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Avian Behavior/Training

Dear Dr. Dave,

Hello, I saw your section in the Avian Friend Magazine and thought I would write you with a problem I have. We recently acquired an umbrella cockatoo. He is supposed to be about a year and a half old, hand fed, and in 4 different homes in the past six months. None of this can be verified. He acts like he wants to be held and petted, but if we get within 3 feet of his cage he jumps to the bottom and scurries back and forth. We have had him about 3 weeks and so far the only consistent behavior he has displayed is a bobbing motion when we talk to him from a distance. We also have a 9 year old Sulfercrested that was wild caught, that sits next to him. Do we need to give the umbrella more time to adjust to his surroundings? We think he would be a wonderful bird if he would calm down and trust us, but thus far he has defied all of the traditional methods of bonding. His diet appears to be varied. He likes pistachio nuts, but that is the only thing we have seen him eat. He appears healthy other than fairly ruffled feathers which I attribute to being stressed. (This happens to the Sulfercrested whenever something stresses him). Also should I clip his wings? His flight feathers are well developed, but when ever he jumps from his cage, he drops like a stone, and runs to any crevice he can hide in. Please let us know your thoughts as we would greatly appreciate it. - D&D;, Washougal, WA

Dear D&D;,

You certainly do have your hands full. Unfortunately, the multiple household history of your cockatoo is quite common and is also very stressful for your bird. Larger birds, and particularly Cockatoos, often end up with multiple owners during their formative years. Large birds are often purchased by owners who are unprepared for the emotional and time requirements necessary for these birds. These same owners are often under-informed about large bird training as well. These owners' birds can become "spoiled two-year-olds" with severe behavioral problems that necessitate lengthy and sometimes difficult retraining. To begin with, I have a few comments regarding the addition of a new bird to your home. First, a new bird such as this should be isolated from all other birds in your home for 30-60 days following it's arrival. Early during this period I would strongly recommend a full veterinary exam and lab testing. I typically advise blood work, cultures, a fecal analysis and a Chlamidia test for all new birds. Close attention to a proper diet and nutrition are also a must. Your birds close proximity to your established Sulfercrest increases the potential for disease transmission between your birds and may increase the Cockatoo's stress in it's new home. Your Cockatoo's fluffed appearance concerns me in that it may be secondary to stress, but is also common in sick and debilitated birds. This symptom warrants a veterinary exam. To answer your question about trimming your bird's wings, it isn't necessary at this time. Although flight feathers appear well developed to you, trimming is probably unnecessary unless he is flying. This could be more easily determined with a veterinary exam. In regards to your bird's behavior I suggest that first, you do need to give your bird more time in a stable, loving and patient environment. He has likely been quite traumatized by all of his recent movement. Time and patience alone may be all that is necessary with this bird for him to adjust to his new home. Not surprisingly, your Cockatoo is exhibiting conflicting emotions,. Bobbing is often a sign of attention, but his behavior on the bottom of the cage suggests that he is scared. I would recommend that you place your bird in a room separate from your Sulfur crest. Attempt to gain his trust by spending time near him and only slowly initiating contact. In time you may be able to place him in a small space along with you, (such as a bath tub), to help in initiating more intimate contact. I would also recommend that you read a few books on training and handling large birds for more in-depth advice. If your bird's behavior worsens and in more extreme cases I would recommend that you consider consulting with a licensed, trained behavior specialists.

Avian Nutrition

Q: Dr. Dave,....
I have recently begun raising Lovebirds and I have been confused by varying information about the frequency and quantity of hand-feeding formula I should use. Do you have suggestions? -Thanks

A: You're right. There are a lot of different recommendations about hand-raising. I will give you a few "rules of thumb:"

Q: Dr. Dave, ....
Is too much calcium harmful to birds? I have a cuttlebone and a mineral block in my bird's cage. Is that too much? -N.C., Washougal, WA

A: Dear N.C., ....
This is a good question. Yes, it is possible for you to over supplement your bird's vitamins and minerals, but by far the most common diet related problems are due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Seed based diets, including fortified seed formulations often do not provide adequate vitamin and mineral levels when used alone. This is due to the fact that seeds inherently lack many vitamins and minerals. Even though fortified diets have a vitamin and mineral coating, most birds don't eat the seed hulls. I recommend that birds on ONLY seed diets be provided with a water-based vitamin and mineral supplement used at the manufacturer's recommended concentrations. If your bird is eating pelleted food, or large amounts of healthy people food, a supplement is not necessary.

Your combination of cuttlebone, which is mostly calcium, a mineral block and fortified food, is unlikely to be harmful to your bird. This larger issue of what and how to feed your birds will be addressed in future issues.


One of the most controversial and most frequently talked about issues with bird owners and breeders is what to feed their birds. This is no longer a controversial issue among avian veterinarians. There are a number of reasons I recommend to continue or begin feeding a pelletted food. I will touch on a few of which I believe are the most important reasons and then briefly discuss strategies to get your bird to begin eating these foods.

The most frequent reasons bird owners seek veterinary care can be linked to malnutrition. Feather picking and other skin and feather disorders, obesity, breeding and egg laying difficulties as well as common bacterial infections can frequently be directly correlated to a poor or imbalanced diet. Proper diet is the number one form of prevention for these diseases.

Although many birds stores and even bird food packaging will suggest to you that a fortified seed mix is all your bird needs, this is not true. Birds rarely eat all types of seeds and other ingredients within a seed mix. Vitamin and mineral additives are coatings on seed hulls which birds do not ingest.

Feeding a pelletted diet is as easy as feeding your dog or cat. You need only to give them fresh pellets daily. You do not have to worry about your bird eating only one kind of seed or only certain people foods which can quickly imbalance their diet. Your bird's health will not suffer if you do not prepare and offer fresh fruits and vegetables daily. You do not have to use a vitamin and mineral supplement and pelletted foods will not grow potentially harmful bacteria near as quickly as day-old people foods will.

There are numerous brands of pelletted food on the market and I would argue that any of them is better than a seed mix for your bird. Different species of birds will require different formulations of food. Birds used for breeding or with medical conditions may require a "special" formulation. Your avian veterinarian can assist with this decision. I often recommend offering your bird a choice of two brands of pelletted food.

I frequently suggest offering pellets instead of seeds for a large portion of the day. In young birds I recommend weaning directly to pelletted foods. Some bird respond to mixing pellets in with their seeds and slowly increasing the percentage of pelletted food. Moistening the pellets may also tempt your bird.

Most importantly, you must be patient when attempting to convert your bird to pelletted foods. Like many of us, they can be resistant to change. The process may take several months. During this period people foods should be kept extremely limited. Once you have your bird eating primarily pelletted food, you can offer small amounts of fruits and vegetables daily (<20% of daily intake). Do not feed seeds or use them only as an infrequent treat.

So go ahead and give pellets a try. Do it for the health of your bird!

Pulling Chicks

Q: Dr. Dave, ....
When is the best time to "pull" baby birds out of the nest? -H.C. Trout Lake, WA

A: Dear H.C., ....
There is no "correct" answer to your question. The age at which you remove baby birds from the nest and begin hand-rearing depends on a few variables. Young birds may be safely removed from their nest as early as one week of age and occasionally are removed even earlier if inadequate care is being given by the parents. The earlier that chicks are removed from their nest, the more frequently and intensively they will need to be cared for. Very young chicks may also not deal well with the stress of removal and may be prone to health problems. Young birds that are hand-reared from three weeks of age or earlier do tend to be tamer and better pets than do their counterparts, as they will bond well with humans.

Preventing Crop Stasis (sour crop)

Q: Dr. Dave....,
What causes baby birds' crops to not go down properly between feedings like they should? Is there something I can do to help prevent this? Thank you, -D.V., Washougal, WA

A: Dear D.V.,
Failure of the crop to empty, (go down) normally is termed "cro stasis", or "sour crop" and has a variety of causes. The most common cause is systemic illness which has lead to a generalized loss of intestinal motility. Crop infections, foreign bodies (such as bedding materials) and over stretching (due to over feeding), are less common causes.

Treatment can be challenging and will depend on the underlying cause and severity of the problem. Any Systemic illness must be diagnosed and treated. Frequent smaller feedings can help, and in severe cases, the crop may need to be emptied by a veterinarian and any underlying problems must be treated.

If you are having frequent problems with crop stasis, you may have an underlying problem with bacterial or fungal infections. Your formula may be too cold, or you may be feeding too much formula at each feeding.

Yeast infections are a common cause of crop stasis, particularly in Cockatiels. These infections are due to an organsim called Candida which is common and normal in the environment. In young birds and immature immune system and the use of antibiotics are common causes of these infections. You can decrease the incidence of these infections by reducing nutritional stress, (feeding a good formula with the correct frequency and amount for the age and size of the chick); keeping a clean, stress free environment and not using unnecessary antibiotics.

General Care

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Sunlight/UV Radiation

   Caged birds rarely receive enough sunlight and therefore, rarely benefit from its ultraviolet radiation.

   Ultraviolet, (UV) light is necessary to facilitate certain chemical reactions within the skin that in turn, enable optimal absorption of calcium (necessary for healthy muscles and bones) by the intestinal tract. Thre is no UV light benefit when sunlight is received through window glass. Consequently, you should take your bird outside on warm, sunny days as often as possible. Your bird's wings should be clipped or the bird should be securely confined within a suitable cage. Make certain that neighborhood cats and wild birds are prevented access to your bird. It is also important for you to provide areas of sunlight and shade for your bird so that it can move into the shade if it becomes too warm.

   Many bird owners use artificial UV light sources to replace the regular incandescent and fluorescent lightbulbs in the rooms in which their birds are housed. The most popular and recommended light source of this type isthe Vita-Lite (Duro-Lite Lamps, Duro-Test Corp, Lyndhurst, NJ 07071)

Assisting Hatchlings

Suppose you have an egg from which you suspect a chick is unable to liberate itself. The days of brooding have passed, and the egg should be ready to hatch. You are expecting a totally healthy youngster to emerge, but nothing happens. In such a case, I follow the approach of budgie expert Gerald S. Binks, described in his book Best in Show. He has prepared a table to guide the decision whether to assist or stand by....
Sound Appearance Action
Quiet tapping 1/16 inch crack Too soon - replace
Quiet tapping Group of fine cracks Too soon - replace
Quiet tapping Cracks plus brown line Too soon - replace
Weak squeaks Cracks plus tiny hole Too soon - replace
Medium squeaks Cracks and early discoloration Too soon - replace
Loud squeaks Crack line around circumference--creamy patches, moist membrane Normal hatching - replace
Loud squeaks Crack line around circumference--creamy patches, dried membrane Assist
Loud squeaks Large hole--drying membrane Assist

Binks suggests laying the egg in question on a pre-warmed thick bath towel, with the part of the egg that has been cracked the most facing you Cut a circle around the crack with a sharpened wooden matchstick. Be sure to cut through the membrane under the shell. You will see a little blood in the process, but if your timing is right and everything else goes as planned, you have assisted in bringing a healthy chick into the world. Congratulations!

(Information taken from The New Cockatiel Handbook, Matthew M. Vriends, PhD copyright©1989)

Recognizing Disease

   Most illness in caged birds is directly or indirectly related to malnutrition and stress. Malnutrition most often stems from what the bird eats, rather than how much it eats. Most caged birds are offered enough food, but they do not receive enough of the proper foods and in the proper proportions. Stress results from an condition that compromises a bird's state of well-being. Examples include; poor husbandry, inadequate diet, rapid temperature changes and trauma.

   All owners of caged birds must understand that birds tend to "hide" signs of illness. Birds can compensate for serious internal disease in such a way that they appear healthy externally. It is theorized that evolution has "taught' birds to hide signs of illness to avoid being harassed and possibly killed by other birds in the same flock.


   Okay, so it's going around. That nasty sock-you-in-the-gut, flu. How concerned should you be for your caged friends?

   According to Avian Veterinarian, Dr. Dave Stauffacher, whom we talked with recently on the subject, you really don't have to worry about passing those cold and flu bugs back and forth!

   Great, but what does "don't really have to worry" really mean?

   Basically, although in theory it is possible to share your flu bug with your feathered friend, it is rarely, if ever seen. Although this should bring a sigh of relief, there are some things to remember. Along with cold's and flu's which we humans pass around to each other regularly, each of us also carry potentially harmful viruses and bacteria in our saliva.

   Okay, so my pet bird likes to pick at my teeth, isthis a problem? How about sharing food with my pet parrot?

   Again, while the potential exists, there is little connection between a sick bird \ and food sharing, or it's recently sick owner. On the other hand, a piece of food half-eaten and placed in the cage, could incubate the harmful bacteria carried in our mouths, which could potentially pose a problem.
So here's the wrap-up

   There's no reason to freak out. Good hygiene along with a little common sense will most likely be plenty to prevent any problems. : )

Lab Testing/ Necropsy

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Poisonous/Non-Poisonous Plants Trees

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Respiratory Irritants

Q: Dr. Dave, ....
I have heard that Teflon pans, scented candles and aerosol room fresheners can be harmful to birds. Is this true? -D.V., Washougal, WA

A: Dear D.V., ....
Yes, airborne toxins are potentially dangerous for your birds. The respiratory system of birds is much more advanced than a humans. The oxygen demands of flight, particularly at high altitudes, require a very efficient respiratory system. Unfortunately, this increased efficiency enhances the uptake and toxic effects of many chemicals.

The most common airborne toxin many birds are exposed to is cigarette smoke. Cigarette toxins are shown to cause respiratory, feather and skin problems, and can be a cuprit in feather picking.

Teflon pans, left unattended on a burner will emit a toxic gas which is an extreme respiratory irritant in birds and can be fatal. Many common disinfectants and aerosols as well as some candles can also be respiratory irritants if used in close quarters with your birds.

In conclusion, the best things you can do for your bird's respiratory system are to smoke outside, keep them out of the kitchen, and do not use disinfectants or aerosol products in or around your bird's cage when they are in it.

Additional Information:

Q: Dr. Dave,....
I have heard that some breeders like to use Eucalyptus branches in with their hatchlings. Is this safe? Thanks, ....Concerned in Cali

Dear Concerned,....
This question relates to the discussion in January, 98, about respiratory irritants. As with the many possible irritants mentioned last month, Eucalyptus has been shown to be petentially harmful to a bird's respriatory tract.
It is important to realize that not all birds will show outward signs or have adverse affects with exposure to an item given the "label" of an irritant. That "label", signifies only that a bird may have a serious reaction to one of these irritants. These symptoms can range from a temporary mild increase in a bird's breathing rate, to sudden death Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict which birds will or will not react to a respriatory irritant.
Placing Eucalyptus branches with neonates is a potentially unsafe practice that I would not recommend.