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.