Author Archives: KarenO

AVIAN NUTRITION 101

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Bird ownership is both a joy and a responsibility. Learning about the feathered friends we share our lives with is an ongoing process. For those of you who are considering buying your first bird or for those of us who have kept various types of birds for years, there is always something new to learn! The more homework you do, the better prepared you will be to take care of these magnificent creatures. The happier the parrot; the happier the owner. The happier the owner; the happier the parrot.

Nutrition is extremely important to a bird’s physical and psychological well-being. David J. Henzier’s book, Healthy Diet, Healthy Bird: A Complete Guide to Avian Nutrition, contains a wealth of valuable information. Generally, birds need a ratio of 8% fat to 12-14% protein with the remainder being carbohydrates. This ratio will vary in certain species and a breeder bird’s diet will require more protein than a regular maintenance diet.

Vitamin A is extremely important to the health of bird’s skin, respiratory, other epithelial tissues and feather condition. Insufficient vitamin A is the most common vitamin deficiency seen in pet birds. However, too much vitamin A can be just as harmful, so don’t overdo the supplements. Good vitamin A food sources are yellow and orange-colored & dark-green leafy vegetables. Squash, sweet potatoes and yams, carrots, egg yokes, alfalfa sprouts and kale are just a few good choices.

Never feed your birds chocolate, alcohol, avocado, rhubarb or products containing caffeine. The seeds or pits of apricot, peach, cherry, plum, nectarines and apples contain sugars which convert and release cyanide when ingested. Seeds from melons are OK. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are no-no’s.

Sunflower seeds are not nutritious, are vitamin-deficient and high in fat. Dried fruits are O.K. as long as they are not “crystallized.” Breakfast cereals such as Shredded Wheat and Cheerios are good for birds. These can be served dry or soaked in natural fruit juice and even topped with grated almonds - a good calcium source. Parrots should never be given milk because it contains lactose, a sugar which parrots cannot digest. Cereals with extra vitamins and iron can be harmful since iron is stored and can reach dangerous levels in birds. Check the labels.

Though milk is not recommended, yogurt is an excellent additive especially if it contains natural, live cultures. The acidophilus bacteria is beneficial and helps fight off invasion by harmful bacteria in the digestive system. Hard cheese, such as cheddar, can be a treat rich in calcium and protein. However, because it is high in fat, it should not be offered as a daily food. When considering whether to give your birds table foods or snacks, ask yourself, “Is this food healthy and nutritious for me?”

For more information about nutrition and other aspects of bird care, read "The Orginal Flying Machine", "The Companion Parrot Quarterly" and Bird Talk magazine.

Weigh Your Bird Regularly!

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by Jan Hickey

For birds in the wild, masking illness is a means of self preservation. A sick or injured bird is more vulnerable to predators and other birds in the flock. Hiding illness has become an important means of survival and an instinctive behavior in wild birds. Our captive birds retain this instinctive behavior. Unlike other animals that loudly proclaim their discomforts, a pet bird who is sick will do his best to hide his situation. Weight change is one of the few early warning signs of illness we can see.

You cannot rely on how your bird looks to detect weight changes. You will never ‘see’ a 5% weight change in your bird; but such a change is very significant and could even be life threatening. Use a good scale, preferably one designed for birds. The scale must weigh in grams. Ounces, even the more common fractions of an ounce, are too large a measurement. By the time a sun or cherryhead conure has lost enough weight to effect a change on a scale that measures in 1/4 ounce increments, the bird has lost almost 5% of its body weight!

Record the amount each time you weigh the bird. Do NOT rely on your memory. You can use a small spiral-bound notebook or a computer spreadsheet (like Excel or Lotus) to record the bird’s weight. Excel spreadsheets work well for this purpose. Graphing the weights is especially useful with very young birds or those with recurrent health problems.

Young parrots should be weighed daily until they are 1 year old. Ask the breeder for your baby’s weight record too. This will make your record more complete and could help the vet in case of illness. After the bird reaches one year old, weigh every other day until the bird reaches sexual maturity. Adult birds added to your flock should also be weighed daily for one year. This daily weight record serves to establish a baseline of what is “normal” for your bird.

Once you have a baseline, weigh the bird 3 times per week. This should continue for the remainder of the bird’s life. In times of higher stress or illness, go back to weighing daily. Weight changes are often the first--and sometimes the ONLY--sign that your bird is ill. Always weigh your bird at the same time of the day. Before feeding in the morning is usually the best time. This will give you the most consistent weight. Be sure to weigh after the morning poop-bomb. It can make as much as a 10 gram difference!

You don’t always weigh exactly the same amount: your bird’s weight will also fluctuate. In general, 1% to 1.5% up or down from the baseline weight is in the ‘normal’ range. For example, a 400 gram (baseline) bird could weigh as much as 406 or as little as 394 and still be considered to be in the ‘normal’ range. Individual birds can display a greater daily fluctuation than the 1.5% indicated. The percentages listed are a basic guideline. As with most characteristics related to birds, individuals can vary from the norm and still be perfectly healthy. This is one reason for tracking your bird’s weight for an entire year to create the baseline.

Be aware that the previous day’s food intake will also be reflected in the bird’s weight. Many parrots will eat less when the weather is changing rapidly or is particularly bad. This will show up as an unusual, but explainable, weigh loss the next day. If the bird got a special treat just before bedtime, that may show up as an unusual weight gain. If you weigh earlier or later than normal, that may also affect the results.

You will never notice a 3-4 gram loss - that’s easily within the normal range for most medium to large parrots. But if it happens again the next time, it becomes significant! If two consecutive weighings show an unexplained weight loss, go back to weighing daily. If the 3rd day shows another loss, CALL THE VET!! Don’t hesitate! Call the vet! Describe the pattern of the weight losses; be sure to include any environmental factors that you think may be affecting the bird. If the vet thinks the weight changes are significant, s/he will tell you to bring the bird in. S/he may also ask that you monitor the weight for another day or two, then call back.

Any bird that sustains an unexplained weight loss of more than 2% in a single weighing should go IMMEDIATELY to the vet. A bird with a loss 3-4% of its weight over several days should also go to the vet as soon as possible. A bird with a weight loss over 5% is in a VERY serious, perhaps even life-threatening, condition. Weight losses over 10% often result in death if not treated immediately. Weight gains usually cause less problems than losses; however, any significant change should be discussed with your avian vet. Also, be aware that some parrots may show seasonal weight changes. This is another reason that you take an entire year to establish the baseline for your parrot. Don’t forget to make notes on your weight chart about environmental and behavioral changes.

One note about weighing mature hens: It has been my experience that mature parrot hens exhibit a weight change pattern when they are going “in season”. The pattern takes place over approximately 10 to 14 days. Over 4 to 6 days, the hen will gain about 3-4% of her baseline weight. This higher weight will then be sustained for 2 or 3 days. Gradually, over the next 4 to 6 days. this extra weight will be lost, returning the hen to her baseline weight. This can also be another hint in determining the sex of non-dimorphic adult parrots.

Cocks do not generally experience this weight change pattern. Invest in a good gram scale, preferably one with a perch. A good scale, like a good cage, can be expensive; but it is an investment in your bird’s health and well-being. The current prices are in the $70 to $120 range. While either electronic or triple-beam scales are okay, for most people, the electronic types are much easier to use accurately.

Your scale should have a “load cell” weighing mechanism or a good strain gauge transducer. This feature ensures that the scale will record the same weight whether your bird is in the center of the scale or on an edge. If you are not sure if a scale has a load cell feature, you can test it by placing a weight in the center of the scale. Move the weight to the far right side of the platform, then to the far left side. If the scale does not have a good stain gauge transducer or load cell mechanism you may see a weight shift of 5% or more from the center to either edge (or from front to back). One side will record a higher weight than the center, the other side a lower weight. Now, imagine your bird moving around on the scale. If he moves to the right of center, he weighs 5% more; if he moves to the left, he weighs 5% less!

Winged Wisdom Note: Jan Hickev is a hobby breeder of African Greys and Cherryhead conures and an accountant. She lives with her husband, Dave, and a house full of birds in southeastern Wisconsin. All rights reserved. 1997

Published in Bird Basics, Bird Care

Pet Bird Basics for Beginners

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This article is for people who are considering purchasing their first bird or for people who are new to birdkeeping. There is quite a lot to learn about the proper care of birds and even those of us who have kept birds for years continue to learn new things. There is so much to write about and so little room, so I’ll attempt to touch on just a few of the fundamental topics.

First of all, I would recommend buying a few books about bird care and also subscribing to one of the magazines devoted to bird care. BirdChannel.com (new home of Bird Talk Magazine which is no longer published) is an excellent source of information about pet bird care.  Two of my favorite books when I began keeping parrots were Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot by Mattie Sue Athan and Healthy Diet, Healthy Bird by Dr. David Henzler DVM. There are many more sources of information about pet birds and I urge you to learn all you can about responsible bird ownership.

From a breeder's perspective, as much as we all want to sell you our birds, we also want them to go to good homes where they will be well-cared for. Parrots require interaction with their household. Their behavior is a bit different from that of a cat or a dog. Birds are highly social creatures and bonds of trust must be forged for a good relationship between you and your bird.

Birds have the intelligence of a 2 or 3-year old child. They need boundaries and they need an established routine. Many people make the mistake of lavishing hours and hours of attention on a new bird when they first bring it home, only to decrease the time they spend with it when the novelty wears off. This can cause behavioral problems such as feather picking or screaming. It is necessary to spend time with your bird for they have been known to “go crazy” sitting alone in a cage day in and day out. Never underestimate the intelligence of these creatures. Ask yourself how you would react under similar circumstances.

Consistency is the key. If you let your bird out for 45 minutes in the morning, and an hour or several hours each night, then it is best to stick with this routine. Sometimes our birds will watch TV with us or eat a bite of our meal (limited junk food, please), and other times your bird may be happy just to play on top of his or her cage, on a playgym or on a T-stand. Remember, your 2-year old can get bored easily and will enjoy a change of scenery and a variety of activities.

In the wild, birds wake up at sunrise and usually forage for food soon thereafter. If you are able to do so, it is best to give them their fresh food at this time since they will tend to eat their healthy foods first. Then that food bowl must be removed before bacteria can grow. If you have your birds on a good pelleted diet, the fresh food isn’t all that necessary. However, there are many that feel the birds enjoy the various textures and tastes of a varied diet. You will learn more about nutrition and diet from reading and talking to other experienced bird owners like those in your local bird club.

Parrots need toys to chew on. It is an instinctive psychological need for them to play and chew and it also keeps the tips of their beaks dulled. Should you acquire one of the larger parrots, such as a cockatoo or macaw, be aware that you must keep them supplied with wooden toys. Perches can be made from dowel wood or from branches of trees that are non-toxic to parrots. They should be of varying thicknesses in order to prevent foot problems from developing. PVC pipe for perches is not recommended. Yes, it is easier to keep clean and it is indestructible, but it will not make for a contented bird.

Playtime should be fun for both you and your parrot. They love toys or sharing a healthy snack with their owners. Most pet birds love music or the soothing sounds of new age music or natural sounds such as an ocean surf or the calls of songbirds. Amazons are known to be particularly fond of all kinds of music ranging from Aretha Franklin to opera to C&W. Birds enjoy being talked to and some owners even read their pets stories! Which brings us to the fine art of teaching them to talk and training them to do tricks.

Parrots are flock animals and have a complex body language. Often they have no reason to talk to you face to face, let alone to “perform on cue.” Often, they tend to talk more when you are in another room, for this is the way they “keep in touch” with their flock. Start out with “Good Morning!”, “Hello” and “Good Night” or “Good Bye.” Make your voice dramatic and interesting. This will help them to pick up varying speech patterns. Dr. Irene Pepperberg of the Alex Foundation uses the “model/rival” technique of teaching Alex (who is an African grey parrot) to talk. Like children often do, parrots will want to join in the conversation when you are talking to someone other than them. As for trick training, Steve Martin--the well known bird trainer, has several good tapes on this subject which are available through advertisements or which can be purchased online.

Grooming your parrot is also an important part of responsible ownership. Keeping the wings and nails properly clipped can be done by you or by an avian veterinarian. Baths are  also very important to the psychological well-being of pet birds. If exposed to baths at an early age, parrots will enjoy this special time with you. Many owners shower with their birds, while some birds prefer to bathe in a dish of water or in a kitchen sink, and still others love to be misted with lukewarm water. The baths are necessary for your bird’s skin and feather quality. Feathers will last longer and look prettier while the skin will be less prone to dryness and flakiness. Simply said, the bird will feel better after a good bath.

You should be aware that birds’ respiratory systems are very sensitive. Do not use scented candles or spray scents in your house around the birds. They have been known to kill pet birds. Overheating Teflon cookware has also killed pet birds. Be wary of anything that gives off a strong odor such as cleaning fluids, paint or fingernail polish removers and so forth. Do not keep birds close to toxic plants for it is hard for them to resist chewing on plants. Don’t allow them to play with aluminum, lead, pencils or pens. Never give your bird chocolate, avocados or caffeine.

Make sure you have a good avian veterinarian. Your pet bird should be given a yearly check up and blood workup. Have the name and phone number of your vet handy in case of emergencies. It is also good to keep a first aid kit which contains nail-clipping scissors, Quik-stop, Betadine, triple antibiotic cream and vet wrap.  Check online for other items you may want to include.

It is a privilege and joy to own a parrot, but it is also a great responsibility which requires not only a long-term commitment from you but also a willingness on your part to learn all you can about these wonderful creatures. Enjoy your parrots and they will enjoy you. Happy bird keepers keep happy birds.

Published in Bird Basics, Bird Care

Grooming: Beaks and Toenails

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An overgrown beak may get in the way of the bird feeding and grooming itself. Overgrown toenails may impair the bird’s ability to perch, may force inadequate foot posture, and may cause the bird to get entangled. If a toenail gets caught and in its frantic attempts to free itself the bird rips the nail off, bleeding will ensue. This is why providing your bird with lots of chew toys and proper perches is essential.

Remember that the beak tip may be “dead” (in the same sense the tips of our own nails are dead) but it IS attached to living tissue. That living tissue is provided with ample blood flow (this is what brings in oxygen and the “building materials” that make up the beak) AND with nerve endings (because the bird uses the beak to palpate and sense its food and environment). The beak should be treated gently!

Beak grooming is usually done in two ways: by using a file to wear down the tip, or by using a dremmel to likewise remove excess growth. A dremmel can be a handy tool, but only at the hands of an experienced operator. [Should bleeding occur, it can be staunched by using a coagulation aid and direct pressure. Ferric compounds can be used on a bleeding beak and on bleeding toenails BUT SHOULD NOT BE APPLIED TO FLESH because it can cause tissue damage. So, if you must use a ferric compound (such as QuikStop(tm)), be careful not to apply it to the insides of the beak, or to the bird’s cere (“nose”) nor any other fleshy body part.

Toenails can likewise be groomed using a file or dremmel, but most often the tips are simply clipped off. With small birds, this is easily done using scissors or toenail clippers. Special toenail scissors are also sold: these have a little notch upon which to rest the toenail, and also have rounded tips for added safety. If the toenail is very overgrown, it is likely the “quick” (blood supply) will also be overgrown which means that when the toenail is clipped, it probably will bleed.

In such cases, it’s recommended that the toenail be trimmed anyhow and the ensuing blood flow staunched. A few weeks later, the toenails will be groomed again (in the interim, the quick will have receded), and this process is repeated until the toenails are brought to a safe, comfortable length.

If bleeding happens while grooming the beak or toenails, the owner should attempt to stop blood flow. Direct pressure helps and so does applying some QuikStop(tm), flour, cornstarch, even a small piece of paper. It’s a good idea to have some sort of coagulation aid nearby BEFORE grooming begins.

Another “trick” to help keep the beak and toenails in good shape is to provide the bird with safe, natural tree branches as perches. Birds love stripping the bark, and the rough surface does wonders for dulling the tips of the toenails and for helping slough off the beak surface as it grows. Concrete perches are also available: the rough surface works as a stationary filing station! If you offer this kind of perch, make sure the bird also has other perches available.

Young birds are more easily taught to accept grooming. The ideal situation is when your bird allows you to trim its toenails while it is sitting on a perch! Birds also should be “towel trained” early, if possible so they will not fear that piece of material. Gently and with great patience, cover your bird with a towel while speaking soothingly to him or her. Cover the eyes and the beak as you trim the nails on first one foot and then another. Have an experienced bird owner, aviculturist or veterinarian demonstrate the technique to you.

Published in Bird Care, Grooming

Importance of Vitamin A

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Vitamin A deficiency is the most common preventable disease that avian veterinarians see in their practice Pet birds that eat only seeds (especially sunflower seeds and peanuts) are most prone to this problem. Vitamin A deficiencies increase the likelihood of secondary infections because cells that line the respiratory, reproductive and digestive tracts undergo structural change, which allows bacteria and microorganisms to penetrate the mucous membrane barriers.

The respiratory system is most often affected. A bird with vitamin A deficiency may show any of the following symptoms: sneezing, wheezing, nasal discharge, crusted or plugged nostrils, lethargy, depression, diarrhea, tail-bobbing, thinness, poor feather color, swollen eyes, ocular discharge or lack of appetite.

Though few birds actually die from vitamin A deficiency, they do die from the secondary infections common to birds with weakened resistance. Vitamin A strengthens cells so that they function properly and it enables the natural healing process to occur. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

CALCIUM, PHOSPHORUS & VITAMIN D

Further, in birds there is a complex relationship among calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D. Calcium is the major component of the skeleton and eggshell and is also present in the blood Calcium is absorbed in the intestines and vitamin D regulates that absorption. When the calcium level in the blood stream is low, vitamin D increases the absorption rate. Vegetables that contain oxalates, such as spinach, rhubarb and others, interfere with calcium absorption. High fat diets also block calcium absorption.

Phosphorus is also a component of bone and is absorbed through the intestines. There is an inverse relationship between phosphorus and calcium. If the calcium level in the bloodstream is low, more phosphorus is absorbed. If the calcium is high, less phosphorus is absorbed. Vitamin D increases the absorption of phosphorus through the intestines when the blood level of phosphorus is low.

For healthy bones, the ratio of calcium to phosphorus in the food should be about 2:1 The greater the variation from this ratio, the greater the role of vitamin D in regulating calcium and phosphorous. Fortunately, about 30% of the phosphorus present in food is available in a form that can be utilized by birds. But too much phosphorus interferes with calcium absorption.

Generally, foods that are yellow, orange or deep green in color have high vitamin A content Corn. lettuce, summer squash, grapes, apples, oranges and bananas are exceptions and are low in this vitamin.

Birds can make their own vitamin D if they have access to sunshine (not filtered by glass.) Birds cannot absorb calcium without vitamin D. Birds housed indoors on an all-seed diet lack vitamin D and calcium (and are likely to die at a young age.)

Cuttlebone is an excellent source of calcium. Full-spectrum fluorescent lights (such as Vita-Lites) that are suspended over your bird cages will allow your birds to make their own vitamin D.

If your birds are on a peletted diet, then you don’t have to worry about either calcium or vitamin D.

NOTE. In African Greys, the Calcium:Phosphorus ratio should be 2:1. If they do not get the proper ratio, they may be prone to falling off their perch, lack of coordination and seizures.

WARNING: Too much vitamin D or too much vitamin A can be harmful. Too much vitamin D causes too much absorption of calcium which results in minerals being deposited in soft tissue including kidneys. Too much vitamin A can be toxic and results in hypervitaminosis A. Bone spurs, painful joints, liver damage and renal gout are a few health problems that can result.

Vitamin A Content          IU Per 100 GRAMS 

Red Chili peppers (fresh)                21,000
Red chili peppers (dried)                77,000
Broccoli leaves                          16,000
Broccoli flowers                          3,000
Carrots (pureed)                         10,000
Sweet Potatoes                            9,000
Collards                                  9,300
Kale                                     10,000
Dandelion greens                         14,000
Spinach                                   8,000
Beef liver                               45,000
Egg yolks                                 3,000
Cantaloupe                                4,000
Turnip Leaves                             7,600

Canned pumpkin and Jalapeno peppers are good sources of Vitamin A.

The best natural foods which contain a good calcium:phosphorus level for African greys are:

broccoli, collard leaves, dandelion greens, fennel, okra, orange with the peel, parsley, spinach, turnip leaves, kelp and blackstrap molasses.

Published in Bird Care, Bird Feed