Archive for July, 2008

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Enjoying the Outdoors in Travel Cages

July 31, 2008

After Mika had her shower on Saturday morning, I took her and Stewie out on the balcony in their travel cages to soak up some sun. Stewie admired her wet bird look and decided to take a bath in his water dish.

It was such a gorgeous weekend, the entire flock (myself included) enjoyed hanging out on the balcony.

Both of them now have similar travel cages.

The two travel cages are basically plain ol’ cockatiel cages you find at pet stores: much too small for permanent homes, but perfect as travel cages. Since the travel cage is only for transport and short stays, I’m not as concerned about the bar diameter or spacing; I just wanted something light-weight, roomy enough for either bird to move around just in case they had to stay in it for a few days, and easy to store.

Here’s a closer shot of Mika in her new travel cage showing off her pretty blue and green wing feathers.

Mika’s previous travel carrier was a mesh and polyester contraption that was very convenient for being able to fold down into a small space.

What was not quite convenient about it was that Mika managed to chew her way out of it! 🙂

On our last car ride I had to pinch pieces of it together to prevent her from sticking her entire head through the hole she created … we even stopped at a PetCo on the way home to see if we could find a travel cage right then and there.

In the end, I ordered the cage online at BirdCages.com, the same site I bought my other cages. In the past their delivery was so amazingly fast that I decided I’d even order a dinky little cage from them. Shipping was still free, but it took close to a week. Not bad at all, but my big 100-lb cages arrived in TWO days.

Six days is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to wait with free shipping, but I was in a hurry for it to arrive since I didn’t have anything to transport her in (except the now exceptionally well ventilated Port-a-Pet) …and you never know what’s going to come up that’ll require a trip outside the house.

p.s. You can often find good deals on used travel carriers for birds on eBay, Craigs List and similar sites.

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Getting Started Clicker Training Mika

July 28, 2008

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to convince Mika to eat a bigger variety of food. I’ve put off training with her because she’s such a picky eater that it’s hard to remove treats from her regular diet to use for rewards.

Furthermore, she’s a very slooooow eater. So far there’s nothing she likes that doesn’t take her a few seconds to eat, so we’ve been very slow to get started with training — that’s because the training reward should be something that can be eaten quickly enough that it doesn’t stop the flow of training. The bird should not be given any opportunities to get distracted from the behavior being reinforced.

My first goal before I even started training was to change her diet: no more peanuts, fewer seeds, high-quality pellets instead of filler and, if possible, fresh foods. In addition to being better for her, it would be awfully convenient if Mika and Stewie ate the same foods – it would cut preparation time in half!

🙂

(In the past few weeks I have convinced her that Nutriberries — Stewie’s favorite treats — are yummy, but that’s a little like convincing a kid who only eats candy that oatmeal cookies are good! lol.)

The good news is that seeds are finally a much smaller part of her diet, with the majority of it consisting of a combination of Zupreem Avian Maintenance Natural pellets, the same type as Stewie’s but bigger, and Kaytee Exact Organic pellets, plus a mix of dehydrated vegetables. She still gets pumpkin seeds for snacks, but the sunflower seeds are only for rewards now.

Even though unshelled sunflower seeds still take a little longer for Mika to crack and eat than I’d like, it seems like the best training treat option for her. I might even try shelled sunflower seeds if it appears that it takes her too long to shell them herself.

So I think we’ve finally overcome the hurdle to the very first step of clicker training: finding an appropriate treat.

We’ve started on the second step of clicker training: charging the clicker. This is where we introduce the parrot to the concept that click –> treat.

Once that’s established we work on teaching that trick –> click –> treat (i.e. that specific behavior –> reward)

I actually never charged the clicker with Stewie — we just started on tricks right away; to tell the truth, I’m not sure he even gets the whole concept of the clicker — but he certainly “gets” training. For some reason it just seems like Mika requires more introduction to the concept and the clicker might be necessary for marking the desired behavior more precisely since she does react more slowly than he does.

Here’s a video of me charging the clicker with Mika and asking for step ups:

At the end of this session, right after this video ended, I tried introducing the target stick, but she just ran away from it, so I’m saving targeting for a separate training session.

Since I haven’t really done any training with Mika, there aren’t a lot of videos of her. So if you’re wondering why there are quite a few of the Stu-monster and so few movies of my pionus, that’s why. I promise it’s not one of those no-one-takes-photos-of-the-second child things 🙂 I’ll take more videos once she knows how to do some tricks, and I’ve asked my videographer friend who did the cute Introducing Stewie video to make one of Mika as well. With her looks, there’s no reason she can’t be a movie star too.

Update: July 31

Only our second training session ever and she already seems to get targeting. She’s even taking a few steps towards the target on her own. Hurray!

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Ann Brooks, Founder of Phoenix Landing

July 24, 2008

When Ann Brooks founded Phoenix Landing in April 2000, it was the culmination of many years of planning. Her goal was to form an organization that could help long-lived parrots like Phoenix, her 13 year-old greenwing macaw, who she knew would probably out live her and would one day need a new home and continued care for many future decades.

Today, Phoenix Landing operates across multiple states on the East Coast to help hundreds of parrots and the humans that love them. Specifically, the organization provides educational activities regarding the care and needs of parrots, helps parrots who outlive their guardians to find a new home, finds new homes for neglected or unwanted parrots, supports conservation and eco-tourism, sponsors better avian education for vets and vet students, and similar activities.

Ann Brooks took time out of her busy schedule to answer questions about Phoenix Landing and its activities.

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1. Tell us how Phoenix Landing got its start. Is there anything that sets Phoenix Landing apart from other parrot rescues?

Ann and Phoenix My original purpose in forming Phoenix Landing, like so many other well-intentioned people, was to build a sanctuary. In particular, I knew that my Phoenix (greenwing macaw pictured on the right) would one day need a safe place to land because she should outlive me by decades. However, I’ve come to believe that most birds will flourish best when placed with a new family. Yet even adopted birds will likely need several new future homes because they live a long time; but birds are very resilient and it is in their nature to adapt and change. We’ve seen hundreds of birds adjust well and quickly to their new homes.

I think what sets Phoenix Landing apart from most other welfare organizations is that we serve a very extensive area (Washington DC, MD, VA, NC as well as parts of PA, WV, SC and TN). We facilitate adoption throughout these areas as well as a robust educational program. We firmly believe that education is the most important thing we do and the best way to help more birds. In addition, every bird that comes to Phoenix Landing remains under our legal guardianship for life. We require families to let us know if they can no longer care for their adopted bird so we can facilitate another new home. Most birds are long-lived and we want to insure that they remain in good situations throughout their entire lives.

Also, I have to brag. We have extraordinary volunteers doing extraordinary work. They are motivated by the parrots that we help, and the families who care for them. They forge a network of determined individuals throughout several states, and our strength lies in their teamwork, diversity and geographic dispersion. I believe that Phoenix Landing will remain a viable institution as a result. Many organizations cannot say this.

2. A lot of people seem to think animal rescue organization shouldn’t charge adoption fees if their goal is to place as many animals in homes as possible. Can you tell us why adoption fees are necessary for organizations like Phoenix Landing?

Welfare organizations have costs just like any other business. In order to provide services, we must have revenue to cover the expenses. Most of the birds that come to us go immediately to the vet, sometimes the medical costs for a bird will far exceed any reasonable adoption fee. We also host an educational program which people are encouraged to support but no fees are required. We want people to learn. In addition, if we did not have adoption fees, we could not bear the cost of our foster program (350 birds in foster right now and on average) – the vet and cage expenses for these birds alone are costing us tens of thousands.

In addition, we are an all volunteer organization. We do our work for the joy of seeing birds acquire the care and respect they so deserve. Our efforts are not for the purpose of helping people to acquire free birds. Some people think they are “rescuing” a bird and we should just give it to them. We disagree. No one is paid for the countless hours of work we do, but those who benefit should help support the organization’s programs and its expenses. Most of the birds that come to Phoenix Landing are not “rescues.” These are birds from families who could not, for one reason or another, continue to care for their parrot, and they turn to us for professional help. Someday, this could be your bird and you would want us to spend the time looking for an excellent new home, not out on the streets clamoring for money to make ends meet.

We want to use our volunteer time for the bird, not for fundraising. Adoption fees are one solution for this.

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This photo of a Senegal eating his veggies is from
the Phoenix Landing parrot calendar, one of several items
available for purchase at the Phoenix Landing online store.

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Lastly, our goal is to place as many birds in good homes as possible. A good home is one that can financially commit to the parrot’s health from all perspectives: providing adequate vet care, a healthy diet with fresh foods, and an environment that stimulates them mentally and physically. Cages, toys, food, vet visits: all of this costs money. The fees that we charge to adopt a parrot do not begin to fully cover the costs of our programs, and are nothing compared to the cost of the parrot over her lifetime.

3. You charge different amounts for different types of parrots. How do you determine how much the adoption fee should be for particular species?

We have a range so that we can find an overall balance in our revenues vs expenditures. We ask for a donation for the smallest birds, because frankly, we don’t want people going to the store to buy a “cheap” one. A larger bird has a higher fee to help us make up for all of the other costs. We believe that birds are expensive to care for properly, and the adoption fee is minimal by comparison. Chances are, if someone can’t afford the fee, they probably can’t afford to care for the bird properly either (vet, toys, food, cage, play areas, etc).

4. In your opinion, what makes a “perfect” parrot owner?

Some the attributes we most value in our applicants are:

  • Willingness to learn, since none of us will ever achieve perfection and there is so much to know;
  • Commitment to provide a mentally and physically enriched life for a parrot;
  • Respect for a parrot’s nature without expectations in return;
  • Patience! Learning to live successfully with a parrot can be very challenging, and requires dedication. Problems are not solved over night.

5. What are some reasons Phoenix Landing might turn down an adoption application?

We have never turned anyone away. However, we do sometimes ask that they learn more about behavior or nutrition, or invest in a larger cage first — examples of things that might be important for the parrot’s welfare or successful companionship.

6. What’s the hardest part of running a parrot rescue?

The hardest part is finding a way to get ahead of the number of parrot’s that need help. We always have a long wait list. The number of birds far outweighs the number of people interested in making a genuine commitment to care for them. Supply far outweighs demand, and yet the number of young birds sold on the market does not seem to slow down. Our job is to help people understand that a re-homed bird can be a great companion, the same if not more so than a young bird.

7. Do you have a favorite parrot adoption story?

Well, that would be Fred, one of my adopted blue and golds. She was a pet store’s pet for 18-plus years. Her cage was small, her food was lacking in quality, she had one swing and nothing else to do. So her primary focus was preening; her chest was featherless as was most of her back. Her feet were atrophied. She was bored crazy and in ill health.

Now, she is a most companionable bird, we have an extraordinary relationship. She insists to forage, will often hang by one toe and squeal with the delight of life, eats a huge variety of foods with relish, has grown all of her feathers back, and chuckles at her own mumbled jokes. If anyone thinks a bird is not resilient and capable of learning a new way of life, they have only to meet Fred to know this is not true. Parrots are remarkable in their ability to survive, and it’s our job as people to give them this chance with dignity and respect and quality-of-life.

Fred is Ann’s gorgeous Blue & Gold Macaw. After being
rescued from pet-shop neglect, she’s now a healthy and happy bird.

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A big thank you to Ann for her time to conduct this interview and of course to all of the volunteers who help run Phoenix Landing’s many excellent programs

Also, Phoenix Landing wants to help people understand that birds are resilient, adaptable, complex and capable of adjusting well to change: a re-homed bird is a great choice for anyone looking for a new feathered pet. As Ann says: Birds in good homes need to sustain their quality of life; birds in neglect and misery need to find a better place.

Please check out Phoenix Landing’s adoptable parrots list for just a few of the birds ready for new homes. There are actually many more great parrots in Phoenix Landing’s foster care that are looking for permanent homes, some of which you can meet if you come to one of the Phoenix Landing workshops.

Pictured above is one of many sweet and
adoptable parrots at Phoenix Landing
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Happy One-Year Anniversary Stewie!

July 15, 2008

One year ago TODAY, Stewie came home to live with me, and my life hasn’t been the same since. Because he was found on the street unbanded, we have no way of knowing how old he is, much less his exact hatch day, but July 15 marks the 1-year anniversary of his being my little Stu-monster* so I’m lighting a single (virtual) candle to mark the occasion.

Happy one-year anniversary, Stewie!

Working with Stewie has been such an incredibly rewarding experience, I wish more people knew how great it feels to earn the trust of a formerly untame bird. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in a year. Here’s to hoping for many, many, many, many more years to come.

* technically I didn’t decide on his name for several weeks, but that’s neither here nor there.

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Teaching to Put Rings on a Peg

July 13, 2008

Here’s a video of Stewie putting rings on a peg. This trick is based on simple retrieve (although I didn’t start working on it until he perfected “ball in a cup“). I trained retrieve with a variety of objects, including these rings, so when it became time to teach this ring toss game, Stewie already knew to bring the ring to me and put it in my palm. I started off holding the peg in my hand and guiding it through the ring as he was holding it.

It took a long time of my helping him place the rings before he was capable of doing it without much help, and even once I stopped helping him by guiding the peg it still took a long time before he got proficient at it and perfected his aim. In the beginning he got a treat for every ring, but now that he does it pretty well I make him do 3 rings one after the other before he gets a reward.

Because the rings are also used for retrieve, he sometimes just tries to give the ring to me (i.e., put it in my hand) instead of getting it onto the ring — that’s what’s going on with the blue ring in the second section of the above video.

He also likes to cheat and lift up the ring he just placed on the peg a little bit and the let it drop again, rather than going to get a new one, so I have to hold down the already-placed rings with my finger so he can’t pick them up again.

If you’re interested in teaching your small parrot how to perform tricks like these, please check out Melinda Johnson’s book Clicker Training for Birds (Getting Started).

Clicker Training for Birds is an awesome resource for anyone interested in building a stronger relationship with their pet parrot. I’ll be writing up a book review of Melinda Johnson’s Clicker Training for Birds, but definitely don’t wait to buy it. Check out Stewie’s YouTube videos for more examples of cool tricks my sun conure learned using clicker training.

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How a Sun Conure Makes Friends

July 8, 2008

Having just posted about Stewie the sun conure and his reluctance to play nice with Mika, the precious new Pionus in our life, I’m reminded of an absolutely adorable video on the topic of how to make friends (starring Bo the sun conure):

Bo, you are awesome and an inspiration!

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Progress Report: Mika Settling In

July 8, 2008

The long weekend was the perfect opportunity to give Stewie and Mika lots of attention and out of cage time … simultaneously. I’m constantly reminded not to rush them — so far their introduction hasn’t been the smoothest process — but we made a lot of progress if you keep in perspective that animals can sometimes takes months to warm up to each other.

Mika’s and Stewie’s cages are now set up on opposite sides of the room, so they can see each other without being too close. For the last few weeks, they’ve had separate out of cage time and Stewie has been reinforced for staying on his side of the room. He’s been pretty good about leaving Mika alone, but I don’t give him opportunities to go to her. (Recall that last time he bit her, she was “safe” inside her cage. And despite now being partially clipped, Stewie still flies across the room and back very easily! His latest wing clipping barely slowed him down.)

Over the weekend, we let them both out at the same time and each birdie got one whole human to pay full, undivided attention to them for hours at a time.

Mika had the security of two people running interference in case Stewie wanted to “visit” her (i.e., fly over to knock her off her perch). DP seems to adore Mika — he feels much more at ease with Mika’s deliberate personality than he does with the flightiness of my sun conure — and I think the feeling is mutual.

Stewie, in turn, could be confident that even with Mika out of her cage he didn’t have to fight for my attention or defend what he perceived to be his. I kept his attention away from Mika by working on his tricks, feeding him snap peas, inviting him crawl up my sleeves and letting him do all the usual stuff he finds so entertaining.

Being able to spend 3-plus days giving both birds lots and lots of attention was fun and satisfying. I feel less stressed out and am not worrying about shortchanging either one of them. Stewie has settled down tremendously. And I think Mika is a pretty happy girl too. What do you think?

Mika the pionus parrot playing with a foot toy

Mika likes foot toys, so she can have all of Stewie’s unused ones.