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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How to avoid breeding parakeets

Now that we have added a boy to our formerly all girl flock, some folks have asked if we plan to breed parakeets. The answer is a resounding “NO”! I plan to avoid breeding parakeets for several reasons:

  1. I have enough parakeets and don’t want more, particularly with my husband’s allergies, three molting parakeets is about all he can take! Also, the world does not need me to make more parakeets, there are loads out there that need a good home. I see lots of home-based breeders who have a hard time finding homes for their babies.
  2. Breeding parakeets can be incredibly difficult. If it goes well, maybe not, but even provisioning a nest box, nesting material, and then keeping the babies and nest clean is more than I want to handle. And that’s just basic human intervention, assuming mom and dad budgie do their job caring for the babies. If they can’t or won’t I would have to take over feeding babies on a crazy schedule, with a full time job there’s no way.
  3. The health risks to my adult females is not worth it for me. Laying budgies can become egg bound, which is potentially fatal. Yes, I know that every female parakeet may lay eggs, whether they are fertile or not. But, we’ve been able to keep our two girls, both in breeding condition for over a year, from laying at all. If I can prevent it, I do not want the presence of a male parakeet to change that track record.
  4. If allowed to begin breeding we could quickly end up with an excessive number of parakeets. Also, I would then have to worry about the baby parakeets growing up and wanting to breed with their clutch mates/siblings. Animals don’t have a sense that incest is undesirable, so it would be incumbent on me to make sure they didn’t breed with close relatives. And basically everyone in the cage would be a relative.
  5. The cost of care and potential veterinarian costs would rise exponentially with the numbers of parakeets, and I’m not prepared to take on a large additional expense.

How do I plan to keep them from breeding and laying?

  1. Provide no nest box or anything that could be perceived as a nest. I’m aware that some budgies will lay just about anywhere, including a cage floor or just randomly while sitting on a perch. But, not providing anything that could be construed as a next box is one way to discourage laying. This means no flat wood perches, no food bowls that they can comfortably sit in, and absolutely no Coconut Hideaways , Sea Grass Bird Snuggle Huts or anything else that they can hide in, sit on, or may otherwise see as a desirable place to raise children.
  2. Limit daylight hours. We need to keep day and night even, if the budgies think that it’s springtime with longer days they may decide it’s a good time to start laying. We are going to make sure that everyone gets 12 hours of darkness and no more than 12 hours of light. If things start getting amorous we may push it back to more darkness than that.
  3. Separate the sexes. No one has expressed any romantic interest in Kevin yet, but it the cage starts rocking I will probably make the choice to keep Kevin caged apart from whichever girl wants to mate with him. We just got down to one cage, so that will not be ideal, but if they are only together under adult supervision, and with the third wheel of the other girl, hopefully we can keep these crazy kids from knocking beaks.

I know there’s no way to 100% keep them from laying eggs if their bodies tell them to do it, but I can still control what happens at that point. I’m sure that this is a bit controversial, or offensive to some, but I don’t believe that my female parakeets have a natural “right” to reproduce. I think that it’s okay for me, the ultimately responsible party, to ensure that we don’t bring more parakeets into the world. Here are some options for what to do if we end up with unwanted eggs.

  1. After the first egg is laid, complete the clutch with Dummy Eggs . Using the dummy eggs to get up to a full clutch of seven can make the budgie stop laying. At that point I would just leave her the fake eggs to care for until she was bored of them.
  2. As eggs are laid, shake, boil, or freeze them and then return to the cage. If boiling or freezing, make sure the eggs come back to room temperature before returning. Again, wait until the parakeet is tired of caring for the eggs and then remove.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that we can keep everyone in the friend zone. But, if not, I’m glad to have a plan for contingencies and unwanted eggs. I would encourage every parakeet parent to leave breeding up to the pros (including home-based pros, of course!) and also to be mindful of the fact that there is no shortage of parakeets out there already who are looking for good homes.

Introducing our new parakeet to the flock

Kevin finally made it through quarantine! It was harder and a lot less fun than we all anticipated and it makes me so glad that he has made it through and can be with the flock. Of course, introducing parakeets can be a tense situation, so the relief at his getting through quarantine was immediately followed by anxiety about merging him into the flock of Toby and Kelly.

This was compounded by the fact that Toby and Kelly can be pretty tough customers. They live separately now because of some violent interactions between the two of them and I was worried they would immediately attack Kevin. When we introduced Kelly to Toby we took it too fast, so this time the process was a lot more measured and thought out, although probably still a bit too speedy.

First, a few days before the official end of quarantine we started moving Kevin’s cage out into the dining area where Toby and Kelly live for half hour blocks of time. This way everyone could check each other out and learn a bit about the new guy. The change in Kevin’s demeanor was immediate, as soon as he saw other budgies he clearly felt a lot better about life. He was preening himself, making little noises, and eating in front of us. It was like a magical switch was thrown that turned him back into a parakeet! As soon as he would go back into his quarantine room he would go right back into fear mode, unfortunately.

After a few days of letting them see each other from the safety of their own cages, we allowed Toby and Kelly to come out and inspect Kevin more closely.

Introducing parakeetsThis may not have been the best idea, but it worked well in this situation. Toby and Kelly felt like they were in control of everything and Kevin was still so thrilled to feel safe that he tried to pack the preening of several weeks into a 45 minute period. Even when the girls got a little aggressive through the bars he didn’t react back at all, which was perfect.

Finally the day came where they could all be out together. We introduced everyone in Patrick’s home office space, a room that no one wants to be in (least of all Patrick haha)! That didn’t last long, Toby and Kelly wouldn’t stay in that room, even with millet, and kept flying back to their home base. We gave up on that in short order and put Kevin out with them on top of the cages in the dining room.

introducing parakeetsIt was utterly nerve-wracking!  They were SUCH bad girls! Toby immediately chomped on his head and tried to bite his wings. Kelly kept tugging (hard) on his tail feathers any time he was in range of her beak. When the girls began working together to corner him I thought all of my worst nightmares about his assimilating into the flock were coming true!

Patrick kept reminding me that they needed to figure out whether Kevin was a threat to them, and also to put him in his place and make sure he knew that they were top dogs. Kevin was perfection, no matter what they did the first day he didn’t react at all, just tried to observe them. He quickly realized that he couldn’t put his back to either of them and stood at the corner of one of the cages watching. He was still quite delighted to be out with them, even if it looked to me like a miserable time!

Toby got scolded several times for exceedingly ungracious behavior, and when we put them all in their homes for the evening Patrick and I couldn’t quite sort out whether we felt it went well or horribly!

The next day we decided to move Kevin’s quarantine cage into the bird area so they could observe each other at all times. They came out all together again and it did go better, although there was still a lot more violence than I would have liked I could see that they were testing him. If provoked, Kevin would make a small show of fronting back, but not actually fight, it’s awesome.

For his part, even if he had to watch his back, the transformation in Kevin was incredible! He was making sweet noises and flock calling, moving around, preening, and acting like the lovely guy we picked out at the pet store.

Every subsequent day has been even better, they still treat him a little like an outsider to their girl club, but Toby and Kelly have accepted his presence and don’t try to pull his feathers out (as much). Kevin is a fantastic addition to the flock and we couldn’t be happier with his attitude and his willingness to go with the flow. He and Kelly should be combining households soon and I think it’s going to be great for both of them.

introducing parakeetsIt’s a relief to have gotten through the initial introductions with no bloodshed! I’m excited for Kevin to get his flight feathers back so that they can fly together, and for he and Kelly to be roommates, which I hope will be good for both of them.

Quarantine is hard! Feeling stretched thin by everyone’s needs.

When we were first setting up Kevin’s cage for quarantine I had some very misguided and idyllic notions about how this 30 day span would play out. I pictured Patrick and I hanging out with Kevin tucked away in his room. No care for the outside world, just a magical time for taming and bonding. In reality, quarantine is hard, much harder than I expected.

For starters, Kevin has been a pretty tough sell on human interaction. He’s docile and he’ll put up with a lot of handling, but he’s really not into it. And he’s still pretty freaked out, which makes sense after living in a pet store for over a year. We are spending a ton of time with him, but it’s not all that gratifying. I know that part will pass.

The other piece of it that I hadn’t anticipated the emotional weight of is that while Patrick and I are in with Kevin teaching him that humans are a good thing; Toby and Kelly are losing a ton of their human time and outside the cage play time. They are not shy about letting me know it’s unacceptable. I was only able to let them out for an hour one day, so they next they were crazy clingy and on me like tiny flying shadows. Not that I’m complaining about that, it’s nice to feel loved!

Another thing I hadn’t calculated the time cost of is maintaining three cages in two separate locations. It’s usually pretty easy to clean up after Toby and Kelly, and get their food and water in the mornings. But with a third cage in a different location with no sink in the room….it’s kind of a pain in the rear. I’m sure this is hyperbole, but some days I feel like all I do is take care of budgie needs without really enjoying any of the budgies. I can’t imagine how people manage quarantine when they’ve got a larger flock to tend!

After a few days of both Patrick and I trying to be everywhere at once we decided to divide and conquer.  Patrick is largely taking care of Kevin’s physical needs and training and I’m taking care of the girls. I’m still getting at least 30 minutes with Kevin every day, but I don’t feel pressure to push him on taming, I can just hang out and feed him Millet, say nice things to him and working on stepping up and other easy things.

Patrick, on the other hand, has trimmed Kevin’s nails, given him a bath, and even made him taste some vegetables. He has also spent hours challenging Kevin to move around outside and inside his cage, and helped Kevin learn how to climb on the cage bars.

It’s a fairly large bummer for me to miss out on all of this, but I don’t see another way to go about it that’s fair to Toby and Kelly. I thought I was really going to enjoy this quarantine time, but in reality it’s full of unanticipated challenges.

Introducing Kevin – our third parakeet and first boy!

We did it! This past Saturday, after much hemming and hawing (Patrick) and excessive preparation (me) we went to Benson’s and picked out our third parakeet and first boy budgie. His name is Kevin to fit in with the rest of our Office-inspired flock names. He’s definitely a mature gentleman. We didn’t ask at the store how long he’d been there, but based on his visible irises and lack of baby bars he is at least one year old. That’s totally a minimum, comparing his eyes to Toby’s I think there’s a good chance he is two plus.

I had received a recommendation from a reader to get a mature fellow who would be able to stand his ground against my dominant ladies. When we arrived at the pet store Saturday morning we found they only had four males available in their entire parakeet aviary. Two of them were under a year old and there was one gent even older than Kevin. We must have watched them all for at least an hour and what we saw of Kevin’s behavior and health looked very good. We were able to watch him eat and drink and forage around on the floor. He would frequently perch by himself, but if he was joined by other parakeets he was happy to chat to them and be part of the group. His eyes are bright and clear and his nares are free of any obstructions or anything that would make me concerned about respiratory infection. His feet look a tiny bit dry but there’s no sign of mites on either his feet or his cere. Although we couldn’t quite hear him we could see that he was singing his heart out, which is something we are sorely missing in our flock of screeching ladies!

Before we left the shop they had us sign a form indicating that if we weren’t able to care for Kevin they would take him back at any time. Every employee we spoke to also took care to ask us if we were familiar with caring for parakeets and had everything we needed for Kevin at home. I thought that was a really nice touch and showed me that they care about animals. They also clipped Kevin before we took him home. I know, I am an incredibly staunch opponent of clipped parakeets in your home. But, it made me feel more secure transporting him and I feel like it will give us a leg up in taming him during his quarantine. Also – they did a super tasteful job, not as severe or debilitating as Kelly’s clip was.

Arriving home we transferred Kevin from his cardboard box to his quarantine cage. Even though I have written a whole lengthy post about what to expect when you first bring home your parakeet it has still been a horrible couple of days feeling bad for Kevin! He is obviously terrified and didn’t move for many hours after coming home. We weren’t even sure he had eaten until 22 hours in, which was nerve-wracking. Again, even though I KNEW exactly what would happen, it still felt awful seeing him so scared.

I put our “Nanny Cam” trained on his cage and I’ve been peeking at him every so often during the work day. It really makes me sad seeing him just sit in one spot for hours, but I know that he will eventually understand that his new cage is a safe space. He can hear Toby and Kelly and they are definitely freaking him out a bit too.  They are totally unaware that he’s in the house, since he hasn’t made a peep yet. Occasionally they hear a bell ring and get a bit curious, but until he starts vocalizing they should be blissfully ignorant!

One thing about quarantine has been much harder than expected, and that’s the way shutting the quarantine room door has messed up our heat. Now the quarantine room gets stifling warm, and the rest of the house is much chillier. So, we’ve had to resort to leaving the door cracked open a bit when the girls are safely stowed away. I know it totally violates the separate air space tenet of quarantine, but I couldn’t very well freeze Toby and Kelly for 30 days!  As it is, Kevin has the K&H Snuggle Up Bird Warmer, Kelly had been acting chilly over the weekend so now she has the K&H Thermo-Perch. Toby appears to be totally fine with the temperature but we’re keeping an eye on her.

Bringing home Kevin has been so different already, I hate that he’s tucked away and can’t ease into the rhythm of the household. We’re making a big effort to sit with him, but it’s not the same as his being able to observe us all the time and see that we are not threatening. He seems like he will do okay ultimately. He does show some fear when we put our hands in the cage to change water or food, but he doesn’t flap around like crazy or totally lose his mind.

He seems tentatively curious about his surrounds outside the cage. You can see his head swiveling around when he hears noises to try and figure out what the heck is going on. He has been eating regularly since his 22 hour hunger strike and his poops look great. Kevin has not shown any interest in playing with the toys in his cage, but I don’t think he was exposed to toys so we will have to show him how to play down the road. Failing that, I’m sure he’ll pick it up from Toby and Kelly!

I don’t want to squander these 30 days and I want to make a big effort towards bonding with him. On the other hand, I’m a total softy and I know that he would feel so much safer and more comfortable if he was interacting with Toby and Kelly. Overall it’s exciting but also so weird, until he starts making some noise it’s very easy to forget the is there at all, it’s almost like we still just have two parakeets. I can’t wait until he’s as noisy and demanding as the rest of my budgies. Seeing the difference between Kevin and Toby/Kelly makes me regret ever saying that the two of them aren’t very tame. They aren’t trained to do much, certainly, but compared to someone straight from the pet store they are entirely tame.