While I am abroad traveling through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, my parrots are being cared for back at home. I am posting this blog from Terhan, Iran! Sorry for not being on top of my facebook and other pages lately, the dictatorial regime in Iran blocks much of the web because they are afraid of their people experiencing freedom and good things.
It has only been 2 months since I brought Santina home from the rescue but I already had a scheduled trip. No problem. I worked extensively during the time I had to prepare her as best as possible for my eventual absence. But not only that, I prepared her to receive care from someone other than me.
Kili & Truman are so used to the routine that they don't blink an eye so I won't be discussing them. Santina on the other hand is less accustomed to being cared for by different people. From what I know, she was accustomed to being cared for by a single person until she ended up at the rescue. Even at the rescue it was the same people all the time. Santina had little experience being cared for by different people. Bonding with her in such a short span of time was a major achievement but unbonding her so that she would tolerate someone else was an even bigger one.
In the weeks prior to my departure, I began the process of preparing Santina for the fact that nobody will be around for most of the day. I jumbled her schedule with me or didn't come entirely (except minimum food/water care) to prepare her for this change. I tried to socialize her toward people but at this stage this is complicated because she doesn't want others to handle her.
A week prior to my departure, I began having my brother come over during evenings to begin the transition process. The first time was so that he could watch what I do with her and subsequent times were to take on more and more of the process. Although it would conceivably be possible to change her food/water and wash the floor without ever handling her, this would be difficult. If she were so aggressive that her caretaker could not remove her from the room, then it would be awkward to impossible to get her dishes. Thus we set the goal of two step ups per session. One to come out of the cage room and one to go back in.
During my trip, Santina would be on pellet freefeed. She would not be provided with alternate foods because they are not essential and it would make more difficulty and mess for my brother to take care. The feeding is simple and a non-factor. What was more of a concern was how to get Santina to be good about stepping up for my brother without much motivation for food. If this were Kili or Truman, this would not be a problem as they are used to stepping up for anyone. But Santina is not.
So we decided to leverage Santina's favorite thing to get her to step up, nuts. She would not get any nuts the entire time I was gone except when stepping up. No foraging toys, no training, no freebies. The only way she could have her fill of nuts would be to by stepping up for my brother when needed. We practiced this before I left. Between my brother's confidence in handling her and her desire to get to have a nut, there was no problem teaching her to step up for him. Thus the routine became step up for a nut, eat it outside cage room and watch the clean up, and then step up for another nut to go back inside.
Just to play it safe we also did some practice of having my brother put Santina on a scale and in the carrier so that he would be able to take care of those things if necessary. It was much the same as the other step up exercises and proved to be no problem.
I showed my brother how to clean and take care of all other bird specific business and let him practice a few times before I left. This was both good for him to learn, for me to gain confidence that things will be alright, and to introduce Santina to the way things would be for a few weeks. Here is a video we recorded of the final practice session before I left that shows how my brother would be taking care of Santina while I was away.
I get often asked about leaving parrots home while going on vacation. Well this article is about how going away on vacation ends up being a vacation for the parrots as well! There are many reasons we can't bring our feathered friends with us whether its safety, accommodations, going abroad, or just needing to get away from the squawking and cleaning for a little bit. So this article is about making your absence tolerable for your parrots.
The first and definitely most important thing for preparing your parrots for your absence is getting them used to being without you beforehand. When we hear of stories of an owner leaving a parrot home a week to come back and find it plucked naked, often this is a result of the parrot being completely spoiled with attention and then suddenly deserted. But just like taming, independence also takes some getting used to for our feathered pals. Even if you don't see yourself going on vacation any time soon, it is still important to maintain a controlled relationship. What if someone in your family becomes ill and needs care? What if you get sent some place for work? There are many unexpected scenarios besides just taking a vacation that may require our parrots to cope without our presence. The only way to prepare them for this is by letting them experience this beforehand.
Your parrot needs to be just as capable of spending time alone as with you. Surely many of us are more concerned with taming and getting them to behave with us, but we must not take this too far and make them entirely dependent on us either. This is why (both for training and vacation purposes) I recommend limited out of cage and interaction time daily. There are minimums and they are much discussed, but I also believe there should be maximums. It's impossible to put exact numbers on it but the point is that your parrot needs to spend enough time in its cage on its own every day that it won't entirely freak out when suddenly you aren't around a day.
It is important to provide good cage enrichment and activities. Of course this is much discussed elsewhere and is a good practice all the time. While maintaining routine is convenient and reassuring, it's important to be spontaneous from time to time. Yes, I try to be home to see my parrots on time, feed them at the normal time, etc. But once in a while if I need to be out late or decide to put them to sleep late than usual, it just prepares them for dealing with out of the ordinary scenarios. If I actually end up going a very long time without a natural break in the routine, I may opt to not take them out a certain day despite being home just to simulate this. But normally there are real reasons for this to happen so I generally save it for these occasions.
Don't be scared to leave the parrots home for an entire day or weekend (preferably with someone to keep an eye on them). If you've never done it before, be sure to see how they do a weekend without your presence prior to leaving them for an entire week or more. Try progressively longer durations. If you are leaving the birds alone for 12-48 hours without anyone to check up on them, consider leaving multiple sources of food and water in case any are spoiled or contaminated. A water bottle is preferable. Never leave parrots completely unattended for more than 2 days at a time though because if anything does happen to their food/water supply, they won't be able to make it much longer than this without intervention.
A question that frequently comes up is if it is better to leave parrots at home and have someone come to take care or to bring them along with their cages to someone else's home. Unless it cannot be arranged, I think it is much better and safer for the parrots to stay home. Not only are they familiar at home but they will also feel safer. To take both their favorite person away and the familiarity of their surroundings is more stressful. People worry that they'll get bored without people around, but I think if you make the above mentioned preparations they will be equipped to deal with it. Another thing is that the parrots are significantly safer remaining in your own home. As a parrot owner, you've probably spent years making your home bird safe. It is easy to begin to take this for granted and forget dangers they could face in someone else's home such as teflon fumes, other pets, children, ceiling fans, windows, etc. For all these reasons, it is best to have a sitter come briefly to your home to care for the parrots each day rather than take the birds to their own home.
When having someone birdsit for you, one of the most important considerations is whether or not they will handle the parrots. In most cases, unless the person is both familiar with parrots and specifically familiar with handling yours, it is safer not to have them let the parrots out. As much as it sucks to stay in the cage for two weeks straight, it is safer than being let loose in your home by someone who can't put them back away. Still, discuss a contingency plan with the birdsitter about what to do if they get out and cannot be returned to their cage. The sitter should leave the cage doors open and cage loaded with food so that the parrot can eventually go back inside to feed.
When I am away, I like to leave my parrots more toys than usual to keep them busy. I put in several new toys to provide with more activity and material for the parrots to play with. However, I also like to leave a few old favorite toys for familiarity as well. I make sure not to rearrange the perches just before leaving instead favoring a tried and true cage layout. This is not the time to experiment with new kinds of toys though, so any new toys that are provided should be similar to safe/successful toys in the past.
I usually end up writing a basic manual covering all things that need to be taken care of and possible contingencies for my bird sitter. So not only do I tell about the basic things that need to be done but also what to do in case there are problems and I cannot be reached. This includes biting, escape, illness, vet care, etc. At the same time, I try to reduce unnecessary activities by as much as possible not to burden the sitter too much.
The birds are fed exclusively pellets while I'm gone. Why? This is safest, simplest, and most nutritious. This is the least burden but also least responsibility for the care taker. The parrots are guaranteed to get all the nutrition they require, the food won't spoil, and it's very easy to guarantee that they don't run out of food in any way. Although I normally follow strict food management, I have my birds overfed while I'm gone. A normal pellet meal won't even line the entire bottom of their food bowls but when I'm gone I have the bowls nearly topped off. I make sure the birds are left with enough food to last several days despite the sitter coming daily. This is to ensure that if for any reason the sitter skips a day, the birds have enough food and water to get by. While we are concerned about long term diet and variety in their meals, a 100% unlimited pellet diet for a few weeks won't do any harm for a parrot that is accustomed to eating pellets.
Aritos, Latin American Onion Ring Parrot Chips (Ara + Fritos = Aritos?)
Finally, the reason I called this parrot vacation is because if done right, this can be as much of a relaxing vacation for your parrots as it is for you. Recently I spent a week traveling in Central America while my brother came once a day to take care of Kili and Truman. He is fully qualified to handle them so he would let them out for as much as an hour every day to fly around. They couldn't be more thrilled! I came back to find they had assumed full control of the situation! My computer mouse was destroyed, poop all over the carpets, and the birds helping themselves to places I would never allow them to go. Not only this, but they stuffed their crops to the brink for every day nonstop. No discipline, no food management, no responsibility. It truly was a vacation for them as well. But this is ok. Let them have it easy while you're gone and then work the taming, training, and order back in once you return.
So with all the preparations that were made over time, it was no trouble at all to leave the parrots home for a week. I got to take a vacation and do some traveling. Meanwhile Kili & Truman also got to take a vacation from training and just enjoy being wild for a little bit.