trimped, both the primaries and secondaries. Although I do not know of any veterinarian who recommends this particular cut, I have known of some veterinarians who have performed it. Birds with this cut, when startled, may leap from their owner's arm or the cage, only to drop to the floor like a stone. These birds have damaged their sternums, and one bird had a broken back.
Trimming all the primaries very short has been known to lead to feather picking as the bird tries daily to groom the sharp cut ends sticking into its side. Eventually this pattern of behavior develops into the habit of chewing on feathers. This problem could be avoided by leaving the first two primaries uncut, or by using a shallow cut wherein only the outer half of the primaries are removed. With small species such as cockatiels and budgerigars, this shallow trim will not work since their bodies are so light they can still obtain height when flying.
However, with the larger, heavier-bodied parrots, this trim works. Always flight-test a trimmed bird indoors several times over several days to determine that the wing trim is successful in controlling flight. With some birds, further trimming may be needed. Within the avicultural community, ideas regarding wing trimming are changing as we learn more about the results of different types of trims. Additionally, some pet owners are keeping fully flighted birds in a home environment where they cannot access open doors.
Sometimes hard perches, such as manzanita, ribbon wood and eucalyptus, although attractive, are too hard for beak work for many of the small parrot species or the larger species with soft beaks. If your birds never chew their perches, perhaps it is because the perches are too hard for them. Providing an additional perch of soft pine allows the bird to work the beak successfully on the perch.
Chewing and stripping the soft wood on a routine basis makes it possible for the bird to keep the beak in proper shape and avoids the problem of an overgrown beak. Sometimes veterinarians diagnose an overgrown beak as a liver problem when the real problem is a rock-hard perch for the species in question. Generally, cockatoos and macaws do not have this problem! Of course, when birds chew the perch to pieces, you need to replace the perch. New cages often come with attractive manzanita perches. Young parrots in their first cages may find the manzanita too hard for beak work, and thus may not develop the proper beak-working habits at the stage when their instincts direct them to work on the perch. These young parrots find a softer perch very desirable.
Banding Exotic Birds
The major reason for banding a bird is to provide a permanent means of identification. This identification is critical in two important ways. One is as a means of record keeping regarding hatch date, individual history, medical records at the veterinarian's office and ownership. The second is as a means of quickly and easily identifying the bird when it is lost or stolen. I am aware of two separate events where stolen macaws were returned because the band number proved ownership. I also know of a lost pet African grey that was brought to a pet store by the finder. The store owner read the band and contacted the organization that sold the band; thus the breeder was found and the bird was returned to its worried owner. The states of Colorado, New Jersey and New York require that domestic-raised birds entering or living in the state be banded. When pet bird owners travel outside the United States with their birds, they must be accompanied by proper documents to enter some countries and to return to the U.S. with the bird. A numbered leg band is a quick and easy way for officials to identify the bird and compare the band number with the number on the documents. The bird's band number should be included in its medical history by your veterinarian.
Cutting Off Bands
One problem associated with the banding of birds is that some veterinarians do not seem to be aware of the importance of the band to the bird owner. These veterinarians routinely remove bands when the bird is brought in for a health check or a wing clip. A few veterinarians do not believe that birds should be banded. This attitude may arise out of the problems associated with the wild-caught birds bearing the open leg bands placed on them during USDA quarantine. These bands were improperly applied, most being cinched only once where the directions explicitly state that the bands must be cinched twice. Some of these bands were so open that they caught on cage wire while the birds climbed around in the cage, thus resulting in wounds. Breeders today who use the proper-sized closed bands should not find them to result in the same kinds of problems.