Archive for August, 2008


Vet Update

August 28, 2008

Just a quick update: all the blood work came back from the lab and our avian vet says both Stewie and Mika’s tests came back fine. Everything looks good. Not that I was expecting any bad news, but it’s nice to have confirmation that everyone is healthy.

Pionus are susceptible to gout. This is actually why a very pellet-heavy diet is not ideal for the species — too much protein. In a Pionus diet, especially, you want to moderate protein and fat intake and go heavier on the veggies and fruits, so I need to work a little harder at getting Mika to accept fresh food. I suppose it might also make sense to add a bit more seeds back into her diet, although that doesn’t seem super healthy either. (She’s thinking: D’uh, I’ve been telling you all along that you need to feed me more seeds Lady!)

In related news, having the vet clip Stewie’s wings was definitely the appropriate decision. Not only am I so much more relaxed (and let’s not underestimate the importance of that), but both birds now get to go in and out of their cages as they please when I’m home – I can even turn my back or leave the room briefly without worrying that anyone (read: Stewie) will start trouble. (More about that in my previous post)

Twice the out of cage time also means that they are less reluctant to go back inside when it’s time for me to leave or for them to go to bed. I no longer fight with Stewie to get him back in his cage or have to chase Mika around her playtop; I can just let both of them go inside whenever they’re ready and close the door behind them.

Mika figuring out how to escape from her cage
through an unused food door.


Stewie Has His Wings Trimmed Again

August 27, 2008

It was with some trepidation and a lot of guilt that I told the vet to clip the rest of Stewie’s flight feathers. I loved having him flighted when he was an only bird, but ever since he’s taken to harassing and divebombing Mika I can’t trust him not to abuse his flying privileges. So I took that option away from him.

For a few weeks we had tried a partial clip (a “show clip” that left the outer two flight feathers of each wing in tact) to slow him down. And it did slow him down a little… for a few days. My hope had been that trying to attack Mika wouldn’t be worth the extra work to him, but it turned out that with the modified clip he could still fly across the living room and back without too much effort. Keeping him from flying at Mika, which he tries to do at every opportunity, took a lot of vigilance and it really was stressing me out.

Stewie in the Fall of 07 before his primaries grew out.

Stewie in the Fall of '07 with his original clip, before his primaries grew out.

So Stewie is “grounded” — now all the flapping in the world only results in a trip to the floor — and peace has been restored. I can now let both the birds out at the same time, without fear of bloodshed, which also means that both birds get twice as much out-of-cage time as before. No longer do I need to watch the clock to regulate who gets to come out when.

To clip or not to clip is a controversial subject, one that I don’t want to go into right now. But I do believe you have to do what is right and what is best for your particular household. It’s only been a few days, but I already feel so much more relaxed and comfortable — and the extra out-of-cage time is resulting in happier birds too, or so I’d like to think.

I can only be hopeful that one day (in the distant future) Stewie and Mika will get along well enough to share the playstand and preen each other. Perhaps.

For now at least (here in Reality Land), they can coexist more peacefully, each on his or her own side of the room.



August 22, 2008

I’m nursing a bruise on my knuckle.

Stewie bit me “for no reason!” (Gratuitous use of quotation marks? No, keep reading.)

He was sitting on my arm while I was working on the computer and he ran down my arm, bit down hard on my knuckle and wouldn’t let go. I yelped and flailed around ’til I basically shook him off.

(If you’re asking, Why didn’t you just ignore the bite? You’re supposed to show no reaction whatsoever… um, have you ever been bitten by a parrot? It’s almost impossible not to react when a parrot bites down. But more on that in a later post.)

The way to stop a biting habit is to avoid getting bitten in the first place, and Stewie and I have worked pretty hard at getting to the point where I trust he’s not going to bite just out of the blue … under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, if he’s sitting on me, he’s actually very gentle.

Non-ordinary circumstances include (but are not limited to) me holding certain evil objects; the mouse joins the Swiffer and my cell phone (the new one, the old one was just fine) on the list of things that Stewie will not tolerate me having contact with. Those I had to find out about the hard way (which means getting bitten several times before it dawned on me what I was doing wrong.) And I strongly suspect the camera would get me bitten as well if I’m not careful.

He’s fine with them if they’re just sitting there, but if I’m holding any of these objects and he’s perched on me, he will clamp down and not let go.

Im gonna bite you!
I’m gonna get you, evil camera!

Why does my bird bite when I’m holding my cell phone? I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter why he’s doing it. Parrots are funny creatures. Or rather, parrots are not domesticated animals. Who knows what’s going through their heads, what ingrained instincts they’re acting on. Maybe he’s trying to protect me from things he thinks might hurt me (in the wild, parrots will bite their mates to prompt them to flee from danger), maybe it’s redirected aggression (he wants to kill the Swiffer but can’t, so he takes his anger out on me) – there’s no way to tell. The only thing to do is make sure to be very aware of where he is if these things need to be used.

The point of this long story is actually this: a bird never bites for no reason; there’s always a reason … it’s just that sometimes that reason isn’t clear because it makes no sense to us.

If I didn’t know Stewie and his body language, and when he behaved like this, I almost certainly would have thought he bit me out of the blue and completely unprovoked. Learning how he reacts, and to what, took a while; I certainly didn’t have him figured out in a few days, weeks or even months.

So if you have a seemingly bipolar bird who “goes crazy all of a sudden”, take a close look at what happened right before the bite or what’s going on in the environment. Do these events have anything in common? You might figure out that he’s not so unpredictable after all, and all you have to do is put that evil cell phone away (or whatever) .

(For more information identifying antecedents to biting and how to solve problems with a biting parrot, check out this PDF article by Susan Friedman. Click for the PDF.)

p.s. Mika’s has never bitten me hard, and only twice did she pinch me in a way that it was clear she meant to (and once was when she had only just met me and I asked her to step up, so I suppose she was entitled). But that doesn’t mean that she can’t. As I’ve said before: there’s no such thing as a parrot who doesn’t bite.

Case in point, DP, who is very leery of the Stu-monster, was bird sitting for the Feathers and told his roommate “Mika is so sweet, she doesn’t bite at all [implied: unlike Stewie]”. Mika, naturally, takes this opportunity to show that yes, in fact, she knows how to draw blood! The roommate, a total animal person and former parrot owner herself and therefore not reckless about approaching animals, was pretty upset. (Sarah, It really wasn’t personal!)

So if someone tells you that their parrot doesn’t bite, take that with a big grain of salt; all that means is that the bird hasn’t ‘t bitten lately, or it hasn’t bitten the owner yet, or generally doesn’t bite if in a familiar environment, or they’re just lying through their teeth because they are trying to sell their bird as quickly as possible.

Thank you Mika for not biting me, even though I totally respect that you could if you wanted to. Scritches!

p.p.s. For more help understanding your parrot’s body language and behavior, I recommend Barbara Heidenreich’s Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots.


Step-Up Isn’t Always the First Trick to Teach a Parrot

August 11, 2008

When I first got Stewie I tried training him to step up because conventional wisdom has that this should be the first thing a bird learns. All Stewie learned was that if he bit me hard enough I’d eventually go away. 😦

Then I found the Bird Click group on Yahoo and took the advice to start with target training. I stopped presenting my finger to him because he bit and he bit hard, and the first rule of clicker training birds is “avoid the bite.”

Mika Stepping Up

Mika Stepping Up

We started with targeting and moved on to a few other prop behaviors. After he learned several tricks, he started stepping up on my arm even without my having “trained” him to do it.

He did it because he had started to trust me and knew that I was a convenient method of transportation (at that time he wasn’t flighted). After a couple more tricks, Stewie now even steps up on a finger (although he still prefers arms) … again, without any explicit training on my part.

A common attitude is that there’s no point to teaching “stupid parlor tricks” like basketball, crawling through a tunnel, etc. if you’re not planning on putting on shows. And there are certainly more important tricks to teach than how to manipulate props — the most important, of course, being stepping up.

So what do you do if your bird refuses to step up? Do you keep forcing it, pushing your bird because it’s something she is supposed to know? And if yes, what do you do when your bird eventually starts biting, harder and harder and harder?

In my experience, it’s absolutely true that teaching “stupid parlor tricks” first helps get a bird more comfortable with handling and stepping up later on. If you have a distrustful bird — it seems common for parrots to be afraid of hands — teach him that hands are the source of wonderful treats, not instruments of brute force that bully him into doing things he is scared or unwilling to do.

There’s no reason you need to force a trick they don’t like; and if you come back to it later, you’ll probably find a much more willing student. And if your bird eagerly targets, getting him to step onto your finger eventually will be a cinch.


Bonus: Mika admiring a photo of a pretty Pionus stepping up:


Evie the Eagle Plays Fetch

August 5, 2008

We’re taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to show you something really cool.

Ever wanted to play fetch with a bird that has a wingspan of 8 feet and talons large enough to wrap around a tennis ball? Meet Evie the Eagle:

This trick is super-advanced flighted retrieve (i.e., not just retrieve, not just flying to retrieve and flying back, but catching the object mid-air and returning it. Wow! (Here’s the newspaper story on Evie and her handler)

And now back to parrot stuff.


Conure Puts Coins in a Piggy Bank

August 5, 2008

Here’s Stewie doing his coins in a piggy bank trick. The blue piggy bank is just a ceramic bank I picked up at a toy store. The “coins” are plastic disks from a Connect Four travel set.

The coins in the piggy bank trick was taught the same way as rings on a peg (which in turn was a variation on retrieving/putting a ball in a cup). You can find parrot clicker training resources here (scroll down to the Getting Started Clicker Training for Birds book).