Learning How to Properly Care For Parrots: The Hard Way

Photo by Dave Location: Orlando, FL Sun conure babies "Lily" & "CJ"

This is by far the hardest blog entry I've ever had to write, and I hope that it will always be the hardest because I don't know that I could take more than this. God never gives us more than we can handle though, right? He sure pushes that fringe of fear,  as we often call it, doesn't he?

I always thought I was one of those 'glass half full' types. Always looking for the positive among the negatives, always giving someone a nudge with my elbow if they were bringing everyone else down. Then I talked to Katherine, my sun conure breeder, and realized how glass half empty I really was. "You saved three babies. You did the right thing. You had no way of knowing. I've been doing this for years and even I miss things. There's nothing you could have done. Don't beat yourself up, it's nothing you did." Yet we blame and we scold and we hold ourselves more accountable than even the rest of the world does and we become our own worst enemy - the one controlling our emotions which hit us like tidal waves from hell and knock the wind out of you while you're laying down letting your mind beat you up over things that can't be changed.

I've had enough close calls with animals - enough losses from dogs and cats in my childhood that I make sure to appreciate every second with animals that I've got. I make mental notes to tell them how much I truly adore and cherish them so that I won't ever regret not saying it enough.

Photo by Dave Location: Orlando, FL Climbing up me like a wall: Sun conure babies "CJ" & "Lily" 

And so I don't, I don't regret not saying it enough. I told her every day. I grabbed her little body cupped into my palms and would hold her against my face every chance I got to smother her with kisses and tell her, "I love you so much, CJ."

As many of you who follow me on facebook know, my little girl (third born) Phoebe got sick and I made the 3.5 hour drive to the breeder (each way) to get her in more experienced hands. Give me a bird to train, no problem. Give me a bird to medically heal, we've got a problem.

I weigh my birds daily as a way to see how much of their food they are eating, to see where their food motivation is at for training and to catch early signs of illness the best way I know how and that's through weighing them and keeping a chart. I'm not a trained medical professional to know the other signs so I do what I can with what I do know. And what I know is what the scale reflects.

Photo by Dave Location: Orlando, FL Flying: Sun conure baby "Lily" 

What I didn't know until raising these fragile little conures was that a stool without any little 'green worm' of any sort (that's how I see it best described to us non-know hows) means their system is shutting down. That an abnormal amount of water drinking indicates organ failure (I knew it to be a sign that your bird could have metal toxicity only) and that baby birds that are learning to fly have to be 100% or not be allowed to fly at all until they are as it expedites by underlaying medical issue. 

Do you know how I learned those things? The hardest way possible.

When I dropped Phoebe off with the breeder I was so scared. I kept her by my neck and in my lap the entire time talking to her. Telling her to pull through and that her sisters would be waiting for her. I'd tell her sisters back home all the time that Phoebe would be back and they better welcome her like she never left. I had no idea it was Phoebe who was the one that was safe that whole time.

The stress from the early on change of environment from the breeder's house to ours, to the chill they could have gotten in between during the switch caused yeast and bacteria infections which were treated by us early on with early on vet appointments. I never said anything because I didn't want everyone to worry - it was worrisome enough without people constantly asking for updates which I knew they'd be doing out of the kindness of their hearts, but I just couldn't take that kind of pressure on top of the pressure I already felt for keeping these babies safe, healthy and alive.

Photo by Dave Location: Orlando, FL My girls: Sun conure babies "Phoebe",  "Lily" and "Detka"

We thought we got through it. They were all medicated, and they all began to thrive. They started eating organic pellets, even coming over while we would work on the presentation of our cookbook recipes and walk all over them and grab a bite while they were there. They began eating sweet potato, peas and garden greens (in soft form) and playing with spray millet.

They were even drinking water when they weren't accidentally stepping into it and climbing one another's heads in the process.

 They began to flutter around the floor like little helicopters trying to take flight for the first time. Then they'd start going from A to B, and one night while CJ and Lily were in our bedroom CJ tested out her accuracy by flying to the end of the bed and landing. She was proud of herself. When her sister Lily tried to do the same, Lily forgot how to put on her breaks and went zooming past CJ making Dave and I burst into a fit of laughter as Lily looked confused about how she got so far when she was aiming for CJ's spot. After that Lily would aim for CJ's head and usually land right there which CJ didn't appreciate.

I'd always whisper to CJ to give her sisters some pointers. She was rising above them all and out-flying them like crazy. In their small cage they had moved into from the breeder, they were beginning to not have enough space and break tail feathers so I moved them into a little basket bed and put their toys and food inside and they'd sit on the outside by the window in the den while we would work. Occasionally flying to us but coming over for feedings and then napping over there in the sunshine in one another's company.

But in the last 7-10 days, their weights began to decrease even though they all fed so well. They were now eating formula, plus vegetables and trying new things all the time. But CJ was drinking a lot of water and beginning to refuse feedings. She began filling up again a day later along with her sisters and they were moved into a big cage to have more space and not step on one another. It was just for a day as we'd be cooking hot things and I didn't want to risk having them out, and couldn't stand keeping them in a small confined cage so into the big girl cage they went to play. I had walked in twice already to feed them and told myself... you know, since the girls are in here today I should bring them into my room to play and just hang out, they deserve it. 

 I had done this a night or two before and they loved it and I did too...

Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Orlando, FL In my room: Sun conure "CJ", "Lily" & "Deka" snuggling in the blanket

With all the work I'd been doing I kept telling Dave I couldn't wait until it was all over and slowed down so I could spend more time with my feathered children. I had made sure to go on dates with Dave (to the movies and dinner) and make time to train with Bandit and Cressi, and go into the aviaries to cuddle with Rocko randomly who had been more snuggly than usual which I was taking full advantage of. That day I made a mental note to spend more time with the girls because it was the first day they weren't out and around.

When I got home I found CJ, she had left her sisters to find a place to go alone and there she laid while they slept on a rope perch of manila rope.

I checked my weight charts to see and she had lost 30 grams over a 10 day period but was still eating until full, I didn't understand. I'd seen all the signs much more clearly with Phoebe than I did with CJ who was active, flying, and didn't show a lot of 'not feeling well' characteristics. The next morning Dave drove Lily and Detka to the breeder and the breeder said it looked like we had killed the first infection they had, but when they started flying it came forth again and expedited it - because CJ was flying more than the others because she was older and getting better at it than they were, it came on faster with her. There was no way for us to see it coming as much as I keep telling myself "I should have... If only I... But what if I did..."


Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Orlando, FL Shown: Baby sun conures "Lily", "Detka" & "CJ" 

This photo was taken just a couple days ago, after a feeding. You can see how full they all got and how their eyes aren't droopy or squinty, as we call it, to indicate not feeling well. They were all flying like crazy and we missed the signs that only a breeder in the business would see, or a vet who was looking could tell.

Since Phoebe has been with the breeder she has gained weight and been the heaviest she has ever weighed with her as well reaching into the 90's in grams. She was always the smallest and lightest with us, and Detka the youngest always surpassed Phoebe. Every day the breeder sends me her weight at 4am in the morning so that I know she's doing alright.

Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Orlando, FL Pictured: All four girls

Maybe I left out a lot of the vet stuff, but before Phoebe was dropped off at the breeder we had taken her for a second vet consult (we saw two different vets, and to get across all the tests and medications we ran with her, the total was $1,800 between both vets). The girls are very clever and hate the taste of the meds so only Dave had the 'sleight of hand' to trick them into taking it. The breeder is tube feeding their medications which we have no experience doing - which is why they are there.

And for those of you that know our future plans, we will be performing with our birds at Silverwood Theme Park this summer and are making the move up March 3-5 ish. The girls are way too unstable health-wise to handle a road trip like this one (Florida to Idaho).

As of now, the breeder is nursing them all back to health, I get my weight text message every morning and pictures sent to my phone of them letting me know they're okay. And in 2 weeks we will figure out what to do based on how they are at that time.

Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Orlando, FL

You're not supposed to have a favorite child, or a favorite pet. It just seems mean and unfair. But CJ was mine. She was my favorite, my secret favorite that I never told anyone. I only told her. And my grandma in the letter I wrote her the night after I found CJ dead and couldn't sleep. I sat up in bed writing and soaking my pillow and crying myself to sleep. I haven't had a peaceful night because the nights are the worst. My whole being is conditioned to think about them, to think about her and when she needs to eat and when she needs to play and how much sleep she is getting and if she's tried that millet yet.

Photo by Dave Location: Orlando, FL Shown: Sun Conures Lily, Phoebe, and Detka climbing

The nights are the worst for me. And they are when I torture myself mentally over what could have been done to save her. Over what I didn't know enough about and over what everyone else needs to learn to not ever feel what I feel.

I've never been through a loss like this before, losing a baby bird this young like this. This is when my knowledge wasn't enough to save her - and that thought keeps me awake at night. It's what makes me greet morning looking like I've collided with a bus, and emotionally I have.

I went into each aviary and spent time with each of my birds telling them how much they are loved and they all accepted my love. Sometimes birds don't want to cuddle, and all of mine accepted it as if they knew it was something I needed to do without argument just for a minute or two. 

I originally didn't want to say anything to anyone publicly until I knew the others would be okay long-term, because I didn't want everyone to worry and ask questions all the time constantly reminding me as if I need reminder when everything is a reminder.

But then I realized how much more I don't want to go through this alone.

I'm going to end this with a few portions taken from my letter to my grandma, because I don't want to relive rewriting these feelings all over again from scratch. I wrote...

CJ is the eldest one and without telling anyone, she was my favorite. Out of all of them, she was my absolute favorite. And I held her every day and kissed her and told her how much I loved her. Every day I did that. I’d tell her I love her so much and I’d say her name and I couldn’t tell her no when she wanted something. God, Grammy, I loved that little feathered girl.  And I found her dead last night and it broke my heart. It really broke it because it was the last day of working on this project and I’ve been consumed in this project so much that I’ve made mental notes to be sure to spend time with my birds to just “be” with them because I know how focused I’ve been and how it could lead to neglecting everything else. Even Dave. Last night I went with him to a movie, I almost stayed home to work instead and then I thought he deserved my time more. I even got dressed up and did my make up - even though I knew he wasn’t trying to look pretty. I wanted to be a good looking date for him. And instead of cuddling with my baby girls, I fed them all 3 times and kept on working away - and I didn’t have them out with me because they kept flying to me and I didn’t want them to get hurt accidentally in the kitchen. So I put them in a huge cage to play and fly. And I made a mental note that day Grammy, I told myself in my head, “Make sure you take the time to bring the girls into your room and just be with them. They deserve that.”   I loved the movie, I loved our date. But you know what? I wanted to change into my pajamas and cuddle with my girls who had been so deserving all day.  Not CJ. Not CJ. It sounds terrible but CJ was my baby, my favorite, my God I loved her. I put so much love into her, I had given her my heart and she had died alone that night and I was not there and in my head she had been there, in my heart she had been there, all day long and I was waiting for the time to have with her and it was gone. I cried until I felt like I’d pass out but I didn’t. I cried until I felt like my body had no hydration left but it did, the tears never ran dry, they found places to gather and gather they did and fall they did. They fell, and they fell and they fell.  She was eating great, she was acting great - the only thing abnormal was how much she was weighing and what her poop looked like. When I described her poop to the breeder she told me that was a sign that her system was shutting down. When I mentioned all the water consumption it became clear her organs were failing in some way or another. I saw everything but had no idea what they meant and it killed me. It really just killed me and I still feel so, so broken.  Sometimes I hate things that happen in life, like death, because there’s no changing it and only time can heal the hurt and the time doesn’t go by fast enough to stop the tears from coming nearly every night.   I’m so, so sad for CJ. I just want her back. I love her. I loved her. And for her, I want to do right by her sisters. Good night Grams. Please keep the sisters of CJ in your prayers, because they are going to need it.  Rest in peace my dear baby feathered girl.   Sincerely,  Jamie

Article by Jamieleigh Womach. She has been working with parrots and toucans since the age of 17. She isn’t homeless but is home less than she prefers to be. She travels the world with her husband, daughter, and a flockful of parrots whom she shares the stage with.


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