Coping with loss and planning for a new friend

Unfortunately, one loss has followed another, and our girl Toby passed away a few days ago. I know that parakeets hide their illnesses well, but it has been hard not to second guess whether I should have seen that something was wrong leading up to her passing.

Looking back, I can see that she was quieter, which I chalked up to a couple of factors. Everything was quieter after Kevin died because he was the primary singer of the group who would get everyone else going. Additionally, Toby has always been a bit less rambunctious during the coldest winter months. Regardless of any hindsight or second-guessing, a few days ago Toby had some kind of episode and declined extremely rapidly afterwards.

Toby’s human and parakeet flock were all with her when she passed, and as difficult as it was, I am glad that we were all together to see her off. Particularly for Kelly’s sake, as she watched what was happening with Toby very intently.

I have read that it is good to help a surviving budgie understand their friend is gone. Without being too graphic, we allowed Kelly some time with Toby after she had passed. It felt a bit like the viewing that we humans have in many cultures after someone dies. It was comforting, in a way, to take the time to process what had happened all together. Kelly preened Toby’s head a little bit, and once her focus shifted, we removed Toby.

She has not flock-called for Toby, looked for her, or seemed at all confused about why she is alone, so I think that we really did the right thing by making sure that she had time to understand what had happened.

A solo budgie is not the right thing long term, however. My husband and I both work full time jobs, and there are too many hours in the day that we can’t be with her. Also, even if we were around all the time, I do not think that humans can meet all her social needs. We can’t preen her, or bob our heads just the right way, we can’t fly around with her, or all eat seeds at the same time. We can’t even really sing properly in a way that will get her singing! Kelly remains aggressive towards human hands, so while you might think we could sort of approximate the preening at least, that it a total non-starter.

The past few days are the only time in Kelly’s life that she’s ever been without at least one other budgie. I imagine that even understanding what’s going on, she must be feeling lonely and a bit at sea. We’re making sure to spend tons of time with her, and keep her busy with her favorite toys, but it’s not enough.

So, even though it might seem fast, we’re going to get a new friend in budgie quarantine as soon as possible. We fixed up a quarantine cage, which is Toby’s old flight cage and looks ridiculously large for the purposes of budgie quarantine, but that’s what we have available.

A cage set u for quarantining a new budgie
A palatial quarantine cage

You might wonder why Kelly is staying in her somewhat smaller cage instead of moving up to Toby’s old cage. First, Kelly loves this cage. She has lived in a few other cages over the years and this is the one she always seems most at ease in. Second, as mentioned above, she is super hand averse and loves biting really hard. This cage has food and water doors that I can easily access without putting my hands in her cage and saves me from a lot of bites.

A budgie cage and play gym
Kelly’s cage and play gym

Hopefully in the next week or so we’ll be bringing home a new friend for Kelly (well, for all of us!). We’re going to be looking for a social fellow who’s confident in himself and likes “talking” to others but isn’t bossy or demanding. It might sound silly to think that we could find those traits just observing a budgie in a pet shop, but if you spend some time watching you can get the measure of a budgie’s personality, in my opinion. When we went to pick out Kevin, we were looking for a budgie who was kind and deferential, who liked other parakeets a lot, but would always let someone else have their way. And that’s exactly who Kevin was.

I’m hopeful that the new fellow will handle quarantine better than Kevin did and we’ll be able to make some inroads. He will be housed in my home office for the budgie quarantine period. I’m still working from home half of the time due to COVID, so he’ll certainly have enough time to stare at me and determine whether I’m a likely predator!

Thanks again to everyone for your condolences on Toby’s passing. It helps so much feeling the love and compassion from this community of parrot-loving folks. Please keep an eye out for upcoming posts about our new budgie and wish us luck in budgie quarantine!

Flock update – how the girls are doing without Kevin

It’s hard to believe that Kevin passed away almost two months ago. I wanted to provide a flock update on how the girls have been doing without him, and the humans too. In my initial post about Kevin dying I indicated that the girls didn’t seem too shaken up by it, but boy was I wrong.

The first day after Kevin passed they were very subdued. My husband and I watched a movie that afternoon and both Toby and Kelly came and sat with me. One one each shoulder they settled in and took a nap. This has never happened before or since and I believe that it was an expression of communal grief. I felt that they were both taking comfort from me as well as intentionally comforting me. I tear up even now thinking about how sweet they were!

During the next couple of weeks the vibe was sort of….insane. Both Toby and Kelly turned into stage 5 clingers. There was nowhere we could go in the house that both girls wouldn’t follow us. This meant we suddenly had company routinely in the bathroom, bedrooms and my husband’s office, which were typically not places of interest for them. They were even trying to join us in a freezing cold hallway that leads to our garage and basement, where they had never even thought about going before. It definitely increased our awareness of being careful when shutting doors and making sure they were secure when we left the house.

When they were in their cages, generally only during our workdays, they were incessantly flock calling us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t let them out, since they were also going through an extreme period of aggression towards each other and had to be closely supervised.

It was pretty much chaos and I think I can say with certainty that all human and budgie flock members were miserable. I had expected the human misery, but I was surprised about the impact on the girls, neither of them had been bonded to Kevin and they never treated him particularly kindly, at least not on a consistent basis.

Fortunately after a couple weeks of madness they tapered down on the intensity and now the vibe is very much like it was before Kevin joined the flock. The girls mostly do okay when they are out together, although they will always need to have separate cages. I have broken up a couple of bad fights, but only about one a week, which is fairly normal for them!

At this point I think it’s the humans that are struggling most. I miss Kevin every day, and I’ve been failing a bit on giving the girls a super enriching experience because of it. Particularly on the fresh fruits and vegetables. It used to be that every day when I would get out of work I would prep a snack for them. Kevin would always come sit on their java tree and watch me with great interest. Then, when the plate was ready I would offer him first taste. He gave any food a try, and usually tucked in with gusto. It was a rewarding feedback loop for both of us, and I find that now when I go to prep Toby and Kelly a fruit or vegetable I just feel sad.

That’s something I need to get over so I can provide them with at least the option of some good fresh vegetable or fruit every day. I also fell off on rearranging their cages or providing new toys for a few weeks. Fortunately I recently had a small spree at Planet Pleasures bird toys and now have some good new options to rotate into the cages. (note – this post is not sponsored in any way by Planet Pleasures and I am not compensated for mentioning their products)

In terms of next steps, you might be wondering if we’re going to add to the flock again. As of right now we have no plans to, which was a tough decision to make. I so much miss having Kevin’s sweet and docile energy. I love my girls, they are challenging and independent and keep me on my toes, whereas dealing with Kevin was pure joy.

But, we have to acknowledge that now that the girls have evened out, they don’t need another flock member. As long as I get fully back into providing regular enrichment, new toys and new experiences I know that the girls aren’t missing out on anything, at least as far as they are concerned. If we immediately ran out and got another boy (tempting!) it wouldn’t be for the good of the overall flock, just for us humans.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. They are such a rough couple of ladies though, I worry that a budgie with less developed social skills than Kevin might have an even tougher time! For now I think we’ll take things as they come, maybe in spring I’ll feel differently, but for now it seems like a good plan to keep things simple.

Thank you again to everyone for the condolences that I received through the blog and my social media channels. I know how many of you loved Kevin too, and I felt so touched by the many comments and messages.

A blue parakeet in the foreground and a white parakeet behind

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Grieving the loss of a parakeet

When we started building our flock over five years ago I knew that inevitably one of our parakeets would die. Unfortunately Kevin passed away over the weekend and our first experience of grieving a parakeet has hit quite hard. Kevin came home in November of 2017 (just three short years ago) and after a tough time in quarantine joined our flock of two girls and brightened our every day with his kind and gentle nature.

coming home from travel

Although we brought Kevin into our flock just three years ago we knew that he was already a fully mature budgie and suspected that he was at least as old as Toby (currently five years old), if not older based on the development of his iris rings.

There wasn’t any accident or trauma that caused Kevin’s death. Looking back I can see that he may have slowed down over the fall a little bit, or maybe there were signs that he was failing that I took for molting. It’s so easy to second guess after the fact, but up until the day he died Kevin was happy, eating well and interacting with the girls. His final morning he noshed on some carrot greens, a favorite, and spent time watching birds out the window. Towards late afternoon he puffed up and didn’t want to do anything but sleep, and he passed in the early evening. We buried him in our backyard near a bird bath and it’s so nice to know he’s nearby.

I was worried that Toby and Kelly might be confused or call for Kevin, wondering where he is, but they haven’t. They were still awake when he passed, so I believe they are aware of what happened, for all I know they may have seen it coming long before we humans did. They were both a bit more clingy towards me yesterday, I am not sure whether they are grieving or whether this is indicative of how our dynamics will change now that they are a flock of two.

As sad as we are, I want to focus more on how grateful I am for the three years we had with Kevin. Every day we spent with him was just pure joy (well, maybe not the miserable quarantine part), watching him eat all the vegetables, and sing, and love his “sisters” even when they were the bossiest ladies possible. The house is much quieter without Kevin, and we’ll be missing him for a long long time to come.

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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Celebrating Toby’s Fifth Gotcha Day

I can hardly believe it, but today we are celebrating Toby’s fifth Gotcha Day! For anyone unfamiliar with the phrase, a “Gotcha Day” stands in for a birthday as the day you brought your pet home. It’s especially useful when you don’t actually know the date your pet hatched. Since Toby came to us by way of Petsmart, all we know is that she was under three months old when we got her, because she still had baby bars on her head.

Toby was the first parakeet of the flock, and rather gracefully endured all of our first time parakeet parent mistakes. These included scaring her routinely with our hands, letting her stay up too late, and not understanding that the proper diet for a parakeet includes lots of fresh vegetables. Through all of it, she has held steady and not seemed to judge us too harshly!

Now that Toby is five we might have expected her to slow down a bit in what is, essentially, budgie middle age. Quite to the contrary, Toby is still easily the most energetic and active of the flock.

A blue parakeet hanging from a gray jacket
Toby checking to see if my jacket has pockets.

Toby is always first to check out a new jacket or sweatshirt to explore pockets, and is a classic budgie female in her utter territoriality. It doesn’t matter whether someone else saw it first, if she wants something then it is hers (no sharing either!).

A blue parakeet biting a bag of potato chips
Toby was very interested in the texture of this chip bag

She was not successful in exploring the contents of this bag of chips. In fact, Toby has never eaten a potato chip or any processed human foods. We agreed from the start that we humans didn’t really want to share our food with budgies and we’ve been dogged about sticking to it.

Toby is also the most likely to pose for the camera.

A blue parakeets poses for the camera
Toby working the camera

At various times, Toby has lived alone, then with Kelly, then with Kevin, and now by herself again. Having gone through all of these iterations I can now say that Toby is a horrible roommate. This is largely, again, due to how territorial she is. She doesn’t shy away from getting into a viscous battle when the mood strikes, which is occasionally at random without any provocation.

Even with her idiosyncrasies, we certainly wouldn’t change her one bit, or any piece of her story leading up to celebrating Toby’s fifth gotcha day. Parakeet parenthood has been a roller coaster of highs and lows, beyond anything I would have imagined five years ago, driving home from Petsmart, hearing her nails on the cardboard box and wondering what the heck we had gotten ourselves into.

A blue parakeet rests with one foot up
Toby in a rare moment of relaxation

So, cheers to Toby on her fifth gotcha day, I hope we have many many more together!

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