Monday, June 25, 2012

Bush tucker...

When it comes to the diet of my parrots I’m definitely always keen to learn more about the best approaches to the presentation, timing of delivery and composition of their daily food intake. It seems that no matter how many years I have kept parrots for, I find every aspect of feeding them to be a source of continual learning. On one of my recent ventures to the supermarket I came across `Okra’ (Scientific name - Abelmoschus esculentus). It reminded me of the sort of elongated, bean like pod that I have seen footage of South American parrot species feeding on in the wild. I asked an employee who was dutifully stacking the Granny Smith’s nearby what it tasted like. The response wasn’t favourable – which got me even more excited given that my birds tend to eat stuff I normally turn my nose up at anyway, a good indicator that I might be on to a winner here (admittedly – I am better at dishing nutritional advice for parrots rather than taking said advice onboard for my own diet!). Taste potential aside I figured I would give it a go – I was intrigued at what the reception might be from my birds. I have to add here - Let’s keep in mind that Parrots are reported to have less than 500 taste buds compared with the nearly 10 000 in humans, hence a poorly developed sense of taste which might explain why, in reality, taste probably has little or nothing to do with feeding preferences. Might also explain why they happily chow down on some pretty cardboardesque foods we feed them without too much fuss. 

Back to the Okra… The cool thing about the Okra pods is that they are loaded with seeds but encased in a tough, fibrous pouch. I like foods like this that combine all of the nutritional value we are keen to expose them to but also come packaged in their own `nature made’ enrichment package that requires some work and effort expenditure to penetrate to get into that seedy centre (the place where the seeds are found – not the red light district of your local capital city). Your parrot isn’t interested in the exterior and if the interior of the food is enticing enough, presenting it to them whole is a great way to increase the duration required to feed and to stimulate some highly desirable, functional behaviour. 

The Okra was a hit with just about all of my parrots. They relished the opportunity to tear into the bounty of seeds within and it definitely added some interest value for the few days that it was available. It provided a timely reminder to me to keep trying out new things with the feeding of my birds. It’s incredibly easy to get stuck with routine feeding and fail to keep things variable. More variability – less predictability, the key mantra for successful environmental arrangement of parrot enclosures!

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) Like Crocodile Dundee once said... `You can eat it... but it tastes like s@#t' Darn good enrichment food for your parrots though!!!

Interpreting Parrot Body Language – The sum of its parts

Being mindful of the body language presented to us by our parrots has certainly become a prominent element of our approach to successful behaviour management over the years. A considered evaluation of what your parrot is `telling’ you via the overt presentation of posture, feather positioning and movement prior to engaging with the bird sets you up for success with a starting point for your criteria for interaction. At least it should – in theory. The problem that most inexperienced parrot owners encounter is that correct interpretation of the meaning of body language indicators really requires an evaluation of the sum of their parts. The mistake most often made is firstly to ignore the environmental context within which the bird is being observed and secondly to focus on the most overt component of the bird’s display whilst being unaware of the less overt indicators. 

Take the classic cockatoo crest raise as an example. We observe this overt display in a range of different environmental contexts to communicate a variety of different messages. So how do you know whether a cockatoo raising its crest is `excited’, `amorous’, `aggressive’, `fearful’ or any other reasonably associated construct? Well, check out what else is going on. Is the crest raise paired with… Wings spread or tucked and relaxed? Movement away or towards you? Tightening of body contour feathers or relaxation of body feathering? Tail fanning or a relaxed tail? Pinning of the pupils or `sleepy’ eyes? Beak open or closed? Head flicking? Head lowering? Rubbing of beak on the perch? – I could go on but you get the picture! 

Check out the image below. Do a little `count’ to see how many different overt body language indicators you can identify. It’s a cool thing to do to sharpen your observational skills. Ultimately we are still going to be left short in being fully empowered with a clear understanding of what this guy is communicating to us because the problem with a still photograph is that it doesn’t give us all of the really important information – the environment, the movement dynamics of the bird and the history. Pairing observations with experience from the past sets up the thinking… `The last time I saw him do that he followed up with…’ An empowering and informing thought process. Still fun to play a bit of `identify that body language indicator’ with the pic below though ☺ BTW – If you want to learn more about interpreting parrot body language then you have to get the best resource available for keen learners…

How many different observable and measurable elements of body language can you identify?

Responsible screening met with irresponsible attitudes

I recently received some correspondence from a good friend of mine who is (in my opinion) one of the most responsible and dedicated breeders of Macaws in Australia. The communication stream presented below starts off OK but quickly disintegrates. Personally I have zero tolerance for people who not only want to buy Macaws as status symbols and stick them in an indoor cage all day with the radio on, clip their wings, only let them out for a couple of hours in the evening and think that’s going to be kosher for the largest and undeniably one of the most environmentally challenging groups of parrot that we keep as a pet. Here’s the transcript…

Buyer Enquiry:
Hi, I am interested in a baby hand-reared Blue & Gold macaw. I have kept a lorikeet for several years and loved the experience. I would sincerely love to be a macaw parent. Can you reply with some pics of the baby’s parents?  I am after a good talker and was told that a male is better generally for this. Does it make a lot of difference with Macaws?

Breeder Reply:
Hi, can you tell me what you are looking for? Pet or breeding? Will you clip wings and keep indoors and what will happen when you are at work all day? These babies are not sexed yet as they are too young so am not sure if I will have a boy. There are only 2 not yet spoken for. Parents are currently in the nest with their baby, which they will bring up through to 8-9 months old so taking a photo of them is not possible. They are large birds and consistently produce beautiful young. Let me know your intentions re housing etc asap if you want to secure one.

Buyer’s Response:
Hi, I plan on clipping wings and keeping indoors all day.  For my last bird I always left a radio on, kept the room well lightened and placed a small fan on one end of the cage if he got hot during the day.  I kept loads of toys and a bath in the bottom of the cage for him, he never got bored or plucked feathers etc. I am looking around now for very large cages, and intend on letting him out of the cage every night when I get home until its bedtime. How much would you need for a deposit on one, and how long before you could shoot through a pic of the parents?

Breeder’s Response:
Hi, Unfortunately I will never sell to anyone who wants to clip wings and keep indoors all day. It is a very poor life for any bird and extremely cruel to one as intelligent as a macaw. They need to fly in the sun and the rain for quality of life. It is like locking a child in a playpen all-day and releasing for an hour in the evening when they want to sleep anyway. It is the reason why I only sell companion birds to WA so I can check they have an aviary and can fly. No bird should be alone and locked in and waiting for you to come home for time out of a little prison, it destroys the whole personality of such a intelligent bird. My apologies once again, I have a responsibility to these birds.

Buyer’s Response:
(Name withheld), You are an incredibly sneaky woman, next time be more open and honest before asking such loaded questions. I will happily be positing this email chain online so everyone sees what your like!

Well bud – I’m pretty certain you didn’t have the audacity to follow up on your little threat there so allow me to post this online for ya so everyone can see what a complete jerk you are. 

Let’s summarise what the breeder’s expectations and conditions of sale were for their Macaws – 1) An outdoor flight aviary and 2) to be left fully flighted and not wing-clipped. Nothing more – nothing less. A breeder of Macaws, Cockatoos – or any darn parrot for that matter has every right to find out what the future holds for the birds they breed and every right of refusal to deny a sale if they are unsatisfied with the response. The dilemma for responsible breeders who actually give a damn about the birds they sell as pets is that if they start the sale interface with `This bird mustn’t be wingclipped and must have access to a flight aviary during the day’ it doesn’t take a genius to work out what any potential buyer is going to promise – even if they have absolutely no intention of following through. This breeder frequently encounters such retribution and threats and that sort of irresponsible, selfish attitude really makes my blood boil. Sorry folks – but the socially accepted attitude towards keeping large parrots in solitary confinement in the corner of the living room for 10-12 hours a day with a radio on is pathetic. What worked for the pet Budgie for the past 100 years in Australia doesn’t make it right for a Macaw – heck, it didn’t make it right for the Budgie either! Keeping parrots responsibly and ethically requires a better understanding of their needs than a `one size fits all’ approach. The sad thing is – I’ll bet my house that this guy just called up a different breeder, bought a Macaw without any screening and that thing is sitting in a cage, in the living room corner, staring at that undersized excuse for a birdbath, poking at the same old food it was offered every day since it arrived and waiting for that front door to open. You know what – I bet I get a call from this guy down the track. That conversation will start something like this… `Hey Jim - I’ve got a problem with me Macaw. Every time I come home it screams out real loud and won’t shut up till I let it out of its cage. We bought it because we wanted a talker but it just yells. Can you fix it?’ Sigh…

Responsible breeders take an interest in the future of the birds they sell as pets. Buyers who want ornaments for their living room should investigate taxidermy - it's quieter and much less mess!

The predictable unpredictability of new introductions…

I’ve lost count now of the number of times I have introduced new birds to a collection (either mine or others I have worked with) over the past 20 years of parrot keeping but I have done it enough times to be completely humble about the predictability of success. One thing I have learned is the total predictability of the unpredictable nature of how parrots will react towards new birds. Parrots, perhaps more so than many other wildlife taxa that we keep in captivity can be seriously difficult to integrate into an existing flock dynamic or even to establish a single pairing of birds with a view to breeding. I would like to share two important principles when introducing new birds – 1) Plan out every step of the release in advance and; 2) Have a back-up plan – contingencies are critical! A recent example of that was our attempt to integrate a male Blue & Gold Macaw (2 years old) into our Macaw aviary while he is residing here for a couple of months while the owners are overseas. The aviary that is home to two other Macaws – a female Green-winged (3 years old) and a female Blue & Gold (2 years old). I was very positive that our temporary resident would do OK – especially considering his confident temperament and being the same age as my resident female. My strategy was to do a major environmental makeover at the same time as the introduction and to delay the morning feed until after this. This would provide ample distraction for releasing the new guy from his pet pack into the enclosure and I hoped would minimise the attention he would attract. Basically I did the following… 

  1. Withheld the morning feed whilst the enclosure renovations took place
  2. Removed all existing perches in the aviary and replaced with new ones – in all different positions at different heights
  3. Changed the locations of the food bowl holders
  4. Fully stocked the four different browse holders with fresh branches
  5. Added in a few new artificial chew toys
  6. Placed out a variety of food bowls with high value foods
  7. Released the new bird
  8. Observed the interactions from a distance (being present with imprinted birds can actually cause more problems – better to remove yourself from the equation)

While the aviary renovation was happening the `new guy’ was contained within his crate inside the enclosure. This allowed him to observe everything that was going on and for me to observe the reaction towards his presence from the other two Macaws. When the aviary renovation was complete I opened up the travel crate and allowed the male Macaw to come out as he pleased – which he did almost straight away. With all of the new distractions in the aviary my two birds were almost disinterested in the new bird and everything seemed to be going to plan. I placed the food bowls out and sure enough – my guys got down to the business of eating and destroying the fresh browse leaf and left the newcomer alone. At one stage all three were happily eating at the same time. I have to admit that at this point – I thought I was pretty much a genius and had finally perfected an introduction. Time for humble pie… 

Of my two Macaws the one that I predicted would be most likely to be aggressive towards the new bird was my Green-winged Macaw. She is the dominant bird in the enclosure and has a healthy history of zero tolerance towards interlopers into her territory. Conversely, my Blue and Gold Macaw is a sweetheart and rarely if ever displays aggressive tendencies. Any guesses who turned feral on the new guy? My sweet B&G! She was just relentless. Whenever you are attempting such introductions you can always expect initial conflict. I can’t recall a time with all of the introductions I have done when that hasn’t happened. What you are looking for is a `pull out’ or `abort mission’ point where the aggression is observed to persist and isn’t isolated to simply driving off the new bird from a favoured perching position. You also want to observe signs that the new bird has the confidence to stand up to the existing birds and not back down too quickly. Parrots are very good at determining whether they have met their match in the aggression and physicality stakes and will quickly settle if a new bird is confident enough not to back off. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case this time. I intervened a couple of times when things got too heated and as the afternoon drew to a close things did settle down a little. I allowed the three of them to remain together overnight but the disputes resumed first thing the following morning and I made the decision to pull the pin. 

When it comes to parrots – so often they stay true to that old adage – two’s company, three’s a crowd. That brings me to the contingency. Whenever you plan on adding a new bird to a flock, or on putting a pairing together of mature birds, always have a back-up enclosure ready to go in case they need to be separated. In this case, a fall-back aviary was ready, perched and it took nothing more than getting the new guy back into his crate and shifting him. Obviously if the intention was for the male Macaw to stay as part of the collection there are a bunch of other strategies we would work through over time with but seeing as he is here short-term it wasn’t going to be worth the time and energy investment – and the risk of compromising his safety unnecessarily. 

Humble pie eaten. Unsuccessful introduction complete. Back to a lower stress, more harmonious arrangement in separate enclosures ☺

Ahh - if only the peace and tranquility captured here stayed that way!