Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Story of Birdie

Back nearly 30 years ago, when I first began living with companion birds, some of the things that were customary advice would most likely make us cringe to hear now!

I specifically remember the pet shop where I purchased my first amazon parrot. It was a bird that had come through quarantine, and was in horrible shape. This parrot was virtually given to me for free because no one could handle it. No one wanted it, and it was languishing in a pet store that really wanted it gone. I felt so bad for it.

I had never had a parrot before of any type. Just my cockatiel. We all have to start somewhere! I had no clue what I was doing, or what I was in for; I only felt I could give it a better life than what it had (which wasn't hard considering its circumstances).

The advice given me at the pet store?

Clip the wings and put the bird in the bathtub. Don't let it out until it steps up. If it bites you, tell it 'no' and 'ouch', but don't pull back - don't let it think it is hurting you. I went home, to do exactly as I was told.

Note: Never having had a parrot before, I had never been bit by one either.

Now, this was no simple parrot - he was a yellow naped amazon that had come through quarantine as an adult. Wild as the day is long, let us say, he had a bit of a chip on his wing.

I held him in a towel, clipped his wings as I had been instructed, and placed him in the bathtub. Did it occur to me why the lady at the petstore didn't want to clip his wings, but only explained to me how to do it? That should have been my first clue!

Well, that sure is a nice start to a relationship - having just been toweled, clipped and dumped into a tub... I did offer him a couple of seeds, which he refused. Can't blame him.

I put my hand down, and firmly, without emotion, said, "step up".

He didn't respond.

Again, I said, "Step Up!" This time, I nudged his belly. And this time, he did respond.

He bit the crap out of me.

I don't mean he nipped me.
I don't mean he pinched me.

I mean he bit the ever living daylight crap out of me.

I guess the "no" thing and the "ouch" thing didn't translate to parrot-speak? Who knew?!

So, that was my introduction to training. I quickly determined that this bathtub thing was not going to work (for me). Perhaps I was doing something wrong? I did exactly as I was told by the "experts" at the pet store. They were the experts, right?

I had no idea this bird intended to bite me that hard, intended to draw blood, and that upon the very first bite, blood would be gushing out of my finger. What was step 2 supposed to be?

As a dutiful pet owner, I went back to the store, a bit humbled, and described my experience. What went wrong? I did what I was told! If I was supposed to leave this thing in the tub until it stepped up, I wasn't sure if I was going to have any fingers (or a hand) left for it to step up on! Honestly, I didn't want to be bit again. I'm not saying it was uncomfortable - I'm saying it downright hurt! After I got the bleeding stopped, I wasn't even sure if I didn't need stitches!

The follow up advice?

Oh - I guess you will need to wear a glove to train that bird.

Well, my goodness - this is not a raptor - it is a parrot! And, what happens when I take the glove off? And, what kind of glove - steel fingered?

I walked away shaking my head. This simply didn't make any sense to me at all. Now, I felt I was really up the creek without a paddle.

I went home. I took a long, hard look at that wild, yellow nape parrot, nutritionally languishing on an all seed diet, aggressive, and perhaps just as confused as me. I named him 'Birdie'. I don't know if he was a 'he', but I decided he was going to be.

Since the professional advice wasn't working for me, I decided to go with my instincts. I did have a background in education and teaching, so I applied anything and everything that I could, that I knew worked with children, to my relationship with Birdie. I had some cursory understanding of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. Nothing close to what I needed, but it was better than the 'bathtub' advice!

Amongst Birdie's other issues, he came to me as a feather plucker. FDB (feather destructive behavior) is challenging under any circumstances. Early on, Birdie had plucked out all his feathers and began removing the skin. In several places, the muscle was exposed. Working with an avian vet, I learned how to give injections and do much of his treatment at home. I never thought I would be capable, but weighed against the cost of hospitalization, I found myself taking quickly to the injection training. I believe this is part of what served to bring the two of us closer.

The time had come for me to be a quick study on training, behavior, FDB and avian medical care!

In the end, Birdie and I became best buddies. Thus began my lifelong love for amazons, and in particular, a soft spot for yellow napes. He and I went to the beach together often; we even traveled together from Miami Beach to see my grandparents who were living in New Port Richey, Florida at the time. It was simply an amazing relationship. He never bit me again, and never bit anyone else.

It was during one of the trips to the local beach that I inadvertently heard Birdie's first phrase. He had said a few words here and there, and had done some mumbling, but that was about it. He chose this one, unique moment to make his first statement:

"Oh my Gawwwwd"!

Clear as the liberty bell... a seemingly slight New York accept perhaps, but definitely no mumbling. And on the beach, his voice carried on the wind.

It might have been cute, but for one dilemma..

Unfortunately, that phrase came at the exact moment a very well nourished man was passing directly in front of our beach chair. It took quite a bit of back peddling to convince him that "the bird said it".

Birdie's all too short life ended one day when he was sitting on the shower rod and suddenly flew to me. Clinging to me, he died in my arms. He knew it was his time. The necropsy showed a failure of his bodily systems, most likely resulting in the overuse of antibiotics when going through the quarantine station, coupled with the antibiotic and other medications received to treat his FDB. But Birdie was a success story; he died fully feathered, and completely loved.

I tell the story of Birdie with phenomenal memories, complete happiness, and a special feeling that he was selected as my first parrot for a reason. There are no tears, only smiles for Birdie - gosh he was the best! He was a great teacher (once we got past that 'bathtub' thing...) He paved the way to place one important piece of information into my mind: it is all about the relationship.

Yes, it is about positive reinforcement, but for me and Birdie, and those parrots that followed him, it was not about trick training and vocabulary. It was about a meeting of the minds, and a relationship based upon mutual respect. It is easier to experience than to describe in the written word. Once having a relationship like that with a companion bird, it is one that is always desired for every bird that may follow.

And, perhaps Birdie came along not just to teach me, but to teach others. On many occasions we returned to the pet store; Birdie on my shoulder. The owner was frankly flabbergasted. So shocked, that she hired me to work with other birds in the store. I didn't realize until later that Birdie was an avian ambassador.

Birdie taught me everything, including what it felt like to have the snot bit out of me for the first time! Most important, Birdie taught me to follow my instincts, to not necessarily accept the advice of self-appointed experts, and above all else, to value the relationship first and foremost.



Jim Stewart said...

This is a great post, Robin. Now I know how you became an expert. :-) just kidding

scotty said...

What a wonderful bittersweet story.
In one minute you got me to laugh and cry,not to many people have that talent.
I loved this post!

Shirley Morgan said...

Ditto what Scotty and Jim said... and I'd love a sequel telling us how you got beyond the biting and into the first step-up...
Thank you again for another great chapter from your life with parrots!

Eriisu-chan said...

Darn it... Where'd my Kleenex go? *sniffle* I'm so glad you and Birdie chose each other! I just wish I could see a picture of the Avian Ambassador himself! =)

Anonymous said...

ditto to what everyone else has said.
(sniff sniff)
I'm so glad you're writing this blog to help others - including me. Pity you've never had any females so you could advise me on how to get my single female to stop thinking and acting like I was her boyfriend!! (getting another is not an option, sadly)
Do you have any photos of Birdie? :-) I just loved his first word story haha, I bet you were torn between laughing and seriously apologising to the man- LOL!

Rei and Pitchii

wolfgirl1987 said...

Such a wonderful story. It started out rough, but in the end turned out wonderful :)

Thanks for sharing!

Anneka said...

I am starting to think that Robin should write an avian book and I am VERY serious.

Not another book on how to take care of your parrot (we have enough of those) but a book about your daily interactions, relationship with your birds, the problems you faced with them, etc. Just like you write you blog.... beautifully.

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