Feeding Wild Birds during the Spring and Summer

In contrast to most everyone I know, I enjoy feeding birds as much in the warmer months as in winter.  The question, sometimes raised, of the possibility of one “taking them away from their role as insect catchers” is far too complicated to address here but is, I can assure you, not a concern.

Hummingbirds, Supreme Aerialists

Warm weather bird feeding offers us the opportunity to observe at close quarters birds that are, in many regions, absent during the winter.  In most parts of the country the magnificent hummingbirds first spring to mind.

These little gems are simply breathtaking…our glass hummingbird feeder can start you on the road to what can easily become a lifelong hobby.  The book Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds  provides valuable guidance on hummingbird-friendly gardens, nectar mixes and species identification.

Insects for Summer Visitors and Winter Regulars

Another simple way to attract summer residents is to supply insects.  This is most easily accomplished by offering freeze dried Wild Bird Mealworms.  Especially if your feeder is located near sheltering trees or bushes, you may be treated to the sight of warblers, orioles, thrushes, catbirds, flickers and other beautiful insectivores gathering food for both themselves and their young.

Chickadees, juncos, sparrows and other seed-eating “winter regulars” raise their young on insects, catching several hundred daily in most cases, and will take advantage of your hospitality as well.

Seedeaters – Generalists and Specialists

Although catching insects for their nestlings and consuming many themselves, many confirmed seedeaters will continue to take seeds, nuts and other such staples year-round.  Our line of wild bird foods  can provide all you’ll need, including specialty mixes for doves and pigeons (which eat seed all year and feed their young with “pigeon milk” derived from the lining of the crop).

An Interesting Observation

Concerning seed-eaters, this spring I was quite surprised to see a male English sparrow (Passer domesticus) feed cracked corn to its newly-fledged youngster (fledglings are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest)…I had assumed insects to be the sole food provided by adults.

Birding Opportunities

Warm weather bird-feeding usually results in spectacular bird watching opportunities…driven to catch hundreds of insects daily, raise several broods and keep themselves fed as well, parent birds are far less cautious than at other times of the year.

Give our Audubon Bird Call Whistle  a try.  My first, received from my grandfather nearly half a decade ago, drew the attention of nearly every furred and feathered visitor to my childhood feeders.  The Backyard Bird Tracker  will help you to identify the birds you see and provides interesting life history details and a place for recording your observations.

 

 

Setting out bird baths within easy reach of your feeders will increase visitation, including by bird species that might not be interested in the foods you provide.  For example, robins, which in most areas are earthworm specialists, will readily make use of bird baths.

Other Steps You Can Take

Setting out bird baths within easy reach of your feeders will increase visitation, including by bird species that might not be interested in the foods you provide.  For example, robins, which in most areas are earthworm specialists, will readily make use of bird baths.

A well-thought out garden (please see below) will encourage reluctant feeder-visitors to remain and forage upon insects, buds and other treats.

 

Mammals: Flying Squirrels, Gray Squirrels and Bats

Don’t forget your mammalian friends.  Gray squirrels newly emerged from the nest are clumsy and even more entertaining than are adults.  By providing squirrel feeders, corn logs  and peanuts, you can limit competition with avian visitors and provide yourself with quite a show.

If flying squirrels are resident in your area, by all means install some indirect lighting and take a look at your feeders after dark.  These adorable, nocturnal acrobats are quite fearless feeder users…trust me, you will not regret the effort.  Resident even in the heart of NYC, flying squirrels do not reveal themselves in the daytime.  A call to your local zoo or nature center should provide you with information concerning local populations.

While we’re on nocturnal mammals, let me not forget some of my favorites, the bats.  I have rehabilitated a number of injured bats, and never tire of watching their nighttime hunting forays.  A surprising variety of species inhabits the USA, even within most cities…try putting up a bat house and see what happens.

Further Reading

For information on planting a garden that will both attract wild visitors and provide nutritious food for your pets, please see my article Gardening for Birds.

A very interesting field report documenting the huge of insects captured by robins with chicks in the nest is posted at:

http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Wilson/v047n02/p0109-p0111.pdf

Northern Flicker image referenced from Wikipedia commons and originally posted by naturespicsonline.com

Hooded Crows as Pets: Keeping the World’s Most Intelligent Bird

Hooded crow

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Andreas Trepte

While the term “most intelligent” will be questioned by some parrot owners, a lifetime of working with birds in zoos and at home leaves me in favor of granting several Corvids (crows, ravens, jays and their relatives) that honor…no disrespect to the amazing abilities of other birds! My fascination with this bird family began when I took in nestling American Crows and Blue Jays as a child, and continued through work with their exotic relatives at the Bronx Zoo. In Japan, I was astounded by the tool-using wild Carrion Crows (please see article below). Among the most captivating of all is the amazingly-intelligent and curious Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix). Large, active and (very!) expensive, Hooded Crows are not for everyone, but the experienced aviculturist can ask for no finer or more responsive pet.

 

Hooded Crow Description

Once seen, this spectacular bird will not be forgotten. The head, wings, chest and tail are clad in typical Corvid glossy black, which is nicely-offset by the light to dark gray plumage (sometimes un-flatteringly described as “dirty grey”!) covering the rest of the body. It reaches nearly 2 feet in length, and sports an impressive wingspan of 36 to 40 inches.

 

Hooded crow , light colored

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bob

Long considered to be a color variant of the Carrion Crow (C. corone), the Hooded Crow is now recognized as a distinct species. Four subspecies have been described.

 

 

Range and Habitat

The Hooded Crow’s huge range extends from Great Britain to western Asia (the western edge of the range is not well-defined) and from just south of the Arctic Circle to the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Those populations that migrate in winter reach northern India, southern China, Iran and Afghanistan.

 

Hooded Crows seem to favor open forests and wooded scrub, but are very adaptable, colonizing farms, villages, brushy grasslands, desert fringes and cliffside forests at 3,000 feet or more above sea level.

 

Nest

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bugaga

Breeding

Although generally described as “stick nests”, those constructed by the Hooded Crow are actually very complex structures. The foundation is usually of short, stout sticks, but animal bones may be incorporated – in some areas, this habit has given rise to some odd superstitions, as can be imagined! Several distinct layers are placed over the foundation, with moss, grasses and roots used as binding materials. The inner cup-like area is lined with feathers, fur, wool and/or discarded rags and the like.

 

The eggs, numbering 2-7, hatch in 18-20 days, and the chicks fledge at 4-5 weeks of age.

 

Hooded Crows as Pets

Even casual observation of wild individuals will reveal crows to be unusually intelligent. In fact, recent studies have shown their tool-making and problem-solving abilities to be on par with those of some great apes (please see articles linked below).

 

Opening garbage bag

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Thermos.

Like most if not all of its relatives, Hooded Crows are excellent mimics, and readily copy sounds and words. Naturally social, crows quickly bond to their owners and may even learn to respond to simple commands. Although they can become quite bold – free-ranging pets often torment dogs, cats and human visitors alike – their great intelligence is accompanied by a sensitive nature. For all their toughness, Hooded Crows are easily stressed by unkind behavior (real or perceived!) on the part of their owners…and they will not forgive or forget!

 

As is true for young children, their active minds have the capacity for both learning and mischief. Indeed, Hooded Crows seem driven to manipulate, and if possible destroy, anything they can get their powerful beaks upon. This is an outgrowth of their natural behavior, and cannot be “trained” away. Hooded Crows should never be left at large in a room that is not completely “crow-proofed”. Before allowing your bird access to a room, go through it as if you were about to release a gang of toddlers, and then check again!

 

In flight

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by انفی

Housing

Hooded Crows are large and very active, and need plenty of flight space. A custom-built or commercial outdoor aviary, or a properly-outfitted indoor room, is the only option for a pet Hooded Crow. Commercial cages designed for even the largest macaws fall far short of their needs.

 

Hooded Crows kept outdoors tend to be very vigorous. Although they readily adapt to cold weather, heated shelters should be available during winter. Given their wide range, it is likely that individuals from southern populations may be somewhat cold-sensitive, so try to determine your pet’s origin if possible. Indoors, Hooded Crows are best located where they can observe people…they also take an interest in televisions and phone conversations.

 

Even if provided adequate space, Hooded Crows will languish if not stimulated by toys, behavioral enrichment, and out-of-cage time. Daily interaction with people is essential if they are to remain handle-able. Concerning handling, it must be understood that the beak is a formidable weapon, and that even accidental injuries can be VERY severe. It is critical to keep one’s face and eyes out of reach, and to understand that crows cannot be trusted in this regard. Please post below for further information on handling.

Hooded crow, adult

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by pelican

Diet

Although they take an incredibly wide range of foods, Hooded Crows have distinct carnivorous leanings. Rodents, carrion, eggs and insects form a large part of the natural diet.

 

Crow owners have had success with diets based on cat and dog foods, but I prefer a diet similar to that I’ve used for many crows, magpies and jays in zoos. Commercial bird-of-prey diet, into which I mix pigeon pellets and softbill food, provides the bulk of their food intake. I believe that whole mice or chicks and insects are essential in assuring proper calcium intake and long term health.

 

Tossing a handful of crickets or other insects into your crow’s aviary is a wonderful way to keep the bird occupied. Canned grasshoppers, snails and other invertebrates can be used to provide critical dietary variety. A wide range of vegetables, chopped nuts, and fruits (in moderate amounts) should also be provided. Hard-boiled eggs are an especially favored treat.

 

The Hooded Crow’s natural diet contains a good number of whole animals, and is likely calcium-rich. In addition to pink or adult mice, pets should receive calcium and vitamin/mineral supplements. Natural sunlight and full spectrum bulbs should also be provided.

 

 

 

Further Reading

African Pied Crow Care

 Do Tool-Using Crows Surpass Parrots and Apes in Intelligence?

Japan’s Amazing Carrion Crows

 

 

Why Do Lovebirds, Canaries and Others Abandon Nests or Destroy Eggs?

Budgerigar pair

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Workman

Few bird-keeping experiences are more thrilling than watching your pets breed…or more frustrating than seeing them toss out their eggs or abandon the nest. Egg destruction and nest abandonment, rare in the wild, are quite common among pet birds of all types, including parrots, budgies, finches, canaries, lovebirds and others. While the reasons are often specific to individual bird species, some general considerations, including infertility, same-sex pairs, stress, and hormonal imbalances, apply to all commonly-kept birds.

 

Infertility

The production of infertile eggs is perhaps the most common reason that birds abandon their nests. This most commonly occurs after the parents have tended to the eggs for the entire incubation period (incubation periods vary among species, please post below for specific information). Generally, the incubating parent or parents simply stop sitting upon the eggs if they do not hatch on time. In some cases, the eggs will also be tossed from the nest (this typically happens among budgies, zebra finches and others that are able to re-nest quickly).

 

Infertility in either sex may be due to disease, age, genetic factors or, in some cases, a poor diet. Please post any specific questions below.

 

Society finches

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gallo71

Same Sex Pairs

Same sex pairings are not at all unusual in captivity, and can be found among most species. However, they are most commonly seen in the highly social parrots, which include the lovebirds, cockatiels and parakeets (as parrot owners know, birds kept alone often treat their human companions as “mates”).

 

Birds that show little or no visible sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance), such as the various lovebirds, can be a real source of confusion to owners when same sex pairs form. This is also true for certain color phases of sexually-dimorphic species, as the distinguishing sex-based markings may be obscured.

 

Fischer's Lovebirds

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Takashi Hososhima

Behaviors such as singing, grooming and mate-feeding can sometimes be used to distinguish the sexes in “difficult” species, but even these are not completely reliable.

 

Colony Breeding

Many finches (especially the popular zebra and society finches) nest in colony situations in the wild, and multiple pairs may breed even in relatively small cages. Some lovebirds and other small parrots also nest in close proximity to other pairs in their natural habitats.

 

No matter how large your cage or aviary, however, space for multiple breeding pairs will be far less than would be available in nature. Squabbles, stealing of nest material, destruction of others’ eggs, and even chick-killing are all too common when more than a single pair nests in the same enclosure. The stress of the situation can also cause parents to abandon their nests or hatchlings. There are ways to design cages and aviaries so as to limit these possibilities; please post below for further information.

 

Macaw pair

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Riza Nugraha

Stress

From captive insects to mammals, a common reaction to stress is to cease breeding or to abandon/kill eggs and young. As many young, aspiring hamster breeders learn, the female will sometimes even consume her litter (which tends to dampen one’s enthusiasm for rodent-breeding!). A simplified explanation of this phenomenon may be stated as “why waste precious time and resources on young that may not survive in any event?”.

 

Breeding birds of all species generally maintain a heightened awareness of their surroundings. This applies even to long-term, otherwise handle-able pets, which may become flighty or aggressive when on the nest. Nesting birds may be upset by owners who check nests or candle eggs, noise, other pets, people passing near the cage and similar events. Consider the nighttime environment as well…light entering the room from outside, cats or raccoons peering in, and loud traffic can disturb birds, especially at this time (most need 12 hours of quiet darkness each night).

 

Gouldian Finches (yellow & silver morphs)

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by myfinchdotcom

Other Captive Conditions

General captive conditions can also be sources of stress. For example, young birds, even if technically able to reproduce, often fail in their first breeding attempts. Un-natural day/night cycles can affect the ebb and flow of hormones, so that individuals come into breeding condition at different times. This often results in aggression between birds that are otherwise compatible. The close confines of captivity may change natural behaviors, frustrating the birds and causing nest abandonment or aggression towards mates or chicks.

 

Some individuals, male and female alike, seem never to get the hang of nesting and/or rearing the young, even when conditions are ideal. Inbreeding has been proposed as one possible cause of this, but we still have much to learn.

 

Further Reading

Breeding Lovebirds

Society Finch Care and Breeding

Lovebird Breeding Problems: Cautions for Small Parrot Breeders

Abysinnian Lovebirds

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Klaus Hofmann

Watching a pair of Lovebirds as they bond, and then court and rear their young is one of the most rewarding of all parrot-keeping experiences. Unlike many parrots, Lovebirds are often happy to settle down and breed in modestly-sized cages, and most make fine parents. But while mated pairs may produce clutch after clutch of eggs, aggression (to owner and mate), infertility, ailing chicks, and a host of problems can arise – many of which take owners by surprise. Today I’ll review some of the concerns most often brought to me by Lovebird owners, and others I’ve experienced while caring for these and other small parrots in zoos.

 

Distinguishing the Sexes

The commonly-kept lovebirds, such as the Peach-faced, Fischer’s and Masked, are not sexually dimorphic, in that males and females are identical in appearance (Abyssinian, Madagascar and Red-faced Lovebirds are sexually dimorphic, but these species are not common in the trade). Experienced breeders can often hazard a very good guess as to the sex of mature birds (via shape of the pelvic bones, overall size) but individuals vary greatly. The most skilled old-timer of my acquaintance estimated that he was correct 85% of the time.

 

Nest box

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snowmanradio

If you can observe each bird for some time before buying, you’ll have a better chance of picking a pair. Females of commonly-sold species carry nesting material tucked into their tail feathers, and males tend to feed females rather than vice-versa…but some individuals try to reverse these activities! To confuse matters further, same-sex pairs often form.

 

Aggression

While mated pairs usually get along very well, getting to the “mated pair” point can be trying for bird and bird owner alike. Lovebirds can be quite pugnacious (a group under my care at the Bronx Zoo bullied their small antelope exhibit-mates; please see article below), and are often very picky when it comes to mate selection. Also, captive conditions can affect hormonal output, so that the birds may come into breeding condition at different times of the year. Unwelcome mating attempts can lead to serious battles.

 

Lovebirds – even friendly, long-term pets – invariably become very protective of their nests and chicks, and often remain aggressive towards people throughout the breeding season.

 

Hybrid Lovebirds

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snowmanradio

Infertility

Infertility is especially frustrating to owners (and, one would imagine, their pets!) because we become aware of it only after the normal incubation time has passed and we are expecting chicks any day (I do not recommend candling eggs to check for fertility…please post below for further info).

 

Infertility seems to be more common now than in years past, if my experience is any guide. Poor diet, inbreeding, age, genetics, and a host of other factors may be involved. Please see the article linked below for detailed information.

 

An Embarrassment of Riches

It is possible to do “too well” at Lovebird breeding.   Spurred by ample food and ideal living conditions, some pairs breed too often, draining the female’s calcium stores and jeopardizing her health.

 

Finding homes for the birds you produce can be a daunting task. Cute as they are, Lovebirds can be noisy and difficult to tame, and proper care takes a good deal of time, effort and money. They are not a good pet choice for most people. If you care about the fate of your birds – and all private breeders that I’ve met do – you may have quite a job finding appropriate homes for your youngsters.

 

Fischer's Lovebird

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by BS Thurner Hof

Cost

Keeping and breeding Lovebirds takes time and money, even if all goes well. If medical problems arise, chicks are abandoned by parents, or you wind up keeping extra birds due to incompatibility, expenses can mount quickly.

 

It is not realistic to think that you will earn a profit (or even break even!) by selling baby Lovebirds, as small and large scale breeders typically produce more birds than the market can bear. Most pet stores have established relationships with breeders, and do not accept birds from others.

 

“Home-Bred” Does not Guarantee Good Pets

Lovebirds generally make great parents, and will vigorously resist attempts to check on or remove hatchlings. But if the young are left with their parents until they fledge, taming may be a long and ultimately unsuccessful prospect. Experienced keepers desiring human-bonded pets usually remove nestling Lovebirds at age 1-2 weeks, and hand-feed them. However, hand-rearing should not be attempted by novice breeders. Please post below for further information and references.

 

Some folks do quite well with a middle-ground technique. Young birds are removed from the nest and handled for a short time each day, after which they are returned. Owners are spared the difficulties of feeding the delicate chicks, and the birds tend to respond well to human contact after fledging. However, this process can evoke extreme stress in the protective parent birds.

 

t238363Tips and Additional Information

Wood shavings should cover the floor of the box to a depth of 2-3 inches. This will help to prevent the splay-legged condition that is often seen in chicks raised on hard surfaces.

 

Wild lovebirds carry fresh bark into their nests, possibly to increase humidity. Captive lovebirds will readily utilize moistened cypress for this purpose. Lightly spraying the female lovebird when she is out of the nest will also help in this regard (do not spray within the box itself).

 

Peach-faced and several other lovebirds tuck nesting material within their feathers to transport it to the nest…don’t miss watching this unique behavior if you have the opportunity.

 

Peach-faced Lovebird chick

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Toumoto

The Eggs and Chicks

Female lovebirds usually lay their first egg 7-10 days after copulation, with an additional egg being produced at intervals of 1-2 days thereafter.

 

Usually, the hen sits and is fed by the male. Male Masked Lovebirds, however, often sit near the hen, but it is not clear if they are actually doing anything useful!

 

The eggs hatch in 20-27 days, and the chicks leave the nest after 35-50 days. They are fed by their parents for an additional 2 weeks after fledging, by which time they are usually completely independent.

 

 

Further Reading

Masked Lovebirds as Pets

Infertility in Captive Birds

 

Parrot Illness In Winter

Blizzard, N. Dakota

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Saperaud

Wintertime always brings a spike in posts and calls concerning sick parrots. I often tap avian veterinarian friends for assistance, and most also report seeing more ill birds at this time of year. Respiratory ailments seem to dominate, and many owners attribute this to drafts and low temperatures (as we’ll see, this is not actually the case). While otherwise-healthy people tend to shrug off “winter colds” as an annoyance, the dangers that respiratory illnesses pose to parrots, finches, doves and other pet birds are extremely severe. Left untreated, these infections will always worsen over time – usually quite quickly – and will often prove fatal. Also, as it is impossible to distinguish, via symptoms, common respiratory concerns from psittacosis and other diseases that may be transmittable to humans, a prompt call to your veterinarian is always in order.

 

Are Drafts and Cold Temperatures a Concern?

Drafts and rapid changes in temperature do not specifically cause birds to suffer respiratory distress. However, they can stress the immune system. The same may be said of birds that are kept, long-term, at lower-than-optimal temperatures. Tolerance for such conditions varies by species.

 

Blue & Gold Macaws

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Olaf Oliviero Riemer

If the immune system is over-worked or otherwise compromised, bacteria, parasites and fungi, which are ever-present in the environment, can take hold and sicken your pet. Minor underlying health problems, which may have been suppressed by the immune system when all was well, may also become severe. So, while drafts and such may not actually cause illness, they do “set your pet up” to become sick. Please see the article linked below for further information on heating your bird’s cage or bird room.

 

Acclimation to colder-than-recommended temperatures is often possible, at least with some species, but this must be done properly; please post below for further information.

 

Symptoms

Most bird owners quickly know when all is not well with their pet. While respiratory ailments can be caused by a wide variety of pathogens, the symptoms are similar. Puffed feathers, wheezing, nasal discharge, sneezing, coughing, appetite loss and/or general lethargy are the most common warning signs. Tumors, smoky environments, and even allergies and less-common problems may also be involved.

 

Heron with Chlamydiosis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Joelmills

What to Do?

Your first step should be to speak with an experienced avian veterinarian. A specialist is preferable, as the causative agents of respiratory diseases can be difficult to identify, and some illnesses are more commonly seen in certain bird species or families than others (please see photo of heron afflicted with chlamydiosis). Please post below if you need assistance in locating a local avian veterinarian.

 

Do not take any steps to treat your bird before speaking with your vet (other than eliminating drafts, etc.). You may be instructed to clean your bird’s nares (nostrils) or raise the temperature a bit, but do so only after consultation. Common avian bacteria can cause serious problems if, for example, they become established in one’s eyes, and the risk of a zoonotic disease (one that can be transmitted to people) must be considered. Your vet can advise you as to appropriate precautions if any type of home treatment is recommended. Of course, an appointment with the veterinarian should also be scheduled.

 

 

 

Further Reading

 

Heating Your Bird Cage or Bird Room

 

Why is My Parrot Sneezing?

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