Recently, I’ve been noticeably quiet. I have had some health issues and I haven’t been able to do everything I would normally do in my everyday life, which has included everything I would normally do with my birds. As it turns out, I’ve been forced to learn that it isn’t easy to hand aspects of your birds’ everyday care over to someone else.
I’ve always considered myself lucky. I don’t live alone, I’m not the only one familiar with my birds’ routines and their dietary needs. I’m not the only person here that my birds are accustomed to interacting with. So if something happens to me – I’d always expected it to be easy to have someone fill in for me if I couldn’t do all of the day-to-day stuff that I’d normally do. What I hadn’t realized was just how many little rituals I perform with my birds that make everything go smoothly. These are things that sound more than a little insane when I try to explain them to someone else. Apparently that isn’t going to stop me writing about them though!
I have a handover plan that I have used in the past, when I’ve been away from home and left my birds in my mother’s care. This contains advice on who eats what and when, what medications they need (if they need them), basic daily routine, how to prepare their favourite toys/activities, how to cover their cages at night and who their vet is in case of an emergency. I thought that was all I needed.
My mother however, recently came to me with a face spattered in mashed sweet potato. She was whining about how it isn’t fair that I can easily slip a food bowl into my macaw’s cage, but when she tries to do that – he’ll pick up a lump of sweet potato and throw it so that it hits her right between the eyes.
She wasn’t so amused when I said that she did it wrong. After all, how can you put a food bowl into a set spot incorrectly? It doesn’t seem that hard. However, every morning, I’ll peel back Fid’s corner cage cover just an inch and have a whispered conversation with him. He excitedly whispers “Hello!!!” back at me. Then he’ll disappear and suddenly charge the gap in the covers and yell: “BOO!” Only then, am I allowed to uncover him. Mum didn’t know this and so she skipped this game, uncovered him and gave him his favourite food, innocently believing that this should be a happy interaction. Unfortunately Fid didn’t quite see it that way.
My mother isn’t stupid. She made noise; she even spoke as she uncovered Fid. It’s just that she did it differently to how I do it. This difference didn’t leave Fid really frightened but it was enough to unnerve him and make him crabby as a result. A lot of people don’t realize that even wild birds have routines. Their very survival often depends on their daily schedule. Our pet birds don’t have control over their own schedule, so it makes sense that they can be unnerved by the slightest change in their daily rituals.
Another example is my musk lorikeet Otto. Despite being the smallest bird in my flock, he is easily the most dangerous. His body language is extremely subtle and changes with remarkable speed. It doesn’t take much to set him off. In particular, he likes a second or two to adjust to anything new in his environment. So if I’m putting a food bowl into his cage, I pause and let him see the contents of the food bowl before hooking it in. Usually he will take the opportunity to grab a beakful of food before I hook it in. If I fail to do this, he’ll often go for a beakful of human flesh instead. To mum, it looks like I’m hooking the bowl easily into the cage with Otto excitedly running for the food. However when she does it he excitedly seems to run for the flesh on the back of her hand.
It only takes that split second for him to switch to war mode. When he goes into that mode there is no stopping him. He emits an ear piercing series of never ending shrieks as he continuously rips into you. He isn’t one for a simple bite – he goes completely nuts and won’t stop. All you can really do is contain him somehow but he’s definitely fighting to the death. The difference between that scenario and him happily eating is only 1-2 seconds in the speed of hooking the bowl in and the angle that I hold it so that he can see the contents. I’m afraid he’s a bird you really have to know and be able to read to avoid setting him off.
The thing is, these little rituals are something that I didn’t even really know that I did until mum came along and didn’t do them. It’s made me realize just how many little things that I do or know about my birds that makes any interactions run smoothly. There is definitely a secret language shared between birds and their humans. Small things that you just come to know about your bird that help.
As one last example, I was watching mum try to get two of my Galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos back into their aviary. I had told mum that if she ever had trouble doing that – get one in and the other would follow. They are inseparable. Whatever one does, the other HAS to do as well or prepare for a serious tantrum. They’re almost always less than 30cm apart. They even like to sit on the same perch.
What I hadn’t realized was that subconsciously I know that my male galah, Merlin is an impatient butt head. The female galah, Nemo, shares this knowledge. Mum however, had no idea that Nemo and I think of Merlin in that way or what that means when dealing with him. It’s something I should have told her.
In practical terms if I put these two birds into the aviary at the exact same time, I don’t put them on the same perch. Merlin will always turn and bite Nemo if I do. When he first goes back to his cage, he always heads for the highest perch at the rear of the aviary and he will sharply nip anyone that he sees as getting in his way. It won’t matter if there is another way he could go, if there is a bird (or human arm) next to him then THAT will be the direction he wants to take.
Nemo knows this, so if you try to put her on the same perch as Merlin she’ll panic and (as mum discovered) fly at your face in order to avoid being bitten by Merlin. Mum wasn’t so happy when this happened either.
The exception to this biting rule is that you can put the two birds in on the same perch if you pause after putting the first bird in (to give whichever bird it is a head start to get to that rear perch). Or alternatively, put them in simultaneously on different perches. They always both end up climbing to sit next to each other. It’s just those initial few seconds where you have to watch out for Merlin’s impatient butt headed bite.
As you can imagine, mum watches me put the birds in on the same perch regularly but had never picked up on the 2 second pause between birds or noticed that I’d use different perches if I don’t pause. From her perspective I just easily slip the birds back into the aviary and they always actively move to be next each other. As far as mum was concerned these birds adore each other so why would you expect one to viciously bite the other? The answer is you wouldn’t unless you knew them. From my perspective, I have absolutely no problem getting the birds to go back to their aviary so I hadn’t thought to explain that Merlin becomes a butt head if you get in his way.
My time off from my normal routine has led me to come up with quite a list of little rituals and things that I do to add to my handover notes for whenever I need someone else to care for my birds. Everything from: don’t put pellets in toys on the righthand side of my galah aviary (Merlin throws them at his reflection in the window which can be a pain to clean up), to which order I wake the birds up. As it turns out these little things can be the difference between your caretaker being happy or them wearing sweet potato. Take it from me, it’s worth noticing the little things that you do.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.