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Benny and Sunny, Comic Cockatiels
by Carol Nabrotzky Wells

When Marlene Mody acquired two cockatiels last year, she had no idea that she was getting an entertainment value that was better than TV and cheaper, too. Marlene got Benny originally for her mother. But his disposition was a bit more “assertive” than she would have liked for ‘Mom’ and so she got Sunny right after Benny when they were about 6 and 4 months old. Marlene points out that, though they’re not bonded like nest mates, they are great companions for each other, and, just like brothers, have a love-hate relationship. They don’t really fight with each other, but they do have jealousy going on and Benny definitely has the upper hand.

Benny and Sunny remind me of two comedians in clown suits and I found it hard to break my attention from their antics. Marlene told me that Benny is the suave and debonair looking cockatiel who is also the feisty one, while Sunny has the more casual, somewhat disheveled look, and is more “laid-back”. Benny and Sunny also live with two cats and a dog and are better at hissing than the cats.

Talk about personality? “I was watching Benny and Sunny perched on the gymnasium on top of the cage one day,” said Marlene, “As Benny made his way down the perch to Sunny, he proceeded to push Sunny off the end of the perch with his foot! Benny of course, looks around like he had nothing to do with Sunny’s sudden clumsiness.”

Though Marlene has taught them to talk and sit on her finger, Benny and Sunny prefer her shoulders. Just like brotherly behavior, when one is on her shoulder, the other one has to be on the other shoulder. Marlene jokingly calls them her epaulets. Marlene has also taught them to sing the song, “You Are My Sunshine,” which I was tickled to hear them sing without any coaxing from Marlene. Benny and Sunny also spend a lot of time calling for each other, “Come here, Benny;” “Come here, Sunny.” Marlene feels that Benny and Sunny don’t just repeat things. They have some comprehension of what words mean and what Marlene is asking of them. Whenever Benny does something mischievous, he exclaims, “I am such a bird.” He also says things like, “I am Benny boo, boo,” or “I am so cute;” and whenever Marlene asks, “Are you my boy?” Benny answers with an emphatic, “Yeah!”

It only took Marlene about two weeks to teach Benny and Sunny to talk, mainly because she got them at such young ages. Sunny learned to talk first, but Benny was quick to follow since Sunny was getting all the attention that was reinforcing the talking. Now, Benny enjoys talking while his head is in the food dish, since it provides an echo; and Benny and Sunny have ‘mumbling’ conversations with each other, where, you just can’t quite make out what they’re talking about. Also, Marlene informed me that it is the male of the species that is more prone to talking, whereas the females tend to be whistlers. Although Marlene has tried over and over to teach Benny and Sunny to sing the song “You’re Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage,” Benny and Sunny seem to take offense, and though they have learned most any phrase or word Marlene teaches them, this is something that they refuse to repeat.

Marlene has found that one could go broke on buying toys for birds that are offered in the many pet bird catalogues. But she has discovered that the cheaper, homemade toys are much more appealing to them. She has used such things as netting hung from a hook in the ceiling, and makes her own ring toys out of green branches from mulberry and willow trees. Marlene’s research has revealed that these trees are among the ones in Moab that are safe for the cockatiels to climb and chew on. Fruit tree branches are never to be used. But Marlene did confess that she had a real interest in the halter and leash available in one of her bird catalogues. Personally, I would like to see her taking them for a walk in one of these outfits.

In the case where cockatiels throw their toys on the floor, it is the human who becomes the dog, and Marlene knows that it is best not to engage in this game, unless you enjoy endless fetching and retrieving.

Marlene informed me that cockatiels are very ‘group’ oriented, and like other animals, cockatiels have a hierarchy. The one that’s perched the highest in the tree, is king of the pecking order. Therefore, when establishing a hierarchy at home, Marlene says she has read that it’s not a good idea to raise a bird higher than your head when it’s perched on your finger. However, Benny and Sunny realize who supplies them with food, and so, recognize her as head of the flock. This puts Benny in second place, and Sunny in third. Marlene claims she is no bird expert, but she has done her homework where cockatiels are concerned. For instance, Marlene gives them a range of different sized sticks and perches for them to climb on because they need the exercise in their feet. Otherwise, there is a danger of atrophy. They get a new mulberry or willow tree branch in their cage every week.

Furthermore, cockatiels are sensitive to home air pollution, so doing things like burning scented candles are toxic for them, and burning something in a teflon pan is down right lethal. If you’re planning on painting the interior of your house, it’s best to let them stay at a relative’s house for awhile.

Cockatiels can easily become bored and have to have entertainment and variety even in their food. So Marlene has the Garden Center mix up a combination of parrot and canary seed which varies in size, along with the occasional peanut. Cockatiels also enjoy millet sprays.

I asked Marlene what she feeds the “boys,” as she refers them, when she really wants to give them a treat.

“Well,” said Marlene, “they’re supposed to like fruit, but they don’t. So I feed them things that I know are different, but also good for them. They love sprouts, and also eat jalapenos, peas, beans, corn, broccoli, leaf lettuce (not iceberg lettuce), just about any veggie. Sunny’s favorite junk food is pork rinds, but just like sunflower seeds, they’re too fatty and he has really limited amounts. Both Benny and Sunny love pasta, and they’ll scramble to get to a dangling noodle. Interestingly enough, they love chicken, and it happens to be good for them and perfectly all right for them to eat. They also like hard boiled eggs, cheese and yogurt which are the only dairy products they can have. Among store bought treats, specially made for pet birds, they like ‘Nutraberries’ and ‘Avi-cakes.’

So if they are the entertainment, what do Benny and Sunny do for entertainment? Marlene tells me they love to look out the window, and Benny especially enjoys the Tuesday morning classical music on KZMU. Both love to swing from the ring toy hanging from the ceiling, above their cage and climbing about the ladder/bird gym that sits on their cage.

Benny and Sunny have both had their wings clipped; more for their own safety than anything else. With those curved beaks that can work like hands, and their intelligence level, they can observe certain phenomena, and figure things out for themselves, like how to open or unlatch the cage door.

As with any pet, there is a great amount of responsibility that comes with having a pet cockatiel. For one thing, a cockatiel’s life-span is about 35 years of age under optimal conditions, averaging out at about 15 to 20 years of age. Cockatiels mature at about eight months when the males, with their bright peachy cheek patches and yellow faces are distinguished from the paler colored females. Additionally, because cockatiels are such social animals, they do better with someone who can be home with them most of the time, or at least in the company of another cockatiel. And, cockatiels, like other pet birds, usually require a veterinarian that is an avian specialist. Incidentally, Marlene has found such a veterinarian in Grand Junction by the name of Dr. Paul Bingham.

Since the addition of Sunny and Benny, Marlene has become totally enamored with them. I became enamored with Sunny’s persistence in getting kisses from Marlene. Sunny would perch on top of his cage and then hang upside down as Marlene kissed his neck and back. When Marlene stopped, Sunny, half upright, reached out towards Marlene, then hung upside down again, waiting for more kisses. With their perky faces, entertaining antics, and endearing personalities, it’s easy to see how Benny and Sunny could be the “Sunshine” in anyone’s life.

For you cockatiel lovers out there, Marlene suggests these websites:

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