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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.

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