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.

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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What’s up with the flock?

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on what’s going on at our house.  Kelly has almost all her flight feathers and she’s doing great at flying.  It’s been a while since she’s hit a wall or ended up stuck on the floor.

As we had hoped, being able to fly with Toby has helped Kelly’s attitude immensely.  She’s much friendlier and more engaged with us, and generally interested in coming out of the cage, which is great for helping us discipline.  It wasn’t much of a “punishment” to put her back in the cage previously for a time out, but over the past week she’s been reluctant to go home and views being put in as a detriment to fun.

Kelly loves preening her human flock and seems like a burrower and an explorer.  As she gets even more confident with her abilities I can’t wait to see what she’ll get into!

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burrowing snuggle bug
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A sample of what we can expect from adventurer Kelly (this painting has been moved)

The only downside is that we are still struggling to convince her that biting us hurts. At times I think she tries to be gentler and forgets that our hands feel pain, it’s primarily non-malicious biting, just exploratory, but she happens to have a much stronger bite than Toby. It’s easy to tell the difference between her biting because she’s exploring her world versus biting because someone made her step up and she didn’t want to.

When she bites for any reason I usually remind her to be gentle, and roll my hand a little to put her off balance a bit, not in any danger of falling, just so she can’t bite me and keep her balance.

We’ve also been working on target training, going back and forth between Patrick and me with millet as a reward. Kelly struggled initially with landing on our fingers and practicing with an incentive was a big help in building her confidence.  It also reinforced our bond as a flock, since Toby was more than willing to show Kelly what to do for treats!

Speaking of Toby, she is growing out the last pin feathers of what was a tough molt. She’s been a bit of a winter-time homebody lately, although she and Kelly are enjoying taking flights together Toby is also just as happy to play at home or take a short hop over to the play gym. As ever, unless she’s at home she’s on high alert and usually doesn’t stay in one place for too long.

I’ve been noticing more of Toby’s visible iris lately, she’s over a year old now and it’s interesting to see the changes in her eyes as she matures.

We installed the K&H Manufacturing Snuggle Up Bird Warmer, Small/Medium Grey for a little extra heat this winter, and so far so good!  A full review is coming soon.  Also in preparation for winter I’m keeping an eye on our budgie’s feet looking out for dry skin.  We will make sure to keep regular bath times to help avoid scaly, cracking feet.

Additionally, we decided to put our Zoo Med AvianSun Deluxe Floor Pet Lamp on a timer so they get 3 hours per day, this is great year round but particularly in winter to keep up with vitamin D  absorption.  Full review is coming of the avian lamp as well.

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!

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

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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