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.

How to tell if your parakeet is nervous or scared

It can be a little difficult to tell what your parakeet is feeling, especially when you are a new parakeet parent.  There are a few physical “tells” that will let you know if your parakeet is anxious or scared, which they frequently are in a new environment, or even after years in your home because of their instincts as prey animals.  Being able to tell when your parakeet is afraid can help you know when to back off and give them space. Remember taming your parakeets is not a sprint, it’s a marathon!

  • Flapping/flying like crazy around their cage. This will probably happen the first few times you put your hand in the cage. Unless your new friend was hand-raised he probably views your hand as a terrifying predator. If this is the case I recommend only going in the cage for essential maintenance in the beginning, and otherwise spend a lot of time showing your parakeet your hand from the other side of the bars.  Let them examine it from a safe distance without you moving your hand. Offer millet through the cage bars once they are able to tolerate your hand being close to the cage without fear.
  • Panting is another indicator of a fearful parakeet. Kelly still does this occasionally but it was much more frequent when she first came home. A panting parakeet breathes with their beak slightly open. It may look “cute” or like they are trying to speak, but no sound comes out.  If you have a clipped parakeet who pants when they are out and about with you they are overwhelmed and would probably like to go back to the safety of their cage.
  • Fear poops: A fear poop is a very watery poop that doesn’t have another explanation like just having taken a bath/eating a lot of veggies or being ill. These are frequently very easy to ascertain the cause of, if I disturb Kelly during an afternoon nap she fear poops right away. The watery fear poop should happen one or two times in a row, and then normal poops will resume once they are over being startled.
  • Very sleek feathers and wide eyes. This is more Toby’s style. If she’s startled by something all her feathers get very very flat and she will stand up at attention with her eyes wide open. She also goes to one of what we call her “fear spot” in the cage; which is randomly on the cage wall next to one of the water bottles. She stays there until she feels the danger has passed.

You may never be able to tell what scared your parakeet in the first place.  Many times I think mine are set off by things they see or hear outdoors through a window, but I’m not sure. Other times it’s the cord on the vacuum, or even my husband or I appearing somewhere unexpected. They got really freaked out the other day when I came home through the “wrong” door.

But, if you’re watching for the signs of fear you can at least know when something has already spooked them, and help them get back to their cage if needed, or try to pinpoint the cause of their concern and eliminate it for them.

Budgies and sleep needs

If you’ve done a bare minimum of research about parakeets you’ve already read that they need 10-12 hour of sleep per night to be healthy. Beyond just needing the sleep, they also need that length of time in dim lighting so that they don’t start wanting to breed.  Our parakeet’s cage is near a big window, so we close that curtain around 6pm and start turning down their main light shortly after. They are usually fast asleep by 7:00pm or 7:30pm at the latest if they are being willful about having just a few more minutes to play.

That length of time in the dark and quiet can be pretty hard to achieve in a busy household – it’s also kind of paradoxical, because the recommendation that your parakeet’s  cage in the center of the action so they feel like part of your flock is very incompatible with needing a lot of rest!

I’ve thought about using our old Prevue Pet Products 3351BLK Park Plaza Bird Cage, Black Hammertone as a sleeping cage in another room, but I have several reservations about that. One is that it would take potentially months to get them used to that kind of routine. Also, since Toby is so neophobic, there isn’t really another room in the house she feels comfortable in, so that would be a huge hurdle. And finally, since we’ve decided (at least for the short-term) to keep taking vacations, I would hate to get them used to a different sleeping cage and then mess up their routine when we go away, potentially resulting in sleepless nights.

Unless we move, or make major changes, we are stuck having the birds bed down in their main cage, which is in our dining area. Unfortunately, it’s open to the rest of the “public areas” of the house, including the kitchen and the living room where we watch television in the evenings. Thus far both parakeets seem really well-adjusted to it, we turn the lights way down when they go to bed and we watch television at a polite volume. They go through a settling in routine and then grind their beaks before nodding off. Fortunately, they aren’t in eye line of the television, I’m sure that’s a huge help. I also try to be respectful and not watch content that would wind them up during the day, so I avoid musicals, loud fights scenes and anything with a lot of bird or other animal noises.

It’s really not ideal for any of us, especially if the humans want to go get a snack in the kitchen after dark, we can’t turn on the overhead lights so it’s all down to the refrigerator light! Although this has probably helped curb some late night snacking so I shouldn’t complain.

A lot of the sneaking around would be alleviated with the use of a cage cover at night – I’ve tried Prevue Hendryx Pet Products Universal Bird Cage Cover, Large, Black, which goes over the top of the cage, but Toby wants no part of it, she panics and has a terror response, flapping around the cage wildly with immense potential to hurt herself. I think anything black is going to be a deal breaker for her; it’s one of the many things she just doesn’t tolerate. I haven’t found one yet, but if a cover exists that attaches magnetically to the sides so the top is still open, and the fabric is white or light in color she might go for that.

The other thing I’ve considered is getting a room divider that we move in and out – although I’m not sure how Toby would take to that either, it would be a great visual block that doesn’t actually touch the cage. The only thing that’s holding me back on that one is that Patrick’s severe allergies mean he’s sensitive to new items, many products go through a period of “off gassing” once they are out of their box and in your home, during which time they smell very strongly of whatever paint, varnish, or other material was used to coat or polish them.

I certainly couldn’t risk buying something wood like the Rajasthan Antique Brown 4 Panel Handcrafted Wood Room Divider Screen 72×80, Intricately carved on both sides making it fully reversible, highly versatile. Hides clutter, adds décor, & divides the room even though it’s gorgeous and functional. New wood furniture tends to have a very strong smell for months if not years, but something like the Coaster 4-Panel Elegant Room Divider Screen, Ivory Fabric, Metal Frame might work since it’s metal and fabric. It’s really a matter of having the expendable funds to buy something that is a risk for both parakeet and husband acceptance. It also means finding a place to store it during the day, and in a small house that’s not easy.

In the meantime I think we’re doing the best we can to ensure the budgies get the rest they need, and any sleep lost during the night is probably made up with the numerous cat naps they take during the day.

Whipping up a new mix of parakeet food (and dumping it all on the floor)

As you know, I like to mix up batches of various seeds and pellets to try to hit most of the parakeet’s dietary needs without taking away from their drive to forage. I’ve been running low on my current blend and wanted to try something new. I also needed to replace a storage container, I threw out the one pictured in my post about grain beetles in my seed both because someone put scotch tape on the interior and I couldn’t get all the residue off, and also I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that no matter how well I cleaned it, there might still be beetle eggs in there somehow.

I purchased the OXO Good Grips POP Big Square 5.5-Quart/5.2 Litre Storage Container; I had looked carefully at the dimensions, but it turned out to be way bigger than what I intended to buy.  Down the road I may replace it with something easier to scoop out of, but for now it’s fine. I like that you get a really tight seal with the pop top, it seems much more airtight than a ziploc seal.

To fill it, I wanted to start with a base of Roudybush Daily Maintenance Bird Food, Nibles, 44-Ounce, because I do believe that pellets are an important part of the parakeet’s diet. Make sure to get the Nibbles size for parakeets, in my experience the Crumbles are way too big.

Next I looked for a new seed mix, I’m always on the hunt for the best food for the parakeets, and Volkman Avian Science Super Parakeet Bird Seed 4 Lb has some really great ingredients, and fabulous reviews. As soon as I opened up the bag I fell in love with the smell of this seed, it’s fruity and a little sweet, but very natural. I hand fed the parakeets some of it as I was putting this together and they took to it immediately. Sometimes it’s best to put in just a little of a new food mixed with old to make the adjustment easier, but I don’t have any concerns about them eating this at all.

Finally, I wanted to add in something they’ve already been enjoying, the F.M. Brown’s Tropical Carnival Parakeet Food, 2-Pound. I know a lot of people use this blend just as a treat because there’s a lot of fruit, but I love to add it in to my every day mix. I don’t think my parakeets touch many of the interesting bits, so for us it’s just awesome foraging and exposure to different shapes and colors.

I added all of the products to my excessively large OXO storage container and made some really lovely seed art –

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And then I attempted to stir it up – which was a challenge because of the depth of the container. I worked at it with a long stirring spoon for a while and then had the genius idea to gently shake it up. I popped the lid shut and turned the container in all directions – including upside down, which is when this happened.

As it turns out, the airtight lid is not strong enough to hold when turned upside down. Which probably should have been anticipated.  No judgements please, but the floor had just been cleaned the day before, and I really didn’t want to throw away that much money, so we salvaged what we could and vacuumed up the rest.

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the final product

I’m excited to have a new mix and I’m guessing the budgies are going to love it – fixes for next time include a smaller storage container and less vigorous shaking!

5 tips for getting your budgie to bathe

Since becoming a parakeet parent I’ve been on a mission to figure out a way to ensure regular baths. We started out with JW Pet Company Insight Bird Bath Bird Accessory, which would have been really cute, but was a total fail. Toby couldn’t figure out how to get in the bath, and when she landed in it accidentally she acted like it was a cruel trick. So, we started trying other options with varying degrees of success, as always your mileage may vary.

I also want to note that seeing a bathing budgie for the first time can be a little disconcerting, they puff up to the extreme and hold their wings out at odd angles, looking a little bit broken and very intense about the activity.

  • Misting – we purchased a tiny misting spray bottle and filled it with comfortable temperature water; I held it above Toby’s head and misted. She behaved as though I was punishing her for some terrible transgression and this was the worst torture I could have devised.
  • Run a sink at a low pressure – I held my hands out with the palms up under the stream and splashed gently around in the water. Toby would come stand on my hands and walk around in the water. She drank copious amounts but never seemed inclined to walk under the waterfall.
  • Water bowl – very similar to the bath we started out with. No one wants to go near a bowl of water, either a food bowl, cereal bowl or small ceramic bowl.
  • Shallow dish with leafy greens and water – huge hit with Kelly, she was initially wary but as soon as I lured her into the dish (with millet) she immediately fluffed out and started rubbing her tummy and face all over the greens. She hasn’t flipped completely over yet but gets her front very wet. If the whole plate is too intimidating you could also try some wet lettuce leaves held in your cupped hands.
  • Hanging wet leafy greens – This is what works best for Toby, hang some wet kale or celery tops from the ceiling of the cage and she is a mad man for bathing. The key is making sure the greens are secured really well, because she hangs from them as she bathes.

Bath time is so important and helps the parakeets feel good and healthy, especially when molting. Keep experimenting and you’ll find a method that works for your parakeets, and even when it fails the experience is still an enrichment!

We subsequently tried a Lixit quick lock bird bath and the review of that can be found here.

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