Issue of the Week: Is Hand-Rearing Companion Parrots Really Better?

The hand-reading of captive and companion parrots is something best left to professionals, if it must be done at all (get ready to explore this issue). It is a delicate process that requires experience. Without the right knowledge, hatchlings will die. And in regards to the practice of hand-rearing baby birds, I have noticed an alarming trend on the Internet.

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Cockatoos as the Island Parrot Sanctuary

The trend in question happens to be some informational blogs posting very brief, generic how-tos on breeding and hand-rearing parrots. I find it frightening. By ‘informational,’ I’m not talking about specialised sites, but those ‘bit of everything’ blogs. You know, they literally cover all kinds of topics: how to better yourself, how to dress well or spend less money, how to begin underwater basket-weaving, how to breed parrots. None of it in any great detail.

More relevantly, as far as I can glean, the people behind those blogs have no prior experience with either parrots or breeding.

And, of course, the Internet is itself laden with these unhelpful ‘how-to’ articles. Dare I call them dangerous? After all, so few of them teach that breeding your birds involves huge health risks and expenses, adds to a growing population of homeless birds, and has so many absolutely vital things to be taken into consideration – including a highly specialised diet. Hand-raising a parrot also takes hours of each day. Babies need to be fed every couple of hours, making for an all day and all night process.

The blogs I’ve noticed often promote an ‘experience the cycle of life’ outlook, combined with ‘it’s nature.’ Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account the homeless parrot problem, or the responsibility and expense of baby birds, or even the wild nature of parrots themselves that makes them unsuitable for many homes.

Before I go off on a full-blown tangent, the debate of hand-reared versus parent-reared is an time-old one.

Bobo the Umbrella Cockatoo

Hand-rearing is responsible for our cockatoo’s rampaging hormones that make him so dangerous

At first, I was very firmly on the ‘hand-reared’ side – but I hadn’t done all the research yet. We had just brought home Mishka the cockatiel at that point, so first parrot, and a pet shop one at that. She was a neurotic mess. At the time, I made the connection parent-reared = neuroses.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m not keen on pet shops selling birds, as I feel it’s not an ideal environment for easily stressed prey animals like parrots. It took me awhile to realise that the issue wasn’t necessarily our cockatiel’s parent-reared upbringing that made her so neurotic, but rather her pet shop experience.

Honestly, if it weren’t for that, Mishka would be the most stable of our flock.

She never, ever displays sexual behaviour towards us. She does get a bit hormonal and therefore moody, but her ensuing behaviour is nothing like the other birds’, two of whom can be downright dangerous. She will also remove herself from any situation she doesn’t like, and rarely bites. Now, as I write, Bobo is rubbing his wings on the protruding bit of his java perch (gotta move that around a bit). He would be rubbing, erm, other bits of himself on there, if he could. Mavi has also been extremely nippy this week, and Ptak has thrice performed the dreaded wiggle-neck dance to various household objects. What? That drying rack was sexy.

Cockatiel6

This is Mishka displaying for the canary. Never us.

Ptak, Bobo, and Maverick are hand-reared judging by their desire to take a human mate, plus ensuing behaviours that just aren’t done by parent-reared or wild-caught parrots. Looking at people as a mate just isn’t a natural behaviour for any parrot.

During hand-rearing, the eggs are removed at some point from the parent’s nest. The actual time span can vary; breeders may even leave the eggs until a certain point after they’ve hatched, though they usually do so soon after being laid, artificially incubating the eggs instead. Some breeders do this to encourage more laying for a greater profit, and some more nobly to imprint the baby and make it more pliable – with the intention of helping it adjust to a human environment.

But there is research that says that hand-rearing is actually detrimental to the baby’s development. After all, how will it learn how to be a bird, if it is only raised around humans and other human-raised babies?

There is strong evidence that if young are taken away from the mother at a young age, behavioural and adjustment problems will result due to a developmental disorder in the brains. It is not for nothing that the Dutch Health and Welfare Act states that puppies and kittens may not be removed from the mother within their first 7 weeks. The same applies to the ban on taking infant monkeys away from the mother.’

 Read more from the Dutch Parrot Foundation.

It isn’t natural, and it makes sense that removing a baby bird from its nest would have a serious impact. It misses out on birdie behavioural lessons right from the start.

From reading online, many argue that hand-rearing must be done to maintain a sociable and tame pet, yet I find that untrue. It does certainly take more time and effort to earn the trust of a parent-raised baby. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Mishka has become – or maybe is still becoming – a very tame bird. She has her issues, but I generally attribute those to her days in the pet shop, with a too-small cage, seed diet, no enrichment, faces popping in to stare, rough handling, and the abrupt loss (sale) of her companion. She’s also become a confident, curious bird.

I know rescue workers who would happily swear that the wild-caught parrots in their flocks – while obviously unsuited to captive life – are the most emotionally stable and least likely to bite of all the birds they own. And parent-reared birds are the most stable of all.

SenegalParrot1

Senegal Parrots are notorious for their hormonal charging behaviour, where they literally fly at you in attack.

According to Greg Glendell,

‘The process of hand-rearing has adverse effects on the behaviour of African grey parrots when they mature (Schmid, Doherr and Steiger 2005)… [T]he hand-rearing, or what we might more accurately call parental deprivation, sets in place a behavioural time-bomb with a 2- to 5-year delay in behavioural problems.  Indeed, according to Schmid, et al. the maladaptive behaviours of hand-reared birds appears to be largely in proportion to the amount of parental deprivation they have experienced.  Where birds are part-parent raised (not removed from the nest until at least 8 weeks old) they suffer fewer behavioural problems as adults than those which have been solely hand-reared from the day of hatching.  In addition to adverse behavioural issues caused by hand-rearing, there can be adverse physical effects including osteodystrophy (Harcourt-Brown, 2003, 2004).’

He mentions also that profit is a motivator for some breeders who choose to hand-rear. These people rush the weaning process in order to make a sale and move on to the next clutch of babies. Birds who are weaned too soon have other documented, lasting issues, including regression.

And there it comes down to the sister issue of hand-rearing: breeding.  Yes, or no – is it acceptable? I personally say no – from everything I’ve witnessed of parrots, they are not meant to be pets.

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African Grey in the disabled aviary

I love my flock, and I would not change them. They are wild animals destroying living in my home, and I accept that and cater for it. The issue is the owner who can or will not, or the casual buyer who just thinks parrots are ‘pretty.’ These birds (with the intelligence of a 5-year-old and the emotional capacity of a 3-year-old) get passed from hand to hand, home to home, and that is not fair on them. They remember.

The solution, of course, is to promote adoption and rescue. Even so, that simply won’t happen for everyone – not to mention that not every new owner is capable of taking on the emotional ‘baggage’ of a re-homing case.

If you have to buy a baby bird, please choose a good breeder and insist that your bird is parent-reared, co-parented, or at the very least allowed to wean at its own pace. Much as with puppies and kittens (with whom the effect of parental-deprivation is well-documented), we should not be separating babies from their mothers too soon.

To conclude, the person linked below found the original study and performed her own. Check it out.

http://www.cassandrayorgey.com/parrot-playground/general-information/study-on-behavioral-effects-of-hand-rearing-african-grey-parrots/

Please, feel free to share your thoughts! Also, if you have a moment to spare, I’ve updated my ‘links of interest,’ which includes some of the blogs and resources I’ve been enjoying.

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15 thoughts on “Issue of the Week: Is Hand-Rearing Companion Parrots Really Better?

  1. Completely agree with your article, there are so many confused birds out there. I didn’t realise this until my parrots reached maturity and also with rescuing some birds.

    • Like the video! I can’t say I loathe breeding, because I think many people have genuinely good (if misguided) intentions. I am completely and utterly against pet shops, though. And the vague, general misinformation out there is quite frightening.

  2. I went ahead and updated the link to the University of Berne study I was referencing. The study comes to the conclusion that hand-rearing leads to more behavioral issues, however I still maintain that is due to problems with the current hand-rearing process rather than the idealogy of it. Basically, what I’m saying is it’s being done wrong. Chocobo is 6 years old now and does not display any behavior problems like feather plucking, screaming, or inappropriate attempts at mating. Your question of “how will it learn how to be a bird, if it is only raised around humans and other human-raised babies?” is interesting because Chocobo *doesn’t* know that he is a bird. He thinks he is a little funny shaped person, which is ideal as he was raised to be a pet and not a wild parrot. Parrots, however, are not domesticated so his instincts are still in tact and as part of the hand-rearing process *I* taught him all he knows using modifications of Dr. Pepperberg’s Model-Rival technique. To properly hand-rear a parrot requires tremendous time and effort which can only be likened to raising a human child and most people, especially pet stores and breeders, just do not have the time, patience, or research available to do so properly (in the case of African Greys anyway. I believe South American breeds may take better to the current practices due to differences in life cycle and family structure in the wild but I only have a Grey). Not to toot my own horn but my results with Chocobo have essentially blown others’ results out of the park with the possible exception of Dr. Pepperberg who’s birds demonstrate higher cognitive intelligence from extensive training in a lab environment, although her remaining Greys seem to struggle with feather plucking while Chocobo’s worst trait is a high pitched whistle that seems to bother me far more than anybody else. I could go on about hand raising parrots all night, but I’ll wrap it up by saying the choice to hand rear hatchlings or let them be parent fed for a bit depends a lot on what one intends for the future of the baby bird in question and in my case I’ve ended up with an extremely sweet, snuggly, and well-socialized parrot who is my ideal pet but is also much like a 2 year old human who can also fly.

    • That’s great, thanks for updating! I see what you mean. I can understand why it would make sense that it’s being done wrong. Our parrotlet was hand-raised and left to wean in his own time, and although he does display some sexual tendencies, he is the second best-behaved of our four (after Mishka, who was parent-raised).

      I wish I could perform a large-scale, in-depth study myself. The quote in my post about kittens and puppies (whilst very different – and domesticated – creatures with very different traits and habits) did make me wonder. You had the benefit of being able to teach Chocobo what he knows, so he’s already at a huge advantage over many other hand-raised parrots. It would be amazing to study different methods of hand-raising vs. parent-raising and co-parenting as well.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. I’m always happy to talk parrots!

    I hand fed Chocobo using the paper cup method which is as close to the method parrot parents use that we can get, rather than the foreign pipette or the traumatizing tube method. I also let him ween at his own pace rather than rushing him off the formula by 3 months. In the wild Greys feed each other as a family bonding thing well after they are capable of feeding themselves and so Chocobo got formula (after he filled up on fruits and veggies) until somewhere between 6 months and a year. I also flighted him for several months before clipping his wings for the first time because that is an important development stage. Every single pet store and bird specialist in my area told me these things were going to “ruin my bird” but I’d done quite a bit of research and was fairly confident in my hypotheses. Based on outside observations of people who have met Chocobo and considering he’s 6 now, I think it’s safe to say he turned out pretty ok.

    • Sounds like it! I wish everyone could raise their birds with that kind of care. I badly, badly want to see what kind of difference it would make in the notorious species, especially (spurred by our latest undertaking) ‘toos. Maybe I’ll just quit music and take up a degree in animal behaviour instead, haha! Parrots need a lot more than so many people, breeders included, can give. As messy and noisy as they are, I just wouldn’t change anything, though.

      • Chocobo is pretty quiet and he’s potty trained so he isn’t very messy. Rule # 1 is no pooping on mom. Rule # 2 is NO POOPING ON MOM.

        • Hahahah, oh, yes. Thankfully, our two bigger birds ARE potty-trained. Actually, today we had Bobo the U2 in his carrier, and he waited until he was returned to his cage almost 2 hours later. I think it’s partly instinctive with him, but we definitely encourage it. With our senegal, though, it was all using good timing. Makes life soo much easier!

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