A Short Summer Vacation

In order to free up some writing time for myself, I am posting things for the summer that were written some time ago for my bird club, North County Aviculturists, and published in the AviNews newsletter.  I hope you enjoy them.

A Tale of Two (or more)  Budgies by Demi Hungerford

             My first attempt at breeding budgerigars (budgies or parakeets) produced two chicks, both males.  We named them Percival, or Percy, and Lowell, to whom I gave the silly nickname Lo-lo.  Both were a bright blue with just a slight variance in their shades so that we could tell them apart when side-by-side, but not necessarily when not together.  However, Lo-lo had a certain way of standing and walking that made him stand out.  He had splayed legs, and did not take to any of the cures we tried.

            After nearly a year of sharing a cage and spending out time on top of it, a little girl budgie came into our lives.  She was a special needs budgie, just like Lo-lo, unable to hold her head up very much, plucked around the neck by clutch mates, and a bit lame.  Her name was Daphne and she turned out to be a beautiful blue and white bird.  Lo-lo fell in love with her on sight.  Percy was interested, but Lo-lo pushed him away and defended his Daphne over and over.  Daphne also seemed to prefer Lo-lo to Percy, so out went Percy in to the sunshine of the outside aviary.

            Recently, a pizza delivery guy noticed all the birds in our house (really, you’d have to be blind and not very bright to not notice them!) and asked if we would like another budgie.  Always room for one more, right?  He took our phone number, and arrangements were made.  He delivered a small cage containing a little green budgie.  “The kids named him Cage, but he just doesn’t do anything but sit there.”  Apparently they had expected a home entertainment center for the price of one small bird.

            Cage turned out to be a girl.  We renamed her Phoebe, in honor of another parrot we are fond of, and watched as she flirted with Lo-lo in the next cage.  She also played readily with little bits of yucca wood and other toys, which I found extremely entertaining.  Maybe my tastes are just simpler.  Lo-lo noticed Phoebe, but he had his Daphne, so it was a romance that could never be.  Not wanting to leave Phoebe alone for long, we pulled Percy out of the aviary, and introduced them.

            Lightning did not strike twice, but they are tolerating each other.  I wonder if she hadn’t seen Lo-lo first, would she have liked Percy better?  What is it about Lo-lo that females find so attractive?  We may never know.  But the good news is, four active budgies, two with special needs, two fairly ordinary, live at our house, happily ever after.

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Thoughts on Downsizing by Demi Hungerford

 Dedicated to Dom and Ed, and the wonderful people who took them in.

 Fly away, Birds of love,

           Nest in trees not yet seen.

Somewhere awaits a perfect world,

            Find the wide, the cool, the green.

Spread your wings seldom used,

            To soar, or climb, or speed.

Use your eyes, send your calls,

            To find the home you need.

To keep you here would sooth my heart,

            But cruel to you would be.

And at a later date may find

            We would sooner the parting see.

So fly away in love and hope,

            With joy at brightened sight.

Take my wishes for your own good,

            As I bid you a final good night.

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Entertainment Value

Parrots can be very entertaining.  Spend just a few minutes in the bird room at a pet store, and surely you will see some clown budgie or cockatiel or conure entertaining him or her self by hanging upside down, carrying a toy around, tapping on a perch, or just shouting something.  Much of the entertainment is derived from the long-term association we have with our birds.

Just as I sat down to write this, our blind Congo African Gray, Io, gave a loud wolf whistle.  Then a few seconds later, he gave just the first part of the whistle.  And waited patiently for someone to finish it.  I obliged three times, then got busy.  So Mike stepped in and whistled.  Many bird people wonder who is training whom.

All hook bills need toys, many toys of many different kinds, and lots of those toys need to be rotated or changed out occasionally.  Finches and canaries, as far as I have ever observed, don’t much care for toys, but a male of this type will spend hours trying to get a string that has been tied to the side of the cage to pull free.  The strong nest building instinct will not let the little guy rest if he can see the string and has the energy to pull at it.  In this situation, the entertainment is probably felt stronger by the observer and not the bird.

I am entertained by the things Mike says to the birds.  He has named many of them, and bestowed nicknames on more.  He talks to the birds as if they can learn from him, understand him, and answer back. “Why did you do that?”  “Don’t worry, we’ll be right back.”  “It’s not a snake!” and “What did you say, Bobo?” I try not to think about the fact that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different outcome each time.

Bobo, our toeless Congo African Gray, is of course the star of the entertainers.  She waits until our attention is elsewhere, then mumbles something.  If I catch it, I will repeat what it sounded like to me.  Mike will say, “Bobo, watch your language!”  even if he didn’t understand her.  While we had roommates, one of them sang to Bo every day.  Bo tried her beak at warbling a tune.  The pay-off for her is how we react to what she says or does.

As a guaranteed crowd pleaser, Bo can’t beat her dangling act.  Without grasping toes, she still does a remarkable job of climbing around her cage.  She stretches her neck as far as she can to the top of the cage, grabs a bar, and unwraps her legs from around the side.  And there she dangles, waving her little legs in the air.

If this doesn’t get our attention, and since she can make noise without using her beak, she will whistle or call, or something, until one of us notices.   Without fail, one or both of use will tell her she’s a very clever girl, our Bo Dangles.

Love birds are really smart little parrots.  With some stubborn exceptions, they have always learned that once the lights go out at night, if they have been given a night of free flying in the house, then it’s time to go back to their cages.  All I need to do is close and clip the doors behind them.  Problems do arise, that are not entertaining, when we move birds into a different cage.  They are used to going to the location of the cage, and don’t really notice the furnishings.  And that means I may find one pair of lovies cowering in the corner of their cage, complaining about the squatters who are in their food and making themselves at home.

Sometimes a nesting hen will stay in the nest box and rely on the male to feed her and give her moisture that way as well.  She will not defecate in the box, so when the chore is over, the bird goes to the nearest perch, and releases, well, a shit load.  It can take minutes for the process to end.  Our rosey Bourke, Ethel, had to be forcibly removed from a nest when the eggs proved to be infertile.  After she took her dump, she practically glared at me, as if to say, “All that sacrifice for nothing!”

I don’t know why it happens, but sometimes a bird will talk or whistle but we don’t really understand what he is saying.  Mostly this happens with cockatiels.  With my first ‘tiel, Palafox, I wanted him to say, “G’Day, Mate!”  I apparently repeated it with a certain cadence and tone so that he created a whistle to match.  No one else would have understood what he was saying.  Hermes, one of our rehomed cockatiels, gives two identical notes, then a much higher note.  To me, it sounds like he is saying “Jar Jar Binks!”

I’ve seen many videos on Facebook and Youtube of entertaining birds, and our little troupe isn’t in that category.  Few people would be as entertained by their antics and sayings as Mike and I are.  It is exactly like having kids, and understanding your child’s babble.  Or not understanding, as the case may be.  No matter what they do or say, they are our feathered kids.

My Addiction

If you have been reading along, you know that I love birds.  But you may not know that I also love dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, horses, fish, lizards, snakes, in fact it will be a shorter list to name what I don’t like.  Give me a minute.

 I like people, which is good because I work in a sector of local government dealing with people in difficult situations.  More time than I can count, these same people have been overwhelmed and grateful for a small amount of courtesy and understanding.  Sometimes just listening is a great gift to people.

 I have had dogs in my life as long as I remember.  At the age of 4 or 5 I pretended to be a dog, and my mom obligingly put me to sleep on the back porch with the other canines.  Luckily when I decided I preferred a people bed, I was easily able to climb over the gate and go to my room.

 I loved cats so much that I tried to hide a kitten in the back yard.  He was a pretty black kitten, and I had a collar and a rope.  I staked him out back.  I named him Midnight.  I had lied to the man who was finding homes for the kittens, and told him my mom said it was okay.  Within an hour of my bringing the kitten home, mom found out about him, and returned him to the original owner.

 This history should tell you that I had an addiction and my mom didn’t help me get over it.  I also had an addiction to reading, especially animal stories.  I read a book about a boy who saves a mountain lion cub and raises it.  The lion was named Tawny.  I bugged my mom until she got me a ginger kitten that I could name Tawny.  I read about Smokey the cow horse, but could never convince my mom that there was room for a pony in the bathtub.  I read The Yearling, but there were no deer where we lived.  I read Lad: a Dog, Big Red, and The Black Stallion books.

 One of my aunts by marriage also loved to get pets like rabbits and ducks and Yorkshire Terriers.  She gave us a rabbit, a beautiful black male, not sure what breed he was.  We didn’t have a proper rabbit hutch, and as a single mom with little education, my mom was lucky to keep us housed.  We did have an odd cube-shaped thing with wood frame and screen on one side, but no roof or floor.  This became the rabbit’s home, a very tiny area I know now.  Shortly after that, I begged three Easter chicks from my mom, easily obtained from the local feed store.  They, too, had to live with the bunny.  The weather turned cold, the ground grew frosty, and for some odd reason, one by one the chicks succumbed to a strange malady that left them flat and frozen on the ground.  I finally realized the bigger bunny was using them to keep his toes warm during the cold nights.  Poor chickies never had a chance.

 My brother-in-law had a carpentry shop and one day a mixed breed puppy wandered in.  She rolled in the sawdust, and earned the name Dusty.  She was obviously a shepherd mix, and due to changes in circumstances she became my dog after several years.  Adopting Dusty was one of the best things I ever did.  I loved taking her down to Dog Beach, but she wasn’t so thrilled when I tried to go swimming.  Dusty would swim out past me and try to push me back to shore.  Over and over, she tried.  I had roommates at the time Dusty came to live with me, Dana, Ted, and Dana’s 8-year-old daughter Keri.  Their dog Miko got along with Dusty pretty well, so sometimes we all went to Dog Beach.  Ted and Keri paddled out on a boogie board, and the next thing we knew, Dusty was following them.  She did her usual attempt to push them both back to shore, and nearly drowned in the deeper ocean water.  Ted and Keri had to come back to shore so Dusty would not die, and after that I had to hold her on a leash when they wanted to go out.

 We took Dusty out to Borrego Springs one spring to view the desert wild flowers.  We found a great hiking path,  and followed it up to a cliff.  Dusty never left Keri’s side.  If Keri tried to look down from the cliff, Dusty would step between her and the edge.  On this trip, Dusty earned the nickname of Our Tried and True Trusty Trail Dog Trixie.

 Long before that I had roommates who were members of the local herpetological society.  They had lizards and snakes.  We lived in a condo in a formerly rural part of the world, and when gardeners found a king snake, some time after they tried to kill it by hacking at it, they brought it to my roommates.  They set up a cage for the snake, treated the wounds, and fed it a mouse.  I don’t know how many days later I was sitting in the living room reading, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a black striped shape slither across the dining room floor.  The snake had pushed the top of its cage open and slipped out.  When the roommates got home, they located and recontained the snake, putting heavy books on top of the cage.  A day later, the cage was once again empty.  And so the snake earned the name Houdini.

 I had a boss whose husband worked for a local zoo as a reptile curator.  He often brought home Galapagos tortoise eggs to incubate and hatch.  They had an enclosure for the tortoises, and soon had a couple of good size herds.  I loved watching them, especially the hatchlings.  They were so adorable, and it was so hard to fathom that the tiny being would grow to such a size and live so long.

 Animals have played a major role in my life for as long as I can remember.  I cannot imagine my life without them.  I may not have had the easiest childhood, but I remember realizing once that I hadn’t known I was a deprived child until other people started pointing that out to me.  There were always dogs or cats around to play with, to learn with, to read to, and to just be with.  If the Creator is indeed love, my life has been filled with the grace of heaven.

Window of Opportunity

In San Diego County, California, one would think that introducing birds to life out of doors in aviaries would be easy to do, year-round.  While we only have two seasons, most years, there is a pretty narrow window of opportunity for this process.  And that is due to the Marine Layer.

No, Camp Pendleton Marines may be getting pretty bad press right now, but they don’t have  anything to do with this Marine Layer.  The phrase refers to the low, dense fog that rises over the coastal cities, nearly every day, and occasionally makes it all the way in to the inland desert valley where the Home for Happy Hookbills exists.

If your bird or birds have been inside for a day or longer, you will want to wait until the window of opportunity opens for your area.  I’m not really complaining about the San Diego window, knowing that it can be even shorter in other parts of the world.  The window opens when your inside comfortable temperature and the outside overnight temperature are the same.  Here we wait until the overnight temps stabilize at about 60 degrees F.  At least, we wish they would stabilize there.  Sleeping in 80 degree weather is hardly comfortable.  But I digress.

In San Diego, we start with a condition in late Spring called May Gray.  In other words, the Marine Layer floats inland and keeps the temperatures low during the day and at night.  June Gloom starts next, and a revered local weatherman used to say, “No sun in the sky ’till the fourth of July.”  The window opens from July through, usually, September or early October.

Once you have pinpointed the date when the weather gods will favor your venture, you need to know this as well:  The most constant direction of the wind, year-round.  The aviary will need a solid wall on at least half of that side.  A roof and one more side wall, and you are pretty close to the ideal aviary set-up.  Of course the weather situation is only one small part of setting up your aviary.

Now consider how much room you have in the aviary, how many birds you can cram in there, and which birds will get along with whom.  The hardest thing to explain to non-bird people is that birds are individuals.  No, really!  No two cockatiels will react or behave in the same way in identical situations.  You may substitute canary, love bird, budgie, dove, or quail in that sentence.  Okay, maybe not dove.  But because your birds get along inside your home, don’t expect all members of the same species will get along.  And outside, where there are lots of scary things like hawks and cats and possums and leaves blown by the wind, your sweet bird may be more edgy than usual.

Predators are another consideration for your aviary.  If you can build under a tree that will screen the birds inside from the hawks outside, you will be one step ahead.  My aviary became a natural spot to put long branches cut from fruit trees, palm trees, and other vegetation that needed to be cut.  This helps with some camouflaging, but  does not screen out the beneficial sunlight.  We’ve had so few issues with winged raptors that they are memorable when they happen.  Usually the cockatiels will set up a concerned cry and when Mike goes out to check, he will see a hawk sitting on the nearby fence or the peak of the house roof, considering the best way to get at the birds.   Once the hawk sees us,  the creature is off in a hurry.

Mice and possibly rats will have to be deterred.  If you have large birds in the aviary, you want to keep the wire size larger so the birds can get a good grip on the walls.  But that will let the mice walk right in like they own the place.  So a second layer of smaller wire on the outside could be beneficial.  The mice we have like to burrow into potted plants’ soil, apparently eating the roots as well.  Wire covers on the plants help some, but not enough.  Because we have a cat, we do not use poison on the rodents.  We use spring traps, both inside and out.  We also use the cat.  She has been rather good at keeping the population small and intimidated.

When we first moved in to this house, 11 years ago, the neighbors had a tall palm tree that yearly housed a pair of barn owls and their brood.  We rarely saw mice in the area.  But they chopped it down four years ago, probably due to the fire storm fears, and within a year the rodent population had surged.  So the aviary needs to walk a fine line between keeping the birds safe from raptors but not prey to rodents.

Be sure whatever type of food bowls or hoppers you use in the aviary are not going to encourage the rodents either.  We use open bowls in the aviary, and fill them twice a week.  No rodents have camped out in them, probably in part due to the cockatiels drawing a line at sharing their food.

We have large tube waterers high and low for the cockatiels and button quail, a dust bowl for the quail, and a splash bath for the cockatiels.  I try to keep some plants either just outside the aviary or inside in bird cages so that the birds can only eat a part of the plant at any one time.  The mice that can get in to the aviary can get into the bird cages where the plants are, and that is a losing battle.

With the time of year finally upon you, the aviary set up with the number of walls and a roof needed, food and water bowls chosen, and happy birds to live in it, you will find hours of enjoyment watching the life in this community.  Wherever you live, soak up the summer and think about how healthy your birds will be.

The Baby Snatchers

If you have any plans to hand feed baby birds, for whatever reason, at some point you become a Baby Snatcher,  You either take the eggs and incubate them, and feed the hatchlings from day one, or you pull the chicks out of the nest at about two weeks and hand feed.  You harden your heart to the cries of the parents, and focus on the adorable baby birds.

I had an incubator for many years,  It was a very expensive one, but designed for reptile eggs, so there was no turning mechanism.  Reptile eggs need to remain still, while bird eggs need to be turned regularly.  I never got to the point where I wanted to use it, and I sold it.  Then I got button quail.  Now I wish I still had the incubator.  And if you read my prior post on button quail, sadly none of those chicks survived.  Back to the drawing board,

If I had an incubator, and I hatched any parrot or finch eggs, I would be faced with trying to hand feed just hatched babies.  It can be done, but not by someone with a full time job.  I think that held me back from using the incubator more than anything else.

A quick note on fostering, I have had society finches that were very good at hatching zebra finch eggs,  Sometimes they would even raise the chicks.  The worst experience I had involved cut throat finches.  Our pair were named Mac and Suki.  They took a while to lay eggs at all, and then hatched the babies but wouldn’t feed them.  Finding baby finches on the floor of the cage is never pleasant.  So the next round of eggs I slid under a pair of society finches.  They dutifully sat on the eggs, then just as if they had taken notes from the cut throats, they tossed the babies.

Most of the time, I let the parents hatch the eggs and do the first two weeks of feeding.  This serves the same purpose as breastfeeding a human child, transferring some of the parents’ antibodies to the chicks.  Then I pull the babies and hand them off to a qualified hand feeder.  My usual plan is to pay for the formula, and either split the clutch or split the money with the person who does all the work.  But this assumes we have more than one chick.

It can be difficult to take all the chicks out of a nest.  The parents continue to distrust you long after, and if you were building any sort of relationship with the birds, their reaction can hurt.  The chicks, however, are so cute and so cuddly and absolutely fear free, and that makes up for some of the heart-wrenching.

I have pretty good luck with my cockatiels breeding out in the aviary.  I have had bunches of clutches when I had no one to hand feed.  Now I have a hand feeder and the cockatiels are producing lots of eggs, but no chicks have hatched.  I am trying to be patient.

I want to focus on breeding violet love birds inside, but of the two pair I have, I am getting lots of eggs but only one chick hatched.  That chick went to the hand feeder last week.  The violet pair who are the parents have spent every day since then sounding an alarm call whenever I enter the bird room.  Both Mike and I have told them they just need to go lay more eggs, and they can have more chicks.  They will figure this out eventually.  And I may let them keep one chick just so they don’t get discouraged. And to make myself feel better about the whole process.

I try to be conscientious regarding the number of clutches I let the birds have.  Depending on the type of bird, 2 to 4 clutches per season is plenty.  The hens wear out so quickly that it is just resource conservation to limit the output.  The variable exists because if a pair don’t have to raise the chicks to fledging, then there is less stress on them both,  but any egg laying stresses the hen.  If the hen continues to lay eggs even if you pull all available nests, then you might need to take a few drastic steps.  Or possibly let her keep some eggs.

To give a hen eggs that won’t hatch, all you need to do is shake each egg thoroughly before returning it to the nest.  A hen usually knows when the egg is past hope of hatching, and will stop sitting on the nest after that point.  Another way to stop egg laying is to closely regulate how much food, water, and light the bird gets, and move the cage around.  Move things around in the cage, too.  No more than 8 hours of light per day, no more food than is needed for a single day, and no more water than enough to drink, no bathing.  The opposites of these triggers the spring breed response in many birds.

Pulling two-week-old chicks from cockatiels can involve bloodshed.  Cockatiel hens are protective of the nest, and sometimes the male will be as aggressive and defensive.  Even doing nest checks to determine if any eggs have hatched can be dangerous. Currently we have four boxes hung up, and three pair plus two single males using them.  Obviously one box is empty, since the unmated males haven’t convinced any females to lay eggs for them to sit on.  Male cockatiels can do a pretty good job of brooding eggs and feeding young, and a pair will often give you as good results as a heterosexual pair.

Once the chicks are pulled, they need to be kept warm, then delivered to the hand feeder who then puts them into a brooder of some sort.  Some sort of schedule will be in place to feed them every four hours, then every six or however long they can go.  Chicks do not need to be fed overnight, any more than wild birds would feed the chicks at night.  But they will need food first thing in the morning,

Most hand feeders will track weight gain in the chicks, just to be sure no problems arise.  Some also clip the birds’ wings before they actually can fly.  But this will only delay weening the chicks off hand feeding.  They will lose some weight and fly right when they are good to feed themselves.  It’s also a good idea to keep bits of good food in the cage once the babies are no longer in need of a brooder.  Bits of broccoli, lettuce or kale, apple, almonds, depending on the bird, these items can be left in the cage for a day so the babies can beak and taste and learn good nutrition.  Cooked pasta and hard boiled egg can also be put in, but for only an hour or so.  Make sure the food does not spoil however long you leave it with the birds.

Baby snatching is the inevitable task of those who raise birds for the pet trade.  The act may cause stress and unhappiness in the breeder for a time.  The end result, a calm beautiful parrot who likes to be with people, makes it worth while to the breeder.  To the parent birds, not so much.  But at least they will get another chance next breeding season.