The beak of a bird is a tool with many features. It's a weapon that can put a dent in any enemy or damage the relationship with a friend. It can be a delicate tool for feeding a newly hatched chick, or for the precise adjustment of feathers while grooming. With their beaks, some birds can pick a lock, crush a walnut or peel the skin off a grape.
Beak shapes and sizes vary widely, depending mostly on the kind of food a certain species eats. The short, straight bill of canaries and other finches is ideal for plucking out seeds, grubs and other edibles. Birds of the parrot family -- including budgies, cockatiels and the larger parrots such as macaws -- are known as "hookbills" because of the shape and function of their beaks.
At its most basic, the beak on our parrot pets consists of two hard structures, the upper and lower mandibles, along with an amazingly agile and strong tongue.
The beaks of most parrots are remarkably well-designed for one of their most important tasks: cracking, crushing, prying or otherwise destroying the protective coatings around many of the foods they like to eat. Like everything else on a creature designed for flight, the beak is surprisingly lightweight considering its strength -- a hard shell of constantly growing material (similar to that found on antlers) placed over a hollow bony structure. (If a beak were made of solid bone, its weight would probably force a bird to spend his life on the ground, and on his nose.)
Lightweight it may be, but the hookbill's beak is also very strong. Although a person would need a hammer or nutcracker to get through hard shells to the nut meat, a bird needs only his beak -- and perhaps a foot to hold the nut in place. A parrot will rotate the seed to find the seam with his tongue, apply pressure to crack it at this weak spot, and then rotate it again to slide the meat free -- all in a few seconds' time.
A parrot has such strength in his beak that owners are often surprised to see even the bars of a metal cage fall victim. Birds have been known to pick off the welds holding bars together -- and sometimes get lead or zinc poisoning as a result -- or even snap the bars themselves. That's why a cheap cage with shoddy construction will turn out to be no bargain when faced with the destructive abilities of a bird.
Contrary to advice that still can be found in books or on the Internet, beak trims should not be a part of routine health maintenance for birds. Although beaks are constantly growing at a rate of 1 to 3 inches per year, depending on the species, the beak of a healthy bird will remain at a healthy length with normal chewing activities.
Overgrowth of the beak is frequently a sign of illness, such as liver disease or malnutrition. Any bird whose beak seems to be too long needs to see a veterinarian expert in avian medicine to determine the cause of the problem and treat it accordingly.
Using those beaks often is essential to both the physical and emotional well-being of birds. Even finches and canaries will often have better beak health if you provide cuttlebone or another hard material for them to work with their beaks in their cage. As a caring bird-keeper, be sure you're doing more for your bird's beak than just admiring its amazing form and function. Provide your pet bird with lots of things to chew on, an unending variety of toys and perches meant to be gleefully destroyed.
PETS ON THE WEB
What wood is safe for perches? What's an alternative to messy pomegranates for a healthy treat for your bird? What are the basics of a home first-aid kit for winged pets? Pharmacist and bird-lover Gillian Willis has accumulated accurate answers to some basic (and not so basic) questions on her Web site, Gillian's Help Desk (www.exoticbird.com/gillian). While no Web site should be used in place of a veterinarian's advice when a bird is ill, Gillian's site offers some good preventive-care measures that might help you avoid a problem or two along the way.
Old dogs sometimes get finicky, and it can be a trick to keep them eating. While you may be tempted to add table scraps such as meat trimmings to their dish, it's really not that good an idea. Foods that are too fatty or spicy can cause a tummy ache, or even an attack of pancreatitis, which could be deadly. When I have fussy oldsters, I rely on canned broth to add interest to a meal. Choose a variety that's low on fat and salt, warm to just above room temperature and add to food for a savory broth. You can also squeeze the juice from a clove of garlic into the mix -- many dogs love the stuff!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We love our new bunny, and we've been giving her bits of the vegetables we eat in addition to her pellets. Is it good to indulge her, or should we try to stick to the pellets alone? -- K.S., via e-mail
A: While rabbit pellets (1/4 cup per 5 pounds of body weight) form the basis of a healthy diet, you should supplement your new pet's rations with fresh greens. Fiber is especially important, which is why your bunny should have an endless supply of grass hay to nibble on -- fresh timothy and oat.
Dark-green leafy vegetables are great, too. For a special treat, ask for the leaves off broccoli heads in the produce department of your supermarket, along with the tops of carrots or beets. Bugs Bunny knew the score: The carrots themselves are good, too.
More rabbit-friendly foods include dandelion greens and flowers (collected from pesticide-free areas), kale, collard greens, escarole, romaine lettuce, endive, Swiss chard, parsley, clover, cabbage, green peppers, pea pods, brussels sprouts, basil, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves, radicchio, bok choy and spinach. Variety is the spice of life, so keep things mixed up.
I can never talk about bunnies without putting in a pitch for the House Rabbit Society. This marvelous organization has advanced the cause of rabbits as indoor pets for people of all ages, offering good advice on all things bunny. This nonprofit group has a sharp newsletter and a Web site (www.rabbit.org) that no rabbit fan should miss. Membership is $18 a year. Send your name and address to: House Rabbit Society, 148 Broadway, Richmond, CA 94804.
Q: We have a miniature poodle named Heather who has, at 10, some horrible problems with her teeth. The veterinarian wants us to put Heather under and remove some teeth and clean the others. We're really worried about the risks of anesthesia at her age. Isn't it dangerous? -- R.Y., via e-mail
A: It's true that no anesthetic procedure is without risk. But in the hands of a good veterinarian, anesthesia has become a routine and very safe procedure -- with risks so low that you should not be dissuaded from pursuing necessary preventive or other surgical procedures for your pet.
The risks can be greatly minimized by a history, physical examination and a few basic tests beforehand, including a laboratory evaluation of blood and urine, and possibly a chest X-ray. Although these tests admittedly add to the cost of a procedure, they enable your veterinarian to fully understand the health status of your pet before anesthetizing her. During the procedure, placement of an IV catheter and administration of fluids can further add to the safety of the procedure.
Be sure to follow your veterinarian's instructions. If no food is specified, make sure that you deliver your pet with an empty stomach. Following this one piece of advice is one of the easiest and most basic ways to reduce risk. During anesthesia, the contents of a full stomach can be regurgitated with the unfortunate potential complication of being inhaled into the lungs. In general, you should completely withhold food the night before, but continue to allow free access to water until the morning of the procedure.
My own oldster, Andy, was anesthetized for a minor but necessary procedure last year at the advanced age of 14. Did I worry? Of course! But the potential benefits outweighed the risks, so I arranged all the precautions I could and took a chance on his behalf. He's doing so well now, I figure I made the right decision.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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