Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Choice: Something We Often Overlook Giving Our Parrots (Guest Post)

We all know parrots are intelligent social creatures. That’s why we choose them as companions! But as smart creatures, they certainly do give up a lot of autonomy to be our pets. In the wild, they have lots of decisions to make and this stimulates their intelligence and creativity. But we control virtually everything in a companion parrot’s life: food or famine, light or darkness, where they go and what they do. Is it any wonder these birds “act out” for “no apparent reason”?

I am a firm believer in offering choices on a daily basis to my flock. I believe it makes a happier, healthier, more intelligent bird and a more harmonious household. But when I tell many people about the merits of offering choice to their parrots, many folks panic. They think “Chaos! Birds ruling the roost!”, and fear a lack of control.

I assure you, you CAN create room for choice and still have domestic tranquility. To that end, I offer a few tips- things we use here at Squawk Central.

So here are some tips to introducing healthy choices into your home life:

Food Choices:
While I want to control what my bird eats for optimum nutrition, there is flexibility as long as all the choice options being offered are healthy. Allowing a choice between two or three healthy options makes a bird feel good (and they still get good food to eat). Here are a couple ways I allow this to happen in my home:

“Pick from the Bin”: Often, I’ll create a bin of layered salad, dry items, or mixed foods and store it in a Tupperware for feeding through the week. While many folks also do this, they often plop the items in a dish, thereby eliminating choice on the part of the bird. Instead, try holding the bin up for the bird to see the contents and ask them to choose what they want. My birds get so excited about making a choice, they all clamor simultaneously onto one perch to get closer to the bin!

Mixed Dishes: I feed two flock meals (AM and PM out at the table with us) and also offer dried food in the cages at Squawk Central. Both wet and dry dishes always have a variety of ingredients in them, allowing the bird to choose the favored nugget of the day. I have found that when food is offered this way, birds don’t always go for the obvious (less healthy) option. My birds tend to cycle in what is the trendy food item du jour.

Interconnected Food Stands: My birds all eat flock meals together at the dining room table. There are meal stands on the table for them (perches with food cups attached). Rather than enforcing territorial boundaries, I allow them to hop from one stand to another picking and choosing what they eat and where they eat it. All the birds seem to like to “forage” in this way.

“Step Up” versus “Wanna Come?”:
Many people inadvertently bully their birds by commanding them to “step up”, even when all they want to do is invite the birds over for affection.  Personally, I only use the cue, “Step Up” when it is mandatory- and my birds comply with that cue.
But most of the time, I use, “Wanna Come?”. The difference between the two terms is one offers a true choice (“Wanna Come”), one means you MUST (“Step Up”). I truly give my birds the choice whether they want to be with me or not. Many times they choose scritches, but sometimes they don’t. I don’t allow my ego to be bruised if one decides they’d rather flap around on the atom gym than be with me.
Once I started offering a true choice, I found that my birds more often came over to me socially without invitation- and that was an unintended consequence, but it makes sense if you think about it- and it was a welcome surprise!

Flighted versus Clipped:
This can be a contentious issue for many folks, and I see the merits in both sides of the argument. Since this article is on choice, I am keeping my arguments for and against flight about offering choice. There are other reasons for and against flight as well, but that is for another article. I personally started out as an avid “pro clipper” for safety reasons. I have NEVER believed in clipping for behavioral or “training” reasons.)
I am now a situationalist on the subject- I personally have flighted parrots. I believe that being flighted is preferable to being clipped IF (and only IF) the human can provide for such a responsibility. (I bird-proofed my home and all humans are in on the project, so safety inside is not an issue. We have a door plan that involves using the back door (away from the birds when they are out) so that inadvertent escape is very unlikely. My birds are socialized and cooperative.)
Personally, I believe leaving a bird flighted is better for their self esteem, health, and offers choices that clipped birds don’t have. For example, I have several play areas in my interconnected living and dining room that my birds fly to and from while they are out. They can hang out with one another, get some alone time, fly to get a snack from a food cup, or get some exercise. All of this is within their reach- and all because they do not rely upon me to move them from place to place.

Play Areas versus “a stand”:
There are many products out there calling themselves “gyms” or “stands” or “play areas”. I have found that no one product is enough to meet the needs of my flock. So I have gradually accumulated and built more and more and have incorporated them into my birds’ landscapes when time, space, and money allows. When I only had one “bird tree” for each of my birds (and I kept them to their specific tree), I soon found them insufficient. Even loading them up with toys and rotating those toys did not alleviate boredom and stimulated their minds in the way I wanted that product to.

I stumbled upon the current way I do things organically- I kept getting more and more gyms, and rather than putting an old one away, I would just add to the mix of what was available for my birds. For space reasons at the time, I put hanging gyms directly above an existing floor or tabletop gym, inadvertently making an interconnected area where the bird could go up and down easily. BINGO! Without even trying to do so, I started to offer my birds choices and some freedom of movement.
The results were astounding- my birds are calmer, get along better and have less “territorial disputes”. In our last home, all the bird cages and gyms were in the same room (the living room), and we interconnected the cages with the play areas, so that the birds had more “real estate” to occupy. We found that leaving the cage doors open and allowing birds to travel them (as well as the gyms) freely did not cause arguments.

To the contrary, unlike many bird owners who report cage or gym territoriality, I found that the birds tended to see their own cages as “flock territory” rather than as a personal nesting site after I started opening the cage doors. We found that natural cross-species friendships were created and thrived. We also learned a lot about avian aesthetic and feng shui  preferences when all birds in the flock decided that Buddy’s cage was THE place to be. We jokingly called her cage the “dorm room”. This change in what a cage means symbolically has meant translated into no more egg laying in my hens as well. That was a welcome side effect!

Toys, esp. Manipulative and Foraging Toys:
Toys are more than just playthings. Parrot toys are tools that a human uses to harness wild instinctual behavior in a companion parrot and channel them into appropriate behavior that is suitable for a human home. To that end, there are many types of parrot toys: Foraging, Preening, Manipulative, Athletic, Interactive, and Destructible. And offering a complement of all types allows choice for your parrot. Specifically, I want to talk about Foraging and Manipulative Toys and how they offer choices to your parrot.

This post was written by the founder of Squawk and Howl. She is a parrot behaviorist, rescuer, and companion. 

Now through 11/1, enter code spookydeal to get a great deal at Momma Bird's Store! Free shipping on orders of $75 or more!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bird Recipe: Sweet Potato Balls

We know that you would not be here if your bird didn't love Momma's Birdie Bread! But we figured we'd share some of our flock's other fave recipes to supplement your bird's diet!

Sweet Potato Balls

1 lg sweet potato - baked and skinned
1/4 c flax seed
1 tablespoon spirulina (optional)
1 cup veggies  (I tend to use finely chopped broccoli or zucchini)
1 1/2 c uncooked oatmeal or steel cut oats
fruit juice of choice

Mix all until well assimilated and add enough fruit juice to make small balls.
To freeze: place balls on cookie sheet. Once they are frozen, you can transfer to a bag (they won’t mush together in the freezer this way.)

Now through 10/25, enter code sweetpotato for a free bag of birdie bread when you buy three!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hospital Tanks

Sick parrot?
A hospital tank or cage is a place that the bird can rest and stabilize when it is sick or injured.

Therefore, it has no perches they must balance on- it is a small enclosed space with a flat bottom. It is soft on the bottom (towels are great for this). It has easy access to food & water, and is kept warm on one half of the enclosure (one half, so that if the bird feels overheated, it can self-regulate by going from one end to another).

If you have birds, you need to have one of these already. You don’t want to be unprepared in an emergency and have to leave your bird in critical condition while you search for one at the 24 hour pet store (is there such a thing?).

For small birds, a “critter keeper” (used to temporarily house hamsters, mice or tarantulas) works very well. For medium birds, a small cage with perches removed is good and for large birds, a large dog kennel or rubbermaid storage bin works well.

(Here’s what a critter keeper looks like):

Things you must have for your hospital tank:

1. heat source.
Half of the hospital tank is warmed by a heating pad (outside the cage, not in) or a ceramic or infared heat bulb. It is important to keep sick or injured birds at least 85-90 F (29- 32 C). The other half is kept at room temperature, so that they can regulate their own temperature by walking from one side to another. Be sure and monitor the temperature on the warm side. Sometimes things get a little too hot, especially if the heat source is directly touching the tank. Panting is a sign that they are overheated and you should try a different method or turn it down.

2. easy access to food and water.
I use small heavy shallow ceramic crocks in my hospital tanks. They do not easily tip over and are easily accessed by a sick bird.

3. towels.
Clean ones to change on the bottom (note: pick tightly woven discloths rather than looped terrycloth for small birds- their tiny talons get caught in the loops, causing them to fall and struggle) and one to drape over part of the tank to calm the bird down.

4. food- any food that the bird will eat.
Now is not the time to be persnickety about avian nutrition. A bird can take a serious nosedive if not eating when sick or injured.

Think: they poop about every 15-20 minutes. Their metabolisms are really fast. They need a constant source of high energy food. So if your bird won’t eat their regular nutritious diet, lure them with something they love but isn’t all that great nutritionally- millet spray, peanut butter, avi-cakes, whatever!

If your bird is really going downhill fast and needs a last minute boost as you are taking them to the vet, strong black coffee with sugar, administered with a dropper or syringe can make the difference between life and death. This is not something you would normally give them, as it is hard on the organs, but it can kick start their metabolisms in an emergency.

Now through 10/18, enter code hospitaltank to get free shipping on your order when you get $50 in toys.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Converting Birds to a Healthy Diet (Guest Post)

The six original flavors!
We all want our birds to eat well in order to be healthy. But what is a healthy diet? Certified avian vets all agree: parrots need a varied diet. Momma's Birdie Bread is a great part of that diet, as it is also healthy and varied in its ingredients.

Despite some pet food manufacturer’s claims, there is no such thing as a “total diet” for a parrot- be it pellets or seed based mixtures. A healthy psitticine diet must include fresh foods (vegetables, greens, fruit, and proteins. Momma Bird's bread contains fruits, veggies, seed, and grain and is a great base from which to start. Formulated diets (a.k.a. “pellets”) are a handy shortcut to a varied diet- but are not the “be all and end all”. There is no substitute for the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that occur in fresh food.

Conversion to a new diet requires that you watch your bird for signs of weight loss or ill health. Even after your bird appears to be converted, continue to watch his weight for at least a month after the apparent conversion. In most birds, the color of his dropping may change (typically from green to a brown if he has been converted to a pellet based diet, and more liquid-y as fresh foods are consumed).

An all too common scenario for many parrot owners is getting a bird that is eating an unhealthy diet and having to persuade that (usually stubborn) bird to eat better- especially in a rescue situation. So, how does one get a parrot (who is, of course, a prey animal and therefore naturally suspicious of new things) to eat better? The key is persistence, daily efforts on the part of the human caregiver, and a few tips and tricks along the way that use the bird’s instinctive behavior in the process. Conversion will without a doubt be the most difficult part of feeding your bird a healthy diet, but proper nutrition is important. Remember, this is a long-term project, one that needs to be worked on daily with your companion parrot.

Parrots tend to eat twice daily -an AM and a PM meal (with a bit of grazing here and there during the day). They are also social flock eaters, and are happiest when their “flock” (that’s you and the members of your household- human and avian) eats together.  Use these two facts to your advantage when trying to get the bird to eat better.

Tip #1: Eating as a Flock

Foraging from a plate on the table.
This is hands-down the best tip I can give you. I have brought foster parrots out of quarantine and within a week of eating with my flock, they are eating anything that I give them using this method. Even birds that have eaten only one (terrible) thing for their entire lives!

Quite simply, birds want to eat what you are eating. They are more likely to try something that others in their flock are eating. If you don’t already do so, eat meals with your parrot, and keep that routine. If you have one adventurous bird, introduce that bird to the new food first- with the others watching. In my house, that bird is Tallulah. She will eat anything- on the first try!

Not only will eating as a flock help you with diet conversion, but it has other behavioral benefits, too. It will reinforce flock bonds with everyone at that meal- a bonus if you have a parrot that is overly bonded with one family member and aggressive to another! Another bonus is introducing a new flock member is easier if they share meal and bath time (yet another flock activity).

When eating a meal together, be sure the parrot has a place that they are comfortable- like an eating stand from Sandy Perch. Why do I like them in particular? You can use two different sized detachable cups, they are better balanced for many sized birds using the same stand (unlike the cheaper brand that shall remain nameless), it is natural wood coated in Sandy Perch material (as opposed to concrete in a dowel shape)- which is better for feet, and Sandy Perch material is great for sloughing beaks as they wipe them clean after eating! (By the way, that was NOT a paid advertisement!)

Mine love to grip the mini-muffins.
So I prepare my birdie bread this way
to encourage good nutrition.
Many parrots love to forage “on the ground” so if you are OK with that, they will love to walk the table picking at food there. If you are not cool with a parrot walking all over your food, set up rules that are lovingly and consistently enforced right away. It helps to give them their own shallow crock at the table to forage from.

Be sure that you have one or two choices on your plate that is healthy for the bird to eat, in addition to “bird food” that you are attempting to get the parrot to try. (And be sure and thank your parrot for finally getting you to eat better!)

And if you tend to linger at meals (as we do) and want to continue to enjoy them, be sure and have foot toys, small play areas, etc. set up so that your bird can stay and enjoy that time, too. Atmy home we have a play area near the table for birds that finish early.

Tip #2: Weaning Method (from Seed to Pellets as the Base of a Cage Diet)

For birds that have more cage time than free time, most meals are taken in the cage. This makes for a harder conversion process, as this way of eating (not eating meals as a flock) is less natural and instinctive for the bird, and they tend to take comfort in the familiar when forced to eat this way.

Even if your birds do eat meals with you, they also will eat a bit in their cages/on their gyms during the day as well. So, how to wean them off a seed based diet at those times?

This destruction is natural and normal.
Be prepared!
DO NOT mix seed in with pellets in a dish and expect the bird to eat the pellets. This will not happen. The bird will simply pick out the seed, leave the pellets and see pellets as the non-food item in their dish that is an obstacle to getting their food (you are inadvertently creating a foraging opportunity, as if the seed was hidden by pebbles or marbles!). You must wean the bird off of seed gradually.

Taking advantage of the AM/PM meal schedule most birds keep, offer a small amount of seed for an hour twice daily. Take the seed away after an hour, and in the same familiar dish, put the pellets instead for the rest of the day.

Gradually, as you observe that the bird is starting to eat the pellets, lessen the amount of seed offered and the amount of time it is offered each day until conversion is complete. Using this method, I have converted birds in a week or less.

NOTE: Place the pellet dish near the highest perch in the cage. This increases the possibilities of eating this food.

Tip #3: Familiarity Helps

If you are trying to get your bird to eat vegetables or pellets and they do have a food that they love, use a piggybacking method to get them to try new things.

For example, if your bird loves bread, bake birdie bread with veggies inside (if your bird objects to large chunks, puree the veggies!). Or use pellet “mash” as a substitute for a part of the flour. Birdie bread freezes well, and I bake mine in mini muffin (bird sized portions!) tins and freeze in a zipper freezer bag.

If your bird loves pasta, serve veggie ravioli. You can even make your own easily using wonton wrappers from the supermarket. Spoon the filling mixture (which you pureed in a food processor) onto one wrapper and fold over. Use water as “glue” to seal the edges. You can store wonton skins in the fridge for a couple weeks, and freeze the filling so you can have an easy batch ready to go!

If your bird likes dried corn (or another dried fruit or veggie), get a high quality mix that has this ingredient in it. (Goldenfeast and Hagen Tropimix are wonderful human grade brands to try).

If your bird gets those “treat sticks” (which are seeds with a sugar binder- only good as a treat, not in the cage permanently, okay?), try something that looks similar, but with healthier ingredients.  You can make it in your oven using granola recipes as a basis- cook at a low temp (say 200 F) for a longer period- so that your oven is acting more as a dehydrator than an oven.

Tip #4: Sweeten the Deal

Know your bird's preferences!
This is my birds' fave flavor.
Another method of pellet conversion is to serve pellets in a slightly different form.

For example, soaking it in water or apple juice and creating a mash out of it. (If you try this, please note that this food cannot be left all day, since they start to spoil quickly. Maximum: 2 hours.) Many birds might try this, but here’s the catch: not all pellets are in a mashed form. You will have to crush them with a rolling pin or buy a ready-made mash, such as the Harrison’s brand, however, does have a mashed form made primarily for finches that is also good for converting picky birds if you find this is the only way to get your bird to try pellets.

Cookie Dough Method: Another way to convert a bird is to mix Harrison’s Fine Grind and your bird’s seed, cover with water & wait 5 minutes. Stir with a fork until the mix has a cookie-dough consistency. Feed this (with perhaps a few seeds pressed into the top to get the bird started) daily. Only make as much as the bird can eat for two days, max. Store in fridge. This is much better than mixing pellets and seed together dry, as the bird will eat crushed pellets and get used to the taste.

Combine cooked pasta, a favorite strained baby food flavor (like carrots or applesauce) & stir in the pellets.

Pulverize pellets & add to favorite soft foods.

Push pellets into soft cooked beans, a piece of cheese, sweet potato, cooked carrot, or bread.

Make a tiny peanut butter & pellet sandwich.

Hope these tips inspired you to take the plunge. Cooking for your birds and eating together is really satisfying, so I highly encourage it. There are umpteen ways to convert birds to a healthier diet. The only limit is your imagination!

This post was written by the founder of Squawk and Howl. She is a parrot behaviorist, rescuer, companion, and friend. 

Now through 10/11, enter code healthyishappy and get a bag of birdie bread free when you buy $50 in toys.