10 October 2011

Snoozing in the Rain

Now that fall has finally dropped in, the flock and I have enjoyed leaving the windows and patio door open throughout the day and especially the night. Letting the cool breeze of this season of harvest and holidays waft in has a calming effect on me, an enriching effect on the birds as they mimic the songbirds, and a particularly relaxing effect on Kenobi as he sleeps most of the day and night away on the porch. 
The little guy happily hops out the door almost as soon as I open it. He attempts to taste the many plants we now have out there, and I do my best to keep them out of his reach. Bunnies provide an incredibly efficient pruning service, but many decorative plants are more toxic to them than a 3-week Phish festival in Western Oregon. The Feather Dorm will be just fine without a hallucinating, tweeking, or OD bunny. After giving up on reaching any contraband snacks, he sniffs the air and then finds a suitable spot to lay down and enjoy a snooze.
This past weekend, a low pressure system developed off the coast which spun on top of us for 3 days, dumping super sized rain buckets and walloping the building with fierce wind gusts. Kenobi, however, remained undeterred. He spent all weekend on the porch with the rain blowing in on him. Each time he’d come in to grab some tasty pellets or welcome Ms. Flock Advisor home, I’d notice little water beads on his coat. 
This rabbit hates being wet. I know this because I gave him a nearly coronary-inducing bath a little over a year ago. The minute his fur matted down under the sink faucet, his whole body froze. His eyes got wide at first, and then the lids began to droop down. I thought he was a goner for sure. Scooping him out of the sink I could feel his heart vibrating against his chest, so I knew he was still alive for a moment. I then determined that the water had scared him and proceeded to do away with it hastily by employing Ms. Flock Advisor’s hair dryer. As soon as that thing started howling and whooshing warm air on his back, he went to sleep. His whole body was limp and when I sat him on the couch he just laid there. I ran a towel over his fur to get off any excess water, then left him. The fur of a domesticated rabbit is extremely dense and impossible to get dry in a hurry. He began to hop around on his own after a bit, but wasn’t himself until the dampness was gone. I was thankful that he didn’t stroke out and resolved to never subject him to a water faucet again. 
You can imagine my surprise when I noticed that he was voluntarily spending his day out in the rain. Even when he came in from the storm he only appeared energized. Something about being out in the rain gave him the energy of a puppy, or whatever a tiny bunny is. I’m not about to dunk him in the bath tub, but it has been a real joy to see him enjoy the outdoors and all the elements.
I also got out for a 10k run in stormy conditions this weekend, and I’m still buzzing from that. It was part of a virtual set of races promoted on several websites as the Worldwide Festival of Races. The object is to have runners go out together, in spirit, once a year no matter how many miles separate them. Having that run on my schedule was a great goal considering my somewhat painful experience at the previous weekend’s half marathon, and getting to go out in the pouring rain and heaving wind only it made more invigorating. It was more like playing than pounding out 6.2 miles. 
The rain has cleared for now, but the windows and patio are still open. A fresh pumpkin pie is in the fridge next to an assortment of seasonal brews and farmer’s market vegetables. Add to all of that some great football on tonight (Bears v. Lions) and it has already been an incredible fall season. Here’s to yours!

01 October 2011

Come on in, October!

Today is the first day of October, and for me that means the season of good food, great beer and perfect weather has arrived. I love fall more than any other season. In addition to the aforementioned reasons, the redfish are hungry, the hurricane swells arrive and I can enjoy watching football with the door and windows open. 
This morning, the flock greeted my preferred season’s first sunrise with me. The air had cooled some twenty degrees from the high yesterday, making it a perfect morning to enjoy my coffee on the porch while the English Premier League’s early game got underway. Everton couldn’t best the striking force of Liverpool, but I don’t think Sprite and Kenobi cared. They were both happy to play in the crisp morning air as the sun blazed up from behind the tree line. 
Our birds chirp, squawk and call first thing in the morning when they hear us begin to stir. It’s typical bird behavior. Sort of their way of saying, “I made it through the night! Did you? Yay! I’m so glad! Lets eat, and then take a nap.” I don’t know if our local song birds’ message is the same, but they of course greet the sun every morning with their own more melodic voices. With the door open this morning as the wild birds began their calls, Sprite, Lennon, Cher and Coconut were able to answer them back. It is really funny to hear a whistling cockatiel answer a raspy-voiced mockingbird. Sprite made a few whistles of his own, but ended up showing more interest in the neighbors walking by on the sidewalk: “Hi!, Hello. He-ll-oooo! Com’ ere.” If we Free-Willyed him into the rainforest somewhere, I wonder if the locals would think an incredibly friendly but hard to find American had been lost amongst the brush?
In addition to being the first day of my favorite time of year, it’s also the Saturday of the Disney Wine and Food Festival Half Marathon at Epcot! This is my favorite race, and I can’t wait to get in the car and head over this afternoon. The start gun pops at 10pm, so I’ll get to enjoy my first cool-weather run of the year tonight. This cold front couldn’t have picked a better time to come sweeping down from up yonder.
Kenobi has obviously been anticipating this cool down for a while--he’s been wearing his winter coat all year.

29 June 2011

Office Sounds

My newly rearranged office is filled with the songs, words and chirps of Lennon as I write this evening. The birds complete my business atmosphere. I've begun working as a freelance writer which means that the bulk of my work is done at home. Having a comfortable space to be productive in is a necessity.

The quest for perfection in my home office began around the time this blog began. When we moved into our apartment a year and a half ago, Ms. Flock Advisor and I envisioned turning one of the bedrooms into a study in the classic sense of the word. This would be a place where one could detect the slight marination of cigar smoke into the heavy, wood furniture. A place where stocked bookshelves reached to the ceiling and an array of fine bourbon and scotch begged to be enjoyed. Considering our means, I'd say we did well. It isn't Winston Churchill's den, but I've got some Ybor city cigars and single-barrel Wild Turkey on offer. The room has served primarily as my office since my desk fit the decor. Most of my favorite things are in this room, and so I enjoy spending the days letting my imagination wander and bounce off the meaningful items tacked to the walls and piled on shelves.

The office also has the best view in the apartment. Looking out on the woods where deer and turkeys come out in the evenings, the sunsets are also amazing. The one thing that adds to the room is a happy bird. Cher and Lennon spend long hours on their perch with me as I work through the day. They settle in and end up napping away most of the day. Lennon runs down through his repertoire of sounds as he displays his comfort level. I've written about spending time writing with the birds before, but after rearranging the office yesterday I noticed that it just wasn't right until I brought the birds in today while I worked. These little guys really are the best companions a writer can have. They only want to be present, yet they bring a warm companionship wherever they go. As long as they are close to their flock, they have no need to call (read: scream).

Kenobi has been enjoying our redecorated porch on which he can view the dogs, gators and turtles from a safe distance.

03 April 2011

Wake up, Good-bird

Cher chuckles quietly in her sling when a noise interrupts her slumber in the middle of the night: the dishwasher kicking on, a suddenly loud movie scene, or me bumping my way into the kitchen for a snack. Sprite immediately recognizes my midnight need for water and mimics the sound of my gulping before I’ve even started pouring a glass. Lennon is a little harder to disturb during his sleeping hours, but when he is trying to catch every last wink as the sun comes up and the Flock Advisors are preparing for their days a hushed “Hi, good-bird” sneaks out of his covered cage.

These are the sounds the birds make when their brains are somewhere on the border of sleep mode, perhaps still dreaming. They consistently make these sounds, and only these sounds, when disturbed whilst sleeping. I realized tonight that each of these three birds, all of whom are closely bonded to both of us Flock Advisors, make sounds in their groggiest moments that are mimics of our sounds. Coconut, who is not closely bonded to either of us, has a consistent sound that he also makes when his sleep is disturbed: it sounds like a door unlatching. I cannot speculate the reason why Coconut’s signature sound is that one, but I did ponder the other birds’ respective choices of theirs.

Lennon always gives Ms. Flock Advisor and me a series of “Bye guys. Love you,” mimics as we head out the door. He always whistles a salutation when either of us comes home. He also repeats his “Hi, good-bird” when he senses we are about to put everyone to bed for the night (TV goes off, dishes put away, etc.) The little guy has shown that he associates certain mimics with specific scenarios.

Cher screams, a lot. Listening closely though (“carefully” might be a better term, too close and the eardrums will bust), her screams do vary based on scenario. Her basic call for attention when we are home but not doting over her is a quick duo: one high pitched scream followed by a slightly lower pitched one. She also has a sustained high pitch scream she uses after the former has been ignored for some time. When the key turns the lock she varies up her screaming routine. She makes her normal calls for attention, but sprinkles in some very high pitched, but lower volume tweets. She only makes those particular sounds when greeting. When she realizes that she is in trouble, and about to be taken back to her cage (for biting my phone, lunging at someone, or putting a hole in my shirt) she makes her best attempt to say “Stop it!” You’ll have to trust me on that one as it is a constant debate between me and Ms. Flock Advisor if she is actually saying anything at all. Nonetheless, it is a consistent sound that she makes whenever she is about to be picked up and taken back to her cage. Like Lennon, Cher also shows an ability to link mimics and sounds with specific scenarios.

Without a doubt, all of our birds show their capability of connecting sounds with events. Knowing they posses this capability makes me wonder why the three birds that have a strong bond with their human flock members choose mimics of our sounds for the times when they are mostly asleep or very tired. Usually, these times are in the dark when the birds are covered. Do these sounds give them comfort (sort of creating their own audible ambiance of familiarity and therefore safety)? Are these sounds the ones they associate with us in their dream states?

I do not have an answer to these questions, but the observation I made tonight was particularly curious and touching. Whatever the reason that these three birds have chosen mimics of their human flock mates for the times when they are the most vulnerable and sleepy, their choice shows us that we figure as a significant part of their world, and their consciousness. We are not simply the ones who remove their food dishes in the morning, only to return them more full moments later. Just as we find them in our dreams from time to time, their groggy mimics are evidence that they find us in theirs as well. 

Kenobi makes no sound when he sleeps.

25 March 2011

No Flying in the Museum (but Cyclists may Pedal Away)

This blog has made my life a little easier this spring as my time in college finally winds down (after 9 years and a few false starts). The manuscript I'm required to produce by the middle of April will be a memoir that consists of these blog entries edited into a series of essays about how I went from a 'no pets' lifestyle to to living in a flock. Having these entries already going has let me focus mainly on editing rather than composing.

Next week is my first public reading of an excerpt from the manuscript. It's scheduled to be in an art museum affiliated with the college and writers are encouraged to be creative with the presentation of their reading. For one author in the past, this apparently included a cyclist at full speed (his bike was attached to a stationary trainer). Now I'm deciding which bird to bring to the museum next Wednesday night.

Having one of our birds swoop over the crowd as I take the podium, and land on my outstretched hand would be a great way to get started. Cher could do the ol' dollar retrieval for me with a willing participant in the crowd. Sprite could recite the title, or Lennon could sing a few bars of a the theme song he sees best suited to the event. Problem is, none of our birds have been trained for any of that. Lennon could handle the singing, but he'd also insist on flying laps around the room. I'm pretty sure flying isn't allowed in the art museum. Poor Sprite would probably think he's moving, again. Coconut... well, that just wouldn't work out. I thought about bringing B-balls and just letting him hop around the room while the reading is going on. Then, there is the litter box problem. I'm pretty sure plastic trays of rabbit waste are not welcome in the museum (plus, he tends to leak when he's excited).

Cher has been my most promising idea for a companion that night. Her wings are clipped at the moment and I do have a harness for her to wear. She doesn't like it, but there is enough time to work on it with her before the reading. She wouldn't be allowed to interact with strangers because I couldn't get the earlobe and finger replacement added to our parrot insurance. She would be content to sit on my shoulder through the night, though. She is used to night outings like trips to Taco Bell after the other dining venues have shut their doors. The problem is that voice of hers. The screaming capability that would surely blow out the speakers and possibly shatter any ceramic sculptures the museum has on display.

I need to get permission in the first place before I am allowed to bring an animal in with me, but I have been told that is a real possibility. I just have to decide which one of these little guys (or the girl) is museum material.

14 March 2011

Cockatiel Cocktail, and other Concoctions

The animals kept our guests entertained this year again at our annual "Fifties Cocktail Party." Last year was our first themed party, and it was Sprite's first dose of human overload in the Feather Dorm. He lived in the bedroom then, and went to sleep early in the evening. This year he was the main attraction. He perched on his tree at the top of the stairs to give each entering guest a "Hi!" Then he held court with his human buddies.

Our menu, music, and dress for the party keeps with the theme. Ms. Flock Advisor put on her vintage-dress and cracked open her antique cookbook for a chocolate chip cookie recipe that requires no assistance from Betty Crocker. It's raw ingredients all the way. She also made a batch of Kraft macaroni and cheese which had been requested by several people who were also at last year's party. Relish trays were also laid out. I took on the cocktail menu in my best "Babalu" shirt. Champagne punch filled a giant bowl, and I dusted off the martini shaker. I also printed a menu of specialty cocktails named for their resemblance to the birds. A Mellow 'Prite was an apple martini with a golden delicious apple slice. A Singing Lennon was a gin and tonic with a cucumber garnish cut to resemble his raised crest. The rest of the menu is pictured at the bottom of this post.

Sprite manned (or, birded?) his perch and turned on the charm when he saw plates of macaroni and cheese coming out of the kitchen. His head stretched to passers-by until he found an accomplice. Our friend Diego stabbed one of the coated noodles and held it out. Sprite kindly ground his beak once and then took it from the fork. He savored every bite. When Diego then gave him two noodles at one time, Sprite set one down in his nearest food dish while he ate the other. Then he retrieved the second. Birds usually think nothing of grabbing one bite of a banana while the rest drops to the floor. Kenobi is always happy to Hoover the smorgasboard under their cages, but Sprite was keeping all of the Kraft to himself.

Macaroni and cheese is, of course, not part of a balanced diet for parrots. Like the cheese sandwiches Sprite is so fond of, it does sit near the top of the list in the "now and then" food group. An extra special treat was certainly in order for his willingness to interact nicely with a crowd of people. It was great to see Sprite as comfortable as he was, surrounded by people. He has come a long way from the shy bird that he once was. Last year he was exhausted early by the few people who leaned their heads into his room, but this year he stayed out to mingle until the last guest left.

Kenobi made his appearance for a little while. He likes to bounce around under everyone's feet, so he had to spend most of his time in a fenced off section of the room for his own safety. He got plenty of visitors, though, who were very happy to give his soft fur a pet. He also gnoshed on some carrots from the relish trays.

Most of our friends work with animals in one way or another, or are just plain animal lovers. We all love being around finned, furry, or feathered creatures as much as being around people (scaly critters, too). Our conversations always get back to animals we've worked with, or animals that live with us. We can't help it. Every animal has a personality that makes them special. Ms. Flock Advisor and I love getting to know our friends' pets as much as they seem to love hanging out with ours. We aren't "bird people," or "bunny people." Our friends aren't "dolphin people," or "fish people," or "snake people." We are people who love animals, all animals. Even if there is a certain species or family that we wouldn't particularly care to share a cab with, we are still curious about them and eager to understand a little more about them.

For the safety of our guests, Cher spent the evening perched on my shoulder.

04 March 2011

Why Live with Birds?

My life is better because I live with birds. Perhaps enriching is the proper term: my life is enriched because I live with birds. Yes, that's it. Let me explain why.

From my time in the zoological field I know that enriching doesn't necessarily mean fun, scary, or annoying. For dolphins a fun basketball (See: The Middle Flipper) can be enriching, but so can some scary sounds from sliding deck chairs around. Enrichment is just something different in the animal's environment. Four parrots, and Kenobi, provide my life with "something different" everyday.

I've wanted to write a blog on the subject of why I love living with birds ever since the question was posed to me about a year ago at a family gathering. At that moment Cher was clambering around to the top of my head for a look around and I basically said something like, "Just look at her, she's hilarious!" I was in a good mood at that moment and having a comical little conure around only added to the fun of that evening.

Some days are more trying. Does having several jungle animals in the house, and a grazing rabbit, help me cope with stress? Not when Cher is screaming her demands for attention and Kenobi is driving the security deposit into negative figures while I'm freaking out about a to-do list I'd trade for a day in Sysiphus's sandas, I'll admit that. What I'll also admit is that its hard to stay frustrated with life when all of these little guys are here not wanting anything more than company and snacks. Having one of the birds hop onto my lap while I'm struggling through some doleful project, then seeing them preen and just be happy that we are sharing the time together is a mental recharge.

If Kenobi is eating the carpet, then we can have fun re-directing him to playing with his stuffed animals or eating some fresh greens. When the birds are being loud, we know its time to spend some time with them. Even just a little thing like letting them perch in the room with us will quiet them down. Sprite's unwillingness to step-up from the time he came to live with us and Coconuts outright disdain for humans has led us to get to know them both better through training. The difficulties of having the animals around provide enrichment that can be turned into a positive so easily because just being their companions is a treat for us. This morning Cher provided me with a laugh and a photo-op first thing. She must have been snacking in the early morning hours because when I lifted her cage cover I saw her staring back at me with bits of crushed food pellets stuck to her beak. I was worried for a moment because this can often be a sign that a bird is throwing up and therefore very sick. Taking a closer look, though, it was obvious the bits had not been swallowed and were only on the tip of her beak where she had evidently been foraging for the last bits in her food dish.

Earlier this week I was experiencing a nerve-wrecking morning due to some computer issues (severe data loss). Ms. Flock Advisor was offering to help in any way that she could, and offering comfort. My mind was spinning, though. I was scurrying around the house trying to pull together what I needed for the day before I had to run out the door. Kenobi was bouncing around my legs as I walked, oblivious to my urgency. Sprite was perched on the top of his cage near the stairwell that leads to the front door. Keys, bag, and phone all in order I was stopped by Ms. Flock Advisor for some last words of encouragement before I rushed out to meet deadlines with fury. I looked over and saw Sprite stretching his neck out to me with widened eyes while he ground his beak, a sign of comfort. I reached out and gave his neck feathers a good kneading before I had to go. That moment lasted no more than 15 seconds or so, but it was a much needed pick-me-up (or settle-me-down, rather). In 15 seconds I had given this bird all that he really cared to get out of the day: a little interaction with the rest of the flock. He put me at ease too, as did the rest of the birds with their calls as I left. I took with me the knowledge that they would all be waiting when I got home for more time together.

Birds are social animals, but the relationship that humans develop with them is different than the kind of relationship usually developed with a dog or cat. With birds, humans become a part of the flock. It is a relationship built on interaction rather than food provisions. For parrots, in fact, the best thing for them is to make their food as hard to get to as possible: this way they can exercise their natural talents of problem solving and foraging. Spending time with them is crucial, but it is often very simple. We just let them out of the cage and go about our business. Lennon is content to fall asleep on Ms. Flock Advisor's chest while we watch a movie at night. Cher is content to play with the tag of my morning tea on my desk while I feverishly try to increase my online presence. Sprite would like a head scratch every so often as we walk by his perch, but really relishes in repeating words back and forth with us. Coconut lights up and becomes so energetic during his clicker training sessions that he makes my day, too.

Perhaps the best part about living with the birds is their necessity to communicate with their flock. This is the same ingrained need that drives some birds to become nuisances to their humans, but I love it. The birds call to us and to each other as soon as they see the light, or hear someone stir, just as they would in the wild. They are announcing that they've made it through the night, and are getting a report from their flock mates. Getting home at night, we are greeted by a big, "Hi!" from Sprite and the little birds strike up their discombobulated chorus.

The most endearing calls from them are the ones that they make as we leave: the sounds I heard on my stressful morning after getting some quick, mental therapy from Sprite and Ms. Flock Advisor. Sprite carried on with his mumbling sounds, Cher twittered and screamed in an attempt to call me back up the stairs, and Coconut went through his vast repertoire. Lennon gave his normal salutation over and over as he does each time he sees us begin to gather our car keys and descend the stairs: "Bye guys. Love yooooou." He learned the words from Ms. Flock Advisor who always says the same to the animals as she leaves for the day, now Lennon conveys the message to me. I'd like to think he speaks for all the birds.

27 February 2011

Nellie the Dolphin's 58th Birthday and Bird Feet Love Tank Tops

Nellie turned 58 today over at Marineland; she is the oldest dolphin you'll see at any zoo or aquarium in the world. Her birthday is a celebration every year, and I was there with my camera. Nellie's birthday included a cake made for her by the trainers. This year it featured sushi snacks in addition to her normal fare of herring, capelin, and gelatin. The birds had to stay home for this one although Ms. Flock Advisor and I contemplated taking Kenobi attached to a string device. He ended up staying at home, though. It would have been difficult to explain that the harnessed animal at the end of my leash eating the gift shop inventory is my service animal, and so he must be allowed in to Nellie's big bash with me. Besides, I've seen what my turkey calls do to his ears, no telling how the trainer's whistles would affect him.

It was a nice day in the sun, especially after spending the last couple of beautiful weekends inside tapping away at this keyboard. Lennon has hardly been able to keep up with his mimic of the keyboard clicks. Nellie's birthday was an excellent reason to put the feverish textual productivity on hold (then again, here I am) for a day. Her age is known exactly because she was born at Marineland in 1953. Her longevity is of course a testament to her own hardiness, but also to the care that is taken of her by the staff that oversees the dolphins at Marineland. Marine mammal veterinary science is a very young discipline, so taking care of those animals can be particularly challenging. Like the parrots at the Feather Dorm, dolphins are intelligent and social, but still undomesticated animals. It takes a keen and educated eye to spot a health problem in time because their instinct is to mask illness. Morning assessments of the animals are something dolphin caretakers and bird keepers know very well. Seeing the animals at the start of the day must be more than a casual glance. Are they active, breathing normally, eating, social? Even on the most rushed mornings to get out the door and off to work, either myself or Ms. Flock Advisor takes a moment to check on the animals as they wake-up. A screaming Cher can instigate a migraine as we search for car keys and throw a lunch together, but it's a good sign that she is a healthy, if not happy at that moment, Cher.

After the party for Nellie, I was in the mood to enjoy some more of the sunny day. I stopped off at our local burrito shop for supplies and then cranked up the Sunday reggae show on the radio as soon as I walked in the door of the Feather Dorm. Cher came out on the porch with me, but missed out on the chips and salsa because I swallowed them up too fast for her. Ever notice how you sometimes eat really spicy foods a little too fast before realizing it? She did munch on a couple of Nutri-berries while perched on her tree-stand. Putting a beer in a coozie for the first time this year, I reflected on how great of a reggae Sunday this is: mexi-beach food, cold brew, a waterfront view speckled with exotic wildlife (okay, its a pond with an alligator in it), and a parrot to hang out with. How much more tropical can it get? The answer is none, none more tropical.

With summer around the corner I thought it was also time to send out this message on behalf of parrots everywhere. Bird feet can grip the material of a t-shirt very well. Bird feet do not do as well when trying to perch on a shirtless human. They slip and slide, usually ending up on the ground, and leave their human with didactyl rake marks on their shoulder. A tank top provides your parrot with adequate footing, and you with that feeling of sunshine on the shoulders. So rock your tank top this summer, for your bird's sake. Ignore those downward stares from the cool-guys, they just don't like Def Leppard or Spinal Tap.

20 February 2011

Cher at the Park, and Conure Aggression

Cher went to the park today for Parrots in the Park, our local gathering of parrots and people. This was not her first trip to the park, but it was her first photo opportunity with another Sun Conure. His name is Screech. He was there with his own flockmate, Maya, a Nanday. With vultures cruising by in the distance, a curious puppy roaming about, and any other reason they could think of, conure screeches filled the air on an otherwise peaceful day at the park. Although it was fun to see Cher interact with another conure, the day at the park with other parrot owners was also a great step in her socialization progress.

After living with only myself, Coconut, and Kenobi for the last part of 2010 Cher has regressed into her old temperamental ways. Since we reunited the flock this year she has shown aggressive behavior toward Ms. Flock Advisor. Cher has always explored the territory of aggressive behavior and it has been a challenge for all of us in the Feather Dorm to work through.

Cher developed a bond with me about two years ago and ever since has shown aggressiveness toward other people. This is the type of behavior that many conure owners observe: the bird will develop an extremely close bond with one person, but displace or act aggressively toward any other people. Cher has shown this tendency at home, but also in other environments as well. She has been aggressive when we've visited my parent's house toward people she has never seen before. Her aggressive behavior toward Ms. Flock Advisor, however, is especially unacceptable. We have developed a new plan to curb her behavior at home, once again.

The first step in our new plan was to clip her wings. Cher has been flighted for about a year now and that has allowed her recently to aggressively fly at Ms. Flock Advisor. Clipping her wings not only prevents her from acting out aggressively from across the room, but it also has an effect on her overall demeanor. She is less able to exert herself as dominant throughout the house. We theorize, based on research and other conure owner experiences, that a driving force behind her aggression is to protect me or ward off threats to her own social status. By attacking, she is employing the "best defense is a good offense" technique. Cher has to understand that it is not her role. Ms. Flock Advisor theorized, based on her own research, that Cher will actually lead a less stressful life when she learns that protecting the flock is not her role. I hope that means she will not feel she needs to alert us all whenever a buzzard glides over.

We also decided to curb Cher's time on my shoulder or in the neck of my shirt. These, as far as we can tell, are her favorite places and from now on they will be a reward for good behavior. To create a baseline for our training, she was restricted from my shoulder for two weeks following her last aggressive instance. The purpose was not to punish her, but to create a good solid baseline desire for those two perches. After the period of restriction, sitting on my shoulder or climbing in my shirt became more reinforcing than ever for her.

Cher shows precursors to her aggression: she displaces on toys and other objects with her beak, puffs up her feathers and struts around, and has a set of guteral vocals that she makes when she's about to be aggressive. When Ms. Flock Advisor is around, she is not to show any of these precursors. If she does, and she is with me, then she goes back to her cage or stand. If she does not she can stay with me. If she continues to be good, she is rewarded by being allowed on my shoulder or in my shirt. This is essentially the plan we have used in the past with her, and we are banking on it working again. We are using the basic principles of positive reinforcement, without food (Cher seems more attention motivated than food motivated). Training doesn't require food.

Today's trip to the park was another attempt of mine to socialize her and temper her aggression. She typically gets very subdued around other birds. Today was no exception. Cher stayed with me and did not show any aggression to people coming over to me, sitting down next to us, or even asking to hold Cher. She stepped up on two other people and showed no aggression at all. It was a good day in the park, and Cher got a great photo for the album.

11 February 2011

Writin' With Sprite

Sprite is mashing some banana chunks in his beak right next to me as I write this. I wheeled him into the office on his tree stand (home office, that is), and loaded him up with snacks to keep him occupied.

Sprite has been through a lot of changes recently, as have the other birds, and I've noticed him developing a bond with Lennon through it all. He moved to and back from the west coast with Lennon. The two of them lived over there together with Ms. Flock Advisor for several months before being re-united with the rest of the flock. They do not interact directly, but I've noticed Sprite showing interest in Lennon being handled by the Flock Advisors.

I did some deep cleaning of the bird cages and the animals' corner of the Feather Dorm a couple of weekends ago. This involved putting the little guys in their carriers while I took their cages apart for a good scrubbing. Cher's cage was done first: she protested, but the other birds showed little interest. After her cage was finished and she was allowed back in it I started on Lennon's. Just putting him in his carrier, which he whined about and tried to squirm out of, put Sprite on high alert.

I could hear Sprite in his cage behind me making his mumbling noises and clanging about his cage. Lennon had my full attention though as he wriggled and nipped at me as opposed to settling into his carrier peacefully. When I finally got him into it, I turned to see Sprite flaring his tail feathers and pinning his eyes wildly. When I lifted Lennon's cage and began to disassemble it he started calling to Lennon.

I had to remove Lennon's cage around the corner to give it a good cleaning, and I took Lennon with me. He was whistling loudly and stomping around the floor of his carrier, but was not panicking or in distress. Once we were out of sight, however, Sprite came close to distress. He started whistling like Lennon and they called back and forth like that until Lennon's cage was set back up. Lennon seemed surprised to hear an answer to his calls, and I think he was looking for Ms. Flock Advisor to come through the door any second. She is normally who he whistles with. He started into a couple of his songs, but Sprite just kept doing the, "I'm over here" whistle that sounds like something you'd summon a runaway dog with.

The whistling back and forth kept on until Lennon was set back in his fresh cage and I moved on to Coconut's. Sprite showed no interest in my taking apart Coconut or Kenobi's cage, and simply moved out of the way as I cleaned his own.

Sprite has been whistling along more lately with Ms. Flock Adivsor and Lennon. Even though we will not let the two interact directly, due the extreme size difference and potential for Sprite to injure Lennon, it is fun to see them developing a bond.

Sprite has also gained a new tenant with his cage now out in the center of the Feather Dorm. Kenobi has taken to Sprite's basement where he can find tidbits of paper and wood, remnants of dismantled toys that fall to the ground. He also gets the occasional fruity pellet or vegetable shred that Sprite drops (birds are messy eaters). Its a commensal relationship.

23 January 2011

The Breakfast Mess

This afternoon I promised Ms. Flock Advisor that I would vacuum up the bird food crumbs from the couch and coffee table. The mess was a result of today's enrichment idea for Lennon and Cher, Kenobi also barged in.

As I've posted on this blog before, enrichment is something we try to weave into the lives of our flockmates as often as possible. Usually it is in the form of playtime, or a result of "will the birds eat this?" Parrots are natural problem solvers, and so it is vital that they be presented with unexpected scenarios as often as possible to keep their bird brains occupied with something other than chewing on the drywall.

Today my thought was to give Cher her breakfast on the playstand, which has two food cups mounted on it, in the living room where I was reading by the light of a beaming winter sun. As I prepared her feast I could hear that Lennon was very vocal this morning. His little whistles bounded through four or five of his favorite tunes. I decided he should not miss out on the unconventional breakfast, and laid out some pellets for him over a paper towel on the coffee table.

Cher climbed around the branches of her playstand carrying food pellets over to the water dish for a dip before grinding them to bits with her beak for consumption, balancing on one foot while clutching the food pellet in the other. She was eating in the way that conures do: in a tree, climbing with feet and beak while managing to hold onto a morsel at the same time. It is fun to watch her use her beak to climb while also holding a food pellet or two in it. She was of course on the lookout for soaring predators through the window and let out a few shrieks in response to an ominous profile, followed by laps around the room on the wing. Predatory threat is about all that can cause her to drop her food pellets while eating.

Lennon was content to do what cockatiels do: forage for his delicacies on a nice flat surface. With his enormous toes stretched wide he stomped around the table grabbing a pellet at a time and crunching it in his beak. Each crunch showered minuscule bits of food all around him, and is what led to my cleanup promise to Ms. Flock Advisor this afternoon.

After they had finished feasting both took a nap. These two birds don't normally interact with each other directly, but they are still a part of the same flock. It was funny to see them feeding off of each others behavior. Lennon could eat a house, I watch Coconut try to keep up with him in the mornings when they are normally fed side by side. Lennon can go on and on, and I will see Coconut just dipping his head in the dish and flinging pellets around. Cher, however, hardly seems to eat at all. She called it quits after about three pellets this morning and went into some preening before nodding off. Shielded by my book, I quietly observed as Lennon took notice of Cher and followed suit. He backed away from his pile of food, and retracted a foot while drifting off to sleep.

While the place was still quiet, with the feathered buddies taking their after-meal naps, I got up to refill my coffee cup. I came back to find that Cher had been stirred awake and Lennon had decided he had not got enough to eat after all. He was back to crunching his pepper-flavored pellets, and a hungry bunny had joined him on the adjacent couch. Kenobi decided to enrich his own diet with the volume of Vonnegut I had been pushing through all morning. He tried to carry it off when I reached for it, but the paperback proved too awkward for his little mouth and short front legs. If he had a set of thumbs, our library would be much less of a burden in the next move.

06 January 2011

It's Raining Wrens

Birds around the world are falling from the sky just as this year gets underway and the media is all over it. The flock that died en mass in Arkansas was the first to draw everyone's attention, and one local's observation that the event "was like an Albert Hitchcock movie" gave many of us a little chuckle. If you've been in the dark about the dropping flocks, check out the BBC's coverage at this link. More and more stories of the like are finding their way into the mainstream consciousness as the days go on. Coupled with a few fish-kills that reporters have grasped onto, the end-of-days folks are starting their parties a year ahead of schedule.

The reality, according to the experts I've heard interviewed on the subject, is that falling flocks are not all that rare. It might not be something most of us see multiple times in our lives, but it does happen all over the globe. Those of us who live in the almost-but-not-quite-tropics don't really feel like winter has arrived until we've had our first big fish-kill. We got ours early this year, but it's never a sign of the apocalypse. My sense is that birds falling from the sky is in the news each day now because reporters are digging for it on the heels of the Arkansas massacre. The mystery behind it is without a doubt part of the story's intrigue, but it very well may be that the birds are sometimes just scared to their deaths. Living with birds, I believe this may be the case.

An ornithologist was interviewed on the radio the other day and he stressed that these events do happen, so this Arkansas event and the ones after it are not really out of the ordinary in the grand scheme. He ventured that the "scared by fireworks" hypothesis is probably the most likely, and the autopsies done on the fallen birds will not really confirm that. He explained that birds get scared, and that makes them lose their minds in extreme cases of panic. I've seen ours do that right in front of my eyes. They will put all of their energy immediately into getting away from the threat and smash into whatever gets in their way. Lennon's night-terrors are a perfect example.

Birds, at least the ones being discussed here, are prey animals. At the top of their to-do list each day is "don't get eaten." They live in a world where predatory eyes from above and below are constantly watching for a bird to make itself vulnerable for an instant. The only way to survive is to be skittish. They certainly can't fight, so they fly.

Birds are also excellent at staying in tune with their flock. When a flock mate gets scared, the rest get scared. This is also something that happens around the Feather Dorm on a regular basis. Several days ago I had Cher, Lennon, and Coconut out with me on a lazy afternoon. My plan was to let them entertain themselves while I got acquainted with my new Nook. Cher was glad to perch on my shoulder and preen, but Lennon and Coconut decided to do laps on the wing. Coconut was, as usual, seeking Lennon's company. My Nook had to wait while I tried to settle them down and give them each something more mellow to occupy their little minds. Coconut finally found the bunny fence and clung to it. Ten feet of tightly spaced bars were enough to provide him with endless climbing fun. For Lennon, a helping of Grape Nuts sprinkled on top of the refrigerator would keep him busy and blissful. With the little-guys set to their own tasks, I took my place on the couch and got ready to see what Nook had to offer me.

Pressing the power button on the device flashed the screen awake with an impressive little animation, but Cher was not expecting that. She was scared by it. The sudden presence of light, color and motion from the previously dormant device spooked her into the air. She streaked across the room sounding her alarm cries designed to let all other organisms in the jungle know that a plot against her life was afoot. Except that we do not live in a jungle. The screams jabbed at my eardrums and sent Lennon and Coconut into the air immediately. Three birds were circling and calling as I could only watch and wait for them to finally land. The birds circling my head were more panicked, and loud, than any I've ever seen in an A.C.M.E.-sponsored cartoon. After a minute or so they all found their own perches and the calls slowed down as they realized the threat had passed.

This was only one of many instances where one of the birds will announce a threat and the others will immediately fly into escape-mode. It is normal behavior for birds, and convinces me that a scared flock could become disoriented enough to crash into trees, cars, or the ground after being deathly scared by something like New Year's Eve fireworks. Many times we do not even see what causes our birds to take flight, their eyes are very keen and always searching for danger, so it becomes a game with Ms. Flock Advisor and I to try and figure out what caused the panic when our birds suddenly take flight and announce danger. Sometimes we can spot a hawk or buzzard circling hundreds of feet above through a window, but often we never see what causes the birds to panic. We just have to make the place bird-safe by leaving ceiling fans off and removing obstacles to flight. I've been brokering a peace agreement between Cher and Nook, it's going well.