“Oh wow, you’re just soooooo fat,” my Eclectus Pepi has started saying to people in a very despairing voice. My voice. He picks his audience too. I have one relative who is particularly concerned with her appearance so naturally she is his favourite target. As he uses my voice – I’m the one that gets the blame for being rude. How dare I teach my bird to say that to her???
Well I didn’t do it on purpose. Pepi is repeating something I’ve obviously been saying out loud (without even realising I was saying it) and I wasn’t talking to Pepi when I said it. It’s how I’ve come to greet my galah, Morgy.
My two young, healthy and active Rosebreasted Cockatoos Merlin and Nemo have average weights that are between 350-400 grams. My elderly, fairly inactive 60 years old, Cocky Boy, weighs in at about 430 grams. Morgy – well she worked her way up from her old average of about 450 grams to 520 grams.
I weigh my birds regularly and like most parronts, I get worried when I see a significant weight loss. A slight weight gain however, doesn’t seem to trigger the same amount of fear. Instead, when Morgy’s weight started to climb, I cheerfully started referring to Morgy as “Fatso” and did the logical thing of cutting back on her treats. It didn’t help.
I took Morgy to see an avian vet for a wellness check. She came out of that checkup as healthy, but getting a little fat. I was grilled over her diet. I had her on the best quality pellets money could buy and organic fruit and vegetables. I was told to cut back even more. Maybe the pellets were too much?? So the vegetable content went up and the pellet % went down. It didn’t work. Her weight continued to rise and it was at this point that it hit 520 grams.
Even more concerning, she had become lethargic and was no longer interested in moving much. She had no intention of exercising. Fat birds don’t fly. She wasn’t even prepared to waddle across the room. All she wanted to do was sit on her favourite sleeping perch or waddle to the nearest food source. Any attempts to get her to climb/exercise were useless. Even her interest in foraging toys was minimal. It seemed like she was barely eating but she was still fat.
I went back to the vet and was told that it must be me overfeeding her and that I had to stop it or she’d become ill. Morgy wasn’t sick (all her tests had been clear) but she was now officially fat. The vet told me that some days she doesn’t feed her own galah at all – just throws some grass in the cage (after all, that’s what they eat in the wild). I was told not to starve her, but start giving her grass instead of food occasionally and maybe look at cutting out pellets completely?
Well I was unimpressed. I left the vet with unanswered questions. I had originally been feeding my galahs the exact same diet. If diet was the entire source of the problem, why weren’t the others fat? Putting her on a diet had made her crabby, she was starting to bite. I didn’t want to see that escalate either. I couldn’t persist with training because she wouldn’t work for vegetables and treats were completely banned? This didn’t feel right.
So I contacted a different vet and decided to try his recommended diet. His recommended diet was basically what her original diet was. Aside from a good quality pellet, fruit and vegetables he had also recommended 1-2 tablespoons of a low fat seed (with added vitamins) per day. I must admit, I was pretty cynical about going back to seed and pellets. I’ve seen enough people blasted online for being open about feeding their birds seed. The difference here is that seed is not the entire diet that would be offered.
The turn around in her mood happened overnight. Her delight at getting seed was more than obvious. She suddenly had energy again and I took full advantage of it.
I gave her indoor cage an extension. I replaced the base of her cage with one of my emergency cages. It meant her cage ran from ground to ceiling and the evil parront in me put her water up high and her food in foraging toys down on the ground. I rotate this each second day. Fatso now has to climb for her food.
Morgy didn’t gain weight because of lack of exercise. Morgy used to like playing catch. She’d catch wooden beads and then throw them at me, but as her weight increased it was becoming harder and harder to get her to play. Similarly she used to fly around the house, but she stopped as the weight increased. Now that treats were allowed again, I replaced the bead from the game of catch with an almond and it became a game of fetch. She wanted the almond so badly, she’d waddle the length of the corridor to get it.
Galahs naturally like to throw stuff. I’ve been using this instinctual behaviour. If you put a galah on a table, with items resting on that table – the galah will throw everything on the floor. So now when she’s out of the cage I put her on the play stand and put as many bits and pieces on the stand as possible. Everything from a large tissue box to smaller items like cut up straws. She throws them off as fast as possible while I scramble to put them straight back. It’s a game to see who can get more stuff on or off the fastest. She usually wins. From my perspective the faster she moves the better.
It’s working. Her weight is down to 467 grams. It’s going down slowly and that’s my aim. I don’t want her to lose it too quickly as that in itself is a health risk.
With hindsight, I think I can now see the main reason for why her weight rose. I think having to separate her from living in the same aviary, as Merlin and Nemo may have been the main trigger. Suddenly she had no competition for food and Merlin (being young and ‘amorous’) suddenly wasn’t chasing her around.
I’d changed her living arrangements because one day three was suddenly a crowd. The other 2 birds had suddenly bonded (breaking the long standing bond between Morgy and Merlin). Merlin and Nemo had started to gang up on Morgy and Morgy had been in real danger of being hurt. She was clearly unhappy sharing space with them. She was really, really happy when I pulled her out. I just hadn’t noticed the impact on Morgy’s weight because it took 12 months for that impact to really kick in and for her weight to start to rise.
Morgy was my first bird that I took on as an adult. She’s the bird that I’ve made the most mistakes with. She’s easily the fastest to exploit any perceived laziness on my behalf. I can’t be in a rush with Morgy – I have to be meticulous about using difficult foraging toys and keeping her exercise up, because even one day of just loading the ‘easy’ foraging toys because I’m late and need to rush out, will mean she won’t tolerate working harder for her food the next day – she’d rather starve. I also need to make sure she feels the effort is worth while, she has to like the final reward.
I’ve learned that my first response to a weight gain – shouldn’t be to cut back on treats. I regret not trusting myself enough to believe I was feeding Morgy a decent diet. The change in living arrangements may have started the weight problem but cutting back on the treats and higher value foods was the trigger for her weight problem to become serious. She lost motivation to work for her food because suddenly her food never had anything special. That in turn impacted on her desire to exercise – so it was a slippery slope. Instead, I wish I’d changed things up a bit more. Changed the exercise games a bit more, changed her cage, etc. I should never have just assumed her weight was rising because I must have been giving her too much fat.
Morgy’s weight is definitely something that I’m going to have to keep a close eye on, but I think we’re finally back on the right path. Meanwhile, I need to find a way to stop an eclectus yelling “RUN!!! FATTY RUN!!!” and following that up with a hysterical laugh? Hmmmm. I’m in trouble at the next family gathering, aren’t I?
PS: You should be charting your bird’s weight every day, to do this, weigh your bird in grams and write it down. Try to take it at the same time every day. You can get a gram scale here. If your bird is overweight, consider the flight training course from BirdTricks (email firstname.lastname@example.org) and make sure your bird is on a healthy diet of a healthy pellet and plenty of vegetables. And remember, moderation on fatty foods and treats and always use seeds and nuts for foraging and to reinforce the good behaviors you want repeated.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.