The Behavior of Parakeets

Preening: A parakeet spends several hours a day preening its plumage. Obviously it is not grooming itself constantly, but almost any activity, whether it be feeding, sleeping, or doing something with a partner, is concluded with a few minutes of preening. The care of feathers is important because only a bird whose plumage is always smooth, clean, and lightly oiled is uninterruptedly in command of its full flying powers. When preening itself a bird runs its feathers through its bill one at a time, smoothing each and ridding each of even the minutest dirt particles and of tiny flakes that are left from the sheaths of new feathers. With acrobatic skill parakeets twist and turn to run even the long tail and flight feathers through the bill. The smaller contour feathers are groomed in what often looks like frantic activity; breast, belly, legs, underside of wings, and back all get their turn. Even the naked feet and toes are attended to with the beak and all dirt and skin particles removed. Only the head and neck are worked over with the toes. In contrast to many larger parrots, parakeets have an oil gland (also called preen gland or uropygial gland). This gland, which consists of a ring-shaped skin fold containing a fatty substance, is located under the feathers on the lower back just above the spot where the tail feathers grow.

When preening itself the parakeet frequently rubs its head over this gland, thereby presumably activating the gland and at the same time oiling the head feathers. The bird also removes fat with its bill and then distributes the fat evenly over individual feathers as well as over the feet and toes. This coating keeps the plumage from getting soaked in the rain or during a quick bath. The water cannot penetrate into the feathers but quickly runs off the smooth surface. The oil also protects the feathers from drying out in heat and wind.

Scratching: Parakeets use one method for scratching the head and another method for scratching the sides of the posterior body. It has been noted by a biologist, that the way parakeets scratch their sides seems to be unique among birds. To scratch its side the parakeet uses the joint between the tarsometatarsus and the toes as well as the outer sides of the two toes pointing forward. The same parts of the foot--instead of the claws--are used for scratching around the vent to avoid irritating this sensitive area. To scratch its head, however, the parakeet uses the longest toe and its claw, raising the leg under the wing or from behind the wing to reach up to the head. Scratching is part of grooming; it is a preliminary cleaning that precedes the more thorough preening with the bill.

Birds scratch more than usual during molt, presumably because they itch as new feathers grow in and because the feather sheaths are most easily removed through scratching, especially in places the bill cannot reach. Birds also scratch noticeably more when they are infested with pests, such as mites. If a parakeets vent region is very dirty, the bird's keeper will notice this because of increased scratching. The keeper should then check to see if the vent is red or inflamed. If this is the case the bird's diet may be causing the problem, or the bird may be suffering from an illness.

Head Rubbing or Head Chafing: I have seen this only rarely in my birds, but many writers on parakeets report that these birds often chafe their heads against objects inside the cage or against the cage bars. This is clearly a form of scratching, and because it affects a relatively large area all at once, it also relieves itching, especially the itching caused by mites.

Care of the Bill: Parakeets dispose of bits of leftover food and of dirt by whetting their bills on a perch, the cage grating, or a branch. This whetting can be observed almost every time after a bird eats, even if there is no visible trace of food left on the bill, If mere rubbing does not do the job, chaff or husks that are stuck are removed with the foot. Working with the bill is an important part a parakeet's bill care. A parakeet therefore needs more activity for its bill than merely hulling seed kernels. In its native habitat the parakeet uses its bill extensively as a tool for climbing feats, both head up and head down, when inspecting rough tree trunks and branches for usable nest holes.

The bill provides an indispensable hold both in negotiating difficult climbing passages and in excited courtship displays. By whittling with her bill a female parakeet accomplishes the widening or shaping the entry hole to the nesting cavity. All these activities contribute to the wear of the bill that is necessary to keep it sharp and functional. Most caged birds have to make do with a whetstone, if that, as a substitute for natural activities. But neither a whetstone nor gnawing on wallpaper, picture frames, or books-about which the bird's keeper is understandably less than enthusiastic---can satisfy a parakeet's need to exercise its bill. Fresh tree branches in the cage or aviary or access to a bird tree are a better substitute and help keep furnishings safe from being nibbled.

Bathing: If a parakeet has a large enough (shallow) bathtub it will first dip its head briefly into the water and then spread its wings in such a way that the entire body gets wet. The bath is followed by a vigorous shake of the feathers and extensive preening. If only a small bath house or a toy tub is provided, the bird will probably be able to wet incompletely only one part of the body at a time. Many pet birds like to take a bath under a dripping faucet, others in a bowl with wet lettuce leaves or in a bunch of wet greens. In the wild, the birds settle down briefly in shallow water, wetting legs and belly, quickly drinking a few sips, and then take off again.

They circle the watering place several times before descending and always stay in the water or next to it for only a few moments. Apparently they do not feel secure enough to take leisurely baths as many caged parakeets do. Instead the wild birds seem nervous and hurried.

Other behaviour & social apsects.

E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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