Keeping parrots healthy in Winter

For about the first four years of owning Captain Beaky, I was convinced that the cold would kill him and that he had to be kept inside throughout the Winter months. When we moved into a particularly cold house, I kept a cover around two sides of his cage at all times because I was so worried he would become ill (the house was very cold, more so than people usually imagine when they hear the stories of it!)

A couple of years after this, my dad built the aviary as my birthday present and Beaky spent the summer days outside by himself – I used to bring him into the house in the evenings so that he could have some company.

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It was the following Autumn that I bought Rocky: the people who sold him to me said that he would be fine outside all year round, which really surprised me but I followed their advice and thankfully in the Spring I still had a healthy young parrot! Throughout that Winter Beaky spent mild days outside, and the rest of the time in the house.

This Winter the decision was made to leave Beaky and Rocky out together permanently – due to me being away from home now it is easier for my mum and much better for Beaky in a social sense as when he was alone he was quite reliant on human company.

There are however a few things we had to change in the aviary to ensure that the birds would make it through the cold months without any problems…

The first thing was to ensure that the aviary was sheltered from the wind – whilst the low temperatures don’t cause too much of a problem, cold winds could potentially make the birds ill so they need adequate cover. Sheets of corrugated plastic fit this purpose nicely and are tacked onto the upper half of the aviary (they will be removed in the warmer months). The narrow end of the aviary is left open: this side is well sheltered by the house and having the gap means that the birds can still see in through the kitchen windows so get some entertainment from watching us!

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It was decided that their bath should be removed at this time of year, as Rocky in particular likes to splash around and completely soak himself – this could then result in him being more susceptible to catching a chill, so whilst it is a shame to take away one of his favourite activities it really is for his own good.

Another important factor in Winter (and all year round) is that the birds have a healthy diet.

As well as a scoop of mixed seed each day, they also have oyster grit mixed in which aids their digestive system. We add hemp seeds to the mix as these are good for the immune system and are a good source of iron.

On top of this we give them fresh fruit (usually apple although they can have many different types – it should however be noted that avocado is poisonous to birds!) and some form of dark leafy greens (for example groundsel and spinach) as these provide the birds with vitamin A.

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Something else that I thought I would mention here which is not related to the cold weather but is something that happened recently while I was away in Manchester, is that Beaky broke a blood feather.

A blood feather is a feather that is still growing, so still has a blood supply. These are often sore, and if they are broken they can lead to the bird bleeding to death.

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My mum went to feed the parrots one morning and realised that there was blood dripping down Beaky’s tail: I had warned her about blood feathers so she quickly looked up what to do and acted before it was too late.

Some people suggest using flour to prevent the blood from flowing, however it is more effective to remove the whole feather. Having caught Beaky, mum pulled the feather out (apparently this was easier than a normal feather would be) and the skin where it had been just closed over.

Thankfully Captain Beaky seemed perfectly fine after his little incident and is back to his normal self again now. He still has stains on his tail but I should imagine that these will remain for quite some time, most likely until he moults the feathers out in the next few months.

(The video below is just a couple of clips from the aviary recently…. Beaky having his fuss and my attempts at engaging in a conversation with Rocky!)

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Parrot behaviour 3/3: interaction between birds and with their environment

Parrots are sociable, intelligent creatures – having watched my own parrots exploring their environment and interacting with each other, I would like to share a few brief examples of my observations in this blog post to bring my mini series to an end.

Dealing with a new environment

When I first introduced Captain Beaky to the outdoor aviary, he sat in the same place for a long time, with his crest raised vertically and his posture very upright with the feathers held tightly to his body – giving him a very thin appearance. Gradually he began to move about – just walking along his perch a few inches and then back again.

If I place a new object in the aviary, the birds will stare at it for a while before using this ‘approach and retreat’ tactic – once they are satisfied that the object is not going to jump up and eat them, they will start to tentatively test it with their beaks.

This is a very common sight in birds when they are first exposed to something new – they are quite wary of unknown objects as a result of being prey animals. Rocky has shown this behaviour when I am standing nearby – he gradually moves a little closer each time until he reaches the food I have left for him.

Interacting with other birds

Captain Beaky and Rockhopper have been living outside together permanently for several months now. At first they kept a respectable distance between each other, but they soon became used to each other’s prescence and are now quite happy with sharing the aviary.

As Rocky has grown and matured he has become a little bit more dominant – I often see him hissing at Beaky or chasing him away from the food – but I have read about a ‘bluffing’ phase that rosellas are prone to going through when they are adolescents, so hopefully this behaviour will eventually stop!

Keeping a rosella and a cockatiel together like this is actually quite unrealistic as in the wild they would not interact at all – there are significant parts of life in a flock that are missing in the aviary: for example cockatiels will preen the crest feathers of their mate; Captain Beaky does not have a mate so this is not possible for him.

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Interacting with humans

Before I bought Rocky, Beaky was entirely reliant on humans for company. I used to take him upstairs to my room in the evenings and he would pester me as I did my homework… Captain Beaky and I developed a strong bond in these hours spent together and now he will allow me to preen his crest feathers for him (in much the same way that a mate would – as discussed above).

He used to call loudly through the house when I arrived home and would run up and down his perch if I was eating an apple as he knew I would share it with him. (Despite all of this loving behaviour I did used to be hissed at in the mornings…)

Now that he lives outside, our relationship has changed slightly. He spends a lot more time ‘being a bird’ and I believe he is much happier for it, although he still gets his cuddles out in the aviary!

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I hope that this series has given a small insight into the world of parrot behaviour – I hope to do some more in focus blog posts on the behaviour of other animals in the near future, so keep reading!

Parrot behaviour 2/3: common behaviours

In part two of this mini series we will explore some common behaviours exhibited by parrots, using my cockatiel and rosella as examples.

Sleeping – this is an essential part of a parrot’s life – in the wild, cockatiels and rosellas will sleep through the afternoon due to this being the hottest part of the day in their natural habitat. When asleep the bird will tuck his head into his wing and puff out his feathers – he may also stand on one foot.

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Preening – this forms a large part of a parrot’s day – in between eating and socialising with other flock members, the feathers are meticulously cleaned. The bird uses his beak and tongue to move along the length of the feather, ensuring that dirt and parasites are removed and that the feather is in the right position in relation to the others.

Stretching – a very common behaviour – birds will stretch throughout the day at regular intervals.

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Chewing – cockatiels and rosellas are highly inquisitive and use their beaks and tongues to explore new objects – chewing forms a large part of their day as it keeps their beaks in good condition and burns a lot of energy.

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Beak wiping – parrots will often rub their beaks on their perch to clean it after eating, although this can also be a territorial behaviour used to warn other birds in the area.

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Head shaking – there is some debate as to what this means: some suggestions include that this happens when the bird hears a sound that he doesn’t like, or that he likes the taste of something. From my own experience I would be more tempted to believe the second theory, as Captain Beaky often shakes his head when I feed him apple or dandelion leaves.

Playing – this behaviour is seen in captive birds who have a lot of spare energy, however birds play in the wild too due to it reinforcing bonds with other flock members and also simply being a fun way to pass the time.

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Hanging upside down is one of Rocky’s favourite games at the moment – he seems to be enjoying viewing everything from a different angle!

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Flying in place – this is where the bird grips his perch tightly and flaps his wings. This is another way in which to burn excess energy, but it can be put down to attention seeking – before Beaky started living outside, I used to have him in my bedroom in the evenings. He quickly learnt that flapping about would gain my attention and began to use it to his advantage!

Vocalisation – most parrots vocalise in the mornings and evenings (at sunrise and sunset), and for a variety of reasons. Rocky and Beaky call out to each other, and will reply to me if I whistle to them. Beaky is generally quieter but Rocky often chatters and sings throughout the day.

The video below shows some clips from the past few weeks – several of the discussed behaviours are shown in these clips.

Stay tuned for the final part of the series!

 

Parrot behaviour 1/3: body language

For the next three weeks I will be writing about the exciting world of parrot behaviour. After I received Captain Beaky at the age of twelve, I became really interested in learning how to understand him better and this has helped me considerably when I am spending time with him and also with my young rosella, Rockhopper.

The first post of my mini series will focus on the body language of the birds that I keep and what it means.

Body feathers

How the bird holds his body feathers can tell us a lot about what he is feeling. When calm, the feathers will be held close to the body but will be relaxed. Tightly held feathers and a tall, upright posture (making the bird appear to be quite thin) are signs of fear, whereas puffed out feathers accompanied with slight trembling show that he may be feeling cold (this behaviour warms the bird up by trapping air between the feathers as an insulating layer, and the tremors generate heat energy).

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Tail feathers

Normally a parrot will hold his tail feathers bunched together, however tail fanning is a sign of aggression – this is exhibited when the bird feels threatened as it can give the bird the appearance of being bigger than he actually is, which may deter the predator. There are some other behaviours associated with the tail; these will be covered in a later blog post.

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Facial feathers

The facial feathers follow a similar pattern to the body feathers – with tightly held feathers being a sign of fear and ‘looser’ feathers showing that the bird is relaxed. Puffed out cheek feathers are seen during preening and when the bird is sleepy.

Facial feathers

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Crest feathers

The crest feathers (on top of the head) are also used by parrots when they are communicating: these are much easier to spot in birds with a large crest (for example the cockatiel).

Crest feathers laid back flat against the skull indicate aggression – these may be accompanied with the bird leaning forward and hissing. Slightly raised feathers show a relaxed, interested parrot, whereas upright crest feathers show alarm or excitement. In extreme fear the crest can be raised to the point of almost tipping forward.

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Wings

When the bird is preparing to fly, he will lift his wings slightly away from his body in preparation – from behind this forms a heart shape across his back. However the wings have more purpose than just simply being for flight. Spread wings are another sign of fear or aggression (again with the intended effect of making the bird appear bigger), and I often observe my parrots using their wings for balance when they are climbing.

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Join me next week when we will be discussing common behaviours in parrots!

A friend for Captain Beaky

Due to the fact that I will be leaving home in just under a years time, I decided that it would be a good idea for Beaky to have a friend (as my mum will be looking after him when I leave and she won’t have the time to spend giving him companionship).

As he has been living alone for five and a half years, introducing a new bird would be a risky process and initially I was unsure of what species I could get – however I eventually made up my mind and a week ago I bought a rosella.

His name is Rockhopper (Rocky) and he is an Eastern rosella (Platycercus eximius). This particular colouring of his feathers is referred to as ‘rubino’.

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Rocky is only six months old and is currently moulting, so does look a little scruffy at the moment: in the spring time he will become a lot neater! He has not really been handled and is a little wary of humans, often heading to the far corner of the aviary, although he is showing interest in us when we are nearby which is a promising sign.

My main aim at the moment is to gain his trust and also to introduce him to Captain Beaky, who is temporarily living indoors. The following photographs show our progress so far.

For the first couple of days when I entered the aviary Rocky would panic and flap about, falling off his perch and then crawling into the corner to hide.

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Whenever this happened I offered him the perch which I sometimes use to pick up Beaky, tapping him lightly on the tummy with it until he stepped up. Then I could move him to a higher position where he would feel safer. Gradually he has learnt to step up every time that the perch is offered to him, and now does so quite willingly.

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I have also tried feeding him from my hands a few times; mostly this has been unsuccessful but he did take some dandelion leaves from me! This is an area that I will work on once he is more used to me being around him.

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Captain Beaky has been paying a visit to the aviary each day in his travelling cage so that the two of them can take a look at each and meet with a barrier between them. For the most part this has been absolutely fine, there was just a tiny bit of hissing from Beaky during their first encounter when Rocky got too close.

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Today I made the decision to be brave and as they were both so relaxed I let Beaky out into the aviary with Rocky. They kept a bit of distance between them but otherwise they were both quite relaxed – Captain Beaky became bored within the first few minutes and began tucking in to Rocky’s food!

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Hopefully it won’t be long before they’re living together permanently 🙂

Training ‘step up’

I have had Captain Beaky since I was twelve, and this was one of the first things that I taught him. It is probably the most important command as without I would not be able to move him about or rescue him from potentially dangerous situations!

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The first thing to do is to find out what the best reward is for the bird – some like to have their heads and necks scratched, whereas others enjoy something to eat. Beaky likes apple, so I have a couple of cut slices that I use here. (Whilst training the reward must always be used, but often now I simply say ‘good boy’ when he steps up for me).

To invite Captain Beaky to step up, I put my hand near to his chest with my fingers together and thumb tucked in, slightly higher than the level of his current perch. My other hand holds the reward in front of him to tempt him forwards.

As he steps up I say ‘step up’ and once he has both feet on my hand he is given a few moments to have his apple and absorb the fact that stepping up resulted in something good!

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I am now working on teaching Beaky to fly to me – he often does this voluntarily but I would like to be able to attach a command to this.

To begin with I am offering him the treat with my hand far enough away that he just has to spread his wings slightly and hop over to reach it.

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As this is a work in progress, you will be able to see this aspect of our training gradually improve over the weeks, so stay tuned for more information!