Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hand Feeding Baby Birds of the Smaller Kind…

These photos are of Fuchsia, the Rosy Bourke baby I previously wrote about. In these photos she/he is 18 days old. How do you sex a Bourke? It’s difficult in a baby bird, but adults are easier. I’ll cover that in a future post since this is about hand feeding.

A newly hatched chick should be fed a watery mixture of food almost every 2 hours. For best results, get up in the middle of the night and feed them. After a week, you can cut back to 3-4 hours. Fuchsia is being fed about every 4 hours, 5 times a day. However, I’m not getting up in the middle of the night. She waits from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., 9 hours without food. She’d probably like to be fed in the middle of the night, but I’m lazy and she’s doing fine without it.

I use Exact Hand Feeding Formula. The proper mixing amounts are included with the package. It’s available at numerous sites on the internet, in larger pet shops and usually at the Grange. With a glass measuring cup, I boil a cup of water in the microwave. I put 1 ½ teaspoons of powdered Exact in a tiny bowl and mix in 3 teaspoons of boiling water, stirring until well dissolved. Newly hatched chicks to 2 days old get 1 part Exact to 6 parts water. Two to 5 days get 1 part Exact to 2-3 parts water. Five days until weaned, they get 1 part Exact to 2 parts water.

Formula should be stirred until all lumps are out of it. This also helps it to cool. I keep the Exact in the refrigerator to keep it fresh and the cold powder helps cool the mixture. It should be warm, but not hot when fed. They don’t like it cold, however. I test it on my wrist just like with any other baby formula. When very warm, but NOT HOT, I pull it up into a glass eye dropper (usually found in pairs at pharmacies). When it starts to get too cool, I set my smaller dish into a larger dish of the extra boiled water and that re-warms it. Always checking, however, to be sure it’s not too hot or too cold.

Some books on birds recommend using a thermometer to be sure the temperature stays at the optimum degree (they’ll tell you what that is). I trust my wrist. Or, as you can see from the photo, a dab on my fingers tells me if it’s cooled too much.

Fuchsia learned very quickly to know where the food comes from. I slowly squeeze the formula into her mouth until she turns her head away. She puts the tip right into her beak and turns her head away when she’s ready for a short break. When she’s ready, we go at it again. She usually eats very quickly and I fill the dropper only a few times. There’s always food left over, but it’s easier to retrieve it from the bowl and into the eye dropper if there’s enough in the bowl. By putting my fingers around her head, it helps steady it. She tends to “bob” back and forth. I don’t hold her still, just create a barrier that restricts how far she wobbles from side to side.

I’ve read that you don’t want to inject any air into a baby bird’s crop. So, I make sure the dropper is full of only formula with no air in between. I even eject a small amount before putting it to her beak to be sure any air in the tip is exhausted before she’s fed. That’s another reason to have enough food in the bowl so the eye dropper can submerge far enough to avoid sucking air with the food. (However, I’ve noted what looks like a “bubble” inside their crops and it never seemed to harm them. Don’t panic if you see this too.)

Parent birds stuff their youngsters so full that they look like they could burst. I don’t worry about overfeeding hand fed babies. Their little crops do bulge. However, never force feed them. Let them decide if they want more or not. Check their crop and you’ll get used to seeing it at the size they are comfortable with.

Apparently some breeders put a tube down larger birds’ throats and feed all the formula at once. That is fast and efficient, but I can’t imagine doing it to a small bird like a Bourke or Splendid. They eat quickly anyway, and it’s much safer to let them eat from an eye dropper at their own pace. I’m certain they’re happier that way too.

Be sure to inspect glass eye droppers before every feeding. If it becomes chipped at the tip it won’t be noticeable and you don’t want to use it if it’s damaged. Children can become curious and play with droppers when you don’t know about it … so check them. Eye droppers are very fragile; anyone can pick one up to move it and accidently damage it without realizing it.

Be sure to clean all your utensils thoroughly after each feeding. Run hot water through the eye dropper until there’s nothing left in it. Also make sure the rubber bulb on the end is well rinsed. Because food can dry inside, I sometimes leave the dropper in the bowl of boiling water (now very hot, but no longer boiling) while I clean up the baby.

Yes, the baby gets sponged off too. Formula is going to spill out the side of a baby’s beak and probably on its chest. If left there, it will harden and be difficult to remove. It’s much easier to take a damp cloth or tissue and wipe it off after each feeding. Fuchsia appears to enjoy the attention from this procedure.

Do not save left over prepared formula. Mix it fresh each time you feed.

When I began feeding this baby almost a week ago, I was disappointed to need to do it. I knew it would take time and effort to save this baby’s life. However, I find now that I truly enjoy my moments with this baby and have great affection for her. She has a pleasant, peaceful effect on me.

In the future, I expect to walk around the house with Fuchsia on my shoulder and exchange “birdy” kisses with her. Although it’s easy to tame a young Bourke, just like with a young Budgie, when hand fed the birds bond in a unique way.

What about our three cats? Trust me, they leave the birds alone. I expect to introduce this baby to them when it’s outside the cage. More risky, but I’m confident they can learn to accept the new, tame pet that’s occasionally loose in the house. Never unsupervised, of course.

I have lots of cats with bird stories to share. I’ll get to them eventually, I promise. Have a great tomorrow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Keep an Eye on Your Chicks, Part 1

By watching your chicks, you have a chance to catch any kind of situation before it’s serious. Checking babies daily is a good practice, but at least every few days or so.

The photo with this blog shows a young Rosie Bourke whose bands had become encrusted with bird droppings that attached to her bands. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s something to watch out for, particularly in a large clutch.

Our nest boxes have about an inch of absorbent pine shavings in the bottom. This usually solves that problem, and most hens leave the nest to defecate, so only baby droppings are a risk. However, some hens throw the majority of shavings out, preferring to nest on a hard floor in the same way that budgies do. (Budgie boxes don’t need shavings, and should have a round, shallow indentation in the middle of the bottom of the box to keep eggs from rolling away).

Our Bourke and Splendid hens choose where they want their eggs to be. Few choose the middle of the box, and are more likely to choose one of the four corners. Some like to be near the entrance and some as far from it as possible. Pine shavings, even if only around an area the hen cleared, will help keep the eggs together.

If you find a chick with excrement on its feet or under its tail, remove it quickly – especially under the tail. If he can’t easily defecate, you may lose him. It’s easiest to remove when it is soft and hasn’t dried hard, or built up over time. So, removing it quickly is important

Run warm water over the area to soften it and gradually “pinch” off dried excrement piece by piece until gone. In the case of this bird, she is sitting in a dish of warm water to allow the droppings to soak. That was easier and less frightening than holding her under the faucet. By the time I thought to take this picture, however, most of the material hardened around her bands had been removed.

She seemed to enjoy the warm bath. Afterwards, I carefully dried her with a towel before returning her to her nest box. This was also done in a warm house with NO DRAFTS.

Keep an Eye on Your Chicks, Part 2

Over the years I’ve saved several chicks by checking on them daily. In the case of one I’m feeding right now, I checked him three or four times a day before removing him from his parents. Here’s why.

Blush and her mate came to me after they’d had a clutch with someone else and their only baby died at about two weeks.

Shortly before that I’d acquired another pair from a woman who wanted to keep two of the babies from their clutch of three, but didn’t want more birds. She complained that the hen “scolded” the male loudly and it was annoying. Sure enough, the hen was a loud complainer.

I have extra males at present, so I put the noisy hen with another male. Immediate peace transpired. She likes him and they are now feeding three healthy babies, recently out of the nest.

Her mate, Chitter, I gave to Blush. They had four eggs and two hatched. When the youngest was just under two weeks, I looked in the box one morning and he lay dead on his back. That can happen for multiple reasons and usually we never know why. However, he had blood on his neck. He’d been pecked or chewed. His older brother was incapable of such an act (they can’t bite until they’ve been out of the nest for more than a week).

I want to point out now that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a baby Bourke savaged in any way shape or form. It had to be one of the parents. Had the baby flipped on his back, and they were trying to turn him back over? I wanted to give them the benefit of a doubt. Could anything else have done it, like a spider, maybe? A wild thought and not likely. We have three cats, so no mice or rats venture into the house, and even if they did, the cage bars are too small for any rodent to enter.

I noticed that the male Bourke had entered the nest several times. Now, with Splendids this is very common. The male helps the female feed the chicks in the nest. However, with Bourkes the male usually inspects the nest before she will enter, tells her it’s safe, and once she enters to lay eggs he is unlikely to enter it again. The male will feed the hen through the nest box opening, or she will come out and he will feed her (that way food fed the babies is processed twice and is very thin). But, he doesn’t go inside to help feed the babies. Once they leave the nest, he will help feed them.

Two days after the death of the smallest baby, I took the other baby out and inspected him closely as I’d done before. Under one wing, the fuzz had been plucked off and spots of blood were present.

It was apparent that he/she was at high risk and likely wouldn’t survive unless rescued. He’s now living in a small cardboard box on the kitchen table with an oil heater nearby to keep him warm. He was two weeks old when taken out to hand feed and is doing very well. He was hatched Oct. 2, 2009 and it was Oct. 16, 2009 that I began hand feeding him with Exact hand feeding formula. Currently, five times a day, and I don’t get up in the middle of the night.

The problem now remains, which parent is the evil villain? This mother did lose another baby in her first clutch, but circumstantial evidence doesn’t stand up well in court. Perhaps the male wants to mate again and one way to accomplish that is to kill the offspring. I say this because years ago, I had two pairs of zebra finches in separate cages. They successfully raised many babies until one male, after two successful clutches, decided to quit raising youngsters and started tossing his newly hatched chicks out of the nest.

At that time in my life, I didn’t know how to hand feed, or know that I could. Wish I had. The young they produced were beautiful white babies with dark saddles. I’d put the babies back in the nest, but he didn’t allow them to stay. He wanted to mate again and to do that, mom had to have an empty nest. Ultimately, he went to a pet shop. He was a pretty pied bird who did fine in a cage by himself, but he wasn’t good parental material.

Getting back to the problem at hand…Since this hen had a clutch with another male before the one who’s in there now, could he suspect these babies weren’t his? Male lions kill offspring that aren’t theirs, what about Bourkes?? This is doubtful because I’ve been able to put eggs from one mother under another and the adoptive pair raised them without a glitch.

As a child with an aviary of budgerigar parakeets, I had a few heartbreaking experiences. I was checking nest boxes and finding baby birds torn apart. I’d been advised that maybe one female wanted the box that the other one was in. So, I moved boxes in case one liked the box and other liked the location. That helped the first year, but when it happened again the following spring, I knew I had to find out who the murderess was.

I didn’t know who was doing it until I caught the culprit in a box that wasn’t hers. Sadly, the babies were already dead, and she had blood on her beak. My grandfather told me he had that happen once with his budgies too. He broke that bird’s neck. I wasn’t able to bring myself to do that and he didn’t live close enough to do it for me. So, she lived the rest of her short life in a small cage, separated from the other birds and little interaction from me.

With my current experience, I still don’t know which parent is to blame. If I had to guess, I’d pick the male. Maybe his first mate protected the clutch and that’s why she did so much scolding. At this point in time I’m not going to separate them. If they go back and start another clutch, I’ll be watching and am very tempted to take the young out at a week of age and start rearing them myself. To hand feed babies, the best time is when they are three weeks old, but I’ve rescued them as early as a day old.

But, that’s a story for another time.

Transfer Cage

From time to time, you will need to move your birds. Any cage will do, but I like this one. It’s especially useful in order to thoroughly clean a cage and/or switch pairs between cages.

I place one pair in the small transfer cage, then thoroughly clean their cage before moving the other pair into it. Once that pair is settled in, I clean the newly vacated cage before putting the pair from the transfer cage into that one.

This works well and makes this small cage very handy. Another advantage is that it doesn’t take up much room when not being used.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I had the most wonderful experience last night. At 9:00 p.m., as usual, our dog came and told me he needed to go outdoors before going to bed. He’s a big Lab/Malamute mix who was going to be an outdoor dog. Eight years ago he had an encounter with a porcupine on one of his nightly walks, so now he sleeps in the laundry room. Why not? He’s well-behaved! Smile.

We have a security light on the pump house and last night I saw something silently flying across the drain field. My first thought was a bat. I quickly dismissed the idea since it was clearly too big to be a bat. (We only have tiny ones around here). Next, I thought of an owl, but he wasn’t as big as the owls we usually see.

When I shined the flashlight on him, he turned toward the light and turned back in my direction. His curiosity was apparently as great as mine! He circled above me and we exchanged words for what seemed like the longest time as he hovered above my head. Eventually he decided to continue on his way and left. What a wonderful experience!

He was a small, light brown owl and sure seemed friendly.

A number of years ago, we had a big snowy owl who visited regularly. He’d often circle over me as if to say hello. He’d also perch in trees along our drive…once even on the gate… and fly in front of us as we drove up the long driveway at night. Once we parked the car, he’d circle overhead before soaring off into the surrounding forest. He was our silent, white friend for about two years before he stopped coming around.

Then I read in our local paper that a rare snowy owl, not known to inhabit this area of the country, had been illegally shot in a nearby national park. I cried.

We never saw him again. So, to see this little brown fellow was a thrill after all this time of not seeing very many owls. They are wonderful, friendly, inquisitive birds. He made my day – or rather my night.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Banding Small Baby Birds

A note on the photos above: Budgerigar parakeets are bald when they hatch and that’s normal for them. Baby Bourkes, shown here, hatch with white or gray fuzz. Splendids have some fuzz too. Neither are as fluffy as a baby chicken, but they do have soft fuzz.
There is a small window when baby birds are able to be banded. If you wait too long, their feet will be too big. If you band too early, the bands will come off. Some mothers actually remove them! I like to try to wait until the mother leaves the nest before removing babies. It will disturb her less, however, don’t let that keep you waiting too long to band. The books say 7 to 9 days is appropriate. I recommend not bothering the nest any time before that first week. With mine, nine days seems about right, seven is usually too soon. The ultimate decision is the size of the baby’s foot.

Most of my babies seem ready to band when they open their eyes. When that happens, I remove them and look at their feet. By trial and error, you’ll soon learn what sized feet look right.

Always be gentle with your babies. Talking sweetly to them will help tame them. The three longest toes need to slip through the band first. I use mineral oil on the bands to make them slip on easier. Some people “paste” the toes together with petroleum jelly. That works on some babies, and not on others. Some will hold still and make the process easy. Others will squirm and pull their foot out every time you think you’ve got the band on.

Point the three longest toes forward and hold them together, slipping the band around them. Gently pushing the knee forward helps me to keep the band on. Once over the three longest toes, the smaller, inside toe will be pushed flat against the leg. Use a toothpick (preferably a flat toothpick if you can find them), and slip it under that toe, pulling it out of the band. The baby may squeak, but I’ve never had an injured toe. Be very careful not to poke the baby’s body with the toothpick. Aim the toothpick “away” from the baby’s body when going under the toe to pull it out.

There is a metal tool that’s offered to help band baby birds. However, the ones I’ve received had sharp, rough edges and I’ve refused to use them.

Banding baby birds has more value than most people realize. By putting the year on the band, you will always know how old that bird is. You can identify yourself as the breeder and the state where the bird hatched.

Colored bands help you keep track of their parentage. It’s an especially good idea for a small flock where you want to avoid inbreeding whenever possible. That’s of value when you sell your babies too. Buyers will want to obtain unrelated birds. Also, pet shops that purchase your birds should ask that they be banded to prove that they are not imported from another country.

Large pet shops and chains often ask that the birds be tested for certain contagious diseases. That’s something to remember when buying your first pairs. My babies go through a larger breeder who markets them for me and tests all birds before they go out.
If you keep a closed, protected flock you should never have a problem. We’ll discuss the potential for diseases in another post.

Smaller pet shops may be less strict and more willing to take your birds without bands or testing. I’ve never been willing to deal with small, local pet shops that want to take the birds “on consignment.” That means that you must depend upon them to adequately protect and care for your birds. Under this method they have nothing to lose and you assume all risks, even if they die from neglect or are exposed to other sick birds. You're only paid if and when a bird sells. If it dies, it’s your loss. If you ultimately take it back, you are exposing the rest of your flock to whatever that bird may have been exposed to.

Back to banding: Both plastic and metal bands in many sizes are available. Bourkes and Splendids use the same sized band as a Budgie. We order our bands online in October or November each year. Orders are in multiples of 25 etched bands. We’re optimistic and always order 50 instead of 25, although we’ve never exceeded 25 babies in a season. If we had 26, however, it would be tragic to not have a band. Order early because you may not receive them right away.

On the bands you’re allowed four letters to identify yourself as the breeder. We’ve chosen to put my husband’s and my first initial with our last initial (so we only use three letters: EGL). Also we put the year and our state. Each band is numbered, one to fifty and the first baby hatched that year is #1. So, it will read: EGL OR 09 1 … OR is Oregon. The state and year are smaller and face across the band instead of around it.

We order our bands online from L & M Bird Leg Bands in San Bernardino, CA: I prefer aluminum “budgie” bands for the information and order plain colored plastic bands for parent identification.

Banding may seem like a challenge at first, but eventually it gets easier and easier as confidence increases. God bless you and your babies … be they feathered or not.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nest Boxes

Small parakeets like Bourkes and Splendids are resourceful. I had one hen lay an egg in a feedcup for lack of a nest box. If that happens, it's time to give her an appropriate place for her clutch.
Even an oatmeal carton, open at one end, and put on the bottom of a cage, has been used by Bourkes to raise healthy babies. However, there are better options. Thin wood, like plywood, makes a sturdy nest box. You want to hinge the top, or have a sliding door at one end, in order to check on your babies and later to clean out the box for re-use. I like to hang the boxes outside the cage, leaving the birds with as much flying area as possible. That means cutting wire holes in the cages, but they are meant to be breeding cages anyhow.

As an aside, if you are using a cage instead of an aviary for Bourkes, they need flying space. Tall cages are not the right kind. An oblong cage allows them to fly in circles and exercise - something they do quite well.

Normally a hen won't attempt to mate until she has a safe place to lay her eggs. Adding a nest box will encourage her to mate. When she's ready, she raises her tail and cheeps at her mate. He has probably been feeding her for days or weeks before. It's a way to prove he's capable of caring for her and her babies as he will feed her while she's on eggs. Later when the babies hatch, he feeds her and she feeds the young until they leave the nest. That way the "milk" that's regurgitated for the young has been processed twice before they get it.

Males Bourkes show off for hens by standing up straight and slightly puffing out their wings at the shoulder. This shoulder lifting is a way to determine sex in young Bourkes. They'll do it around any nearby hens. Since Rosy's are difficult to sex, I watch for this behavior. Normal Bourke males, when mature, have a tiny line of blue feathers above their nostrils that the hens don't have. Once you get to know your Bourkes, however, you'll recognize the differences in the behaviors of the two sexes.
Budgies only require an indentation in the bottom of their box to allow the eggs to gather together. An indentation for Bourkes and Splendids is a good idea, however, they may not use it. Therefore, I also put pine shavings (commercially called pine bedding for small pets) in my boxes. About one to two inches is adequate. Some of my hens dig down to the bare surface to lay their eggs, others simply press it down until it forms a bowl indentation.

Pine shavings help keep the nest cleaner after the babies hatch. It should be discarded after the young leave the nest. If you leave it there too long, the hen may go back to the nest to lay eggs again, and you don't want to disturb her, but you don't want your next clutch raised in a dirty nest either. I admit, however, that when hens have raised only one baby, I've allowed them to go back and raise two or three more young in rapid succession.

Most hens keep a very clean nest. It's when three or four babies begin to grow that the nest becomes soiled. I've been known to remove babies and replace their pine shavings with clean if it seems to need it. It never bothered them, or their parents, to do this. I wouldn't do it with newly hatched chicks though. I'd wait until they start to show some beginning feathers.

If you know anything about Australian birds, you know that they should be kept out of drafts. Mother birds keep their babies warm, but I still like to keep my bird rooms no cooler than 68 degrees. Usually, around 70-72 degrees Farenheit. They could probably withstand cooler temps., but they fare better if they don't get cold.

Most years I put up boxes in February and have babies by May. I let mated pairs have two clutches (sometimes three depending on how healthy & eager the hen appears) before removing the boxes. That's usually about August or September. More than two or three clutches a year will stress your birds. It's better to keep them healthy and producing year after year.

Next: Banding Babies

Friday, October 2, 2009

All Babies are a Blessing, Human Babies Most of All, and Even Baby Birds!

I confess to being stridently Pro-Life. I ask myself why people can be terribly upset over drowning kittens or puppies, but allow the destruction of tiny humans in the womb?

That said, all babies fascinate me. Each and every life is miraculous and therefore precious, be it human or animal. People first, of course ... always. However, every little creature under the sun is intricate and worth admiring.

I wish for every child the opportunity to witness the cycle of life. If in a small apartment, when money is tight, then just a fish bowl of guppies is worthwhile. A step up from that would be a pair of Betta's (Siamese fighting fish). Their bubble nest, the mating method, and how the male cares for eggs until they hatch, and then his babies ... it's all very interesting and educational.

Birds are also wonderful pets for a small space. Although we had cats and dogs, our son wanted a tame budgie. We gave him the admonition, "Keep your bedroom door closed, so the cats can't get to him." Of course the inevitable happened. I heard a crash one day and ran to his room. The cage was on the floor and the bird was on the curtain rod, unhurt. Searching under the bed, I dragged Panther, our black cat, out from under to scold him. That wasn't necessary, however. On the tip of his nose was a tiny red divot where Skybird (a blue budgie) had bitten him. In jerking back, Panther upset the cage. He never went near Skybird again!

By teaching our children to be responsible for a pet, they learn to become responsible adults and better parents. Seeing a pair of birds (of any variety) care for each other, their eggs and their babies can inspire kids to value life and be kind to all animals. Monitor your children, however. Some can be too rough. A pet is not where they should take out their frustrations, or make mistakes.

A former neighbor boy of ours was out on his front lawn with guinea pigs one summer day. He chased them around the yard, scaring them like a predator. Then he'd pick them up over his head and shake them slightly. His parents were nowhere around. I couldn't endure it. I went out and talked with him about his guinea pigs, discussing the responsibility he'd taken on. I never criticized him or told him I'd been unhappy watching him. I discussed the importance of being gentle and kind to our pets. Over time his behavior changed and every time I was in the front yard watering or weeding, he'd come over to visit. He needed the interaction with an adult ... he needed to learn. Don't give your children a pet and leave them alone with it until you've spent time training. Get books. Read to them about their pet and its care. That's so very important. It will be valuable to you too, and make you closer to your children.

About cats: We have always had two or three. I used to be afraid of having small birds where cats could get to them. In a way, cats are like children ... they need to be taught too. My first exposure was with Panther; however, later we adopted a beautiful adult (declawed) blue point Birman from an animal shelter. We worried whether he and our other adult male alley-cat would learn to get along ... in two weeks they were pals. Blue Barley the Blue Birman found his way into my bedroom one day and up onto the window sill. Hanging nearby were two cages of white zebra finches. Over the five years we owned and loved Barley, he rested there and watched them for hours, never attempting to leap at them or bother them. It became a past time for him and they never feared him. He watched a lot of baby finches hatch and grow.

Also, in the kitchen we had a tame albino budgie. Originally, I hung her cage very high, away from cats. But, they considered her a piece of furniture and in her 12-year lifespan, no one ever bothered her. We later added a pair of cockatiels and they were also left alone. When I let them out of their cage (they were very tame), I made sure the cats were outside. As always seems to happen, a child allowed one of the cats inside. Our male cockatiel decided to dive bomb the cat - very risky to the bird! I yelled "No Paws!" to the cat. Paws was his name. He hunkered down and watched me instead of the bird. He knew he had to leave that pesky bird alone.

Today, with our Bourkes and Splendids we started out with two elderly cats and one younger one. They'd all been around other birds and ignored them. When the two older cats passed on, I added a kitten. Whenever she even looked at the birds, she was warned in a cross, angry-sounding voice, "NO BIRDS!"

Some cats might need a swat with a newspaper, but she didn't. Wanting to please, after a few weeks, the birds were no longer very interesting and she ignored them. When she was two years old, a sickly, but pretty calico cat arrived in our neighboring woods. Eventually, our Miracle Patches was caught and rescued. Since she immediately made friends with our big malamute/lab mix, we decided to let her stay rather than put her up for adoption like we'd done with so many other rescued cats.

Patches, too, was willing to please. Although the birds seemed interesting at first, a few cross words and she'd skulk away, head down, "I wasn't looking, honest..." She's been with us almost three years and, although elderly (losing teeth), she's healthy, loving and beautiful.

I still don't willingly leave the cats alone in the same room with the birds at night, or if we're going to be gone a while. If it's raining and they want to stay inside and we want to go shopping, the cats go into a bedroom behind a closed door. They are happy with that arrangement and I don't worry about the birds (I wish I had a bird room, but this house doesn't lend itself to that. The birds are in a nook off the kitchen and in the living room. They started in just the nook, but without intending to keep youngsters, our flock keeps growing anyway).

In spite of best intentions, however, we have left cats unattended and near the birds. Not realizing our oldest cat, Me-Too, was asleep in a window seat, we put the other two outside and drove to a big city hours away. We got home 7 hours later and there he was, still snoozing. Another time, we went to bed thinking that Patches was outside, and when we called she wouldn't come inside. About midnight she meowed outside our bedroom door. We'd left her asleep in the living room where the birds are!

The worst thing we've had happen to a bird was when a young baby Splendid, being moved from his parents cage, flew off and into a window, injuring his wing. Since he can't fly, he's now a pet named "Flip," because that's what he does if he tries to fly. Sad, but he seems happy enough. Splendids are mostly climbers and do it well.

Nothing has ever happened to our birds because of a cat. It should be noted that we live in the country, far, far from streets or cars, so going outside isn't dangerous. Our cats (and dog) stay away from the porcupines, possible bears and cougars. We also have foxes, and would you believe I once saw a fox PLAYING with our small, elderly cat, Fancy. (She was also an adoptee from a shelter and declawed before we got her). I thought he was going to pounce on her, but he was playing with her. Honest. She wasn't afraid of him and didn't run away. After ten years of living here, no tragedy has befallen any of our pets, unlike tragedies that did occur in the city. Yet, we've seen bears (they steal my outdoor bird feeders, so I've quit feeding the wild birds ... except for hummingbirds).

I used to keep two Banty chickens ... they make wonderful pets and their eggs are delicious, better than big brown Orpington eggs (we had one hen). However, after a hawk and fox made a meal of my three hens, I've not had any others. We discussed fencing and protection, but chickens can carry diseases that exotic birds can catch. More on that subject another time.

Many blessings.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Breeding Grass Parakeets

In earlier posts I should have mentioned that both Bourkes and Splendids are "Grass Parakeets" so named because native wild birds forage on the ground in the grasses of Australia. Not surprising since the main part of their diet is comprised of seed. Turquoisines and Elegant Parakeets are also Grass Parakeets. All four, as well as the Budgerigar, are roughly the same size. Splendids, Turquoisines and Elegants are small and members of the genus Neophema. Bourkes have the distinction of a genus all their own: Neopsephotus. Budgerigars (budgies) also have their own: Melopsittacus. Why do you care, right? It may show why a Splendid can cross breed with a Turquoisine, for instance.

As an aside, canaries can cross breed with green singing finches, but their offspring cannot reproduce (they are mules). I don't know if that's true for crossing Splendids or not - it's not anything I've tried to do. I also haven't tried to get mutations of Splendids. It's my opinion that the original variety of Splendids are far prettier than the dimly colored mutations... There are photos of them all over the Internet if you're interested.

Rosy Bourkes, however, are the first (and best) mutation from the normal color that is brown on the back. Yellows have also been genetically produced, but the various shades of pink and rose are my favorites. The color variations in the Bourkes are sex-linked. A simple example is that if you take a female Normal Bourke and a male Rosy Bourke, all your hens will be the color of the father and all cocks will be the color of the mother. Hence, if you have two normal babies in the nest and two rosy babies, you can be certain that the rosies are hens and the normals are male. I've read this and it has proven true for me with every mixed pairing over the past several years.

However, one of those normal male babies grew up and was put with a normal hen (whose lineage I don't know). Instead of throwing mostly normals, that pair throws 50% rosies. All those rosies have been hens. That normal father carries the gene from his rosie father. All the normals in the nest have been males.

Bourke hens typically lay an egg every other day. Splendid hens usually lay one every day. Both varieties lay from two to six eggs. Most often they lay four eggs. My experience has been that if they lay five eggs, you will usually get three babies, although I have had four in the nest, but never more than four no matter how many eggs.

If you talk to your birds and interact with them on a daily basis, they will become accustomed to you and allow you to peer into the nest box without a great deal of fuss. It's important to speak "sweetly" to the hen BEFORE you open the box. Tapping lightly on the "lid" or "door" before you open it is also a good practice. I had a male cockatiel once leap at me and come down landing on his brood, killing a new chick and damaging the remaining eggs. Highly disappointing. I should have waited for his mate to be in the box before I looked in, because she was more docile. But, they were a new, untame pair, unfamiliar with me and I with them.

I carefully keep track of the parentage of all my babies by naming each and every parent bird (both male and female because sometimes mates get swapped). This morning I wanted to check on Bonnie, a Bourke hen with Clyde. Bonnie only laid two eggs this time. After 19 days, the first egg hatched and the 2nd hatched two days later. I needed to check the size of her offspring. It's necessary to band the babies if you want them to be saleable to pet shops. If a baby grows faster than you expect, you may miss that small 2-3 day window when its feet are the right size for banding. Too big and you can't get a band on. Too small and it slips off and probably lost in the nest.

Now Bonnie used to be sort of tame. I could lift her off a clutch without any fussing. She knew me and I knew her. Although not finger tamed, she trusted me. Then, with her previous clutch , something went wrong. She laid two eggs and the third wasn't laid. I began to worry and watched her daily. Eventually, she appeared distressed. She was panting and even left the nest to sit on the bottom of the cage. This was a definite sign of egg binding and that something must be done quickly. Most birds will exhibit signs of a problem by sitting on the bottom of the cage, and if you know your birds, you'll recognize when they aren't feeling well ... fluffed up, eyes at half mast ... that sort of thing.

In Bonnie's case, there was no doubt. I caught her and could feel the lump of the egg near her vent. Be especially careful when touching that area. If you break the egg, you've lost your bird. With excellent advice of friends who raise more birds than I do, Bonnie was rescued. I did what my bird book said, and it wasn't enough. I held her over steam and put mineral oil very carefully into her vent, using a small syringe. After many hours, a wonderful couple advised me to also give her mineral oil by mouth and add mineral oil to her vent more than once ... every hour if necessary. I held Bonnie in a washcloth and let her chew on it as much as she wanted since she was NOT happy with me! When I was about to give up on her, I remembered something I'd done as a 12-year-old with my Budgies when they were ill. (More about that another time).

I took a small cage and covered it completely with a towel and put her in that cage. Then I boiled water in a large mug and placed the steaming mug inside the towel (not in the cage!). I left her alone for about a half hour before I peeked in. There was the egg on the floor of the cage ... In addition to the mineral oil, I believe she needed warmth, humidity and solitude to pass that egg.

She didn't return to the nest box to sit on those two eggs and I didn't have any other mother who could foster them. It took Bonnie a few months to fully recover from her ordeal. I worried and watched over her since she only laid two eggs this time. However, she seemed fine and two eggs were all she needed to lay.

With these two new babies, I needed to check their size. I tried to wait until she left the nest. Most mothers only leave to defecate, grab a drink and immediately return to the nest. I was never able to see her out of it. Since she is very protective and covers her young, I picked her up like I'd done in the past. Ouch! Had she changed! She grabbed hold of my pinky and wouldn't let go. Talk about hurt. Most Bourkes, if not tame, will bite if grabbed, but they also let go when you release them. She wouldn't! It was her turn to get even with me. It's the only time one has ever drawn blood, but she did. Unfortunately, the babies are still too small to band ... I'll check again Saturday.

I'll talk again another time about how the males help raise their offspring. Also, discuss hand raising babies. I've had a few that were rejected by a parent (rare), but reared successfully by me. Although these birds are easily tamed when young, hand rearing makes them super tame and loving.

Next Time: More on Banding & Hand Raising