Rituals

Recently, the idea came up to “own your rituals.”  This was in reference to my on-going weight-loss program, and the idea was to select a celebration for when I reach my goal weight.  I am nearly half way to my goal, and what I want to do is start taking horseback riding lessons.  But it got me thinking about the rituals that my flock have every day.

My violet love bird, Jake, knows that when we turn off the ceiling fan, it means he will be getting out time soon.  He waits by the door to his cage, and steps out as soon as I open it.  Blind Io, an African gray, knows that after being given fresh food and water, I am going to give him some gentle touches.  He may fluff up and open his beak, but he is getting very used to the whole process.

Bo Dangles, the toeless African gray, knows when we open the door to her cage, she will get scratches and petting.  If she is in a particularly ornery mood, she hangs on the door, hoping I will still open it so she can reach out to Jake’s cage.  It’s hard to get her back into her cage when she does that, so I try not to follow through.

Dani, a seriously splay-legged orange front conure, is our doorbell and Early Warning Alarm.  The problem is, she thinks a cat in the front yard is worth sounding the alarm, also hawks and crows.  And cars driving on the street.  And neighbors walking dogs on the sidewalk.

Amazingly, our flock in the living room can distinguish the sound of my car or Mike’s car from the many others in the world.  Cockatiels and conures will send up a racket when one of us turns down the street that is a block away from the house.  Granted, they occasionally get excited about the same things noted above due to Dani’s alarms, but there’s a subtle difference in the “Mom’s home!” calls and the alarm calls.  Some day we may figure out what that is.

Bo Dangles got her name because she loves to hang by her beak from the top of her cage and wave her little stumpy legs in the air.  She knows we will laugh and give her attention when she does this, so she will do it a couple times in a row.  Mike and I both have taken advantage of the fact that her sharp beak is occupied with keeping herself from falling, to reach in and pet her feathers and Mike got her to “stand” on his arm one time.

Love birds are some of the smartest little parrots in the world.  They have always learned very quickly which cage is theirs, and when the lights are turned down at the end of a night of out time, they will soon put themselves back in their cages.  Of course, there have been times when one couple would like to move into a different cage, and the current residents have disagreed.  But those little problems are easily sorted out, and easily put to rights.

I’ve mentioned before that Piro, a pied peach face love bird, has lost two female mates over the course of his years with us.  Both were cherry head lutinos, basically yellow with red hats on.  And both times, Piro was trying to tell me what happened.  I would walk out into the living room, turn on the lights, and start making eye contact with each bird to say good morning.  Finding Piro at the front of the cage, instead of cuddled up in the back with his lady, alerted me to the fact that something was wrong.  I felt sad that Piro seemed to believe I could make things all better.  The best I could do was find him a new mate as quickly as possible.

You wouldn’t think doves would be intelligent enough to have rituals, and possibly what I think of as a ritual is just their natural reactions.  Our pair of doves are very calm and mild, and the most excitement they show is when we pick them up for one reason or another.  Male or female, the dove will tuck its head down into its breast and raise one wing.  After we have completed the nest check, baby check, or transferring to a new cage, the bird will fluff up and keep the wing up for a minute or two.

Finches, at least zebra finches, are the 1960s hippies of the bird world.  Free love is their ritual, and a male will show a female that he is attracted to her by jumping on her and having a really good time.  A female may object at first, but soon she realizes there is not much choice, and what’s the big deal anyway?  It’s over very soon.  Zeebs will attempt to procreate anywhere, everywhere, and under the oddest conditions.  When they were originally imported from Australia, they were packed into crates pretty tightly.  When the crates were opened on arrival in the United States, some of the birds had made nests from their own feathers and had laid eggs.  Not sure how they were shipped or cared for on the trip, but in some versions of this tale, there are chicks already hatched in the nests.  It takes 2 weeks and lots of food to hatch a baby zeeb, so I tend to think the eggs may have hatched shortly after the birds were moved to better accommodations.

I have recurring dreams where I discover a cage or several of zebra finches that I have forgotten about, that need food and water immediately.  And almost every time, the neglected birds have hatched out babies to overcrowding the cage.

I own the rituals of feeding and watering the birds daily and cleaning the cages as often as possible, and keeping the house clean around them.  The ritual of sharing my life with the flock is one of the best I ever participated in, and I am blessed that Mike shares that as well.  Even with a reduced flock, we have enough and we are rewarded in abundant measure.

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Sensory Input

Birds convey a wide range of input for human senses.  Perhaps that is why they are so deeply cherished in different ways in many parts of the world.

The most obvious is the beauty of the feathers, the vibrant orange or red, the shimmering green with black edges, or the flash of scarlet at the end of a subdued gray body.  Even chickens present a variety of beautiful colors in their feathers.  And if we look at the really dull brown birds, we suddenly realize there is a masterful stroke of blending and hiding in the color.

As if their natural colors weren’t spectacular enough, most cage birds have mutated into sea green, turquoise, sunny yellow, or blue to violet.  Albino, lutino, creamino, cobalt, melanistic, silver, grizzled, fawn, pearl, and so on, all delight the eye of some observer.

The way that birds see colors is astonishing, too!  Their visual range goes into the ultraviolet, beyond human abilities.  They use UV colors for social interaction, mate selection, and navigation.  Some parrot species are not thought to be sexually dimorphic, that is the males and females appear identical to human eyes.  But thanks to the UV spectrum, they know who is what.

Sound is a two-edged input with birds.  Canaries and wild song birds can delight us with melodious song, parrots can entertain with the silly things they say and their gift for timing.  But an unhappy bird can scream, a crow can caw incessantly, and lonely  peacock can rend the calm for miles around.

It’s wonderful, however, when you get used to the sounds made by your cockatiels or budgies or conures.  On a daily basis, especially in the summer, Mike and I will be driving along and hear a very familiar bird sound.  We exclaim in delight, “Finches!”  Or “Cockatiels!”

I’m giving a nod to the sense of humor under sound, because my Congo African grays are certainly masters of comedic timing.  They are special needs birds who came to us when their original owner passed away.  At night, Blind Io often makes sounds like the overweight pugs who lived in his original house.  Their whimpering and snuffling are spot on.  Both parrots like to imitate cockatiels, love birds, and canaries, and occasionally the tea kettle just starting to whistle.  Once we were explaining the parrots’ special needs to a visitor, and when I said, “Bo has no toes,”  Io crooned sadly, “Oh-oh!”

Bo is champion at being the alpha bird.  She asks the others, “Are you okay?  Got water?”  and when she is tired of their noise, “Alright, alright, knock it off!”

Touch is a sensory joy for me with birds.  The softness of their feathers, the sleek, gossamer quality, contrasts with the roughness of their legs and feet, and the hard, sharp beaks.  The complexity of the beaks and the difference between a finch beak and a hook bill are marvelous.  And there is something deeply touching about a tiny zebra finch viciously biting you.  The courage in that little spotted breast is amazing.

A different sort of touch is the feel of a bird sitting on your shoulder or hand.  I started out with cockatiels as “shoulder birds” and thinking that was a good weight for a parrot.  When I acquired Sunny, my sun conure, I thought she was half again as heavy as the cockatiels.  But according to the average weight charts for birds, a cockatiel weighs about 90 grams, while a sun conure gets to 100 to 130 grams.  My current companion, is a love bird, and while he seems to be in-between the two, he’s actually the lightest of the three at 45 to 70 grams.

Taste has immediate conjuring powers of all the chickens I have feasted on.  In high school, I was in the 4H program for a year, because it was supposed to be the fast track to being a veterinarian.  The class project was to raise a bunch of chickens to a certain size and weight, and then have a barbecue.  It was a big success, maybe not so much for the chickens, but I had a good time.

I’ve left smell to the end, because there are, again, two very different types to look at.  Birds might not smell as bad as a dog yard that hasn’t been cleared or a cat box that hasn’t been scooped, but do not think they aren’t close behind.  African grays have some of the stinkiest poop ever invented.  And finches have fast metabolisms that require a quick intake and just as quick output.  It gets really bad if the cage cleaning has been unavoidably delayed by a day.

On the other hand, which I have washed thoroughly, some birds smell very sweet and warm and wonderful.  Our language isn’t full of many words to describe scents, but I will give it a go.  While working a booth for Hookbill Hobbyists at the Del Mar Fair some years ago, I met a young lady who had brought her cockatiel for people to handle and enjoy.  The bird’s name was Chicken.  The young lady loved Chicken, and confessed that she loved to hold him up to her nose and give him a good sniff.  And she was right.  Cockatiels smell very nice!

Many native Australian birds produce a powder down feather that breaks off tiny bits and sifts through the plumage.  It acts as a conditioner and water proofing for the feathers.  The powder can cause illness in humans who are sensitive to it.  Bird-breeder’s lung is primarily caused by exposure to bird droppings, but the feather powder contributes.

A sensory feast on the wing, birds are incredible treats to behold.  And if you are lucky enough to share your home with some, you are lucky indeed.

More Backward Glances

I didn’t plan to become a crazy bird lady.  In fact I insist on not being crazy about this at all.  It just accumulated, over time.  I have related previously my history with pet birds.  Now here are some side bars, as it were, to my life that may well have been signposts to my eventual bird-crazy life.

I grew up in San Diego’s East County.  While in high school, I did a lot of walking around in a park near the apartments I called home because I had a dog but no yard.  One summer a beautiful jay, blue to me, started showing up just when I went walking.  I started whistling and calling to the bird, and liked when he would call back.  He would fly ahead on the route I always took and wait for me to go past.  Then he would go on again.  I never had seeds or treats for him, and I have to believe he just liked the company and the songs.  Much later I found out he was likely a scrub jay.  I will always think of him as about the smartest non-parrot bird I had ever known.

I have a vague memory of a minah bird kept by one of the priests in the parish.  My mother kept house and cooked for the priests when I was very small, and I remember being fascinated by the bird.  His glossy black feathers with yellow accents were attractive, and the sounds and whistles he made were entertaining.  But I mostly remember that he shook the fruit he ate and splattered it all over the wall behind his cage.  Not the perfect pet, if memory serves.

In high school I also had a foster sister for a time.  Cheyenne collected elephants, and started me collecting owls.  Every owl had to have a name, just as her elephants did.  After the first 500, I gave up naming them.  Cheyenne also like crows and ravens, and East County has those in abundance.  Whenever she saw one, she would call to them, making a very passable caw.  I tried to do the same, but never reached her level of competence.  We did get interesting looks from the crows, and occasionally some would fly closer to look at us.

We didn’t feed the crows, but I have never missed a chance to feed ducks and other pond fowl.  I habitually stashed the crust ends of bread loaves in the freezer until we could get out to lakes.  My kids liked the trip too, and were usually able to find a playground near the lake and the ducks.  That may have been the end goal in their minds.

The exception to the rule about pond fowl would be geese.  I love the look of geese, and if they are separated from me by a sturdy fence, I can watch them for hours.  But once on a camping trip in the wilds of Escondido known as Elfin Forest, I heard stories about the pack of geese that lived there on the pond.  They had attacked a guest’s Yorkshire terrier.  Even knowing that the dog probably asked for it, I knew I didn’t want to meet these birds in the dark.  Every night time trip to the restrooms became a harrowing adventure.  Maybe because I carried a stick with me, I was never attacked, but I saw the creatures watching me between the campers and motor homes throughout the day.  Scary.

Mike and I both point out hawks either perched over the freeway or on the wing.  We once saw an owl on the side of the road, at night, possibly feeding on road kill.  We point out the little sparrows and starlings and red-wing black birds wherever we find them.  Once we were in a drive-thru line, and saw sparrows making a nest in a pipe opening on the side of the building.  We took a photo.  If we go to the beach, we look for pelicans, but pretty much ignore gulls.  I would not hurt them, but do not like to encourage them.

In Escondido, there is a flock of returned-to-the-wild parrots.  I occasionally hung out in a area where they fed and roosted, and really enjoyed their noise and color.  Not sure the permanent residents shared my joy.  The flock was pretty mixed when I saw it, even included a few parakeets of the budgerigar variety. I haven’t seen the flock in years, but I hear from others that it’s still going strong.

On a trip to Disneyland, Mike and I were doing our usual bird watching and comments.  The folks with us were impressed by how much we knew and shared.  Either that or they were hoping we would shut up.  And yes, we loved the TIki Room.  I dream of having a bird room someday with a similar theme, but no animatronics involved.

When I lived in Ramona, I was renting a cabin with a high peak roof, an A-frame.  Someone in the area had peafowl, and when the peacocks escaped, they looked for the highest point on which to land.  Yes, the top of a A-frame cabin suited them perfectly.  And there is nothing like the sensation of being woken out of a deep sleep by claws scrabbling on the roof and a wail like someone dead and complaining about the fact.

Individually, these incidents might not amount to very much in the life of an ordinary person.  But for bird people, they indicate a severe addiction.  The only cure is to welcome every bird into your life, no matter how little or how much time they spend with you.  Trust me, I’m a bird lady.

A Quail’s Tale

This is a story of many failed attempts to hatch and raise button quail chicks.  This is a story of death and sadness, and trying again.  This is a story of not doing the research.

A couple summers back I inherited a pair of button quail, also known as Chinese painted quail, from a friend who was relocating.  Quail do not fly, they occasionally jump straight up. and have been known to scalp or brain damage themselves when startled.  They are often kept in aviaries because they clean up dropped seed and don’t bother the other birds in the space.

I put these two, christened Amelia and Earhardt, in my aviary and waited for the quail eggs to appear.  And waited.  Still waited.  Did a bit of research, and decided to add two more females to the group.  Specky and Becky joined the covey and were well received by Earhardt, not so much by Amelia.  But soon there were quail eggs everywhere.

After a time, Amelia gathered all the eggs she could reach into a corner in the aviary and sat on them.  She sat and sat and sat.  We were into fall weather in San Diego county, misty cool mornings and days into the 70s.  I was overjoyed to find a bunch of little chicks following mom around the aviary, and trying to burrow under any bird that sat still long enough.

The chicks were so small they could walk right through the wire on the aviary.  When Mike went in to feed the cockatiels, the chicks would follow him out.  Luckily our cats were old, blind, and not that interested in the birds.  The next morning,  I found most of the chicks stretched out cold and lifeless on the floor of the aviary.  The overnight temperatures had been too low for them.  I was heartbroken, and rushed the two chicks that still seemed alive inside.  I warmed them up through contact with my skin, and fed them hand-feeding formula.  Only one responded to this treatment.

This lone survivor was a dark chick, and he went on to survive being put back out in the aviary.  He grew into a beautiful picture-perfect painted quail male.  We called him Frodo.  Alas, two males in a small space will not work.  One morning we found Frodo and his mother Amelia dead from injuries.   Soon after, we lost Specky as well.

Earhardt and Becky seemed happy to have the aviary to themselves, but Becky was not inclined to lay any eggs.  Once again, I decided to introduce two more hens.  Snowflake was pure white, Tennessee was called a tuxedo coloring by the keeper who sold her to us.  Again, happy Earhardt, not so happy Becky.  But Snowflake didn’t take much from any of the other quails.  She soon became the pinnacle of their pecking order.

This time, I read the manual.  That is, I researched on line on caring for button quail chicks.  Apparently most breeders put the eggs into an incubator, then transfer the chicks to a brooder.  I wanted the quail to do the incubating, but I set up a brooder.  I used a plastic bin, a small dish of food, a small dish of water with lots of stones in it so the chicks can drink around them, but not get wet and die of hypothermia or drown.  And I set up a heat lamp over the bin.  I was ready.

Meanwhile, Mike attached a metal mesh around the bottom three inches of the aviary, so the chicks couldn’t get out.  We now had a younger, healthier cat, and felt we needed this protection.  Tennessee gathered a pile of eggs and started to sit tight.  Anticipation mounted.

But I had yet to realize where the real dangers to the chicks lay.  One morning we found the clutch of eggs scattered, one chick that had hatched dead on the ground, several other eggs with fully developed chicks all destroyed before the chick could hatch.  So, one of the other quail had destroyed the eggs, I thought.

We cleared out the destroyed eggs, and set up a cage that Earhardt could be put into as soon as Tennessee began to sit again.  It didn’t take long.  She’s an excellent and determined mother, as much as quail ever are.  The eggs were laid, and she began to sit tight.  I pulled Earhardt and Becky out of the aviary and put them in a cushy new cage.  Snowflake and Tennessee seemed happy enough with the arrangement, and while Tennessee did all of the incubating, Snowflake would sit next to her at night.

One morning I got a text from Mike, saying the eggs were hatching.  I wanted him to take the chicks in to the brooder right away, but he thought it was warm enough outside for them as it was 80 degrees.  The next text said he had to take our male dove, Storm, out of the aviary!  Storm had seen the quail chicks as a threat to his own nest and dove in, as it were, to try to do away with the chicks and the remaining eggs.  When I got home, we went to get what we still needed for the brooder, and moved the three little chicks into it.

Button quail chicks are about as cute and loveable as you can get in a bird.  They make a sweet soft twee sound and look around constantly if not asleep.  We had one black chick and two yellows.  And I am happy to say that on Day 3 they are surviving.

According to the instructions I found on-line, we will keep them in the brooder for 5 weeks.  I also tried to use hay as a liner for the brooder, but it’s really hard for the chicks to maneuver in.  I am going to change it out for paper towels.  It’s hard for the chicks to get in and out of the shallow dish I have the food in, so once the paper towels are in place, the food can be placed right on the floor.

I don’t exactly feel like Edison, trying and trying until I got the desired results, because as far as I know Thomas Edison never caused the death, directly or indirectly, of baby quail.  But I do feel that I reinvented the wheel, and came up with the same results as others who have gone before me.  And maybe now, I will do more research, even when told the bird is super easy to raise, before I get to the dead baby stage.