How we use millet for parakeets in my household

In my attempts to be a well-informed parakeet owner, and also my general nosiness, I look at a lot of different cage set-ups. I love getting inspiration from other bird-owners, especially seeing new toys or the awesomely creative stuff that people DIY. One thing I notice a lot of that surprises me is the use of a Millet Spray Holder or generally the free-range offer of Millet in the cage. I think that if you go that route you’re losing your most powerful motivator and possibly setting yourself up for nutrition issues.

First a note on Millet Spray Holder; some of them may be unsafe. There is, in particular a plastic Millet Spray Holder that looks like a cage for millet, as well as a Stainless Steel Millet Holder that is a steel spiral. I have heard of several budgies getting their heads caught in these items, and some have not survived. Now, I fully believe that a determined parakeet could kill themselves with almost anything in their environment; they are delicate creatures that act like invincible tough guys! But, there’s enough anecdotal evidence for me that this optional item is best skipped.

Outside of safety, your parakeet simply does need free access to Millet. It is not particularly nutritious and could lead to unnecessary weight gain. I work in an office all day, and free feed Millet would be the equivalent of someone hanging a party size bag of Doritos in my cubicle and telling me to have at it. Not only would I eat my weight in Doritos every day, I would probably also make poor nutritiounal choices and eat Doritos almost exclusively, regardless of whether there was also a basket of Apples nearby.

Maybe most humans would make better choices than me! But, parakeets have about the same mono-vision when it comes to Millet that I have when it comes to Doritos. If you want your parakeet to eat a healthy seed, pellet, vegetable and fruit-based diet, having Millet readily available is not the best plan. The parakeet is not thinking about losing the weight for swimsuit season or making sure he avoids fatty liver disease, so you have to think abou tthese things for him.

Beyond being unnecessary for a balanced daily diet, free-feeding Millet also takes it out of your arsenal as one of the most powerful motivators for good budgie training. In my house Millet is only used during training or other instances in which we humans desire a specific parakeet result and are willing to “pay” for it with a treat.

As far as Toby and Kelly are aware, the only way to get Millet is from humans, by doing desirable things. So, initially during taming the desirable thing might be to simply sit on someone’s hand or shoulder. This helps the parakeet learn that good things have when you interact with people. Except not really just good things, but the best things and treat can only be guaranteed by becoming part of a flock with those funny-looking birds whose eyes are in the wrong place (ie: humans).

We’re not doing a ton of training lately, the parakeets have been molting so we have backed off until everyone is feeling great again. The only time they currently get Millet is once per day, they each get a little bit broken off the larger spray, and only after going into their cages peaceably at night at bed time. At this point it’s such a routine that Toby goes in eagerly as soon as I shut the curtain near their cage and immediately perches where I can put the Millet through the bars. Kelly is a bit of a daydreamer and usually continues to wander around until I tap on her sleeping perch to remind her of the time.

We used to wait until they got tired and sorted themselves out for bed, but sometimes, like tired little kids, they would loop back around to hyper and uncontrollable, so now I set the bedtime and they are happy to comply if it means an evening treat!

Particularly with flighted birds, a parakeet parent has very little control over budgie actions unless they can be motivated to good behavior. If we didn’t keep their love of Millet in our reserves, I am not sure how we could convince Toby and Kelly to do anything they didn’t want to do! As it stands, we have the ace in our sleeves at all times and training, as well as motivating daily tasks, becomes much easier.

Celebrating a “Gotcha Day”

Before parakeets I had never heard the term Gotcha Day, which means celebrating the day you got a pet instead of the day it was born. This is a cute alternative to celebrating a birthday when you don’t know the date your pet was born. For birds, celebrating their birthday is usually called their Hatch Day instead, or the day they came out of their egg. It’s weird, but even though we got Kelly from a local breeder I don’t know her hatch day.  I just never bothered to ask at the time, and it didn’t occur to me until much later that I should have found out so we could celebrate her hatch day properly!

We are fast approaching Kelly’s first Gotcha Day and I wanted to take some time to reflect on the past year of her life.

When Patrick first picked out Kelly at the RBC she was a couple of weeks older than the rest of her clutch and seemed so calm and composed in comparison to all the little half-feathered babies. We knew we wanted a confident parakeet who didn’t seem afraid of the world the way Toby was, so Kelly looked like a natural fit. We hoped she was a boy but felt that even if she was a girl things would work out.

Taking her home was a way different experience than bringing home Toby, who came home in a carboard box. Kelly was riding in style in her Travel Carrier and was curious about everything she saw outside the car window. We were shocked at how fearless she was and how interested in the world.

Once she was home she was definitely intimidated by her new surroundings and spent her entire first day motionless on a single perch, but after that she quickly adapted and began doing crazy baby acrobatics in her cage and demanding to be let out very frequently.

Which was our first big challenge, not having had a clipped parakeet before we had no idea how much work it would be to keep her safe and help her not be so frustrated when she saw Toby flying every day and couldn’t stay with her.

As Kelly matured we realized we had a biting budgie on our hands (literally!).  And while we were dealing with her aggressive tendencies we also realized that having a much more adventurous budgie meant making more modifications to the house. So far we’ve protected our dining room table successfully and had to swap around all of our artwork after she became obsessed with chewing wood frames.

Coming up I think we’re going to have to change out a ceiling lamp she’s recently taken a shine to, and of course we are still working on the biting. It’s like parents who have the first kid and it’s an angel who stays in one place and is very sweet, and then have a second kid who’s into everything and comes as a total surprise!

But, as I always add, there are so many things to love about Kelly that it really outweighs the negatives. Even if it causes me anxiety, I love her adventurous spirit and that she encourages Toby to try new things. I like how great she is at being a parakeet, she keeps her nails and beak in great shape all on her own and even helps me keep the cage clean by picking poops off the bars. She’s a good eater who’s always willing to try something new, and she’s extremely healthy.  As much as she likes biting us, she also does enjoy being part of the family. She’s always interested in what we’re doing and wants to be with us, probably more than Toby, who is a bit of a home body.

So – a very happy Gotcha Day to Kelly, I’m so glad that she came home with us!

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.

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!

Taming and socializing part 2 – parakeet’s out of the cage, what’s next?

Your parakeet is out of the cage and looking at you like, “okay, what’s now? Amuse me people!” Some folks recommend taking your parakeet to a small, safe, room and shutting the door for these first interactions – that didn’t work for us, mainly due to the layout of our house, but in the end it was to our benefit, Toby will only hang out in the kitchen, dining room, and living room and I believe that’s because those are the rooms she was first introduced to. If she goes anywhere outside of that zone it’s either because she’s looking for one of us, or she feels like challenging the bird that lives in the bathroom mirror.

What also works in our favor on this issue is Toby’s fear, she was very reluctant to go exploring by herself, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the floor. But, she did expect us to be fully available for his entertainment and security detail.

It may go without saying, please don’t leave your parakeet unattended while she’s out of the cage, particularly in these early times. There is no limit to the number of ways a parakeet can hurt himself in your home. I would say this goes double for parakeets with clipped wings, since they don’t have the ability to get themselves out of trouble by flying.

We set out to make areas outside of the cage that would be fun to Toby and would be clearly “hers”. We also spent a lot of time working with Toby on flying back and forth to each of us, and practicing stepping up, but felt like time out of the cage should also be at her leisure to enjoy flying and playing.

This pursuit began with the acquisition of the Prevue Hendryx Pet Products Parakeet Park Playground – which was only interesting to Toby if we were playing with it too, and was sort of a bust for us, although a perfectly nice product. She might have found it more interesting if her wings were clipped.

So, we moved on to the Kaytee EZ Care Activity Center Playground for Small Birds, as it comes out of the box it is wildly inappropriate for a small bird like a parakeet, but as you see below we quickly loaded it up with a ton of perches and toys, it’s very easy to hop around this way. On days that aren’t too hot we keep it in front of our big living room window so they can look outside, which they both enjoy (unless there are crows around).

Another window area was created using a Booda Comfy Perch for Birds, Large 36-Inch, Colors Vary and a couple of other small toys that are suspended securely from the ceiling. This is another favorite spot of both parakeets. Especially on nice days when the window is open and they can yell at all the outdoor birds.

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Can you tell we have a ton of comfy perches?

Because it takes me a while to learn anything, I bought another table top stand, similar to the Prevue Hendryx Pet Products Big Steps Playground, which was another utter fail. Toby is just as happy if I throw some toys out on the dining room table or couch.

A note about using your body as a perch – we were very permissive with Toby initially about where she was allowed to be on our bodies.

We were so excited about her not being afraid of anymore that we didn’t want to put any restrictions on Toby at all, and ultimately created a situation where she felt she was the alpha of our flock. I encourage you not to invite your parakeet to sit on your head or to perch on your glasses, even though it’s inarguably adorable. I ended up having an issue with Toby repeatedly trying to “preen” away some broken capillaries on my eyelids and trust me it is not desirable.

I’ve become aware that some people have parakeets who are happy to sit with them and watch tv or just chill out, if I ever find out what that’s like I’ll post an update! For now, both of our budgies are in constant motion while they are awake.

The TL:DR of this post is: once your parakeet is out of the cage keep a very close eye on him and expect to keep him amused, both by working on his skills, and also by having clearly designated areas for him to explore and use for play.

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Taming and socializing your parakeet – Part 1

The first day or two after bringing Toby home we were full of conflicting emotions – excitement about finally having a bird and crushing guilt because she was clearly terrified.

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She came home from a large chain pet store at about 11am on a Saturday, moved into her new cage, and sat in the same place without moving for about 8 hours straight before finally exploring enough to find food and water.

Part of the challenge of buying a parakeet that hasn’t been hand fed is that not only does your new parakeet simply not like you; he actually thinks that you are a predator, just because your eyes happen to be on the front of your head (instead of on the sides, where they should be, obviously). In our experience, she is also only accustomed to listening to soft pop, and will have some serious anxiety about television noises for at least a couple of weeks.

So, the first goal is to convince your parakeet that you do not intend to kill and eat him. The way to do this is get a nice comfy chair and sit next to your parakeet’s cage for about 30 minutes, as many times as day as you can. Talk to your parakeet so he gets used to the sound of your voice, or sing if you’re so inclined.

You’ll know your parakeet is comfortable with your presence near the cage by his body language and behavior. He will be relaxed and will go about his business preening himself, eating, playing etc.

The next stage is to show your parakeet your hand, don’t put it in the cage yet, put it near the cage and let him think about it, you may have to do this over a period of several days before your hand stops being alarming.

I read a theory somewhere that a parakeet ends up thinking that a human’s face is a bird, and the hands are two additional birds, and that the body is some fantastic moving perch. If you think about it that way, it’s easy to see why the hands would have to be accepted and deemed non-threatening separately from the face and body.

Once your parakeet is more comfortable seeing your face and hands you can start putting your hand in the cage, with the Prevue Pet Products 3351COCO Park Plaza Bird Cage, Coco Brown you can easily swing open one of the bowl access doors and use that opening to minimize the risk of your parakeet panicking and ending up outside the cage.

Don’t try to touch your parakeet, put your hand somewhere neutral in the cage and allow him to get used to it, he will eventually get curious enough to explore on his own. Of course I would advise that you speak encouragingly to him throughout the whole process.

You should also use these occasions to give millet to your parakeet, or offer him a handful of bird seed, parakeets are intelligent and he will quickly come to associate you and your hand with treats and fun.

One of the best random traits of the parakeet is that if you press your finger lengthwise against his lower tummy he will automatically step up onto your finger. With the parakeet still in his cage, start practicing stepping up to get him used to the mechanics, and he will learn to regard your finger as an safe place to perch. Say “step up” each time you practice, and soon you won’t have to touch him to achieve the desired result, just offer your finger a short hop away and give the verbal command.

We worked with Toby inside her cage for about 4 weeks before we felt comfortable trying to take her out and trusted that because she knew who we were, and wasn’t scared of us, we would be able to get her back in the cage on our hands, or bribe her back with millet. This was compounded because unlike a lot of birds available for purchase, it turned out Toby’s wings had never been clipped, and she came home to us fully flighted.

If you bring home a bird whose wings have been clipped I would recommend a different approach that involves taking the bird out of the cage after a few days and encouraging him to get used to being gently and respectfully handled (with a lot of treats also).

For the first few weeks of living with Toby, every time I came home it was clear she did not recognize me immediately and would react with fear. I would go about my business, chatting with her all along about my day, and then gradually she would realize who I was and become excited to see me. Now, of course, it’s a totally different story, as soon as I get home Toby rushes to greet me and tap her beak against my finger through the cage bars, and then demands to be let out for play.

Final note, if you’re attuned to your parakeet’s body language you’ll know when he’s ready to advance to the next step, and soon you’ll be able to take him out of the cage and let him stretch his wings, but be sure to go at his pace, even if it sometimes seems he will always be scared of you, he won’t.

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