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.