Hello, and welcome to my site! This blog is primarily about parrots, and contains several articles I have written for various parrot magazines, primarily Parrots. A couple things were also written specifically for this blog, and I also post interesting news stories about parrots and other birds as I find them.
Please click HERE if you would like to go to a directory of the site with a list of all the posts I’ve made. There are articles about wild parrots, caring for captive parrots, and parrot behavior, along with news articles about parrots.
Click this link to read more about me and my animals: About the Author
Where I live (Alberta), the bird diversity decreases quite dramatically during the winter. Warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, shorebirds, and most waterfowl head south for the winter. However, the birds that do stay behind include chickadees, creepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, waxwings, ravens, grouse, most owls, jays, and magpies, so the birding is still good. Some finches, merlins, juncos and kinglets stick around too. Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Canada Geese will also tough out the winter in areas where there is open water, such as where treated sewage effluent keeps areas of rivers and lakes warmer than normal. A few Bald Eagles will stick around and hunt the waterfowl, and eagles hunting ducks and geese can sometimes be seen right in Lethbridge, Calgary, or Edmonton.
There are also some species that show up in Alberta only in the winter and they make winter birdwatching quite interesting. These northern birds nest in the Arctic and often head south in winter in search of food. Such birds include Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and redpolls. Redpolls are members of the finch family and there are two species: the Common Redpoll and the Hoary Redpoll. The two species look alike, although hoaries are paler overall and have white rumps. Common Redpolls have streaked rumps.
Redpolls are birds of the north. Common Redpolls breed in Alaska, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In Nunavut, they breed on the mainland and southern Baffin Island. Hoary (AKA Arctic) Redpolls nest even further north, in northern Alaska, Greenland, and the northern parts of Canada’s three territories, including northern Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island (the northernmost of the Arctic islands). Common and Hoary Redpolls also occur in northern Europe and Asia.
Many redpolls do head south in winter, not necessarily to escape the cold but to search for food. Many spend the winter in central and southern Canada. However, some still overwinter as far north as central Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In years where redpoll numbers are high and there is a lack of small tree seeds (such as birch seeds) up north, they may start to show up as far south as the central United States in search of food. These influxes of redpolls into the central USA are referred to as “irruptions.”
When and where the redpolls show up varies from year to year. Unlike many birds that breed and overwinter in the same area each year, redpolls are wanderers. A redpoll that overwintered in the north one year may head thousands of kilometers south the next year and some will fly thousands of kilometers in one year. For example, a Common Redpoll banded in Belgium was later captured in China, 8350 km away. Another Common Redpoll banded in Fairbanks, Alaska during one winter was recaptured 5000 km away in Montreal, Quebec the next winter – a very impressive journey for such a small bird!
Redpolls will happily visit feeders and they particularly like black Nyger (or “Niger”) seeds. So, if you live in Canada or the northern US and want to see redpolls, try putting out a feeder stocked with Nyger seeds in winter. If there aren’t any redpolls in the area, you may still attract other finches, such as Pine Siskins. Like redpolls, Pine Siskins are finches that wander North America and migrate in response to varying food supplies.
Redpolls are very tough birds and can tolerate extremely low temperatures. After all, temperatures can dip to -45 C even in their ‘southern’ winter ranges. This is particularly impressive since these birds are small – without the feathers, they’re about the size of a human thumb. They also have to go twelve or more hours without eating during long northern nights. Most small birds need to eat frequently because of their high metabolic rates. So, how do redpolls withstand northern winters?
First, to help them make it through long nights, redpolls have an extra pouch in their throats (besides the crop) to store seeds in. The seeds can then be used as a fuel source throughout the nights. A redpoll can store up to 2 g of seeds in its pouch, and considering that redpolls are only 10-12 g, that is a lot of food! Besides Nyger seeds from feeders, they often feed on birch, alder, or aspen seeds.
Redpolls and other northern finches have another way of reducing the amount of energy they use at night – they undergo ‘controlled hypothermia.’ That is, during the night, they allow their body temperatures to drop by about 10 C. Chickadees and House Sparrows do this as well. The reason they drop their temperatures is to conserve energy. The birds will use less energy to maintain a body temperature of ~ 30 C than a body temperature of ~ 40 C. The disadvantage is that they cannot move around well with such a low body temperature, but that doesn’t matter too much when they are sleeping.
Redpolls and many other small northern birds will also ‘clump’ together in tree cavities – or snow tunnels – to conserve heat. Redpolls in particular often tunnel into the snow to stay warm. On very cold days and nights, the ‘subnivean space’ (area under the snow) may be many degrees warmer than the area above the snow. Ptarmigan and grouse will also rest underneath the snow to stay warm. At rest, redpolls will also fluff up their feathers to trap air between them. The extra air trapped between the feathers does add some extra insulation. Additionally, redpolls will grow very thick coats of down before the winter season.
For me, redpolls mark the coming and going of winter. They tend to show up where I live in December, and head out by March or early April. I usually manage to see some every year and some years they absolutely inundate my backyard feeders. They definitely make winter birdwatching much more interesting as they can only be seen in the winter in many areas.
(Jan. 12 2014 edit: This year does not seem to be an irruption year. Very few redpolls showed up on bird counts in Alberta and some regions had none at all!).
Groth, J. 2001. “Finches and Allies.” In: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” Elphick, C., Dunning, J. B. Jr., and Sibley, D. A., Eds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Newton I. 2006. Advances in the study of irruption. Ardea. 94: 433-460.
Reinertsen R. E. 1983. Nocturnal hypothermia and its energetic significance for small birds living in the arctic and subarctic regions. A review. Polar Research 1 n. s. 269-284.
Back to blogging! I do want to write more about native North American birds here, but first I want to write about the most common and popular of the macaw species: the Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna).
Of all the large macaw species that are available as pets in North America, the Blue and Gold Macaw is the most common. This is likely because they breed well in captivity (if set up and cared for properly), they can often talk quite well, and they are beautiful. They are not globally endangered and many were imported into North America until the early 90s.
The Blue and Gold Macaw is the quintessential parrot – big, bold, colourful, and talkative. In the wild, they can be found in the northern half of South America and southern Panama in a variety of lowland habitats, including city parks. They feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds and their powerful beaks can crack open very tough shells.
Wild blue and golds are often seen in small flocks, and outside of the breeding season, they will often sleep in groups. However, even within a group, it can be very evident which birds constitute breeding pairs, as pairs will typically fly and feed close together, even outside of the breeding season. When I was in Brazil, I noticed most of the macaws I saw seemed to be paired off. Even within flocks, it wasn’t hard to tell who the couples were.
Macaws as Pets
As far as their suitability as pets goes, Blue and Gold Macaws can be either phenomenal companions or a pet owner’s worst nightmare. It all depends on the owner’s expectations. Due to their size, loud voices, and powerful beaks, macaws are generally considered to be high maintenance pets.
First, because of their strong beaks and curiosity, macaws cannot typically be allowed to freely roam in a house without supervision. Thus, a cage is needed and a suitable macaw cage will often cost $1000 or more. However, a macaw should never be confined to a cage for its whole life, and thus macaw keepers often must invest in a large parrot stand (or two) for the bird to perch on when outside of the cage. Even with access to interesting bird stands, many macaws will roam around a house. An outdoor cage or aviary is also a nice thing for a macaw to have.
I recently (a year and a half ago) got a twenty-three year old Blue and Gold Macaw named Pteri. She is the bird in all of the pictures accompanying this article. Her cage is in the living room of the house, but she is generally out of her cage if someone is home to watch her. She has a big parrot stand downstairs to perch on and a few places to perch upstairs. Her parrot stand also has chew toys hanging on it. However, she still likes to walk around the house and climb on the bannisters. She sometimes climbs up the bannisters and slides down them. She’s quite good about not destroying things she shouldn’t but will sometimes try to chew furniture and walls. If she does that, she is given something more suitable to chew on. If she’s really bored, she’ll climb on the curtains.
Speaking of chewing, macaws do need things to chew on. Pteri does like to chew on wood, baskets, pine cones and other similar items and her cage is generally stocked with safe chew toys. She has some store bought toys, but macaw toys are generally quite expensive (especially considering their purpose is to be destroyed). A lot of her chew toys are natural items from outside. Note that it is important to be sure that natural plants given to parrots are nontoxic and have not been sprayed with pesticides.
One question that nearly all parrot owners are asked is “does s/he talk?” Blue and Gold Macaws are often very good talkers. Pteri can say hi, good morning, water, what, apple, popcorn, corn, pasta, cat, hot, and parrot, and she can laugh and bark like a dog. She also uses a few words appropriately. For example, she greets people who come in the house with an enthusiastic “Hi!” and she says “water” when ever I change her water or give her a spray bath. She also says “Good morning!” in the morning. She uses other words at random and doesn’t appear to know what they mean.
Although many macaws I know can talk, not all macaws speak well and even macaws that can talk will often make a lot of loud screeches and squawks. Pteri often talks to herself when no one is around and she will also screech periodically. Her screeches are high pitched and extremely loud. Such vocalizations can often be minimized using behavioural modification techniques, but it takes patience and it’s unreasonable to expect a macaw to be a quiet animal. I also tend to tell people who want a parrot primarily because a talking animal appeals to them to rethink their decision. Not all parrots talk, and some who can talk only learn a few phrases. And as I always say, the novelty of having a talking bird will wear off!
The Mess Factor
Macaws (along with cockatoos) are among the messiest birds one can keep. They of course poop a lot, but they can also make a mess with their food and toys. Pteri loves nuts so her diet does include some walnuts, pecans, hazel nuts, and almonds in the shell. She sometimes receives Brazil nuts as well. She always somehow manages to get the shells outside of her cage, so I have to clean that up. The woody debris from her chew toys also ends up outside of her cage as well. Still, she isn’t as bad as Mitri, my Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, who actually kicks food bits, wood, and paper outside of his cage.
That Huge Beak…
A lot of people find macaws to be very intimidating. That’s not completely unreasonable, as macaws do have large, strong beaks. A large macaw can slice through a walnut or hazelnut shell like it’s butter. Macaw bites are painful.
However, there are steps one can take to minimize the likelihood of being bitten. Macaws are not subtle in their body language and will often give warnings before they bite. An agitated macaw will likely lower her head, pin her pupils and erect her head feathers. Don’t ever try to touch or pick up a macaw who is giving such warning signals. Some macaws will also lunge and shriek before biting. Pteri does that, but she only rarely actually bites.
Training a macaw from a young age to step up on an arm or a hand-held perch can also make her easier to handle. Parrots trained with positive techniques are less likely to become biters than parrots trained with force. A macaw is also less likely to become a “one-person bird” if handled by multiple people. I’ve met many macaws – primarily blue and golds and greenwings – who have remained quite friendly to even strangers into adulthood.
It’s quite important that a potential macaw owner not be intimidated by the bird. Macaws often become very difficult when their owners become afraid of them. What can happen is that the bird will lunge or bite once, and the owner then becomes afraid of the bird. As the bird is handled less frequently, she will become more unsure of people and will become more likely to nip. That results in less handling, and the frustrated macaw may become more bitey and noisy. Macaw owners must be comfortable around large birds so that doesn’t happen.
Macaws are very social birds and they can be quite demanding of attention. A macaw is not the type of bird that can be left in a cage all day. Most will want to be with their people. Pteri seems happy as long as she’s perched near me or my husband. She talks back to people who talk to her (although her responses don’t always make sense) and she will yell to be let out of her cage if she feels she’s been in there too long. Macaws are also quite capable of learning tricks. In short, they are very interactive, high energy and demanding pets.
Most macaws will do well on a good pelleted diet supplemented with nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and other healthful ‘people’ foods.
I noted a few times above that macaws respond well to training using positive reinforcement. A few books about parrot training are available and include The Parrot Problem Solver by Barbara Heidenreich and Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson.
The best book written about macaws is, alas, out of print. It’s called The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding, and Conservation and it’s by Joanne Abramson (author), Brain L. Speer (author), Jorgen B. Thomsen (editor), and Marsha Mello (illustrator). Used copies are not cheap, but if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a book, try finding a copy at a library. I had to use an inter-library loan to get a copy to look at.
There are a couple of basic macaw care guides available from Avian Publications as well.
Part of my job this summer as an interpreter in a national park involves doing “point duties.” This means I set up information displays about specific topics at popular spots in the park and answer people’s questions.
This week, I was set up in front of a popular waterfall. Standing on the rocks in the creek the waterfall flowed into were two small, noisy grey birds. They were bopping up and down while making very loud beeping noises. Another grey bird would would eventually arrive and feed them.
These birds were hard not to notice and of course people wanted to know what type of birds they were. What puzzled people is that these weren’t the typical sorts of birds that are usually seen by water. They weren’t ducks or herons but looked more like songbirds.
They were dippers! More precisely, American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus). Dippers are in the order that contains the songbirds (Passeriformes) but unlike other songbirds they are largely aquatic and inhabit fast-moving streams. Dippers are in the family Cinclidae, which contains five species. Only one species is found in North America, and the rest occur in South America, Europe, Asia, and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In Europe, they are called “Water Ouzels.”
Dippers are the only type of songbird that dive and walk underwater. Despite being aquatic birds, they do not have webbed feet and instead have typical songbird feet, which have three toes pointing forward and one (the “hallux”) pointing backward. The term for that configuration is “anisodactyl.”
Despite the lack of webbed feet, dippers do have several adaptations that make them well suited for an aquatic lifestyle. Their preen glands (“uropygial glands”), which are situated above their tails, are extremely large for their size. In fact, they are about ten times as large as the glands seen in other similar-sized songbirds. Preen glands secrete an oily substance that contains a complex mixture of waxes and other fats. When a dipper preens, it will rub its beak on the preen gland and will proceed to rub the oil on its feathers. The oil helps waterproof the feathers and prevents the barbules from breaking.
Dippers also have flaps in their nostrils that prevent water from entering their noses. While foraging, dippers often repeatedly dip their heads into streams. This bobbing or dipping motion gives them their name.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of dipper biology is the fact that they often stay by mountain streams all year, even in areas where winter temperatures drop well below zero. I’ve seen dippers out foraging in -20 C weather. All they need is open water, and mountain streams in Canada may contain unfrozen parts in winter if they flow fast enough. Many dippers overwinter in northwest Canada and even Alaska, although they will move if their streams freeze over. Their highly waterproof feathers and ultra-thick coats of down contribute to their ability to tolerate some very harsh conditions.
Dippers need to be able to go long periods of time without breathing while they forage underwater. They can indeed go longer without oxygen (30 seconds) than other song bird species can. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like long but it is for such a small bird. Dippers have higher concentrations of hemoglobin in their blood than do other songbirds. Hemoglobin is the pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen and delivers it to tissues. Since dippers can carry a great deal of oxygen in their blood, they can spend a lot of time underwater. They feed primarily on aquatic invertebrates and must often submerge themselves to find them.
To forage underwater, dippers must be able to see underwater. Their irises actually have better developed sphincter muscles associated with them than do the irises of related songbirds. When a dipper goes underwater, the muscle will contract and allow the bird to focus its eyes while underwater. The iridial sphincter muscle is actually strong enough to alter the shape of the lens.
Many aquatic birds (such as ducks and geese) go through a molt at the end of summer that leaves them temporarily flightless. This is because they replace their flight feathers all at once. Although dippers are very distantly related to the Anseridae (family that contains ducks and geese) they do this as well. In late summer, dippers molt out their flight and tail feathers and become incapable of flight at this time. They can fly during the rest of the year, although I rarely see them flying far from streams. Their wings are quite short and stubby, and therefore function well as flippers.
So, if you’re ever hiking by a mountain stream in western North America, keep your eye out for dippers. They may look plain, but are quite tough and fascinating birds!
First, a link to an interesting article about the problem-solving abilities of cockatoos:
Goffin’s Cockatoos living at the University of Vienna were able to manipulate a complex lock to retrieve a nut. What’s extraordinary about this is that they were not trained to do that.
The fact that the cockatoos often explore their environment using their sense of touch seemed to help them solve the task. They would feel the nuts and bolts of the lock and learn how they worked by manipulating them with their tongues and feet.
My own Lesser Sulphur-crested cockatoo, Mitri, likes to play with nuts and bolts. He actually started to take his cage apart by removing nuts from bolts.
My husband had to replace the regular nuts with lock nuts (that Mitri cannot unscrew). Mitri is also good at escaping from cages.
The same research group at the University of Vienna also found that the Goffin’s Cockatoos could make their own tools to retrieve a nut out of their reach. Click the below link to find out more:
Mitri also uses tools, but not to retrieve nuts. He uses popsicle sticks to scratch himself.
One species of cockatoo, the Black Palm Cockatoo, uses tools as part of a courtship display.
Cockatoos are amazing birds.
On another note, I noted in my last post that I’m working in Waterton Lakes National Park this summer. I’ve been posting some of the photos I’ve taken there on flickr. Click the below link to see the album:
Back to blogging! I have been too busy to do much writing during this last semester because I was teaching three classes and two labs at two different university campuses in two different cities. I barely had time to breathe. However, one of the classes was a fourth-year ornithology class I particularly enjoy teaching and had done before (the other two were new ones). I took Peggy to the first lecture and Ripley to the last lecture and they were quite popular.
I am going to continue to blog about parrots, but am going to start to write about the native birds of North America as well, since I really enjoy bird watching and photographing the wild birds of Alberta (where I live).
On the subject of parrots, my Green-cheek Conure mix, Chiku, was featured on the cover of Parrots magazine. I wrote an article for that issue on Pyrrhura conures.
I lifted the above image from the magazine publisher’s website. I plan to write a few more articles for Parrots this summer.
Unfortunately, a lot of specialty magazines for bird owners have quit publishing recently. Bird Talk stopped publishing a few months ago, and Good Bird stopped publishing this month. Good Bird had been an ‘online only’ magazine for a couple of years, but Bird Talk was always a printed magazine. I had been noticing that Bird Talk was progressively shrinking during its last few years of publication (which I didn’t like) but I’m still disappointed that it went under.
So, what’s left for parrot magazines? There’s Parrots magazine (www.parrotmag.com), which is based out of the UK, and a new one called In Your Flock (https://www.inyourflock.com/), which is based out of the US. I subscribed to the online version of In Your Flock since the publisher hadn’t specified a price for shipping to Canada. However, I recently received a paper copy of the latest issue, so that was a nice surprise.
There’s also Australian Bird Keeper (http://www.birdkeeper.com.au/), which is based out of Australia. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive for people outside of Australia due to shipping charges.
There are a few free online bird publications too. Copies of Parrot Life magazine can be downloaded at http://www.hagen.com/hari/welcome.html . There’s also the Winged Things newsletter – click HERE to download April’s issue. There are instructions in the .pdf on how to subscribe and access past issues.
I’m sure I’ve missed things, so if anyone would like to add a link to a parrot-related publication, use the comments section (click the comments link at the top of the post) to let me know. Please do note that I have sporadic internet access this summer, which means it can take me time to approve comments.
Edit: Oh yeah, there’s also “Companion Parrot Online” (www.companionparrotonline) published by Sally Blanchard. It’s online now, but if you like paper magazines, you can order back issues.
To end this post, I am going to share a nice photo of a Mountain Bluebird I took last week. I’m working as an interpreter at Waterton Lakes National Park this summer and have been doing a lot of birding and hiking during my ‘off time.’
Back to blogging! I’ve been extremely busy at work so I haven’t been able to post much during the past three months. However, I should be able to write a few new posts during the winter break.
For this post, I am going to outline what I put in the home-made bird food mix I feed to my birds. My birds do eat a base diet of either pellets (for the parrots), seeds (for the finches and grass parakeets), or game bird mix (quail) but I do feed them all a mix of cooked grain and fresh vegetables a few times per week. I usually make a large batch and freeze little batches in zip-lock baggies. That way, I only have to prepare the mix every few weeks.
The ‘chop’ I tend to make usually contains a base of grains and pseudograins. ‘Pseudograins’ include amaranth and quinoa. I call them pseudograins, since they are technically not grains (they are not from plants in the grass family), but they are prepared in a similar way. Amaranth was used as a staple food by the Aztecs, and it is still grown in limited quantities in Mexico. It is also grown in India. Quinoa was domesticated in the Andes and today, most quinoa is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Quinoa is starting to become easier to find and most large grocery stores carry it, in their bulk sections or with the rice. Amaranth can be trickier to find but many health-food stores carry it.
I use amaranth and/or quinoa because they contain all of the essential amino acids that birds need. Amaranth in particular contains a good amount of lysine and methionine, which are the two amino acids that are likely to be lacking in a seed diet. Methionine is needed for proper feather formation. Birds can convert it to the amino acid cysteine, which is a large component of the proteins found in feathers. I have found that finches and grass parakeets will eat quinoa or amaranth.
The grains I use vary with each batch but can include quick-cook barley, brown rice, millet, whole wheat couscous, or bulgur. I don’t use white rice, as it doesn’t have much in the way of vitamins, minerals or protein. I cook all grains and pseudograins.
I also add finely-chopped, raw leafy greens to the mix. Other than the society finches, my birds in general won’t eat greens on their own. If I grind them up and add them to a mix containing other foods, they will consume them. The two greens I use most are dandelion greens and kale. Both are very high in vitamin A and calcium. Kale in particular is not only high in calcium, but the calcium it contains can be absorbed by the body quite easily. I don’t use spinach, since the calcium in spinach is not well-absorbed (by humans or animals).
I usually include hulled sesame seeds in the mix, because they contain calcium, and chia and flax seeds, because they are a good source of essential fatty acids. The birds also seem to like them.
Other items I may add include peas, shredded carrot, green beans, cooked lentils, corn, and chopped pepper. Birds will eat hot peppers, so I often use jalapeno peppers.
The mix will vary a bit each time I make it, so the birds do eat a good variety of food. All of my birds do eat this mix, including the finches. I used to leave the larger bits, like corn, peas, green beans and carrot pieces out of the version I made for the finches, but when I gave the finches some mix that had those items, they would eat them by placing them under their feet and pecking at them.
This mix does not comprise the entire diet for my birds. The parrots eat pellets and the finches eat seeds. However, I do give them some of this mix a few times per week and they seem to enjoy it. There are other foods I feed them as well, including nuts, bananas, sprouted seeds, plain seeds, mango, muffins, cooked beans, and berries. The macaw in particular (I have a Blue and Gold Macaw now) receives more nuts than the other birds. I will also feed laying finches or molting birds cooked egg white.
I’ll end this post with a picture of my Maroon-bellied Conure, Lucy, eating. Birds are very messy eaters.