Sunday, January 17, 2010

Meet My Boys

Here's a picture of my two little boys on their playgym in my office:

On the left is 5-year-old Joey. I got him when he was 4 months old, a rambunctious baby who got into everything. He still is! The one on the right is 10-year-old Petree. I got him when he was 5 years old. His previous owner named him after the flying dinosaur in the movie The Land Before Time. He's a reserved, dignified little character.

Both of them are Pied (or Harlequin) cockatiels. These are a type of parrot, native to Australia and related to the larger cockatoos. From beak to tip of tail, they're around a foot long.

These guys' personalities and intelligence are amazing! Anyone who uses "bird brain" derogatively to mean "stupid" has probably never gotten to know a parrot. And they're so different from each other. Petree is definitely an introvert. I think of him as a CPA — a certified public accountant — and imagine him dressed in a black suit and tie, carrying a black leather briefcase. He'd be happy crunching numbers in an office. Joey, on the other hand, is an adventurous extrovert and can be aggressive at times. He's also my little cuddlebun, wanting lots of attention and petting -- except near bedtime, when it seems he wants to avoid being put back in his cage. I sometimes think of him as a car salesman, complete with an orange plaid suit.

I've heard of cockatiels being described as perpetual two-year-olds. That sounds about right. I'm eternally amazed at how childlike animals are. These guys are generally sweet, but I've known them to have occasional tantrums, especially at bedtime!

Joey, by the way, is proof that aspirin is for the birds. Look at how he's climbed up and perched on that high seed dish. He couldn't do that last summer. His vet, an avian (bird) specialist named Julie, doesn't know what's wrong with him. Blood tests indicated inflammation, but that can come from a whole array of underlying causes and really didn't tell her anything. Some sort of autoimmune problem, maybe?

Julie suggested trying aspirin for a few days while she gave it some thought. The dosage: one standard unbuffered tablet dissolved in two cups of water, given in his water dish daily. The results were dramatic! He was showing marked improvement in less than 24 hours. After several months of daily aspirin, we agreed to reduce it to every other day. He seems to be doing fine with that. He still isn't 100%, but acts so much more like a normal bird.

We were going to reduce the aspirin further in December, but I couldn't tell for certain that he doesn't feel the difference on the days when he's off, so we decided to leave him on this dose permanently unless he starts having problems with it. Julie tells me that, as far as she can tell from the available literature, birds don't seem to have the kind of problems with aspirin that humans have.

Here are a few bird care pointers I've learned over the years:

  • Yes, definitely do keep their wings clipped! And even then, watch them -- they may still be able to fly enough to get into trouble. Petree in particular is smallish for a cockatiel, and therefore amazingly aerodynamic. I know, I know... They were made to fly. But so many birds escape because of this, and often the results are tragic. Besides, have you ever chased a flighted parrot that didn't want to come down off those high perches?

  • When you let them out of their cages, make sure you know where they are at all times. And let them know the floor is off limits. Yes, they're smart enough to learn that, and you don't have to make them understand why. If you lose sight of them, be very careful. It's too easy for a parrot, especially a small one like a cockatiel, to get stepped on or caught in the footrest of a recliner.

  • Let them out of their cages when you can. They like their freedom too! I've known my birds to get frustrated and angry when they didn't get enough out-of-cage time.

  • Parrots like to chew and destroy things. Don't try to stop them — that's their idea of play, and it's good for their beaks. Be very careful to keep them away from unsafe items, such as electrical cords, jewelry, and toxic plants. And watch out for your windowsills. You can find lots of safe bird toys at pet stores — lava rock, rope and string, leather, soft wood... Also look for toys that provide mental stimulation. One of Joey's favorites is a birdie noisemaker where he has to push buttons that light up.

  • Give them attention! And don't give up if a bird isn't tame. Gentle persistence will usually win out eventually. Petree wasn't used to being handled when I first got him, but now he likes to be petted as much as Joey does — sometimes — and has begun to ask for attention. Believe me, those neck feathers are wonderfully soft. And birds appreciate having the plastic-like coating rubbed off their new head feathers, which they can't reach to preen themselves. Just be careful not to be too aggressive. Those new feathers are tender when they first come in.

  • Yes, they bite. But often it's a means of self-expression, not aggression, and shouldn't be punished. Birds don't have hands, so they use their beaks as tools instead. Learn to know when your bird is expressing itself and when it really means to bite.

The Bird Channel and its Bird Talk Magazine are great sources for more information and news about birds and bird care.

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