My birds aren’t getting a stack of awesome new toys for Christmas this year. Sounds a bit lousy of me, doesn’t it? I’ve got a good reason for this though.
Christmas is actually a very stressful time for a lot of pet birds. It definitely is for my flock. My extended family tend to descend on my house at Christmas for a large gathering. It doesn’t end there either. The day after Christmas is my mother’s birthday and the day after that my grandmother’s birthday (she is 91 this year). Think three days of gatherings. Numbers can vary from 8-60 depending on what people’s work commitments are and what various partner’s families are doing. We average about 32 for Christmas and 60 or more for Gran’s birthday. In a house that doesn’t see a lot of visitors in one hit, the sudden influx of 60 non-bird people is the equivalent to the end of the world to my birds.
It doesn’t help that I tend to be stressed myself. Imagine catering for 8-60 people who expect a full roast meal but can’t see why confirming that they’re coming in advance is important. Sounds rude of them, doesn’t it? It’s the way my family has always been though, so I don’t hold out much hope of getting my family to RSVP without changing their minds about what that RSVP was last minute. I learned a long time ago that the only person I can change is myself. So every year I somehow find a way to cater for 8-60 people. The only thing that I can’t seem to pull off is convincing my animals that I’m finding the whole day fun and carefree. If I’m stressed, my birds are stressed and lets face it that many strangers in the house – they’re already stressed.
So how do I get my flock through Christmas?
- I make sure each of them has a favourite old toy. I prefer a time consuming foraging one if possible. It isn’t smart to pile them with new scary things. I give new toys to my birds regularly but not at Christmas.
- I give the birds somewhere to hide. I give my birds extra foliage at Christmas. They see foliage regularly, so it isn’t something that is going to scare them. Extra foliage gives them somewhere to hide so that they feel safe.
- Stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Wake the birds up and put the birds to bed as normally as possible. Having a routine will reduce a bird’s stress.
- Keep the birds in familiar surroundings. I usually rotate my birds into different positions in my bird room (so they all get time at windows or next to different birds). In the week building up to Christmas I stop rotating them. I let them be as familiar as possible with their cage’s exact position. I like to make sure at least one side of their cage is against a wall, so there is at least one direction were the feel they won’t have someone sneak up on them.
- I lock my cages. My extended family are not bird people. They’ve seen the photos of my birds cuddling me (or other people) and they see nothing wrong with opening the cages without asking. I can rattle off house rules as they come in, but I know from experience that the children won’t listen. My first priority is to protect my birds. I don’t want someone opening a cage door and accidentally letting a bird fly out an open house door.
- My bird room will be locked and the doors are alarmed. I know I’m going to be tied to the catering side of things or that I’m likely to be looking after my disabled grandmother, or dealing with whatever crisis occurs. I won’t be able to keep as close an eye on my animals as I would like. I do know that I’ll hear when someone goes near the birds uninvited and will then be able to deal with it.
- My birds themselves have been trained with a few simple routines. Talking on cue is a great trick because it is non-contact. It’s a good starting place when you’re introducing non-bird people to birds. Teach the people the cues to get the birds to say different things and get them to reward the birds and suddenly you’re building trust on both sides without the fear of initial clumsy attempts at petting.
- I put up pictures of some fairly graphic bird bites around my cages (thank goodness for google). This isn’t exactly going to make the kids that come to my place and fall in love with birds, so maybe it seems a little extreme? In theory, I should be teaching kids a love of birds BUT I know my extended family. Respect of animals is not a genetic trait. Consider that one year I found myself stopping children from chasing my dogs with metal garden stakes; another year I stopped them collecting clothes pegs (that they planned to attach to my cat); another year I stopped the elder boys from trying to convince their three year old cousin to “walk on coals” like they do in the movies (that was the last time I cooked a roast on a spit!)… I know that the adults in my extended family aren’t great with disciplining their children. Whatever house rules I lay down will be ignored unless the consequences of ignoring those rules are explained very clearly. A picture of a nice bloody limb with missing fingers gets my point across clearly. “There will be no teasing or torturing the birds or that picture will be you!” Then there is the other: “Leave the cats and dogs alone or I’ll feed you to the birds!” (which works well to keep the other animals safe too.)
- Swearing. I don’t know what it is with kids and getting parrots to swear? My next door neighbour’s darling offspring like to shout swear words over the fence at my birds and think it’s hilarious when the birds mimic them. My young cousins are no different. Going along with my bloody Christmas theme, I have taught my whole flock to chant the word “Brains” as if they are zombies. I’ve done this by using the word “Brains” as a bridging word instead of using a clicker in my training sessions for the last month. (It works as a bridging reward because it is a word I know I won’t accidentally say.) Consequently, my birds tend to say “Brains” when they do something smart, or just randomly say it to get my attention (pretty much begging for training). I’m hoping this will work to reinforce the idea that my birds like blood (so treat them with respect). I’m also hoping that it’s a cool enough word to distract the kids from trying to get my birds to swear. Instead, I’m hoping they’re going to try to get the birds to say “Brains”…
So that’s my strategy this Christmas. Dysfunctional as always – true. I’d love to just be focused on just getting the kids who visit me to love animals but instead I find a message of respect (and knowing the consequences) to be more effective while showing them some fun (and safe) ways to interact with animals. Hopefully the love of animals can be developed from there. This sort of approach just seems to work with a group of kids who simply don’t see animals regularly and have absolutely no understanding of how to treat them. I actually do want to see my family (despite everything I apparently love them) so training a flock of zombies sounds like a plan? One can only hope!
On that note, I hope you all have a happy and safe holiday season. Merry Christmas.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.