Sunday, March 14, 2010

Heavy Metal Toxicosis

In the June/July issue of ABK Magazine later this year I will be writing about our recent experience with heavy metal toxicosis in our Nanday Conure - `Nandy' (yep - dumb name but the best I could come up with at the time and it stuck). We've been lucky to have avoided this health issue and Nandy was our first case. We still haven't determined the source, which is a concern. The good news is that, thanks to some outstanding veterinary care from Dr. Stacey Gelis, she has recovered well (folks - you just can't beat a qualified avian vet, they're tops and worth every darn cent). The pic above is me working with her today on some basic recall to and from her cage. She flies like a butterfly - it sounds ridiculous but she's as light as a feather and just seems to `flit' rather than `flap'. Gorgeous! Still makes the most hideous call of any parrot I have ever owned though - hands down. Sorry Nandy, but it's true mate.

For some info on Heavy Metal Toxicosis check out the following link...

Maya's Training Diary

In the next issue of ABK Magazine I will be introducing readers to a few additions we have made over the past 18 months to our training team - a group of parrots that I use for my consultation work. One very unexpected addition was `Maya' (pronounced `my-a', not `may-a') the Green-winged Macaw. She's not going to be a permanent resident here as I don't actually `own' her but instead she is on loan for a while given her special circumstances. It was an opportunity for me to work with an almost completely parent-raised Macaw that, due to having to be support fed via crop syringe after being abandoned by her parents at fledging age, is very averse to hands and completely unlike a hand raised and imprinted Macaw. I was keen to see what sort of outcomes could be achieved with such a bird. So far it has been a challenge. Besides having almost no real trust in human hands, we are also working on minimising and hopefully eliminating some early onset feather picking behaviour on her legs that she started whilst being weaned offsite. The long-term goal is to get her partnered with at least one other Green-winged Macaw as these birds absolutely thrive in the company of their own kind and flying `solo' is not (in my opinion) the ideal lifetime scenario for a Macaw.

In the short-term however, we're going to work through the process of seeing what sort of relationship we can establish with her and take it from there. She has only been with us for three weeks and although each day is a new page in the relationship building story, I really only started some focus sessions with her 5 days ago. What I have been doing are just short, 15 minute, positive reinforcement sessions each afternoon, gradually building up her tolerance and acceptance of my proximity to her. I plan to detail these sessions in a future Pet Parrot Pointers column in ABK magazine but in the meantime, below are just a few images of the approximation pathway that we were able to achieve in Session 5 with Maya that ended with her actually placing both feet on my arm (not shown) - a huge trust moment for her! To work with birds like this is very special indeed, and humbling as a trainer as it really does challenge you to think fast, problem solve quickly, and above all, tune in to the slightest body language indicators on offer from the bird to know when to raise your criteria and shape the next stage of the behaviour. The images don't give the full reveal as they don't show just how apprehensive this bird is, but they do hopefully give some indication of just how slow good training with a parrot like this needs to be. The end result in the second last image was achieved after five 15 minute sessions over five consecutive days. No magic - no voodoo - no `bird tricks' - just patience, perseverance, keen observation, timely reinforcement delivery and above all - respect.

Image 1: Starting off where we finished the previous session with Maya taking food treats from the hand and maintaining close proximity to me without moving away to eat.

Image 2: An important approximation to consider is the nature in which the treat is taken from the hand - it provides a strong indication of the level of comfort the parrot has in the presence of the hands and trainer. A gentle taking of the treat as opposed to an aggressive `grab' informs you whether or not the parrot is starting to have confidence in its choice, trust in the trainer, and some control over its environment.

Image 3: Looks like something not worth noting but it's a critical indication of where the focus of the parrot is - firmly on the hand delivering the treat and with the confidence to look away from the trainer and towards where the reinforcement is being delivered. Time for a raising of criteria.

Image 4: Gradual desensitisation of a hand grasping her perch. Note that her proximity to me has shifted back spatially on the perch - a result of the introduction of the aversive of the arm to her environment. She is being positively reinforced for gradually moving closer to the arm.

Image 5: The level of desensitisation to the arm has enabled her to have the confidence to lean over the arm to receive a treat.

Image 6: The criteria was raised to her having to place a foot on the arm for reinforcement delivery. This was a slow process and one that had many small approximations before Maya would actually place and hold one foot on the arm. I also had some challenges getting my own body positioning right and dealing with the problem of the Macaw tail, which can be a pain in the butt when training these guys as they react aversively to their tails brushing up against things while they are apprehensive. If you're wondering why the arm is positioned on the perch and not in front of it in a more `classic' step up position, try dumping a carton of milk into your outstretched palm and see what happens. With a bird that weighs close to a kilogram and is very apprehensive towards unstable surfaces, I was relying on using her perch to support my own arm and hence her weight to give her the confidence in using my arm as an extension of her perch.

Image 7: At this stage I am shifting the target of my treat delivery hand to shape her body positioning to better facilitate her getting both feet onto my arm. This was achieved by the end of the session. So much goes into getting to a point like this in terms of considering your reinforcement delivery, setting the bird up to succeed with your own arrangement of the environment, and obviously the detail in shaping the behaviour. The next set of approximations will be working towards being able to lift Maya from the perch she is being trained on here to the one above it. That will actually be a huge leap for this ruby gem.

Image 8: Finishing on a good note with a nice cashew as a jackpot :-)

Dragon Fruit - Does it `Glow'???

I recently picked up some Dragon Fruit at the local supermarket. It's one of those exotic asian fruits that the young register person always has to ask `What is this?' at the checkout. The next question is usually `What does it taste like?' - to which I admittedly have to reply, `I've got no idea - I feed it to my birds'. I then get the look - you know - the one that kinda suggests you must be nuts if you spend that sort of money on a piece of fruit that you don't even eat and instead, feed it to your birds! It does seem crazy but doesn't it feel great to add some new taste sensations into the food bowl of your birds? I'm not sure who gets the most out of it - them or me. If you really want to know though - it tastes awful (I actually tried it this time). One of those fruits that you might suggest - `Oh, it goes great with ice-cream', in other words, it tastes like dirt on its own and needs a good smothering of neopolitan before its edible :-)

Anyway, here's a question that I'd love to know the answer for... `Does dragon fruit glow?' That's probably not the right wording for that question but it's as close as I can get to what I'm thinking. You see, when I placed a chunk of it in the food bowl of my Amazon parrots they both reeled away in obvious horror. If you look at the flesh of dragon fruit it is a brilliant iridescent white (see pic above), the same sort of white you see on iridescent fungi and other things that `glow' in the dark. Given that our parrots can see colours in the ultraviolet spectrum that we can't, it got me thinking - what does dragon fruit look like to them? It obviously had some sort of `stay away' quality to it - they reacted the same way both days in a row that I tried to feed it to them. After a while, their appetites got the better of them but watching them slowly desensitise to their food bowl and finally take the plunge to grab a piece of less offensive food and make a run for it was an interesting study in behaviour - and perhaps the strength of the predatory defence of the humble dragon fruit!

If anyone knows what the ultraviolet or `hidden' colour spectrum of dragon fruit flesh is - please e-mail me! It also served as a good reminder to be observant of our birds responses to new food items in their bowls. Sometimes a change like that can result in an aversion to accessing their food for the day. No point in persisting with expensive fruit if all it achieves is a stressed and hungry parrot! I'll keep it for the Ice-cream ;-)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bird Retailers & Wing Clipping

OK – here’s a contentious one, but no point in fence sitting from my perspective. I recently stopped in at a major bird retailer in Brisbane to pick up a bunch of bird supplies while I was on my way to my monthly consult sessions. Usually I don’t have much time to stop and look at the birds in retail outlets but this time I did, as it is the time of the year when there are a lot of young baby parrots available and it is always interesting to see what is entering the companion parrot community. Whilst I know that there are many highly responsible bird retailers and very good outlets for acquiring a pet parrot, what I saw in this particular store really bugged me. Every single handraised parrot waiting for sale to a pet home was clipped not one exception. None of those birds had been offered the opportunity to develop their flight skills, coordination, confidence and independence. All were recently weaned and obviously had more than likely never actually `flown’. Whilst I obviously don’t condone the clipping of a parrot’s wings, I have to accept that there is no law to prevent it or legislative authority to monitor it or set guidelines for it, therefore I have to live with it as a reality of what we see in the bird world. But geez folks – can’t we at least give the new owners of these young birds that are sold in pet stores the option??? How hard is it to keep the young birds fully feathered, provide some informed and responsible point of sale pros and cons on wing clipping, offer advice on training and accessing training resources on managing a flighted bird, encourage the buyer to visit a qualified veterinarian to have any clipping done if it has to be done, and most of all, give the parrot a chance to be a parrot.

I then had the unfortunate experience of standing beside one of the sales assistants as a father and son team came in to buy a budgerigar as a pet. Having no handraised or tame budgies to choose from, a young bird was selected from the flock and promptly clipped. Not a progressive clip method used there either – the good old full primary and secondary chop. The sales assistant justified the procedure as nothing more than a `haircut’ – obviously using the analogy to explain that the clipped wings will be replaced over time by new ones. I just can’t seem to remember not being able to walk out of the salon the last time I had a trim. Mind you – my hairdresser is licensed to sell alcohol so a visit there is perhaps not without the potential for a major modification of my physical capabilities. Hmmm.

I think it’s about time that some guidelines and best practice recommendations for the physical modification of parrots within retail outlets was implemented. Parrots presenting with behaviour management issues that also have clipped wings account for the highest proportion of birds in the demographic of my clients. It’s more of a precursor to behavioural abnormalities arising in companion parrots than having them flighted and presents a significantly more complex set of circumstances to develop successful management strategies for – particular birds that are over-dependent or have established feather picking behaviour.

What we need to be clear on is this – keeping a parrot flighted can be successfully managed. Yes, it’s more work, yes, there may be some challenges to overcome, but let’s at least give these birds a start in life where being clipped is not a fait accompli and they are given the opportunity to learn to adapt to a captive life whilst retaining their full complement of physical capabilities.

One final frustration with this particular retailers approach to the selling of handraised parrots as pets was the lack of suitability of some of the species for sale. It seemed as though their only criteria for having a bird available for sale as a pet was that it was handraised - didn't seem to matter what species it was. The most glaring example of this were Pale-headed Rosellas for sale as pets. Honestly, as much as I dearly love the Platycercus for all of their gaudy beauty, I couldn't think of a species more unsuited to life within the confines of a small indoor cage for most of the day. Not only is their lack of adaptability to close confinement a major concern, they don't tolerate tactile handling in the form of head scratches and mature birds have a strong behavioural tendency towards intense territorial aggression that I have yet to see not hold true. I'm also yet to find a pet parrot owner that doesn't consider head scratches and that sort of close tactile interaction with their birds a very desirable reason for them keeping a companion parrot. It's a little like selling a dog that doesn't tolerate being patted. Now before anyone suggests that `there's a right home for every bird' - do you honestly think the retailer is going to screen buyers that walk in wanting a pet parrot and make the mistake of picking the Rosella because blue and yellow are their favourite colours??? Therein lies the problem folks. Betcha we'll see a couple of Pale-headed Rosellas up for grabs in the Weekend Shopper some time later this year - advertisement might run something like this... (additional info in brackets not supplied in ad)

`Pale-headed Rosella. Handraised and wIll make great pet (didn't for us - but might for you!) Owner moving interstate (to get as far away from nightmare parrot as possible). Comes with cage and bag of seed (hates the cage but loves the seed). Whistles (on..and on...and on.... until you let it out of aforementioned cage that it hates) Make an offer (folks, we're desperate, if you're here by 9am we'll just give it to ya)'. Hmmm.

A young and recently weaned Blue-fronted Amazon. Fully flighted, engaging, challenging - and manageable just as he is!

Snakes & Birds… Don’t mix

As much as I love living where I am surrounded by natural, sub-tropical wet forest that includes remnant patches of Piccabeen Palm groves and a meandering creek, the downside is that it’s also prime habitat for those legless things that have a tendency towards adding birds to their daily cuisine menu. I’ve encountered five different species here since we built our house – not bad. Over the past 6 years we have averaged two to three snake removals per year from on, in or around our bird aviaries. I recently remarked to someone that this year had been a good year – no snakes! As the words left my mouth I looked around for that proverbial bit of `wood’ to touch as I knew the season had a ways to go – particularly given that February to April are the wettest months here, and that’s the perfect time for close encounters of the slithery kind. You see, Carpet Pythons in particular are a little like us – complete sooks when it comes to getting drenched. Inclement weather sets in, and they start looking around for somewhere cosy, warm, and dry! Problem is, if you’re a birdkeeper – such criteria for a welcome escape from the elements is often perfectly filled by our backyard aviaries. In the past week, with the deluges hovering around South-east Queensland, I had to perform three python removals in a single week. Whilst that in itself isn’t exactly `blog worthy’ here's what is…

The first snake was relocated on Thursday morning after being extracted from the aviary roof the previous evening (he spent the night happily chilling inside a pillow case – my wife doesn’t know yet). On Friday morning, my usual feed rounds were interrupted by yet again, another carpet python peering back at me, at eye level mind you, about 30cm away from my face and in exactly the same spot where the first one was removed from only 24 hours prior. I had read about carpet pythons moving in on the territory of others that had been relocated but within the same day?!? So, we moved him to a completely different side of Noosa and hoped that the serpentine adventures were over. Twas’ not to be! That same night we were alerted to something not quite right in the `zoo’ by the sound of a very agitated (and bald) African Grey – Cheeky. Poor old Cheek was letting out the most god-awful wail whilst trying valiantly to fight off yet another carpet python trying to get into his enclosure (and thankfully failing). Upon capture, it was obvious to me that this was the original snake that had been relocated less than 36 hours before and had managed to travel over 10 kms in that time to be found perched (or coiled as it was) in exactly the same spot that I obviously had the audacity to remove him from originally. Not bad for something that doesn’t even have legs. I had heard about snakes traveling distances of 2 to 3 kms to return to a spot they had been removed from but 10 k’s??? It’s not like it’s a direct corridor from where he was placed either – it’s heavily fragmented, mixed suburban and semi-rural habitat that includes a train line splitting the area we dropped him off in and our home area. Dang!

Anyway, lessons to be learned here – when you relocate snakes, make sure you really relocate them – ie. As damn far away as you can drive and preferably with a major water barrier between their new home and yours. Below are two pics of two different snakes we caught last season (I didn’t bother to photograph the recent pair – I was too pissed off to bother). One of the pythons below had a very interesting `coffee’ colour, unusual for coastal carpet pythons who are normally coloured like the first snake shown.