Our Parrots’ Wild Habits

October 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m on a research kick.  This is nothing new, but a few thought-provoking posts and comments I’ve read lately have gotten me really interested in the wild habits of our parrots.  It started with diet, but then I just found out a lot of fascinating things.  As usual, as I found more answers, they led to even more questions.  Although my research pertained to Cape Parrots and Budgerigars in particular, I think what I found might be quite interesting to all parrot owners.

First, I’ve often wondered if Lola was just a little bit chubby and clumsy and therefore not the greatest flyer.  I’ve noticed that in comparison to my budgies (Charles in particular, who was a spectacularly graceful flyer) as well as my mom’s Hahn’s Macaw, who is another beautiful flyer, Lola is … well, she’s a little slow and labored.  She likes to fly, but unlike my mom’s Hahn’s who takes joy in doing laps around the open floor plan of her home, Lola likes to go shorter distances and sometimes opts to waddle over when she can.  Obviously I think part of this is influenced by the fact that as an apartment dweller she simply doesn’t have as much space to fly and therefore gets less practice, but I also read recently that Capes in comparison to other birds actually have shorter wings, evolved for maneuvering in the forest canopy while feeding, rather than for long distance flight.  In fact, I read that it can take Cape Parrots twenty-five times as much energy to fly than other birds!  This was really astounding and fascinating to me and explained a lot about Lola’s flying efforts.

On the other hand, budgies seem to be wonderful, graceful, and rapid flyers.  Sabrina is an exception because she had a lot of trouble with breaking her wing feathers as a baby and as a result is a bit of a shaky flyer, but Charles was magnificent in flight.  Which makes sense, because in the wild, budgerigars can travel dozens and even hundreds of miles in a single day looking for food.  So although they are often described as ground feeders and foragers, their long tails reflect that they are also spectacular flyers.  (Lola’s short little tail, on the other hand, gives her away as a ground feeder who is not meant for long distance flight.)

I also started thinking about what Lola would eat in the wild.  Cape Parrots feed almost exclusively off of the fruit of the yellowwood tree.  Nowadays, due to the destruction of the yellowwood forests in South Africa and other regions of the African continent, they have turned to other sources of food, including plums, pecans, cherries, acorns, and others.  However, this has also coincided with a widespread outbreak of PBFD (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease), which has been rapidly decreasing wild populations.  Many researchers believe that the PBFD outbreaks are linked to the Cape Parrots’ inability to find adequate food sources.  (The Cape Parrot Project is dedicated to saving the wild Cape Parrot.  They are an excellent organization and I highly recommend giving their site a visit, and donating to their cause if you are so inclined.)

Anyway, all that aside, these simple facts got me thinking: why do we think variety is so crucial to a healthy diet?  Don’t get me wrong– I’m by no means saying it isn’t– in fact, I am fairly certain I have said in this blog that variety is key, and I still believe that.  Let me be clear that I think there are often two arguments for variety: first, for health purposes (e.g. to get a variety of vitamin/minerals/nutrients), and second, for boredom/enrichment purposes.  I still believe in the first reason, that variety is necessary for health purposes.  Obviously we do not have access to these yellowwood fruits, and thus  we cannot replicate the wild diet– so, we should do our best to give a variety of nutrients that will mimic a complete diet or attempt to do so, at least.  I still do this and think it’s important to do.

But, I think that maybe we obsess over the second argument for variety too much: the boredom/enrichment argument.  Again, of course I believe enrichment is important!  (In fact, this has been another research kick of mine, and I am working on a large write up on it.)  But why do we assume that parrots get bored eating the same thing everyday, when that’s exactly what some of them do (and is healthiest for them to do) in the wild?  And although Capes are somewhat unique in that regard, they aren’t the only ones.  The vast majority of the diet of wild Hyacinth Macaws, for example, is made up of palm nuts.  Just thinking of the way that I feed Lola, however, I often obsess over giving her a variety of foods from sprouts to fresh veggies (from chopped to sliced to steamed to whole to stuffed) to dry mixes to fruits to breads to mashes to endless variations upon variations.  I’m wondering if these things really matter to her at all, being that she’d be perfectly happy and healthy eating yellowwood fruits all day everyday for the rest of her life.  (One important distinction: the question of dietary enrichment in terms of presentation or foraging, I think, is a separate one. I absolutely believe in variety of presentation and encouragement of foraging.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to make food presentation less “boring” by hiding food or creating foraging opportunities– I think that’s super important!  I’m talking about boredom, referring to the make up of the food itself.)

Maybe this is all just very obscure and doesn’t make sense.  I mean, I’m still confused about it.  And I’m not sure I will necessarily be doing anything differently.  I think maybe I will not obsess so much over giving Lola a different fresh fruit/veggie mix every morning, so long as she’s getting a good mix in there.  (I used to be afraid that she’d get bored of eating the same meal three days in a row.  Now I feel silly thinking that.)  But again, as usual, my research leaves me with more questions than answers.  Just something to ponder!

Oh: and Happy Halloween! 🙂

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Baby Lola!!

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nothing groundbreaking today, but I was looking through some old photos and found this gem:

I can’t believe how much she’s grown!!  Look at that baby face.  So adorable.  I forgot how rosy her little cheeks were too.  Some things haven’t changed; she still loves that perch from the Birdsafe Store and roosts on it every night.  On the other hand I noticed the toy on the right and realized I made that myself.  I used to be creative it seems!!  I have to start making more toys again.

Lola Eating Stuff

October 26, 2013 § 3 Comments

Well I’m utterly pleased with the wonderful dialogue that proceeded from my last post!  I love hearing from people in agreement and disagreement alike; those of you who disagree with me are in some sense maybe even more helpful in that you force me to think harder about my beliefs and why I believe in them, so thank you to all of you who have commented and engaged in this discussion.

On a slightly more lighthearted note, here are some photos of Lola eating various things 🙂

Sweet red pepper!! Scrumptious!!

Yummmm it’s all mine!!

an apple a day keeps the vet away, right??

munch munch munch

Hey, this isn’t food!! Oh well, basswood is fun too!!

stuffed pumpkin dinner

I also went to the farmer’s market this week and picked up a bunch of mini pumpkins and squashes for Lola. These things are so cute and look adorably festive on the countertop, but are also such a breeze to cook and make a great and creative dinner!! I put them in the oven for a little bit until they are soft and edible, slice off the top (or for acorn squash, slice them in half), take out some of the insides, and stuff them full of her usual mash. Lola absolutely loved this dinner! She went to town with eating in part and destroying the pumpkin. I think Sabrina would have a near heart attack if I put a pumpkin in her bowl (also not sure I could find small enough pumpkins for her), so instead I mixed a little bit of the pumpkin into her mash and served it in her normal bowl. She also seemed to approve 🙂

Is Any Pellet Better Than No Pellet?

October 23, 2013 § 17 Comments

I very frequently get requests to continue working on the Pellet Project, which I discontinued a while back due to just getting very busy.  (You can read the only page I left standing from the Pellet Project, on Totally Organics Pellets, here.)  I had only gotten through a few pellets anyway, and the work ahead of me was quite staggering.  Well, I am toying with the idea of continuing it.  Slowly.  If you feel strongly that I should or should not, I would appreciate your feedback.

However, today, I wanted to tackle a slightly different question, raised in the title of this post.  (It could also be titled, how do I know if my pellet is any good?  If any of you remember my work on the Pellet Project, you will notice that this entry is almost a DIY-version of it.)  One of the most common and confusing mind sets that I see as quite a pervasive and dominant philosophy in the parrot world is that any pellet must be better than no pellet at all.  I’m not quite sure how this started or how people came to believe this so widely and so surely, as if it is fact.  But I’d like to question that belief.

If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, you’ve probably already read my entry on my philosophy on pellets, so this discussion will probably be somewhat repetitive.  But if you haven’t read it, or if you’re anybody that’s interested in parrots’ diets, or pellets in particular, please do keep reading.

Back on topic: where do we get this notion, that any pellet is better than no pellet?  Why do we inherently believe that pellets have some sort of secret, magical nutrition locked away in them?  First of all, wildlife researchers and ornithologists or even researchers specializing in avians and exotics don’t know what the daily nutritional profile of most parrot species looks like.  We have very little idea of exactly what kind of nutritional breakdown parrots are getting in the wild, so the notion that a pellet company can formulate a diet tailored specifically to pet birds’ needs is a bit ludicrous to me.

And then there’s the fact that these diets are specifically “tailored” to pet birds’ needs, yet the ingredients list of a macaw pellet is so often the same as a budgerigar pellet — that’s right, macaws, a type of parrot that is native to the rain forests of Central and South America, are being fed the same formula as budgies, a type of parrot that is native to the arid lands of Australia.  The only difference, in most cases, is size.  Something fishy, isn’t there?

I certainly think there is, and I think more parrot owners should, too.  I think that one of the most important things we can do as parrot owners is to educate ourselves about diet and nutrition for our birds’ sake.  And although I encourage everybody to research the wild diet of their parrots, this information is unavailable in a lot of cases, or rather unhelpful to the captive bird owner in terms of finding readily available local equivalents and substitutes– so at least research the diets that are available to you, and start by reading the ingredients in your pellets.

Pellet ingredient lists are very long and thus can seem quite daunting.  But if you know how to pull them apart, and what to look for, you can discern a lot about quality.

Getting Started: Base Ingredients

I like to look at the first five ingredients to get started.  These will be what I call the “base” ingredients of the pellet (it may differ from pellet to pellet; some pellets might only have 3 whereas others might have 7 or 8).  But usually, the first five or so ingredients will make up the majority of the content of the pellet, since manufacturers must list ingredients ranked in order of how much of the product each ingredient constitutes.  Usually, you will see something like wheat, corn, rice, or soy.  Because these ingredients will make up most of the pellet, these are very important in revealing the quality of the pellet.  As such, you want to see a good variety of healthy grains or seeds.  With the pervasiveness of GMO wheat, corn, and soy, I really don’t like to see those three ingredients in a pellet unless they are certified organic.  Some parrot owners actually don’t like to see those ingredients all together, because they are three of the most common allergens in birds.  Rice tends to be a healthier choice, but brown rice is an even better one.  But as someone actually wisely pointed out to me today, even rice has its problems, as it is often found to contain high levels of arsenic.

Furthermore, pay attention to how these ingredients appear.  Does it say “whole soybeans,” or does it say “ground soybean meal”?  Grain “meals” are often indicators of far lower quality ingredients, often reserved for pet foods only and in some cases not fit for human grade foods.

Remember, these first ingredients will make up the bulk of the pellet, and the rest of the ingredients will typically be flavor enhancers, preservatives, and vitamins.  So if you are feeding a majority-pellet diet, think to yourself: would you want to eat corn/wheat/soy/rice every single day, along with a multivitamin?  Do you think that’d be healthy?  Do you think you’d like it… everyday?  What if you had evolved to eat fruits and seeds normally, as many parrots have?  Do you think that some “ground corn meal” with a vitamin would be your ideal diet?

Step Two: Look at the  Vitamins

After tackling the base ingredients, the next step is  to try to discern where the vitamins are coming from.  Most of these will be listed under obvious names, like “Vitamin D3 Supplement,” Vitamin E Supplement,” “Calcium Carbonate,” etcetera.  Some will be less obvious, such as “Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex,” which is a type of Vitamin K.  And some will be even less obvious, because they’ll be embedded in other ingredients like carrot powder as a source of all natural Vitamin A.  But these are also important to think about.  For one, some vitamins are downright dangerous– menadione, for example, is banned from human food and I would not feed it to my birds under any circumstances.  (I wrote an entry on it here.)  Another thing to consider is that while in synthetic form, some vitamins can be overdosed on.  All natural sources of vitamins, however, from whole foods (like carrots, to use the example above) cannot be overdosed on, as the body will use that which it needs and excrete the rest naturally.  And finally, some consider the addition of Vitamin D3 to be extremely important for bone density and calcium absorption, in particular for parrots that do not get a lot of exposure to natural sunlight.

Step Three: Everything Else

The rest of the ingredients will likely fall under additives, flavor enhancers, or preservatives.  Take a good look at these and make sure you are comfortable with them.  Some are positive and/or benign, like fruit juices to add flavor and sometimes even natural color, or herbs to add flavor and health benefits.  Some are relatively uncontroversial preservatives like Mixed Tocopherols (unless your parrot has a soy allergy).  Some are things you’ve never heard of, and if you looked into, would probably not be happy about.  So don’t be complacent, and look into them!  Why should your parrot eat Canthaxanthin when you don’t know what it is?  Another consideration is peanuts.  Many of us also choose not to feed peanuts– but several pellets also contain peanuts.

Step Four: The Labeling

One last thing: is the product certified organic?  If so, then you know its ingredients are non-GMO, which for me means a lot.  What about human grade?  This is another indicator of quality.

Of course, this entire process will likely involve looking up a few things you’ve never heard of, but what’s an hour of research on the internet in comparison to the health of your companion parrot?  Once you know the ingredients in your pellet and can understand where the base of the pellet is coming from, what kinds of vitamins it contains, as well as what additives or preservatives, you will be able to develop an informed opinion on the quality of the pellet as well as develop your own opinion as to how comfortable you feel about feeding it.  I think that many of us will be surprised to learn that we are not comfortable with many of the pellets on the market.  As I’m sure you can tell, I have very strong opinions about food, diet, and nutrition.  But I hope that this entry will teach other parrot owners to arrive at their own conclusions, based on educated decisions.

So back to our original question: is any pellet better than no pellet?  That’s up for you to decide, but I think that in more cases than not, the answer is no.

Lola and Sabrina Got a Woody

October 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Lola and Sabrina received a very exciting package today!  This one was from a brand new vendor for us, which I don’t actually do very often.  I do a lot of heavy research into the toys I buy, and ask the companies and toy makers a lot of questions before I feel comfortable making a purchase– it’s not every toy company that passes muster (far from it!).  But after reading loads of positive reviews about I Got a Woody Bird Toys and consulting my trusted friend at Just Poifect!, my interest was piqued.  I was really interested in a bunch of the toys on their site, and knew that they’d be big hits with Lola and Sabrina.  The owners of the store were very responsive to my questions and even open to custom tweaks, which is big deal for me (as you all probably know!).  So I finally took the plunge!  Of course, I asked for everything to be all natural, un-dyed.

What attracted me to the store was the focus on using lots and lots of wood in their toys: most of the toys use wood bases and have a lot of delectable wood parts, which I knew immediately would attract Lola, of course.  They have really nice cuts of clean, natural pine wood, lots of barky natural wood rounds, and a new wood that we’ve yet to try: basswood.  But even Sabrina can get in on the fun, because they also carry much softer alternatives, including balsa, yucca, and coveted cork.  Cork is something that I’d been looking for for ages, but only recently have North American toy makers seemed to embrace this soft wood that is so popular with birds.  Now, a few stores have popped up here and there using cork (usually in the wine bottle stopper form) as toy parts, and I’m sure all have found it’s been a big seller.

from left to right: the basswood stairway to heaven, a mini maniac, and the balsa woody

Here are a few examples of exactly what I mean.  These awesome toys incorporate basswood, cork, and balsa for some really great wood chipping action.  The first toy on the left is a deconstructed Basswood Stairway to Heaven, that I skewered for Lola.  (They sent me the parts; I threw them onto a skewer.)  She’s never tried basswood before, and even though it’ll probably be pretty easy for her, I’m sure she’ll have a great time picking the cork out of each piece as well.  (She goes nuts for anything embedded in wood.)  The other two tiny toys are for Sabrina.  One is the Maniac, albeit a very itty bitty version customized for her (she’s fearful of large things), which I am sure she will love to pick at, and second is the Balsa Woody.  I actually think the size of the Balsa Woody might intimidate Sabrina still but I’ll introduce it slowly and hopefully she’ll take to it.  Now that I’ve seen the Basswood Stairway to Heaven parts in person, though, I’m actually thinking that it’s small enough that she might enjoy the balsa version as well.

the basswood forager, the jersey devil, and the balsa woody again

I also really liked that the store used wood for a lot of their toy bases.  One of the things I’m especially weary of for in the cage, unsupervised toys is the use of long strings or ropes, or other bases that can pose safety issues once the birds destroy the toy parts, revealing long strands of naked cords.  This isn’t a concern so much with Sabrina, who is generally pretty gentle with her toys and takes several weeks to get through them, but for a real wood chipper like Lola who can get through a single toy in few hours or less, it’s a worry.  That’s why I was really excited to see so many toys with wood bases, like the Basswood Forager and the Jersey Devil.  I knew that they would not only be huge hits with Lola, but also be safe toys that I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving in the cage while I’m gone at work or school.  The Basswood Forager  (also a deconstructed version) is embedded with enticing wood parts that I’m sure will get Lola riled up! The Jersey Devil has really neat pine cones embedded in the side, and the wood base is chock full of delectable natural wood coins and twigs.  I love that they left the bark on the bottom end of the toy as well.

the gumball and the wacky woody, surrounded by tons of foot toys!

Finally, I also ordered some other toys that I knew would be big hits with Lola: the Gumball, the Wacky Woody, and tons of different foot toys.  The Gumball I’m sure Lola will adore with its crunchy pine wood and embedded wood pieces, and the Wacky Woody is right up her alley, with tons of snap-able hardwood pieces.  Actually, I was really quite amazed at this toy when I took it out of the box– I couldn’t believe how many toy parts there were on it!  I will admit that I thought it was a bit pricy when I saw it on the website, but after I saw it in person and realized just how many snap-able wood pieces went into this toy (and how much my hands would hurt after tying all of those knots), I realized it was quite a good investment.  More importantly, I think Lola will certainly agree.  The foot toys are also fantastic.  I ordered a large variety of different types, but I think she will particularly love the flat, square slices of pine with the bunches of embedded beads, and the slides of wood with the bark still on with embedded beads as well.

gorgeous cork perches and shelves

For those of you feeling bad for Sabrina, don’t you worry– I think she’s the real winner here.  Finally, Leslie and Dawn from I Got A Woody were kind enough to custom make these beautiful cork bark perches for my little girl!  These are perches I commonly see used in Europe in particular, but they are totally unavailable here.  I floated the idea by Leslie and Dawn and they loved it– and came up with these beauties!  I purchased two smaller cork perches and two larger, shelf-like perches for Sabrina.  I think these are going to be huge hits with her.  Not only are they a nice and soft wood with so many natural nooks and crannies that will create a comfortable, non-uniform surface for her little feet, but this cork bark is pick-able, shreddable, and 100% fun for her as well.  Plus, it will look fantastic as I continue to transform her cage into the natural oasis that I envision for her.

Here’s another confession: I also thought these were pretty pricy when I first saw the costs. But upon taking them out of the box, they were seriously impressive: they’re actually much, much larger than I’d imagined they’d be, and they are very, very thick. Even with Sabrina’s incessant picking and prodding, I think they’ll last quite a long time. I am even considering giving one to Lola, because they are thick enough (and big enough!) that they might even stand up to her chewing. I would certainly not hesitate to give one of these to a medium or larger bird that is not too destructive.  Of course, they are also outfitted with stainless steel hardware.

the whole order!

Here’s the whole order, all together, and I must say I am quite pleased with this beautiful bunch of natural and enriching wood toys.  A big thanks to I Got A Woody!

Sabrina Loves Hemp (Rope!)

October 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’m trying to keep my promise on updating, so here’s one about Sabrina.  Sabrina’s all natural cage quest is going slower than imagined, but we’ll get there eventually.  I have a few things hopefully coming in the upcoming weeks that should help it along.  I’m not happy with how it looks overall right now, but I did want to share one cool swing that Sabrina just loves and loves.  I had this custom made several months ago now, but never got to posting about it in my hiatus.

Let’s start with some background.  Sabrina’s tiny little toe nails  grow on the quicker side, and nail trimming is a serious issue for us.  In order to get them down to a safer length, I have to grab her (which is in and of itself impossible and extremely stressful for both of us), and hold her while I clip.  As most of you know, she is not hand tame and this is pretty much the most traumatic experience ever for her.  She also has a beak like a razor and I come away with completely scarred hands.  I have taken her to a vet to get them done, but it’s still just as stressful for her, plus there’s the added stress of getting her in the travel cage.  Basically, either way she is very upset and it worsens our already fragile relationship.  Her nails aren’t so long that they are causing problems with gripping or health or anything like that; they are just long enough to get stuck in cotton rope .  But she absolutely loves her boings and cotton rope perches, and I didn’t want to take them all away.  However, they became supervision-only toys because she could easily get her little toes stuck in them.  I needed a safe solution for her that would be just as soft and comfortable for her, but didn’t pose the risks that the long strands of the cotton rope did.

Sabrina and her custom hemp orbit!

The lovely Michelle at Mother Pluckin’ Bird Toys was kind enough to entertain an entire collection of custom requests from me.  After literally months of research into all sorts of rope alternatives and safe sources of them (that’s the hard part– finding un-oiled, safe ropes), I finally found a company that made organic, un-oiled, totally raw and chemical-free hemp rope.  I had this company send a spool over to MPBT, where they turned it into a line of amazing perches, swings, and boings for Sabrina!  They did such a fantastic job with everything, and not only does Sabrina love it all, but it’s such a great and safe material for her tiny little toes.  The hemp rope doesn’t loosen into the long solid strands that cotton rope does, so her toes don’t get caught in it.  It’s soft and comfy on her feet, but at the same time is durable and I can feel safe leaving it in her cage unsupervised.  Sabrina is pictured on her custom orbit (it’s their small orbit swing, but with an extra ring to make it more like an atom), but she’s also enjoying a beautiful boing and several rope perches with and without stainless steel wire.

It’s only off in the corner of the photo, but in the top left you can also see Sabrina’s favorite new toy.  It’s a miniature-sized, all natural version of the Candy Stack Corky Toy from Things for Wings, and she is just obsessed!  It usually takes her a while to warm up to new things, but this one was an instant hit.

Now this part has nothing to do with Sabrina, but i just thought I’d share these funny photos of Lola stealing my apple.  I went apple picking this weekend and got some beautiful (and pesticide-free!) apples, and she can’t get enough!  🙂

An Old Favorite

October 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hi everybody!  A big thanks to all of the people who have sent kind comments and messages about the blog.  I do read and appreciate them all, and miss having more time to update.  I’m in year two of my program now, and it’s going exceedingly well, so I know this sacrifice is not for naught!  I am going to try to make a little more time, however, to update at least intermittently, so here’s my first in a long while.

I have been extremely lazy on the toy making front these days, but luckily our favorite vendors have kept Lola and Sabrina well-stocked.  This week, Lola was very happy to receive some toys she hadn’t seen in a long while!  This box was from an old favorite of Lola’s, Parrot’s Treasure.  She really adores their line of foraging toys.  I purchased two of her favorite, the Elephant foraging toy, along with their delectable Fun Pop foot toys and some Star Rattles.  What’s more, Parrot’s Treasure was kind enough to send along some free samples of their Yum Yum foot toys as well!

natural foraging toys from Parrot’s Treasure

What I love about these toys is that they are simple and all natural– the toys that I picked are only made up of three parts: pine, hardwood, and leather– but they provide a lot of fun and enrichment for the birds.  The prices actually include each crevice and hole being packed with a delicious pine nut.  Even after the pine nuts are gone, I like to pack them with sunflower seeds for Lola because those are big motivators for her, but that’s the beauty of these toys– you can load them with whatever you want, and the heavy duty ones, like the Elephant, can be used and re-used over and over again.  When I load up one of these toys before I leave for work, I know it keeps Lola busy and entertained throughout the day.

Lola with her scrumptious Fun Pop

She goes absolutely nuts when she sees a Fun Pop, which for her is the perfect foot toy!  Plus, she loves the satisfaction of snapping the hardwood, or sinking her beak into all of that all natural pine.  The pine nuts are actually really tightly squeezed into these toys, so they’re not an instant reward.  She has to work at it.  I highly recommend them!

People have been really pressing me for some some more updates.  I promise they’re coming.  Next up I will write about a brand new store that’s on my girls’ favorites lists, and also how my quest for an all natural cage for Sabrina is going… coming soon!

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