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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How I Killed My First Cockatiel

If the owner of this first cockatiel ever reads this, I’m in trouble. And if enough people keep reading my blog, they’re going to think I’m a real exotic pet keeping loser. I can’t help it. I feel it’s important for people to know that mistakes will be made. It happens in general life and it happens with raising children and pets, especially exotics whose lives are so much more tenuous than those of dogs or cats. For me, it’s often the primary way to learn. Not that I’ve made major life mistakes, but I tend to take chances that sometimes don’t end well. Enough said.

As I’ve mentioned, working for veterinarians affords some advantages. One client indicated she had a hand-fed baby, gray cockatiel she couldn’t keep. She lived in my hometown of Chicago Heights which I suppose made me feel somewhat akin to her so I agreed to help her out. While I normally honor the previous owner by keeping an animal’s given name, I didn’t do that with this one. She hadn’t had the bird long and was calling it Elmo even though, without the bright orange spots on its cheeks, it looked to be a female. On top of that, I’m of the early Sesame Street era and I never really liked Elmo since he arrived late on the scene and started stealing the show from Kermit, Grover, Herry and Cookie. I named the bird Genny and set her up in a nice cage with food, water and toys.

As with all new arrivals, I didn’t bother her much those first few days so she’d have a chance to adjust to her new surroundings in a spare room of the little cottage where we lived at the time. One thing I learned working at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital was that an all seed diet was bad for a bird’s health. If you wanted your bird to live a long, healthy life it was best to feed a pelleted diet. Pellets are similar to dog or cat kibble except they’re designed with bird nutrition in mind. They come in various colors and sizes for different birds. This was still fairly new thinking, but I was all in so I started Genny on pellets right away, while still feeding her seed. I could have also offered table food like corn, beans and rice, but I only did that if we had leftovers from our own human meals. The doctors always stressed that it should be a gradual transition from seeds to pellets, adding that it could take weeks or months. You’re supposed to slowly decrease the seed while increasing the pellets. Makes sense, right?

Well, I was so proud of myself because I had that baby girl eating pellets within about ten days. I knew that if an animal was hungry it would eat so we could just do away with the seeds altogether. This was over fifteen years ago and I truly can’t remember what made me think she was eating well, but whatever it was, I was terribly wrong because I found her dead at the bottom of the cage one morning. Of course, I was shocked and bummed and confused all at once. I wrapped her up and took her to work with me so somebody could hopefully give me an explanation.

Without even doing a post-mortem exam, it was obvious to the doctors and technicians that she was very, very thin. Her keel, or breast bone, was very prominent with no “meat” around it. I told them I had recently moved her to a pellet-only diet and thought she was eating fine. The simple fact is that I was wrong. She was still a young bird, maybe only a few months old, and shouldn’t have been expected to eat just pellets. She was dead now and I couldn’t go back. I hate that feeling. For one, I felt I had left the previous owner down. On top of that, my arrogance had made an animal suffer, something I would pay good money to never allow.

The client who gave me that bird came into the animal hospital at least once after that. I never told her what happened and she, for some odd reason, didn’t ask how Elmo was doing. There had been a long time between visits to the animal hospital, so maybe she wasn’t sure if I was the same person who had her bird or maybe she expected me to say something first. I always wondered about this. I’ve never been any good at lying and I’m glad I didn’t have to, but if she would have asked, I would have saved her grief and said the bird was fine, but that I’d changed her name to Genny. I suppose I thought disappointing her just a little with this truth was preferred over disappointing her a lot with the whole truth.

It was a costly, blatant mistake that I’ve not since made again. I’ve made others and I’ll surely write about them, but none that cost an animal its life, so I hope you’ll keep reading. My two current cockatiels are pushing 16 years of age and eat some pellets, but mostly seeds.

This is our cockatiel, Weston. His coloration is called "normal grey." If it was a female, there wouldn't be any yellow on the face and the orange patches would appear dull or faded.

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