By Susan Chamberlain
At one time or another, most exotic bird enthusiasts will find themselves caring for a bird with physical limitations, some permanent and some temporary. When I was a child, my budgie suffered a broken leg. There was no such thing as an avian veterinarian at the time. My father fixed the tiny leg with a matchstick and a piece of adhesive tape. I worried and fretted over that budgie for a month, instinctively keeping him warm, well fed and on low perches. Now, with so many people sharing their homes with larger birds, injuries and disabilities are more common. Thankfully, there are avian veterinarians to see us through, but it’s the at-home care and nurturing that counts once the medical care has been administered.
African grey parrots Sammy and Thumper were just 2 weeks old when their parents bit their feet off. The little nestlings were rescued by their human caretaker and ended up with an avian rehabilitator. Long Island, New York, resident Barbara Landsperg adopted them from the rehabber while they were still on hand-feeding formula. These special-needs birds are 13 years old now, and we can all learn from their story:
Sammy was left with one stump and the remnants of the ball of one foot and a fraction of a toe. Thumper has two stumps and makes a thumping sound on flat surfaces when he walks, which is how he got his name. Shortly after the birds moved into Barbara’s home, they began vomiting their baby formula. They were taken to an avian veterinarian who diagnosed a staph infection in the birds’ crops. Even though the birds were hungry, as soon as the food went down, it came back up! Barbara began tube-feeding the birds and holding their heads, stretching their necks up for a few minutes so the food would stay down. Barbara is very experienced in these procedures. She has cared for birds since she was a child and has worked in the pet industry, specializing in birds for more than 20 years.
>> Read more about a bird's routine.
Thumper and Sammy went through three courses of injectable antibiotics and one oral course before the infections were cured. Barbara very gently administered the shots, and the birds hardly seemed to mind at all. They also had to take medication to prevent fungal infections due to antibiotics.
Thumper and Sammy lived on soft bath towels for six months. Each day, Barbara laid the birds on their backs and cleaned the stumps where their feet used to be. She applied medication to help toughen the “footsies” as she calls them. The birds improved and were weaned a week after finishing the antibiotics. They maintained their weight throughout the whole ordeal and now, nearly 13 years later, Sammy weighs 535 grams, and Thumper weighs in at a big 585 grams.
The little African greys spent their early days on heavy bath towels, which were changed twice a day for sanitary reasons. The towel routine lasted for about six months until the birds were weaned and their stumps had toughened enough to allow them to get around. At that point, Barbara began using unprinted newspaper in their enclosure. Each day, Barbara took Sammy and Thumper out of their cage, put sheets on the rugs and so the birds had some out-of-the-cage playtime. They also sat on Barbara’s lap for head scratching and body rubs.
At the time, the birds lived in rabbit-style cages with plastic bottoms. They used a small cage for sleeping at night and a large one in the daytime. African greys are extremely intelligent, and Sammy and Thumper are no exception. They learned how to open the door on top of the cage and hoist themselves out. Because they didn’t have feet to span the cage bars, they couldn’t walk on top of the cage. Their feet would fall through the openings, and they could only stand there until Barbara rescued them. Eventually, she put six locks on the daytime cage because the siblings also learned how to pop open the hooks that held it together. The inexpensive locks were no match for the birds’ dexterous beaks, however: they learned to pick the locks. Now Sammy and Thumper live in custom-made cages that accommodate their disabilities and thwart their escape-artist tendencies.
Because parrots use their beaks as a “third foot,” Sammy and Thumper were eventually able to run, walk, perch, climb and swing on their toys by using their beaks for balance. They use the bend between their stumps and legs to grip the sides and top of the cage and toys, and they even hang from cage bars by their beaks.
Sammy and Thumper soon learned to remove their metal bowls from their holders and bang them on the sides of their cages. Each night, as soon as their cages were covered with sheets for warmth and security, they’d both dump their dishes, spilling the contents. In the morning Chillie, the resident Chihuahua, would scavenge the area around the cages, eagerly devouring any seeds and pellets that had been spilled. The birds found it great fun to attempt to bite the tiny dog’s nose as she sniffed their cages.
>> Read more about pet-proofing your bird.
The young African greys used their cage-bottom paper to make spit balls. They stuffed the paper under the nozzles of their drinking water bottles, wetting it and chewing it into little balls. Sammy and Thumper then tossed them out of the cage at Barbara or the dog. They made a lot of them and kept small spitball arsenals just in case someone passed within pelting range. The youngsters loved to flood their cages, too. They emptied their water bottles frequently by manipulating the small ball at the tip of the nozzle. Water bottles are a great way to offer your bird a constant supply of fresh water, but you must check frequently to be sure the bird hasn’t drained the bottle or stuffed the nozzle full or food or debris.
Today, Sammy and Thumper still hang by their beaks from the tops of their cages and just dangle there to trick Barbara into thinking they’re stuck and can't get down. When she tries to help, they simply drop to the floor … and that’s why their custom cages are only 20 inches high!
Home, Safe Home!
When they were youngsters, Barbara kept the Sammy and Thumper’s flight feathers trimmed in order to keep them from injuring themselves by flying into objects around the house.
As the little birds matured, they naturally wanted to explore their surroundings. They couldn’t stand on top of cages as many pet birds do because their lack of feet would have prevented them from gripping the bars of the cage. Each day, Barbara supervised them as they spent time playing on a towel on the floor of their room. They’d toddle around and flap their wings for exercise. Gradually, their flight feathers grew out, and Sammy and Thumper began to gain a little altitude, flying a few feet and hopping around the room. Eventually they gained full flight and soared around the apartment. The young birds began to fly too quickly, and Barbara was afraid they’d get hurt, so she again trimmed their wing feathers, leaving enough length so the birds could fly short distances and keep their balance, which is important because of their lack of feet. Although Barbara closely monitors their airborne trips, Chillie the Chihuahua keeps tabs on them as well, alerting Barbara to their every move by running along in the birds’ flight path.
Sammy and Thumper are crazy about Chihuahuas! When the dogs are permitted in their room, they toss things out of their cages to the pooches. Chillie, Maureen and Yoda all sit patiently in front of the birdcages, eagerly anticipating a treat or toy part. (Be careful; don't permit furry pets to eat seed hulls, spoiled food or toy parts!) The birds also make spitballs from cage tray paper and toss these to the waiting pups!
The fun begins when Barbara puts on the music and dances around the room with the dogs. Sammy and Thumper join in by bobbing up and down, twirling around, and clicking their beaks in time to the music. When Barbara holds Chillie near the birds, they stand up straight in a posture indicating curiosity and make mewling noises as if to coerce the dog into coming closer.
Unusual sounds in the bird room bring Chillie running in alarm! When the doorbell rings, Sammy and Thumper “bark” along with the dogs, mimicking their pitch and rhythm. Occasionally the birds bark first, alerting the napping canines to awake and join in. Since the German Shepherds next door moved away, they no longer do their ‘big dog’ barks.
>> Read more about bird talking.
Sammy and Thumper’s favorite interactive toy is a plush talking dog located near their cages. The dog repeats what the birds say back to them. They whistle and talk to get it to respond, and the sound effects are amazing. The greys call Chillie and Yoda by name: “Chillie sit, Yoda, come here!” but only in the afternoon. “No talking allowed before noon” seems to be a grey rule.
Sammy and Thumper Learn to Talk
Sammy and Thumper were just 3 months old when they said their first words in deep, non-gender voices. “Hello” was quickly followed by “Come here; peek-a-boo, I see you!” and “I wanna play!” The parrots learned from Barbara, and then from each other. One day Thumper was playing with a toy and ignoring Sammy. Frustrated, Sammy approached her, stood up tall on his skinny legs and asked, “What’s the matter, Don’t cha wanna play?”
Glorious African grey whistles and chirps reverberated throughout the apartment as the birds experimented with their own natural sounds and the noises of suburban life. Televised game shows, back-up alarms from trucks, smoke alarm beeps and answering machine tones and messages all added diversity to the parrots’ repertoires. It took Barbara awhile to stop running for the phone every time it rang; she never knew if it was the real thing or the “grey” phone!
Both birds imitate Barbara’s Chihuahuas and do great imitations of her lorikeet and budgie. Amazingly, Thumper and Sammy only talk during the afternoon, and never if anyone is looking at them.
Here Comes Trouble!
When Sammy and Thumper were about 6 months old, they began to get spooky and fearful. They would suddenly panic at Barbara’s approach, running about their cage, screeching and attempting to bite her. African grey parrots have a very distinctive growl, which the birds emitted as they bashed themselves against the cage walls. The little birds had trusted Barbara, who had cared for them since they were just a few weeks old, and the abrupt change was disconcerting.
One evening, as she was saying goodnight to Sammy and Thumper, Barbara drew a bit too close to the cage, and one of the birds bit her lip right through the bars. She still doesn't know who the culprit was, and the birds aren’t telling. Barbara stopped taking them out of their cage as frequently as before, as it seemed the birds were taking delight in their newfound ability to bite. She would catch them with a towel to transfer them from one cage to another. She spoke reassuringly to Sammy and Thumper at all times, and was very slow and gentle when wrapping them in their towels. It took six months, but they finally calmed down.
>> Read more about reason why birds bite.
Although neither Sammy nor Thumper are aggressive, mean or vicious, they went through an adolescent or “terrible twos” stage of development experienced by many parrots and their pet humans. Not all birds exhibit biting behavior. Some scream or throw things during this time. Others have no trouble at all. Sammy and Thumper’s extreme behavior may have been partly due to the trauma of having their feet bitten off by their parents while in the nest box. Barbara’s patience and competence, coupled with her understanding of avian behavior helped her and the greys get through this difficult time.