cockatiel picture
Vermin the Terrible

I know, there's nothing more pathetic than nerds talking about their pets. Well what can I say, I'm crazy about her. Anyway Vermin is a cinnamon pearl cockatiel hen, hatched around Thanksgiving 1997, and living here since late January 1998. The name was my ex-wife's idea, she was kidding but it turned out to be very appropriate.

Training -- well it's not like she's a shining example of good upbringing, but it seems a lot of cockatiel owners don't know that 'tiels can be trained to poop on command. Don't get too excited, it doesn't mean that they won't also let rip when the whim strikes them, but if you keep track of the time and get them over the wastebasket a little while before they're due for the next one, you can save yourself a lot of clean-up. And it does seem as if Vermin has gotten the general idea that I don't like being crapped on, and will hold off for a while at least, although her concern about this varies inversely with her distance from my head. She'll try to restrain herself if she's on my shoulder or arm, but she thinks knees are fair game so she has to be watched closely there.

Anyway the trick is "labeling", or attaching a keyword to the action. So all we had to do is, learn to read the body language so we know when she's about to let drop, and say the keyword right then. Any short word should be fine, but try to pick one that doesn't come up much in normal conversation, because you don't want the bird going off by accident. Anyway if you say the word consistently every time the bird's about to relieve itself, eventually the bird will get the connection. It might take a while. With Vermin it was about a month before she finally figured out what I was talking about, and after that it took a long while to get the compliance rate up to a useful level. But, just say the word every time the bird goes for it, and then every so often try saying the word when you suspect it might be almost time for the next one, and eventually the bird will surprise you by doing it then. You have to be super-patient though, cockatiels do learn but it's a very slow process.

Wing clipping -- this is a religious issue, people are either strongly for or vehemently against clipping, so it's pointless to argue with them. The usual argument against is, it's unnatural to prevent a bird from flying, and the usual counter-argument is, everything about a pet bird's life is unnatural so there's no point in keeping the one piece of natural behavior that can get them seriously hurt. I figure, if you didn't want a pet that could fly, why on Earth did you get a bird? Flight is the main distinguishing characteristic of birds, without it you've basically got a clumsy hamster with no front paws that keeps hitting floor with a sound like an orange.

Seriously, in my experience, clipping the bird's wings gives you false security. The bird's ability to fly depends on its motivation. If you clip the wings enough so that the bird can't gain altitude under any circumstances, then it won't be able to control its descent either under normal falls (which happen all the time, they're clumsy), and it will hit the ground hard and get hurt. If you leave enough of the flight feathers so that the bird can come in for a soft landing when it slips off the shower rod, then it will be able to fly away if it gets a real scare, like a fire cracker or phone ringing or hearing a crow or any of the zillion other things that make 'tiels freak out.

And more importantly, people with clipped birds tend to take stupid risks -- I know I did, I used to carry her outdoors tucked inside my jacket, and sometimes even let her walk entirely free, because I thought she couldn't fly (she's pretty lazy so she rarely even tried). But we had a few ridiculously close calls. The biggest one was at a barbecue in Michigan, where some kids bounced a tennis ball on the pavement near the bird when she was snoozing on top of her cage, and she freaked and flew off to splash down in a river. Luckily cockatiels innately know how to swim with their wings (who knew?), and at least ONE of us ran in after her (ex-wife just stood there) and fished her out as she floated downstream without a care in the world. How did these things evolve?!

Now things are different, her flight feathers are all grown out and she can totally fly (although generally she's too lazy, except when the phone is ringing), and as a result I never take any risks at all. She never EVER leaves the house except inside her travel case, and there have been no more near-escape incidents. YES, she thwacked into a few windows and mirrors early on, but now she understands the concept and knows to aim for the frame and land there. So there was the risk of injury at the beginning but she got through that and now I think she's much safer than either a bird that drops like a rock, or a bird that everyone thinks can't fly but is really biding its time waiting for a chance to fly into the windshield of a passing truck. Also, I've tried two different brands of cockatiel harnesses (there's competition in this market?), and she can escape from either one in no time flat, so there's no point in even trying to go outside. I have a screen tent for that (and she's always supervised).

sleeping beauty
Taking a nap at my mom's place, xmas 2000

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