Æthelberht, Going Postal

Sixty Million Years Ago You Would’ve Been Their Lunch

Ever since we met my wife had wanted a parrot. Personally I had zero interest in them but she had kept a Cockatiel for many years and was dead keen on having a larger parrot. In 2012 we were living in Maidstone and one day my brother phoned me to say there was going to be a bird show at Maidstone Market Hall which was five minutes away from our flat. I told my wife about it and we agreed we would go and get an idea of how much a parrot might cost and get the contact details of local breeders.

The day came and the market hall was very busy. I quickly lost my wife in the throngs of people. She eventually found me, excitedly exclaiming she had found a parrot she wanted to buy (which really meant she wanted me to buy). It was an adult Congo African Grey…. £650. After explaining to her that I don’t have £650 to drop on a parrot just like that she looked rather disappointed and wandered off again. A little while later she came back for another attempt. This time she’d found a cheaper parrot that she wanted. It was a four year old male and “only” £200. I didn’t know what type of parrot it was, I’d never seen one before. Over the din of the hundreds of people and squawking birds I asked my wife:

“Are you sure you want it?” YES!

“Do you know what type of parrot it is?” YES!

“Do you know how to look after it?” YES!

“Are you sure you’re going to look after it?” YES!

I handed over a £20 deposit to the seller and went out to find a cash point to withdraw the rest of the money. After returning with the cash the next problem was how to get the bird home? Another stall was selling wooden nest boxes, I bought a small one for £5. “It’s got a hole in the front!” the bird seller said to me. “That’s ok I’ll put my hand over it.” I replied. Laughing, the bloke turned round to his son and said “’Ere, he’s going to put his hand over the hole!” as if I had just suggested something ridiculous or stupid. I decided then that this bloke was a bit of a dick. I picked up a second hand cage at another stall for £15 and a bag of bird seed for a couple of quid. Off we went on the short journey home.

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Cicko shortly after we brought him home from the bird show in 2012

Once we arrived home I put the nest box on the table and opened it up. A head popped out, had a look around then the bird climbed out and flew up on top of the fridge. And so we stood there looking at each other.

“So what kind of parrot is it?” I asked my wife.

“I don’t know” she replied.

“What does it eat?”

“I don’t know”

Top tip – never marry a Serb. I flashed up the computer and did a Google search for “parrots”. I slowly scrolled through parrot pictures until I found the one that matched the bird I had just bought.

Black Headed Caique

(pronounced “cake”, but Americans seem to prefer “ky-eek”)

Native to South America. Known as the clown of the parrot world. Extremely energetic. Hyperactive. Non-stop balls of energy from dawn til dusk. Known for also being rather unpredictable and biting. Not a bird for beginners.

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Black Headed Caiques in the wild
Lena [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This was going to be a learning curve. My wife had named him “Cicko” (pronounced “tsi-tsko”). It turned out he was very docile and would let you handle him with no arguments at all. I spent quite a lot of time scouring the Internet for information about diet, environment, proper care, etc and realised that the cage I had purchased was too small for him. I got him a larger, more suitable one and some toys, perches etc. We were getting on very well, he seemed to want to follow me everywhere and would spend a lot of time sitting on my shoulder. One day I was laying on the sofa with my hands together resting on my chest when he flew onto me and forced his way under the arch made by my hands and went to sleep. I suppose that was the point I realised he’d bonded with me.

My wife was happy to have a parrot, she would interact and play with him… but that’s as far as it went. When he needed his cage cleaned, when there was bird mess to be cleaned up or we needed to buy things for him she was nowhere to be seen. So all these things fell to me to do and Cicko and I ended up developing quite a strong bond.

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As I said above, he was an incredibly docile and tame bird and would happily “step up” for anyone. I trained him to wear a harness and he could go out to the park for a walk with me. People would stop and ask “is that a real parrot?” I even once took him into Sainsburys in Bromley which was interesting – he was inside my jacket with his head poking out over the top of the zip. He started wolf whistling at people before ducking back down inside the jacket and I was getting some very funny looks. My family took to him (with the exception of my sister who has a phobia of birds). My mum especially took to him and he really took to her too. When we went to visit my mum Cicko would recognise the roads as we got close to my mum’s and would start whistling and singing very excitedly.

There was a problem though – my wife didn’t seem to be terribly interested in caring for him whilst I was working away at sea. I’d come home to find the cage absolutely rotten and not been cleaned for days or weeks. She’d leave the cage door open whilst she was at work and he would be free to roam the living room shitting everywhere and chewing everything he could get his beak on. She wouldn’t put much effort into his food either and just throw a whole apple into the bowl in his cage before leaving for work.

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So I decided to give him to my mum to look after whilst I was at sea. To my eternal regret I never told her about birds and Teflon. When overheated Teflon cookware releases fumes which are highly toxic to birds. One Sunday in February 2015 whilst I was away at sea my mum was cooking a roast dinner. The potatoes were being roasted on a Teflon baking tray. Shortly after taking the potatoes out of the oven Cicko dropped dead in his cage.

Suffice to say by this point I was rather fond of him and I was very upset at the news.

Only a few weeks before I had bought Cicko a very large new cage and a full complement of perches, accessories and toys. I started looking for a local parrot sanctuary I could donate all his things to. I stumbled across an advert online from a guy in Ely who had a sibling pair of two year old male Black Headed Caiques for re-homing. £400. I contacted him and subsequently found myself driving up to Ely with my brother at the end of March 2015 not long after I’d come home on leave.

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The birds were called Fruit and Nut. Just over two years old. The guy said he wanted to re-home them as he had just started a new job with a fairly long commute and didn’t think it was fair to leave the birds at home on their own all day. I soon found out that was only half the story…

Upon letting the birds out of the cage to meet us Fruit came over to me. He had a march around my shoulders, down my arm and was sitting on my hand whilst I talked to him. Suddenly, like a missile he launched at my face and latched on to it just to the right and above my mouth. His top mandible pierced into my flesh whilst he sliced away with the very sharp lower mandible. No panic, just pry the beak open and get him away from my face….. lots of blood, concerned looks and profuse apologies from this guy and his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Nut had flown over to my brother’s shoulder and attempted to open up his jugular. It turns out Fruit and Nut are a pair of vicious little bastards who attack everyone except the owner and his girlfriend.

Not one to be easily put off I still took them home. Once we got home they went straight into their new cage. They came out again the next morning, both straight onto my shoulder for a chat and I’ve never been bitten hard again since. They’re very boisterous, beaky, and can squeeze quite hard when they’re playing. This is something of a characteristic of Caiques and why you’ll often find it recommended not to keep Caiques with other species because they play very rough. I’ll sometimes get what I call a warning bite if I try to take away something they want or if they don’t want to step up, but I’ve had nothing like that initial first attack ever since. I can handle them both, let them near my face and they’re fine and we’re all comfortable with each other. I managed to socialise them both with my wife (although like me she needed to be bitten on the face before friendship terms were agreed). I also managed to socialise them with my mum and they’re ok with her. The rest of my family however, are terrified of them and won’t even stay in the same room if the birds are out of the cage. In fact, except for that initial incident when we first met we’ve got on remarkably well over the last three years. Sometimes they drive me up the flipping wall, but that usually means I haven’t found anything sufficiently engaging for them to do so I’ve got no-one but myself to blame. They’re fascinating animals to observe and I like watching the interactions between them and how they solve problems together. In fact over the last three years they’ve been kept in three different cages and they’ve worked out how to open each of those cages from the inside. Hence I I’ve had to fit padlocks to prevent unplanned excursions.

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Fruit & Nut in 2016
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Flying hooligans
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Secateurs with wings
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Imagine toddlers that can fly and have bolt croppers attached to their faces

In February 2016 I finished working at sea, and in September of the same year I separated from my wife so now it’s just me and the birds. They just had their fifth hatchday this February (parrots don’t have birthdays) and we’re still on good terms. I was a little concerned about this – Caiques reach sexual maturity by their 3rd year and some males especially can turn aggressive towards their human companions to the point where they can no longer be handled.

It’s been quite a journey for me. Back in 2012 when we brought Cicko home I knew nothing about parrots at all. Now, I’m by no means an expert but I do have a pretty good appreciation of just how much work it takes to look after them properly. To be perfectly honest parrots don’t belong living with humans. They’re totally unsuited to our environment and it’s incredibly easy to have an unhappy or stressed parrot which then develops behavioural problems. For this reason I’m opposed to the breeding of parrots for sale as domestic pets. Too many people buy a parrot not realising what they’re getting into and the parrot suffers and lives a miserable life as a result. There are plenty of unwanted parrots out there which need a happy “forever home” and that’s why I advocate re-homing a parrot before you consider buying one from a breeder.

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If you, a family member or a friend wants a parrot you really should be aware of the following:

  • Parrots are extremely intelligent. Far more so than a dog. They need constant mental stimulation in the form of toys, activities and interaction with other birds and humans. If you can’t or won’t provide this the bird will develop behavioural problems.
  • Parrots are loud. They call, they squawk and they scream. This is perfectly natural behaviour. It’s what they do. Don’t buy a Cockatoo and be surprised when it screams the house down and the neighbours are complaining.
  • Parrots bite. Own a parrot and you will be bitten at some point. It’s part and parcel of owning these animals. All parrots have incredibly powerful beaks. Even small parrots will easily draw blood. Larger parrots like Macaws can crush the bones in your hand if they really mean it.
  • Parrots shit. They will shit on your furniture, on your clothes and on your head. If you can’t deal with that then don’t get one.
  • Parrots will destroy anything they get in their beaks. Phone chargers, laptop keyboards, television remote controls… anything. If you aren’t prepared to bird proof your home and can’t deal with stuff getting chewed to pieces don’t get a parrot.
  • Parrots will wreck your clothes. Every parrot owner has “bird clothes” which are full of holes their bird has chewed in them.
  • Parrots require a proper diet. You need to provide them with the right variety and quantities of food otherwise they will develop health and behavioural problems. Likewise you need to be aware of the types of food your parrot cannot eat.
  • Parrots need a suitable size cage with a variety of perches and toys. These are not cheap.
  • Parrots will get ill and require medical attention at some point. Most veterinary surgeries have no vets with experience treating parrots. You’ll need to find a specialist avian vet. These are not cheap. You will need insurance.
  • Your home is full of stuff that can harm your parrot. Teflon as mentioned above. Parrot respiratory systems are totally different to mammalian ones and are incredibly fragile and sensitive. Fumes from household cleaning chemicals, deodorants, perfumes and artificial fragrances, coal or wood burning fires – all are toxic. Likewise many varieties of household plants are toxic to parrots. You need to know what stuff is bird safe and what stuff isn’t before you bring one home.
  • Parrots live much longer than dogs or cats. Larger parrots have lifespans equivalent to humans.
  • Parrots are flock animals. They naturally live in groups. Keeping a parrot on its own all day whilst you are at work is not good. Parrots on their own become stressed and scared. Parrots are healthier and happier when they’re kept in pairs or more. However, you can’t just plonk two parrots together in a cage. That’s a recipe for disaster.

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The fact is Parrots are a massive time sink. They require inordinate amounts of attention and care – far more than a dog, cat or guinea pig. A parrot is a massive, life long commitment and one that you’re probably not prepared to make. For every cute Youtube video showing a parrot doing tricks or talking there are many more parrots that have behavioural problems like self mutilation, aggressive biting or incessant screaming, and in most cases it will be down to inadequate care being given to the parrot.

Having said that, if you fully understand what you’re getting yourself into and you really are prepared for it (and remember, you’re almost certainly not), you will find the most amazing and intelligent creatures to share your home with and will develop a very special bond.

Æthelberht, Going Postal

Oh, and the Jurassic Park films are required watching for anyone wanting a parrot. Pay particular attention to the Velociraptors. Does it look like fun?

Æthelberht, Going Postal

© Æthelberht 2018