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Going Away

Finding and Working With a Bird Sitter

by Greer Sucke

We love our budgies and are in the aviary all the time, but now and then we have to leave home. Itís a business trip, a family gathering, or a spouse who wants us alone, away from those flying dustbombs.

If you have never brought in a bird sitter, the problem can be intimidating. Other than a hobbyist, who would want to put up with the noise, the hulls, the wide world of droppings? Iíve worked with about eight sitters now and Iíve found that there are people who actually LIKE taking care of a house and its sentient contents. In fact, they are often willing to come back and work for you again and again. Why? Itís good for someone who wants to work part-time or to moonlight, scheduling is flexible, and itís interesting. It doesnít hurt that people think our birds are colorful and cute, as opposed to caretaking, say, a basement full of Tasmanian Devils.

There is also a growing group of professionals who work at pet sitting full time.

Iíd like to go through the process with you now, locating a sitter, organizing your bird room so it can be easily managed by someone else, writing instructions, and identifying moments that may be difficult for your sitter.

Locating a Sitter

Other than professionals who advertise or are members of Pet Sitters International, potential sitters are other breeders, your family and friends, even the friends of your children. No one is safe.

If you can find a fellow breeder who is willing to help in exchange for like services, you have indeed entered a lucky conjunction of planets and might consider buying a lottery ticket. Unfortunately other breeders are usually just as busy as you are or live too far away.

Next talk to family and friends You might discover someone who would find a short-term part-time job useful. Payment is appropriate, even to people you know well. Taking care of a bird room isnít like putting out a dish for the cat and scratching a chin. It will take at least two hours out of a day, more if there are special needs.

If you canít find anyone close at hand, ask your vet for a recommendation. Often vet techs moonlight as house sitters and they have experience with animals. If you want a professional sitter, you will see they advertise in newspapers, the yellow pages, on bulletin boards and in bird magazines. You may also call Pet Sitters International, 1-800-268-SITS. This is the organization of professional pet sitters with over 900 members in this country and abroad. The phone service will give you referrals in your area. A plus with a professional is that the individual may be licensed and bonded.

Expect to pay $15 to $50 a day for someone. The rate will depend on the amount of work, the sitterís travel time and the whether or not the sitter is a professional. Usually the daily charge cannot be determined until the potential sitter visits your home and sizes up the work load. Most sitters will ask for 50% of the total fee before you go away with the remainder to be paid when you return. Special situations, such as taking a bird to the vet, may require additional payment.

Preparing the Sitter

Whew! Youíve located a helper. Now make an appointment to walk through the routine. The best time is three days to a week before you leave. You will need to prepare the birdroom and to write instructions that will be your sitterís ultimate guide.

Organizing the Bird Room

Your goal is to present your helper with a clean, ordered room and to streamline the tasks. Begin by consolidating your birds. Itís attending to cage after cage that makes the process slow and sitting time is money. If everyone will fit comfortably in the flight, you know what to do.

If you have several cages, number them. This will help you be specific in your written instructions and is a boon when cages have different needs. When your sitter calls you at 5 a.m. Maui time, it will be much easier to talk about cage #6, rather than ďthe tall one near the window when you face the back of the room.Ē

Label all food products and supplements not in identifiable containers. Most outsiders will not know the difference between plain canary and the secret growth formula Don Langell has revealed to you. Self-sticking labels from the home office work well.

Pare your birdís diet down to the essentials. For one or two weeks your little guys donít need to have every goodie you lavish upon them. (You spoil them. I know you.) Once youíve decided on whatís necessary, stock up. Your assistant is apt to go through supplies more quickly than you do.

Put all food items, dishes, utensils and cleaning supplies in plain sight. Provide double sets of dishes and drinkers and let your sitter use the dishwasher. Heavily soiled pieces will need soaking and brushing before loading, but itís still faster. Your sitter will practically explode with relief upon hearing that those dozens of tiny plates and bottles will be taking a swim in the Maytag.

For smaller cages; use the layered paper approach to cage bottoms. Your helper will only have to remove the top soiled layers instead of cutting or folding new pieces.

This is a good time to make sure the bulbs in your automatic lighting system are not about to go south.

Try to be out of the breeding season. If you expect to have chicks, try to get your birds used to an egg-heavy nestling such as Cede or Quicko that can be prepared simply by adding water. Your sitter can give the moist food upon arrival, remove it before leaving, and place a dish of the dry product in the cage for overnight.

A word to the wise is to present a clean, tidy room for the walk-through and the first day of the job. Your helper will usually try to match your level of cleanliness.

Writing Instructions

It took you long enough to get the room in shape, didnít it? The aviary looks fantastic! You even took the grunge off the shop-vac! But youíre not through yet.

Youíve got to put the daily routine in writing. Everything, everything you want the sitter to do should be there in black and white. You may organize on a cage-by-cage or an item-by-item basis. Specify what you want done, in what order you want it done and on what days you want it done. Procedures new to the sitter, such as checking chicks or changing nest box shavings, should be explained in detail. You may also wish to provide an end-of-the-day checklist.

Your instructions should also include the number or numbers where you can be reached while you are away, as well as the numbers of your vet, a neighbor, and another breeder who is willing to answer questions or deal with problems over the phone if you are not available.

Your instructions are you when you are out of town. I think itís best to be as complete and specific as possible. Even if your sitter is a professional, he or she may not have worked an aviary.

The Walk-Through

This is your moment as a teacher and expert and chances are youíll really enjoy it. Show your helper where everything is and go through the routine in the order youíd like it done. Encourage questions. At the end of the session make sure your assistant leaves with a copy of the written instructions And Your Key. Keep an extra set of instructions in the bird room and place a spare key in a pre-arranged place outside your house or with a neighbor. You should take a ďmapĒ of the numbered cages with you so youíll remember what cage your sitter is talking about when your cellular beeps two days by mule into the Grand Canyon.

Tuff Moments

Some situations that occur while you are away can unsettle even experienced sitters. The worst is finding a dead bird. Sitters almost always think itís their fault, something they failed to observe. If they donít feel guilty, they will feel incredibly depressed. The best help is preparation. Let your sitter know that it can happen and provide for a quick exit with a paper towel into a zip-loc bag. This should go immediately into the refrigerator for you to sort out when you return.

Finding an ill or inured bird is also panic time. Ask the sitter to call you for instructions and if you are not available, to proceed to the vetís.

Banding chicks is difficult for sitters who are not breeders. The two sitters I worked with who tried it couldnít take the squirming, squeaking little bodies, the big feet and the small bands - they were just like us at the beginning. Both declined to attempt banding again. See if a breeder will come in and help you with this one.

Your Hidden Goal

Your primary and visible goals are to communicate a routine effectively, to make the job easy for another person, and to leave with a sense of confidence in your sitter and in your preparation. When you return, you hope to find the stud its cheerful, chattering self. You will feel a sense of relief and, if you are not too exhausted from your transportation home, a cheep thrill. Whatís the hidden goal? When you call the sitter with thanks for a job well done, you hope to hear, ďYeah, it was fun. Let me know when you need help again.Ē

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