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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hazards of the Unfettered Bird: Part One

I was once ridiculed by a woman for letting my cats outside. She thought it was inhumane, but I thought the same about keeping them in, so I guess it’s a personal choice. The same could be said for birds. They can surely get into trouble when they’re “on the loose,” unsupervised. Since my birds are all in one room in our basement, their wandering space is limited. If their wings are trimmed, they have to walk or climb places, but they do get to fly as their wings start to grow out. A few times, our favorite cockatiel, Trickle, has gotten into innocent trouble due to having his freedom. Luckily and thankfully, it worked out in the end, but you can decrease the risks by considering the following.

If you have a hand-tamed bird that’s easy to work with, let him out for just an hour or two to start. Then progressively increase the time out of the cage. Clear the room of anything that could be harmful to the birds and things you don’t want them to chew on. Our cockatiels have ruined several picture frames I had tucked away on a shelf. Trickle also got himself stuck to a glue trap we didn’t know was left by the previous owner way up in the rafter of the basement. He also got stuck for a few hours in a long, narrow box that contained rolls of wallpaper. He couldn’t get himself out and became just a little sick, we gathered, from the glue on the paper or the lack of fresh air. He came through these incidents just fine, but neither would have happened if he was caged.

Trickle happens to be our best bird so we’re always regretful when he finds himself in these situations that ultimately could have been prevented by a safer environment. By “best bird” I mean he’s the tamest and easily allows handling and petting. He doesn’t even know how to bite. He just pecks at your hand with his beak if he’s irritated. He’s gotten himself into other trouble too, but those all ended well and each will be mentioned in further posts. For now, I’ll talk about some close calls and actual disasters which will again out me as an exotic pet keeping loser who’s smarter for it now.

As I’ve mentioned, rats are one of my favorite pets and I’ve always given them time out of their cage. They don’t run all over, but are allowed to climb out and wander around some play areas on a long table. I don’t allow the rats and birds out at the same time because I had a close call once. I expected that the birds would naturally stay away from any kind of walking four-legged creature, but I had to learn the hard way that this was an unreasonable expectation. Birds, it seems, are just as curious about play areas on a table as rats. I also thought a rat would be afraid of any flying creature and would quickly retreat. Wrong again.

It happened very fast. The rat and cockatiel ended up on the table at the same time and the rat lunged quickly at the bird’s chest. Thankfully, I was right there and grabbed up that bird quick as a whip. He was uninjured as it appeared the rat got only a mouth full of feathers. From then on the rats don’t come out until the birds are in. At our house, this is usually in the late evening or early morning. We can always take the rats into another room for their exercise, but they generally stick to their nearby territory as do the birds. It’s safe to say we got lucky this time. Other times, not so much.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Uncaged Bird

If one thing was drilled into our brains at Moorpark College, it’s that captive animals must have stimulation. Keeping them fed and watered is not enough. They need exercise and something to do, something that excites them. Modern zoo planners know this and do their best to meet the needs of various species while designing their enclosures. Zookeepers know it too and are always searching for ways to motivate their charges. Anytime I see an empty tissue box or a large cardboard tube, I think of my rats. When conscientious dog owners see a wide open field, they might think about how much their dog would love to run through it, right?

It didn’t seem so unnatural to me that my pet bird should be allowed to wander around a little outside his cage. I started doing this with our mynah bird years ago by simply leaving the cage open and letting him come out on his own for an hour or two. Mynahs kind of hop around like crows so it was fun to watch this bird trip-trap around the hard floors. Later, when we had a cockatiel, I opened the cage in hopes he’d climb to the top and just sit there on a perch I’d set up. He did this, but he also wandered further and further before I’d get worried and have to put him back in.

When I delivered medicine one day to the home of a client from the animal hospital, she showed me her bird room where she housed about 20 finches. There were at least six small finch cages on two or three narrow shelves. Each cage had its door open and the birds were flitting around, resting on other cages or jumping in and out. I was in awe. I never thought it could be done with small birds. Their keeper, Kathy, said they all settle in their cages on their own at night. She hung a sheet in the doorway to keep them from flying out, but it served mostly as a psychological barrier to keep them from trying.

I was inspired that day and would from then on have an open door policy with my birds. It was just a matter of conditioning in the beginning. I now open the cage door in the morning and feed the birds in the evening so they’re motivated to return to their cage. It’s important to note that I don’t give my birds an abundance of food. I only give them enough to last the day. This is one way of getting them to eat their healthier pellet food while limiting the amount of seed, but it also motivates them to go back to their cages at night. Only now and then does one give me a hard time about going back in. Sometimes I have to give one extra time or turn a few lights off to get a defiant one to cooperate.

When I get a new finch or a parakeet, it might take a few days for them to learn how it works from watching the other birds. The worst thing I’ve had to do is catch a small bird in a net once or twice and put it in the cage. They usually get it after that. If you’re going to give this a try with your own birds, start by leaving the door open for an hour or two at first. The bird may not even come out, but he’ll start thinking about it and it may be days before he gets up the courage. Just be patient, but also be home and ready to keep an eye on things. Any animal that has freedom could potentially meet with trouble. In my next post, I’ll share some of the calamities we’ve experienced as a result of giving our pets liberty.

Our cockatiel, Weston, experiencing our Open Door Policy. This is not his cage, but an extra one for climbing on and into.