Selecting the caregiver
The most important consideration whenever you plan to be away from your bird is in choosing who will care for him. While in Austin, I had three options, not that I went away often. The simplest one was to have my daughter care for my birds. She lived very close to me (too close, in fact. I often came home from work to find my fridge had been raided.) She had a great relationship with all of my birds and would often take them out to play with them. They really enjoyed her company. Since I had things to do at my place that she did not have at hers, I knew she would be there often and for long periods of time. Also, her services were free.
On the negative side of that option is the knowledge that sick animals are often present. Even knowing that most transmittable disease is spread through contact, and knowing that my birds would never be in contact with another sick bird, I was still concerned that improperly washed staff hands could theoretically wind up on my bird. However, that is a risk we run whenever we take our birds to the vet. Also, there is the expense of the $12 per day boarding fee, times 5, in my case.
Option three, was a pet sitting service. Fortunately for me, I had a very knowledgeable vet tech in my bird club in Austin who provided this service. I had the care issues well covered with these three options, the first one being preferable.
I would ask an inexperienced caregiver to handle the bird only out of necessity. Many people are intimidated by a bird’s beak, and their fearfulness, no matter how hard they try to mask it, will be evident to your bird. This could result in a bite, and following that, the quality of care and interaction your bird receives will be likely to change. Further, and I could see this happening with one of my birds, he might refuse to return to his cage once let out. What would the inexperienced pet sitter do then?
Baths can be given by spray bottle while your bird is inside the cage, and if you put in enough toys before you leave, there are few reasons for the cage door to be opened often. Lots of fun interaction can occur from both sides of the cage bars.
The best way to provide your caregiver with the means to continue your great feeding practices is with frozen meals that you have prepared in advance of your trip. Fruits and veggies, pasta, beans and grains all freeze beautifully, and when combined together will make an easily served and nutritious meal for your bird. All the bird sitter has to do is place the serving sized frozen package in the refrigerator overnight to thaw. These meals can be kept in any freezer, whether it be yours, the caregiver’s or the vet’s (although I know from experience what lurks inside the the freezer in a vet’s office and that creeps me out just a little bit, although for no good reason.)
If he or she is handy in the kitchen and doesn’t mind preparing a fresh meal, all the better. Be sure to keep a well stocked birdy cupboard containing more than enough pellets, seed and snacks. Spills and accidents do happen and you want to be certain there is enough for the duration of your trip.
If your caregiver is inexperienced or afraid of birds, you will want to be certain to provide a variety of entertainment in your bird’s environment if he is to remain caged for the duration of your trip. Several toys with lots of variety in texture and function should be placed in the cage before you leave. A TV or radio can be turned on during alone times, and the cage can be moved near a window for the view (don’t forget to put a cover over a corner of the cage for your bird to hide in should a predator wander into view.)
Leave a bunch of paper plates and empty toilet paper or paper towel rolls to be woven into the cage bars for extra shreddable material. Newspaper is also a blast. (Don’t forget to leave plenty for lining the cage bottom,)
Don’t fret if your bird needs to remain caged while you are away. Even your free roaming bird will survive this short duration. Keep in mind that, with your absence, everything is already different for your bird and he won’t be expecting business as usual. With the new caregiver comes the excitement of change and he will be somewhat occupied with that. It is better for everyone to remain safe and at ease.
Aside from a list of do’s and don'ts, make sure your caregiver has a list of numbers to call for help should you not be accessible by phone. Provide the phone number and address to your vet’s office, as well as a local pet emergency clinic for after hours needs. If you have friends that are knowledgeable about birds, call them and ask if you may have your caregiver call with concerns. A bird’s behavior can seem pretty peculiar to those who are new to it and it can be a great comfort to call someone and have them tell you that, yes, it is quite normal for a bird to throw their breakfast at the wall and scream as the sun goes down. I would also suggest that you have a “runner up” caregiver, a neighbor, friend or relative, should the first one be unable or unwilling to continue looking after your bird.
A couple of weeks before you leave, have a talk with your bird about the changes that are coming. Look your bird directly in the eyes and let him know that while he is very much loved, you need to go away and that a really terrific person will be standing in for you. Assure him that he will be well cared for, and that you will be back before he knows it. Repeat a version of this conversation everyday until you leave.
This may sound strange, but I swear by this approach. I don’t fool myself into thinking that my birds might have a clue as to the content of our conversation. I know they don’t. But, birds are smart and intuitive. What they do understand is that I am trying to communicate something important to them and they listen intently. With each repeated conversation, they are aware that something is about to be different, although they aren’t certain of what. I do firmly believe that at the time you are walking out the door, they are able to put together this action with your conversations.
I believe that the talks leave them with a sense of reassurance after you are gone. It’s is far cry from running out the door to catch your plane and saying: “By the way, I’m outta here and you are in the hands of a stranger now. Have fun!.” Nothing is worse for a bird’s comfort and self-confidence than being thrust into the unknown. Help him to be prepared.
I know it’s scary to leave your bird for the first time. There always seems to be so much to worry about and we tend to invent possible nightmarish scenarios that never actually come to pass. In the end, all the worrying will have been for nothing because you and your bird will not only have survived the ordeal without incident, but will be better for the experience.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.