When will my parakeet talk?

This is a very similar post to when will my parakeet let me pet him, in that the answer is typically “don’t count on it”.   Many parakeets may learn to mumble a few garbled words, but fewer will be intelligible and barely any will have the clarity and vocabulary of a Disco the parakeet.

There is some correlation between budgies that learn to talk and sex, boys tend to be a lot more vocal in general, have sweeter songs, and a greater capacity for speech. When we first brought Toby home we thought she was a boy, I knew some about how the color of the budgie’s cere can be used to determine the sex, but I didn’t know that it was different when they are juveniles.  So, I should have been looking for a baby with a solid pink cere which would have absolutely been a boy, instead all I knew was boy=blue, not that young hens typically have light blue ceres with white around their nares (nostrils).

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hindsight 20/20, obviously a baby girl!

The employee at the pet store where we got Toby also said it looked like she was a boy, of course I know now that pet store workers typically have no specialized knowledge, and though the employee was well-intentioned, he probably knew about as much as we did about parakeets.

Anyhow, the result was that we brought home a girl thinking she was a boy, and even though she proved to be mostly quiet over the next couple of months we tried and tried to teach her to speak a simple two word phrase. We held her close to our mouths and made sure she was watching while we slowly sounded out the same words over and over and I’m sure she thought she’d been brought home by lunatics. When that failed, we moved on to playing YouTube clips on repeat of phrases, with the same lack of any result.

When we brought home Kelly we knew sooner that she was a female, and in the past six months we have mostly focused on trying to teach them any sort of cool sound, like playing the Lyre bird, which Toby really responds to and also this reel of R2-D2 noises with the screeching taken out.  Patrick thinks he hears them do some R2-D2 on occasion, but I’m not sure about that.

If you have a young male budgie he may be quite inclined to speak, if you repeat the same words and phrases often ie: “pretty bird” he might even pick them up on his own.  I’ve heard also that many females are capable of learning words.  I think it must depend mostly on the individual parakeet’s interest level, with a better chance of interest in males vs. females.

Originally we were pretty invested in Toby learning a word or two, and working with her on that dovetailed neatly with getting her hand tamed anyway, but if your budgie doesn’t seem interested in learning to speak then I would waste a lot of time on it, there are tons of other fun things you can teach your budgie and their natural vocalizations are (in my opinion) pleasant enough anyway.

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

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

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

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

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couch ostrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Healthy Weight for Budgies

I’ve been watching my waistline and trying to get fit lately and it made me reflect on my parakeet’s weight. Similar to humans, there is a target range for budgie weight that relates to optimal health.  This range is about 1.1 to 1.4 ounces (or 25 to 36 grams).

It may seem sort of impossible to weigh a flying target that amounts to less than a package of 2 Reese’s peanut butter cups, but it’s actually pretty easy.  Some folks get an official Bird Scale, which comes with a perch and should be very simple for a large parrot to use, but for a small parrot like a budgie, I have found it’s easy enough to use a basic Food Scale (and some Spray Millet).

Toby is very happy to do a photo shoot on the scale for treats, you can see that the scale shows she appears to be at the upper limit of healthy weights, but I didn’t weigh her at the best time of day so it was a bit elevated.  For the most accurate weight reading you will want to weigh your parakeet after their first morning poop but before they have had breakfast.

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It’s quite common for budgies to become obese, particularly if they are sedentary and stay at home in their cage most of the time.  Also a lot of commercially available seed mixes are high in fats and it can be extremely difficult to get parakeets to eat healthy (just like people!).

This is another reason I would advocate strongly for allowing your budgies to be flighted; this will really help them get the exercise they need to maintain a healthy weight.  If you choose not to have flighted budgies then please make sure yours have the largest cage possible/lots of toys to play with and when outside of the cage you encourage them in physical play.  Either way your budgie should have the biggest cage you can manage and a suitable number of toys and perches.

So – what are the health risks associated with obese budgies?  The big one is liver disease/fatty liver. Liver disease occurs because birds store excess fat in their livers, and over time an obese bird’s liver tissue is replaced with fat, compromising the liver function.

The symptoms of liver disease could be difficult to detect at first or confused with other diseases, they include (but are not limited to) loss of appetite, breathing difficulty, diarrhea, depression, distended abdomen and lethargy.

The best way to avoid fatty liver disease is to help your budgie maintain a healthy weight and an active lifestyle, and offer a diet that includes a good quality seed mix (like Dr. Harvey’s Parakeet Blend Natural Food for Parakeets) and depending on your preference, pellets (Roudybush Nibles) as well as vegetables and fruits.

As long as you are keeping an eye on your parakeet’s weight and offering a good diet and lots of opportunities for exercise your parakeet should be able to easily avoid the perils of putting on a few ounces.

Additionally, thinking of the holiday season, it may be particularly tempting to feed your parakeet some human treats, or even things like crackers, cereal etc, but they don’t need it and it’s not good for them.  Since it should be pretty easy to avoid I recommend not feeding any “human” food at all outside of veggies and fruits.

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.

Concerns about flighted budgies escaping the house or hurting themselves

Escaping the home:
One of the biggest reasons I see given for clipping parakeets and other small parrots is the fear that they will get out of the house and be lost forever. It’s a valid fear, a parakeet that flew out of the front door would be in a total panic, and they are not suited to any kind of bad weather, nor do they have the skills to fend for themselves in the wild. So, if they get out they are going to react in terror and will almost certainly not have the sense to land somewhere close and wait for you to save them.

I don’t think this is a reason to clip your budgie though, I think this is a reason to commit yourself to not allowing that to happen so that your budgie can have the best life possible with you. It’s clear to me that an animal that’s designed to fly needs that outlet for physical and mental heath. Also, a budgie is relatively easy to keep flighted in the home due to their small size, they don’t need a ton of room to have satisfying flights, and they aren’t really interested in distance flying, short burst and loops of the living room are enough to leave them worked out and happy.

The way that we’ve worked it out so our parakeets are safe flying indoors with very limited risk of escaping is a system that we refer to as air-locking, and it is a bit like staying safe on a space craft.

If you’re the first person home at the end of a work day, you can feel free to enter through the front door, since the parakeets would never be out of their cage with no one at home. If you’re anything other than the first person entering the home, then the rule is you go in through the garage.

First you open the garage door and enter, then shut that door, after that you enter a hallway and shut that door behind you. Finally, you come in through the kitchen and shut that door.

That’s a series of three doors and if you follow the procedure of always closing doors behind you there is literally no way a bird could escape any further than one room away. Maybe you don’t have that many doors in between your birds and the outside world. In that case coordinate with the humans in your house to set up a workable schedule or rules for entry.

Injuries in the home due to flight:
I’m not going to say these are totally avoidable. Toby once conked herself on the noggin pretty good flying into a window at full speed. Fortunately she was okay after a couple hours of rest.

But, it makes me sad to read that people are afraid their birds will fly into furniture or kitchen appliances. The bird knows how to fly, and he know how not to smash into things he can see. That’s what he is all about. Toby is such an expert flier that she can purposely buzz your head – only touching you with the tip of her tail. She can also hover mid-air for short periods of time, and I’ve seen her fly through the slats in our dining room chairs. If your body was capable of all these magical acts, don’t you think it would be important to use it that way?

I have a feeling that when a small parrot’s clipped wings are growing back it can be alarming for a bird-parent to watch them learning to fly, it’s a bit clumsy, like human children starting to walk. Just because a baby is going to fall when he learns to walk would you discourage him from ever trying?

Of course you should put decals on windows that don’t have screens on the interior. Windows with screens are fine in our experience; although we had to do a lot of training about not chewing window screens they are a very convenient landing spot and apparently very fun to grip.

I think that a flighted bird can get himself out of a lot more trouble than he can get himself into. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen Toby fall off something because she wasn’t paying attention while playing. A clipped bird would fall straight to the floor, but Toby rights herself mid-fall and zooms off. She also never ends up anywhere she doesn’t want to be, and she can always go home for food, water, rest or if something scares her (which is a frequent occurrence!).

It’s up to you:
The issue of flighted budgie safety is really down to how much you are willing to commit to make it possible. Will you be vigilant while your parakeet it out of the cage? Can you make it second nature to never be careless about opening doors to the outside/are you willing to put decals on your windows and otherwise bird-proof your home?

Further, can you always watch your step and be aware of your budgies so you don’t injure them? This also includes being careful about shutting doors, as you never know when someone’s following you. Can you limit when you cook and/or eat and drink things that would be dangerous to your parakeets?

Putting it that way may better highlight the life changes that you need to make for your bird’s safety. In my opinion, although it may seem inflammatory and harsh, if you cannot make these commitments then please think long and hard about whether parakeets are the right pet for your family. That is how highly I rank the important of flight to their overall well-being. Please note that I’m referring to parakeets only, I am not familiar enough with any larger parrot to make judgments about whether they are happy without flight.

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We are so excited for Kelly to fly soon!