But Professor, my Parrot Ate my Homework! I Swear!

Erin, saying enough studying!

Here is my wonderful little Erin attempting to kill my study attempts.  She says enough biology!  I’m cuter!  This could possibly be the reason I always seem behind on things.  But how could I say no to a face like that?  Aside from trying to shred my homework (which I’ll have you know, she never shreds any of her shredding toys, just my homework), she also tries to take my pen or pencil out of my hand, throws my pictures on my desk around or knocks them over, and tries to chew on my computer cords.  Bad, bad birdie!

Bird Brain

Although I am a bird lover and a pet owner, I am also a science major and I often think like a science major.  One of the things I’m obviously interested in is the psychology of the avian.  And having Erin down at school with me has provided the perfect opportunity for me to conduct some of my own mini science activities.

Obviously, I am not taking Erin into the labs and seeing what type of bacteria affects her or what type of medicine does what to her.  She’s not a testing bird, shes my fid!  But the way her mind works fascinates me sometimes.

Recently, I noticed that Erin seemed much more interested in my writing utensils.  And by interested, I mean she’s been climbing onto my homework and attempting to take my pencil out of my hand.  I have her out on my desk while I do my homework, so at first this was really annoying.  I started giving her one of my extra pencils with a worn out eraser on it to keep her occupied while I was doing my homework.  And little Erin, who never plays with anything, started going to town on the pencil!  She would bite at it, pick it up and toss it around, pull it around the desk, and even graduated to throwing the pencil off my desk into my trash can.  I didn’t really think anything of it until I accidentally gave her a pen one day to play with instead of her usual pencil.   Immediately, she was back on top of my homework, trying to take my pencil away from me.

Maybe this just seems really stupid, but to me it was kind of interesting; why does Erin only like pencils and not pens?

I started giving her other writing utensils.  Highlighters, markers, dry erase markers, pens that look different from my normal pen, colored pencils.  Out of everything I have offered Erin, she prefers my mechanical pencils best.  But why?  Markers and highlighters are much more colorful, pen tops are easier to chew, and colored pencils have exposed graphite!

My hypothesis is that because Erin’s cage faces my desk and she spends so much time out on my desk while I am recopying notes, working problems, and doing labs, Erin is seeing me play with the pencils and therefore, they are the best toy option.   Birds are observational.  They love to watch and learn.  I spend a lot of time scratching away with my mechanical pencils, and I’m sure Erin watches this and things that pencils must be the best toy ever.  

Do any of your birds make toys out of everyday objects that you use often?

Erin Gets an Education

I don’t know what about this year has made me miss my birds more than last year, but I most definately have hit a rut when it comes to pet sickness.  So I decided that Erin would be joining me this semester. 

A lot of other apartment dwellers have pets, so why couldn’t I?  I know of people who have snakes, mice, toads, hamsters, lizards, turtles, and even some brave people who I know have snuck cats into ‘no pet’ apartments and dorms.  So, I decided to it a try.

I feel like most buildings ban animals because they don’t want the mess, don’t want the noise, and don’t want the potential for a small animal like a snake or hamster to escape, die in a wall, and stink up the place.  However, little Erin doesn’t have any of those problems.   She’s quiet, clean, cannot escape her cage, and absolutely loves all her new found attention from my roommates.    I feel like giving her a change where she lives as an only bird for a while will help her to overcome her featherplucking.  I think that having her around will also help manage the stress and depression that goes a long with getting a higher education.  It’s a proven fact that people who have animals generally live longer, more fulfilling lives, have less high blood pressure, and less stress related issues.  Which is a good thing because I live with Pharmacy majors lol. 

I’ve often thought Erin would make a terrific little ‘therapy bird’.  I’ve never heard of an actual therapy bird before, mostly because parrots don’t like strangers and have the ability to remove a finger, but I think Erin would be a good one!  She’s very gentle and sweet and forgiving and trusts anyone.  I often call her my birdy ambassador and always hand her to the people who have never handled a bird before or who think badly of birds.  She always makes a great first impression or changes their minds.

Model Rival Training Technique Video

I decided to do another video blog on the how we use modeling to trick train our birds.

Modeling works well for us because not only is the second bird watching the first bird and seeing that responding to a command in a particular way gains a treat, it also gives the bird a rival to compete against for the attention of the trainer.

Modeling can also work if you have only one bird.  You just need a willing human who doesn’t mind acting as he second bird.

Birds are very watchful and learn a lot just from watching what is going on around them.  Miles has even learned how to ask for a treat simply by watching Bella do it so many times.  Miles has never been trained to ask for some food, yet he knows how!

Erin’s Sucess Story

I think I can finally say that Erin has made it through her rut as a picker and is essentially back to being a normal bird!  Its taken from March until now to get her to stop picking and to let her feathers grow back in, but as long as we don’t have any huge setbacks I believe we are in the clear. 

For those who do not know, Erin is my 6 year old handicapped cockatiel.  She was not my first bird, but she was my first handicapped parrot and she was my inspiration to get involved with handicapped animals.  Her whole story is in the ‘About Our Flock’ section.

Anyways, out of all my birds, Erin was the one that I felt was least likely to start picking.  I thought for sure it would be Bella.  After all, Erin was well adjusted, friendly, loving, and happy with everyone.  She seemed, in general, like a happy, easy bird.  However, after I went away to school, Erin wasn’t recieving as much attention as she was used to.  She rarely got out of her cage because Bella was so demanding of time and attention that my family didn’t have time to play with the smaller ones as much.  The other two birds played with their toys and entertained themselves, but apparently that wasn’t enough for Erin. 

The straw that broke the camel back was when my well meaning mother attempted to change Erin from being bedded on Carefresh to being bedded on diced newspaper.  Erin flipped out and began pulling her feathers out.

When I came home for spring break, my mom announced on the car ride home that we had a problem with Erin that everyone had apparently been keeping a secret from me.  She had a patch the size of  a dime cleared on her chest.  I was mortified as well as completely furious that no one had told me.  I made a vets appointment and took her later that week.

Erin’s test came back clean and she was deemed a neurotic cockatiel.  They gave her anti-anxiety medication.  However, the medication was too strong and Erin soon began not eating while on the medication.  I pulled her off the medicine and her plucking became worse.  I bought her all new perches and toys and totally outfitted her cage.  I attempted to change her diet, which she thorougly hated, to a new rice based diet, incase she was allergic to wheat.  Nothing seemed to slow her down.

By the middle of April, Erin had completely balded her chest.  I bought her a no pick vest.  Erin began picking under her wings and progressed to self mutilation.  At this point, I wanted to take her to a vet yet again, but I had no money and finals and no support.  Poor Erin had to wait.  Taylor also got sick and needed veterinary care, so I was completely wrung dry of all funds.

By the middle of May, Erin was so caked with goo from sprays and aloe that she looked like she had been involved in an oil spill.  She was miserable.  Every waking moment was spent pulling out the pins of the feathers that had been coming in.  She would squeak pitifully everytime she pulled on another feather.  There were some nights that I would just put her to bed early just so I didn’t have to hear her pulling her feathers out.

At this point, I was home regularly, so I was beginning to think her plucking had become a habit and she was continuing because the pins coming in were itchy.  So, in a last attempt, I cut the toe off a sock and put holes for her head and her wings and made her wear the sock.  The sock didn’t allow her access to under her wings, her back, her belly, or any part in between.  At first I was doubtful about whether it would work or not.  I figured she would chew through it or shred it apart to get at the pins.

Within a week I was seeing new pins.  At first, Erin did try to take the sock off and shred it.  But she couldn’t.  I could tell she was itchy, but as the pins sprouted into new feathers and less pins needed to grow in, she got more comfortable.  She began to seem happier and cleaned all the grease off her feathers.  She started to look like a bird again!

Today, Erin still wears her sock when she is in the cage and to sleep.  However, she is gradually being weaned off of it.  She no longer needs it while she is out of the cage and will happily play, eat, and preen without pulling out any of her feathers.  She is almost fully feathered, only having a small bald spot in her wing pit, which is quickly being filled, and on the very top of her one knee.  She no longer mutilates at all.  In the future, I plan to decrease Erin’s time in the sock while in the cage until she no longer needs it at all.  She is also going to move down to school with me when I go in August, so she can recieve more one on one attention and hopefully not revert back to picking.  She’s going to have a whole suite of girls to love on her, so hopefully that will be enough to make her happy!

Although Erin will always be prone to picking now, I am confident that with close monitoring she will not revert back as badly as she has been in the past.

This is Erin, taken today, July 15th 2011

The Sock That Saves the Day!

So, after getting exceptionally frustrated with Erin’s picking and all the failed products and theories I have tried to attempt to stop her picking , I decided just to put her to sleep.

Just kidding.

I’m not that evil and I certainly wouldn’t give up on my birdie like that.  I just wanted to see if you were awake. 

However, I did become exceptionally tired of her picking and have decided to take matters into my own hands.  I took Erin to camp with us over Memorial day weekend, and she didn’t pluck once the whole trip.  She had pins coming in and she was happy, her scabs were drying up and falling off, and all seemed to look up.  Then, I came home, went to work, and that evening every pin-feather was gone and she had a bloody mess on her chest again.  And at that point in time, I was so disappointed and so frustrated, I probably could have put her to sleep and felt like I was doing the right thing for her.  After all, if a bird is so unhappy that they mutilate their skin to the point of bleeding, wouldn’t they be happier not living?  And if the owner is the one who set the picking off by going away to school, shouldn’t they deserve to not have a bird?  And if the owner has taken the bird to a vet who didn’t find the problem, and now the owner doesn’t have money to go to another vet right this second, shouldn’t the owner just not have a bird?  At least that’s all what was going through my head Tuesday night after I discovered her looking like a plucked chicken again.

I took her up to my mother’s room and showed her the damage, basically just looking for someone else to blame for Erin’s problem other than myself.  My mom started to try to design different bird vests for Erin with her crocheting and quilting skills, trying to make a vest that did not allow her to get the left side of her chest.  If you look at Erin’s progression of plucking, it doesn’t really follow the pattern of classic plucking caused by behavior, nor does it follow the pattern of classic plucking caused by medical reasons.  Erin started plucking at the middle of her chest, just a small circle.  As she progressed, her circle got bigger.  By the time we went to the vet, Erin had cleaned the entire left side of her breast.  Anti anxiety drugs did not stop her plucking, but she also did not progress outside of that circle.  When I introduced the no plucking vest to her, Erin progressed more to the left side under her wing.  When I took her to camp, she didn’t touch her feathers until her chest would get dried up.  When I would see her messing with her chest, I would put some lotion on her, and she would go back to ignoring it and being happy to sit around or groom her other feathers.  Up until this point, I figured it was totally a medical reason, as I had changed everything I could think of and battled with every tactic I thought of and nothing helped. 

So, as I sat there and looked at Erin, I grabbed a sock, cut the toe off, put some holes in it for her wings and head, and pulled it over her head like a sweater.  And after a few minutes of tweaking and a few tries with more toes of socks, I finally had a sock sweater that fit her correctly.  And guess what?  The sock works!!

The sock covers Erin’s entire chest, under her wings, her sides, and even her back.  I thought maybe she would begin picking on top of her wings or her legs, but so far, she hasn’t touched them.  Now Erin’s plucking seems behavioral.

So, what I’m going to do is wait until Erin is fully feathered again before she gets any unsupervised time without the sock on.  Then, I’m going to wean her off of it slowly, but only letting her not wear it when I’m home and downstairs, then gradually reducing the amount of supervised time. 

My theory now is that Erin started picking because I was away at school, she wasn’t getting as much attention as she was used to, and she was just in general upset.  When I came home, Erin’s plucking turned into a habit.  As I tried to break that habit by sending time with her and giving her more new options in her cage to play with, Erin’s plucking slowed, but the itchiness and dryness of her new feathers coming in bothered her, so she began self mutilating and pulling out the painful quill feathers. 

Now that Erin cannot reach her pin feathers anymore, she has stopped plucking.  I’m sure she’s not very comfortable, but I just hope these pins grow into feathers quickly so she feels better.  And by the looks of it, she hasn’t damaged any follicles too badly that she can’t grow feathers back. 

And look at all those gorgous pins!

The Inside Scoop on Owning a Handicapped Bird

Upon introducing people to my birds, one of the most common questions I am asked is ‘What is it like to own a handicapped bird?’  Immediately I want to answer “just like owning a non-handicapped bird”.  However, when I actually think about it, that is not the case.  Owning a handicapped bird can be a rewarding experience, however the adventure is not for everyone.

Lets start by my definition of handicapped.  In my opinion, a handicapped bird is any bird that has some sort of disability that hinders it from living the typical way a person would expect to care for the animal.  This means it cannot live in a starter package cage, cannot eat the same as other birds, and requires an owner who is willing to work around the roadblocks and find a way to accommodate and allow the animal to live as normal and happy of a life as they can.  Needless to say, I do not think a bird missing a toe is handicapped.  If they are missing ALL their toes, they are handicapped.  However, one toe does not really count.

I have only had experience with handicaps in the form of leg, wing, and beak deformities.  There are other people in the world who have dealt with blindness, missing beaks, and paralysis.

And from what I have noticed of the bird world, there are also three types of bird owners, each of which is suited for a specific level of bird owning.

The first group is what I call ‘bird likers’.  These people think birds are beautiful and colorful.  They want a bird they can teach to talk and show off to their friends.  However, they feel birds should be ‘cheap and easy pets’ and much less work than a typical dog or cat.  They often buy the cheapest food, feed all seed diets, believe cage cleaning is of a lesser importance than dusting, often complain about the mess or screaming their animal makes, and believes a bird should be available to entertain and come out of the cage when company is around, but has no rights to be let out any other time.  Birds are disposable pets, and need not ever venture to a veterinarian. These people often lose their luster for the animal after they acquire their first one, and will recommend friends against getting a bird as they are ‘loud’ or ‘messy’ or ‘mean’.  The only type of bird suited for these people are stuffed birds, Thanksgiving turkeys, and pictures or statuary.

The second type of bird owner is one I call ‘bird lover’.  They understand a bird needs more than just being locked in its cage.  They try to get their pet out, buy higher quality food, clean the cage regularly and change out toys.  Although they may raise an eyebrow at taking their bird to a vet, understand that a vet may be the only way to save their birds life, and venture in when sick.  However, these people still look at their bird as a bird.  They feel it should entertain itself when they are not around and be able to put it in its cage when they do not feel like handling it or are too busy to get it out.  They also typically have a problem with biting, and will often reduce the amount of time they spend with the animal if they are being painfully bitten when it is out.  These people are well suited to own any range of handfed baby birds and some mildly handicapped birds, and will give their little bird a terrific life.  This is what most bird owners are.

The third type is the ‘bird obsessed’.  These people look to their birds as a member of their family if not children.  They understand the need to take the animal out, feed a varied diet, and buy some of the most outlandish toys.  Their birds are usually well-behaved and happy.  These people are patient to no end, willing to dedicate any amount of time to turn around the life of an unhappy animal.  They have an avian vet on speed dial and a recipe book of treats for the birds.  And honestly, like a computer nerd would spend all his spare cash on his high functioning computer system, so would a bird obsessed person.  Birds are usually a bird obsessed persons biggest hobby or passion.  These people are prepared to own just about any bird, ranging from handfed babies to severely handicapped or behavioral rehabilitation birds.  These people simply have the patience and the drive to help them.

So, at this point lets say you still feel comfortable with your level of interest and the level of the handicap of a bird you are thinking about adopting.  What can you expect?

The Cons to owning a handicapped bird

inability to use store products: whether it be store-bought perches or commercial food, almost every handicapped bird is going to require the owner to use a certain amount of creativity.  For example, three out of four of my birds cannot perch.  So, I have ordered in shelves of different sizes and textures as well as built some of my own. 

underlying health problems:with handicapped birds, you never know what else might have been affected besides their handicap.  This can lead to many visits to the vet, which gets expensive.  Taylor is a great example of this.  Not only are his feet deformed, but he also has an enlarged ‘watery’ crop.  This is some sort of quirk that goes along with his handicap.  Some underlying health problems can even cause a premature death, which can be heartbreaking.

physical appearance: Maybe this isn’t true with all handicapped birds, but with my guys, broken plumage is a big thing.  All of my handicaps look ratty all the time.  They are never sleek and well-groomed with long tails, just because they get around so differently they are always breaking off tail feathers and wing feathers.  For some people, the ratty look can be a problem.  I personally dont mind.  Twisted legs and feet and awkwardly placed leg angles are another thing.  If the handicap is physical, you’re going to look at it for the rest of the birds life.  If it bothers you, do not adopt.

giving up some of the things others can do: Three of my four birds will never ride on my shoulder.  Anytime you adopt a handicapped bird, you are going to be giving up things that a typical bird can do.  You gain from the experience, yet your going to sacrifice as well.

Never Knowing when its going to happen: you don’t contact a breeder and put yourself on a waiting list for a handicapped bird.  Most of the time, you stumble upon them unexpectantly.  I did not intend to buy any of the birds I have now, but just happened upon them. 

The pros of owning a handicapped bird

Knowing you saved a life: many handicapped animals are looked at as being imperfect and are destroyed.  By adopting one, you get to know you saved a life.

the gratefulness: like shelter dogs, handicapped and rescued birds are grateful. Although they may still bite you and scream, there’s just something about them that you can tell they are grateful.  And its a nice feeling. 

The uniqueness: Theres something special about each little handicapped bird that is different from all the others, and as an owner you get to enjoy that.  Also, how many other people announce that they have not just a cockatiel, but a handicapped cockatiel?

If you can’t tell already, handicapped and rescued birds are my passion.  And if after reading this you feel that you are interested and capable in adopting a handicapped or rescued bird, I encourage you to keep your eyes open for the next little angel that needs a home!

PS: in the close ups of the feet, I know my birds nails are too long.  These are all old pictures and when I took them, I was clipping their nails that day.  I then realized I should have clipped nails and then taken picture, but I’m dopey and did it backwards. I assure you, everyones nails are under control and healthy.


The Frustrations of Dealing with a Feather Picker

So, going away to school caused a lot more problems than I originally thought it would.  While I was away, my beautiful pearl cockatiel, Erin, decided to turn into a horrible feather picker.  And while up until this point I have dealt with a lot of problems in my birds, I had never dealt with picking.  And I can now say it is one of the most frustrating and heart killing conditions a bird owner will ever have to deal with.

I live down on campus during the school year because my course load is very heavy and my house is very distracting.  If I lived at home, I would want to work, which takes up a lot of time.  Then, I would also have four birds, a dog, a cat, a rat, a pig, a lizard, and some odd fish to distract me.  Plus, my father and mother, who when I attended CCAC did not seem to understand that I needed to study and would constantly interrupt me and try to get me to spend time with the family, my sister Leah and our friend who lives with us, Jamie, who share a room with me and would never allow me ample time to study, and my brother Lucas, who has friends over often, and who when he wants to go out, it is my job to taxi him around.  So, living at home would not help my education.  When I’m down at school, I have a lot of homework, so I don’t come home very often.  So, I rely heavily on my family to maintain my animals and give them the attention they need.

Well, they don’t do it like I do to say the least.

So I came home for spring break and on the car ride home my mother decides to tell me that Erin had started ripping her feathers out a while ago and hadn’t stopped.  Nice to tell me then.  At the time, Erin had only managed a patch the size of a dime on her left breast. 

I got online and looked up avian vets in the area and made an appointment to take Erin to see Dr. Dorn.

I have a huge gripe with so-called ‘avian’ vets in the area.  Most of them see dogs and cats and really do not work on birds, nor do they have any real experience working with birds.  Most of them, I know more than they do.  I took Taylor to Metvet once because he was puffed up at the bottom of his cage and not being himself, but I couldn’t pay the emergency fee to take him that day.  So I made an appointment for the next open appointment, two days later, put him in a hospital box on a heat mat and started him on marvel-aid, and when I took him to the vet, they charged me $70 and told me to keep doing what I was doing.

Well, my trip with Erin was roughly the same way.  I made an appointment and took her in.  I very firmly said I wanted tests run on her and I didn’t just want to have her looked at and told to keep doing what I was doing. I also mentioned at the desk that Erin was handicapped, but that wasn’t the reason she was at the vet, the feather picking was.  However, as soon as we got into the room, I was asked “Whats with her legs?  Has she been like this all her life?”  I tried hard not to roll my eyes and bit back answering that no, she was born normal and I twisted her legs like that so she’d look cool. 

So, they ran a gram stain on her.  I learned a little about gram stains in bio, but I didn’t know if it would test for giardia or not, which is what I really wanted her tested for, but I assumed a ‘avian vet’ would know to test a cockatiel who was picking her feathers out for giardia.  So, I trusted him and assumed she was tested and came back negative. He immediately wrote it off as behavioral, charged me $95, and gave me some anti anxiety drugs to give Erin.

I started Erin on the meds and almost immediately she lost her appetite and stopped eating.  Weighting only 76 grams, Erin is a small cockatiel and cannot afford to lose anymore weight.   I pulled her off the medicine and began treating her myself again.  I also got suspicious about a gram stain checking for giardia, because I know giardia is a protist while gram stains detect bacteria.  So, I asked Dr. Morrow, the vet at Duquesne who has become my unofficial advisor, and she confirmed that a gram stain will not check for giardia.  So, currently I am surfing the web looking for an avian testing lab that I can send samples to check for giardia.  In the mean time, Erin has oregano on every meal, which is supposed to be able to kill giardia naturally.

So, after my wasted $95 at the vet, I was back to figuring it out on my own.  I read every piece of literature I could on feather picking and ways to cure it.  I bought her a vest from the same site that sells my beloved bird diapers.  However, the vest only covers the front of her chest, so Erin just moved up to plucking under her wing.  I also can’t leave the vest on her all the time, for fear she will develop sores where the straps go, or it will rub her feathers off.  So, I take the vest off when I am home and downstairs to watch her, and spray her chest and under her wings with Cease, which works for a little while.  I invested $50 in new shelf perches and toys and re did her cage.  I gave her toys with coconut fibers to rip up instead of her feathers and paper shreddable toys to pull  apart.  I bought her a foraging toy and filled it with cut up pieces of millet spray and ripped up paper, hoping she will decide foraging is better than picking.  However, Erin refuses to use her new shelves and perches, and hasn’t touched a new toy once.  She gets daily showers with warm water or bird bath spray.  I moved her cage away from the other birds, thinking maybe she needed a new change of scenery or felt threatened being so close to Bella.  She also has spent an increased time out of her cage each day. Nothing was a solution.

My next step is to change Erin’s diet to a different formula of food for birds with allergies.  Although it’s a shot in the dark, as Erin has been eating the same pellets since I brought her home and she has never had a problem before, its worth at least trying.

I feel that Erin may have started her feather picking from an itch or stress, but now it has become such a habit that she just does it out of boredom.  Not only does she pull her feathers out, but she will also bite and irritate the pore where the follicle comes out, mostly because I’m guessing the feathers itch when they grow back in.  So she takes them out before they can even feather.  And although I am trying my best to have Erin out of the cage as much as possible, lets face it: I can’t always be there to entertain her.  Next year, I’m going to take Erin to school with me, and she will have the three other girls in my suite as well as me to spend as much time as we can with her.  But shhh!  Don’t tell Duquesne!

Out of all my birds, I would have thought Erin was the most secure, most well-adjusted, and least likely to pick her feathers out.  However, I was wrong.

Feather picking is exceptionally heart breaking to the owner because the owner is the only one at fault.  Other than medical reasons, such as bacterial infections or giardia, there is no cause for feather picking that is not human induced.  Your bird is too bored, or too stressed, or too unhappy.  And that’s really hard for me to try to deal with, because I have always tried to make my birds have the best life possible.  I know they don’t understand the whole ‘going away to school thing’ but honestly, what other choice do I have?

Dealing with Erin’s feather picking is a day by day battle.  We have good days and bad days, ups and downs.  Some days she’s very good and has a whole chest of pin feathers and I start to feel confident we’re going to beat it, and the next day she has pulled them all out.  Some days her chest looks great, and the next day it is red and irritated from her biting it.  It’s a hard battle.

I want to take Erin back to a vet and be tested again for anything else that can be causing it.  And I would like to take her to see an animal behaviorist who may be able to help me  figure out what is causing the picking.  But I’m wary of taking my birds to anyone anymore.  It seems like it’s always a waste of money.

I’m going to keep trying to combat Erin’s feather picking.  I can only hope I can cure it before she has destroyed the feather follicles and her feathers won’t grow back anymore.  Without her feathers, Erin looks like a sad, weak, plucked chicken, and it’s quite heart breaking.

If anyone has dealt with, cured, or has suggestions about feather picking, please contact me either by email or comment and let me know anything that might be helpful.  I just want my little girl to be happy again.