Aviary Pitfalls #3 – Mismatched Species

Birds. Awww. Aren’t they cute? They wouldn’t hurt  fly, would they? They’d get along just great, wouldn’t they? And surely only large ones would ever think about intimidating smaller ones. Wrong on all counts. Here’s what can happen if you invite the wrong guests to the party.

The following species have at the very least been disruptive to other species living with them. In the worst cases, they have killed:

1) Budgerigars (also called ‘parakeets’ in the US)

budgerigars parakeets
A popular pet bird when kept in isolation but not so popular among other species.

We started off with 2 budgies. At first they seemed placid enough in the aviary. They would sometimes harass the other species but usually this consisted only of evicting the target from the perch they were on at the time. Maybe a very short pursuit would follow on a few occasions, but we never witnessed biting or actual physical violence. Their main targets were the Zebra finches, who could escape easily enough, but when they tried the same intimidation tactics against the cockatiels they were sometimes repelled themselves if the cockatiel in question decided to use its physical superiority in defense.

The most disruptive behavior, though, was their constant destruction of the other species’ nests. The zebra finches would tirelessly construct their homes out of straw strewn on the ground and seemingly as soon as the budgies saw the construction was complete, they would very systematically and completely dismantle the straw making it impossible for eggs to be laid.

So despite the beautiful plumage and lively character, the budgies did not enamor themselves to us over the first year or so. Sadly, they were both dead within the following year. Months apart, each of them was found motionless on the floor in the morning when I went to deliver the food. No signs of fighting or poisoning, further investigation suggested that they had most probably had heart attacks over night as this is not uncommon in this species. The fact that they were found directly under the perches they usually slept on also supports this theory.

Due to their disruptive nature and propensity to suddenly keel over at night, we have not brought any more budgies into the aviary since then.

2) Lovebirds

lovebirds
They’ve got a whole lotta love – but only for each other.

For those who don’t know, they are called ‘lovebirds’ because of the way they act towards each other. Monogamous, helping each other through the nest building and chick nurturing phases, cuddling up to each other every night. The picture of love. However, the way they behave towards other species is often the direct opposite. Fiercely territorial with very strong natural instincts which will have them getting in the face of any other species large or small, these are the neighbors from hell you do not want in your shared aviary.

We started with 2 lovebirds. Initially, they would behave similarly towards the other species as the budgies did, occasionally chasing them off their perch and disrupting nest building. They would always bully the other birds away from the food bowls, including the larger but way more docile cockatiels. But worse was to come.

Every couple of months with increasing alarm, I would make a gruesome discovery on the floor of the aviary. There would invariably a small finch (zebra or Gouldian) lying dead with a clear head wound. A couple of times the head would be completely removed but although this was later traced to a different culprit (see Aviary Pitfall #4), it made the problem all the more perplexing. I automatically thought that all the deaths must have been down to some other kind of animal getting in to the aviary at night but on the other hand I’d seen the lovebirds lunging at other species with their beaks although usually this was aimed at the feet of the target. Even one of the small quails we had was found dead with the same kind of head wound as the others. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that the lovebirds could do this and was still unconvinced on the day when clear proof presented itself.

We had known that our 3 remaining quails had laid eggs but we didn’t know if they were fertile so it was with some surprise that one day I looked in the aviary and saw a couple of little yellow fluff-balls running around after their mother. One of them had evidently died not long after hatching, so this was removed without thinking anything was particularly amiss. The chicks were so cute and we couldn’t believe how lucky we were that we were getting more after only a few months of owning them.

Our joy didn’t last. A couple of days later I looked into the aviary again and saw one of the chicks lying dead near the water bowl. The last remaining one was flopping around in the beak of one of the lovebirds, also dead. This was the final straw. I immediately removed both lovebirds from the aviary and kept them in a separate cage until I found someone who wanted them to look after.

Dead Quail Chick
One of the quail chicks killed by a lovebird. They were so cute.

Having highlighted the downside of keeping lovebirds, I should add that there were a couple of endearing traits also. When one of the lovebirds died due to plant poisoning (see Aviary Pitfalls #2), the remaining one lived for about a year without another lovebird to keep it company. Instead, it became very close to one of the budgies. They would feed each other, sleep side by side and even tried to mate! And when the zebra finches finally managed to lay a few eggs that hatched, the lovebird got all motherly and actually fed the zebra finch chicks. Whilst all this was very cute and unusual to see, the lovebirds were too disruptive to keep with other species.

We haven’t bought any since.

3) Alexandrine parakeet

Alexandrine Parakeet
Ray the Alexandrine Parakeet. He’s untamed, moody and beautiful.

Unlike the budgies and lovebirds above, Ray the alexandrine parakeet is one of the birds that stays with us downstairs outside of the aviary and shares the living area with us. He’s not tame, so will nip at our fingers if they get too close to him. We don’t put Ray or the other larger birds in the aviary mainly because of their size but I strongly suspect he wouldn’t hesitate to nip at the birds in the aviary if we did. He’s not overly aggressive in as much as he doesn’t actively hunt or go after other species but he will nip if any of them get close to him on his perch. Self defense, mainly.

Before Pugwash, our African Grey parrot left us, Ray and Pugwash shared a room downstairs and wouldn’t fight although Pugwash would chase ray around a bit without strictly wanting a fight. They never did fight, actually, just a few non-injuring nips.

Nowadays Ray lives with Sunny our new Sun Conure. Sunny is very young and deferential towards Ray so there is no ‘power struggle’ and Ray only starts nipping if Sunny is in his way. His bark (nip) is far worse than his bite.

4) African Grey Parrot

African Grey Parrot
Pugwash the African Grey Parrot. Full of character but a hardcore cockatiel hater.

Our untamed African Grey, Pugwash, was another of the birds we never put in the aviary but if we had I’m 100% sure there would have been casualties.

I know this because occasionally a couple of the cockatiels like to come out of the aviary and go downstairs, mainly to nibble on the white emulsion paint that covers our concrete walls (don’t ask!). Anyway, every single time that Pugwash ever saw any cockatiel even from afar, his feathers would prick up and he would home right in on them and attempt to seriously kill them. It wasn’t a matter of defending territory or defending himself, this was pure premeditated aggression. Maybe Pugwash just didn’t like yellow.

The episode which most clearly illustrated this was very sad. The cockatiels had delivered their second ever clutch of eggs and were still getting the hang of parenting. Only one chick survived to the fledging stage. Once out of the nest box it had picked up some kind of injury and wasn’t able to fly properly. It just stayed on the floor for days during a time when smaller birds were mysteriously turning up dead with head injuries so I decided to take it out of the aviary and keep it in a separate cage downstairs until it healed itself and became stronger. But downstairs was Pugwash country.

I knew Pugwash didn’t like cockatiels but I thought the cockatiel chick would be ok because it was in a cage. If Pugwash went to the cage the chick could just stay in the middle of the cage and remain safe. But it wasn’t to work like that. One day I came back to the house to see drops of blood on the floor under the cage. Looking up, I could see blood around the beak of the cockatiel chick. The beak was still there, but there was a visible crack right down the side of it. A day or two later a large part of the beak fell off completely. The chick would try to feed but couldn’t crack seeds or feed itself. I helped it to drink and tried to feed it, but heart-breakingly it slowly became thin and died of starvation. After this I knew never to leave cockatiels unattended with the African Grey, even in a cage.

Apart from his evident hatred of cockatiels, Pugwash would ocassionally chase Ray briefly around the top of their cage but they often slept on the same perch and generally got along like a married couple – the odd clash now and then but ultimately able to co-exist.

Epilgoue

Since the absence of budgies and lovebirds, the zebra finches and cockatiels have multiplied nicely to the point were I’m having to remove nest boxes as we don’t want any more. The aviary is more peaceful than ever before.

So in conclusion, I would say be very careful before mixing species in an aviary. In general, it is said that hookbills and softbills shouldn’t be mixed and yet the hookbilled cockatiels were amongst the most targeted species by other hookbills. It is also said that larger birds will intimidate smaller birds and yet my lovebirds weren’t scared of bullying the larger cockatiels.

Apart from following the general rules, therefore, you should also keep a close eye on the goings-on in your aviary every day and be proactive in anticipating any problems. Good luck with your aviary!

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