25 December 2010

Christmas Cookies

A Feather Dorm Christmas means extra treats for the animals, convenient pieces of crumpled paper everywhere for bird-leavings, and epic photo/video sessions to preserve the funniest moments as our little creatures take part in the festivities in their own ways.

Christmas Eve was the beginning of our fun. We Flock Advisors opened gifts to each other, and some that we had cheekily tagged as being from the animals. The birds started their day by getting their presents from our good friends Maura and Calum: some fresh toys ripe for their destruction. Kenobi also received his gift from them, a wrapped box tagged "Bunny Balls" that we decided he should open himself since he loves to gnaw on paper products. With a little help from Ms. Flock Advisor, he got one end of the box open and a whiff of what was inside. I rolled the video camera as he worked to get at the vanilla wafers inside his fabulous present. Maura and Calum were thoughtful enough to get him the Reduced Fat variety, and he proved to be no snob to low-calorie foods. If Reduced Fat vanilla wafers are the train to a fitter Bunny Balls, then just call him "Conductor." Watching him tug on his box and yank at the bag inside to loose the cookies had Ms. Flock Advisor and I just about rolling on the floor in all-out laughter. He was determined and he finally got one. We let him have two, and then saved the rest for later. Sprite took one from Ms. Flock Advisor and we also broke of little pieces for the other birds. Its Christmas! Even low calorie cookies should be rationed for bunnies and birds, though. Kenobi's present will provide him with many weeks of flavorful entertainment and sugar-coma bliss. The birds have begun work on their toys, but Coconut's may last a long time as he is mostly just singing to his.

For Christmas Eve dinner we picked-up Chinese food and watched A Christmas Story. Ms. Flock Advisor cracked open a fortune cookie for Kenobi. I think it was his idea of the perfect food: crunchy, sweet goodness with a fiber-rich filling. The birds were in bed asleep before the movie was over, so they didn't see the "smiling" duck have its head chopped of at the end. That part would probably give Lennon more nightmares.

Lennon having his Christmas present installed.
The animals were up early with us on Christmas morning so that Ms. Flock Advisor could Skype with her parents before work. Our plan for the day, because she was scheduled for dolphin work, was to spend the day at the aquarium together and have fun with some fish-eating mammals. Lennon took his seat on Ms. Flock Advisor, and Cher hung in my shirt as I sipped the morning's coffee. Sprite shouted his hellos across the room for all (in the room and on Skype) to hear. The day before we had a trial run with the video calling and took Ms. Flock Advisor's family on a Skype-tour of the Dorm. Her mom requested a stop at Coconut's house, he is her favorite. One of the gifts she sent down this year featured a silver Christmas ornament that somewhat resembles a disco ball. It is a Coconut favorite, as is anything with mirrors and shiny spots.

Our day with the otters and dolphins was fun, but it was nice to finally get home to the flock. We warmed up some Christmas leftovers: broccoli casserole and pork-fried rice with cheese pie for desert. We also munched on Christmas candies and Kenobi finished a red and green rice treat that we found for him at Petsmart. Lennon settled into a comfortable place on Ms. Flock Advisor's chest as they both nodded off after dinner. It was another wonderful Christmas at the Feather Dorm, and Sprite's first with us. We cannot wait for the next one!
Merry Christmas from Kenobi and the rest of our flock!

22 December 2010

Kenobi Gets a Taste of Christmas, and Some Big News

All of the animals have joined us on the west coast with Ms. Flock Advisor for the Christmas season. Five animals roaming around a one-bedroom domicile while we prepare for the big day creates its own set of challenges. A fence-line runs across the living room Australia-style, creating a rabbit free zone where the Christmas tree and presents can exist safe from the tireless nibbler. The birds strike up a noisy little chorus each morning, all four of them chirp and scream to alert us that they have made it through the night. Kenobi has snacked on some Christmas cards, and Lennon left his signature on one in the form of a little dropping. A strategically placed sticker by Ms. Flock Advisor ensured that the recipient would not be offended and the card made it out in the mail with the rest.

Kenobi has found that Christmas provides all sorts of new paper-snacks that are worth a try. He is kind enough to dispose of spent envelopes via his tummy, and found that gift tags were an irresistible treat. The four sheets that I bought were quietly discovered by Kenobi one afternoon. By the time Ms. Flock Advisor and I investigated the munching he had devoured better than half of two sticky sheets. We were concerned about how the adhesive would affect his digestive system, but he has been unfazed. The remaining tags that bear his bite-marks are being used to denote gifts from him.

The animals all have their stockings hung around the house. Lennon has his own and Sprite's hung from his house. Lennon's has the picture of the snowman, which resembles his own snowball shape with he fluffs up all of his white feathers to go to sleep. Sprite climbed down to inspect his, but he will not find his treats in it until Christmas Day.

Sprite did get an enrichment today with a large stocking. I put a Nutri-berry in it for him, and he eventually found it. He was a little timid about the big red sock. I had to encourage him to explore it, but when he discovered it was a source of treats, he welcomed its presence.

Now for the big news: The whole flock will soon be reunited again on the east coast. Ms. Flock Advisor will again be working on the east coast, so after Christmas we will be moving her back over. Lennon and Sprite will once again be shacking up with Cher and Coconut, and Bunny-balls will not have to take his road trips anymore. We are all excited, and look forward to the new year as much as we are looking forward to Christmas!

12 December 2010

Lennon's Nightmare Before Christmas

At 3am last night it sounded like Lennon was trying to fly laps inside his cage, in the dark. He was squealing and flapping and ringing all of the little bells that dangle from his plethora of toys. I ran out to check on him and he was in complete panic. Lifting the blanket off his cage did nothing to calm him down. He was trying to escape whatever his mind had conjured in the middle of the night.

It was Lennon's first night-fright in a long time. Cockatiels are particularly known for them, and Lennon has had them in the past. They become so panicked, trying to escape an imagined threat, that they can hurt themselves in their erratic flapping and falling. There is the risk of a broken wing or neck, or tangled up foot, but they can also break a blood feather. Blood feathers are new feathers that are just coming in, and are still just a quill filled with blood. If they break one, they can bleed to death quickly. For this reason, night-frights are dangerous and it is important to calm them down quickly.

When I opened Lennon's cage door I managed to cup my hand around him briefly to keep him still and check him for injury. He had none that I could see, and I pulled him out of his cage. He took off flying and calling loudly. There was plenty of light in the room, so he could navigate okay, and I think it did him good to get some energy out and see that he was okay. He ended up landing on the Christmas tree.

He stepped-up on my hand from the tree and I took him over to the couch. He was on high-alert still with his crest straight up and his head whipping back-and-forth methodically. Concerned that his fright may have something do with not being able to see his favorite person, I took him in to see see Ms. Flock Advisor in the bedroom. We both tried to calm him down, but he remained on edge. I took him back out and we sat on the couch together until about 6am when Ms. Flock Advisor came out to get ready for work, and found me asleep, with Lennon perched calmly near me.

Lennon got to go back to his cage and get a couple more hours of sleep. Ms. Flock Advisor noticed that the blinds had been left open all night on one window. A shadow or a passing car could have been what triggered his fright. We will be sure to close the blinds for him from now on. We might also have to really emphasize the next time that the Grinch does give the Christmas tree and roast beast back to the Whos, so he really isn't a scary guy at the end.

Sprite was barely stirred by all of the commotion. He mumbled a little, but went right back sleep when the noise subsided.

10 December 2010

Budgie Power! and baby pictures.

This week has been cold, for all of us. I managed to put a few Christmas decorations out and get into the spirit a little while wrapping up the semester by writing about 30 pages of research papers and articles. Cher, Coconut and Kenobi have benefited, as I've basically been holed up here in the Feather Dorm all week and looking to them for comic relief.

On the western side, Lennon and Sprite were treated to a little Christmas story-time by Ms. Flock Advisor. She sent me a message to say that she had just read them How the Grinch Stole Christmas a few days ago. They listened intently. Lennon sat on his porch (his open cage door forms a sort-of porch) and Sprite sat up in the corner of his cage, which is his normal spot when he is interested in what's going on. We will try and get some video of story time with the birds. They might even pick-up a "roast beast" or other fun vocabulary word!

Kenobi has been all about the cold weather. I leave the porch open for him throughout the day, and he goes out to lay down in the cold. He is reminded this time of year why he has all of that fur. The illuminated deer and seal have to go up on the table, and more importantly their cords, when he has access out there. If he gets a hold of one of those cords, the deer and seal probably wouldn't light up anymore, but Bunny-balls would. Temporarily, at least.

This was supposed to be the week that I finally put up a video of Coconut's target training. Alas, he is too camera shy. I tried a few times but he just freezes up when that camera is around. I will have to do some more desense training with the camera before I can get some footage up on the blog. I am very happy with how the little guy has been doing, though. Yesterday, after a session, he came out of his cage and flew around the house a bit as I walked around. He even let me touch his foot while he was on his perch. That is huge for Coconut. In fact, this may be one of the first times he has ever let me touch him voluntarily. He really is a skiddish little bird, but has done really well adjusting with the target training. When I get near his cage he hops right up on his favorite perch, anticipating a session, and fluffs up (generally a sign of comfort for birds) and starts chirping.

Coconut has learned to touch the end of a stick, and that humans bring treats and fun. I have learned, through the training sessions with him, that Coconut has an incredibly complex bird-eality (you know, like "personality"). Birds, all birds, have mental capabilities that are incredible considering the physical size of their brains compared to the brains of mammals. Then, birds are a completely different animal than mammals. Naturalists and scientists have long known that birds also have an incredibly strong skeleton, considering that their bones are hollow, due to a honey-comb structure. Their bones are light so that they can fly. Their bodies as a whole follow this basic plan. Yes, there are flightless birds, but this discussion will not go into the environmental pressures at work there. Considering that flighted birds most certainly benefit from the ability to, um, fly, it is no surprise that the whole of the creature would be built with this ability as a priority. Everything about a bird, then, must be as light as possible. Mammals, for the most part, have not had the necessity for lightness that flighted birds have had in their development. This is why I love birds. They exist on a different plane. Their survival strategy is different than ours, yet they have attained, especially parrots and corvids, an incredible brain. Coconut could not possibly weigh more than an ounce in total, he probably weighs less than that. His ability to show emotional diversity, though: excitement, anger, frustration, fatigue, is absolutely incredible for a mammal such as myself to conceive. Any one of my fingers weighs more than the little guy, yet he can learn, and think, and problem-solve, and be an individual. He shows me this as we have our training sessions together. I notice more and more characteristics of his, and learn how his responses differ to things that I try with him. Today I tried a training session too late in the evening. After a few approximations, he let me know he was ready for bed by tucking one foot up under his feathers after a reward of millet. I covered his cage, and he hasn't made a sound since. He was ready to sleep, he is not a machine, no animal is. Working with this tiny animal has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as an animal trainer. I have been impressed with the abilities of a tiny but efficient little brain, and rewarded with a connection with another being that I would not have had otherwise.

In addition to having fun with Coconut and writing boring research papers, I came across some baby pictures of Kenobi. These were taken with my old phone, so the quality isn't great, but you can see all of his baby hairs. His ears also look very thin and his head is tiny. I can't believe how much he has grown, and that it has been almost two years since we went and got him from the small town of Callahan, FL.

30 November 2010

Thanksgiving with the Birds and Cinna-bunny

Coconut and Cher got to hit the road last week for a Thanksgiving weekend with the whole family, reunited at Ms. Flock Advisor’s place on the west coast. We headed out on Wednesday evening with Nutri-berries and turkey sandwiches for road-food, and a Big Gulp. Coconut got the whole back seat to himself and spent most of his time chattering at every bump in the road that had the audacity to shake his house around and spill his water dish. Cher rode shotgun.

I carried the two of them up to Ms. Flock Advisor’s apartment just in time for dinner and a movie at home. Kenobi was already there tormenting Sprite by eating leftover bits of fruit pellets around the base of his cage. A few minutes into our visit, Cher had cranked out enough screams to prompt Ms. Flock Advisor to advise me that I should keep her with me at all times during awake hours to prevent the screeches, and eviction.

Coconut and Lennon got reacquainted, mimicking chirps back and forth. More on them later.

We decided to spend the first half of Thanksgiving Day with the animals, and watching the early football game of course. Ms. Flock Advisor was as into the game as much as I until New England started stacking points on top of points in the second half. Kenobi and the birds weren’t bothered by the score, though, and got lots of time with us until we went over to our wonderful friends' house, The Middletons of Greater Tampa, for a heaping feast of gourmet delights. Kenobi seemed to be enjoying the litter box I got for him on our arrival the weekend before. It is a little smaller than the one he normally uses, and he looks like a pot roast when he sits in it. Cram a few potatoes in there with him and you’d have a proper English feast.

Kenobi did get splashed with spice the day after Thanksgiving. I was home all day trying to get some work out of the way and Kenobi had decided to keep the Thanksgiving feel alive by feasting on some carpet under Ms. Flock Advisor’s couch. After several attempts to chase him out, and show him that he had a tasty stack of hay on the other side of the room, I had to resort to more desperate measures. In the past we’ve used lemon juice or cinnamon to discourage him from eating a patch of carpet he is particularly attracted to. He only seems inclined to eat certain patches of carpet at a time for some reason. Since we had stocked up on pumpkin pie making supplies we had plenty of cinnamon available for the task. I reached blindly under the couch to sprinkle a little down, and Kenobi charged defiantly from behind the couch. He rammed his nose into the open end of the shaker, causing a minor cinnamon explosion, and then took off in panic on an erratic lap around the room that ended with a dive into his cage. He was sneezing incessantly and wiping his nose with his front paws while I was still trying to process what had just happened.

I pulled him out of his cage to find that his face was powdered with the brown spice, as were both of his front paws. I took him over to the sink and sponge-bathed his twitching nose until he could manage a breath without a sneeze. Once he was all cleaned up, he got back to being his normal self quickly, although he smelled like a Christmas candle. He did have a few sneezing fits throughout the evening, but they were gone the next day. When Ms. Flock Advisor called on her way home so that we could make a dinner plan I asked if she would like some pumpkin pie for desert, or if she would rather hang out with Cinna-bunny. I felt really bad about the incident, but we made it up to the little guy by bringing him an 8-foot tall bunny snack the next day to nibble on.

Saturday was our day together. Ms. Flock Advisor was off of work and we decided, once again, to spend time with the animals. Lennon and Coconut got to fly around together. Well, as usual, it was more Coconut chasing Lennon on laps around the room. It is fun to watch, though. Lennon still will not let Coconut hang out with him.

Coconut did find himself a hangout later in the day after we had gone to pick up our Christmas tree. While watching the Gators get their spanking from the Seminoles, we let the two little white birds have the run of the house. Coconut flew straight to the tree and perched on it. When I walked over to pick him up he just crawled right inside the branches and ended up totally concealed, and content. We couldn’t see him, but he did make a few chirpy Christmas Vacation-like sound effects from inside. Cher and Coconut also posed for a few pictures with the tree, but I think the “C-nut’s Hideout” shot came out the best.

Kenobi found the tree tasty. He came out and immediately started nibbling on the low-hanging branches. I was concerned about his health and set-up a fence around the tree. Ms. Flock Advisor jumped on the Google-train and found that Douglas Fir is eaten by Deer, Chipmunks, and Rabbits in the wild, so turns out he was okay. That was good because by the time she came across that information he was already gobbling up the fallen needle-trail that led in from the door. The little guy couldn’t get enough tree needles. I gave him a few as a reward for going into his cage at night.

Monday morning it was time to haul Cher, Coconut, and Kenobi back to the east coast with me. Cher was kind enough to wake up any sleeping neighbors as we made our 6am departure. The weekend was wonderful. It was great to have everybody under one roof, and for once not be missing/ worrying about any of the Feather Dormers all weekend long. We’ll be doing it again for Christmas, I can’t wait!

Can you find all the animals in this photo?

22 November 2010

Kenobi's Vay-Kay

On Friday I loaded Kenobi into the back of the car for his trip the west coast, his longest car ride since we brought him home for the first time almost two years ago. He got to travel in the comfort of his normal cage, litter box and big pile of hay included, unlike the birds who have special travel carriers. With the bubble glass of the hatchback over this head, Bunny-Balls got a window seat view across the state.

The trip over was fine, he slept most of the time. It was funny to hear him munching on hay-snacks every so often as he'd awake for a few minutes. With his cage right behind my seat I could hear all of his little sounds that normally go unnoticed as we tower above him around the house. His perturbed little grunts were loud and clear as he slid across his cage through corners and thumped into the side. By the time we made it to the highway he learned to ride in his litter box, which is clipped to the side of the cage, to stay locked in place.

I don't know what was going through the little guy's head as I carried him out the door of the apartment to load him in the car, but I'm pretty sure he thought he was being abandoned when I stopped for a quick break at a rest area two hours into the drive. As I walked back to the car I could see him through the back-glass standing on his hind legs sniffing the air. He followed me with his eyes until I opened the car door, and then started biting his cage-bars like he does in the morning when he's ready to come out. I wanted to grab an information brochure from the kiosk for him to nibble on, but they were all soggy from a recent rain.

Kenobi was greeted by Ms. Flock Advisor very warmly. He hopped his circles around her and then explored his new domain. The carpet in her new apartment is shaggier than what he's used, so we had to offer a lot of distractions to keep his mind off of grazing on the grass-like floors.

This is the most exposure Sprite has ever had to Kenobi, and he was very uneasy about having a bunny under his cage. When Sprite lived on the east coast he was in our bedroom. Kenobi was not allowed in the bedroom, so Sprite only saw him through the doorway and when he was out in the living room on his stand. He reacted to Kenobi by displaying an array of territorial behaviors and postures that we don't normally see from him. He paraded on the top of his cage with his tail feathers wide, showing the bright red and deep blue hues, and his head feathers doing their best impression of a crest. At one point he spread his wings out wide, which is something I don't remember seeing him do before in a territorial scenario. All of this visual display was accompanied by a stream of robot sounds, clicks, and grunts coming from his throat. As impressive as it was, Kenobi didn't take any notice and just went about his business of chowing on dropped peanut shells and fruity pellets. He also went ahead and claimed some toys that Sprite had carelessly dropped.

Lennon and Kenobi rekindled their feud. They are still in a battle for the attention of Ms. Flock Advisor. Lennon seems a little less-apt to fly away as before. When Kenobi gets too close, Lennon's crest goes up and he spreads his wings as wide as they will go, and repeats "Hi good-bird" until Kenobi yields. Kenobi doesn't really yield so much as get sidetracked, as bunnies do, but Lennon is still happy to keep his perch on Ms. Flock Advisor. The two can agree on one thing though, Grape Nuts.

Back on the east coast, Coconut is doing very well with his target training. He targeted outside the cage for the first time last week. This was a major step for him. He is still showing a lot of eagerness for his sessions and has great attention. Even when he fails, he comes right back to try it again. It is so good to see him thinking through how to achieve his rewards. If I can get him a little more used to the presence of the camera, I will get a video up of one of his sessions.

Cher said her one phrase again last week, which makes a total of about four times that I have ever heard it. This is a constant argument between me and Ms. Flock Advisor as she does not believe that Cher is actually saying, "Stop it!" She says I am hearing things and that Cher just grunts. I think it is an exact mimic, and quite fitting that the most difficult bird we have would learn such a phrase. The first time I heard it she was biting the neck of my shirt. I kept saying, "Cher, Stop it!" Finally, I went to grab her to get her off of me when she wouldn't stop, and I would swear it was a recording of my own voice that came out when she said, "Stop it!" for the first time. Trouble is, she hardly ever says it. I am yet to find a good trigger, but Ms. Flock Advisor has been present now at least two times when she's said it but still thinks it is just unintelligible grunting. I'll keep working at it, I just wish she would pick up something else to say. Normal birds say, "Hello."

15 November 2010

Lennon Plays Scrabble

Scrabble letter-tiles are irresistible chew toys for Lennon. Ms. Flock Advisor and I found this out on Sunday night as we laid the game out on the floor. Lennon does not sit still when left to his own devices. As I combed the box for a refresher on the game's rules, and Ms. Flock Advisor tried to give me the Cliff's Notes, Lennon found the tiles she had set up vulnerably on their stand. He proceeded to pick them up one by one, turn each in his beak before dropping it and going for another. What made this even more entertaining for us was that he was dropping them on the game board, so it appeared he was trying to play. He did not spell out any words but had as much fun as the rest of us.

As we got our game underway, Lennon marched around the room finding new items of interest. In the wild, cockatiels forage on the ground.     Lennon displays this type of behavior around the house as he inspects the carpet for hidden morsels and chewable objects. He attempted to disconnect the Patriots' flogging of Pittsburgh by nibbling through the antenna cable. Ms. Flock Advisor redirected his focus from that noble task, and he went on to separating her iPod ear buds from their cord with his busy beak. I scooped him up before he could complete that job and we let him play with the Scrabble tiles some more. Eventually he found a sizable pretzel crumb and that held his focus until it was time for him to once again perch on Ms. Flock Advisor's shoulder and tend to his feather preening before going to bed.

Kenobi is indeed becoming quite the hefty bunny, and I now have a means of comparison to make that claim. Last week I picked up my mom's bunny, an adult female named Petunia, and found that she was much lighter and less round than Bunny-balls. Perhaps it was the vanilla wafers, but he has been off of those for a while. Ms. Flock Advisor said that his chubbiness is a good thing, and I have to agree that it is endearing. She may need to come back and run around the house with him so he can burn some calories, but the vanilla wafer treats he would receive for cuteness might cancel out his workouts.

05 November 2010

Trick, Treat, or Cheese Sandwich

Halloween is an exciting time around the Feather Dorm. As usual, the Florida/Georgia game is played that weekend which means that I do everything I can to stay home and watch it. Last year this meant some quality time with the birds, building my costume for a party that evening. Cher still has not made her peace with that costume.

I do not normally wear a costume for Halloween, but I found out last year that the party we had been invited to was  costume party. Ms. Flock Advisor lives to wear her costume that one day a year and puts much thought into amassing the various pieces to make it up in the weeks preceding. By contrast, I had decided to run quickly down to Office Depot before kick-off and grab a cartload of supplies for my A.W.E.S.O.M. - O costume so that I could build it whilst depleting the Sam Adam's reserve and watching a Florida practice scoring touchdowns.

 Kenobi and Cher were out roaming the premises while I worked to construct the thing, which was basically a decorated cardboard box. The costume is one worn by Cartman in a single South Park episode wherein he tries to dupe Butters. When the box was sufficiently decorated I began taping it together in its three dimensional form, and Cher was not okay with this. As soon as she saw the brown beast rise over my head as a donned it, she flew sans-direction until she smacked into the screen on the porch. I couldn't believe her reaction, and had to hide the costume until we left the house with it later that night.

This year I pulled it out of the closet to re-use at a costume party to which Ms. Flock Advisor had secured an invite for us both. This time I made sure Cher was in her cage when I un-collapsed it, and so her reaction was merely alarmed screaming and aggressive displacement on her toys. I am sure that A.W.E.S.O.M. - O was very intimidated as she crushed wooden blocks with her beak and yanked on her bells with a claw.

On the other coast, Sprite had his first Halloween experience with us. He and Lennon showed little aversion to my costume; but they were very interested in the treats associated with the holiday. Ms. Flock Advisor and I spent Halloween day with them enjoying a feast of our fall favorites. We made a delicious cocktail of pumpkin ale in a sugar/cinnamon rimmed glass, I had a traditional German Oktoberfest beer, and we loaded up on foods. Bread, cheese, candied apples, bratwurst, and of course candy. We finished the night off munching roasted pumpkin seeds scooped out of the Jack-O-Lanterns we carved that evening.
Sprite and Lennon both got to partake in our snacking, as they usually do. Bread is always a hit with them, but Ms. Flock Advisor created a special Halloween treat for Sprite: a cheese sandwich. She wrapped a cube of cheese in hunk of French bread just the right size for him to hold with a foot. He held it for a moment before deciding to go straight for the filling. He managed to work out the block of cheese with his beak while maintaining his grip on the bread, which he nibbled at second.

Cheese and bread are not part of a balanced diet for parrots, but they are a heavy favorite in the "now and then" food group.

21 October 2010

Parrots, Mutual Destruction Theory, and The Arts

Parrot owners are quite familiar with the theory of mutual of destruction. The most fortunate of parrot-keepers have neighbors like mine: a family with a trombone playing child.

This is a new revelation at The Feather Dorm, but a welcome one. I arrived home today to the noise, above the screams of Cher as I turned the key in the deadbolt, of a baying trombone on my downstairs neighbor's porch. The sans-melodic sound of the boy working out some sort of scale was music to my ears, if to no one else. This child's interest in musical art has given all Feather Dorm inhabitants the warm security of mutually assured destruction: I won't call code enforcement on that honking noisemaker if they won't do the same on our lovely little decibel producer, Cher.

Although neighbor complaints have never been an issue for us, I can't help but cringe when Cher lets out her alarm cry at 10pm because we have left the room and she is not ready to crawl into her Happy Hut for the night. Not that this happens all of the time, but the added excitement of Ms. Flock Advisor's arrival this weekend seemed to put the little thing on high-alert. When we returned from our weekend away on Sunday night it was after 10, and Cher screamed no less than half a dozen times after the lights were off and her cage covered. Ms. Flock Advisor asked with a tone that suggested her lack of sentiment for the calls of a conure, if she is like this all the time. I said no, but I'm not sure she didn't think I was just trying to protect the little orange bird's reputation.

Ms. Flock Advisor's visit, however, was welcomed by a very snuggly bunny. Kenobi was waiting at the top of the stairs as she came in the door on Friday morning. After a few laps around the apartment together that seemed to wear him out a bit, she picked him up and he looked right at home smashing his face into her sweatshirt and clutching her with his paw. They then shared a box of animal crackers before we hit the road for our weekend in Hartwell, GA.

Ms. Flock Advisor and I wondered out loud just how much that little rabbit brain is capable of remembering of her. I will say that I got to see him do something he hasn't done since she left. She loves to run from one end of the apartment to the other, and Kenobi will follow right on her heels. As I was watching them perform this ritual of fun, I realized that I have not done this with him. I have tried several times in the days since she returned to the west coast to play this game with the bunny, but he has not obliged. It is a little sad to see him just watch me try to initiate the chase, but not pick it up. Then, that game is something special that he and Ms. Flock Advisor can share. He interacts with me in different ways: coming to the sound of the Cheerios box, playing with the granola bar wrappers, or attacking his stuffed animal toys that I challenge him with. Knowing that his little bunny-brain can identify various activities with us as individuals is refreshing. Details are what make living with animals so rewarding and fun.

11 October 2010

The New Sprite

My last post was largely about mimicry in our flock and wild birds, and this week's is a bit of a follow-up to that as the Flock Advisors have noticed Sprite picking up the habits of his much small roommate, Lennon.

Sprite and Lennon are currently shacked up with Ms. Flock Advisor. Their cages have been side-by-side since their move, and that marks a major shift for Sprite since coming to live with us in January. Previously, Sprite's cage was in our bedroom and the other birds, and Kenobi, were located out in the living room. Initially this scenario was our attempt to provide at least somewhat of a quarantine period during Sprite's first several weeks with us. Admittedly though, we got rather attached to Sprite's tendency to whisper to us from his blanket-covered cage in the morning when he detected our first stirrings. He would grind his beak and offer a very muffled "Hi." We would wheel him out to the living room on his perch stand to see and interact with the rest of the flock during the day, but we enjoyed the uniqueness of having Sprite in the bedroom where he could talk to us in the shower and offer his hushed greetings in the morning and evening.

Sprite is now picking up some of the vocalizations, namely whistles, of Lennon and adopting a few of his behaviors. Ms. Flock Advisor has noticed that Sprite now lowers his head dramatically, just as Lennon does, to request a neck scratch. I noticed several times that as we would walk by their cages this weekend both birds would have their heads lowered and the feathers on the back of their neck fluffed up and ready for a good scratch.

Sprite is also becoming rather adventurous in his new quarters. Lennon steps out onto the convenient porch that his open cage door creates and then leaps into the air to fly laps around the room each day without fail. Sprite had only flown a handful of times before rooming with Lennon, and that was usually as a result of being startled. His early flights were always less than graceful, and typically one-way trips with a hike back across the floor to his cage. Following Lennon's lead, though, Sprite took to the air twice on Sunday for a perfect loop around the room with a successful landing back on the top of his cage.His beating wings sound like a Chinook Helicopter, but he moves with incredible grace now. His Spread wings expose the red and blue on their undersides as he swoops past.

He also climbed down from the top of his open cage to go for a walk on his own a couple of times. The first time, I had been in the kitchen preparing some snacks to accompany an afternoon of football. Because Sprite had previously not been housed within eye-shot of the kitchen like the other birds, the goings on there are still new to him. The clanking of metals, running water, microwave beeps, and sizzles all stir his curiosity. I turned from stirring a bowl of seasoned pork to find Sprite waddling around my feet and looking up expectantly at me. Ms. Flock Advisor offered him a piece of Chicago hard roll, and off he went with it, stopping to take a bite here and there, around the room and eventually back to his cage.

Later he got a carrot to snack on.

While Sprite spent the day exploring and following the lead of his Cockatiel counterpart, Lennon was happy just to get a little downtime with Ms. Flock Advisor.

06 October 2010

Flock Behavior

Birds are mimickers and mockers. Mocking birds mimic the other birds in the neighborhood and parrots, some parrots, mimic the sounds of their humans and the microwave timer. I saw a bird on an Attenborough special mimicking other animals in the forest as well as bulldozers, chainsaws, and a camera shutter. The bird brain is largely dedicated to the task of mimicking sound in many species.

But birds are flock animals, and the mimics aren't limited to their noises. Birds shadow the behavior of others in their flock. Watch a group of sparrows bathing, or crows opening a trashed bag of Lays. It is about flock survival as much as anything. Watch a line of pigeons on a telephone wire for a few minutes, and chances are you'll see them eventually all take off together. They didn't necessarily all just happen to decide at the same moment to take off, one took off and the rest followed. If one member of a flock senses danger and lets loose an alarm cry, all the others go into panic mode, though they probably haven't seen what the fuss was all about.

When Cher spots a hawk out the window, she'll scream and usually fly back to her cage or perch. The other birds, whether they are in the same room or not, will start their screaming and evasive maneuvering based solely on the fact that Cher is panicking. Its not always a "run for the hills" kind of thing, though. They will also eat when they see another bird eating, sleep when they see another sleeping, or bathe when they see another splashing around in their water dish.

Yesterday Coconut saw that Cher had decided to take an afternoon bath in her water bowl, and he followed suit. It was the first time I've seen him take a bath. Cher makes ruining her day's water ration by plopping down in it a regular thing, but it was surprising and comical to see Coconut following right along in yet another show of his emerging personality.

What was interesting to watch was the different styles the two birds have when it comes to taking a dip. Cher takes an all-in approach. Her species comes from the Amazon rain forest, and she represents the moisture rich environment well. She plunges her head straight into the water and then flicks it up to let the water run down her back and belly.  Coconut is less inclined to drench himself in this way. He leans forward from the rim of the dish and dips his breast into the water. He'll dip a wing in just a little and flick a few droplets onto his back. He doesn't get near as soaked as Cher does.

Budgies come from drier climes in Australia and are basically food for everything that eats meat. They travel in enormous flocks and feed on or near the ground on grain and seed. The only water they normally come across is a lake shore or a drying puddle. As small food items, they need to get off the ground in an instant when trouble approaches. Coconut gets his bath, but he stays dry enough that he can still fly very well. He shares this bathing trait with Lennon; Cockatiels have a similar living arrangement in Australia.

One of the most fun aspects of having birds is witnessing their flock behavior in action. Because they spend so much time with us, we'll see them mimic what we do as well. If I go into the kitchen for a snack, the birds will hop down to the their dishes for a bite, or fly over to my shoulder to snag a beakfull of whatever I'm enjoying. One of the surest ways to get them to try something new is to eat it myself, and then offer it to them. If I fall asleep one lazy afternoon reading, you can bet the birds will all doze off as well.

I read an article in Bird Talk magazine about flock behavior in pet parrots and how stressed humans in the house can negatively impact the birds. The article suggested that parrots will feed off of your stressed out behavior the same way that they will feed off the fear alerts of others in their flock. "I don't know exactly what it is, but he's scared so something bad is out there." By living in a stressed out home, parrots can adopt a constant sense of uneasiness from their humans.

I love it when our birds act as little mirrors. It is cool to have them interact with us in this unique way.

Kenobi prefers to interact with cereal boxes.