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parakeet handlerParakeets: Their History and Allure Down Through Time
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why are parakeets the most popular breed of bird pet in the world today? What is it about them that has withstood the test of time and civilization? Read on for a new look at an old and adorable feathered friend.

There was once a bird from Nerwitten
Who was often attacked by a kitten
No wonder one May on a fine summer’s day
That cat found his nose had been bitten.~

As a lover of all animals, but owner of mostly cats, dogs and horses, I have not had a great deal of exposure to birds. I never met one I didn’t like, but the only one I ever really knew was a little blue and black guy named Julio who lived on the shoulder of one of my sister’s closest friends. She would eat, do her homework, watch television and even do the dishes with Julio perched on her shoulder. One evening, poor Julio was in is usual position and the family was sitting down to dinner. For some unforeseen reason, Julio fell off her shoulder, slipping into the onion soup and all parakeet eternity! Poor guy! In my mind’s eye, I can still see that little bird glued to her left shoulder. Makes me misty to this day.

Since the days of ancient Egypt, birds have been treasured as pets because of their beautiful colors, friendly dispositions and lovely voices. Parakeets or "keets" are native to Australia’s central grassland plains, where their green color with black wavy bands on their wings and backs served as camouflage. Native Aborigines observed the huge flocks of budgerigars (or budgies), rise over the plains and nest in the holes of eucalyptus trees. They would often thrust their boomerangs into the center of the flock to take down a few for a snack. The English word, "budgerigar", unfortunately, comes from the Australian phrase "good to eat."
parakeets on a branch
Parakeets look very much like tiny parrots and their name in Latin translates to "song parrot with wavy lines." In 1838, John Gould, a naturalist, brought two back home with him to England. In a few short years there were thousands of parakeets all over Europe and their popularity skyrocketed. There are approximately 8 million parakeets in the United States, with many millions more in the rest of the world. (An exact count is impossible since laws prohibit the issuing of passports to creatures with feathers!) Parakeets are known in almost every country in the world and are perfect pets for young and old alike. They are easy to care for, very friendly and relatively inexpensive.

How the parakeet arrived in America is one immigrant story that cannot be exactly ascertained. A very reliable source informed me that American sailors in Australia and New Zealand took these feathered, intelligent creatures onboard for company and brought them back to American ports such as San Diego and San Francisco. It is known, however, that in the mid-nineteenth century, the breeding of parakeets became the rage of many owners. By choosing the right combinations of parents, breeders could bring out certain colors in the offspring. For example, encouraging blue birds to mate with each other created an even deeper blue among the progeny. Today there are enough parakeet colors and hues to match the color of every room in your house and every piece of clothing in your wardrobe; blue, yellow, white, violet and even a rainbow mix.

Once a bird is six months old or so, it is fairly easy to determine its sex by looking at the bump of flesh above its nose (the cere). On a male this is bluish and on a female brownish. Males tend to be more likely to talk (unlike the female of the human species who hold out for more money). Female keets can learn to speak, but may need more patience and time. The ladies love to gnaw, because one of their primary tasks in the Eucalyptus groves of their homeland was to gnaw out a nest for the baby keets. Cuttlebones placed in cages serve not only as good beak-trimming tools, but also as great gnawing spots.

parakeetOne of the most appealing features of the parakeet is its ability to talk. The key to teaching a bird to speak is to have it think that it is a part of the "human flock." Parakeets thrive on physical interaction with their flock. And if there is only one parakeet in the cage, that flock is you! Keeping a mirror in the cage or other parakeets may hinder communication with you at first because the bird has been given a choice of speaking partners. Generally, the younger the bird, the more malleable and easier it will be to teach. A hand-fed parakeet is quite easy to tame and they usually make marvelous pets.

Once the parakeet is used to you and its new home, it’s time to start hand training. It can’t fly around from room to room until it understands that your hand is a safe haven and that your finger is a perch it should hop onto when you say "UP". If your parakeet was hand-raised, this should be fairly easy. Place your hand slowly into the cage, talking softly to it. Then gently press your finger against its chest and say "UP" in a gentle but firm voice. Keep your finger still and when the bird obeys, call him a good bird and praise him to the skies.

If the bird is skittish and not used to humans, it may take more time for the creature to trust you. Start the process slowly by putting your hand into the cage often. The bird already sees your hand change the food and water so it is a familiar sight. One day after you do the food and water, use your hand to remove a short perch from the cage. Move the perch slowly towards the bird, and press it against his chest. Say "UP" in a firm voice until the bird sits on the perch. Hold it steady and praise the bird. Then move the perch towards another inside the cage so the bird will get off the one you are holding.

parakeetBirds, like me, seem to do best in the morning when their minds are fresh and ready for new information. If you cover the cage at night, talk to the bird for a half-hour or so before removing the cover each morning. Repeat the same phrase loudly, slowly and clearly. Parakeets tend to mumble and talk quickly, so the more slowly you speak, the more normal it will sound when the bird starts to repeat it. For me to dare advise another living soul to have a little patience is like the pot calling the kettle black, but that is what’s called for here. Eventually, the bird will get the hang of it and begin to answer you back. Response time will be quicker with the passage of time and repetition.

When first training a bird, keep noises down. (Just remember how you felt on the first day of school!) The cage must feel like a safe place and should be placed in a corner of the room where the bird can both see and hear everything going on around it. Put it in the room where you spend the most time. Talk normally so the bird does not come to fear silence. In the wild this is an instinctual reaction to a lurking predator. Soft music and speech will eventually teach the bird that he or she is not in harm’s way. Keep the bird reminded that you are a part of its new world. Talk sweetly and tell him he is a pretty bird and a good bird. (Never call him a dirty bird, which comedian George Goebbel used to say about all his critics.) Parakeets love words with hard sounds in them, like K and B and T. They tend to learn words with these sounds (like cutie, for example) quickly.

Cages are very important. It is the bird’s safe retreat, home and comfort zone. Parakeets are very active birds and should have the largest cage you can afford or have room for. They need to hop and fly from perch to perch for exercise. Line the bottom of the cage with paper and change it every week. The bars should be close enough together so that the bird’s head can’t fit through them. (My mother told me that once when I was a toddler my head got caught in between the slats of my crib. Somehow my father twisted my head and got it out, but not without subsequent mental damage. After all, I did grow up to become a writer.)

parakeetKeets should also have plenty of time outside of the cage for playing and spending time with their owners. Toys appropriate for their size should be provided for them to play with. These can include bells, ropes and hoops. If you use bells, avoid the Christmas bell types with tiny openings. Bird feet can get caught in these. Use instead the "liberty bell type", which has a bit of an opening at the bottom and a clapper. Rotate the toys every few months, as parakeets are very smart and can get bored with toys after a while.

As in all endeavors, the more you put out the bigger the return. In the case of a parakeet, the more you interact, the friendlier the bird will become. Soon he or she will be like Julio, hanging out on your shoulder (as far away from onion soup as possible, please), nibbling on earrings and necklaces and even the pages of that book you are daring read in the presence of your new and demanding playmate. But it’s all a fair exchange in the end. Your new feathered companion is worth more than his or her weight in gold, both for the song in its chest and the spirit in its heart.

Did you know . . . ?

See this related article:
Vanity, Thy Name is Peacock

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Parakeets: Everything About Purchase, Care, Nutrition, Breeding, and Behavior

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