Parakeets and human hands – how our flock reacts

Parakeets and human hands, or rather the parakeet’s relationship with human hands, is a fascinating and varied topic. We have three budgies, and each of them have wildly different personalities. I’ve been thinking about that  lately, and how their personalities are reflected in their behavior around our hands.

A blue parakeet eats shredded carrot from a white plate
Toby takes first dibs on eating the shredded carrots

Toby is our first parakeet, and was an only bird for almost a year before we brought home her “sister” Kelly. We lavished Toby with attention and spent a ton of time training (or attempting to train) her on things like flying to us from anywhere in the house and on basics like stepping up on our fingers.

Given that history, you’d think Toby’s relationship to our hands would be pretty straightforward, but it’s actually quite complex. She seems to regard our hands as birds, so, when she the mood strikes she likes to interact with our fingernails as though they are playmates. She will pin her eyes and tap her beak against a human fingernail and reacts to it exactly as though she’s playing with anther bird.

Maybe because of her belief that our fingers are birds, what she won’t do reliably is step up onto a finger as though it’s a perch. In fact she seems quite offended by the idea if you ask her to step up! She will do almost anything to avoid hopping onto our hands, maybe because she wouldn’t naturally step on another budgie?

Regardless, unless she’s quite distracted or tricked with millet, she wants nothing to do with our hands at all unless they are being her bird friends.

A pale blue and white parakeet sits on a wooden perch
Kelly thinking about what (or who) she should bite next.

Kelly is a different matter entirely when it comes to hands. We brought her home from a parrot shop where as a baby she was hand fed and handled frequently by her breeders. Because of her upbringing we had a misguided assumption that she would be totally cool with hands and very easy to work with.

She was accepting of stepping up when she was a juvenile, but as soon as she starting moving towards adulthood she decided it just wasn’t working for her. Unlike Toby, however, she doesn’t see our hands as birds at all. As best as we can figure, she things of our fingers as wooden perches. At least that’s a logical explanation for why she bites us so hard! Much harder than she bites the rest of the flock, unless she’s very angry at them, or certainly everyone would be dead from blood loss.

Kelly will, however, take help from a hand without biting if she needs it. For example, if she ends up on the floor and feels confused, then she will look around for us to help her out. Maybe she thinks of that as her human flock coming with their weird wooden perches to get her out of trouble? I have no earthly idea, but it’s very much at her discretion.

After working with her extensively to try and reduce her biting we have essentially accepted that it’s just not going to work out between her and our hands! She’s a great companion and a lot of fun otherwise, and it’s rare that we need to risk injury to enjoy her company at this point.

A green parakeet naps on a heated perch
Kevin loves the K&H thermo perch for an afternoon nap

Kevin came third, and for no reason whatsoever has the ideal relationship with our hands. As frequent readers know, Kevin was completely miserable in quarantine, wanted nothing to do with humans, and only started acting remotely budgie-ish once he was with Toby and Kelly.

The moment he met them his relief was palpable, and even though they immediately started plotting to kill him he was overjoyed. So, to be honest, although we’ve intermittently worked with Kevin since on taming and training, it’s been spotty at best and we largely accepted that he was a “bird’s bird”.

Which is why it makes no sense at all, but he’s amazing with our hands. He always steps up when asked and will let us put him wherever we want. He will sit on a finger for longer than either of the girls and seems really comfortable. He’s the only one who’s ever sat on my finger and preened himself for a moment or two.

Moreover, he actively looks to us and our hands for help and sees hands as a solution rather than a problem. If he wants to get from point A. to point B. and we offer a hand he will take it 100% of the time.

He doesn’t see our hands as birds, or as wood to be chewed, but as helpful tools. He likes to beak at our fingers in an exploratory way, and will agreeably endure, but does NOT enjoy, an occasional gentle head or chin rub.

As I write this it becomes even more clear to me how their personalities are reflected in their actions towards our hands; Toby’s desire for connection and attention, Kelly’s single-mindedness, and Kevin’s gentle affability. I feel, essentially, that although I could have done more to train each of them, the results would always be strongly driven by their personalities.

A very common question for a new parakeet owner to ask is, “when will my parakeet let me hold him/pet him/snuggle him, etc. Without being a Debbie Downer, I always want to answer, “probably never”. But that’s the truth, with taking on budgie parenthood you’re spinning the wheel of chance and there is no guarantee that you’ll have a budgie that will EVER want anything to do with you touching them. In fact, I’d even venture that it’s more likely they won’t.

One of the great things about parakeets is their huge variation in individual personalities and the multitude of ways that you can have positive interactions with them that don’t involve petting. Although our parakeets and human hands interactions may not always be ideal, and are occasionally quite painful, I wouldn’t trade these cool little people for anything more predictable or more snuggly!

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Transitioning parakeets to new food

One of the first things you will likely purchase as a new budgie owner is a supply of food for your new friend. Depending on where your budgie came from, you may want to change his food pretty quickly from a low quality seed mix to something with added dried vegetables, fruits and herbs. Transitioning parakeets to new food is not as easy as making a swap and crossing your fingers, there are some considerations and warnings.

  • I don’t think it’s fair to call parakeets “stubborn”, but they will starve to death rather than eat something they don’t see as a safe food, or as food at all. This is not out of willfulness but because they literally may not view something like a pellet as food, particularly if it’s nothing like what they are used to eating. Please don’t ever totally change your parakeet from one food to another with no transition period. Particularly don’t ever abruptly change from a seed mix to pellets.
  • Instead, start with what they are used to eating and slowly mix in what you are switching them to, increasing the ratio of the new food over several days or weeks. Even if you’re just changing to a new seed blend, this is a helpful way to make sure your parakeet still has something they feel safe eating and won’t starve.
  • This does particularly apply if you are transitioning to pellets, which, I’m just going to be honest, I don’t recommend as a primary source of nutrition. I’ve written about seeds vs. pellets in this post, but in brief, I don’t think that pellets have been proven to be nutritionally complete and they are not mentally stimulating enough. Additionally, budgies are designed to eat seeds.
  • I’ve focused a bit on transitioning from seed to seed or seed to pellet, but you may also need to do some work to get your parakeet trying vegetables and fruits. A great way to start is by chopping a vegetable up very finely and mixing it with millet or your parakeet’s preferred seed mix. Offer that as the only food source for a couple hours and even if they just pick out the millet they are sure to accidentally eat some vegetables too. Make sure not to leave fresh vegetables and fruits in your parakeet’s cage for too long, especially in warmer months as rotting vegetables aren’t anyone’s idea of a good meal!
  • The bottom line is that most budgies should transition fairly easily to a good quality seed mix, no matter what quality the pet store or breeder was feeding. Just take your time and make sure you’re seeing seed hulls in your food cups every day and good healthy poops, which indicate your parakeet is eating.

Hopefully there’s at least some food for thought here (haha!). Healthy feeding is always top of mind for parakeet parents and transitioning parakeets to a new food can be one of the most nerve-wracking hurdles to overcome. But, with a little sly work to transition them to a new food, you’ll have healthy-eating babies in no time.

A blue parakeet foraging in some seed on a plate
Toby loves foraging through her regular seed mix on a plate
Two parakeets trying some sprouts
We did not care for these. Which is too bad, since they were expensive!

 

How much time out of the cage budgies should have every day

So, you’ve had your parakeet for a while, he’s pretty much tamed up and is one of your best pals. Now that the hard work is done you might be wondering how much time your budgie should have out of the cage every day. The answer depends on your schedule and your individual budgie.

If your budgie is still on the edge of being new then the answer is how much time can you devote? For the first several months when we had Toby as a solo parakeet she couldn’t be  out of the cage without full supervision. She would come out and immediately look to us to entertain her. If she didn’t have our full attention there was no telling where she would end up or what she’d get into. Now mind you, my house is small, but it’s still pretty darn easy to lose a parakeet in any nook or cranny.

I do not recommend having a parakeet out unsupervised that you don’t know extremely well. And I do mean even for you to run and change over a load of laundry.

Under those limitations, if you can devote two hours a day to hanging out with your parakeet I think that’s great. That’s enough time for them to stretch their wings, socialize, and hopefully tire themselves out a bit.

But please don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make that every day. Sometimes you’re going to have to work late and you get home just in time for dinner. Other times your human family will have needs that take precedence. Stuff happens that is totally out of your control and you will miss days. So, please make sure your budgie(s) have a nice large Flight Cage and all of the toys and perches that make up a varied life.

budgie time out of the cage
If this is what I do when you’re watching me, imagine the fun I have unsupervised!

Budgie time out of the cage for an established flock can be different. Now that we’ve had Toby, Kelly and Kevin for several years we know their behavior patterns pretty well. Also, having three of them typically means they keep themselves fairly well occupied. If someone wants to really get into trouble (like trying to eat framed artwork or the blinds) inevitably another parakeet will come over and ruin their fun.

Over time we have adjusted things in the house that we know are problem areas. Like putting decals on windows and covering enticing gaps.

My flock of three is usually out of their cages for about 2-3 hours on a weekday (as soon as I get home from work I let them out) and anywhere from 4 hours to the entire day on a weekend. As long as we’re going to be home I open up the cages as soon as I get up and typically put them to bed around 7pm.

Now mind you they are at their leisure to head back to their cages at any time, and they do typically go home for a lengthy afternoon nap. Otherwise they are usually on one of their window perches, on a play gym, or, yes, getting into nonsense.

budgie time out of the cage
Is this the nonsense to which you are referring?

The other key piece is that they typically like to hang out where they can see the whole flock, and that includes humans. So, if I go into my office space to work at least a couple of them will follow me and hang out on the play gym there.

For budgie(s) that you know well and have established patterns of behavior relaxing your vigilance a bit regarding supervision is natural. Check in every so often and be aware of any suspicious sounds (or the lack of sound, which is always MOST suspicious!). In any case, make sure your budgie always has easy access to food and water. Unless you are limiting their access to the cage for taming or training purposes they should also be able to chose to go home and take a break.

Ultimately I feel like a good guideline is that your budgie should have time out of the cage for about two hours a day. But, we must acknowledge that this absolutely won’t work every day. There will be days that you’re able to let them out for 15 minutes and days that are missed entirely. That’s okay, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about a random missed day or two. There will be enough days that they are out for 2++ hours that more than balance out the short days.  

budgie time out of the cage
I live here now, right?

Photo tour of our parakeet cage set up and play areas

As you embark on your journey of parakeet keeping you may find that your flock’s territory expands further and further throughout your home. We welcome the flock into most rooms of our house and have employed various methods to help them feel like they have a space just for them. Hopefully this photo tour of our parakeet cage set up and play areas will help provide some ideas for your home!

First, here are our cages:

Our cage set up
Our current cage set up

I have already done a full review of all our cages so I won’t go too much into these except to say we are happy with both. When setting up a cage for a parakeet make sure to have a variety of perches and toys. Also watch out for putting perches and toys directly above water and food bowls to reduce to amount of poop you can expect in either.

HQ Victorian flight cage for parakeets
This was our first “big” cage purchased, still loving it 4 years later.
Flight cage for budgies with toys and perches in it
The A&E flight cage is a great value for a solid, well-made cage

Above are some close up shots so you can see the set up in each cage. They are tailored to the needs of the parakeets that live in them. Kelly (HQ Victorian) has a lot of shredding toys because she loves to chew all day. Toby (A&E cage) has to have all of the toys dropped below the top perches or she’ll try to sleep on whatever is the highest thing in the cage.

Our first play area is a Java Wood Table Top Play Stand . You’ll probably notice a theme between this and our floor-standing play gym, they are too large for parakeets but with adjustments we make it work. For both stands we use a lot of Comfy Perch For Birds to make usable space for budgies. The flexibility of these perches is a huge bonus.

Java tree stand for parakeets
The java tree is  technically too big for parakeets but we make it work

My favorite play stand is the Prevue Pet Products Small Parrot Playstand because I can move it around the house with me. This play stand has also been modified to be useful for parakeets.

A standing play gym for parakeets
All the parakeets feel like this is their home away from home

Next up is the Polly’s Sandy Window and Shower Bird Perch, Large. This perch is technically slightly too large for parakeets. They like to sit here and look out the back window, but not for extended periods of time. I wouldn’t encourage them to sit there for ages due to the large width of the perch as well as the fact that it’s a sand perch, which can be tough on feet.

A perch for parakeets that sticks to a window
I think this is really intended for a shower perch, but it sticks well to the window.

In the front window we use a Triangle Perch, some Plastic Chain and a Command Hook to rig this up. All three of our budgies love sitting here and looking out the window. It does also draw them upward to the curtain rod, so if you’re not looking to encourage that behavior then I don’t recommend doing this. We took those plastic balls from another toy to create “bumpers” on the triangle so it doesn’t smack into the glass too hard.

Hanging perch for parakeets near a window
Everyone enjoys looking out the front window from this perch.

Last but not least I have a hanging area for them in my home office space. This is made from a comfy perch, a command hook and a swing from a company called Hari Rustic Treasures. Hari Rustic Treasures used to be available at Dr. Foster & Smith, which is no longer operating. I’m not sure where (if anywhere) that particular swing is available any more. This Yosoo Bird Swing looks like it would be pretty fun though, if you’re looking for another idea.

A picture showing a hanging play gym for parakeets
This hangs near my home-based office space – a command hook holds it all up.

That’s it (so far!) for our parakeet cage set up and play areas. About half the rooms in our house are parakeet-welcoming. They are not invited to hang out in our bedroom, bathroom and my husband’s office. If you have any questions about our set up or would like more detailed pictures feel free to let me know by dropping a comment on this post.

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Working from home with parakeet colleagues

Working from home is a great perk that’s increasingly available to employees. Creating a good environment for a full workday can be challenging in any situation, but when you throw in a flock of noisy budgies there’s a whole extra layer of careful planning to make. I only work from home occasionally, but my husband has a dedicated home office that he uses three days a week, most of these tips come right from him after a few years of experience. Here are some tips for working from home with parakeets.

  1. If at all possible, get a door (or a floor!) between you and your budgies. We have a single-floor and relatively small home, so my husband’s office is right next to the bird’s room. Even so, he does have two doors that he can close between him and the budgies, which helps dampen sound.
  2. Speaking of dampening sound, if you’ve got particularly bad spots you can buy or make sound panels to absorb some of the screeching.
  3. Use in-ear headphones for calls, particularly with an inline microphone that has a small range. This tip is mine! I have an inexpensive set of headphones that I’m absolutely in love with. They work with both my laptop and my cell phone, the in-ear speakers help me tune out parakeet noise and the inline microphone picks up my voice really well but isn’t strong enough to get a lot of noise outside of me.

If those aren’t an option and you have to use a regular headset with a more powerful microphone then try not to worry about it too much. I mean really, how many conference calls have you been on where someone’s dogs or kids created a ruckus?  Parakeet coworkers may be more unusual, but they are certainly not the only uninvited guests at the meeting! My husband has had people comment along the lines of, “oh, you’ve got birds”, but then they usually launch into their own story of bird parenting, or reminisce about the cockatiel their parents had.

  1. Play soft pleasant music for your parakeets. This may seem counterintuitive because of course they are compelled to sing along, but, fairly continuous pleasant singing is better than intermittent screaming. Especially if you’ve been quiet for a long time and then pick up a call, the budgies are likely to be reminded that you’re home and start desperately flock calling.
  2. I suggest resisting the urge to cover them routinely during the day. If you’re attending a Board meeting via conference call and absolutely have to be sure of silence then that’s one thing, but for daily routine, I don’t think it’s quite fair to take away their daytime. I’m sure not everyone will agree with me on that one, but I feel like they deserve to have their day as well, and it’s not their fault there’s so much to sing about!
  3. Listen to your own music or white noise when you need to focus. There are tons of white noise options or music to help you concentrate options on YouTube. My personal favorite is wind through bamboo. If you put on a pair of Noise Cancelling Headphones and some good masking noise it may help you concentrate and not get distracted thinking of all the fun you could be having with your parakeets.
  4. Make sure your budgies have ample things to occupy themselves with! A bored budgie can be an exponentially noisy budgie. Add in and regularly rotate a variety of engaging toys and items for destruction to keep those beaks and brains busy.

Although working from home with parakeets can be an adjustment, there are ways to help you get your work done while your budgies have a nice day at home in their cage. If you’ve got any tips to share that I missed, please drop a comment below!