Ordering The 'Blue-Plate Special' (A Way to Simplify Bird Care in the Breeding Season)
by J. A. Snider (all rights reserved by author) This article was included in the May 2007 DRAGON Newsletter
Ever notice how those hours spent cleaning cages stretch out at the end of the breeding season? Would you like more time to get to know your weaned chicks? Below are a few tips to reduce the needless expenditure of time in servicing your pairs.
If you were a corporation there is one thing you would do before making any changes: Hire an efficiency expert. I hear laughter our there. Well, maybe you can't find a canary efficiency expert on the internet, but you can certainly pretend you are one. Who better knows the layout of your aviary, the time you've been spending? Who knows the quirks of your birds and, more telling, the quirks of you, the breeder, the one who has come to add needless, often fruitless hours per week to your breeding room chores. So pick up your clipboard, don your white hairnet, whatever it takes to shape up!
First you will make some charts and graphs. List the chores, the pairs and the minutes spent on each. Keep records! Study your pairs like a vet to learn if they are likely to breed. In a twelve-week season it is possible to spend more than four hours on a cooperative pair, even more on laggards. What are they going to give you for all your hard labors? Will they only be getting fat on the eggfood? Certain pairs should be broken up early in the season, before they get on your nerves. Nonsetting and hens who lay weird eggs belong in the flight.
For one week keep track of everything going down in your aviary as you move from cage to cage. Before you can measure progress in shaving off minutes, you first need to know how long it takes you to get done. In 2006 I set up fifteen pairs in the last week of March. Some of these pairs were marginal, involving old hens or purchased stock. By April 1 (April Fool!), I was beginning to see the light: Some of these pairs did not deserve my faithful servitude. Twenty per cent of my stock them were taking up fifty per cent of my time. Their chicks would always remain imaginary. Back into the flight they went!
After two weeks my 'chart' told me I was spending 38-59 minutes on the morning routine. I began to keep a log to explain the longer days with entries like 'mispairing in #5 and #6' (discovering I had placed two males together and two hens together, a situation which took twenty minutes to unravel). Another day I had to stop dispensing food to cut long nails on three hens, something I should have caught in pairing up. One morning I came down to find two pairs had escaped because of faulty door latches, I had meant to fix these cages the previous year, and so on. Other days claimed my time to wash perches hit and miss, reline vandalized nests with coffee filters, etc., another opportunity for streamlining by using more assembly line techniques.
Once you have some data in hand to explain the overlong days, ask yourself what you could be doing differently on the short days.
Is your routine too complicated? In your noble desire to coddle, are you serving redundant foods, (two vegetables at the morning meal which are virtually identical in nutrition.) Why not give them twice as much of the one they really like?
Analyze your body movements in cage servicing. Any unnecessary motions? How many times do you cross the room, go looking for a missing or scarce item? What is your basic style? Are you methodically going at it one cage at a time, papers, drinkers, eggfood, seeds and treats as well as nesting material, before you move on or do you move between cages, doing all papers, then all seedcups, all nesting material, all egg gathering in rounds? In my own case, because of the antiquated and mismatched condition of my cages, I prefer to tackle one cage at a time, but do only papers, seed and water , before moving to the next. Then each gets the 'blue plate special,' a small saucer which holds layers of greens, orange or carrot as well as eggfood or egg. The nest-lining material is handed out at the very end to those building. This gives me time to eyeball each cage three times, enabling me to sense trouble brewing, if any. With pure assembly line technique I might miss that a certain pair is not getting along (two of the same sex inadvertently paired?), that the hen is plucking the male or chicks, or that a chick in a large nest is falling behind in development and needs to be watched or moved.
So what is the 'Blue Plate Special' which cuts my labor time by thirty per cent? It is a little dish holding anything other than seed and water, usually three items. These dishes (they don't have to be blue) are laid out assembly line fashion on the rolling cart I use to carry all bird supplies up and down the cage row. Mine are fifteen peanut butter lids laid out at once, first a leaf of endive, spinach or kale, a nickel-sized piece of orange, and a one-eighth wedge of boiled egg for building or laying hens. Incubating hens get no egg until the projected morning of hatching, when they also get a dab of eggfood.
Feeding pairs get as much eggfood as they will likely eat before 4:00 p.m., when they get fresh eggfood as well as more greens, corn cake or corn and so on. Blue plates are washed daily as are drinkers for cages with chicks to avoid bacterial contamination My blue plates shaved fifteen minutes off my routine the first week I used it, more as time went by. It keeps me from going crazy in the market season when I leave for work at 5:00 a.m., and I save even more time by cleaning all cages right before lights go out, doing only water, seed and nesting material. Before dawn, only the aid of a night light, I the little blue plate specials go into the cages. These are assembled upstairs in the kitchen as I make my departure coffee. My eggfood is frozen, of course and thaws quickly as the sun comes up. The 'blue plate' generally lasts until about four, when I return to replenish their foods.
Now I am going to be a hypocrite and suggest that if your cages are a mishmash of hand-me-downs in all sizes and shapes, you should consider the benefits of uniformity. Spend some money! Or why not build some of your own so they require the same drinkers, papers and perches? The next time you go digging for a certain elusive perch, think how much easier it would be if every perch fit every cage! Be sure to order triple sets for every cage so you can change perches without stopping to wash perches twice in a week. Better yet, four sets! This will quiet your nerves considerably. But before you make cages, study out your fellow breeders' cage. Make them roomy enough for six chicks in the nest. Large cages stay clean longer. Make doors which can be easily opened with one hand, perches should be easy to install one-handed while your other hand is doing something else, rolling up papers or whatever. Drawers should slide freely but not too freely for safety's sake, if you are using drawers (and some breeders do not use drawers, pinning papers up onto cage fronts to hold them in place). Construct cages to fit the local newspaper (a real convenience, as long as that dimension does not change! (Our local Observer newspaper has, alas, recently shrunk, no longer fitting my cages.)
Once a week cut more than enough papers so you do not have to interrupt your routine to cut paper. Layer clean papers in the tray even if you pull the drawer daily, useful when hens or chicks are ripping up the very floors under their feet to line nests or weaning chicks are making nonstop mess to amuse themselves.
Structure your week to save time and insure quality bird care: Reserve certain days for bird specific chores:
On Sunday I change out all drinkers and seed cups of nonfeeding pairs (feeding pairs get fresh drinkers and egg food dishes every day). Perches are swapped for clean, though perches should also be changed as needed since some pairs need fresh perches more often than others.
Monday is for washing and disinfecting all bird dishes and perches in the dirty bin. This require many sets of little dishes, which are worth their weight in sanity since no one should have to wash dishes when he/she does not feel like it.
On Tuesday a week's supply of papers are cut for all cages. This is a huge time saver. Though I have purchased an expensive paper cutter, I have learned it saves time (and is almost as neat as the cutter) to ignore the paper cutter and rip away. I line up the margins and tear straight down freehand.
On Wednesday perches are changed again as needed and a fresh batch of eggfood is frozen in one-cup freezer bags if stores are low. Carrots are cooked in the microwave.
On Thursday one cage is selected from the lineup to be cleaned, top to bottom. To make this practical and less traumatic, the designated pair is transferred into an identical cage to get on with their lives while I clean. The empty fresh cage goes up on the shelf for the next Thursday switcheroo. This rotation keeps every cage relatively clean and prevents a burdensome pileup at the end of the season of very grimy cages.
Friday: Eggs are candled, troublesome pairs are evaluated, reconfigured or retired to the flight, new nests taped up for future use. Plastic bands are placed onto any weaning babies. I take time to listen to young 'squeaker males' in the flight, their band numbers noted. The big flight, pretty much empty, is cleaned as needed.
Saturday (my day off): grocery shopping for birds at the market where I am working. No other chores this day.
The above methods do, of course, only cover the morning routine. I still make three other routine checks of every cage during the day during which I repeat the litany, 'seed, water, greens…more nesting material?' (Do they each have what they personally need to be successful.) Later in the day they are offered carrot slices, perhaps more greens, and, of course, more eggfood to feeding pairs. Banding is always accomplished the last hour of the day when chicks are so stuffed with food they stay lethargic while being banded. This is a good time to swap out the old soiled nest for a clean one. Banding goes better when using a 'banding' tray upon which are placed bands, record book with pen, paper towel, clean nests to replace grimy nests, anything possibly used in banding so one does not have to go hunting. I try to band more than one nest at a time.
These suggestions are offered in the hope that you can streamline your routine, if it is your desire to do so. Some fanciers prefer to dawdle since they find it relaxing. I developed the blue plate technique because of my crazy routine during the market season. I have found that birds are happy to have all their favorite foods on one little plate, and they are thrilled to find it the very first thing when they wake up. It is there early, to get the hen off her nest to feed her chicks. These soft foods are generally gone when I get home, upon which they get their second little blue plate (if chicks are in the cage). The rolling cart was my husband's idea, a great step-saver because of the way my birdroom is arranged. The bottom shelf of the cart holds supplies. For another style of room a round table might work better. Anything which saves you steps, will saves you time. The chief benefit of 'getting done' is that I can then sit in my bird room, watching (and listening to) the emerging generation, the perfect illustration of a well-ordered spring.