Softbills As Pets

This page exists because crows, ravens, and other corvids are all called softbills in the world of pet keeping, because of the diet made nessasary by the construction of their bills (they're not really that soft, but they need soft foods). Recently, i have been noticing both interest in keeping crows as pets as well as some feelings that doing so is wrong. I personally stand somewhere in between and have decided to add my point of view to the matter.

Because crows are not commonly kept pets and there is not a lot of reliable information out there on keeping them--though i am trying to gather what information i can--i am starting this page with the general basics of keeping softbills and other birds and moving into the specifics of keeping crows. finally i will give specific information on two more commonly kept corvids and the hill mynah, a very popular softbill, which i have found books on. this will allow you to compare information.

Before i get into any of that, i'm afraid you must read a bit of discourse on the keeping of wild animals as pets. this is because some people who keep crows as pets advocate taking them from the wild and many people find young crows that have been injured or abandoned and try to keep these.

First of all, keeping any wild animal is difficult, can be dangerous, and usually ends up with a dead animal or two. allow me to illustrate this with an example. the other day, a gentleman came into my store with a skink, that is a lizard native to my area (Western Washington). he ws interested in learning how to care for the lizrd. we, at the pet store, always advise people to let wild animals go or take them to a Rehibilitation center and make it quite clear that the animal will probably die if they try to keep it. This particular man was stubborn though, especially because his young daughter liked the skink. he bought the lizard some crickets and a very nice habitat.

a few days later he returned, insisting that our crickets had poisoned his skink and two year old iguana. his very distraught daughter had found their sweet pet iguana and the "snake with legs" (as she called the skink) dead that morning. it was a ridiculous idea that our crickets killed them, as we had sold about 300 that day and no one else was reporting any deaths. still, our store had the lizards autopsied.

though i never did hear the actual results, it was assumed that after handling the skink, someone then handled the iguana, transfering a disease from the wild caught animal to the pet. this is very common, especially when dealing with reptiles and birds. usually, the younger the animal is, the more likely it is that they could be carrying a fatal disease tht hasn't manifested yet. probably, the skink would have been able to fight off the disease, but the combined stress of having been captured, put into and environment that wasn't completely suitable, and fed a diet that wasn't nearly as diverse and healthy as what he got in the wild, weakened its ability to fight of disease. domestically bred animals, like the iguana, usually don't have the ability to fight off these diseases due to the fact that highly vulnerable animals are not eliminated through natural selection.

Besides the high posability of transfering disease to other pets, there is also a chance that wild animals may transfer diseases to humans. the most prominant threat with retptiles is Salmonella. this disease is usually can even be fatal to humans (mostly children and those with compromised immune systems) and reptiles alike. this is why, in some areas, turtles under five inches in length are illegal to sell. apparently, young children would put the turtles in their mouths and contract salmonella. that's not the only way to get it though, i have heard plenty of stories about babies dying when they are allowed to play with reptiles brought into the home. Birds also carry a disease which is rarely fatal but still can cause a lot of discomfort for humans. this is Psiticosis or parrot fever. Domestically bred birds kept in good conditions have a very little chance of carrying this, as they are watched closely and spend plenty of time in quarenteen before you can get a hold of them.

So, in the end, by keeping a wild animal, that man not only lost the animal and his established pet which practically traumatized his daughter, he also may have exposed his whole family to salmonella which is particularly harmful to young children.

Now that i have gotten through all the strong facts for not keeping wild animals, i must throw in one more thing. imagine that you have the ability to go where ever you want, whenever you want, or at least you will if you can be patient just a little bit longer. suddenly, before you even have the ability to defend yourself or run away, someone takes you away, locks you in a cage, or removes your ability to move more than a few feet. this is what you do to a wild animal when you try to keep it in captivity. crows are blessed with the ability to fly, what i believe is the most wonderful thing in the world. i'd give anything to be able to grow wings and fly, i'd even become a stupid gnat. i would never take that from some other creature. now, crows bred in captivity, their whole world is the same as your world, so they wouldn't be interested in anything else. just like humans, we were born and raised in houses and we'll happily stay there for the rest of our days (most of us anyway). domestically bred birds were born and raised in cages, which birds come to see as a safe area. i know this because when i take an untaimed bird from it's cage it tries as hard as it can to get back, it bites and flies toward the cage, and some birds will even try to figure out how to open the cage door. you don't steal anything from these birds, indeed, if you tried to "free" them it would be like sending a three year old child out into the woods to fend for herself. i believe most people would find that cruel. a domestically bred bird with a loving owner who gives it attention, space, and food will not be an unhappy bird who pines for its freedom.

Finally--as my manager told a boy who wanted to buy crickets and a small cage for a wild tree frog--taking a wild animal like that would be like if you locked yourself in a closet and ate nothing but oatmeal for the rest of your life.

That said, let us move on to softbills.

BUYING YOUR SOFTBILL
These instructions, simple as they are, appy to butying any bird. though you should be aware of specific points to look for, remember that healthy birds are alert and active. before making a commitment to buy a bird, travel to see it and be sure you can examine it closely.

Before disturbing the bird, watch it in its cage or aviary. an unhealthy bird may be sluggish and breath irregularly or with difficulty. take note of the condition of the feathers, but don't use them as a very strong indicator of health, as a scruffy appearence may indicate nothing. the feathers will grow in better after they molt. look for bald spots and ask about them. it may be other birds picked on him, but it's also possable that he's pulling his own feathers. if he is, that could indicate parasites or behavioral problems.

Take great notice of its eyes. they shold be bright and clear, with out discharge or redness. watch how it perches, it should grip easily, have clean feet, and have all of its toes. if it sits in one spot with eyes half closed and feathers fluffed up its either sleeping or sick. try waking it (don't bang on a cage if you're in a pet store). if you disturb it and it jsut settles into the same position, it's probably sick.

A CLOSE EXAMINATION

See if you can hold the bird. most pet stores won't let you, so you can ask for a manager and make a big fuss. or ask and employee to hold it for you as you examine it.

The proper way to hold it is to support the bird's head between the first and second fingers of your left hand (use your right hand if you're left-handed) with the wings held closed in your palm. you have him on his back so you can feel the breast bone with your other hand.

The breast bone runs down the underside of the body, starting at the lower chest. it whould be plump with muscle on either side. if the bird is sick or not eating well, the breast bone will stick out quite a ways. this can be an early sign of a chronic disease, refered to as being "light". but it also may be due to changes in diet. ask what it's being fed, how long it's been eating that. if it's been on the same diet for over two weeks and is still light, don't risk buying it. remember, no amount of work will cure a chronic illness.

Check the nostrils for blockage. partial blockage will cause the bird to breath loudly. usually, a vet or an experienced bird keeper is needed to clear blockage.

Open the bird's beack and check for fungus, especially in softbills. this is called thrush or candidiasis (people get this too) and is caused by vitamin A deficiency and perhaps a high surgar diet (like humming birds have). this can easily spred to other birds through drinking water. it can spread to the digestive tract where it will kill the bird.

Open the wings and look for bugs. lice have elongated shapes and are fairly visable. all new birds should be treated for ecctoparasites (external parasites) with sprays. mites can not be seen.

Check the vent, which is near the base of the tail, for discoloration and dampness. this is indicative of a digestive problem which can be caused by internal parasites, chronic illness, or inproper diet. if it's tof the first two, it's difficult to treat and contagious. if it's due to diet, it's simple to take care of. only a vet can tell you which it is. if you see food caked to the bird's beak, as if he's been spitting food up, it is probably a problem which is too developed to treat.

Look carefully at the feet to be sure they're not swollen, damaged, or overly dirty. also look for swelling close to the joints.

TAKING A BIRD HOME

Be sure the bird is put in a dark box with a bit of seed or fruit. if it's a large bird, you can use cat carriers. Do Not try to open the box to look at the bird before you get it home. even if its wings are clipped. you will stress the bird and may lose it.

SETTLING THE BIRD IN

Make sure the cage, food, and water are set up before you let the bird out. it would be best to have this all set up before you even go out to buy the bird. it is far less stressful. in fact, i highly suggest it as some birds are prone to having heart attacks from stress. try to open the box in the cage or you can reach in the box and gently pull the bird out.

The first two days you have the bird, do not touch him. bon't let children bother him, do not move his cage. he's very frightened at that time. if you do bug him and he dies or bites your finger off, it's your own damn fault so don't go complaining to a pet store. if you're taming him or he's already tame, only work with him for about fifteen minutes every day for about a week. after he's used to you, you can play with him more.

FEEDING
This section is specific to softbills, as their diet is very different from other birds. there are four different kinds of softbills; fugivorous (fruit eaters), omnivorus (eat most foods), insectivorous (eat insects)< and nectivorous (nectar eating). these groups are not mutually exclusive and most birds will cross into different groups. some cross into hardbill territory, eating some seeds.

Feeding softbills is fairly complicated, so i will concentrate on crows and their family, which are omnivorous. many people have the misconception that crows eat junk and some people feed their crows just that. left over human food, or basically garbage, is their main diet. this is very, very stupid. it's true that crows are hardy enough to survive on such a diet, but i would not say they live or thrive on it. sure you see crows eating roadkill and leftovers from picknics, but hey also eat seeds, small animals, insects, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. why do you think they put scarecrows in gardents? crows need a varied diet to remain healthy and they know it.

Fortunately, feeding softbills is reletively easy now, as compared to a decade ago. there are prepared diets available, which is supplimented with fruit and insects. crows can eat mynah pellets along with other softbill foods. allow them to have a constant supply of pellets. every morning you will need to supply fresh fruit and vegies. feeding only pellets will cause a bird to become malnourished and will cause liver disorders.

Offer fruits and vegies in a separate dish that will be removed every evening. Some good foods are: diced apples (use dessert, not cooking apples. Red apples are good); whole or chopped grapes, donít worry about removing seeds, theyíll just pass through; plums; bananas, make sure theyíre not under ripe or theyíll cause digestive disorders; small amounts of orange, large amounts upset stomachs; figs; apricots; raisins; romaine lettuce, never use iceberg lettuce as it has no nutritional value and can cause digestive problems in large amounts (actually, humans should eat romaine lettuce too); corn; peas; broccoli; cauliflower; cucumber; carrots; and zucchini. Birds can also eat canned fruits as long as itís canned in its own juice and not syrup. Dry fruits are excellent, especially if your bird lives outside in the winter because theyíre higher in calories than fresh fruit. You can also freeze certain fruits for future use, so you can buy a lot of the fruit when itís cheap and have it all year round. Not all fruit can be frozen, some easy ones to freeze are grapes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and stoned plums. First, you spread them on a tray and freeze them, this keeps them from sticking. Then you can store them in ziplock backs or Tupperware bowls in the freezer.

Other fruits and vegies can be used, these were just examples. Dried chille peppers make excellent treats. Also, include some nuts as treats, like peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, and pinenuts. You can get these and larger seeds in large parrot foods. Only offer as a supplement to softbill pellets and fruit, though, not as the main diet.

Live Food

Live food is necessary when breeding, as most sofbills naturally feed their chicks insects. They are high in protein and contain necessary vitamins. When breeding, a variety of live foods is important. As a supplement to an adult birdís diet and as treats, you can offer a favorite or easily obtained kind of livefood occasionally. They are very good to use for taming birds.

Collecting Your Own

If insecticides are used in your area, donít collect your own as they can poison your birds. Good foods are: spiders (a favorite); woodlice (found under logs); snails; pupae of ants are good for chicks; caterpillars without hair skins, try to take common species as some butterflies are becoming scarce; and earthworms (click for breeding and keeping).

Store Bought Foods

Some places sell earthworms; bait shops have redworms and maggots (maggots must be cleaned); crickets; and mealworms.

Foods Of Animal Origin

The following foods may be found distasteful and are not absolutely necessary, but are good for variety.

Raw mince, available in freezer packs from a grocery store. Use low fat and do not refreeze thawed food.

Dead day old chicks, available from hatcheries. Offer whole and only a fe2w at a time. If frozen, thaw thoroughly before freezing and never refreeze.

Pinky mice 9baby mice) can be obtained frozen or live from some pet stores. Frozen is best.

OTHER DAILY CARE

These are odds and ends on caring for softbills, also applied to other birds.

Bathing

Offter a dish for bathing (change daily) or spray birds with water. Donít use in the winter with aviary birds.

Moulting

This is hard on birds, but normal. Watch carefully for illness. Give a varied diet and supplement foods with vitamins. Use one with amino-acids. Sprinkle on a favorite food; mealworms or fruit.

Beak and Foot Care

The other day, I met a seven year old crow whoís upper beak was greatly over gown and curved. Obviously, if youíve ever observed crows in the wild, this is not natural. Any birdís beak can become deformed like this if it is not given toys and mineral blocks to chew on. Smaller birds need cuttlebone to keep their beaks trimmed and to get calcium. Crows can use parrot-sized mineral blocks. Proper diet will also keep the beak worn down, make sure your crow gets pellets, large seeds, and nuts. Toys made from natural sticks, rawhide, rope, and leather will also wear the beak down. Only get these things from a pet store specifically from the bird section. Some dog toys are treated in such a way that they can be poisonous.

To keep the birdís feet healthy and claws short, give the bird several different sized perches. Round ones should be mixed with elongated ones. Natural, treated perches are also available at pet stores. If you make your own perches, use only fruit trees (pines and some other trees can be poisonous) and bake the limbs in the oven to kill bugs. Make certain the trees were not sprayed with insecticides. here's a list of some poisonous and non-poisonous plants.

Clipping Wings and Nails

If you keep a birdís wings clipped (donít do it for aviary birds) you must do it after each molt. If your bird is tame, you should be able to spread each wing and easily clip the feathers. If not, wrap the bird in a towel first or if itís a small bird (budgie, finch) hold it as described earlier. spread a wing. You will see three distinct parts of the wing, the part you clip are the feathers on the very end, furthest from the body. Count in one feather and cut the four or five feathers before that last feather. The last feather is mostly just for looks, so donít worry if you accidentally snip it. Use just regular scissors. Be careful not to cut too far in or you will cause the bird to bleed. Keep styptic powder (quick stop) on hand to stop bleeding. It may be best to have someone who has done this before show you how to clip wings first.

At this time you can clip the nails if it is necessary. Clipping the nails on a bird is just like on any other animal; donít clip too far in. stop before the pink quick. Cutting the pink part caused bleeding and is very painful. If you cut it, use styptic powder to stop the bleeding. Use special bird or cat nail clippers.

Also, you can clip an over grown beak. Only someone very familiar with clipping beaks should do this so if you are not, take the bird to a groomer or vet.

BREEDING

It would be marvelous if more people attempted to breed corvids. Here are some general guidelines, for more in depth information you should acquire a book dedicated solely to breeding birds.

Sexing
most corvids must be surgically sexed. Ask your vet about it.

Basic Guidelines

you will get better results if your birds are in an aviary or very large cage. Out doors, insects will be more available (remember that insects are very important to give to breeding birds). House breeding pairs on their own. Crows are intelligent, and it is suspected that they mate for life, so once two crows pair off it would be cruel to separate them.

Crows will probably use nesting platforms (wooden trays) or baskets placed securely in a high area (not too high for you to easily reach). Some may like a partially enclosed nesting box with a large opening. Give your birds the choice of several nesting areas. Provide dry twigs, feathers form old molts, and perhaps hors hair as building material. Donít use hay as it gets moldy. Be sure twigs are dry so they donít mold.

When your birds start building a nest, avoid disturbing them, even if they are tame. Provide plenty of live foods as some birds will eat their own chicks if they donít get enough. Feed mealworms sparingly because their skins are hard to digest.

Read up on handfeeding baby birds. The care is the same for most chicks. There are books available on the subject and foods found in stores that can be used on softbills.

TAMING

Handtaming a bird is actually exceptionally easy, except in the case of traumatized or wild birds. It just takes time, patience, and a gentle hand. I didnít realize how simple it was until I started working at a pet store, before then I had raised zebra finches and tamed some of the babies, though I found with finches you have to handle them constantly to keep them tame. At my store we tame cockatiels all the time and I even tamed a diamond dove. I found that people willing to put some effort into their pets could tame the meanest budgies, and even teach them to talk. I partially tamed and adult lovebird; it doesnít feel comfortable sitting on me and can be a pain to catch, but she doesnít bit (and man, can lovebirds hurt when they want to) and I can let her fly freely about my room without problems. Even canaries can become tame.

Usually, young birds are the easiest to tame. Try to obtain one that still needs to be handfed a few times a day (not every two hours, thatís a pain in the butt). These birds will quickly bond to you and will easily learn to talk and to do tricks. Se any book on taming birds for hints on teaching tricks. Birds can learn to come to their name, shake hands, and event things like sitting, staying, and rolling over.

When training an older bird (though try to get a bird less than five or six months old) you have to work slowly. This is where patience really comes in, because you wonít get results immediately. First of all, try to find a woman to work with it as birds seem to react better to women. Perhaps itís the higher voice, the tendency to not use abrupt movements, or some weird, unimaginable reason. Donít let very young children handle the bird at first, s they can be noisy and make sudden movements. Only allow one person to tame the bird. Donít introduce it to others until Itís very tame for that one person.

To tame a large bird who may possibly cause damage to fingers, start by dowel training him. This is donít by having a special wooden dowel (perch) picked out just for training. Donít use it for any other purpose. Thoroughly spray it with bitter apple, which is distasteful for birds. Any store will carry this in the bird section. Now, let the bird out of his cage. Hopefully, youíve had his wings clipped or youíll never get him to sit still. It should not be necessary to clip a tamed birds wings, though. Put the dowel under his belly, right above his toes. Push up and back against him while saying "up." He should step up without trying to fly away. Get him to do it by simply hearing the command without having the dowel pressed on him.

If heís a particularly stubborn bird, he may bite the dowel. As he does so, heíll immediately get a taste of that bitter apple. Also, firmly say "no bite" as he bites, donít yell or scare him, just let him figure out what no means. Soon he should stop biting the dowel, and hopefully will not attempt to bite your hand when you move on. Never punish a bird. Never hit them or throw them in a cage and put a towel over them. Donít yell at them. Theyíre not like dogs, theyíll only get meaner. Actually, dogs will too. Some people say to squirt a bird with bitter apple every time it bites. This will only make it bite more and make it hate you. I know one person who would douse a poor bird with bitter apple until it was shivering from cold and squinting from getting the stuff in his eyes. That bird never liked the guy again, though other people could get it tame. Donít shriek or try to shake it off and donít put it in its cage. It sees its cage as its house and probably wants to be there. If you put back every time it bites you, it will just bite you whenever it want to be in its cage. If the bird bites you, firmly say "no bite" as you pry itís beak off of you. Let it go immediately. Then, repeat the action that made it bite you. If it doesnít bite, praise it and give it a treat. If it bites again, repeat the process. Generally if you start with a young bird and hand feed it you wonít have problems with biting.

When you start the dowel training, only train for then to fifteen minutes once or twice a day. Immediately follow sessions with a treat, like mealworms or a bit of peanut butter. As he gets better and if he doesnít look stressed (panting, fluffing up) you can extend the training lessons by five minutes until, after a few days, they take half an hour. Immediately end a session if the bird looks stessed.

After heís very good with the dowel, find white or peach colored cloth or leather gloves (donít use bright colors or black) or you an use socks. If you want, douse the glove or sock with bitter apple. Now, wearing your gloves, try to get the bird to perch on one hand then the other, using the same method as with the dowel. Donít let him climb up your arm just yet.

after youíre certain itís safe, you can remove your gloves. You can use bitter apple on your hands. Now, as you move the bird from one hand to another, gently stroke him on his back. As he gets used to you, you can pet his breast and head. Eventually, you should be able to touch, pet, and ruffle any part of your bird. Then you can let him climb all over you without fearing that he will bite your ears off.

Itís very important to teach your bird to let you touch him everywhere. If you get a very young bird or an older tamed one, immediately begin touching him and ruffling his feathers on his back, neck, head, breast , and wings. Take his wings and spread them, one at a time, and ruffle the feathers under the wings and on the wingsí undersides. Touch his beak, open it, feel inside itj (donít stick your fingers down his throat). Pet gently as close to the eyes as possible. Rub his legs and feet. Teach him to lie on his back in your hand and rub his belly, play with his toes, move the wings. Use lots of praise and treats, and be persistent, but gentle. This will make it easier to check him for disease, clip his wings, and clip his toenails in the future. It also makes for an exceptionally tame bird.

TALKING

Teaching birds to talk isnít too difficult. Usually, just talking normally will work. Birds quickly learn things like "hello," "good bird," and "no bite." Never buy a tape or cd that teaches a bird to talk, unless you only plan to run it 15 minutes once or twice a day. These tapes can drive a bird up the wall. If you want, you can have talking sessions. Just hold your bird on your hand and repeat a word or phrase for 15 minutes. Let the bird know how good it is if it repeats you. Praise it and give it treats.

DISEASE AND GENERAL HEALTH CARE

Please read up on the many diseases birds can get. It is best if you read a book on general bird care before you ever buy a bird.

keep an eye on your bird for signs of sickness, as described above. loss of appetite and fewer dropping on the cage floor than usual are also signs to look for. if your bird shows signs of illness, it is best to take him to a vet immediately, unless youíre certain you can diagnose and treat it. First time bird wonders should find a vet who will treat birds before they buy a bird and visit the vet when ever the bird is sick.

Read about some specific softbills.
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