Jeff Sexton

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Bird Food

Among the many things that we did not have good information about upon getting birds was their food.

Sure, they sent us home from the pet store with a bag of a food mix especially for cockatiels, but really the picture is a lot more complicated. It's one of many things that I've since been troubled by in light of how easy it is to purchase a bird. It's disturbing to think how many birds must shortened lives due to malnutrition.

In fact, birds can (and should) eat a surprising variety of foods. It is easy to find information on foods for birds on line, but it's scary to think that we had them for weeks before I ran into a list that mentioned that nutmeg is toxic to birds. Today, our birds eat a combination of;

  • A specialty food mix 
  • Pellets
  • Fresh vegetables and fruit
  • Our food (a real good way to annoy a parrot is to eat in front of them)
Parrots can eat most of what people eat, with the caveat that it isn't necessarily good for them. A little common sense is in order, and after all a lot of what we eat is not good for us either.

No-no foods for parrots are;
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Fatty, sugary and very salty foods
  • Nutmeg
  • Avocado
  • Red meat
  • Milk 
  • Very hot, and very cold food
  • Peanuts
  • Rhubarb
  • Fruit seeds, such as apple seeds
Cabbage is on many no-no lists too, but not always, as is iceberg lettuce.  Celery is not on the lists, but has no nutritional value. Best to just avoid these. Also best to avoid peanuts, although they have been feed to birds and are often on "OK to eat" lists. Peanuts can have a fungus called aflatoxin that causes a nasty and typically fatal liver failure. This fungus can occur in other grains that are not stored well, but peanuts and legumes in general are particularly susceptible. The fungus is also harmful to humans, but this is one of many cases where FDA standards for human consumption are not rigorous enough to protect birds. Some bird food sources screen their peanuts to exceed human food grade standards, but I don't see a reason to chance it. There are plenty of other things our birds can eat, so no peanuts. This is another thing I did not know when we got birds, and I did in fact give Harlan a few peanuts early on.

At this point it's worth mentioning a general trend in information about keeping parrots. I get the impression that there has been a good deal of new research and new products just lately. For example, there internet is loaded with advice on getting parrots to switch to pellets, because pellets contain the right mix of vitamins that parrots don't get from seeds. But the mixes we have been getting do contain pellets and a brew of seeds and grains intended to provide the right combination. These mixes do not seem to have been around for very long. I get the feeling that as recently as the early 2000s birds were not being feed well.

Feeding nothing but seeds of course won't do. But I don't like the idea of the all pallet diet either since pellets are just a highly processed version of fresh foods with artificial additives and colors. An over dependence on processed food isn't good for us, why should it be good for parrots? Preparing fresh foods everyday for the birds is a lot of work, but it's good for them. So we offer the widest variety of food we can.

This brings up another food related point we did not know when Ed and Olive came home with us. Young parrots don't know much instinctively. They learn a lot from their parents, including what food is and what is food. If they are only feed one thing, it will be very difficult in later life for them to accept anything other than that one item as food. Thus, offering a wide variety, and changing the combinations, is highly beneficial in the long run. So in addition to the commercial mix, we give them, twice a day, some combination of these foods, so far, depending on what we have on hand;
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Peas (in pods and frozen)
  • Cooked carrots
  • Cooked sweet potato
  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Non-iceberg lettuce
  • Collard greens
  • Chard
  • Sweet and hot peppers (yes, birds like hot chilies and it's a fun way to occasionally jazz up their food) 
  • Apples 
  • Grapes
  • Mango
  • Cantalope
  • Pear
  • Breads
  • Flax seed
  • Cornflakes
  • Spinach 
  • Fresh cilantro 
  • Seasonings, including cinnamon, red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper  
As new fruits and vegetables come into season, we'll be adding more. Treats:
  • Cheese (mild, and in small amounts)
  • Crackers (Ed is crazy for Wheat Thins)
  • Millet seed
  • Cooked pasta
  • Walnuts, and other nuts, walnuts seem to be the most popular with out birds
  • Popcorn (without salt or butter)
  • Commercial bird treats
As a general observation about foods for parrots, it seems to me that if a person ate a parrot's healthy diet, that'd be a pretty good diet. I buy a lot more fresh vegetables for the birds these days, and so I eat them too.

Here are few more things I didn't know at first...

  • Birds are picky eaters. They will pick through a mix and just eat what they like. Chopping up vegetables into a salsa like mix gets them the eat more, but I like to give them bigger pieces. If they are exposed to many different foods, they seem to eat nearly everything just fine.
  • Birds will change their tastes. One day's favorite may get left behind the next, and a food they seem to never eat may suddenly become a favorite.
  • A surefire way to get a parrot to eat a food is to eat it yourself in front of them.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Speaking of Birds, Birds Speaking

Harlan is a Congo African Grey Parrot.

The "CAG" weighs about a pound, has a wing span of a little under 2 feet, is about 10 inches tall and is covered in grey feathers except for a short, bright red tail. One striking feature of the African grey is its rather large neck and head. A grey's neck and head look like almost half their body mass. There is good reason for this - the birds have a huge brain.

African grey parrots are the kings of talking birds. There are two especially fascinating things about their speech which make them unique, or nearly so, among speaking parrots. The first is that they do not speak in a single voice. The amazing range of sounds this animal can make allows it to mimic the voices of multiple, specific humans in its life. I have read that most speaking parrots speak in more or less their own parrot voice, or an imitation of their owner's voice.

The second amazing thing about greys is that they only start out mimicking. As they get older by a few years, they begin to know and understand the meanings of words (there is solid scientific evidence for this by the way), and they are capable of using words in new contexts, forming their own sentences. The African grey parrot may be the only animal on Earth with the potential to communicate directly with human beings using our own human spoken language.

That said...

Not all greys talk, ever. Some talk a lot, some talk very little, and some never do. While most greys speak well, many are more content to imitate the sounds of inanimate objects in their environments, such as the beeps of electronic devices, and the sounds of other animals.

As I write this, Harlan is 6 months old, and can do a very good "hello". However he only does this when he wants to get my attention, when I am not in the room. Whole days go by when I don't hear it at all. Various whistle and hoot sounds are apparently easier sounds to make, so I hear a lot of that, and a sort of mumbling sound. But when he really is trying hard, he drops into a very human voice like sound. What he "says" is usually unintelligible, but the fist time I heard it from the other room it was actually a little creepy. The sound really is very human. He also makes a variety of random clicks and beeps that I can not even imitate. The rage of sounds he is capable of is astounding.

The mumbling, grumbling sound, I have read, is practice. He does this a lot, and especially does this when climbing around on the cage. As time has past, I have realized what he is saying. I often say "careful" when he is climbing up something, or generally doing something that looks a little precarious. Over time, his mumbles while climbing around are morphing into the word "careful".

They say African greys don't get really chatty until they are a year old. They say greys don't form sentences until 2 or 3, if they do so. They also say to be careful what you teach them saying because you may end up hearing it 50 times a day.

I often precede things I ask Harlan with "wanna" or "want". This way when he says it, he will be telling me what he wants. For example, I say "Wanna walnut" and offer a walnut. Or "wanna scratch", "want shoulder", "wanna toy", etc.

I also just talk to him a lot, describing everything I am doing and each morning, what will happen during the day.

Even though Harlan does not speak much, he does communicate, and he does understand a good deal of what he hears. It doesn't take long, spending time observing a parrot, to pick up on a sophisticated array of body language.

Check out more posts about our adventures with birds here...


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

USS Yorktown

USS Yorktown at Portland, Oregon

Date unknown...

The Red Electrics

The Red Electrics 
Of Portland, Oregon

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ed, Olive and Harlan

At the end of October 2016, 6 or 7 months ago, we brought home two cockatiels, Ed and Olive. This wasn't quite an impulse buy, but it was close. We were at the pet store for other reasons, and when walking over to the bird area, these two just went nuts. The chirped and sang and ran from side to side in their cage. The were screaming "take us home!" as clear as their little bird voices could manage.

On the way home we talked about getting the two birds. At first not seriously. But then more and more so. That afternoon we did a lot of reading online. Just what's it like to have cockatiels? What do you have to do? What do they even eat? We had no idea.

The next day, we went back. They were still there. Went home with a cage, a bag of food, a couple toys, a little box with two birds inside, and a one page printed sheet of information.

In retrospect, knowing what I know now, this is frightening.

It's frightening to think the anyone can walk into a store like that and leave with an animal like a parrot, with so little preparation. These animals are both a huge joy, and huge commitment. Bringing a parrot into your life is nothing like getting a dog or cat, nothing. There is so much to know... I don't even want to think about how many birds have miserable lives because of unprepared owners.

When you Google up information about birds, you notice right away that every website starts with a whole page introduction that is really a big long, desperate attempt to talk you out of it. There's good reason for this. If you're thinking of getting a bird, do your reading, and believe the warnings. Birds require a lot of interactive time. The require toys. The require specialized medical care. The require good quality, fresh food, warmth and a big clean cage, every single day. You must be prepared to upend your life and rearrange your furniture. If you're not, get a hamster.

That said, Ed and Olive were an amazing addition to the household. They are incredibly intelligent, friendly, curious and active creatures.

In continuing to read and learn about parrots, it didn't take long to encounter information about an animal that may actually be at the top of the intelligence scales, second only, believe it or not, to humans; the African grey parrot. The more experience I had with Ed and Olive, the more interested I was in the grey parrots.

I mentioned the warnings you see on websites about parrots... When it comes to grey parrots, the warnings get really desperate. There are whole websites that seem to have been created just to talk people out of getting one of these animals. But the more I read, the more interested I became. And after awhile, my mind was made up.

There are a few ways to get an African grey. But they are not available at a typical pet shop. I did not know exactly how or when I would get one, but one day in September we went to a specialty parrot store out of town. My thought was to buy a large cage and get it setup, loaded with toys, and ready for when a bird became available.

At the store there were two Congo African greys (CAG), and one of the smaller Timneh grey (TAG). They were all young birds. One of the Congo greys climbed right up on my shoulder and wanted a head scratch. It rode around with me the whole time we were in the store, which was a awhile, looking at cages, talking to the staff, and the other birds.

Harlan came home with us. He now occupies the dining room. Getting Harlan has been a great experience, I wish I could have done something like it many years ago.

There are many things no one told us about parrots. Now, keep in mind that I am not a vet and by no means an expert at all. This is just what I have learned from reading and relatively short personal experience. Just the same, I thought it would be a good idea to create a series of blog posts here about Ed, Olive and Harlan, and all the things we have learned.

Here is the first thing...

The internet is wrong. There is a shocking amount of partial and incorrect information out there. After everything I have read I get the impression that parrots were vastly misunderstood up until fairly recently. As late as the 1990s, really good food mixes don't seem to have existed. Some say that today, the lifespan of many birds is actually much longer than previously believed due to birds typically dying young because of poor nutrition. That's just one example... More to come, stay tuned.


Monday, April 03, 2017

DIY Straw Ring Shredding Toy for Birds

We bought some of these stray rings one sale cheap at a craft store. They were discontinuing this size and so there was a steep markdown.
The rings are bound with something like fishing line - not good for the birds. It took awhile to get all of it carefully removed, while doing my best to keep the ring intact.

I decided to use these rice paper wraps to cover the stray.

I soaked sheets of the rice paper in a tray of water until they were soft, a minute or two.
And then carefully wrapped the ring.
After sitting for couple of days the rice paper forms a crunchy layer.

Due to the size of this toy, Harlan was intimated by it for awhile. I had to introduce it slowly, and even then he ignored it for several days.

But once he figured it out, he worked on it almost continuously until the stray was in a heap at the bottom of the cage. It lasted 4 or 5 days.

Happy bird!

The Latest Bird Toys

This toy incorporates some smaller pieces. It's good for Ed and Olive, the cockatiels. Harlan the grey parrot would chomp through those wooden stars in one chomp.
Here's a version for Harlan. It lasted a couple days!
Here's an assortment of smaller toys, good fun for either birds...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bird Chews

Here's an easy way to make something fun for medium and large parrots.

Parrots like to tear things up. They also like to eat. The two together constitute their foraging instinct, and it's important to give them ways to exercise that.

I don't recall where I got this idea, but the wrappers used for spring rolls are a fantastic way to add a little foraging to your birds day. They are thin rice paper that comes in hard sheets. They are tasteless and, as far as "food" goes, pretty inert.

I just soak the wrappers in a pan of water for a few minutes, until they get soft. They get a little hard to work with if they get too soft, but it's still pretty simple to roll up some parrot treats, or even just ordinary food (or a toy, or literally anything).

I used a counter top oven that has a dehydrate setting to firm up little balls of covered treats in about 30 minutes. But I found you can also just put them on a plate in the refrigerator for about a day and a half.
Harlan loves these! The texture ranges from slightly soft and chewy, but solid, to completely hard and crunchy, depending on how long they sit. He has to break through the shell, which he discards, to get the food.

I found the smaller birds, cockatiels, have a harder time breaking the shells open and tend to loose interest before finding out there is a treat inside, but Harlan has a great time with these treats and gets excited whenever he seed me making them.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Beads for Bird Toys

Harlan the African Grey Parrot has a pretty significant bite. These are some smaller wood beads I had previously used for toys for Ed and Olive, the cockatiels. Harlan is able to crush them in short order.
I purchased some larger beads at a craft store.

They are plan wood, looks like pine so they are perfectly safe for birds (not all woods are).

First, I died the beads using food coloring. I used nested pint glasses to hold them down. It helps to heat the water. I put each one in the microwave for 20 seconds or so, just long enough to barely boil.

After sitting for a couple of days, they are not real vivid, but there is some color for added interest. Ready for more toys!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

More DIY Bird Toys

Pieces of vegetable tanned leather, zip ties and a bead make a simple toy that both the cockatiels and the new parrot, Harlan, like.

Harlan actually untied the knots though.
Mini-munch balls, pieces of a bar coaster and a plastic cap from a milk carton...

I have made a few toys incorporating a heavy gauge copper wire. It's been carefully wrapped (with sisal rope) in a way such that the ends of the wire as not accessible.

Harlan likes larger toys made with colorful drinking straws.

Harlan doesn't have much trouble crushing the smaller wooden beads I have been using. His beak is incredibly strong. Larger beads on the way...
Toy box!

Friday, January 20, 2017


This month I placed an order with The order arrived in a timely manner, in good condition, and a good level of quality for the price. There was one problem.

I was sent a completely different item.

The email acknowledging my order had the correct item listed. But the packing slip in the package, and the item itself, were something else, something I really didn't want. 

Here's the thing though, there is no way to contact They have a form on their website to report problems, and I did, including my order number, a description of the problem, their exact description texts of the product I order, and the one I received, and an image of the email acknowledging my order, with the correct description, and all my information. I received an automated response immediately, saying they would get back to me within 24 hours. They did not, ever. 

There is no other way to contact the company. In fact, after some digging, I would conclude that has deliberately made sure there is no contact information for them anyplace on the internet. Avoiding completely the cost of any sort of customer service what so ever, I assume, is part of their business model.

I have an item I don't want, and I am out the money.

I recommend avoiding

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Cockatiel Breakfast

What do you feed cockatiels? Here's Ed and Olive's bird breakfast.

It's finely chopped spinach, carrot, and kale, with a few stems of coriander (they like the stems more than the leaves), topped with almond slices and a pinch of flax seeds.

Monday, January 09, 2017

DIY Bird Toys

I've never had birds before. So since we added Ed and Olive Cockatiel to the household, we have learned quite a bit about birds. 

For starters, we knew that intelligent birds need a lot toys to avoid boredom. But you don't have to spent a lot of money. It's easy and fun to create your own toys using a few simple and inexpensive bird safe materials.

For example, I found the birds love to chew leather. At first, I was using sisal rope more in toys, but leather just lasts longer and they seem to like it more. Vegetable tanned leather materiel, plain as possible, works great! It is available both in sheets that cut easily with scissors, and in cord. Bits of leather work well into small toys, along with other parts and pieces. The cord I got seems like a lower grade than the sheets. Ed in particular can crew through it in time, and it has an occasional weak point that breaks easily. But tried with knots and strung through other items, it works great.

Some toy parts where just items found around the house, for example they seem to love plastic poker chips. I drilled small holes in them so they can be hung up and attached to other items.
I also had a few small pieces of rubber (real rubber is a completely organic substance). Rubber sheets are available at hardware stores. Thicker pieces hold up well, even to Ed's beak. I still watch them though with these toys, to make sure they don't bite off and swallow any. So far, the rubber has held up unbroken.

Wooden (pine), uncolored, beads I found at a local craft store. I died them by soaking them in water with food coloring. Heating the water helped get a much deeper color. I soaked them overnight, completely submerged. They float so you have to put something on top of them.

I found that stacked zip ties, like this toy has, were popular with Ed and olive. I trim all the zip tie ends off at varying lengths to make the toy smaller, and to add interest.

This toy also features a poker chip that they like to just carry around, and a couple beads.

I understand that you have to be careful of bells, but we did use some. It seems to be most important that they can't get the metal clapper out (and swallow it), so the completely enclosed type seems like a good choice.

I put them at an end of a toy, away from the most interesting parts. That way they get the bell sound, without focusing directly on the bell.

I also used a thick gauge copper wire. It's important to get real copper. uncoated in anyway. And I was careful that the ends of the wire, which I suppose could be sharp, are completely inaccessible.

I bought copper that was thick enough to be strong - they can stand on it, and a good fit for the beads.

Vine-based bird toys a extremely popular with Ed and Olive. Ed in particular can destroy these pretty fast though, so it's best to buy them in quantities. They are easily combined with other materials to make a toy that lasts much longer overall. The "mini" balls I found online are small, but a relative bargain. The vine rings are bigger, made of thicker material, and last longer.

There are many recommendations out online about bird toys, especially for medium birds. "pear links" are the item of choice for attaching hanging toys in the case. They are light, strong enough, and don't include any sharp corners or cracks that can cut a birds tongue.

The birds love zip ties. Cheap and colorful assortments are available that make a great addition to toys. They can be used as-is, and to attach bits and pieces.

The also love Qtips. I found the wooden ones were a little more popular, and last longer. They pull at the cotton. When it's all strung out I just pulled it off and toss it. They will continue to enjoy the stick until they turn it to dust.

Yucca gets called "catnip for birds". That's about right. It is available in bulk bags where you not only get significantly more for the money than in a ready-made toy, but I found the pieces to be harder. They last larger. For our smaller birds the pieces get broken down in smaller ones. But the larger pieces are big enough to stand on when fixed to the side of the cage.

Sisal rope, with no treatment, is a must-have for bird toys. I wrapped wood with it (pine is safe for birds, I read) for climbing. I also found that thicker rope is easily unraveled into thinner lengths for use in small toys.

Here's a full list of items that worked into bird toys well.
  • Parts of paper egg cartons
  • Q-Tips, the wooden ones
  • Paper tubes from paper towels and toilet paper roles
  • Natural sisal rope
  • Zip ties
  • Poker chips
  • Rubber
  • Vegetable tanned Leather
  • Pine and birch dowels of various diameters
  • Paper bar coasters (clean)
A few things I've learned (so far)...
  • Make sure the type of wood you want to use really is what you think it is and that it is safe for birds. Not all wood is.
  • Toys can be "in cage" and "out of cage". Out of cage toys are for use when you are there to watch. For in cage toys, be extra sure of their safety.
  • I tried to avoid any loops of zip ties or rope that were large enough for the birds to get their heads or legs caught in. There are many sad stories out there of birds hanging themselves on toys and being severely injured or killed.
  • Toys not attached to the cage should be fairly small and simple for best results. It's easy to get carried away.
This platform holds a four hole section of an egg carton. We put food in there and then the whole thing hangs for a hook at the top.

The birds get a feeder, paper to shred and a swing, all in one.

They pretty destroy the egg carton in 5 or 6 days.

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