Biting budgies – Kelly’s progress with hand aggression

This past winter Kelly’s juvenile hand biting, which initially seemed like very normal parakeet exploratory biting, turned into major hand aggression.  She was simultaneously going through her “teenage” phase, entering breeding condition for the first time, AND having a really heavy molt. We struggled with her very sharp and painful biting which we were almost completely unable to dissuade her from and which caused several bruises and even broken skin!

Fortunately I think we are coming out of the woods, after a final sharp escalation.

Shortly after I wrote the initial post in January, Kelly got much worse. She no longer limited her aggression to hands but would unpredictably bite any piece of you she could grab.

It was becoming difficult to trust her enough to interact with her at all, but at the same time we could tell she wanted to be with us, and would get more upset if we ignored her.

This culminated in a moment where Patrick lost his patience and almost his nose!  He had Kelly out on his hands and was working with her and the clicker, trying to increase the time between landing on his hand and biting it. She was feeling particularly aggressive that day and bit him, latching on very hard.

Patrick made the HUGE mistake of putting his face right up to her and sternly saying “NO”, whereupon she promptly bit his nose, hard enough to draw blood. Patrick put her down immediately and went to the bathroom. I think in that moment it was probably the best way to handle it, he didn’t give her the gratification of a reaction, but he did stop working with her, which may have been her intent in the first place.  Sometimes you just have to do the best you can in these situations.  He cleaned it off a bit and I asked for his permission to take a picture (in case he forgets when he sees this post – he said YES!).

Once he calmed down we talked about what happened and agreed that there was no way to blame Kelly for the nose bite. Patrick reacted in an aggressive way towards Kelly and it was reasonable to expect her to react in kind.

After that we decided to go all the way back to the beginning and treat Kelly like we would treat a new feral parakeet. We limited her interaction with hands and started by placing one hand at a time facing her through the cage bars. She would react aggressively every time by banging her beak against the bars, nodding her head very rapidly and trying to reach through the bars to bite the hand. We would keep the hand still and not move at all until she stopped of acting aggressively and went back to her usual routine.  Doing this a few times a day made a huge difference, in short order we saw a drastic reduction in the amount of time she would spend acting aggressively when presented with a hand.

I also started putting my hand in the cage with millet, the same way I would with an un-tamed parakeet and let both budgies eat millet while perched on my finger. As soon as Kelly started biting I would take away my hand and the millet.

While working on her in-cage we continued to really back off on pushing her outside the cage. We continued to allow her to hang out on us and explore our pockets and t-shirts, but tried to keep our hands out of it completely.

After a few weeks of these tactics combined we have seen a huge improvement.  I know that some of it is because she’s coming out of breeding condition and made it through her uncomfortable molt, but I think the big driving force was finally getting her adjusted to seeing our hands as non-threatening.

Recently she’s been stepping up with minimal biting that’s delivered much more gently.  She’s also stood on my hands a couple of times without biting at all, while I basically held my breath waiting to see what would happen!

She doesn’t see our hands as friendly birds the way that Toby seems to, but I think we are finally over the hump of having her accept that she can’t get rid of our hands, and they are not a threat, and sometimes quite helpful, if not desirable playmates.

(parakeet) girl fights

As regular readers know, I have two female parakeets (Toby and Kelly) living together in a little sorority. This is far from ideal, female parakeets tend to be more aggressive and territorial than their male counterparts. Typically you would want to either have multiple males, who would be great “bros” and just hang out and play or a male/female pairing, in which the male would naturally take a back seat and let his lady have her way.

If you want to have a larger flock than two: a. I’m very jealous because I wish my house was full of parakeets and b. from what I understand you can have a large flock of just males and they will be very happy, or almost any amount of males and females, as long as it’s an even number so everyone can pair off if they want to have close a bond with just one other parakeet.

In my experience with two females, you get a minimal amount of hanging out together, preening and regurgitating, but mostly it’s either playing separately or squabbling over various resources, regardless of the relative scarcity of the resources in question.

I don’t have the biggest flight cage on the market, but it’s certainly large enough for two to live comfortably.  I also have three water sources and two food bowls, but it really doesn’t matter, whatever Kelly has Toby wants, and vice versa.

Usually these disputes are resolved with a minimum of screaming, beak-banging displays of ownership and the occasional sword-fight of beaks, but on a rare occasion we have had some real knock down drag out melee style battles. Most recently they were fighting over a small toy while Patrick was working from home, the yelling was so loud he came out of his office to check on them and witnessed Toby tackle Kelly at the top of the cage, they both fell to the bottom and proceeded to roll around on the floor looking like something out of a cartoon.  He broke it up by speaking sharply to them and also removed the toy.

It also doesn’t help that Kelly has been in breeding condition, which Toby somehow manages to never go fully into, thank goodness.  I have to be so careful about not giving them any toy or hut that is nest-like or can easily be perched on and defended.

I made precisely that mistake with this Sea Grass Hut, which was on a play gym, so I rationalized that limiting their time with it would keep it from becoming an embattled object.  For a while they would play on it and hang out very companionably, looking every bit like a little girl gang.

parakeet girl gang

Of course as Kelly got further into nest mode the sea grass hut became “hers” and she began defending it viciously.  The last incident she bit Toby’s toe hard and I was concerned she had caused a serious injury, Toby immediately retreated to the cage and wouldn’t put weight on that foot.  There was no visible damage and after a short while Toby was totally back to normal. The sea grass hut was immediately removed and no other item has created quite that much ire.

A lot of people, many of them parakeet experts who I respect, would say that Toby and Kelly should never be housed together, and that the aggression will inevitably escalate until one of them becomes a murderer.

I do have a Small Vision Bird Cage as well as our original Prevue Park Plaza Bird Cage that they could be separated into if the need arose, but the times they are so sweet to one another makes me want to keep them together. Also I know they like sleeping in the same cage (once finished with their perch dominance routine) and I believe it makes them feel safer. As much as they squabble when they are “at home” they really do enjoy each other’s company.  I have to accept that I’m perpetuating a potentially dangerous situation, and I need to be able to live with my decisions if something does go drastically wrong someday.

Weighing the options I think the risk is worth the reward, knowing how unsettled Toby was when she lived alone and how much Kelly has enhanced Toby’s ability to try new things and explore. In a perfect world I would get them each a mature male boyfriend and expand the flock, but with my husband’s allergies there’s no way he could handle the 100% increase in feathers!

parakeet girl fight
we fight!
parakeet girls kissing
but we also love!

Toby gets her way for one night – parakeet molting is tough business

We’ve been going through our spring molt here, Kelly went first and Toby shortly after. Initially, Kelly was taking it pretty well, but she had a weekend where basically all systems shut down and she went into a serious rest mode.

She was very listless and puffy and we were even having a hard time convincing her to eat millet. She’s usually very active, but spent a couple of hours sitting on my shoulder. Even though Patrick kept reminding me that this happens every time, I was thisclose to calling the vet.

To help her out with possible tummy trouble we dosed their drinking water with Bragg Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, which is part of our parakeet first aid kit. We also had their Zoo Med AvianSun Deluxe Floor Pet Lamp and Zoo Med 24975 Avian Sun 5.0 Uvb Compact Fluorescent Lamp, 26W on for the entire day so she could soak up the full spectrum lighting and make sure she was able to synthesize her vitamin D. As a side note: even if your birds are near a nice big window you still need to provide full spectrum lighting, as window glass blocks out the rays that your budgies need most.

We also kept things relaxed and quiet around the house and went out for a while to give her time to rest fully in a nice calm environment, and also so she wouldn’t feel obligated to try and come out to be with us and wear herself out.

For Toby, on the other hand, this was the best day of her life; she played on the play gym and dominated every toy and perch, all of the resources were hers!

But the best part was that Kelly, who is usually very standoffish about physical contact, didn’t have the will to resist Toby’s snuggling advances.  When bed time came around, Toby plopped herself right up against Kelly and proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes preening every single inch of her, while Kelly alternately tolerated it or tried to weakly fight off the grooming!

Toby was SO efficient that the next morning when Kelly sat on my shoulder and started preening a shower of black dots came off of her like dandruff.  I’m not ashamed to say that we immediately freaked out, put some on a white sheet of paper and grabbed a magnifying glass, thinking they were bugs!  It turns out that Toby released every single one of Kelly’s pin feathers and what was raining off of Kelly were the keratin sheathes.

Kelly started to rally shortly after but did stay quiet for a couple more days, at least once she was eating and pooping regularly I felt like we were safe to just keep watch over her and monitor at home.  Now of course she’s back to her regularly scheduled program of hand-biting and making Toby keep her distance!

IMG_3838
Kelly says molting is NO FUN!

The time Toby proved her intelligence by biting my face

If I was going to recommend a single item of clothing to every budgie owner it would be a hooded sweatshirt.  Put one of these on around a budgie and suddenly you are a parkour dreamland, your pockets, the folds of the sleeves, the hood itself, all of these are fodder for exploration, climbing and swinging!

But the best part of all, without a doubt, are the drawstrings of your sweatshirt. They must be subdued through lots of domination, and their ends can be chewed happily for hours.

Because of the delightful chewy properties of the drawstrings I usually try not to wear sweatshirts that have aglets on the ends. I don’t want the parakeets accidentally eating any plastic or chewing on metal that could be unsafe.

All of my usual sweatshirts were in the wash so I threw on my Lakeshore Winery hoodie, and Toby immediately honed in on those plastic aglets! She was chewing away happily so I pulled the drawstrings away from her and tucked them into the front of the sweatshirt, whereupon she promptly bit my face and flew off in a very exasperated fashion.

I was really impressed that she made that connection, not just that the fun item had disappeared, but that I had taken it away and she was mad at me, and also understood that my hands were a part of me. She didn’t bite hard, mind you, just a nip to show that she did not appreciate having her toy taken away.

To make an even greater show of her intelligence, the following day I was wearing the same sweatshirt with the drawstrings tucked in – she landed on my front, climbed up to my neck and pulled them back out!

I have a tendency to think of Toby as a sweetie who’s fearful but eager to please, so it’s a good reminder to me that she’s always thinking and plotting. It also makes me realize that I need to up my game on providing enrichments for these two and make sure they have enough of an outlet for their smart little parrot heads 🙂

Embarrassing vignette – the time we almost killed a parakeet on her first day home

This story actually begins more than a year before we almost killed Kelly. Back in the day I was pretty chill about mice in the house. We would get the humane traps(Grandpa Gus’s Mouse Trap Tubes – Live Catch & Release Humane Mice Tunnels – 4 Pk), catch mice and throw them in the back yard. I used to have a weird old open-front shed in my backyard and I put some socks, catalogs and tortilla chips in there, and I would throw the mice in the shed.  One year we chucked about 13 mice out, or possibly the same mouse 13 times…

Anyway, this détente with the mice ended shortly before we got Toby. We were making tea one evening, I opened the dishwasher, and there was a living mouse among the glassware in the top shelf, frozen in terror. That was just too great an infraction to suffer, so, the dishwasher was replaced and the mice were no longer gently captured and tossed out into the yard. I bought a bunch of snap traps (Mouse Traps (Pack of 12) sorry) and deployed them. We got the dishwasher mouse in the dishwasher before replacing the dishwasher and set another couple of snap traps, one on each side of the refrigerator in the narrow alleyway between fridge and cabinet (this is the gun in act 1, by the way).

We snapped a few more mice and the siege seemed to be over, but I left the traps, because of Toby. If you google mice and parakeets you’ll find loads of stories about rodents trying to eat bird food, scaring parakeets at night, and in worst case scenarios, biting & killing budgies or eating their feet (!).  Just thinking about rodents attacking my baby budgie in the middle of the night was enough to keep me laying down snap traps indefinitely.

Not only had Toby never had her wings clipped, but she also came with a crazy aversion to going near the floor.  You can lure her down there with some Kaytee Spray Millet for Birds, 12-Count or toys, but mostly she’s like a kid playing the floor is lava game. So – I’m probably projecting the ending of this story at this point, but the thing is, we forgot about the traps, no one ever went near them and if we noticed them, it was with relief that Toby was protected.

Fast forward 8 months, Kelly came home, having recently had her wings clipped for the first time.  She spent the afternoon chilling out in her cage and the next day I was out of town. I felt horrible missing her first whole day, but my mom and I had a day trip to the city planned that we had been looking forward to for months, and we had purchased non-refundable transportation tickets etc. Also, I tend to be the nervous nell between Patrick and I, so I think we both felt like it might be better if I wasn’t there fretting about everyone’s well-being.

That night when I got home, Patrick told me the following story, he let Kelly out of her cage to spend some time with her, and Kelly, not realizing she couldn’t fly (she never did accept that) launched herself into the air, hit the broadside of the refrigerator and slid down to the floor!  Patrick dashed over and shoved the snap trap away JUST as Kelly was about to investigate the peanut butter lure, ie: get her noggin snapped.

I can’t even imagine the crushing guilt we would have felt if we killed our new budgie on her first day home. As it was we both felt absolutely horrible, and I think Patrick probably lost a few years of his life in that instant. I have to give him a lot of credit for remembering immediately the danger lurking in that narrow space.

So – my stomach still turns a bit when I think about mice eating our parakeet’s feet, but we went back to a humane trap. Kelly never made that exact flight pattern again – she only needed to hit the fridge one time before learning that it was not, in fact, a portal to another dimension – but she certainly hit practically every surface in the house over the next several months.  She would fly off somewhere and wander around until I found her and brought her home.

I guess the lesson here, beyond the obvious don’t have snap traps or other kill traps for small animals around your budgies, is that every parakeet is different. Ultimately we felt like parents who have their first baby and it’s an angel who never gets into anything, and then the second kid comes along and is a total whirlwind demon baby.

Still, I’m really glad we didn’t murder Kelly on her first day home, and I hope that the next time you endanger or scare your babies, which happens to all of us, you think of me and my mouse traps and feel a little bit better knowing we’re all out there making mistakes.

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