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Taming Wild Birds – Can You Tame Wild Birds?

It is entirely possible to tame wild birds, but relatively few have actually been domesticated.

We’ve been feeding wild birds with seed over the winter, and protecting House Martin nests for just over a year now at Sheepskin Towers. The results have gone further than we’d hoped. We’re starting to tame wild birds that visit the garden.

We get rock doves, great tits, jackdaws and surprisingly… A Sparrowhawk.

Now, most gardeners try to deter Sparrowhawks on the grounds that they have been nurturing small birds and hate to think of them being eaten. I tend to think that sparrowhawks need to eat and my garden is full of food.

It’s a conflict we all feel watching anything narrated by David Attenborough. On the one hand we want the prey to escape, on the other as Attenborough explains, if the mother doesn’t catch this cute little creature then her babies might not make it through winter.

I guess I must come to terms with the fact I have effectively been a sparrow breeder for the last twelve months. The arrival of a sparrowhawk is an endorsement if anything. The bird buffet extends well beyond sparrows.

This little female pheasant has been raised for humans to shoot. She has until October 1st when it becomes legal to hunt pheasants (after they’ve raised their young). She’s been enjoying the delicious seeds we put out for our feathered friends, and she’s getting tamer. Here she is enjoying a dust bath!

House Sparrows, Sparrow Hawks Favourite

Watch these House Sparrows feeding here:

Part of this interest in wild birds has come from a tame cockatiel.

Meet Steve, our female cockatiel, at 90 grams she’s more than double the size of a house sparrow. When we got her she hadn’t been out of a cage. She was untamed and had only ever been touched by a human when she was bought and sold. The lady who had her before us had put a lot of the groundwork in – sitting by the cage talking for hours. Spending time with her. But the little dog she lived with was an accomplished hunter, a Jack Russell with very sharp wits. So for her own protection Stevie stayed inside the cage until her owner could bare it no more and we took her home with us.

The process of taming a bird isn’t rocket science. Just go super slow. Spend time with the bird. Don’t be a threat, have food around. Move slowly. Be yourself, if you’re chatting and eating carry on chatting and eating!

Our job with Stevie is to slowly get her used to a harness so we can take her outside. Without a harness she’ll be easy picking for all the wild things.

So what is the difference between a tame bird and a domesticated bird? A tamed bird is one that will tolerate or enjoy human company, come close, maybe even allow a human to touch it. These tamed birds are the same as their wild counterparts and they could breed with them. Our Stevie could meet up with a wild Australian cockatiel and make babies.

A domesticated bird has been selectively bred to the extent that they are genetically different from their ancestors. So different that there is no wild counterpart that they could breed with.  The number of truly domesticated birds is relatively small and includes some breeds of chickens, pigeons and some, but not all, budgies.

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Is [insert everyday item] Safe For Birds?

Just about everything is dangerous to birds; chocolate, avocado, onion and garlic… That’s why we seem to Google “Is [insert everyday item] safe for birds” several times a day!

The trouble is they seem to love getting into mischief, add to that an unhealthy dose of urban myths and one wonders that they survive at all.

What could possibly go wrong?

“They love to die”

I was talking to a local farmer who had been tasked with raising tens of thousands of pheasants for the local Duke and his mates to shoot at. I was surprised that the day old chicks costs so much money. If memory serves me, about £5 a head. The trouble is, he told me, they love to die.

The same seems to be true with tamed birds. We are looking after my daughter’s conure whilst she is away. Both the conure and the cockatiel get along fine but the conure is way more rambunctious, mischievous and outgoing. This manifests itself as chewing wires, drinking anything in a glass and landing on the cooker.

Cooking has to happen when the birds are safe in their cages and we are finding solutions to the other dangers too.

a latch keeps the birds safe
Simple solution to a serious problem

One day my son went to shut the door behind him and the two birds were on the top of the door, their favourite perch. The urgency of our response taught us that we needed to make the situation safe. A simple catch fixed things.

how to keep conures and cockatiels safe on doors

Dangerous myths

There are loads of myths around birds. Received wisdoms that continue to cause harm. Take the classic round cage, ornate and decorative. Hung in the middle of the room for all to admire… An awful and unsafe way to keep a bird.

Not only do round cages offer no corners to hide in, but their shape leaves lots of foot and wing traps where the bars converge at the top. Birds like to be against a wall, or even better in the corner of a room where nothing can sneak up behind them. Birds kept in a round cage hung in the middle of a room live with anxiety.

The canary in the kitchen

You’ve heard of the canary in the mine… the reason a canary would have been taken down a mine was because of its sensitivity to gasses. A bird does have lungs but they are better than yours.

“The respiratory system of birds is more efficient than that of mammals, transferring more oxygen with each breath. This also means that toxins in the air are also transferred more efficiently. This is one of the reasons why fumes from teflon are toxic to birds, but not to mammals at the same concentration” – Petcoach

Down the mine if a dangerous build up of gases occurs you lose the canary before the men. This is where we discover many common utensils and modern conveniences are fatal to birds. Teflon, for example, releases four gases toxic to birds. One of which is a nerve agent used in world war two.

Whilst teflon is dangerous to humans at above 350 degrees Celcius, it is dangerous to birds at normal cooking temperature. Nonetheless, it does make you wonder what it’s doing to us humans?

“…cases of Teflon flu are due to acute (short-term) exposures to PTFE fumes; no studies have been done looking at the long-term effects of brief, repeated PTFE-fume exposure, as would be the case in cooking using non-stick pans for a lifetime” – TIBBS Bioscience

A bird in the bag

I’ve read a number of cases where a ‘roast in the bag’ oven ready chicken has killed pet birds. The advice is not to use them at all if you keep birds. The convenience simply isn’t worth the risk. And again I wonder what effect these bags might be having on the mammals and other animals of the house, not to mention the environment.

What a gas

Open fires, smoking and aerosoles all join the prohibited list, along with bleach and oven cleaner. Especially oven cleaner.  Oven cleaners can be separated into two basic groups. Those that work and those that don’t. If you keep birds you’re sadly restricted to the latter. Most oven cleaners contain caustic soda in some form or other. Choose a cleaner that is baking soda based and scrub harder!

Around the kitchen and bathroom you can use cream cleaner, which is salt based. Don’t let the bird lick it though… salt is dangerous to birds. Like the man said, they love to die.

Higher perches

Birds feet can also be a source of trouble. They don’t work like yours but rather ‘lock’ around perches using a ratchet mechanism in their legs. The tendon has nobbles at intervals which the bird can hold into place for long roosts. If a bird regularly rests on a perch of uniform diameter and doesn’t exercise all along this tendon then they can suffer tendinitis.

The best perches (like this one) have a variety of ‘holds’ the bird can use. Irregularity is the key. Also, turn the perch around every week or so. Shake things up a bit with their toys, move things around. Not only will this make new interest in old toys but it will also encourage the bird to choose a different perch and get the leg exercise it needs.

As I write this Heidi the conure is sat on top of my laptop. She has just leaned over and attempted to eat some of the peace lily on the kitchen table… reminding me that peace lilies are toxic to birds. I was going to write a little about electrical wires, but that may have to wait until another day.

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Pigeons Rock (Doves)

Pigeons Rock (Doves)

People love doves, they are a symbol of peace, their gentle coo warms our hearts and brings a warm glow to bodies but not so the pigeon. Seen a plenty on our streets the humble pigeon, often called a sky rat, is hated by many. There is a slight problem with this though, there is no difference between a dove and a pigeon.

Our city pigeons are actually the feral descendants of the Rock Dove.

The Rock Dove – What many would call the common pigeon.

Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA

To make matters even more confusing, when looking at the etymology you see their names mean ‘pigeon, dove’

The rock dove was first described by Gmelin in 1789. The genus name Columba is the Latin word meaning “pigeon, dove”, whose older etymology comes from the Ancient Greek κόλυμβος (kolumbos), “a diver”, from κολυμβάω (kolumbao), “dive, plunge headlong, swim”. Aristophanes (Birds, 304) and others use the word κολυμβίς (kolumbis), “diver”, for the name of the bird, because of its swimming motion in the air – Wikipedia

Before becoming domesticated, the doves lived on the cliffs but found a happy life alongside humans. They are amazing companion birds who have a strong bond with the humans who keep them. They also mate for life and raise their young as a family unit. Uncles and aunts helping to guard the nest and even sitting the eggs and hatchlings.

Pigeon Heroes

As well as being sweet natured and loyal, they have served humans for hundreds of years. They have saved lives and won medals. The PDSA Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 in the United Kingdom by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in World War II and has been won by many pigeons. Maria Dickin was the founder of the PDSA.

Some examples of awards of this medal have been –

White Vision –  a Pigeon who delivered a message that led to the rescue of a ditched aircrew in October 1943. She flew 9 hours in bad visibility and heavy weather with strong headwinds.

Kenley Lass  – a Pigeon who who was the First pigeon to deliver intelligence from an agent in enemy-occupied France in October 1940; served with the National Pigeon Service. She was parachuted with the agent and released 12 days later to fly 300 miles back to home in less than 7 hours.

Gustav – a Pigeon who brought the first message from the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944 – Wikipedia

Recently I have had the absolute pleasure of watching these pigeons nesting on a balcony in Torquay. The little hatchling has survived Herring Gull attacks and the deepest snow this country has seen for more than a decade. Perhaps, the next time we are annoyed at a bit of poo on our car or think of the scavenging sky rats eating from our bins, it might be good to think of the lives that have been saved or the strength of bond these animals have both with their flock mates and with us.

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These pigeons nesting on a balcony return every year.

Baby pigeons up close

Pigeons nesting on a balcony in Torquay.

Had to share this with you. A friend has had multiple generations of the same family of pigeons nesting on a balcony in his flat in Torquay! The latest chick is doing well and mum, dad and aunts and uncles attend to its every need.

baby pigeons nesting on a balcony in Torquay

This baby is a Survivor.

Out of four eggs this is the only survivor. Pigeons nesting on a balcony run the risk posed by hungry seagulls. This chick and its parents (and extended family) have also faced some of the worst weather seen for decades in the west country, heavy snow and torrential rain have taken their toll on all wild birds, meaning that competition for food has become intense.

A little chick like this would feed a seagull through to see another day. This was the fate that met his siblings.

pigeons nesting on a balcony
It’s raining hard and mum is covered in water droplets

“Pairs are monogamous, often breeding in consecutive seasons for as long as both birds of a pair live.

Most will attempt to raise several broods each year. Sometimes as many as four or five broods will be raised in a single year.

The breeding season of these birds can be all year provided climate conditions allow. There seems to be some slowing down during the winter months” – Wild Bird Watching

Fun fact: Pigeons are Doves.

The distinction is class-based and without any genealogical merit. Street pigeons are just European rock doves that went feral. Basically, if you have a shed out back full of birds that you coo over and race at weekends… then they’ll be called pigeons. If you have an ornate brick built bird palace in your garden… then that will be called a dovecote.

These pigeons return every year to nest on this balcony. The whole family take part and they seem to leave only the shortest gap in the depth of winter.

“The nesting habits of these birds are a bit unique. The male chooses a site in view of the female, selecting one stick and bringing it back, lays it in front of his mate.

The female who stays at the nesting site accepts the sticks the male brings to her and places them underneath her” – Wild Bird Watching

If you like birds you may want to follow our own Steve on Instagram, check out our unashamedly premium handmade perches or read our latest blog about bird safety.

Don’t stop feeding them during nesting season.

The old wisdom that you shouldn’t feed birds with seeds during the nesting season is a myth handed down – it is still causing harm. The parents will chew the seed and regurgitate for their young. So seed IS safe to feed during the nesting season. When you think about it stopping feeding during this time is particularly mean as this is precisely when wild birds are working hardest.

The only caution is avoid whole peanuts as birds can choke on them.


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Friends come in all shapes and sizes

We all need friends, especially in these divided times.

It’s worth remembering that friends come in all shape and sizes. They come in different colours. They come with different languages, different clothes, different food, music, the lot. Even when they may seem so different, the need for companionship is near universal.

So when we nervously introduced Steve, our cockatiel, to Heidi, a boustrous conure, we hoped for the best…. but feared the worst. If they didn’t get on then we might have ended up with a dead bird.

Steve was very reluctant at first but Heidi was having none of it. She persistently tried to entice Steve into play and preening. It was only when Steve discovered how nice the preening felt that the friendship was secured.

The lesson came later with the recent heavy snow.

We walked up the steep hill coming home past loads of deserted cars, and worryingly some with occupants inside. Temperature was set to plummet for the second night and people were trapped.

We invited four people back to our house so they could sleep on the floor in the warm. An interesting thing happened. Before going to bed I suddenly felt that I was taking a risk – I didn’t know these people… maybe they would steal from us?

I left the laptop I write upon on the kitchen table reasoning that it is so battered that no one would want it. But the brand new tablet computer I use to run our online shop, I hid. Now, I had spent a lovely evening with these people who were very nice. The next morning we all confessed to each other, the Polish lorry driver had a moment when he was thinking ‘am I going to get murdered?’, the three folks from Dartmouth had a moment when they wondered if they were safe? We all had experienced some sort of doubt.

But these people are all of us. The odds that any one of us would be deviant are the same as for the general population, they are as likely as anyone to be a decent person, and most people are.

There’s a bit of Steve in all of us but there’s also a bit of Heidi.

Resolutely believing in the goodness of strangers and putting companionship above fear makes the world a better place.

The two birds will see each other regularly as the arrangement means both their owners have bird sitters, and completely for free. When we work together better things can happen. Heidi now enjoys one of our new range of handbuilt Parrot Sticks (posh perches) and we look forward to seeing her again soon. The stranded stopovers all got home safe the next day and we have already been invited over to their place, so all’s well.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. – Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne (MEDITATION XVII)