Kashmir Csaky on August 08, 2010
Change is difficult for all of us. Even a welcome change that we know will better our lives will still induce stress. When change is sudden or unnatural it can produce high levels of anxiety that can make life extremely difficult for us. Humans are empowered with choices and that can help lower our levels of stress. However, our birds do not have the freedom to make choices like their wild cousins. Yet, with a little empathy, understanding and care we can reduce stress and help them live longer, healthier and happier lives.
Birds go through many transitions in a lifetime. Moving from one home to another is the most obvious. Yet, our birds are constantly transitioning, growing, going through many stages of their long lives. Hatchling, young chicks, fledglings, adolescence, young adults, mature singles, breeding birds and old birds have different needs. Going from one stage of life to another can be confusing for the birds. It is our responsibility to minimize stress.
Hatchlings need little attention. They need to eat and sleep in a clean environment. A quick gentle petting during feeding is all the attention they need. Any more petting is a unnecessary and can be detrimental if the baby gets cold. The babies fall asleep very quickly after they eat. Rest, good nutrition and a clean environment, age appropriate temperature and humidity are more important than petting at this stage. However, all babies need something soft to cuddle. This can be a sibling, a stuffed toy or even soft bedding.
Chicks in Pinfeathers
Once chicks develop pinfeathers they need more physical contact and guidance. This is especially the case with single babies. Providing adequate attention is easy. Preen the baby’s pinfeathers and allow the baby to spend short periods in someone’s lap. Babies that have clutch mates play with each other and provide one another with some amusement. Single babies will look to humans to fill this need. This is the time to introduce some simple toys that cannot be swallowed.
Fledging and Weaning
As chicks approach fledging age and as they fledge, their energy levels soar. They become curious; their minds absorb everything that happens around them. This is a time of accelerated learning. Their desire to explore and learn makes this a transition when chicks are prone to get into trouble. Fledgling is intense and it can set the stage for how a chick will respond to new situations and circumstances as an adult. To improve the odds that a chick will grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult provide the chick with new experiences regularly. Allow the baby to fledge. Learning to fly not only increase confidence, it builds stronger bodies and better coordination. This is a difficult and rewarding time for the person who is raising the bird. Even when chicks are co-parented, the breeder experiences the greatest demands during fledging. During fledging babies are normally willing and interested in trying new foods and these should be offered in abundance. Yet, it is also a stage in life when chicks are most likely to eat dangerous non-food items. Vigilance is very important during this critical juncture.
Food independence can be almost as stressful for both the chick and the breeder as fledging. If the breeder has handled the previous stages of life knowledgeably and the chick is healthy, food independence is usually a simple transition that chicks adjust to with ease. However, it may be more difficult to wean some species or individuals. An inexperienced hand-feeder may fret over a chick getting enough food and will try to force an unwilling bird to consume formula. This will delay independence and can cause future emotional and physical problems. It is vital that chicks wean and become independent naturally. There is a perfect time for food independence. If chicks are not ready for independence and fed insufficiently, they may survive, yet diminishing the odds of a healthy physical and emotional transition. There is a window of opportunity, so timing must be precise.
Moving to a New Home
Once baby birds are food independent, they often transition to a new home. This is unnatural and adapting to this change is perhaps the most challenging, stress-inducing period in captive birds’ lives. The more changes that take place during this period, the more stressful it will be. During this time, the babies may revert to soliciting hand feeding; in most cases, the birds do not need formula. What they crave and need is attention and reassurance. They may refuse to eat foods that they were gobbling down at the breeders. At this point, the new owner may feel that the breeder did not wean the baby properly or the breeder had lied to them and sold them an unweaned bird. Yet, the problem may be traced back to the unfamiliar appearance of the food. The bird may have been eating shredded carrots at the breeders and the new owner is offering chopped carrots. The bird does not recognize the food and is afraid to eat it. This is something that can happen when a bird of any age changes homes. I recommend that the prospective new owner and the breeder discuss diet in-depth. They should discuss foods that the breeder feeds and how foods are prepared. If possible, the breeder should provide the buyer with three days of prepared foods. This practice can prevent discord between the breeder and the bird’s new owner.
The more familiar things that birds have in their new homes, the more relaxed they will be. They will adapt quicker and with less anxiety. A favorite toy, a similar cage, familiar music all provide some comfort.
There are essential items that bird owners should provide for their birds. These include:
- A roomy and safe cage in a quiet area
- A gym in a social area of the home
- A carrier that is safe and secure
- An accurate gram scale
- A T-stand (for training)
- Safe toys
- Healthy foods
Many bird owners believe a scale and a T-stand are non-essential. Yet, I consider these items to be of paramount importance. The seller should weigh the bird on the day the transfer takes place. Then the new bird should be weighed daily for the first two weeks and at least once a week for the next three months. Weigh the bird early in the morning when the crop is empty and after the bird has eliminated. Record all weights so that they can be referenced later. Expect the bird to lose weight during this transition. However, once the bird is established and comfortable in its new home then the bird should begin gaining the weight back.
Young pet birds need to feel comfortable with everyone in a household. This is not automatic and the entire family must learn how to handle a bird properly. If the bird is to become friendly with the new family and their friends then there are lifetime procedures to follow. When the bird arrives, each family member should have designated responsibilities. A small child can help prepare the food. An older child or adult can actually feed the bird. A teenager can change the paper in the cage in the morning. While an adult, might clean the cage at night. Everyone should be involved with play, socialization and training. The extent of involvement of each person is dependent on his or her maturity.
Sally Blanchard developed an excellent exercise she called, “Warm potato.” The family and everyone who will handle the bird should get together and sit in a circle. One person brings the bird into the circle and then pets and sweet-talks to the bird. The next person in the circle then takes the bird and repeats the petting and sweet-talking. This warm show of affection continues with each person until the bird goes full circle. The last person returns him to his gym, gives him a treat and encourages him to play with some toys.
It is important to understand two things about baby birds. One is that babies need a lot of attention. They will not ask for more attention than they need. Give them all the attention that they ask for. This will build their self-confidence. Two, they must learn to become independent. Most people give the baby bird more attention than the chick needs or wants. They do not allow the baby to play independently. When the baby tries to show some independence, they feel left out and force their attention and affection on the bird. Eventually they learn they cannot keep offering the chick so much of their time. When this realization occurs, the chick has already become dependent on them for stimulation and has not learned to entertain himself. The bird develops a habit of screaming excessively and has an unnatural and unhealthy bond to one human companion. It is possible to change this unwanted behavior, however it is much easier to prevent it.
Stepping Up and Avoiding the Bite
We need to be especially aware of a bird’s body language when it says, “I am about to bite you.” We should teach children who might try to handle the bird to interpret body language. Never handle an unwilling bird. This will lead to biting.
Most bites occur when an unwilling bird is forced to step up. When asking a bird to step up, the hand should not be within striking distance. Raise the hand to just below the level of the bird’s feet and keep it far enough away that the bird cannot bite it. When the bird raises his foot, move the hand closer so that the bird can step onto it. Keep it at the same level as the feet or lower. If the hand is too high, the bird will try to use his beak to climb onto the hand and this causes apprehension and increases the chance of a bite.
Transitioning the Adult Pet Bird
Most of what applies to a baby bird will also apply to an adult. However, adults often come with emotional, physical and behavioral baggage. They may have bad habits that they have already learned or certain situations may trigger a particular learned reaction. Having this information in advance is helpful. Since this information is seldom, provided we must be very observant and try to learn what the bird is attempting to tell us. It is unlikely that we develop a trusting relationship as quickly with an adult bird as we can with a baby bird.
Adult birds may also come with some wonderful behaviors, such as talking and doing tricks, which we can enjoy and use to make the transition easier. These behaviors are stress reducing for the bird and allow us to interact with them and have fun. Birds that know how to do tricks, love performing their tricks. Asking the bird to do tricks that they enjoy increases the trust between the bird and the new owner. Trick training can be a part of the regular training routine. The sooner training begins the better for the relationship.
Transitioning Breeding Pairs
It is much easier to transition a breeding pair of birds than a single bird. They have each other and chances are good that the new situation will strengthen their bond. The goal is not to create a pet friendly relationship. The goal is for the birds to feel secure enough to breed. We want them to eat well and be healthy. We also would like to feel that they do not hate us. Despite the fact that it is normal for breeding birds to defend their nest and strike at people, it still hurts and offends most of us.
The birds’ flight should be set up with an area to hide and environmental enrichment. A place to hide, toys to play with reduces stress and boosts the immune system. When the pair first arrives, provide two areas where the birds can eat and drink and offer food and water at booth locations. The stress of being in a new location may cause one bird to hoard food. The other bird may be very stressed and will simply avoid eating around a voracious mate. By offering food in two locations, the weaker bird has a better chance of getting enough nutrition.
Hey! What About Me?
Planning for the arrival of a new bird includes preparing the old bird and supporting him emotionally. In anticipation, preparation and during introduction of the new bird or birds, the old bird can be overlooked. If we emotionally neglect the old bird during all the excitement, then unwanted behavior such as biting, screaming, tossing out food and beating up toys may become habitual. No one likes being forgotten.
Have the new bird’s cage ready and set up long before the new bird is out of quarantine. The cage should have toys in it and a fake bird that someone periodically takes out, sweet talks and plays with. Go through all the motions of cleaning and feeding the phony bird. There is no fooling the old bird. He knows that the plush toy is a counterfeit. However, he will begin to accept that you are spending time with something in that cage.
During the first two weeks after the introduction of the new bird, do everything with the old bird first. This includes coming out of his cage, training, providing meals, water and treats. When entering the area, address old bird before speaking to the new bird. Plan some special activities with the old bird. Whenever, the new bird is around the old bird, make sure that the old bird gets some special treats. The old bird should feel that good things happen around the new bird. After the first two weeks, rotate who is first and who is last. No one wants to be last all the time. The old bird must learn that he is equal to the new companion.
Alas, we all age. It is hard for us to think of our birds getting old. We know that they have long life spans and we expect them to outlive us. There is an unconscious fantasy that our birds are immortal and forever young. Yet, they do age and develop all the trappings of old age. We can make life more comfortable for them. They will need frequent visits to the veterinarian. Their diet may need altering. Medications may help to alleviate some suffering, yet long-term medication can cause many side effects. We need to be aware of the secondary undesired effects of medication and attentive about them.
Wrap perches in rope or vet wrap to ease the pressure on senior birds’ feet and help them maintain balance. Platforms also provide relief for aching feet. If the birds have problems balancing, lower their perches to prevent dangerous falls from high places. Old birds may have seizures or become easily frightened. Padding the insides of their cages with soft materials will reduce the risk of them injuring themselves.
If birds begin to go blind, do not change perch arrangements and keep bowls in the same place. If perches must be removed for cleaning, mark the spots on the cage where they go. Notice the angle of the perch. Know which side of the perch is up and which side is down. Take pictures if you need help remembering exactly how the cage is arranged. Blind birds still play with toys. However, toys must always go in the same spot and maintenance is crucial. Teach the bird the difference between up, down, right, and left. This is easy to do. Simply tap on a bar near the bird and if you are tapping to the right say, “Right”. As soon as the bird moves slightly to the right say, “Good” and place a treat in the bird’s mouth. Do the same with, up, down and left. If you see the blind bird, trying to get to a perch and missing it you can give him directions.
Many old birds are feather plucked or need extra warmth. A blanket or towel over one side of the cage can be helpful. If the blanket or towel is inadequate use a heat lamp or heating panel. AviTech sells heating panels (http://www.avitec.com/Avi-Temp-Infrared-Heat-Panels-p/ihp.htm) made just for birds.
Signs of Aging
Aging is a slow process and since we see our birds everyday, the signs of aging can elude us. We may not notice the slowing of activity. We may miss the fact that toys were destroyed at a faster rate when our birds were 15 or 20 years old. Since we are aging too, we may not notice that our birds want to go to bed earlier in the evening. Our feathered companions seem to age much better than we do. We look at the faces of human friends that we have known for years and we see the deep lines, sagging jowls, graying hair and potbellies. We may have sowed wild oat together yet they are no longer feisty young friends.
Signs of aging in birds include:
- Hooded eyes
- Gnarly feet
- Poor eyesight
- Reduced activity
- Sagging belly
- Poor posture
- Thinning skin on birds with bare facial patches
- Thinning facial feather tracks in macaws
- Pupils may be more oval than round
- Paling of feathers, generally more yellow
- Feather picking
Even when we are aware of the signs of aging, we can still fail to recognize them. A friend of mine has an old Blue and Gold Macaw hen. Although the bird was diagnosed with arthritis, she did not appear to be suffering at all. However, once medicated for arthritis, she became much more active. My friend is a certified veterinary technician and a certified parrot behavioral consultant. She is very observant and knowledgeable. The fact that she did not recognize her bird’s distress was very disturbing for her.
The first sign of blindness in flighted birds is frequently a refusal to fly. Cataracts are visible in advanced cases. Yet, they may be present and blocking vision long before we notice them. As their eyesight becomes poor, their inclination to fly will diminish until they simply will not fly. However, blind birds may still take big hops from one perch to the next. For this reason, it is important that the perches remain in the same location.
Pet birds may become more nervous as their eyesight begins to dim. They may be more reactive to quick movements. They may also become quieter and clingy.
When a Bird Dies
Birds may be kept as companion or mates for prolong periods. Large parrots often show signs of grief when their mate or a friend dies. They may refuse to eat, their activity level decreases, they are unwilling to interact, they lose interest in their toys and they may begin to scream for long periods. The screaming is often rhythmic and is a contact call. Smaller birds are less likely to suffer from grief. If a bird is grieving, it can be difficult for the bird to emerge from the blues. The worst part of grieving is normally over in two weeks. Offer the grieving bird his favorite foods. Have plenty toys available, do not become hurt if your bird is standoffish or bites you. Do attempt to do something different and fun, however your bird may refuse to participate. Be supportive.
When one of my hens died, her mate was devastated. He did not eat well. He was despondent for about a month. He hurt his beak and that made matters even worse. I finally put a large photograph of his mate in front of his flight. It seemed to provide him with some comfort. It has been years since she passed away and the photograph is still where he can see it. I do not think he needs it anymore. Yet, I see no good reason to take it down.
Keep a Journal
Keep a journal for your bird. Write down information, observations and weights in the journal. If the journal has a side pocket, you can keep certificates, medical records and other important papers together. When you take your bird to your veterinarian, take your journal and review it together. Your veterinarian may see a pattern that you have missed. Also, keep a photographic record of your bird. Include facial close-ups, close-ups of your bird’s feet and full body shots. Update this photographic record every year. As your bird ages you may not notice any changes. However, when you look at the photographs, the differences may become more apparent. You can include your bird’s vocabulary, favorite foods and games or any idiosyncrasies in your journal. The journal can provide an easier transition into a new home when the time comes that you can no longer care for your bird.
The Most Important Thing to Teach Your Bird
Many people will tell you that the most important thing to teach your bird is to step up. Some may tell you that the bird should understand “No” above all else. I respectfully disagree. I believe that the most important thing for your bird to understand is, “Good.” Even tiny babies begin to understand the concept of good and they react positively. “Good” teaches wanted behaviors faster and more completely than, “No”. Praise builds confidence and inspires a desire to learn. Praise relieves stress and can even reduce pain when used properly. To make transitions quicker, smoother and more pleasant use the word “Good” frequently. You cannot overuse the word “Good.”