During my recent visit to Phoenix Arizona, I took Kili & Truman in to see Dr. Driggers. His is the first exclusively Avian and Exotic veterinary clinic in the country to have a CT scanner. He took some time to tell me about the machine and how it works.
It's really fascinating. The scanner takes 720 images in the span of about 30 seconds. The computer reconstructs these images into a full 3 dimensional display of the animal. The doctor is able to look through the organs and bones without ever hurting or cutting the animal open in the process.
I decided to get Truman scanned to check on how his prior injury has healed and also to check just in case for new ones because he is very accident prone. So they gassed him for a few minutes to anesthetize him. They need the animal to lay perfectly still during the capture so that all of the images line up for the final 3D image. Then they laid Truman out on the bed of the scanner. A team of several vet techs works together to make the process go as quickly and smoothly as possible. They hyperventilate the bird prior to the scan and then stop the breathing during the scan. It's like holding your breath to go underwater. Everyone gets out of the room while the scanner is going. The moment it stops, they were already getting a stethoscope on Truman and checking his condition. Once the scan was complete, they used a hand pump to get him breathing room air again.
The analysis of Truman's bloodwork and CAT scan showed him to be healthy and organs in good shape. A 3D look at his skeleton showed that his original injury has healed well and is barely visible any more. On the other hand it also revealed that he has a slightly crooked keel and that he has busted his tail at some point. Nonetheless, these do not currently affect him but it's good to know what's going on. It is also reassuring to know that the previous injury has not worsened and that his organs look healthy.
I am glad to see the new CT scan technology moving along so well. I bet in a case where there is organ issues, something lodged inside the bird's gut, or a hard to locate injury, being able to use this CT scan technology will drastically improve avian medicine.
Since the Avian and Exotic Clinic is the first in the country to have a CT scanner and since Truman is their first ever Cape Parrot to be scanned, most likely this is the first and currently only 3D CT scan of the internals of a Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis). Check out this video of Dr Driggers explaining the technology and Truman, the first Cape Parrot to get CT scanned, showing us how it's done:
Kili, Truman, and Rachel have been settling in the bird room together well. I have been getting back into flying them for exercise. For now, I'm just having them fly in the bird room.
All three parrots are at ease with each other and know their own perches well. They all already know their names and only fly when called. But now they are mixing it all together.
Flying three parrots for exercise can be quite intense. I alternate my attention between the birds. Each bird flies to receive food. While two parrots are busy chewing their reward, the third already finished and is ready to fly. This leaves at least one parrot ready to go at any time.
This routine not only keeps things moving for me - it sure does take a while to get three birds to fly enough to go through an entire meal - but it also gets a rivalry going between the birds that keeps everyone trying. If one of the birds gets lazy and doesn't come, I will simply move on to the next. The next bird is happy to have a sooner opportunity to come. Meanwhile the bird that didn't come gets punished by missing a turn and having to wait for the next chance to come around. This has been extremely effective and virtually eliminated disobedience.
In the past, flight training just one bird at a time, I would encounter a lot of frustration when the bird wouldn't come. I have limited time to spend on training, so when the bird isn't coming, the session will either take longer or the bird won't be exercised as much. Whenever the bird would stop cooperating to look around or worse yet just sit there for no reason, I would be powerless at that moment to keep things moving. But now with three birds training together, there is always a bird or two that will pick up the slack for the others. This keeps me from just standing around waiting for birds to resume cooperation. But not only that, it makes the lazy bird(s) realize that others are getting their treats! This fixes things in a hurry.
When the birds finish chowing down their food reward, they are attentively waiting for the next opportunity to be called. I occasionally mix up the order of the recalls to keep them on their toes. On the rare occasion that the wrong bird comes, it receives no food and is just sent back to the perch. They realize quickly that it is a 100% chance they won't receive a reward if they come when I call another, so they learn to stay put unless called. This is important when there is a bunch of birds so that they don't interfere with each other.
Starting out, Rachel was definitely the weak link. While Kili and Truman would come reliably from years of experience, Rachel would often not come or take too much time. Since the added competition of the other birds, Rachel's success has more than tripled! She is almost as good as the others. She has made years of solo improvement in a month with the added competition. I think the improvement was so huge because Rachel got both a dose of example as well as rivalry! She got to see how well the other birds do and how much they get rewarded. She realized that this is the way to be if you're a bird!
Another interesting improvement came in Truman. Truman has always been second rate to Kili in everything. If Truman flew 50 recalls, then Kili flew 100. When Truman improved to being capable of 100, Kili was at 150! Because he could never accomplish being better than her at anything (at least training wise), I don't think he ever really tried. But when Truman realized he could be better than Rachel, he was all over it! Truman became much more attentive and quick to respond. On the other hand, Rachel is now close on his tail with her improvement so I hope to keep this competition going.
There's no doubt that Kili is simply the best. Her mantra is anything you other birds can do, I can do better. Even when she's training solo, she'll work as hard as the other birds would in a competitive environment. But when the other birds are trying too, Kili can keep flying reliably even after she is completely full or not even hungry at all in the first place. I'm pretty sure that I could get her to fly as much as the other birds without any treats at all. She is just so competitive and has to be best!
Oftentimes toward the end of the flying session I am trying to compensate the bigger birds with extra food. Kili is already too full and clearly done eating. Truman and Rachel might have missed a few treats when they were being obstinate. Kili got every single one. So just to get the others to fly as much as Kili, I need to park Kili and give them a chance to catch up. Well, Kili keeps begging to come so I call her but don't give treats. I know she is full and can't/shouldn't have more. As long as the other birds keep coming, she does too, even when she is obviously getting nothing. But she plays a good model and it helps me keep the others going till they finish.
It is important to note that getting or training more birds is not necessarily going to improve things for other people. If you have a bird that is uncooperative or bad at training, I would first focus on your training techniques and the birds motivation. Only when that bird without doubt knows what it is doing, does it right most of the time, and does an overall pretty good job is it ok to think about training along another bird. Competitive training isn't a solution to poor training/motivation. Instead it is a superlative booster for already effective training.
So, check out this video of Kili, Truman, and Rachel's morning flying routine:
Truman is a Brown-Necked Cape Parrot that I got from a breeder seven years ago. He is named after Truman in the Truman Show (with Jim Carey) because, "While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards...It isn't always Shakespeare but it's genuine. It's a life." Like the Truman show, Truman Parrot's life has been shared with the world. Thousands of people have been following Truman growing up, learning tricks, and discovering the world of pet parrothood.
Before we get to the hatch day festivities, here are some highlights of Truman's life.
And here's teaching Truman his first trick, how to wave:
Something unique about Truman is that he has never had his wings clipped. Unlike most parrots, he came fully flighted and has always stayed that way. He has always been an avid flier and here's a video of him flying around the house and doing good training:
I did a lot of advanced flight training with Truman including freeflight in a gym and outdoor freeflight. Unfortunately, one time freeflying outside he did not fly back to me and was missing for 3 days! I was so very happy and lucky to get him back.
Kili and Truman are getting back together! It's been a long time that they've been apart. First it was a two week trial quarantine, then it turned into 2 months, and now it's been going on past a year. However, since Santina's rehoming to Lori, we have been working on reuniting the birds. We started by introducing Kili to Rachel because their health was showing greatest improvement and also because Kili did not have any bad history with Rachel.
A few months later, Truman got moved back to the bird room to rejoin the other birds. Out of the cage, we introduced him to Rachel first. Again, no bad history so this was a pretty straight forward introduction. It was mostly just a matter of feeding them lots of treats and food outside the cage at progressively smaller distances from each other. The goal isn't necessarily to make them friends but just to make sure that they can stay out of trouble and not hurt each other while out together.
Now the time has finally come to get Kili and Truman out together. We literally had to take them out of the cage individually for a while before this staged reintroduction. It didn't take any time since Truman moved back to the bird room that it was apparent that Kili wanted to get him. Just walking by her cage with Truman in hand, she would pin her eyes, growl, and lunge at the bars to try to get him.
Although Kili and Truman have become pretty tolerant of each other in the past, right now it was like starting over. Kili's aggressive Senegal Parrot traits were showing and her original animosity toward Truman was reignited. Any time Kili would see a picture (on phone or paper) of Truman, she would try to attack it. We discovered this when Marianna used some mis-printed papers from work of Truman's Tabletop Perch to line Kili's cage bottom. What started as a silly joke turned serious pretty quick. Kili was going apeshit on the bottom of her cage trying to attack through the grate! We had to remove the papers immediately.
Another scene was when we had company over and we were telling the story about the cage paper episode. Just to illustrate, Marianna took one of those sheets and approached Kili with it. Kili attacked the picture of Truman so quickly that Marianna didn't have time to react and ended up getting a bloody bite just from holding the sheet! This is when we realized that Kili would try to kill Truman the first chance she'd get. It's a Senegal thing.
I should point out that when I say they get into fights, it is always Kili doing the attacking. However, Truman is no angel either. Even after all these years he still hasn't learned to avoid provoking Kili. Truman lives in his own world and does not make any consideration for those around him whether that's pooping a cascade down my blinds or trying to take Kili's food. So while Truman does not actually attack or fight Kili, he certainly does know how to get her going. This is a problem. Although Kili will sometimes intentionally fly over to attack him, most cases of fighting are where Truman thoughtlessly comes toward Kili and she does a defensive offense.
It was really important to try to create a peaceful introduction and rebuild some of the tolerance I had previously developed between them using training. So I used a combination of two training techniques that I like for introducing parrots. What I did not do was the "grab controlled introduction" like I did between Truman and Santina. That method worked well between two birds that had no aggression to each other and I just wanted to make them more used to each other. This time, I have some problem birds that are going to get more agitated from being held or forced near each other. So instead, my goal is to make them avoid/ignore each other entirely. By getting them to focus on training instead of each other, it is my best chance to teach this very concept.
Both training methods for introducing birds (and this can be used on friendly just as well as birds that aren't friendly with each other) require the birds to be target trained and some Training Perches for the birds to stand on. The Training Perches are actually more important than you might think. Not only are they a convenient place to have the birds, they invoke a training mindset and get the birds focused on their tasks. The training perches are psychological in addition to physical in a way that classroom encourages learning. Ideally the birds should be trick trained so that you can cue them to do tricks. However, just being well target trained is sufficient for the introduction process.
The first training method is when you have two birds and two people. You can have more birds and more people that aren't involved, but for the sake of this method it's two on two. The first person takes the first bird to one end of a large room and begins training. The second person then brings the second bird to the other end of the room and begins training that one. Each bird is set on a training perch and kept busy with targeting and performing tricks. Each person stands facing their bird with their body blocking the view of the other bird. This keeps each bird focused on training and possibly even unaware of the presence of the second bird. Little by little, more and more of the other bird is revealed by allowing a glimpse from moving over. Also, if the birds are deemed indifferent to each other and focused on training, the perches can slowly be brought closer together. It may take a series of sessions to achieve results. The good news is that by having two people, there is always one person immediately next to each bird to keep it focused and protected from the other.
Since it appeared that Kili would jump Truman the first chance she'd get, we decided to use the above method for the first out of cage time together. Marianna trained Truman in one corner of the bird room while I worked with Kili in the other. This kept Kili's gaze on me and busy with the training. She was so consumed by the treats and training that she hardly noticed Truman. It also rewarded her handsomely for being around him. Furthermore, it ensured that if Kili slipped away from my reach, Marianna could be there to protect Truman.
It was really important that at least the first week of their interactions was provocation free. This way they learn the new order of things and their place in it (and that is without fighting or getting in the way). Then if something happens here or there later on, it will be an isolated incident and not setting the tone for how things will continue. The first session was a huge success.
For the second session, I went to the one person, two birds method. This is similar to the way I introduced Kili and Truman in the first place. I set Kili and Truman on two training perches and did target and trick training exercises with each. I use big treats so that the birds are kept busy eating for as long as possible while I work with the other bird. I don't want any bird to sit idle because it is less predictable what it might do if it isn't eating. But if they have food, I know they will focus on eating it until it is done. I started with the training perches on opposite sides of me, putting myself between the birds. This allows me to train each bird while providing separation and protection from each other.
As they improved, I moved the perches closer together and even began standing away from the birds so that they would have the opportunity to fight but would have a good incentive not to because of the training. In the beginning, it is all about preventing any fights/attacks in the first place. But to make further progress, eventually you have to give them the opportunity (but not necessarily the motive) to do that but a stronger incentive (treats, training, attention) not to do that. Then they truly learn the value of tolerance and even cooperation.
I would have Kili do the turn around trick and then look over and realize Truman was doing it as well. This was a great chance to reward them together for both paying attention and cooperating. It didn't take long that the two could sit on training perches in close proximity to each other. I will wait a few weeks before thinking of putting them on the same perch though.
Here's a video of Kili and Truman's reintroduction:
On a recent trip to South Africa, I had the amazing opportunity to see Cape Parrots in the wild. I also got to meet Sanjo from the Cape Parrot project to learn more about the project and about the wild Cape Parrots.
The South African Cape Parrots are restricted to a fairly small habitat, the subtropical cloud forests of the eastern Cape. It is a dense wet forest environment with frequent mist and rainfall. The temperatures are cooler because of the 3,000ft+ elevation. It can be fairly warm in the summer but in winter time, these birds can be dealing with below freezing conditions.
This is why it should be no surprise that it was very difficult to get to see them. Not only did we have to travel to a fairly remote part of South Africa, that was only the beginning! Their population is very small and they are quite hard to find. They are considered quite large for an African Parrot, however, they are still a medium parrot at best when you compare with Cockatoos and Macaws. Green parrot, green trees, misty forest, and a broad range makes them a tremendous challenge to see. They travel for many miles from roosting to feeding sites so there is only a brief span of time when you can see them where they live. At night they are sleeping and in the day time they are spread out feeding. Only in the early hours of morning and at dusk can you catch a glimpse of them heading out and coming back.
With the help of Sanjo from the Cape Parrot Project, we set out early in the morning looking for the birds. We woke up and were out by 5AM to catch them as the sun was rising. Unfortunately a thick fog blanketed the entire area. We drove to higher ground to break out of the fog but still could not find them. We walked around several places known to be visited by Capes before we so much as heard a single call from them. Following the calls we saw a small group flying and followed them to the tree they finally landed in. We were lucky to be standing in enough of a clearing to even see where they went. Standing in the forest, it would be impossible to track them.
It was a joy to watch flocks of Capes flying and to listen to their familiar calls. The beautiful South African Cape Parrots are truly a sight to behold. But finding and seeing them is extremely tricky. Although they stay in groups, they aren't quite a "flock bird." The trees they land on are high and dense. They aren't ostentatious like Conures and other parakeets I've seen in the wild. Nor are they shy like Senegal Parrots and other small Poicephalus. They really do fall somewhere in between. They are certainly more shy and prone to spook than other types of parrots but at the same time, they are the most courageous of the Poicephalus genus.
What does that mean? Well, in regards to how close you can approach them or how predictable their movements are, that is how I rank them to be somewhere in between. It was not impossible to get footage of them but it was quite difficult. You have to be very patient, know where to look, and be even more patient still. It took us hours of observation across two days to get to spend just about 15 minutes in their majestic presence. And then, as quickly as they had come, they were gone.
It was so exciting to watch the resemblance of these wild Cape Parrot to Truman, my pet Cape Parrot at home. I got to see preening, calling, and playing behavior in the wild Capes that was essentially identical to the behavior that Truman exhibits. It was just so familiar even though I had never seen a South African Cape in person before.
What is the difference between Truman and the Cape Parrots in South Africa? Truman is a different subspecies. He is definitely not the Poicephalus robustus robustus subspecies. He is one of the other two and most likely the Brown-Necked subspecies (Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis) which is endemic to the semi-rainforests of Sierra Leone region of West Africa. You will notice in the pictures that Truman's subspecies is a bit larger while the South African Cape Parrots have an olive yellow head. Otherwise, they do look the same.
The South African Cape Parrots are extremely rare to find in aviculture or captivity. The ones you find as pets in the US and Europe are of the Brown-Necked Fuscicollis or Grey-Headed Suahelicus subspecies. They are more similar to each other than to the South African Robustus Cape Parrot. We encountered one Robustus Cape at a bird park in Johannesburg and heard that there are a few breeders of them in South Africa. I have yet to see or hear of any Robustus Capes outside of South Africa.
There has been research done by South African researchers and the Cape Parrot project to reclassify the South African Cape Parrot (P. r. r.) as a separate species from the two northern subspecies. They hope that by naming it a separate species, it could end up on the endangered species list and receive CITES protection. However, even as of 2016, Bird Life International and the IUCN Redlist, have not accepted there to be sufficient evidence to name them separate species. Heck, the differences between Timneh and Congo Greys or between Jardine's Parrot subspecies are far more significant than between the most distant Capes.
The biggest difference between South African Cape Parrots and the other two subspecies are not in their appearance but in their living habits. The South African Capes rely almost religiously on the yellowwood tree. They refuse to nest in anything but natural cavities of the yellowwood tree and they also rely on it for food. Not only do they eat the seeds of the fruit of the yellowwood tree, it has been discovered that properties of the yellowwood fruit help give these birds an immune system boost that helps them battle a beak and feather disease epidemic. Their survival depends on the yellowwood tree for fighting disease as well as for feeding and nesting.
Still, regardless of classification, science, politics, or what you call it, the fact that the South African Cape Parrot is critically endangered still stands. There are fewer than 2,000 known South African Parrot Parrots remaining. Deforestation of their peculiar habitat, widespread disease, and some remaining poaching is making their survival questionable. The Cape Parrot Project is performing research to learn more about these birds in order to focus best efforts on their protection. A main focus is replanting yellowwood forests to protect the Capes' natural habitat. The Cape Parrot project receives funding through donations to the Wild Bird Trust.
Here is an interview with Sanjo about Capes and the Cape Parrot Project along with my footage of Cape Parrots in the wild: