Archive for September, 2008

Squawk Therapy: Helping Students with a Cockatoo

September 26, 2008 1 comment

Here’s a news story from:

Squawk therapy: Helping students with a cockatoo

The Chronicle-Telegram Staff

ELYRIA — Move over therapy dogs, there’s a winged one in town.

Max, a 1½-year-old medium sulfur crested cockatoo, makes monthly visits to Ely Elementary School in Elyria along with his owner, Bre Crum, an intervention specialist for Elyria Schools.

Crum, 33, works with 19 sixth-grade students who are learning disabled, cognitively delayed, medically fragile or have ADHD. She uses Max’s visits as a reward for her students, who earn tickets to see their fine-feathered friend.

“I thought it would be neat to expose the kids to a big bird. Some of them will never get an opportunity to interact with a large bird on a personal level,” Crum said. “It works as an incentive for them.”

Besides the motivating reward system Crum has in place, she said there was an unexpected, yet positive, twist to Max’s visits.

The students learned self-control techniques, something they can take with them and use throughout their lives.

“You can’t have the wiggles if you want to see Max, as you cannot approach a bird if you are not calm and collected,” Crum said. “So I worked with them on calming strategies. To get close to him or even to hold him, they had to learn how to relax. Soon the students were bringing themselves down, which was awesome to witness.”

The pet lover got the idea from seeing a golden retriever, also named Max, reading with children at the Avon Lake Public Library. Crum has six dogs, but confesses that none of them would behave well enough to come for a school visit, let alone become certified.

Crum also has two other birds, four cats, two rabbits, a hamster and pond frogs.

Max’s school visits are no dog and pony show. Crum carries him around with her (he’s clipped, so he can’t fly away), and lets the children interact with him throughout the day. She uses his visits to teach mini lessons on animal care and Australia, his natural habitat.

After the lesson, Max and Crum “conference” with individual students, and then Max relaxes on the back of a chair while the students continue their work. When Max is done working, he likes to nap. He puffs up his feathers, pulls up his right foot and falls asleep.

But no matter how tired he may be, he’s always wide awake when students read to him. One of Crum’s students particularly enjoys reading to Max, as he’s determined to teach the bird to read. But it’s the boy who is benefiting, as he’s reading more, and Max doesn’t care if he makes a mistake, Crum said.

Ely Elementary School Principal Jack Dibee has embraced the idea of Max.

“I have been amazed at how the students have responded,” Dibee said via e-mail. “Mrs. Crum really likes to use as many creative ways as she can to motivate students and help them learn. This has been a great opportunity for the kids. It’s great to see Mrs. Crum’s enthusiasm to try different ways to help them learn.”

While Max has no official certification as a therapy bird, he hasn’t ruffled any feathers at Ely Elementary. He did scare a teacher once when he was hanging out on a copy machine, and — of course — there’s the occasional “accident,” but the kids think that is “really cool,” according to Crum.

Max may be the teacher’s pet at school, but he does have a mischievous side at home. He plays in his water, hisses at the dogs, picks at their toenails and even teases them by saying, “C’mon go potty.” Most cockatoos aren’t completely vocal until age 5, when they should be up to saying about 500 words.

Crum, an Eaton Township resident who herself has ADHD, became interested in working with special needs children while doing a service project while a student at Elyria Catholic High School. She went on to receive her bachelor’s in education from Bowling Green State University and licensure from Cleveland State University, and she is currently pursuing a master’s at Ashland University.

“I know having something like a Max would have helped me when I was in school,” Crum said. “My hope was to be able to reach some of the children through a different way.”

At home, Crum notices that being around all her pets is very therapeutic. If her daughter, who also has ADHD, is worked up, Crum gives her some quiet time with one of the cats, and the stroking “brings her right back down.”

Crum estimates that Max will live to be about 80, so she sees a future in bird therapy when she retires. Until then?

“Max will continue to be an incentive on (the students’) crusade to learning,” she said.


Feather plucking in African Grey Parrots.

September 20, 2008 1 comment

I was looking through articles in Applied Animal Behaviour Science tonight for another project and came across an article on feather-plucking in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus). It provided more evidence that giving parrots the opportunity to forage decreases the chance that they will pluck their feathers. Parrots in the study who had foraging toys in their cage had better feather quality than ones whose food was supplied only in a bowl. The foraging toy was a tube with hole in it that the parrots could roll or swing around, depending on whether it was on the ground or hanging from the cage roof. Food would then fall out of the tube.

Now, I have met some parrots that pluck despite having lots of toys, so a lack of enrichment or foraging opportunities is unlikely to be the only cause of feather destruction in captive parrots. It does, however, seem to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

Here’s the title and abstract (summary of the article supplied by authors for the journal):

Foraging ‘enrichment’ as treatment for pterotillomania

Johannes T. Lumeij and Caroline J. Hommers

aDivision of Avian and Exotic Animal Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiteit Utrecht, Yalelaan 108, 3584 CM, Utrecht, The Netherlands bGrote Baan 9, 5445 PA Landhorst, The Netherlands


This study was performed to determine whether foraging ‘enrichment’ reduces self-directed psychogenic feather picking (pterotillomania) in parrots. A positive correlation between increased foraging time and improvement of feather score was hypothesised.

Eighteen pterotillomanic African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) were randomly assigned to experimental and control groups in a crossover design for two 1-month-periods. The experimental group received food in pipe feeders, while the controls received food in a bowl in the presence of two empty pipe feeders.

The 10-point plumage scoring system from Meehan was used as an indirect measurement of feather picking behaviour (better plumage results in higher score). Scoring took place before the study; after 4 weeks, just before the crossover; and 4 weeks after the crossover. Foraging time was calculated with a time-lapse recorder.

A pipe feeder significantly increased foraging time and feather score. The logistic model of the influence of foraging time on improvement of feather score was significant (Chi-square 7.1; d.f. = 1; P = 0.0076). Each hour extra spent on foraging multiplies the odds of improvement of feather score with a factor 2.9 (95% CI 1.2–7.0).

The results suggest that the redirected foraging hypothesis might be an explanation for pterotillomania in African grey parrots and provide an effective treatment strategy for this common behavioural disorder. The findings may have implications for the treatment of trichotillomania in humans.

Keywords: Psychogenic feather picking; Feather pecking; Impulse control disorder; Animal model; Trichotillomania; Redirected foraging behaviour; African grey parrot

Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111, 85.

The Importance of Environmental Enrichment for Pet Parrots

September 14, 2008 2 comments


This is an article I wrote that appeared in the August 2007 issue of Parrots magazine, although the below version does have a few minor changes and the pictures are a bit different.


Parrots are among the most intelligent of birds and their cognitive abilities have been compared to those of primates, including the great apes (Emery, 2006). Of course, it is this intelligence that often makes people desire a parrot as a pet, but it is also the reason so many parrot owners often give their pets up. Most people would not expect an intelligent and active primate to be happy in a living room cage, but the equally-intelligent parrots are often expected to live in this manner. The result is often a frustrated, bored parrot that screams or plucks out its own feathers. To figure out how we can prevent our companions from becoming unhappy, let’s first examine and compare the lives of wild and pet parrots.


The Life of a Wild Parrot

As it stands, wild and captive parrots live dramatically different lives. Most wild parrots begin their days at dawn, when they awake and begin calling to each other and start their daily morning foraging expedition. This may last a few hours and often takes the parrots far from their morning roosting site. During the afternoon – the warmest part of the day – most wild parrots pass the time by perching together in a group or pairs, where they rest, play, or preen themselves or a companion. Another foraging trip is made in the late afternoon, and afterwards, the parrots then return to a roosting spot where they settle together for the night.

Wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in Sydney, Australia.

Wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in Sydney, Australia.


The average wild parrot is rarely alone, as most species occur in family groups or large flocks. During the mating season, parrots tend to stay in pairs and mated pairs generally stay very close to one another, unless the female is in the nest and the male is out foraging for food. Raising young is a very demanding activity for wild parrots, and it keeps them active and occupied. However, this is the lifestyle they have spent one hundred and thirty million years evolving to live. Finding food and raising young in a complex environment and living in a large, social group has also lead to the evolution of relatively advanced cognitive abilities in parrots.


The Life of a Captive Parrot

Now consider the life of a captive parrot. Often, companion parrots have trimmed wings, no need to forage, and no young to care for. Their food is delivered to them in a bowl, and most of them spend a large proportion of their time in a cage. The majority of pet parrots do not have a same-species mate, as it is widely stated that a parrot who has bonded to another parrot will not make an affectionate companion. The relatively dull environment of a captive parrot compared to the environment they have evolved to live in makes captive parrots prone to displaying behaviors that their human owners find problematic, such as biting and screaming. Additionally, many will display stereotypies (i.e. doing the same motion over and over again), or will even pull out their own feathers. Some parrots, especially cockatoos, may go so far as to mutilate their own skin.


What is Environmental Enrichment?

Does this mean that our companion parrots are absolutely destined to live frustrated, unhappy lives? Not necessarily; at least not if the owner is willing to put some effort into enriching his parrot’s environment. Environmental enrichment refers to any modification to a captive animal’s environment that gives it an outlet to display its natural behaviours and keep it busy and occupied. These can include objects to chew on or play with, or hidden foods that the animal can forage for. It also generally includes placing animals in appropriate social groupings. By providing our companion parrots with an enriched environment, including a wide variety of food, and toys, along with opportunities to play and socialize, they can lead happier lives as pets and will be less prone to behaviour problems.

Jo, a Blue and Gold Macaw I birdy-sat for a couple months, chews on a stick.

Jo, a Blue and Gold Macaw I birdy-sat for a couple months, chews on a stick.


Why is Environmental Enrichment so Important?

Most conscientious parrot owners have long assumed that their animals would be happier living in an environment well stocked with toys and various objects to chew on, but unfortunately, it’s still not uncommon to see parrots in pet shops and homes living in bare cages. This should not be considered acceptable. During the past decade or so, a vast number of scientific studies on a large variety of species have shown that living in an enriched environment benefits an animal in many ways. Animals living in such an environment tend to be healthier, cognitively superior and far less prone to display repetitive, abnormal behaviors than animals living in a dull environment.


Very little formal research has been done on the needs of captive parrots specifically, but this has recently been remedied. A study was done on Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica) which suggested that parrots in an enriched environment are less likely to destroy their plumage than parrots kept in cages with only bowls of food and water (Meehan et al., 2003). The researchers started with two groups of eight 16-week old Amazons. One group had access only to food and water in bowls and a couple of perches. The second group had to “forage” for some of their food – in some cases, they had to chew through barriers or pull levers to get at food. They also had toys to chew, climb and swing on.


The parrots in the enriched group were at first wary of the different things in their cages. However, they soon figured out how to get at the food and they learned to use the chew toys. The plumage quality of each parrot was recorded throughout the study. After a year, six of the eight Amazons in the dull environment, and none of the birds in the enriched environment, began to shred or pluck their feathers.


The researchers were able to reverse the effect of feather picking in the six Amazons that did feather pick by putting them in the enriched environment. Initially, they were wary of their new surroundings, but they soon began using the toys. After several months, they stopped chewing their feathers. Each Amazon had been examined by a veterinarian to ensure that the feather chewing was not the result of an undiagnosed medical problem. The parrots all received a healthy, balanced diet, so the feather picking was not the result of any nutritional deficiencies.


The researchers also noted which parrots developed stereotypical behaviors – functionless, unvarying, repetitive behaviors that are often displayed by captive animals. In the Orange-winged Amazons, stereotypies seen included pacing, climbing in a circle, flipping around in one corner of the cage, and repeatedly chewing cage wire in one spot. The Amazons in the unenriched cage displayed more stereotypic behavior than the ones in the unenriched cages (Meehan et al., 2004).


An earlier study on Crimson-bellied Conures (Pyrrhura perlata perlata) also suggested that enrichment activities can alter the behavior of captive parrots in a positive way (van Hoek and King, 1997). A group of ten birds, eight of which had plucked or destroyed their own feathers, were observed throughout different time intervals in the daytime. In period one, the birds were kept in a cage with one type of perch and food and water presented in bowls. In period two, the birds were kept in a cage with various enrichments, including willow branches to chew on, hidden fruit to find, mineral blocks, egg cartons, newspapers, and fruit baskets. In period three, the parrots had access to a greater variety of perches, including rope and willow perches of varying sizes. In period four, a variety of perches and enrichments were provided. Before the study, observations were also made on the conures to determine how they behaved without any enrichments.


During period three, the conures spent more time flying and in period four, they spent more time climbing and hopping. The presence of enrichment items lead to a decrease in the time spent preening. All enrichments were used, but the conures preferred the fruit baskets and branches. Their feather condition stabilized but the conures did not become fully feathered by the end of the study. Even when feather-plucking tendencies are reduced or eliminated, it can take time for the feathers to molt out and grow back.


Clearly, captive parrots do not thrive when kept in dull cages for the decades they can live. Parrots in an enriched environment are less likely to display abnormal, stereotypic behaviors or feather plucking. So, how can we enrich our parrots’ environments?


How to Provide Enrichment for Pet Parrots

i) Chew Toys


Pet parrots generally love to chew and shred things. Wild parrots often have to chew shells or peels to get at their food and most species make their nests in tree hollows, so they often have to chew it up to make it bigger. As a result, most parrots have a strong drive to chew.

Fergus enjoys shredding paper.

Fergus enjoys shredding paper.


It’s easy to provide things for a parrot to chew on and destroy, and one does not need to spend money on expensive toys to do this. Unsprayed, non-toxic branches are great for this purpose. Very large parrots, such as Moluccan Cockatoos, may enjoy receiving large pieces of untreated lumber. My own parrots love branches and will eat the buds off of them, and will then peel off the bark. Ripley the Amazon is capable of reducing a large stick into a pile of toothpicks.

Garnet and Emerald enjoy chewing on twigs.

Garnet and Emerald enjoy chewing on twigs.


Plain cardboard works great as a chew toy too, particularly for the small parrots who may not always like chewing hard pieces of wood. Plain paper is fine as a “toy” as well. Some parrots will pull paper through into their cage if you place it on top. Then, they can shred it to bits. Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo I am fostering, likes to shred the rolls of adding-machine or receipt paper I put in his cage. Old phone books can be fun for parrots as well. The inks used in them are generally soy-based and safe.


Some birds love to shred, preen and destroy peacock feathers. Lucy, my Maroon-bellied Conure, just loves them. When using peacock feathers as toys, only use natural ones that have not been treated with extra dyes or mite sprays. I ran the feathers I gave Lucy through a wash cycle just to be sure they were safe.


Twigs or popsicle sticks from a craft store make great toys for parrots who like to hold items in their feet to chew. I’ve noticed that cockatoos in particular often seem to appreciate foot toys. Pieces of lumber can also be cut into foot-sized pieces. Clean pine cones can make good foot toys as well. Many parrot owners briefly bake pine cones in the oven to kill any pathogens or insects they may harbour.


A few cockatoos I have fostered enjoyed shredding baskets I bought for them at the craft store. I buy the ones made of plain wicker that have not been painted or coated in any other way. Baskets can be hung in the parrots’ cage and various foot toys can be placed in them.

Jo destroys a phone book.

Jo destroys a phone book.


ii) Foraging Toys

Fresh food need not always be presented in the same dish everyday, although I always make sure that there is a bowl of pellets available for each of my birds. Kabobs work well for presenting food in a new way – just place big slices of vegetables on a stick or blunt-edged skewer and hang it in the parrots’ enclosure. Use a clip to put kale, broccoli, or other veggies in difference places in the cage. Sometimes, presenting foods in new ways encourages parrots to try new foods. My Lineolated Parakeets, Garnet and Emerald, wouldn’t touch broccoli until I clipped it up. Foraging toys are best offered in the morning or evening, as this is when parrots tend to be the most active.


Try placing goodies (like seeds or nuts) in a bag or a box for the parrot to rip open. It may be necessary to show the parrot that there is food in the bag or box to get him to try to open it. Nuts in the shell are also great to feed, as the parrot will have to work to get at them. It’s also easy to make a toy out of a coconut shell – just break a coconut in half and remove the meat. The hollow shell can then be used as a toy – drill a hole in the sides and suspend it from a rope and put goodies (like grain or seeds) in there. The coconut meat is also a great treat for large macaws, which need more fat in their diets than other parrots. It’s fine as an occasional treat for other parrots as well.


One can also make a “honey stick” like the ones sold in pet stores but with peanut or almond butter or flour paste. Spread nut butter or a paste made out of flour and water on a pine cone or popsicle stick and roll it in seeds, pellets, or dried fruit. A foraging toy can also be made by drilling holes in a chunk of wood and jamming nuts in there. Just be sure the parrot can actually get at the nuts with some effort! I also sometimes place seeds on a clean surface or in a tray of wheat grass so the parrots can “forage” for them. For a large cockatoo I fostered, I would place some seeds on the bottom of a bowl of sticks & rocks. He would have to toss these out to get at the seeds. Since he liked to run each rock through his crest and chew each stick up, this would keep him occupied for quite some time.

Ripley on her swing.

Ripley on her swing.


iii) Climbing & Swinging

Many parrots love climbing toys. These can include cotton ropes, swings, large tree branches or ladders. Many parrots who enjoy swings (especially cockatoos) will hang on them and flap their wings to make them swing. It’s best to place a swing outside of the cage where there’s more room for the bird to swing around, although they can work well in large cages or aviaries. Ripley’s large swing hangs in the living room by her playstand and Lucy has a few ropes above her playstand she can climb on. The Linnies seem to love their ladders.


I would like to add a quick note about rope safety here: please make sure a parrot cannot get itself wrapped up in rope or in loose threads on a swing or rope toy. Loose threads can easily become wrapped around a parrot’s toe, and this could cut off its circulation. It’s part of my bird care routine to make sure that their ropes don’t have any loose threads.


iv) Other Toys

Some parrots like mirrors as toys, but others might become too attached to them. Others may try to attack them, and in that case, they are best not used as toys. Some parrots like to groom or beat up stuffed animals, but this is an activity best left for when the parrot is being supervised, as some birds may eat the stuffing or become tangled in it. Other parrots love bells or other noise makers. In general, there are a lot of different types of bird toys out on the market, and rotating toys in and out of a parrot’s cage can keep his environment interesting and stimulating. However, if a parrot has a particular favorite toy, be sure to leave that one in at all times.


vi) Social Interactions


Parrots are social creatures and need to have a human or another parrot to interact with daily. There are many ways one can interact with a parrot, besides the simply holding and petting him. These include:


● Teaching your parrot tricks. Many parrots enjoy learning tricks if positive reinforcement-based methods are used and the training sessions are upbeat. Some outgoing parrots seem to enjoy performing for people.


● Encourage your parrot to flap her wings while you hold her up or walk with her. This is great exercise and helps keep wing-trimmed parrots in shape. Of course, an untrimmed parrot can be encouraged to fly where it is safe. In fact, untrimmed parrots should be taught to fly to their owners on command.


● Have your parrot with you while you watch movies, read, or surf the internet. Many parrots simply enjoy hanging out with their owners and are content to be with them.


vii) Outdoor Excursions

Almost all parrots enjoy being outside to enjoy the sunshine – just be sure your parrot cannot get away by using a harness or cage. A parrot kept inside his whole life may be a bit wary of being outside at first, but he will likely learn to enjoy being outside after some time.


Ripley loves going outside on nice days to explore the yard and chew her lilac bush. She is also amazingly secure in public places, so my husband and I take her everywhere we can get away with. Any place that sells food is out of the question, but we’ve taken her to small book stores, aquarium stores, movies stores and hardware stores with no trouble. She has a secure travel carrier so she can be safe in the car. Only very well-trained, outgoing parrots should be taken out like this. Any that show fear on outings are best left at home.


Even if they don’t go out much, all pet parrots need some time out of their cages daily. Having a play gym makes this much easier for the owner. A play gym is a spot where the parrot can perch and play with toys that are different from the ones in her cage. These can be purchased, or made out of inexpensive material. For example, a cheap play tree can be made by taking a Christmas tree stand and placing a small, parrot-safe tree in it. The book Parrot Toys and Play Areas explains how to make a variety of different play trees out of branches and/or dowels and PVC connectors.


viii) Showers


Don’t forget to give your parrot showers. Not only are they essential for his well-being, but many parrots love them. Ripley becomes very excited in the shower and laughs and trills while being sprayed, Garnet and Emerald also love showers and hang upside-down and spread out their wings during one, so they become wet all over. Some parrots, however, prefer to bathe in a shallow dish of water, and some parrots from arid regions of the world, like budgies, like to bathe in dishes of wet greens or wet wheat grass. Lucy, for example, hates showers but will take a daily bath.




Even though most of us cannot give our parrots the ideal lifestyle they evolved to live, with a bit of work and imagination, it is possible to provide a companion parrot with a stimulating environment. A varied diet, opportunities to forage, climb, fly and chew, along with attention from their owners all contribute to making a parrot’s life much more enriching.




Emery, N. J. 2006. Cognitive ornithology: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B, Biological Sciences 361: 23-43.


Meehan, C. C., Garner, J. P., and Mench, J. A. 2004. Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) Developmental Psychology 44: 209-218.


Meehan, C. L., Millam, J. R., and Mench, J. A. 2003. Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science 80: 71-85.


Shannon-Nunn, L. and D’Arezzo, C. 2000. Parrot Toys and Play Areas: How to Put Some Fun Into Your Parrot’s Life. Crowfire Publishing, Springfield, VA, USA.


Van Hoek, C. S. and King, C. E. 1997. Causation and influence of environmental enrichment on feather picking of the Crimson-bellied Conure (Pyrrhura perlata perlata). Zoo Biology 16: 161-172.


Further Information:

**MUST SEE** The Parrot Enrichment Activity Book by Kris Porter


-an online E-book with all sorts of ideas on enriching your parrot’s life.

Psittacine Research Project


-a part of the University of California, Davis, Department of Animal Science that does research on the needs of captive parrots. There’s an article there on how to choose wooden toys for your parrot.


Environmental Enrichment and Welfare in Caged Parrots


-an essay on feather plucking and environmental enrichment in captive parrots.



Site Directory.

September 13, 2008 1 comment

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


Peggy, my Jenday Conure

Rare Parrot Needs the Right Feed to Breed

September 12, 2008 Leave a comment

Here’s a news article on Kakapo parrots from the New Scientist. I went to New Zealand last year, but the last Kakapo are on islands that are off-limits to tourists. I did see a mounted specimen at the National Museum in Wellington (pictured below). I’ll be posting articles I’ve written on the other New Zealand parrots (Kea, Kaka, and Kakariki) soon.

A mounted Kakapo parrot on display in a museum.

A mounted Kakapo parrot on display in a museum.


Rare parrot needs the right feed to breed

  • 10 September 2008
  • news service

THE Atkins diet might work for Hollywood starlets, but it’s hopeless at coaxing the world’s biggest and most endangered parrot to breed. Conservationists have been filling kakapos with high-protein supplements in the hope of boosting their numbers above just 91, but it now seems they have been focusing on the wrong nutrient.

The flightless New Zealand birds only breed when they can feast on the rimu, a conifer that only fruits every three to four years. In non-fruiting years, the scientists fed the birds protein as it is known to be important for breeding in general.

To find out why these breeding programmes failed, nutritional ecologist David Raubenheimer at Massey University, Auckland, compared the nutrient content of the supplements and the rimu. He found the supplements were high in protein and low in calcium, while the fruit was the opposite.

This might be why efforts to get the birds breeding have failed. Calcium is vital for bone growth, says Raubenheimer, and the kakapo have an “unusually large skeleton”. The supplements may have been too protein-rich, he suggests: animals can’t process too much protein, so the kakapo would have stopped eating before they got enough calcium.

A cry for help ruffles feathers

September 11, 2008 Leave a comment

 I heard about this on CBC last night, and Luna actually said a few words into the phone. I hope nothing like this happens to me, as Mitri has a shrill human-like scream. The neighbours do know about him, though.


I looked after an Umbrella Cockatoo for a couple of weeks last year. She was a smart, sweet bird, but they really are very high-maintenance pets.  Here is her photo. She would run towards the cell phone and say, “Allo,” whenever it rang. So of course that meant I had to waste a lot of time playing “phone” with her, by putting my cell in different places and getting it to ring.


A cry for help ruffles feathers

Police rush to Trenton home only to find a noisy cockatoo

Friday, September 05, 2008


“Help me! Help me!”

Police officers called to a South Trenton home Wednesday morning clearly heard what they thought was a female voice calling out for assistance.

Nobody answered the front door, and with seconds ticking away, and a dog barking inside the house, a sergeant ordered officers to kick in the door of the Centre Street home at about 9:50 a.m.

With their guns drawn, officers searched room-by-room and found no humans in distress, but they continued to hear the pleas for help.

In a first floor bedroom, they figured out the mystery: a caged bird, a cockatoo, that was repeatedly saying, “Help me! Help me!”

After police officers figured out there was no alarm, and that they and the 911 callers had been duped, the bird, whose name is Luna, eventually introduced herself with a simple “Hello.”

Luna had struck again, owner Evelyn DeLeon said yesterday.

Her 10-year-old blue-eyed umbrella cockatoo has twice now summoned police to the family’s home and provided the family with some interesting moments over the years with her ever-expanding vocabulary.

About seven years ago, Luna, named for the moon, cried all day, imitating a baby, DeLeon said. Neighbors who heard the cries for hours suspected someone left a baby home alone and called police, who brought the Division of Youth and Family Services with them.

No harmed children, just Luna expressing herself.
“They all laughed,” DeLeon said yesterday of the officers on that call. “But we never thought this was going to happen again.”

DeLeon said Luna learned “Help me!” years ago as a joke. “And I never thought she would use that again.”

“They all laughed,” DeLeon said yesterday of the officers on that call. “But we never thought this was going to happen again.”

DeLeon said Luna learned “Help me!” years ago as a joke. “And I never thought she would use that again.”

Luna often rides on DeLeon’s shoulder when she walks to corner stores, and loves to watch television, where she picks up sounds and words.

She often responds to the telephone ringing with, “Hello.”

But she also has a sultry, drawn out, “Helloooo,” that has tricked many a man in public, who often think DeLeon is coming on to them. “I tell them I’m not the one talking,” DeLeon said.

Over the years, Luna has become bilingual, saying “Hola,” to Spanish speakers, and has picked up some street slang with “Yo,” while sometimes using the more straightforward “Hello” to others.

Yesterday, a Times reporter attempted an interview with Luna, but she was not in a chatty mood, only mustering a “Hello,” and repeating her name several times.

Luna is sneaky as she is gabby, her owner said.

Years ago, the DeLeons came home from a weekend in Atlantic City and Luna was sitting on a rocking chair, watching television. She had somehow managed to turn on the TV.

Yesterday’s commotion started when two clients of DeLeon’s husband’s driving school, which he runs from the family home, came to the front door without an appointment and knocked, then heard Luna saying, “Help me! Help me!”

They called police, who got to the house and called an ambulance and the fire department to respond, not knowing what they would find inside.

After DeLeon arrived home, police officials arranged for the city’s public works department to repair her front door, which DeLeon was pleased with. She understands why they broke into her home.

“You don’t know what I’ve gone through in the last 10 years,” DeLeon said with a happy sigh. “Oh, Luna.”

Living with a Maroon-bellied Conure

September 11, 2008 11 comments

On to conures now! Here’s an article I wrote for the December 2006 issue of Parrots magazine. Since I wrote it, I’ve done more clicker training with Lucy. She’s a very fast and eager learner.  I often refer to Pyrrhura conures as macaws scrunched down into a handful of bird. They have a lot of personality, but are a nice size and aren’t too loud.

Living with a Maroon-bellied Conure

As often happens with new parrot owners, a few months after getting my first bird, (Garnet the Lineolated Parakeet), I decided that one parrot wasn’t enough and that I wanted to add another one to the family. After all, I had the room, and had become captivated with these clever, charismatic animals. However, deciding on the species to adopt was difficult, given the wonderful diversity of parrot species available as pets. I did want to limit my search to a medium-sized species, but many such parrots exist. For example, Green-cheeked and Maroon-bellied Conures are gorgeous, a nice size and very clever, but Quaker Parakeets are too, and they are often talented talkers. On the other hand, Senegal Parrots also have that “big parrot in a small body” quality I was looking for and they can also make pleasant companions.

So, I started to keep my eyes open for a parrot of one these species that seemed to like me and needed a home. I eventually came across the website of a local parrot breeder who had two adult Maroon-bellied Conures available, and I decided to have a look at them. They were a breeding pair that was separated because they began to fight with each other. They were about six years old, and since both were friendly to people, they were being adopted out as pets. One of them – a bold female named Callie – was immediately up on my shoulder and would gladly step up onto my hand. It didn’t take me very long to decide to adopt her, and my husband, Quentin, and I re-named her “Lucy.”



Maroon-Bellied vs. Green Cheek Conure

The Maroon-bellied Conure belongs to the Pyrrhura genus of conures, which are a group of small, long-tailed parrots from South America. The Lexicon of Parrots lists sixteen different species in the genus, although not all of them are common in aviculture. The Maroon-bellied Conure (Pyrrhura frontalis) and the Green-cheeked Conure (Pyrrhura molinae), are the most common members of the genus in captivity and they are very similar to each other. They are both about cockatiel-sized, and are dark green with light brown chests, blue flight feathers, long, wedge-shaped tails and white eye rings. The names of these two conures do not give away their differences, since both species have maroon-coloured bellies. However, a look at the birds’ tails and heads can allow one to see the difference. A Green-cheeked Conure’s tail will be solid maroon, whereas a Maroon-bellied Conure’s will be maroon on the bottom and light olive-green tipped with brownish red on the top. The top of a Green-cheek Conure’s head will be a dark greyish colour, while the top of a Maroon-bellied Conure’s head will be green.

Other Pyrrhura Species

Several other Pyrrhura species can also be found in the pet trade and like the Maroon-bellied and Green-cheeked Conures, they are small birds that have dark green wings and backs and red or maroon tails. This trait gives this group of birds their name – the genus name Pyrrhura comes from the Greek terms “pyrros” and “auro,” which mean “fire” and “tail,” respectively. Other Pyrrhura conures seen as pets include the Black-capped Conure (P. rupicola), the Pearly Conure (P. perlata lepida), the Crimson-belled Conure (P. perlata perlata), the Painted Conure (P. picta), the White-eared Conure (P. leucotis) and the Fiery-shouldered Conure (P. egregia). Most of the information I provide below on Maroon-bellies will be applicable to these and other Pyrrhura species.

The “Quiet” Conures

As a whole, conures have a reputation for being very noisy birds. Certainly, many of the large conures in the Aratinga genus, such as the Sun Conure, can produce very loud shrieks that may leave their owners wanting some earplugs. The small Pyrrhura conures can also produce shrill calls, but they are not as loud as the calls produced by their bigger, brighter cousins. This makes Pyrrhura conures a suitable choice of parrot for most living situations, including apartments. Lucy is generally quiet during the day aside from a few low-volume squawks, and she will give a few contact calls in the morning if I’m late getting up, but her calls are no where near as loud as the ones produced by Ripley, my Red-lored Amazon, or by Randy, a Quaker Parakeet I am currently fostering for a local parrot rescue. She is, however, a little bit louder than my Lineolated Parakeets, Garnet and Emerald, but “Linnies” are among the quietest of all parrot species.

Pyrrhura conures are not exceptional talkers and most that learn to use human speech only say up to 10 to 20 words, although a few exceptionally gifted individuals certainly exist. Lucy has a low, robotic speaking voice that’s hard to understand and she does not talk much, although she does a convincing (not to mention irritating) imitation of a squeaky rodent wheel. However, I’ve met some Maroon bellies at pet stores and parrot club meetings that chat non-stop in a quiet, raspy voice, so whether or not a Pyrrhura conure says much seems to depend on the individual bird’s personality.

Lucy on her boing

Lucy on her boing

Feeding a Pyrrhura Conure

Wild Maroon-bellied Conures eat foods from at least two dozen plant species, which can include domesticated crop species and introduced exotic ones. Seeds and grains make up a large portion of their diet, as do leaves. This makes the diet of this species a bit different from the diet most other wild parrot species, which do not eat mature leaves. Many wild parrots will, however, eat leaf buds. Since wild Maroon-bellies eat leaves, I would think that pet ones would benefit from having green, leafy foods like dandelion leaves, turnip greens, kale, or mustard greens provided to them. I often clip such foods up in Lucy’s cage. Wild Maroon-bellies also eat sprouts, stems, fruit pulp, insect galls and parts of conifer cones.

Much like their wild counterparts, pet Maroon-bellied Conures appreciate and thrive on a varied diet. Conures that were weaned onto a varied diet, as Lucy was, are very likely to accept a wide variety of foods. Lucy eats a diet composed of about 50% pellets (RoudyBush and Harrison’s brand), with the rest composed of “human food” including whole grains such as quinoa, fruit, vegetables, nuts (including pine nuts), seeds, and lentils. The fruit and vegetable portion of her diet leans heavily towards dark green, red or orange ones like bell peppers (Lucy’s favorite!), mango, sweet potato, carrot, broccoli, and dandelion leaves because of their high vitamin A content. She also adores fresh raspberries (straight from the backyard), corn, snap peas, prickly pear fruits, grapes (seeds included), and bits of apple. Feeding her a balanced diet is no problem, as she will eat nearly anything. In fact, she is as bad as our dogs when it comes to begging for food, since she bobs her head rapidly (a begging gesture) at anyone she sees eating. She is generally given her fresh “people food” during dinner time, so she doesn’t feel left out. She’s quite a messy eater and tosses a lot of food to the floor, so of course our smaller dog, Pharaoh, loves to hang out under her play stand.

Housing a Conure

Don’t let their small size fool you: the Pyrrhura conures are very active birds with a lot of energy! As a result, they need relatively large-sized cages for their size. Pyrrhura conures are about the size of a cockatiel, but I have noticed that most cockatiel cages are a bit small for them. A cage intended for a slightly larger bird is best, as long as the bar spacing is appropriate. Of course, the cage must be outfitted with a variety of perches and toys. For example, Lucy’s cage contains wood perches, a rope perch, and a cement perch. Her toys include a large bundle of twigs and some branches for her to chew on, some peacock feathers for her to preen and destroy, and a ladder. She also has a box of various store-bought toys I rotate in and out of her cage for variety. Most conures seem to enjoy chewing twigs and taking the bark off of larger branches, so I generally recommend clean, non-toxic, unsprayed branches as an enrichment item for them.

A play stand is also an excellent item for a conure owner to purchase or build, as having one will give the owner a place to put the conure when she is out of the cage but not perching on the owner. Being out on the play stand also gives the parrot a change of scenery from the usual cage she is in. I bought Lucy’s play stand at a pet shop, but one can also be made out of natural branches. Lucy’s play stand has a spot for food and water bowls, and hooks that toys can be hanged from. Beside the spot her play stand is usually located hangs a very large, coiled rope she loves to climb and swing on. Conures are very acrobatic parrots, so they often appreciate the opportunity to play on ropes or swings. Many of them also love to play on their backs, but Lucy does not.

Bath and Sleep Time

Most Pyrrhura conures enjoy bathing, and Lucy seems to have a bath in her rather large water dish almost daily, as evidenced by the fact that she, and the papers on her cage’s bottom, are often soaked when I go to check them upon arriving home from work. I also frequently offer her a large, shallow container of water for her to bathe in while she is out of her cage.

A bathing container for a conure should be big enough for the bird to get right into, and the water should be relatively shallow – about an inch or so deep will do; maybe a bit less for a bird that has never tried a bath before. The conure will likely splash the water around with her head so she gets wet all over. Most conures prefer to bathe in a tub of water over receiving a shower. Lucy seems to hate being sprayed, so I do not shower her as I do the Garnet, Emerald, and Ripley. Randy seems to like showers or a bath.

Lucy has a bath

Lucy has a bath

While they love to play and socialize, Pyrrhura conures also need plenty of quiet time to sleep. About 10 hours each night is needed, and most will also appreciate the chance to have an afternoon nap. Many of them also enjoy sleeping in cloth huts, which is fine as long as the bird doesn’t start treating it as a nest area. I offered one of these to Lucy after seeing another conure sleeping in one, but I eventually took it away since she ignored it for many months.

The Pyrrhura Persona

Among the most gregarious parrots I have ever met are several Pyrrhura conures. These little parrots, if treated gently and with affection, are typically very sociable. When handled frequently from a young age by a number of people, most will not become “one-person birds” that attack all but the favored person. Of course, every parrot is an individual, and a few conure owners do struggle with this problem. Luckily, I do not; as Lucy will step up nicely for almost anyone she meets. She is also quite affectionate and allows me to preen the feathers on her head, and she enjoys sitting on my shoulder while I type or read. However, when she gets bored of that, she climbs down and often starts to peck at the computer mouse or keyboard or shred papers. When she does this I put her on her play stand where she can play with something more appropriate. Most Pyrrhura conures love to chew and shred paper, and get into things they shouldn’t. For their safety, supervision is needed when a Pyrrhura conure is out of her cage. These little birds are very curious and may go exploring and create mischief or hurt themselves when not being watched.

Above: Lucy decides to have a bath at a bird show. She’s very outgoing and likes outings.

Lucy eats a peanut

Lucy eats a peanut


The most common problem faced by owners of these little parrots is likely nippiness. It is certainly not an unsolvable problem by any means and most conures that are taught commands like “step up”” using kind, positive techniques are easily to handle. Pyrrhura conures in general are not overly aggressive, but potential owners should be willing to work around any nippiness that could occur. Luckily, Lucy rarely nips, and has never broken my skin. Her body language generally lets me know if she’s likely to nip which helps me avoid being bitten. If she’s standing upright with her nape feathers erect, I wait for her to relax before picking her up. When on her cage or play stand, she also sometimes does what I call the “conure strut,” where she slowly struts back and forth while striking at the air with her beak. This little display basically means, “Back off!” Once she stops strutting, she’s again safe to pick up. She was quite cage territorial when I got her, so I had to wait for her to come out on her own before asking her to step up, although she now allows me to place my hand in her cage with no problems.

Feather-picking in Conures

Another potential problem a conure owner may have to deal with is feather-plucking. It’s not common in these birds, but does occasionally occur. About three months after we brought her home, Lucy began shredding her chest feathers. This puzzled and alarmed me, as she was eating a balanced diet, had lots of toys to chew on, got plenty of exercise (she was unclipped) and bathed often. What was I doing wrong?

So, it was off to the veterinarian to make sure she was completely healthy. She was, and the vet recommended that we make sure she had lots of toys to shred and play with to distract her from chewing her feathers. I had been giving her branches and other toys to chew on. However, I did catch her playing with a feather she shed which gave me the idea of giving her some peacock feathers to play with. I ordered some natural feathers, washed them, and clipped several in her cage. She did indeed begin shredding those, in addition to the extra twigs and paper I gave her.

She stopped destroying her chest feathers after a couple of weeks, and they all eventually molted and grew back. Again, almost exactly one year later, she began over preening her feathers again, but this episode was brief and the destruction wasn’t nearly as bad. Her feather condition has since improved. My theory is now that the over preening was a displacement behavior that occurred when she went into breeding mode and did not have a mate. Since she couldn’t mate and lay eggs she put her energies into preening herself, which got so excessive that she wrecked some of her feathers. Giving her extra toys and objects to shred seemed to give her an alternative activity to ruining her own feathers.

Good “Starter” Birds

Many general books and websites on parrots note that Pyrrhura conures can make excellent pets for first-time parrot owners. They do have many characteristics that make this true – they fit into almost any living situation because of their small size and relatively quiet voices, they are easy to train, and they are generally friendly. However, do not let their “starter bird” status fool you into thinking that these are low-maintenance pets, as they are not. I like to think of them as tiny macaws, which isn’t too far off, as the conures and macaws are closely related. A Pyrrhura conure kept as a pet will need as much attention and care as many of the larger birds.


I would recommend a Pyrrhura conure, such as a Maroon-bellied Conure, as a pet to anyone who is interested in having an active, friendly bird with a lot of personality and who doesn’t mind keeping a high maintenance pet. These beautiful, bold little birds have all of the personality and intelligence of a larger parrot without so much noise and expense. Although she’s caused me a bit of worry and can be a lot of work, Lucy has made a fantastic addition to the family because of her friendly, inquisitive personality.


Arndt, T. 1996. The Lexicon of Parrots. Arndt-Verlag, Germany. Also available online at:

Forshaw, J. M. and Cooper, W. T. (Illustrator). 1978. Parrots of the World. TFH Publications, Neptune, New Jersey, USA.

Kristosch, G. C., and Marcondes-Machado, L. O. 2001. Diet and Feeding Behavior          of the Reddish-Bellied Parakeet (Pyrrhura frontalis) in an Araucaria Forest in          Southeastern Brazil.. Orthinologica Neotropical. 12: 215-223.

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