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.

Realistic start-up costs for a budgie

In my first post on this blog I made a bit of a wild claim as to how much I felt start-up budgie costs would be.  Recently I’ve been wondering whether I was close at all and decided to do a bit of research and some basic addition. This post assumes you are purchasing nothing secondhand and you don’t have any existing supplies.

  • First and most important is cage selection, I have heard a lot of good reviews of Vision brand cages and I would always endorse getting the largest cage possible, so I’m picking the Vision Bird Cage Model L01 – Large for my scenario (this cage is approx. $85). I have the HQ Victorian top bird cage with cart stand (approx. $200). So clearly there is a big range here, and of course I’ve chosen higher end cages, which may not be in everyone’s budgie budget.  In this instance I will say you need to anticipate a minimum spend of $70.
  • Next up is food. You’ll want to get some of whatever your budge is accustomed to eating, let’s assume he has been on a seed-based diet because that’s very common, especially for a pet store. An example would be Volkman Avian Science Super Parakeet Bird Seed 4 Lb, and that’s about $11 for 4 pounds. You might as well get Kaytee Spray Millet for Birds, 12-Count while you’re at it because you’ll need it for treats and to help you in taming your budgie (if feral).  The millet is approximately $7. Most bird owners these days also offer their parakeets pelleted food, and a very common brand is ZuPreem. I don’t recommend feeding anything with unnatural color and so I’ll start with the ZuPreem Natural with Added Vitamins, Minerals, Amino Acids Small Bird Food, 2.25 lb and get a 2.25 pound bag for $13. Total food spend is $31
  • On to perches – your cage will probably come with one or two, but they will undoubtedly be either round plastic or smooth doweled wood. You can leave them in if you like, but parakeets need a lot more variety in perch size and material. This is for foot exercise and nail maintenance, and also for chewing and mental stimulation. Perches should not exceed ½ inch in diameter, or your budgie will have trouble getting comfortable. You are going to buy the Alfie Pet by Petoga Couture – Iona Natural Wood Y-Rack 2-Piece Set for Birds for $10, the Living World Pedi-Perch, Small for $11.50 and the Living World Nature’s Perch, Small for $15.20. There are a million different kinds of perches, fun chewy perches and mineral perches, with all sorts of shapes and sizes. And these should be rotated fairly regularly so your initial spend should by no means be considered your lifetime spend. Total start up is approximately $36
  • Toys are another extremely important facet of initial cage set up. Every parakeet needs them, and especially those who may need taming. If a parakeet is confined to his cage for the bulk of his time he absolutely needs an outlet for physical activity, mental stimulation, and destructive chewing. Much like with perches the toy options are almost limitless. Let’s assume that you need a minimum of three toys to start with.  First I recommend the BIRD KABOB Bird Toy, Mini Max ($7) which provides hours of chewing fun. Next something like the JW Pet Company Activitoy Olympia Rings Small Bird Toy, Colors Vary for about $5; this toy is deceptively simple, being just a series of interlocked rings, my parakeets adore this and like going through the rings acrobatically or just chewing them and ringing the bell repetitively.  Super Bird Creations Wind Chimes Toy for Birds coming in at $12.50 which I’ve written a whole separate review about because my budgies are obsessed with it.  Much like the perches, toy options are vast and start-up cost is just the beginning of spending!  Total is $24.50
  • This item is completely optional – there are a lot of different ways to handle the bottom of the cage lining material. Many people use newspaper (black ink pages only) or even paper towel. I like to use Bird Cage Liners – Small Cages – Pick-Your-Size – 150 Count – 40 Pound Paper. Not only does it allow me to easily assess my budgies’ poop condition (and therefore their health) but it also resists absorbing water spills and makes clean up a total snap. I can’t imagine not having them. Cost depends on cage size approx. $35
  • Another semi-optional starter item is the Lixit Bird Waterer – 5 oz. I can practically guarantee that within a few days of parakeet-ownership you will realize that it is nearly impossible to keep their water from being contaminated by poop, food, and/or bathing. You should still maintain the traditional water bowl, but having the lixit bird waterer means that you do not have to worry about a clean supply of drinking water. You should buy as many of these as you have budgies so they don’t fight over it (in theory!). Minimum cost $12.50
  • Living World Cuttlebone, Large, Twin Pack provides absolutely essential calcium and minerals and is very inexpensive to boot! Cost $3.50
  • And finally – the budgies!! I’m hoping you’re starting with two so that they feel less afraid and have a pal, I know it will be harder to tame them, but I don’t think you’ll regret it.  Depending on where you get your parakeets they are either a small donation to a rescue, or up to $50 each for a handfed baby. I will hit sort of in the middle and say that you spent $40 for your two parakeets.  $40

Done conservatively, that comes to about $250 dollars.  That is far less than my original estimate of $400, but still a pretty substantial chunk of change.

Of course, that does not include everything that you will either find is a necessity down the road (like a 1st aid kit) or replacement toys and perches.  Also, almost every bird owner discovers they need a dedicated vacuum or some type for budgie mess.  You will probably also end up buying an air purifier (we have the Winix WAC9500 Ultimate Pet True HEPA Air Cleaner with PlasmaWave Technology), both for your budgie’s health and for yours once you realize the amount of dust and other air contaminants that come with birds.

Also not accounted for is an Zoo Med AvianSun Deluxe Floor Pet Lamp, and Zoo Med 24975 Avian Sun 5.0 Uvb Compact Fluorescent Lamp, 26W these provide full spectrum UVB and UVA lighting which parrots need to synthesize vitamin D3.  They cannot get these types of light through windows – so even if you think your budgie is technically getting “enough light” because they are near a big window, they are not getting the full spectrum which they need for physical and mental health.  Buying the lamp and bulb at Amazon will run you another $65.

For such a small thing budgies need a lot of gear for optimal physical and mental health. Far from being just an ornamental pet to keep in a cage, budgies are complex and extremely intelligent creatures and they deserve to have their basic needs met, or hopefully exceeded.

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Which sexes of budgies get along best

If I was starting fresh with zero parakeets right now, choosing which sex to get would be very easy. I would get two males, no question. A pair of males will almost always get along well, and I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone laying eggs and accompanying issues like becoming egg bound.

A male/female pairing might work, but the female could end up bullying the male and being overly territorial, and I really don’t want to breed parakeets. So, if they mated and began laying I would have to do stuff like steal eggs, boil them and return them to the cage so that they could have the experience of taking care of the eggs, without actually having baby parakeets.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about doing that.  I know there’s no guarantee that would actually happen, and by not providing a nesting box and keeping daylight hours limited I could possibly avoid laying, but it’s just things I do not want to deal with as a parront.

Female/female is what we have now, and it’s working out pretty well.  Despite the fact that many people will tell you two females is impossible and they will kill each other, Toby and Kelly hang out together all day, preen each other, flock call when they are separated and generally seem to enjoy each other’s company.

But, they are both territorial, so from dawn till dusk (or later!) we do have intermittent squabbles that are usually about food bowls or toys. The key to keeping these relatively civil is to have a big enough cage for everyone to have their sense of space, and also to duplicate the important stuff. We have two food dishes, two waters and two perches for sleeping at the top of the cage.  They’ve been living together for over 6 months now and no one has ever drawn blood, so I consider that a success.

So – two female budgies can live together in my experience, which is, of course, limited to these two budgies.  We did also discuss this with the Rensselaer Bird Center staff when we took Kelly home, and they stated that in all their many years of breeding and housing budgies, two females had only ever had to be separated one time.  Like many of these issues, I’m sure it comes down to the individual bird, but you can sway it towards the positive by providing optimal living conditions.

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Hide your hands – Kelly is a teenager – dealing with biting budgies

I have written before about our struggles with Kelly and biting, which were relatively unexpected since she was handfed and socialized by her breeder.  Well, we have just reached the next level of biting mania and willfulness.

There is a period of time during which a budgie is no longer a baby (after their first big molt) and before they are mature (about 1 year old).  During this time they do a lot of testing boundaries, acting out, and generally being defiant. Compounding this issue is that she’s come into breeding condition for the first time, so she’s very territorial and hormonal.

Kelly launched herself into this period with some real flair. She went from being scared of being on the couch one day to trying to burrow into it and shred the seams the next, she also decided that the dining room table wasn’t scary anymore and, in fact, needs to be turned into match sticks.  So, I can see that we are going to be doing a lot of “time outs” over the next few months.

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couch ostrich

The worst part is that the occasional biting has shifted in to high gear and is serious limit-testing.  I had a few bad moments the other day where I was surprised by it and ended up doing more of a frantic flap than a gentle roll to put her off balance.  She seems to know where the softest spots are and digs in.

We’ve pretty well failed on every method of deterrence so far, including: blowing on her lightly, saying no, putting her back in the cage, gently rolling our hands to keep her off balance and/or just not reacting to bites.

The crazy thing is that she only hates hands, you can put your face next to her and no matter what she will never bite it, she can even be trusted to groom eyebrows and have access to your nose. There is simply a major disconnect between the hands and the rest of the body.

I considered leaving her alone for a while but she loves being with us, she always wants to be on her people and preen our hair or explore our sweatshirts and it’s obvious that she enjoys interacting with us as much we enjoy her. And enjoy her we do, I hope that I don’t sound too Kelly-negative, she is so much fun and I wouldn’t change her for any other budgie.

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Going forward, I’m going to take a two-pronged approach, 1st I’m not going to step her up any more unless it’s in the context of structured reward-based clicker training. She needs a distraction as soon as she’s on the hand or she starts biting immediately and hopefully with the clicker training we can extend that period of time until she doesn’t bite at all. 2nd In case the hand issue is based in fear I’m going to work on allowing her to explore my hands when they are flat down on a surface and do not move at all. This may end up in me getting bit many more times as she examines the various textures of a hand, but hopefully it will help her become more comfortable with them.

Toby was pretty easy to convince that hands are benevolent bird-like objects, if we crook a finger at her and “nod” it she nods right back, beaks the fingernail gently and pins her eyes like she is greeting another bird (it IS as cute as it sounds).   Kelly, so far, is just not having it, but I know we went through this with Toby too; she did not bite this hard though.

Anyway – this has been sort of a rambling post.  The points are primarily that many parrots go through a “teenager” like phase where they are quite unmanageable and you may wonder where your sweet baby has gone. This is okay; they need to assert their independence and they will go back to being their nice selves after a while.  Also, sometimes even though a budgie has no reason to be a biter they are, and all of the tried-and-true methods of dealing with biting may fail – this is okay, just have patience and keep trying, and if you need to give up because you are too frustrated, that’s fine too, you can accept your budgie on their terms.  Biting, in my opinion, is not a valid reason to rehome a budgie, unless they are injuring other members of their bird-flock and simply must be single birds. Even in that case, actually, if you have the space and means to house them separately then please do that.

So, wish us luck and if you’ve got any other ideas let me know!

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Update on Kelly’s taming

If you’ve been following along, you know that our second parakeet, Kelly, who we got from the Rensselaer Bird Center in mid-June of this year, has viewed my husband and me at best as an annoying necessity and at worst as a couple of jerks who just won’t get out of her face.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve finally seen some relaxation on her part. Initially, I’d pretty much have to force Kelly to step up and sort of chase her around inside the cage – even if I knew she desperately wanted to get somewhere. Then, I realized that if I stood near the cage either with my back to her or looking down and away she would hop onto my shoulder or finger willingly and I could take her to the play gym or window perch. I also discovered that if I closed my eyes and rested my head against the cage she would feel safe to come over and groom my hair and nibble on my glasses.

Recently, she has sometimes started coming to me as I approach the cage and hopping onto my hand or shoulder whether I’m looking at her or not, and finally yesterday she hopped on my shoulder and didn’t even want to go anywhere in particular! I walked her around to his usual haunts but he chose to stay with me, which felt pretty great.

I’ve also been able to put my hand in the cage and step her up just to move him around without getting bit. We also noticed that she has stopped defensively chattering at anyone who approached his cage, even in the evening, which had previously been a big no-no as far as she was concerned.

It’s such a relief that she’s starting to trust us and not be so fearful; the whole experience has been very eye-opening. We had been so sure that getting to know Kelly while she was still being hand fed at the Rensselaer Bird Center would make a difference in how she felt about us once he was home, which it did not. We also put too much stock in her personality  making the transition easier; while she was at the RBC she was very confident and they remarked on how adventurous she was. As soon as we got her home, though, she was just as terrified as a feral budgie.

I think now we are starting to see the first glimmers of her personality reemerging, she’s walking off into rooms that she’s not familiar with and being more curious about new things in a way that Toby isn’t. She’s in her first molt currently but hasn’t grown in any feathers that would enable her to fly, I think once that happens we are going to have to keep a very close eye on her, I bet it will really bring back her confidence and daring.

Our goal is to make sure she feels like we are part of his flock by the time she’s flying, I think we’re almost there and just need to keep showing her that we are useful and fun, and good to be pals with! I put too much stock in the idea that Kelly seeng how comfortable Toby is with us would impact her comfort levels, and it has helped us make some inroads, but it wasn’t an all-access pass.

As much as we’ve been frustrated because of our own preconceived ideas of how a hand fed and clipped parakeet would be different, it’s been wonderful to see Kelly open up and start trusting us. We were so lucky that she and Toby took to each other immediately, even though Toby was over-zealous at first, otherwise Kelly would have been a very lonely and scared little lady!

10 ideas for parakeet enrichment

When I mention enrichments you might just think about larger parrots, but parakeets need to have new and interesting experiences too. They are very bright and it’s important to keep their brains active and working on new ideas and objects. Here are a few of the enrichments that we’ve done with our budgies.

    • Paper Towels or Toilet Paper tubes – some parakeets may happily run right through these whole, but you can also cut them into smaller rings that are run to chew, toss around and drop. Also an empty cereal or oatmeal box can be cut in half for a hideout.
    • Baby teething rings that snap together – (Bright Starts Lots of Links Accessory Toy) Parakeets will enjoy chewing on the hard plastic and these are great to hang off perches, either alone or changed together. You may even see some ring gymnastics. A ring hung off a perch is also a good brain teaser, figuring out how to slide it off and throw on the floor can be quite a puzzle.
    • Use the floor or a table – changing the venue sometimes makes an old toy exciting again. I also like to scatter some Seed or Pellets around on any flat surface with toys and let then “forage”.
    • Hold a half empty bottle of water sideways, tilt it gently side to side to make a wave. This fascinates my parakeets to no end, and they love to try and go after the drops of water on the inside of the bottle.
    • Throw on a hooded sweatshirt and let them explore your hood and chew your drawstrings. If the sweatshirt has a kangaroo pouch show them the opening and let them go through or think about it. One of our parakeets is tremendously neophobic and won’t really do much adventuring, but even thinking about a new situation is beneficial. A similar approach could be using a folded sheet of paper as a tent, not only is it a pop-up cave but a great opportunity for paper destruction.
    • Foraging food ball (Creative Foraging Systems+E487 CFS Fillable 3-Ball and Kabob Pet Feeder) – load this up with shredded lettuce or kale and millet, even if you parakeet won’t eat vegetables he’s going to have a fantastic time teasing them out of the ball and throwing them to the floor. You could put any kind of vegetable or fruit in there, they would all be equally fun to get out.
    • window perches – There are hours of entertainment to be had in sitting and watching the world, especially if there are other birds outside! Toby and Kelly both love watching the outdoor birds and weather, expect lots of yelling and watch out for crows and other things that can scare your fids (feathered kids).
    • Vegetables and fruits in new and exciting ways – If you always offer veggies diced, try giving a whole broccoli floret or thin strips of carrots or apple.
    • Play new sounds for your parakeets to learn – We love this R2D2 mix for parakeets that has all the screeching noises removed. Toby and Kelly have to hear it about 8 times in a row before they start trying to mimic, but you can see them paying attention and thinking about it. We haven’t had any big successes yet, but we have the two least melodic budgies ever, so yours will probably do better!
    • Come find me – If you have a flighted parakeet who can be trusted out of his cage alone for short periods of time, leave the room and call to him to come find you – Toby will methodically fly around the house seeking us out and she’s always so proud when she reaches her goal!

As long as you’re introducing new objects and concepts you are doing a great job enriching your parakeets and keeping their lives interesting. Even something as simple as a water bottle or a piece of paper can keep a budgie’s mind active and engaged.

Introducing our parakeets – when Toby met Kelly

Finally it was time to bring Kelly home. We picked her up at the Rensselaer Bird Center and bought the below travel carrier while we were there, since the carrier we had previously purchased (A and E Cage Co. Soft Sided Travel Bird Carrier) was regarded as a potential house of horrors by Toby, who would not go anywhere near it.

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lovely, non-terrifying travel carrier

The RBC was kind enough to send us home with about a pound of the food that Kelly had been eating and recommended that we offer her food and water bowls on the floor of her cage, in addition to the bowls higher up, because she was used to ground feeding. I can’t say enough about how amazing the RBC was at answering our questions and giving us tips on easing Kelly’s transition and how to handle introducing the two of them.

Off we went with our new baby. It was a totally different experience, Kelly seemed unfazed by everything, she enjoyed looking out the car windows from the safety of her carrier and was relaxed the whole way home.

Once we arrived home we put Kelly in her starter cage, we always intended that Toby and Kelly would move in together, but worried that Toby might be territorial since she was used to living alone.

Because we had seen so much of Kelly and knew her to be an adaptable and fearless gal we expected she would have an easier transition than Toby, but it was actually very similar. Kelly sat in the same spot for about 8 hours without moving and then made her way down to find her food just before bed time. Based on our experiences I recommend bringing home a new parakeet as early in the day as possible so they have time to do the “sit and stare” and then relax a little bit before going to sleep in a strange place.

Toby – who we thought might be terrified of another parakeet given her fearful nature was immediately entranced by Kelly. She stared at Kelly for hours, no signs of fear or aggression, just fascination. We did notice that for the first few days Toby really packed in the food, as though Kelly was somehow going to steal it from the other cage.

The first day we keep them both inside their individual cages, Toby had gotten her last flight time as an only child earlier that morning and we thought seeing each other was excitement enough for day one.

Our plan was to have them out separately for the next few weeks so they could get to be friends in a more controlled way. It didn’t work out; Toby would get over stimulated and bite Kelly’s feet through the cage bars constantly, no matter who was in or out. Kelly apparently either enjoyed it or didn’t have the sense to stay towards the middle of her cage and so the pattern continued. It was very upsetting for me to watch, but they were both perfectly happy to keep doing it.

In order to save Kelly’s feet from excessive chomping we only waited a couple of days before bringing them out at the same time, with the hope that Kelly could at least defend her feet or hop away a bit better. Of course that raised other concerns about Toby have a clear advantage in being able to fly, whereas Kelly had been clipped pretty thoroughly and could only try to take flight and then sort of crash land with no control over her course.

Toby was quite over-excited the first few times they were out together, she would attack Kelly and then fly away repeatedly. No one sustained any damage, but I did break up a couple of fights, even though I knew they had to sort out who was going to be the top bird, it was too hard to watch.

Over a week or so Toby calmed down and they were able to play on the play gym at the same time, or hang out on the window perch without a constant battle for dominance. The next issue was that Toby got very intent about wanting to be with Kelly all the time, and if she couldn’t spot Kelly in the other cage he would flock call to him loudly and incessantly.

Have a mentioned that Toby is a little intense? She’s earnest and sweet, but tends to be serious and utterly determined and does not let things go.  She was mad at my husband once for months due to a minor infraction.

We had let Toby and Kelly want out in each other’s cages and it went well, and then one day when my husband was home from work he decided to just rip off the Band-Aid and move them in together. It was way earlier than we anticipated, but she was right, it was time. Toby felt much better having a roommate and was able to relax, as much as it’s possible for her to! Kelly had been used to living with her siblings at the bird center so didn’t mind having company, and was glad to move up to the bigger cage.

I know that we are all happier for having added to our family. I’m sure some parakeets are perfectly fine being solo but Toby was absolutely not one of them, I know she’s enjoying life a lot more now, and we are really glad we took the chance!IMG_0854