Recently I had the pleasure of being visited by Professor Andy McIntosh to talk about birds and flight. Andy is a retired professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory from the University of Leeds in the UK and on the board of directors of Truth In Science (an organization promoting teaching intelligent design in the classroom in the UK).
I got in touch with Andy because I found his talks about birds on youtube and found them quite interesting. I give a similar presentation at NYU every year about the Evolution of Flight (a comparison between flying machines and flying organisms) and found it quite surprising that Andy can look at the same facts but come to different conclusions. In either case, we both share a fascination with the mechanisms of flight and the astounding complexity of birds. Regardless of which interpretive conclusion prevails, the presentation of the facts, mechanisms, operations, fossils, and stories is a marvel to learn.
So without getting any further into background, let me present to you an interview - straight from my bird room and with the help of Kili, Truman, and Santina - with professor Andy McIntosh:
In this video and with the help of Kili, Truman, and Santina, Andy McIntosh discusses many topics related to birds and how they fly. A few of the topics include how feathers work, how the flight muscles are special in birds, how the avian breathing apparatus is like no other, archeopteryx fossils, and about his conclusions on how birds are too complicated to have evolved through natural processes and are instead the products of design. Dr. McIntosh concludes that:
"They want to be in the air and obviously they are designed to be in the air. Everything is telling me as an engineer, stroke mathematician, somebody who is used to asking the question 'why are things the way they are?' All these features tell me that there is a brilliant mind behind these creatures."
So after watching both presentations, do you think Kili is an evolved dinosaur or one of God's created creatures?
Let's talk about pin feathers. It seems like everyone's parrot has got them right now, must be that time of year.
Feathers aren't permanent. They are replaced once or twice a year across a bird's body. The feather grows from the follicle as a pointy pin. Inside of the sheath of the pin feather, the feather is growing under its protection. When the feather inside is ready, the sheath can be broken and the feather unfurled from its protective casing.
Parrots take care of the pin feathers all across their body. The only place they can't reach with the beak to open pin feathers is right on their head and immediate vicinity. In the wild, the parrot would depend on its mate or flock to assist with pin feathers on the head. But at home, the parrot relies on its owner for a little help with those feathers. Not only is this a potentially reinforcing activity, it is also a fantastic bonding opportunity.
However, if done incorrectly, popping a parrot's pin feathers can lead to frustration and biting. This article will provide you some tips and do/don'ts for opening your parrot's pin feathers.
Don't touch or open pin feathers on the parrot's body or anywhere it can reach on its own. Don't open immature pin feathers Don't be too rough Don't force this help on a parrot that doesn't want it
Do offer to help open pin feathers Do encourage a request signal Do open mature pin feathers on the head/neck Do use this as a training/bonding opportunity
If your parrot is uncomfortable with being touched on the head (especially if it bites), don't just go and try to open pin feathers for it. Even though the bird may enjoy having those uncomfortable pins opened, it will be more preoccupied with the discomfort of being touched. Make sure that your parrot has already been trained and accustomed to touch, handling, and normal head scratches.
Pin feathers will look like little soda straws. If you don't see a bit of feather sticking out, definitely leave this alone. The feather is not yet ready. Not only can opening a feather prematurely damage the feather, it will also hurt your parrot or cause it to bite. If in doubt, leave a pin feather to open later than too soon. Pin feathers that are ready to be opened will often be sticking out just a little above normal feathers, the tip of the pin will be open with the feather slightly visible. The ready pin will have a more flaky appearance compared to the really streamlined and perfect immature pins.
As the pins get more unbearable, the parrot will become more likely to be cooperative with the opening process. In fact you can even make use of negative punishment if the parrot is nippy during the process. If the parrot really wants its pins scratched but gets nippy, simply stop and walk away. The parrot will learn that biting will make the entire process stop rather than tell you not to scratch there. On the other hand if the parrot pulls away from having a certain feather scratched without aggressive behavior, you can negatively reinforce this by leaving that feather alone. Thus a communication and etiquette can develop without harm.
If your parrot starts scratching its head with its own foot, this may be an invitation to you to help open pin feathers. Reward this type of communication by obliging. This teaches the parrot polite ways to ask rather than reverting to unpleasant demanding ones.
Now when it comes specifically to the process of opening pins, the process will vary with parrot size but the concept is the same. You have to apply enough force to flake away the dead sheath without damaging the feather or hurting the parrot. When the pin feather is mature and ready to open, the sheath is fairly brittle and weak so it isn't particularly hard to do. For small parrots like Senegal Parrot, Conure, Ringneck, etc simply rolling the pin feather between two finders is usually sufficient. Just hold the pin between your thumb and forefinger and move the feather in a rolling motion. This will roll the sheath off the feather, crack, and flake it while leaving the opened feather behind.
For even smaller parrots such as cockatiel, lovebird, budgie, parrotlet, and other parakeets, if you can get the pin in your fingers, use the same process. But if the pin is too small to hold, you can just run your finger back and forth across the bird's head blanket rubbing all feathers. Since the pins/sheaths are so small, just passing your finger across the head should flake them up pretty well.
For medium parrots like African Grey, Amazon, Galah, Cape Parrot, etc., it will require a slightly more powerful roll between fingers. Sometimes a little squeeze or scratch with the fingernail will be needed to break the slightly tougher sheaths. Still, if the pin feather is ready for opening, this won't be too tough. Even running your hand back and forth through the parrot's feathers should be enough to scratch a lot of them.
Now for large parrots such as a cockatoo or macaw, even more force may be required to open a big pin feather on the head. Still try to use the techniques recommended for smaller parrots first but if these don't work, you may have to scratch the sheath with your fingernails to break it open. Rolling may be insufficient to break these tougher pins.
For all pin feathers, start from the outward tip and work your way inward. Keep in mind that toward the base of the pin, the quill will remain so don't work your way too far. Once past the easy flaky parts, it is time to stop. As you engage in the pin feather opening process with your parrot, you and your parrot will both be learning ways to cooperate better. The parrot will teach you which feathers are and aren't ok and you will have the opportunity to teach your parrot to be gentle in its warnings and pleasant in its requests for scratches. This is a good opportunity to train desirable pet behavior with non-food based positive reinforcement.
Santina came to me from the rescue with a lot of neglected pin feathers on her head. This gave me a lucky opportunity to jump start our relationship. Since she really wanted those pins scratched, I was able to gain her trust for touch/head scratches much more quickly. Also it was an opportunity to punish snappy behavior by discontinuing the pin scratching session. This has gentled the macaw while teaching me how she likes to have her feathers scratched open.
Santina helped me make a video about pin feathers for you. Kili & Truman's pins are so small that it would be difficult to share. They would be lost behind my fingers. But with Santina's feathers it should be easier to see what I am doing and then appropriately scaled the action to the size of your parrot.
I hate getting bit. In fact I hate it so much that I make sure that I don't. I have approached countless birds – that aren't mine – at stores, rescues, and other people's homes and I rarely if ever get bit. This is because I don't put myself in harm's way. I adjust to the bird and let the bird adjust to me. I read the bird and act in a predictable way to help the bird read me. This article is about offering food to a parrot from your hand that you don't know or think will bite.
If you don't personally know a bird (and by personally I mean where it has stepped up for you before; just cause it has stepped up for others doesn't mean you know that it will do the same for you), the safest approach to keeping your blood inside your skin is to take caution as though the bird could bite. On the other hand, if you already got bit by the bird offering food in the past or know that others have, then you especially need to follow these steps. Even if your bird doesn't bite you, you will still want to familiarize yourself with these steps in case you encounter someone else's parrot or someone else needs to encounter your parrot!
Being able to read and understand body language is important but sometimes you just don't know. If it's your own parrot that you have a long experience with, you may be able to read the body language and avoid a bite on yourself or someone else. But if you are visiting a bird or just acquired a new one, until you see body language in context, you just may not know.
Offering food from your hand is the first essential step to being able to apply positive reinforcement training to teach the bird to step up, accept head scratches, and more. Until you can get within touching range of the parrot, inevitably you will end up relying on negative reinforcement and positive/negative punishment. So to have greater success with the parrot and to get it to like you, it is important to get to the point of being able to safely offer food as soon as possible. There are safe ways of offering food and then there are ways to get bit instead.
I really came to realize the importance of this procedure when my friend Ginger, from Ginger's Parrots Rescue, got bit by Santina. Here is someone who deals with many birds and surely knows what to do but still mistakenly put herself in harms way. A few weeks prior, my little sister got bit while offering food to Santina as well. On the flip side, I watched my brother use my same approach and was able to handle the large macaw with no trouble.
One of the problems I have is that Santina is super sweet to me and never bites me (since I brought her home from the rescue) so I don't really know her aggressive body language. It kind of has to do with dancing around and being fluffy but then again she looks much the same way when she wants a head scratch from me. Since she has experienced so few other people, inevitably the first few end up being test dummies to see if she will bite and what kind of postures she displays at that time.
First, you are going to need to find out what the parrot actually likes as a treat. Offering something the bird doesn't like won't protect you from a bite. On the other hand offering something the parrot would like can quite likely become a sufficient distraction from biting. Finding out the bird's favorite treats was already covered in this article. But if you're approaching a bird without knowing what it likes, some go to treats include millet spray for budgies/cockatiels, sunflower seeds for small parrots, almonds for medium parrots, and Brazil nuts for large ones. Not only are these treats favored by most parrots but they are also large (relative to the size of the bird's beak). This will improve the likelihood that the bird's entire beak will be occupied by the treat and not leave room for a bite. Also, the treat is so big that you can protect yourself behind the extended treat as I will explain.
The first step is to leave the bird alone! All too often people get too excited about wanting to handle a bird that they overwhelm it. Instead, give the bird some time to get comfortable with your presence. If you have a visitor apply the same procedures to guide their interaction with your bird. At first, ignore the bird completely. Don't even look at it. With a little more time, from a distance begin to interact with it remotely. Make slow but deliberate steps toward the bird with the special treat in hand. If at any point the bird begins to flip out (jumping off perch, flying away, snap biting toward you in the air, etc), you've got a lot more of an issue than just offering food without getting bit. That type of situation is beyond the scope of this article, please refer to my book instead. But if all you are dealing with is slightly aggressive posture, eye pinning, or other agitation that is not extreme, continue slowly moving closer. Maintain a pace that evokes the least of this type of reaction until you can get into range.
Never put yourself closer to the parrot than the distance it would take for the bird to bite you. Except in some extreme cases, most flighted parrots will not fly to attack you. If they get too scared they will just fly away. If in a cage or clipped, the parrot is left with no choice but to bite if it feels trapped. This is why we are going to work on the careful no-bite food exchange to show the bird that first of all absolutely nothing bad will happen (negative reinforcement) and that in fact something good will happen (treat, positive reinforcement). At first the negative reinforcement element actually plays a more substantial role in early training but if the treats are desirable, positive reinforcement will quickly take over.
When you can reach the distance within a few feet from the bird, it is time to slow down and exercise greater caution. Show the treat in very plain sight. Maybe even pretend to eat it and make a big deal about how nice it is. So while up till this point the goal was to move closer to the bird without freaking it out too much, from this point the goal is to move the treat toward the bird without getting bit. Realize that the bird has different ranges of reach. It can bite what is right at its beak, it can reach forward and bite and it can make a lunge snap bite that can reach furthest. What I do is walk up to a point where I can reach the bird with my arms without moving my feet any more. I reach the treat at a slow but constant rate toward the bird. I keep going closer and watch for the bird to teach to take it. I put the treat just far enough that the bird can stretch its maximum range to try to get it from me. If the bird is looking at and reaching for the treat, I am strongly assured that the bird wants the treat and shouldn't bite. I don't let my guard down completely yet. While holding the treat at the furthest point, I continue to reach it closer toward the bird until it is just close enough to take the treat but not close enough to bite yet. I hold the treat loosely and make it easy for the bird to take it out from between my fingers. As soon as the bird grasps the treat I take my hand back out of bite range but I don't go away. I stand around while the bird eats the treat to build more trust. If the bird avoids eating because I am imposing too much, I might take a step or two back but I still try to stay close while it eats. Then I recede to get another treat and try again.
After several treats, the parrot should start to become more at ease because it knows that all you want to do is provide a treat. On the other hand you should be able to get more confident that the bird isn't trying to bite. Depending on how aggressive/scared the bird is, the rate of your continued progress will vary. Maybe you have now gained the trust of an already tame bird and it will let you scratch its head and step up. Or maybe this is just the beginning of a long taming process. But either way, with the power to apply positive reinforcement in your training, things have the potential for major improvement from this point further.
Try to make the first approach happen within the span of about 30 seconds from when you begin to approach the bird to when the treat is in the beak. With success, keep trying to cut that time in half. You don't want to take too long any more than you want to rush. A rush can scare the bird into biting. But drawing the process out too long can lose the parrot's interest in the treat and hinder your chances at success.
If the parrot drops the treat but doesn't bite, try finding a more desired treat. Look for greater interest from the parrot's gaze. If the parrot bites, end the session and focus more on finding very desired treats and practice your approach to be able to bring in a treat without giving the parrot enough reach to bite. If done properly, you should not end up receiving a bite using this approach. The more times the parrot can take food without biting, the less likely the bird will consider biting as something to do in similar circumstances in the future.
This approach helps you have a more confident approach because it protects you from being bit but also is more comfortable for the parrot (thereby reducing the desire to bite just the same). The parrot will learn just to get treats for nothing and success will come with practice. For more information about taming and training parrots, please refer to my complete approach presented in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Here is a video in real time of me teaching Ginger to approach Santina in a way that gets her to take the treats rather than bite.
Kili & Truman are well adapted to the cold. They have thick down feathers that they molted in during the fall. So now when I take them outside on 40 degree days, they aren't bothered by the cold.
You see during the fall I would put the birds out in the outdoor aviary on progressively colder days. First the days were in the 70s, then 60s, 50s, and eventually 40s. Their bodies and feathers adapted to this. When the winter got colder and I stopped taking them out, the only other thing I did to keep them more winter ready was to keep the indoor temp a bit lower (high 60s) so that the change to outdoor temperature would be less substantial.
The down feathers on Kili & Truman's heads are much much ticker than Santina's. Especially for Truman, he spends a lot of time out in the aviary during the colder months. His feather density feels nearly double what is is during the summer. When I run my hands through his feathers, they feel almost twice as thick and this is because the down feathers underneath the plumage are much thicker than usual.
On the other hand, Santina had come from a rescue where the temperature was constant. Her down is not much thicker than in the summer. For her going outside was much colder.
In just 5 minutes outside in 50F and direct sunlight, Santina was already shivering and had to be taken back inside. Kili and Truman managed to spend an hour outside at the park freeflight in 40F weather and sunlight. The flying definitely helped keep them warmer but since they take turns to fly and the other bird sits, flying wasn't the biggest factor.
This is why aviary parrots can manage most above freezing temperatures but housebirds should not be taken outside in strongly contrasting temperatures. As a rule of thumb, 10F less than indoors is no problem at all. 20F less than indoors is usually ok if it's sunny, not windy, and not for a prolonged period of time. Less than that only if they are under your jacket (and briefly) or well acclimated to colder temperatures. Avoid taking baby, old, sick, or frail birds outside in colder temperatures. If the bird's feet or beak feel cold, it is definitely time to move it inside and you should generally try not to stay out long enough for it to get to that. More tips on taking parrots outside in winter here.
I haven't given much thought to what Kili & Truman prefer as treats in a long time. The initial process for discovering a bird's favorite treats involves offering variety and watching what order they eat things in. But it's been years since I've done that with these two and with time I've began to notice that it doesn't make much difference what I give them. They are always content with what they get.
During a lot of my training I use Roudybush pellets as rewards for flight recall and training because that's what my parrots normally consume and it's healthier for them than eating other stuff. By teaching them to work for pellets it has made their performance a lot more reliable. There is much less of the "well I would come to you for a sunflower seed but I think I'd rather pass if you've only got a safflower..." attitude when they know what they'll get but yet prefer it.
So now I put it to the test, after years of healthy eating habits with uncolored Roudybush Maintenance pellets as the staple of their diet, what do Kili & Truman prefer when given the choice?
10 for 10 Kili picked Roudybush pellets over sunflower seeds. Truman was 8 for 10 on this trial run but anecdotally prefers pellets even more than Kili. I later discovered he was trying to outsmart me by grabbing the seed so he could get the pellet too so I don't really think it counts! Anecdotally I would say that I've noticed a 9/10 typical preference for the birds to take pellets over seeds. Once in a while they just like something different for fun or variety and that's perfectly normal. If pellets make up the dominant portion of their diet, this is absolutely considered to be more healthy by avian veterinarians.
if you think about it, the same holds true for people. People who are used to healthy eating can enjoy healthy food more and don't feel forced to eat right. I know when I am out and about and active a lot, I will sooner go for a healthy meal than junk food and it's the same with my birds. They exercise a lot and work hard and at the end of the day, they want what will sustain their bodies and not just some momentary pleasure at the expense of their long term health.
Santina has converted to Roudybush Pellets readily and predominantly gets pellets for training as well! I'm not certain she would qualify as well as Kili/Truman in a similar test but I can tell you she runs down her perch and jumps on my arm to get a pellet so we're definitely on the right track.
Interestingly the same results continued for pellets vs nuts as long as the nut wasn't bigger than the pellet. However, the birds will often go for a small piece of pellet over an average piece of nut or seed. Moral of the story is that parrots that are cared for using my method, choose healthy eating. If they are choosing healthy eating then we can be assured that they are content with the healthy food we are feeding them. Happiness and healthiness go hand in hand and are the basis of my approach. Learn how to give your parrot the Wizard's treatment from my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots.