Sunday, February 04, 2007

When A Flight Cage Becomes A Jungle

When I moved to the country, I decided that my parrots should have more room to stretch their wings than they'd had before. I built three flight cages in the garden of my rental house, each a three metre cube that opened on a service room. My Amazons turned out to be two subspecies who didn't always get along (Cubans and Bahamians), and the two African Grey males each got their own flight, between which the female, Mona, used to bounce trying to decide who was the more attractive male. While the cage wire was strong, the holes in the cages were large enough to let in both rats and sparrows, so when I moved to the farm, I decided to replicate the cages but with a smaller gauge wire so that the sparrows and rats wouldn't be able to get in. Since I'd never seen the parrots chewing on the cage wires I opted for a lighter weight wire as well.

Ah, the best laid plans of bird owners and women often go astray. The parrots were initially very comfortable in the new cage, partly I suspect because I moved them into essentially the same cages that they'd had before, just with different scenery. Mona, the female Grey, had been the victim of a leg attack by creatures unknown last winter and was living in the house, as she still does at present, so the males were on their own with the company for Ali of the Bahamian, while the Cubans got the cage on the west side of the complex. Once we got everyone settled, I decided to get two pair of budgies to share Fritzi's cage with him. I like the sounds of budgies and their social life is very entertaining. We set them up with some nest boxes and sat back to enjoy the view. The first thing that I noticed was that the Cubans became bored and decided to chew a hole in the lighter gauge wire of their cage, and one of them got out. I was a bit concerned about predators such as the neighbourhood children, but since the other Cuban remained in the cage, and meals were still being served with regularity inside while not outside, I wasn't all that concerned that the parrot was going too far. In fact she hung around for about 36 hours trying frantically to remember how she got out (not called a bird brain for nothing!) until we left the service room door open and she flew in. That was the last bird to leave, but then the budgies and the lovebirds began arriving. We found ourselves with a pair of lovebirds who must have escaped from a nearby home and about four new budgies, all of whom appear to have been attracted by the sounds of the parrots.

Then we decided to get some new poultry, since our last group of chickens became soup when a farm within sneezing distance came down with the bird flu. The local vet called me to tell me to do in the chickens before they got sick and I obeyed. Once people began restocking poultry, I bought about eight young hens and a rooster who were moved in with the Cubans. A day or so later, my driver came home with what he said was a pair of bronze turkeys, both of whom later were shown to be hens. That's okay since turkey eggs are excellent, but one of these days we need to get a nice gobbler. The turkeys moved in to clean up after Ali and the Bahamian.

Our next arrivals were a trio of Muscovy ducks, two ducks and a drake (Daphne, Daisy, and Donald respectively) who were put in with Fritzi. One might ask why all the poultry was in the aviary, but the aviary is the safest place for these birds with 120 cm tall brick walls at the base to provide privacy from a pack of Rat Terriers who seem to think that they are all just feathered rodents. The dogs watch all the birds from the screened door of the service room, a sort of dog television. Daphne was obviously in a nesting mood and promptly began producing eggs in a nest in an old cat carrier, while the budgies and lovebirds were inspired either by cooler weather or by Daphne's devotion to the cause to begin laying millions of eggs in the wooden nest boxes above.

Other than an imminent population explosion, life in the bird house seemed pretty stable until Fritzi got bored over a couple of days and decided to chew himself a window/door to the service room where he could raid the sunflower seed stores. He was quite delighted with the arrangement and could be seen prowling the service room all during the day, though he was careful to be home for dinner in the evening or there for breakfast in the morning. He also took to rolling the duck eggs out of the nest box, a habit that did not endear him to the Muscovy's at all, and they were seen chasing him to the screen door where he would scramble to safety. In my concern for his piratical activities, I decided to move him into Ali and the Bahamian's cage for a while. This allowed the ducks to settle down a bit and Daphne began sitting on about a dozen eggs with a few chicken eggs as well that I tucked into her nest. But peace was not to reign.

During a trip to a local market with friends my driver disappeared for a while and reappeared with a cardboard box which he deposited in my friend's lap. As we drove off she exclaimed, "There are rabbits in here!" and in fact, Mohamed had bought me two albino does and a brown and white spotted buck who were named in honour of the visitors Casey, Sue and John...very imaginative names. The females are utterly indistinguishable, so we have no idea who is Casey and who is Sue.

Initially, the chickens, with whom it was decided that the rabbits would live, were terrified of them. The feeding time visits between cages that had apparently been motivated by a strong certainty that anyone else's food was better than that in the home cage, now took on an atmosphere of flight from the long-eared monsters. Chickens, however, don't seem to have very long memories and they soon settled down. The opposite was true of the parrots, however. After watching Fritzi come and go at will, the rest of the parrots decided to follow suit and they all chewed holes to the service room through which they began visiting each others' cages all day. At first they would all go home to their home cages at night, but that pattern has also gone by the wayside.

It is now anyone's guess where the parrots will be when I go to feed them or to visit and take some treats. Perhaps Ali the Grey will be with the Cubans, while Fritzi and the Bahamian hang out with the ducks or turkeys. And they don't bother to go home at night anymore either. I've been moving food dishes around the cages to try to accommodate the shifting populations, and I watch for any signs of aggression, but so far it's all peaceful. We still have the cocktail party atmosphere at feeding time when everyone goes wandering to check out what is left over at the neighbours' places, everyone including the rabbits at this point, who hop over to the ducks' or turkeys' places to check out the goodies. The ducks are not quite sure what to make of these fuzzy creatures who don't seem to care if they are hissed at.

The flight cages themselves are brick for the first metre or so and have concrete floors which are covered in chopped straw. The straw is very animal friendly material, providing scratching places for the turkeys and chickens, and comfortable sitting areas for the ducks and rabbits. The parrots and second story birds get a diet of chopped fruits and vegetables along with a baked parrot bread and sunflower seeds in the winter. All the extras get tossed to the ground floor birds and the rabbits who are learning that bird food in this neighbourhood is pretty good. We chop berseem, a type of clover that we grow for the horses, goats, donkeys, sheep and water buffalo, into short lengths for the poultry and the rabbits are happy to help devour it. The chickens and ducks have some old animal carriers to use as nest boxes, while the turkeys prefer a corner of their cage. The rabbits have a large terra cotta jar on its side to use as a den, along with a cardboard box and the corner of the cage between the chicken nest and the wall. So every species has its niche, and so far there has been no bloodshed in defending them, although the ducks get pretty testy if someone disturbs Daphne's nest. I've thought about getting better wire and separating everyone into neat boxes again, but they all seem to be having such a good time that I think I will just observe this little wild corner of the planet for a while and see how they all work things out.

Oh, and the sparrows? From day one they figured out that they could simply walk into the service room under the door and from there move from cage to cage. I have no idea how many are living in there or whether they stay or rotate in and out, but the population is very healthy.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani