Ow.

Jas is a juvenile jackdaw. Although I refer to her as “she” for convenience; I have no idea of her gender but think that she may be a boy, due to her dominant behaviour. I’ll get her DNA tested at some point.

I was given her last year by a friend, who bought her from someone who incubated and raised her,  before selling her on as a crow. I am quite horrified that people do such things, but that is immaterial to tonight’s tale. My good friend had no reason to disbelieve the story she was told about Jas’s beginnings or species, she is quite naive and came to corvids like many of us, when she picked up an injured baby crow, Jimmy; and took her home to look after. She has not had Jimmy very long and thought that the youngster would benefit from the company of her own kind, so started to search for a companion. Jimmy has recently been DNA tested so we know that she is a girl.

It’s only since Crow came to live with me that I can tell baby corvids apart, so although the bird was obviously a jackdaw to me, when I went to pick her up, her carer argued that she was definately a crow, as that is what she had been told by Jas’s vendor. I would have been equally fooled a few years ago.

My friend only had Jas for only a few days before she realised that she could not cope with such a hooligan. Jas, having been incubated in a plastic box and brought up by a human, never seeing her natural parents; has no idea what she is. She is only young, less than a year old. Jackdaws’ eyes change to silver when they get to about a year old; I expect Jas’s eyes to change to their adult colour soon.

Jackdaws live in huge colonies, and youngsters are brought up to know the rules and hierarchies of their very large families. Jas has never been checked for her ways and has some terrible habits as a result. She is the avian equivalent of the toddler you sometimes see screaming for attention and biting their parent at supermarket checkouts.

By temperament she is friendly and will fly to anyone, but upon landing on your hand she will then hammer at your fingers with her beak. I discourage this by putting her back on her perch. She is only given rewards if she is on my hand, but not when she is trying to excavate the bones of my fingers. We have had a little breakthrough when she came into my bedroom to sit with me while I practised the clarinet. Perhaps it is because she does not have to compete with other birds then, but she behaved in a much more civilised manner. I never thought that my clarinet playing would be the music which hath charms to soothe the savage breast.

None of the other birds like her much. She is tiny compared to them, but she is fast and can turn on a sixpence in the air. She is aggressive and has no manners and I think that they are mostly a little afraid of her which is a pity as she wants to be friends, but has not learned how to do this. I have no doubt that she will get there eventually, but it is hard work teaching her the ropes.

At night, she likes to sit on a perch close to Mary, the macaw. All the birds have little songs and rhymes of their own which I sing to them before they go to bed. While I sing Mary her song, Jas waits patiently and quietly for her own turn, next to me. It is very sweet.

Last night I was singing Mary her song, and Jas hopped onto my hand and started stabbing my finger as usual. Mary took exception to this, most probably because it interrupted her special time rather than because she was upset on my behalf. No matter, she made her scary face at Jas who stopped immediately. Hallelujah! A bird telling another bird the rules works better than me trying to work out the correct body language.

Well, Jas sat as good as gold, which made me less careful than I usually am with the little one. After singing Mary’s song (several times as is usual), Crow started yelling for her song although it was not her turn. Like a fool I started to sing Crow’s song to her, and Jas flew straight at me and stabbed me in the eye. There does not seem to be any real damage, but oh; does it hurt!

It is completely my own fault. Apart from the fact that Jas could have reasonably expected her own song at that point, I know that she does not like Crow’s song, which I usually only sing to Crow when Jas is elsewhere, I am usually much more on my guard with Jas, and ought to have realised that it was only Mary keeping her in check and could not last beyond Mary’s night -time ritual. A very painful lesson and one I will not forget in a hurry.

Dogs and birds

There is much discussion, which can be very heated on both sides; on the relationship between birds and predatory animals such as dogs and cats. Commonly, one household, this one included; keeps both. It is generally accepted that, no matter how friendly and forgiving your companion cat or dog is, their predatory instincts are capable of kicking in and then a moment’s inattention can result in a tragedy. Dogs’ saliva, the bacteria in a cat’s claws, can turn even a slight, barely noticeable, wound into a painful death for a bird.

Also of course, a bird is a very fragile creature, seemingly made of skin, feathers and air. Even a gently grab can crush and kill. Rescue organisations, quite rightly; constantly push the message that birds, dogs and cats should be kept separately.

As readers of this blog know, my girl Crow; now a big, strapping young adult; grew up in the company of two African Greys, Parrot and Darling, also an elderly collie, Fly; and a younger Springer Spaniel, Sam. Crow interacted with all these people, being particularly attached to Parrot (who still does not care for her) and Sam. She spent much of her babyhood snuggling up to Sam and teasing Fly but there was never any malice on Crow’s part, and the dogs were both very good with her. They recognised her as a baby of the household, but in any case were not allowed alone with her and had their own safe place to retreat. As she got older and her games grew more boisterous and consequently painful, I moved Crow and the dogs apart from each other, crow bites hurt, a lot. I did not want any accidents and even though I trusted the dogs, I did not trust a juvenile crow to act in her own best interests.

In the couple of years since I last wrote here, there have been a lot of changes in the flock, both feathered, furred and naked apes. Two years ago I rescued a very sad macaw, Mary; and have somehow inherited a lunatic juvenile jackdaw a few months ago My old boy Fly died and a year ago I rescued another collie, another Fly; who I call Fly Too. Perhaps the biggest change came at the beginning of last year when my elderly mother fell and was admitted to hospital. She was not able to look after herself any longer, so I brought her to live with me when she was ready for discharge. 

It was a joy and privilege for Mother to live with me, until we sadly lost her last month. The reason I mention her though, is because my house had to be completely rearranged before she could move in. I lost the big room at the front of the house to Mother, and one of the upstairs rooms was also taken over by some of her belongings. These rooms are where the birds primarily had been living. The dogs were in the kitchen area. With Mother here, they all ended up in the kitchen area and I built an emergency aviary/lean-to/conservatory onto the back of the house so that the birds could go out and come in as they wished.

This has proved to be not at all. I have to force them outside and close the door, but through the winter it was too cold – the new aviary is north facing and cold; the birds are used to heating. Also, the birds like to be where the action is. I had very much less time, but although I understood the risks, I felt it was beyond me to do more than to minimise them.

The dark days of winter are when all the birds become hormonal and start thinking seriously about finding a mate and settling down. Parrot and Darling have taken over the tiny area at the top of the stairs and have chewed up the carpet and into the walls. I have put a large log there, which trips me up when I go to bed, but Darling especially loves to turn it into wood chips which I recycle as tinder for the fire. The dogs can’t get upstairs which is closed off with a babygate so they are safe.

Mary macaw never comes to the ground. She has a large, wooden stepladder in the middle of the kitchen, her station. She sits and chews it, shrieks very loudly if the dogs even walk underneath her tail, and moves between there, the top of Darling’s house which is also covered with logs for chewing, water to bathe in and other toys; and the window which has heavy-duty bars to stop her eating her way through and into the aviary. There is a stable door, open at the top; but she chooses not to use it. She prefers to chew, and this, after all; is what parrots do.

Jas the baby also does not come to the ground, but flies around from the various perches. I have a ceiling pulley, long since appropriated by various birds. Although Jas likes to go out and come in again, her favourite activity is to remove the wooden bars on the pulley. I have sat and watched her all day and still don’t know how she does this. She is a tiny, dot of a thing, but when she is up there, the bars move gradually to one end until they fall out. I never stand under the pulley these days.

This leaves Crow. Crow is coming up four now, and is desperate to settle down. The Greys, her first choice, are spurning her advances. As soon as I let them out in the morning, she jumps into one of the houses and calls pitifully to them. They ignore her and chew their log and the wall between my house and that of my neighbours.

She actually has her eyes on Mary Macaw. Mary is quite taken with her and will call to Crow from the wrong side of the kitchen window if Crow is in the aviary. However, Mary does not have a cage, just a stand; so Crow recently decided that the whole of the kitchen floor is her territory and if she clears it of interlopers, then perhaps Mary will come down and be her love. This is where things became very tricky.

I generally boot Crow out into the aviary first thing, and then close the door to stop her flying straight back in. This means that Jas can’t go in and out, but no matter. At night when Crow comes in, she hops straight into Darling’s house and I shut the door on her. Darling and Parrot now sleep together in Parrot’s house at night. There is very little opportunity for the dogs and birds to actually make physical contact. Still, it is too easy for a tragedy can occur.

A few weeks ago, while Mother was still with me, I went in the kitchen. Somehow, Crow had gotten in and had been bullying Fly Too. This dog is very gentle but Crow does not like her as she likes Sam, I guess she sees her as an interloper. I have caught the crow chasing the dog and attacking her, which is why I keep them separate. In this instance I saw Fly Too grab hold of Crow. I shouted, she dropped the bird unharmed immediately, and ran back to her bed, chased by an angry crow who had learned nothing from being in a dog’s mouth. Although Fly Too did not attempt to hurt the bird, she was just trying to protect herself; I have no doubt that if I hadn’t caught the crow and chucked her back outside; this time locking the door which had blown open, the crow would have twisted and bitten Fly or stabbed her in the eye. She takes no quarter. Nobody could blame the dog from then killing the bird, just in self protection. Crow was lucky, Fly was lucky and most of all I consider that I was lucky.

Since losing Mother, the dogs are now kept completely separately from the birds again and I can now breathe easily knowing that this kind of preventable accident should now be impossible. I hope that anyone keeping birds and predatory pets realises after reading this, that however good a friendship between cat, dog and bird can seem, and how cute it is to see them play together; it is just not worth the risk. If I had not lost half of my house temporarily; I would not have done so.

Flights of Fancy.

Crow can fly. She has not only picked it up in what seems to be no time at all, she is as effortless in her aerobatics as her wild family, leaping from the floor to circle gracefully around me at shoulder height before landing equally gracefully.

I’m stunned with the ease with which she floats around the house. Wild crows learn to fly in treetops with the whole sky to practice their manouvers. They swoop and glide and tumble, and the joy they evince in their mastery of the air has always made me both happy and a little bit jealous.

Crow has not had their advantages. She has lived with me in a tiny cottage with very little airspace since she was a fledgling. To learn to fly from the ground up is very different to learning to fly by launching oneself from the heights in which crows nest; with parents and siblings to show her what can be achieved while encouraging her in her efforts. As always, I am in awe of her talents. She can out manouver the parrots easily which has encouraged them in turn to be a bit more adventurous in their own flight.

When she first came to me, the idea was that she would be cared for with as little human company as possible so that when she was healthy again she could be released to the care of her family. When it became obvious that she was not going to be fit enough to do this for a long time, if at all; I made the decision to bring her into the family as a permanent member of the flock. I did not make this decision lightly, a tame crow is a crow who must give up notions of living a normal life with others of her kind. I did not want this for her but could not see a way to keep such an intelligent being in solitary confinement for an unknown and lengthy period of time.

Now of course, about sixteen months down the line she is well, both healthy and flighted. She is also strongly bonded to a human – me – as I am to her. If I go out shopping or walking and leave her behind, she runs to greet me as soon as I come back through the door. Sometimes she waits on the windowsill to watch for my arrival. I prepare the food she eats, I provide her with safe roosting quarters and entertainment. Her friends are two parrots and a spaniel and if she is cold then she comes to sit by the fireguard. None of the birds are afraid of fire. They appear to think that because I tend to it, feeding and poking it; then it must be safe for them to do so too. I have to keep the fire very closely fenced off and guarded.

These things and others are reasons why Crow could never return to the wild. However, I am pretty sure that she knows that she is a crow, and not a human. Occasionally she calls to the wild crows in the mornings and they call back. This has not been happening so much of late and I don’t know whether this means that she is happy without their chatter, or whether it means that they have given up on her eventual release. Although she seems happy in her life with me, she is still very young, not yet two years old and I find myself wondering is there is any way that I could help her to learn the skills she needs to return to her wild family.

I really don”t know the answer to this. Fortunately she does not seem to trust humans automatically. Apart from myself she is very cautious if other people come into the house; usually running away to hide until they have gone. She is also agoraphobic, the world outside the house seemingly too big and scary for her to cope with. I have been putting her a harness on through the summer and taking her outside into the garden and she really hates it, hiding under the brussels sprouts or parrot cages until I bring her back in again. She has to be carried outside protesting all the time, and when it is time to bring her back in, she runs and latterly flies on her leash back through the front door ahead of me. Once I take remove her harness she is happy again, pottering around, bathing in the dog’s water dish and playing with her various treasures.

There is also the problem of food. She has no idea of how to forage for wild food. I hide treats for her to find in containers which she must open but have no place where I could leave a rabbit killed on the road and spilling it’s guts for her to play with and realise that it’s edible. She knows that when I feed Sam she can hop over and pinch food from his dish with impunity but not how to hunt something for herself. She has no crow friends to show her these things.

As Winter approaches, the second which she has spent with me; I will be racking my brains to see if I can teach her some – any – survival skills and in the good weather I will keep putting her outside in the hope that wild crows will visit and befriend her.

I have no intention of tossing her out to fend for herself, but hope that she can learn enough with me for her to make an informed decision as to whether she would like to try at least to build relationships with other crows outside my human influence leading possibly to her leaving home and starting up her own family.

Now that summer…

Now that summer is here, I try to put the birds out in the garden daily to catch the sunshine, or at least the uv which they need. This is necessary for their health.

If they are in the garden, I either pretend to be gardening, sit with them or if I am in the house I have the front door open so that I can keep an eye on them. I live in a very rural area. Surrounded by fields and with only a single track road going past the house, people going past are often on foot or horseback and everyone is fascinated by the parrots.

They sit in their cages, ignoring their toys and looking very small; unlike in the house where they fly around freely, their personalities making them seem much larger than they actually are. They rarely speak outside as they don’t talk to strangers, but they will whistle to each other, the wild birds and to me.

When folk stop, the first thing they ask is, “Do they talk?”

“Oh yes,” I always reply; “I can’t get them to shut up normally”. I get dubious looks at this, as they look at Parrot and Darling sitting quietly. I then compound the apparent falsehood by boasting how clever these two mute, motionless birds are. The disbelieving glances sometimes stimulate me into trying to persuade Parrot and Darling to prove me right; by trying to persuade them to perform some action which they fall over themselves to show me in private, inside.

“Look at this” I say desperately, ‘Watch Darling dance.”

Darling seems to love dancing in the house. I click my fingers and sing to her, anything will do; she isn’t fussy. She bobs her head up and down, makes clicking noises and dances along sideways, fluffing up her feathers and occasionally waving a foot. Parrot may or may not sing along too; “Do do do do do”.

Outside with people watching however, Darling looks at me as though I’m insane. What, do tricks? Am I mad? 

To encourage her I start to dance among the brussels sprouts, singing along and clicking my fingers. “Ooh ooh ooh, I want to be like you ooh ooh”. Parrot looks at me interestedly, Darling turns her back on me and my neighbours look at me pityingly while their grandchildren snigger.

The riders and walkers continue up the road and once they are out of sight,the birds will climb around in the summer sun and mutter under their breath at me.

It is exactly the same in the house, if visitors come. I talk far too much to people about how wonderful the birds are. Like any proud parent I cannot wait to let people know what wonderful thing any one of the birds has done recently.

Crow particularly fascinates people. She constantly amazes me with her intelligence, sense of humour and affectionate personality. Anyone who turns up here nearly always wants to meet her.

Unfortunately she is very shy with people she does not know – which is almost everybody – and runs away to another part of the house if people call. If she does peek around the corner of the room to say hello, she will disappear pretty quickly if a camera is pointed in her direction. A friend of mine who called in having travelled from Aberdeen; managed to actually see her but upon producing a camera only managed to get a lot of shots of her back end disappearing from the room. I’m pretty sure that she was teasing him as she kept coming back in and looking at him, only to run out when he tried time and again to photograph her.

Four months on.

Well Darling is still plucking, though not as badly as she was. I am not too concerned as I know that she is getting a good diet, plenty of out of cage time and in spite of the horrible year we have had weatherwise, she has been outside to soak up Vitamin D from the sun. She enjoys her daily shower and is generally a happy wee thing. She is no longer as quiet as when she first came to me however. Although her voice is delicate and ladylike at times, she can and does shriek loudly if she wants attention. 

As soon as I open her cage door in the morning, she comes over to greet me, putting her head down for a tickle and making kissing noises. She won’t leave the cage though until she has had her breakfast. She likes her food this one, and she likes Parrot’s food too. She isn’t in the least bit fussy as to what I give her which is a blessing, as Parrot has turned his beak up at a lot of stuff I know is tasty (for parrots) as well as nutritious. However, he does not like to see her eating something which he doesn’t have, so is now a lot more adventurous in his eating habits.

Once she has had her breakfast, she will usually climb out of her cage and straight into Parrot’s cage, where she will sit on his favourite perch and play with his toys. If he hasn’t eaten all of his breakfast, she will have that, too. If Parrot has the cheek to come over, in spite of the fact that he shows only friendly interest in her, she will scream blue murder and start beaking wrestling with him. I have to admit that she fooled me for a while. I thought that Parrot was attacking her and removed him from his own house to protect her. She hides at the back, clinging onto the bars and refusing to step onto my hand and come out.  Nerve wracking though it is to observe rather than interfere however, I have realised that it is she who is the aggressor every time. No injuries have occurred and obviously, I watch them closely to make sure that this does not change.

Her favourite toy is a cardboard box. Put a new box on top of her house and she will climb over and chew and shred all day long, littering the floor with the remains. I’m thinking of hiring her out as an office shredder for confidential documents. Not much is left by the time she is finished.

Parrot prefers a more intellectual challenge. Working the catch on the window, for instance; to see how quickly he can open it. I have recently covered all the window catches with thick perspex, DIY double glazing; making them inaccessible to busy beaks and feet.

Meanwhile, Parrot is coming along with his language nicely. There are some words that I am confident that he understands the meaning of and uses appropriately time after time. Others he can say but he doesn’t necessarily know what they mean. He is, in fact; parroting. It can be highly amusing though when he says something which is completely apt for the moment.

He appears to have worked out the first person singular by himself, which is really impressive. He no longer sits in the window swinging, muttering obscenities. For this I am grateful. Instead he will hang upside down from his swing and tell me, “I’m gorgeous!”. No false modesty there then. Some while back when he was pestering me in some way or other, I told him , “Stop it, you feathery pest”; the reproachful rejoinder being, “I’m a good boy”, before continuing with his original behaviour.

I had a recent attack of (very) late Spring Cleaning going on. I’m not a natural housewife but taking advantage of this unaccustomed burst of house pride, I decided to strip the wall behind the parrot cages of wallpaper. The birds had actually started on this with their customary enthusiasm, quite unasked for. I figured that paperless, nicely plastered and painted, it would look lovely for a short while until they next decided to decorate.

I got out the steam cleaner and set it up, having first put the parrots into their cages and moved them into the middle of the room. They could see what was going on but could not investigate and risk being burned by the steamer. Darling was perfectly happy to sit and shred a cardboard box in her cage, but Parrot was offended at being locked away and climbed the cage walls looking pathetic and making little peeping noises. This I ignored, but I chatted away as I was steaming and stripping the wall, explaining what I was doing and why.

Eventually I said, “If we get the wall all nice and clean, maybe your dad will plaster it for us?”. “Fat chance!” says Parrot.

Once I stopped laughing, I tried to think where he picked this little gem up. The fact is though, I have no idea. He hears things and stores them, not necessarily using them until a long, long time in the future. I was in the kitchen with him one day and he came out with, “I’ll put t’ kettle on then, shall I?”; in a strong, Yorkshire accent. Before he came to me, he lived for both of his two years with an Asian family in Newcastle. His previous owner spoke Urdu and Geordie. As far as I know he had lived with them as soon as he was old enough to leave the breeder. I don’t know who the breeder was, or what accent (s)he had. Perhaps Parrot heard it from television, but if so it is long before I got him as I don’t have a tv and he has lived with me for nearly two years now.

Of mites and men.

Crow has scaly face, a nasty mite infection which I think she has probably had since she first came to stay with me, but is manifesting now for whatever reason. Usually these things manage to take a hold when the bird is suffering from stress, or her immune system is depressed. As far as I know this is not the case, perhaps it is because the sun has finally come out this year.

The mites live under the skin and pose no threat to humans, but are very irritating for the poor bird who scratches and rubs her head. She has white, crusty lesions at the base of her beak which are typical of the infestation, and is going bald around her eyes, the skin there thickening which is also typical. The mites cause all kinds of problems and also can be passed on to the other two birds. Darling, with her unhealthy immune system is especially at risk. In short, they need veterinary treatment.

In an effort to bypass at least some of the veterinary fees, and more importantly to make it easier on Crow; I decided to do the skin scrape myself which the vet would want to ensure that the correct diagnosis and treatment is given. I have a microscope and can prepare a slide, and as far as Crow is concerned it is better for me to get the skin sample rather than a stranger as she is very shy among people she doesn’t know.

Girding my loins, I therefore brought out the microscope, a safety razor; prepared a clean slide for the sample and went to get Crow. 

Crow took one look at me and the towel I was carrying to restrain her, and not unreasonably decided to scarper.

While I went to catch her, Parrot the Technician decided to investigate this interesting looking equipment and chucked all my slides onto the floor for Sam to stand and slobber on. I came back with Crow to find Parrot flying away with a petri dish. Managed to get a clean-ish slide sorted, got my skin sample and weighed Crow while I was on. I dread to think what the scientifically minded would make of my methods, but it all worked out in the end. Tomorrow I hope to pick up medication for all the birds.

Crow, bless her generous heart; forgave me instantly for putting her through such an undignified process. As soon as I let her down she came straight back to me for a cuddle. She’s such a wonder.

 

Meanwhile Parrot, who hates being weighed flew over and bit my ear, hard; because I had the scales out. Blood is trickling down my collar as I type and he has been put back into his house in disgrace. He’s singing Rammstein’s, “Du Hast.”(“Du, du hast, du hast mich”) except he puts his own inimical stamp on it, as with everything. “Du hast Bitch”, is his version.

Fly.

When I first met Fly 12 years ago, i was not really enamoured of him, but I was persuaded to take him for a couple of weeks to see what he was like.

Fly was a collie, and had had a very rough ride. He was very untrusting of humans and inclined to protect himself at every opportunity. This being said I quickly worked out what was liable to make him turn and made sure that no-one ever had a chance to frighten him into bad behaviour.

The first couple of weeks he walked perfectly calmly on his lead, but kept as far from me as he could; not quite pulling, but he didn’t want to be close to me. He would not look at me and always lay down with his back right up the the front door. I resigned myself to the fact that he did not like people but was manageable with care.

One day, about three weeks into our relationship, he made eye contact with me and all of a sudden he gave me his trust, just like that.

I was overwhelmed. The things which frightened him into antisocial behaviour still did so, and I was just as careful in protecting him against the fear of beatings but he went on from strength to strength.

Fairly early in our relationship I took him with me on the train to visit my sister in Somerset. I live up by the Scottish Borders and was halfway down the country before I realised that not only did I not have a lead for Fly, he wasn’t even wearing a collar. There was no need for these accessories as he would not leave my side unless I asked him to do so.

He went everywhere with me, I had half a dozen sheep and he learned to work with them. I was a countryside ranger and he accompanied me whether I was alone or with the public. He was the easiest dog I have ever worked with, seeming to read my mind so that all I had to do was think about something and he was there, doing his job perfectly. I rarely spoke to ask him to do something, but usually just waved a finger vaguely and he would do whatever it was I wanted but hadn’t actually verbalised. I used to show off how a well trained dog could work, but the truth was, it was Fly who deserved the credit, not me.

I took him into schools with me, the children loved him and would do anything to be allowed to walk with him beside them. I no longer had any concerns about him biting someone, he would walk beside them, his plume of a tail gently waving at the tip.

Later I worked with the elderly and he came into the care home with me daily. Again, everyone loved him and thought of him as their special friend. Ladies who had only ever laid in their beds would come through to the lounge to see Fly, or be up, dressed and sitting by their doors in case he walked past. Each person he showed love to, as though he had been waiting to see them as much as they were waiting to see him.

Eventually he became too frail to go on his visits, apart for special guest appearances. He was not forgotten though, and I had him “write” a column in the newsletter. Two ladies in particular charmed me by showing me, “Fly’s column”, praising him to the skies. “Look at this,” they told me, “isn’t he clever?”. They kept the newsletter and his photos and treasured them over family pictures.

Five days ago, Fly took his final visit to the vet, receiving the one gift I could still give to him. I miss my friend so much but I know one lady who will have been waiting impatiently for him on the other side.

Run free, Fly.