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Hand-raised or parent-raised: Which is better for the birds?
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There are three methods of raising chicks: by the parents or foster parents feeding them to abundance weaning while people socialize them by handling them (co-parenting); by human (artificial) means only, known as hand-feeding or hand-raising; and by parents and humans, both engaging in feeding (still considered hand-feeding).
The arguments for and against hand-rearing of birds in the Psittacine family abound. Hand-rearing has been the accepted technique by breeders, buyers, and some veterinarians for more than 40 years, and most veterinarians have not discouraged the practice. During this time, studies have been done by researchers and veterinarians on the benefits and drawbacks associated with this practice.
Image 1. Cockatiel and chicks (Image courtesy Chi Blassa F Asfi; used with permission).
There are two valid reasons for hand-raising chicks: The first is to preserve a species that is in danger of extinction due to the enormous number of birds of that species captured in the wild and the destruction of habitat. Many have died in the process of being captured, shipped, quarantined, and sold to people not knowledgeable about bird care, with very few of the species left in the wild or even in breeding programs. Breeders of these species fear the parents may harm the chicks or not feed them well, so they pull the chicks and hand-feed them. In these cases, hand-raising will significantly reduce the potential for eggs being broken in the nest or parental neglect. This is frequently done in zoos and wildlife institutions.
The second reason is to prevent eggs and/or chicks from being harmed by parents who have a history of damaging eggs or attacking the chicks. One reason for parent birds harming or neglecting the young is that they have not been permitted to care for the chicks themselves in the past, and they are acting out of frustration.
Image 2. Three chicks that had to be hand-raised because their parents abandoned them (Image credit Dawn Dandve; used with permission).
Image 3. Cockatiel hen and her chick (Image source unknown).
1. Hand-rearing: A Historical Perspective
During the bird craze of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, with the influx of so many wild-caught birds, breeding became big business. These birds were wild and aggressive, so breeders assumed that their offspring would be uncontrollable and aggressive too. Even after importation of wild-caught parrots was banned in many countries, breeders continued to hand-rear in order to produce tame birds for the pet trade. They assumed that if they took the eggs and chicks away from the parents and raised the babies by hand, the birds would bond with people instead of their wild parents and thus would make better pets. At the time, it was considered the best method of preparing the birds to be tame pets which would form a strong bond with the owner. It was cost-effective for the breeder since it prevented losses due to broken eggs, accidental injuries, and abuse or neglect from the parents .
Removing the eggs and incubating them artificially, away from parents, has been done for a decades -and this practice needs to stop! It is unnatural and results in many deaths in the egg and after hatching. Chicks are deprived of the comfort and bonding with their parents and siblings. Again, it’s thought that they will bond better with humans, which is not true. It creates maladjusted, often crippled and neurotic chicks, and frustrated parents.
Breeders argue that the pairs will lay multiple clutches a year, thus bringing in more money for them. Selling them before they were weaned also brings them in more money since they didn’t have to wait as long for the sales, and new owners loved the idea of hand-feeding their new chicks. Breeders also contend that hand-reared birds are more tame and trusting of humans and consequently would become more desirable and enjoyable pets which would sell quickly. Even though now, many generations later, the original wild-caught birds have long since died, and the chicks we have seen in the last 20 years are now the descendants of tame birds, the practice has continued and still persists today .
For those who breed on a large scale, greed takes precedence over the needs of the birds. Most birds on the market today are produced in bird mills and sold in pet shops. It is from these mills that poorer quality, often unhealthy, diseased birds come. Neither the parents nor the chicks receive medical care, and their husbandry and quality of life are sub-standard. They are force-weaned, clipped to prevent flight, and sold to anyone who will pay the price. Some breeders never give their birds a break from breeding; both males and females become exhausted, malnourished, sick, and eventually die. The hens in particular die from calcium deficiency, egg-binding, cloacal prolapses, and other reproductive illnesses. Many of the chicks either die, or are of such poor quality for not having received superior quality and quantity nutrition and care, that they are not sellable; nor do they make good breeding stock, and so they are culled. Eggs are pulled and artificially incubated, or chicks are pulled from the nest after two weeks or sooner to be hand-fed .
The Netherlands now has legislation preventing breeders from hand-feeding their chicks and separating the parents from the chicks.
Information on avian welfare legislation may be found in Appendix I
Of course, there are reputable, small-scale breeders who do rest their birds so that they do not become exhausted by overproduction of chicks in a short amount of time. They provide quality nutrition and veterinary care and thus raise healthy, hand-fed chicks. There are still two crucial factors missing, though: the needs of the parent birds to complete the reproductive cycle by caring for their babies, and the needs of the chicks to be with their parents and siblings and learn how to become independent, self-confident adults . So this begs the questions: Are these bird breeders really achieving their goals of making a profit if chicks die from poor breeding and hand-rearing techniques? Do the chicks necessarily become better pets for having been pulled and hand-fed? And is producing such birds truly advantageous if there are more negatives attached to this practice than positives?
2. Hand-rearing Techniques
Most pet birds that are reaching the pet market today have been hand-raised. Breeders either take the chicks from the parents and nest at a very young age and at an early stage of development and raise them in brooders, or they pull the eggs from the nest, incubate them artificially, and hatch them outside the nest. After that, the chicks are raised by humans and hand-fed with a hand-raising formula from a spoon, syringe or crop needle (see Figure 4 and 5). If the birds had been allowed to hatch in the nest, they are often pulled from the nest at approximately two weeks of age. This is about the time that the eyelids open. The hand-raised baby birds are kept in brooders or tubs, either singly or in small clutches, and are hand-fed until weaning. In the wild, parents whose chicks are lost due to predation or in-shell death will see this as nest failure and begin the reproductive cycle again. The same thing happens with captive birds. This is how breeders get the birds to lay multiple clutches within the year, thus earning them additional income .
Image 4. Hand-feeding with a syringe. One can see how easy it would be for someone not experienced to cause beak trauma (Image courtesy Kelly Vriesma; used with permission).
Image 5. Another method of hand-feeding is using a spoon (Image courtesy “Hand-rearing guide for beginners”).
3. Meeting the Needs of the Hand-raised Chick
If the breeder has no choice but to hand-rear the chick, he should make every effort to meet the bird’s physiological, behavioral, and emotional needs as it goes through each phase of its development. In addition, if the breeder raises neonates together in an enclosure instead of in individual containers, he may be able to avoid the abnormal developments often seen in hand-reared birds. These groupings should consist of birds of a similar age and species. “Mixed species and mixed-age settings, however, may also yield good results, whereby the young birds seek touching, sleep readily, play with, and are curious about others. Thus, this method poses as a suitable alternative that is widely accepted and used by breeders nowadays.” [1,2].
Image 6. When neonates are raised together, as in the case of these blue-and-gold macaws (Ara ararauna), the risks of abnormal behavioral development are decreased (Image courtesy Lorenzo Crosta in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).
4. Significance of the Studies on Hand-rearing of Psittacine Birds
From the 1990’s up until today, some breeders, aviculturists, and veterinarians began to notice that the hand-feeding of birds was not working. Studies have been done during the past three decades on the advantages and disadvantages of hand-feeding, and comparisons were made between chicks that were parent-raised and those that were hand-raised by humans. Except for the need to care for the chick whose parents abandoned, neglected, harmed, or refused to feed the chick, or hand-rearing in order to preserve the species, there are no advantages for the parents or chicks in hand-feeding; in fact, there are many disadvantages .
In these studies and observations on the effects of egg-pulling and hand-rearing, it became obvious that hand-reared chicks were not as healthy, either physically or psychologically, as were their parent-raised counterparts. In addition, many breeding pairs refused to breed anymore; in fact, many will crush eggs, harm, or neglect the babies out of frustration at not being permitted to raise their chicks as nature intended. They refused to engage in the reproductive cycle .
5. Responsibilities of Breeders and Potential Owners
Hand-feeding and hand-raising birds continues to this day, even though research has shown it is not beneficial for the chicks or parents. It is also very time-consuming and stressful for the breeders to keep up this practice.
Practitioners, aviculturists, pet-shop personnel, breeders, potential buyers, and bird owners need to be educated about the potentially harmful effects hand-raising has on birds. Breeders should be encouraged to replace hand-rearing of their chicks with parent-raising and co-parenting (handling of birds during the time the parents are raising them.) This way, the birds would be allowed to be in their nests for several weeks after weaning, allowing them to become socialized with other birds and ensuring that their development is based on self-orientation as birds. Those seeking to purchase should be encouraged to seek out parent-raised birds and be instructed about what to look for in a new bird prior to its purchase . Allowing the parents to raise them for a few weeks, then pulling them for hand-feeding is not co-parenting; it is still hand-feeding.
6. Observations of Professional, Small-scale Breeders and Owners
The author has received several messages from hobby breeders and owners on this topic. They sent their perspectives on hand-feeding, parent-feeding, and co-parenting. As former hand-feeders, they have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of the birds since they have begun co-parenting, and their birds are in high demand.
Comments by owners and breeders on the advantages of parent-raised birds are in Appendix II.
7. A Highly Respected Avian Veterinarian Compares Hand-raised and Parent-raised Chicks
In his studies, highly respected avian veterinarian Brian Speer makes the following observations as he compares hand-raised and parent-raised birds and their wild counterparts:
- “Hand-fed parrot chicks in captivity receive human socialization, feeding, grooming and vocal contact from their hand-feeders. Parent-raised birds are fed and reared by their parents, with copious amounts of parental time invested in direct contact, feeding, vocalizing, grooming and physically contacting them during their development.
- After these hand-fed young are fledged or weaned, however, they typically are sold into the pet trade with no further broadening of their social education necessarily planned or recommended. Parent-raised birds learn to fly and explore their environment with and from their parents, learn to recognize and communicate socially with other conspecifics (birds of the same species), and learn how to forage and recognize environmental hazards.
- Owners of hand-fed birds persist with close physical contact, vocalization, preening and other parent-to-chick types of behaviors with their own mental picture that this type of contact and relationship is representative of a “quality” or “bonded” pet bird relationship. However, the chicks fail to learn the social skills necessary to make them good companion birds. Parent-raised birds learn social skills from their parents that enable them to live a healthy, happy existence.
- The young, hand-reared parrots grow to the age of sexual maturity with virtually no learned social or communication skills other than those they received since hatching, making them unable to possess the necessary sexual maturity to effectively reproduce. However, at sexual maturation, parent-raised birds have learned social communication skills which allow them to be in sexually mature, monogamous pairings within a reproductive pair bond.
- Those species that rely most heavily on learned, social-behavioral interaction skills and are hand-raised are more predisposed to problems than those species that are not as dependent. Parent-raised birds have few, if any, behavioral difficulties due to learned social interaction skills.” .
Image 7. A rescued chick that would not have survived without hand-feeding (Image courtesy Nousin Mun; used with permission).
8. Disadvantages of Hand-raising Chicks
Many of the chicks:
- Didn’t hatch.
- Were deformed and thus were euthanized.
- Became ill since they hadn’t received the immunity from their parents.
- Died before they had a chance to mature due to poor handling and feeding methods.
- Imprinted on people to the point that they became neurotic and very needy pets.
- Suffered from stunted emotional development so intense that they could not be apart from the human for any length of time at all, for the rest of their lives, thus exhibiting neurotic behavior such as screaming, feather-picking and self-mutilation.
- They experienced stunted social development in that they feared other birds, did not know how to interact with other birds, or how to entertain themselves when left alone .
9. Hand-rearing Complications
Once the birds are a few weeks old, they are forced to wean, whether they are ready or not. The humans decide when to remove the babies from the nest, when and how to incubate the eggs, and when it is time for the chicks to be weaned to solid foods, such as pellets, seeds, fruits and vegetables. “This man-made definition of weaning is very different from that which occurs in the wild or in parent-raised breeding situations.” .
Image 8. Single bird living in a small container away from the nest, parents and siblings (Image credit World Parrot Trust, Echo | Parrots and People; used with permission).
9.1 Forced Weaning of Hand-raised Birds is Physically Harmful to the Chicks
- Hand-reared chicks are forced to wean at a very early age, sometimes months earlier than would occur naturally.
- Weaning of hand-raised birds generally starts at the time when the birds fledge and is often completed after two weeks (fledging is the stage in a flying animal's life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight.).
- After fledging, the birds are more difficult to control and often have their wings trimmed prior to developing adequate flight skills. This often results in damage to the wings, inability to fly ever again, crashes to the floor and damage to the keel, vent, and abdomen.
- The birds are weaned onto solid foods for which their digestive tracts are not sufficiently developed.
- Sale of the birds occurs as soon as weaning has been achieved. Birds are often sold prior to weaning so the birds can bond to the new owner. This is extremely detrimental since many owners have very little, if any, knowledge of how to correctly care for and wean the birds.
- These birds have essentially been raised in isolation from the time that they can see. They have only seen humans providing a food source, and there is minimal socialization for any of these birds with other birds. They are then sold into generally a single bird household.” Parent-raised birds are raised and live in a flock. So living in a single-bird home is unnatural for them .
Image 9. Healthy, parent-raised chicks, 3 ½ weeks old (Image courtesy Jerry Randall; used with permission).
10. Behavioral Issues Associated with Hand-reared Chicks
So what are the consequences of hand-raising chicks? Because these birds were raised in an unnatural manner, they “never developed an appropriate sense of self” . Pulling the eggs, artificially incubating them, and hand-feeding the chicks result in birds which have imprinted on humans instead of other birds. Even if they are allowed a few weeks in the nest before being pulled, the result is almost the same. The imprinting is not quite the same as it is with the artificially incubated chicks, but very close. Consequently, these birds “often have a human self-orientation, leading to the development of an abnormal human‐bird bond” .
10.1 Aberrant Behavior Involving Developmental Skills
According to A. Gallagher, There is a specific window of time during which birds learn initial, social developmental skills. They are learning how to be birds from other birds in the nest during this time. If this learning time is not permitted, and is instead replaced with abnormal human self-identification, it is essentially impossible to reverse. This bond produces many undesirable behaviors:
- Separation anxiety. The new human family becomes the bird’s flock. The bird does not understand why the flock leaves it alone all day, defenseless. If this were a wild scenario, a lone bird would be defenseless against a predator. This situation causes severe anxieties for many companion birds .
- Aggression. The new owners generally have no real understanding of the techniques required to discipline or train their bird as would naturally occur in the flock situation. This is why you will hear of many birds becoming ‘feral’ and aggressive after being cuddly babies .
- Sexually-fueled separation anxiety. Before maturity, the bird will choose a mate from the human flock. The bird has the same expectations as the wild-breeding pairs. The bird expects to never be more than a few yards from its breeding mate. It does not understand the need for us to enter another room without it, go to work or leave for holidays. Again, extreme separation anxiety and neurotic behaviors occur, resulting in screaming, feather plucking and self-mutilation, stereotypic behaviors, nervous tics, aggression, and destructive behaviors .
- Mate aggression. The bird will adore one family member (its breeding mate) but attack all others who come close .
- Territorial aggression. These birds will defend their cage from other flock members, biting anyone who ventures too near the nest site (cage). Often birds will develop a predilection for other sites around the house for nesting and defense, e.g. behind kitchen appliances, in drawers, behind cushions, under beds or other furniture, even inside the owner’s clothes while being worn! .
- Sexual frustration. Aggression is usually a result of failure on the part of the human to provide gratification. The human is the “chosen one,” the mate they want to reproduce with. When you pet and love her, that's foreplay to a bird who doesn't have another bird for a mate. When the attention you give the bird doesn't result in continuing the natural progression to breeding, she is frustrated and takes her anger out on the "chosen person" for not finishing what he/she started. The frustration can be huge, and the bird will often turn on herself or himself to relieve the frustration. Because hand-fed birds are abnormally attached to the chosen person, they will scream, self-mutilate, attack, masturbate, and lay eggs more than parent-raised birds do .
- Excessive egg production. Female birds (hens) breed as a result of several external factors. The primary factors are generally long day lengths, a high-energy, high-calorie diet, frequent bathing, a stable mate, and nesting environment. Birds with an abnormal human‐bird bond, kept under artificial light after dusk and on a seed-based diet, have all the prerequisites for egg-laying. These birds generally lay large numbers of eggs. “This excess production has a dramatic impact on the hen’s nutritional status and often results in osteopenia (low bone density leading to osteoporosis), cloacal prolapses, fractures, and reproductive complications. When laying, most birds will display territorial aggression around the nest site” .
Some owners attempt to relieve the bird’s anxiety by obtaining another bird, but often neither bird has the skills needed for social interaction, so “they often appear to live like ‘two lamps on a shelf’ with no recognition of each other” . Once this abnormal human-bird bond develops and problem behaviors begin, it is very difficult to completely eliminate them, but these behaviors can be modified with education and training .
Pamela Clark’s Blog, Early Beginnings for Parrots, can be found in Appendix III
10.2 The Connection Between Hand-rearing, Aberrant Behaviors, and Health Issues in Specific Species
There is evidence of a pathological connection between hand-rearing and aberrant behavior in adult companion birds. Any species may exhibit these unwanted behaviors, but the groups in which these are most often seen are the cockatoos, Amazons, and to a somewhat lesser extent, macaws. Behavioral disorders are most frequently encountered in the larger psittacine species, although they can be found in the smaller species as well. And although physical health issues are more commonly seen in the smaller species, such as the cockatiel, budgerigar and parrotlets as a result of hand-rearing, they may be found in the larger species as well .
10.3 Differences in Behavioral Development toward Novel Objects
Parental separation and hand-rearing affect the development of other behaviors. When first introduced to new objects, hand-raised birds did not display as much fear as parent-raised birds. However, this fear was only postponed. By the time the birds were a year old, both hand-reared and parent-reared birds, housed under similar conditions after weaning, reacted in the same way after being exposed to new objects. It is possible that delayed maturation or “generalized exposure to new items” played a part in the difference . Birds become less fearful of new things in their environment, indicating that they are sensitive to changes for quite a while after weaning; then they gradually adapt to new environmental conditions. “In the wild, this may aid them in decreasing the risks of predation or ingestion of toxic materials. It also may increase the chances that they’ll find new foraging sites, nest sites, or mates.” .
As a result, parrots that dwell in frequently changing environments tend to be less fearful of new situations and objects than those that inhabit relatively constant, predictable environments. Birds in captivity display the same behaviors. When young birds are exposed to items that are new or frequently rotated and environments that are diverse, they have less fear of new places or objects. These findings emphasize the importance of regular rotation of toys and other enrichments; simply providing the enrichments and leaving them indefinitely is not stimulating for the bird. There must be frequent changes in their environments. However, we must be very careful when presenting new objects or housing to fearful birds; too many changes too close together can intensify the fearful behaviors. “Individual differences in reactivity to novel experiences must always be considered when providing enrichment opportunities or new environments to birds.” .
Image 10A (left). This hand-raised African grey parrot on the left (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with a novel object, a child’s teething toy in the shape of a monkey. Although the bird did not panic, it was reluctant to approach this new toy. The reluctance to approach a novel object is referred to as “neophobia” (Image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland, in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).
Image 10B (right). This parent-raised African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with the same novel object as the parrot in Figure 6- A. Despite the fact that this bird had also never been in contact with the toy, it immediately approached this new toy and started to explore it with its beak and feet (Image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).
10.4 Abnormal Sexual Behaviors in Hand-reared Birds
Hand-raised birds are also more prone to develop abnormal sexual behaviors toward humans. These include regurgitation, masturbation, courtship behavior, territorial aggression, sudden onset of phobic behaviors, excessive vocalizations, continued begging and whining for food (including delayed weaning), and feather-damaging behavior. “Many of these abnormal behaviors may develop as a result of frustration (e.g., inability to sexually bond with humans) or to seek attention from the caregiver. As such, they appear similar to the “orphanage syndrome” or “relative-attachment disorder” described in human children who have been deprived of affection and stability in their early childhood” . Birds that are hand-reared are deprived of the necessary contact with other birds of the same species as well as with their parents and siblings. This contact with conspecifics is needed to establish normal social and sexual behaviors .
Image 11. Loving parents feeding their baby (Image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).
Image 12. Three of this pair’s chicks at 3 weeks (Image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).
11. Comparison of Emotional and Social Developmental between Hand-raised and Parent-raised Birds
Parrots are a highly social species, and their “visual, tactile, and auditory development is greatly influenced by interaction with parents and siblings.” . Hand-reared birds consider humans part of the flock, and this means that parrots will become accustomed to being handled and having physical contact with people. In order to achieve this level of comfort with humans, hand-rearing “has long been the accepted method, as it is thought to help strengthen the human–psittacine bond, thereby resulting in a bird that is more attached to humans and able to positively interact with people.” . However, the lack of parent involvement and interaction with other birds of its own species “can severely impact the emotional and social development of the captive psittacine bird and result in displays of abnormal behaviors.” .
11.1 Social Relationships
Social relationships may be disrupted as well when birds are hand-raised. Hand-reared parrots are often more inclined to prefer social contact with their humans than with other birds. However, birds that were raised by the parents and also handled by humans during the neonatal period (i.e., five, 20-minute sessions per week), preferred the companionship of humans and other birds of their species equally. Van Zeeland infers from this that hand-raising is more disruptive of a bird’s social development than the stresses of being tamed .
Chicks who are brooded and reared by their parents, in contrast, have many advantages over hand-raised chicks. “The brooding and rearing of chicks by the parents is far more beneficial for the chicks’ emotional and social development .
See “The Importance of Parental Nurturing” in Appendix IV
Image 13. This image shows what a typical hand-rearing nursery looks like. “After the incubation of the eggs, the birds are hatched and the chicks placed in large nurseries for hand-rearing. In this nursery setting, the birds are housed alone or in groupings with other birds of the same species. These large nest-bins can be pulled out to allow them to socialize with the other chicks who share their bin and those in the bins next to them. When these nest-bins are rolled in, they provide a secure, dark nest cavity. However, this method of chick-rearing is not as preferable as leaving them with the parents; they are not receiving the attention and socialization that are necessary for development that they would normally receive from the parents” (text and image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).
When placed in these bins and rolled into darkness, the birds are entirely alone, which is terrifying for chicks. They need the parents and siblings to feel secure.
12. Comparison of Growth Rates between Hand-Raised and Parent-raised Chicks
In order to hand-raise birds, breeders will place the eggs in an incubator or remove them from the nest, separating them from the parents just after hatching. This disrupts the instinctive parental care the parents give the birds and is extremely stressful to them and the chicks. It “disrupts the normal behavioral and physiologic development of the bird” . For example, a study on growth rate differences between hand-reared and parent-raised chicks showed slower growth rates in the hand-reared chicks .
13. Imprinting, Reproduction, and Sexual Maturation among Hand-reared Psittacines
If birds are cross-fostered to other species or raised by humans, they are more likely to imprint on their caregivers. They “learn to identify with these foster parents or caregivers, and may choose these as their preferred social and sexual partner after maturation.” .
Most of the time, cockatoos (Cacatua spp.) are more likely to display these behaviors as opposed to South American parrot species (macaws, Amazons, conures), but birds from any species can exhibit these aberrant behaviors. Birds which have imprinted on humans or have been improperly reared “may develop inappropriate reproductive behaviors as a result (e.g., impairment of normal copulatory behaviors and laying of eggs on the floor) and are less likely to successfully reproduce” . These undesirable behaviors may not be the same in the males and females. For example, the hand-reared male may not inspect the next box as he should, and he may not reach a desirable level of fertility. The female does not seem as affected by it as the male, which demonstrates that males are more strongly influenced by sexual imprinting than females .
Image 14. Lovebird parent feeding chicks (Image from YouTube).
14. Vocalization Differences between Hand-raised and Parent-raised Birds
In studies, hand-raised birds and parent-raised birds differed in their abilities to learn human and species-typical vocalizations. These differences were in both the extent and speed at which they learned to vocalize. Hand-reared birds were capable of imitating human speech at an earlier age than parent-raised birds. They were also able to mimic these sounds found in human speech at an earlier age and to a greater extent than parent-reared birds; however, they were unable to “produce the species-typical vocalizations until placed with normal vocalizing conspecifics for at least a week” . These differences were the result of the increased, earlier level of social interaction “whereby the extensive exposure to human speech and human contact function as positive reinforcement. This, in turn, results in hand-reared chicks that quickly master the ability to talk” . However, that should not be the primary goal of the breeder or potential bird-owner.
To some bird owners, the ability of a bird to talk is one of the main reasons for getting the bird; however, these individuals have not been educated to understand that this is not nearly as important as the companionship the human will get from the bird and the care and attention the bird will receive from the human. This should be made clear to the prospective buyer.
15. Comparison of Physical Development and Injury between Parent-raised and Hand-raised Birds
Parent-raised birds also have increased physical advantages. “The limited movement of a group of chicks within the nest box, for example, provides them with the necessary support for the appendicular skeleton to develop properly. Chicks raised individually in incubators, in contrast, lack the support of the nest and siblings and frequently move around (allegedly in search of parental or sibling contact). This excessive moving around has been associated with a significantly higher incidence of bony deformations and osteodystrophy” (abnormal bone development) . It is true that deformities such as splayed legs can happen with both hand-raised and parent-raised chicks, but the numbers are by far higher with hand-raised birds.
Image 15. Cockatiel chick that was rescued and hand-raised by Nousin Mun who has a rescue center in Bangladesh. In this case, hand-raising saved the bird’s life since its parents abandoned it, however, it has splayed legs. Nousin Mun has worked with it to bring the legs together (Image credit Nousin Mun; used with permission).
Image 16. This hand-fed chick has difficulty with its feet since it is not in the nest with its siblings (Image courtesy Nancy Watters; used with permission).
16. Physical Illnesses and Conditions Brought About by Improper Hand-feeding
Image 17. This breeder is correctly hand-feeding a chick; however, one can see how easy it would be for someone not experienced to cause beak trauma (Image courtesy Kelly Vriesma; used with permission).
16.1 Beak Deformities from Poor Hand-feeding Techniques
Many people think they can hand-raise baby birds when they have had no experience or education from an experienced breeder on how to do this. They unintentionally harm the bird’s mouth, feet, and beak, and sometimes the deformities cannot be undone.
Hand-feeding techniques are a common cause of beak deformities. Brian Speer explains this: “Incorrect incubation and/or hand feeding practices may be the more common causative factors, but the specifics of what those deficits are, may be poorly understood. It is theorized by many that bruising of the rictal phalanges (the upper rictal area is where the beak meets the cere, and the lower rictal phalanges are where the under part of the beak meets the skin.) occurs during hand-feeding. There are feather bristles in these areas; damage to one side or the other leads to uneven growth, and most likely results in a scissoring deformity. Hand-feeding technique flaws resulting in bruising of the rictal phalanges, incubation flaws, genetic etiologies, subclinical malnutrition, infectious sinusitis, trauma, and viral disease have all been suggested as possible contributing causes. Corrective procedures in young birds are designed to alter the forces that direct the rostral growth of the rhinotheca.” .
Image 18: Anatomy of the beak (Image courtesy PetEducation.com; used with permission).
- The rhinotheca is the outer surface of the beak. It is composed of a horny layer of keratin which covers the beak.
- The rhamphotheca is the layer of keratin on the maxilla (upper beak). The gnathotheca is the layer of keratin on the mandible (lower beak).
- The commissure is the soft tissue at the back of the beak where the two parts meet. It is composed of soft tissue for the opening and closing of the beak to take place.
- The rictal phalanges are the areas of the beak just below the commissure where the maxilla and mandible meet. There are usually bristle feathers in that area.
- Tomia: cutting edges of the beak
- Malocclusion (poor closure of the beak) is a consequence of trauma due to damage to the germinative layer of the beak, improper hand feeding, poor nutrition, or heredity. The practitioner may be able to use composite or acrylic materials to shape the beak properly and encourage normal growth following trauma . (Newer techniques have been developed to correct malocclusions since this paper was written. JM).
16.1.1 Maxillary Brachygnathism
This is one condition that is sometimes caused by improper hand-feeding. With it, the maxilla extends well past the mandible. It is usually a congenital condition, and cockatoos are the most frequently affected species. It is most often caused by trauma which damages the germinal epithelium of the beak. “Young birds with this condition are often more receptive to having this condition corrected since their beaks are more pliable than adults’ beaks. Wiring or prostheses may be used to gently put the beak back in alignment.” .
Image 19: Maxillary brachygnathism, or overgrown beak, in an Amazon (Image courtesy Dan Razdik; used with permission).
Image 20: Mandibular prognathism, or maxilla inside mandible, in a cockatoo (Image courtesy Melanie Canatella; used with permission).
16.1.2 Mandibular Prognathism
This is another recognized pediatric condition sometimes caused by improper hand feeding. With this, the maxilla lies inside of the mandible, and it is most often observed in cockatoos. One technique which has been used to correct this deformity has been the application of acrylic to the maxilla. This technique “functionally extends the maxilla, making it more challenging for it to be placed inside of the mandible, and guides occlusion (closure of the beak) properly. Typically, when the acrylic loosens and comes off in 1-2 weeks, the problem is corrected” .
16.1.3 Scissors Beak
Young, hand-fed cockatoos and macaws are frequently afflicted with scissors beak. “Scissors beak deformities are characterized by a bending of the upper beak rhinothecal keratin and/or bone to one side to varying degrees, with the resultant overgrowth of the opposing lower gnathotheca. As force vectors are applied during the bird’s growth and regular use of its beak, this deformity usually will become progressive, ultimately generating into a ‘scissors’ effect.’ In addition, secondary deformities of the occlusal ledge of the rhinothecal keratin may develop.” . “The occlusal edge is the underside of the maxilla or upper beak where it meets the mandible or lower beak; it acts as an anvil by which the bird can crush nuts and seeds and other foods.” (R. Dahlhausen, personal communication) “This deformity carries a significant impact on the salability and potential breeding performance of the birds” .
Due to the stress put on the bird from trying to eat and perform the usual beak grinding, an increase in the fear-based behavioral problems will occur. The owner should be encouraged to consider having these conditions surgically corrected. “The corrective techniques that are available today are vastly superior than in the past and are worth considering when one takes into account the quality of life and long-life expectancies of the larger species” .
Scissors-beak is most commonly seen in macaws, and the trans-sinus pinning technique as well as others are being used to correct this deformity. Application of corrective techniques for both conditions have been limited to use in young birds since they have not been successful in correcting these deformities in adult birds . In adults, the beaks must be constantly trimmed and reshaped in order for the bird to be able to eat.
Images 21 and 22: Scissors beak in a cockatiel (Image courtesy Dr. Maria Angela Panelli Marchio; used with permission).
16.2. Damage to the Crop
16.2.1 Crop Stasis—a Case Study
A twelve-week-old blue and gold macaw was presented with a history of crop stasis of 24 hours duration. The bird had been purchased from a breeder in Georgia at the age of 6 weeks. The baby had been parent-fed for the first four weeks of its life and then switched to a commercial hand-feeding formula. On physical examination, the bird was bright, alert, and responsive and had a brisk feeding response. It was well grown for its age and was completely feathered. However, the crop was still full from the feeding the night before and the bird was mildly dehydrated, slightly thin, and there were many stress bars on the growing feathers. Gram’s stains of the crop showed budding yeasts and Gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria. “A Gram stain of a cloaca swab showed moderate numbers of Gram positive coccoid and large rod-shaped bacteria.” . The white blood cell count was normal, but radiographs showed a distended proventriculus. A fecal float and direct smear were negative for parasites .
This was a case of crop stasis that in nestlings can have any number of causes, “ranging from improper husbandry to systemic infectious diseases.” . It is not normal for fledglings to develop crop stasis, and it appeared that this bird had been under a great deal of stress for several days, as evidenced by the number of stress bars on his newly formed feathers . The bird had not been digesting its food very well, and it resulted in an overgrowth of yeasts and bacteria in the crop. Some birds will develop distention of the proventriculus, but that also might be a sign of a primary disease of the gastrointestinal tract which affects motility .
16.2.2 Crop Burns
Crop burns that lead to fistulation normally occur in unweaned psittacines fed formulas that are too hot. Microwaving the formula is often the cause due to uneven heating. Damage to the crop may interfere with crop motility. Mild burns may cause inflammation and edema that may resolve. Extreme heat may cause a fistula (a hole leading to the outside) into subcutaneous space or a full-thickness fistula .
Birds will present with voracious appetite and weight loss. On physical examination, moistened feathers are noted in the area of the crop; normally a scab is present. It is recommended to wait 3-5 days in the case of full-thickness fistula. The tissue needs time to show the extent of the damage, otherwise repair may fail. Extensive burns require removal of an extensive area of the crop; prognosis may be poor due to lack of normal function .
Image 23. African Grey: Crop burn from hand-feeding with formula that was too hot from being heated in a microwave. A large fistula was present and needed to be repaired surgically (Image courtesy Aswathy Sathi; used with permission).
When the crop is burned or traumatized, there may be loss of significant portions of tissue. In some birds, there will be a true fistula with food dropping out. In more acute burns, it may be difficult to distinguish viable from devitalized tissues. In these cases it is best to wait 3-5 days for a line of demarcation between necrotic and viable tissue to develop. The wound edges should be debrided until the skin can be separated from the crop wall. The skin and crop are sutured closed as separate structures. Placing a feeding tube through the crop will help identify the lumen. “In cases where there is significant loss of crop tissue, it is best to maintain the longitudinal integrity of the esophagus (crop) as there is a higher likelihood of stricture formation with resection and anastomosis [1,3]. (An anastomosis is a connection made surgically between adjacent blood vessels, parts of the intestine, or other channels of the body, or the operation in which this is constructed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anastomosis).
16.2.3 Trauma to the Crop Caused by Improper Handling.
Laceration of the esophagus can occur following the use of a rigid feeding tube . The ingluvies refers to the crop, an outpouching and storage area in the esophagus that is often full and protruding, making it susceptible to trauma. It may also be the site where a foreign body has lodged .
Image 24 (left). Full-thickness crop burn in an umbrella cockatoo. The scab is being pulled away to reveal the large fistula from which formula is leaking out (Image courtesy Scott McDonald).
Image 25 (right). The umbrella cockatoo after crop-burn repair. The crop and skin are closed in separate layers after unhealthy tissue from wound edges is trimmed away.
17.1 Bacterial Infections
Unweaned birds are particularly susceptible to bacterial infections. The causes are poor husbandry and an immune system which is not fully developed. Hand-feeding practices are the primary cause of crop infections: “Over feeding, feeding too frequently, improper formula temperature, or feeding before the crop empties can all lead to bacterial overgrowth. Primary viral infections destroying the immune system underlie severe secondary bacterial infections in young birds. Spontaneous, primary bacterial infections are uncommon in young birds when proper husbandry is practiced.” .
Image 26 (left). Porridge formula was too hot and infection set in, causing major damage to the crop (Image credit Galabin Mladenov).
Image 27 (right). Surgery was required to close the significant fistula between the crop and the outside (Image credit Galabin Mladenov).
17.2 Illnesses due to malnutrition
Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. They are organic compounds that combine to form proteins, and protein is broken down into component amino acids before being absorbed by the intestines. Amino acids are required for optimal health, but the body cannot synthesize them; they must be provided in foods or supplements. The terms, “EFA’s” and “amino acids” are used interchangeably. EFA’s refer to the Omega-3, 6, and 9 essential fatty acids. Most hand-rearing mixes for psittacines and pelleted diets lack sufficient quantities of the sulphur amino acids (methionine and cysteine) .
Without sufficient calcium and vitamin D3 there is not enough calcium present to harden the bones in growing birds. This occurs mainly in hand-reared birds whose mineral intake is unbalanced. It is also termed, "Rubbery Bone Syndrome." .
17.2.2 Hepatic lipidosis
Hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, is caused by high-fat foods, B-vitamin deficiencies, and obesity. It is a slow, on-going, progressive disease in which the liver tissue is replaced with fat. Juvenile, hand-fed birds that are overfed or hand-fed long after they should have been weaned are often diagnosed with it. Hand-feeding formulas are calorie-dense, and baby birds tend to be sedentary; any extra calories tend to end up being stored as fat in the liver. This is most often seen in cockatoos as they tend to beg even after satiated .
“Mother Nature’s way of parent-rearing always has a higher success rate. The chicks have a strong start since parents will always rear their chicks to completion.” Darrel K. Styles, DVM
Image 28. Healthy, parent-raised chicks (Image courtesy Jerry Randal; used with permission).
18. Co-parenting: The Ideal Method of Raising Chicks
Many veterinarians and aviculturists are now encouraging breeders to allow the parents to feed and raise them to weaning. Humans are able to help with the care, and as they continue to handle the chicks, the chicks become socialized to humans; thus, the parents are able to fulfill their instinctive reproductive responsibilities. So all concerned have the best of both worlds. Adults get to feed and care for their babies, humans don't have the round-the-clock feedings, and babies grow up into healthy, mature adult birds. The result is well-adjusted birds that aren't constantly desperate for their chosen person's attention.
Of course there are exceptions: Parents who harm their babies or refuse to feed them must have the chicks removed from the nest, but if the aviaries are kept in the correct manner, this doesn’t usually happen. Co-parenting leads to well-adjusted birds who aren’t desperate for their person’s attention all the time. Many species take a considerably longer time to wean than humans allow them. Money is the root of this problem; there is not a quick turnover if chicks are allowed to be with the parents for a longer time.
Fortunately, increasing numbers of breeders nowadays are allowing parents to incubate, hatch, and raise their chicks themselves until fledging. Human interaction with these chicks may then either begin in the nest box when the chicks are about two weeks old or after the chicks have successfully fledged. Using these methods, the juvenile birds are accustomed to human handling via brief daily interactions while still able to benefit from the interactions with their parents and siblings. Particularly, the co-parenting technique appears successful at producing offspring that are less responsive to stress and well-socialized to both humans and parrots. In addition, this method increases the chances of the chicks displaying normal reproductive behaviors once they mature since they had more intense contact with the parents and siblings than with humans. This often lowers the cost, time, and effort involved in successfully raising the chicks compared with conventional hand-rearing techniques. Human contact with the neonate may, however, also increase the risk of abandonment, abuse, or infanticide. As a result, the co-parenting technique may not be applicable to all species and individuals, especially those that appear prone to poor parenting .
The days of hand-rearing as an accepted method of rearing chicks are over, but many breeders refuse to discontinue the practice. For some, it is a habit they are afraid to break, as they think it will decrease the numbers of birds they can sell. For others, they enjoy the process so much they don’t want to give it up because of the pleasure it gives them. But with co-parenting, they can still enjoy handling the birds and offering other foods once, and even before, the birds are totally weaned, giving them ample opportunities to bond with the birds.
That bond can only be had in a nurturing, warm, loving environment. A hand-raised chick will not be sweet and loving if all that’s done is feeding him and leaving. These chicks need to be held, talked to, and have time spent with them to become the ideal pet. It doesn’t matter if he’s hand or parent fed; unless the humans engage him and give him attention, he will still be wild.
Rearing chicks by hand is completely unnatural in the normal lives of birds. If breeders would take the current thought to heart and allow their babies to be parent-raised and co-parented, they would find their birds would be in greater demand since the purchasers would be more satisfied with their birds than with birds from breeders who have hand-raised their birds. In the long run, then, these successes would attract more clients.
The purpose of this paper is not to vilify those who choose to hand-feed. And the physical and psychological issues may occur in any chick, whether it is hand-fed or not. Not every hand-fed chick will experience physical or psychological issues; and not every parent-fed chick will grow to maturity without them. These are generalizations gleaned from many years of research, experimentation, and observation. The purpose is to persuade the breeder who hand-raises to consider allowing the parents to raise the chicks while still being actively involved in their handling and development.
Knowledgeable veterinarians, bird owners, and aviculturists must continue to educate breeders and future companion-bird owners as to what to look for in a companion bird. They need to know of the potential difficulties that can result from the development of abnormal human-bird bonds and the potential for physical, social, and emotional damage from hand-feeding. We encourage new bird owners to seek education from their avian veterinarians and other respected aviculturists.
In the words of Pamela Clark, “The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is ‘weaned’ at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems. Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by ‘farming industry practices.’ That is the answer. You are the answer.”
Appendix I: Animal Welfare Issues and Their Influence on Legislation
Because of public pressure on legislators, animal welfare laws are being passed in some countries. The Netherlands has passed laws regarding the hand rearing of psittacines. These laws prohibit the separation of immature animals from their parents, including parrots. Reports have described the welfare problems that can be caused by the separation of young animals from their parents, detailed which species were currently at risk, and proposed criteria for preventing problems caused by such separation. Final legislation was passed in 2014 .
The parent–chick separation law in the Netherlands is also likely to be enforced and should improve avian welfare by preventing hand-feeding by inexperienced owners and allowing proper socialization of psittacines, hopefully decreasing the behavioral problems often seen in these birds. Like the laws pertaining to animal cruelty, the bird-specific laws implemented to improve avian welfare will only be useful if they are enforced. Also, although these laws are meant to educate the public and improve avian welfare overall, such education is possible only if their availability is widely known. For the sake of improving avian welfare, it is worth the effort to discover what guidelines are available to help ensure at least minimally adequate husbandry for pet birds .
The sale of unweaned psittacines is an example of legislative issues regarding avian welfare. “Public pressure has resulted in laws addressing this practice in California and the Netherlands, but the matter has not been tackled in most jurisdictions. In Australia, some states allow the sale of unweaned birds (to knowledgeable buyers) and some do not. Whether or not bans on such sales become more common throughout other countries and states will depend on the politics of public pressure and industry resistance as played out on the worldwide scene” .
Appendix II: Comments from “The Science of Avian Health” Members and Breeders
Member 1: Well said. It would be good for you to post this on the African Grey Parrot Asian Forum. I find it heartbreaking the amount of breeding that's going on and chicks being sold at a few weeks old to people who don't know the first thing about hand feeding let alone looking after a young bird.
My boy was co-raised by both parents and the breeder. He was fully fledged at 12 weeks old and a handful then. He's still a handful but a very independent handful. He is not bothered by changes in routine and eats just about anything I give him.
My first bird is the same. He wasn't taken away from the parents for about 10 weeks and then he was weaned by the breeder for a couple of weeks. He too was a handful but he is so adventurous, brave, and inquisitive, he really knows how to play and have a great time and accepts change easily. In fact he seems to relish change and sees it as a new adventure. It is so rewarding to see a bird display 'bird' behavior rather than a modified behavior because they haven't spent time with parents and siblings like many hand-reared birds.
Yes, mine is like yours. He enjoys new people and is friendly with them. He's not a cuddly bird by any means but likes your company. He flies like a jet plane around the house every morning then settles down to have his breakfast while I read the paper. He eats beside me every day. He even asks to go outside in his aviary that's just like Morgan and my other one, Flint; they were both parent reared. They say to me, “Do you want to go outside?” in such a sweet voice when they want to go in the aviary. We are so lucky to have such independent birds. Mine are not as cuddly as some birds I see but they fly to me, and I have no problems with them stepping up. I am just so happy that they are birds and not pets. (No offense meant to anyone else or any other bird, I know we all love our birds).
I remember getting into a very heated argument with one of my former investors about this very subject, swearing I was somehow cheating the customer. It has been my experience through hands-on work that baby parrots that are raised by their parents are healthier, easier to train, have better plumage and behavior. I’ve raised hundreds of conures, and every single hand-fed chick has turned into a screamer or has some sort of anxiety problem. On the other side of things, almost every parent-raised conure has been quieter and more calm (as a conure can be) and relaxed in day-to-day life. I’ve noticed this in cockatiels and ringnecks as well.
Member 2: “I got her from a breeder and yes, she was hand-raised but not with a caring hand. This guy is a huge breeder and has birds of ever kind, so it’s more of a feed-and-go. So she isn’t very tame because no one ever spends time with her.” It’s not just the feeding that counts, it’s the interaction and loving environment that’s important. This is a good case for not hand-feeding. Birds that are parent-raised and given a lot of human interaction and love will turn out to be caring, loving adults, no matter how their fed. (Kim Martin; used with permission)
Member 3: I have recently had two clutches of baby budgies hatch at the same time. I lifted one clutch at the usual three weeks mark and with the other clutch just handled them every day (as often as I could through the day). I have to say I don’t actually see a difference in the friendliness of them, but I must admit the transition to ‘hard’ food appeared easier with the parent-raised babies. Whilst dependent on being fed for survival, the babies that were co-parented appear cuddlier, seeking the contact for reasons other than food. The hand-raised babies initially only want the contact for food. I still enjoy feeding the babies but now share the load with the parents. (Claire Bear; used with permission)
- There are times when hand-rearing is the only way to save a baby.
- Co-parenting should become standard in avian production.
- Abundance-weaning and full-fledging are crucial to the emotional and physical development of the birds.
- Forced-weaning and early clipping are cruel practices that damage the mental, physical, and emotional health of parrots.
- Although there are some species in which co-parenting may not always be successful, every effort should be made to do so because of the benefits to the birds.
- Bird mills do not want to parent-raise because it will decrease their production, but they are producing inferior-quality birds; this is why many of them do not live long, are often sick, have birth defects, and don’t breed as well as parent-raised birds.
Member 5: “The chicks I hand-raised were much friendlier than those that were parent-raised without any human interaction. However, I did it for the love of birds and never raised more than I had time for. It took a lot of time and commitment to make sure that each chick got enough attention. I would spend the evenings playing with them – and that is what I enjoyed so much. There is no way anyone can do that if they have hundreds of birds.
What I have noticed is that many breeders who hand-raise chicks don’t put any time in other than forcing food down the crop using a crop needle. That, and cleaning up, was all the chicks ever got to do with the human caretaker. That will not result in tame adults. Hand-raised birds will never have experienced the nurturing of parent-raised birds. And since the chicks never experienced parenting, so many of them became bad breeders later. So – really – there was no point in denying chicks the nurturing care of their natural parents and denying their parents the joy and right to raise their own chicks.
Once I noticed that, I left the chicks with the parents to raise, but took them out every day for half an hour or so to get them used to humans. That worked well. Half an hour per chick sounds like a lot of time; but I used to sit on the couch with them and have all the chicks out on a blanket at the same time playing with them (or splitting them up in groups), and that worked well. Of course, this will never be possible for large aviaries, and that is the reason why the vast majority of “hand-raised” chicks available in stores aren’t really tame.
I don’t like the crop needle that many breeders use because it is too fast. I understand its use if chicks or adults are too sick to feed, but that is all I would feel comfortable with.
I do believe that for the emotional and physical health of our captive birds, allowing them to be raised by their natural parent is best, but pulling chicks for at least half an hour a day for socialization gives the chicks the best start in life. The only valid reason for pulling chicks out of the nest is if they are abused by their parents. That point alone brings us back to the very gist of this matter.
Many of the captive birds that have been “hand-raised” by humans have never been able to experience natural parenting, and many of them don’t know what they are doing when they become of breeding age. Some of them will figure it out over time; however, many of them never will and should be taken out of the breeding program as they will consistently damage their eggs (even eat them) or abuse their chicks (including killing them). In this case, pulling eggs or chicks out of the nest is necessary to save them. (Author’s note: If the parents had been allowed to raise their chicks from the start, they would likely not be damaging the eggs or chicks.JM)
Appendix III: Pamela Clark: Early Beginnings for Parrots
Pamela Clark’s references are at the end of her passage. Used with permission.
Phoebe Greene Linden was ahead of her time. Back in 1993, 26 years ago, she published an article that talked about Abundance Weaning™, a term she coined and trademarked. The latter fact is amusing today; it’s not like hordes of breeders since I have tried to steal the term. They remain mired in their practices of force-weaning (also called deprivation-weaning) baby parrots.
Phoebe began a crucial conversation, one that remains unfinished today. She brought an ethical focus to the rearing of baby parrots that took into account also the well-being of the breeding birds themselves. Her concerns were both ethical and practical. Her ideas flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom of the day. According to Phoebe, breeding parrots should have large enclosures and plenty of enrichment. Baby parrots must be fledged and allowed to develop excellent flight skills. Flight ability should never be removed from a parrot all at once. Fledglings needed to be abundantly supported as they developed their independent eating skills and provided lots of enrichment to encourage their desire to explore.
I recently did a Google search for the term “abundance weaning” and found websites describing this method, without any reference or credit to Phoebe. In addition, they have bastardized the initial ideas that Phoebe developed. Unfortunately, a full description of this process is not within the scope of this post, but this is a word to the wise. Abundance Weaning™, as Phoebe developed it, incorporated a great deal more than simply allowing baby parrots to wean when they were ready. (Linden, 1993) .
As Phoebe writes: “Abundance weaning is a segment of a process of nurturing that begins with hand-feeding and should not end in this lifetime for our feathered companions. Abundance weaning contributes significantly to the well-balanced psychological development of the young parrot: it provides innumerable opportunities for owner and baby to bond deeply in a spirit of trust and plenitude, it encourages the development of physical skills in a non-threatening environment; it is the cornucopia from which springs fullness and peace. Would that every creature on this earth be given the abundance we can provide to our special feathery messengers.” Phoebe was my mentor when I reared African greys back then. I emulated her practices with excellent results. The greys I produced were different from those of other breeders. They were bold, eager to engage, confident and coordinated.
I wasn’t the only one who put into practice what Phoebe taught. There were other small breeders who bred parrots purely for the love of the species and the ability to do a really great job fostering their development. However, our ethics got the better of us. We were all small breeders, a lot more in love with the birds than the money. Gradually, we came to see that no matter how well we screened adoptive homes, things often did not turn out as we might have wished for our offspring.
My own experience included babies who were lost forever outdoors, those who gradually spent more and more time in their cages and began to destroy feathers as a result, those who did not receive the guidance I had taught their new owners to provide, and those who suffered due to the insensitivity of those who adopted them. I learned that, when screening potential adopters, you never really get to see what is truly bedrock in the person. Most of us who were colleagues back then stopped breeding as a result of similar experiences, leaving the field open to production breeders and those for whom the money is more important than the ethics. I have often quoted avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer: “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.” If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, I don’t know what will…that is if you love parrots like I do for their innate qualities.
We humans are incredibly slow sometimes to recognize the truth… slow to learn and slow to change. Chris Shank’s last blog post revealed some profound comparisons between what her fledgling Star is learning and the more typical experience baby parrots have today at the hands of breeders. Essentially, Chris brought up the same conversation that Phoebe began 26 years ago.
It always kills me that Facebook posts and those on other social media sites are so full of parrot love, and yet the manner in which we breed and rear baby parrots withstands no real scrutiny at all. No one seems to care how our baby parrots are produced, as long as they are there for our consumption when we want them. The only exceptions to this come from a few like Phoebe, Dr. Speer, Chris, and others like them who occasionally toss out a verbal or written volley in hopes of keeping the conversation alive and refocusing our attention on what is most important.
Is the manner in which we rear parrots in captivity really important?
Do methods really matter?
There is abundant research that documents both developmental and behavioral abnormalities in a large number of hand-reared species, indicating that early conditions for animals are of critical importance. Feenders and Bateson discuss several conclusions previously reached by other researchers:
- “In humans, poor parenting and adverse experiences during early development are associated with impairments in adult cognitive ability and an increased risk for developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychoses.”
- “In rats, Rattus norvegicus, maternal separation produces long-lasting changes in emotional behavior and impaired responses to stress. Maternal separation induces reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus and consequential impairments in learning and memory.
- “In rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, removal from the mother followed by peer rearing or rearing by mothers experiencing variable foraging conditions produces adults with more reactive stress physiology, increased anxiety, impulsivity and aggression and behavioral abnormalities such as motor stereotypies.”
- “Adverse events during early development have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing abnormal behavior, and specifically motor stereotypes, in a range of species. For example, animals removed from their mother at an earlier age, and animals born in captive as opposed to natural environments, show a higher incidence of stereotypic behavior.”
- “In birds, there is some evidence that manipulations that involve elements of hand rearing affect the adult phenotypes similarly to the effects observed in mammals.”
Rebecca Fox comes to similar conclusions regarding parrots: “Abnormal sexual imprinting and a strong social preference for humans may cause behavior problems in pet parrots, which are probably more likely to inappropriately direct sexual behavior at their owners. Hand-reared birds may exhibit other behavior problems as well, most notably so-called “phobic” behavior.” (Fox, 2006) Phoebe Greene Linden and Andrew U. Luescher provide a detailed comparison of observable behaviors exhibited by both hand-reared and wild Amazon parrots in Santa Barbara, California through all stages from hatching to fledging and the development of independent eating skills. They comment upon the importance of fledging: “Sadly, the majority of psittacids raised for the companion market will not experience a true fledging process and may never actually fly because their environments are not provisioned for such development.”
“Space, time, and commitment limitations abound, and some aviculturists contend that fledging is unnecessary or extravagant. The question remains: Can a suitably developed psittacine companion who never flies remain a viable lifelong pet? The answer to that question depends, of course, on what environments shape the experiences during the time of development normally occupied by flight and after.” (Linden, P. 2006).
There you have only a taste of the research available, which documents the deleterious effects of hand-rearing on both mammals and birds. The conclusions are unanimous – the process of hand-rearing carries with it significant impact upon the developing young animals and will impact them throughout their lives.
Serving as a companion to this body of science stands our own anecdotal evidence. Dogs and cats who were hand-reared are typically quite different, displaying abnormal and problematic behavior that often encompasses aggressive tendencies. I once had a bottle-fed black cat who would come up behind unassuming visitors and bite them hard on the back of the leg. That adorable bottle-feed kitten evolved into an adult cat who caused a lot of problems.
So…yes. The manner in which our companion parrots are reared matters. It is critical to their entire life experience. I often assist owners in locating adult parrots for adoption and during the transition once the parrot is home. I can state with certainty that well-reared parrots adapt very differently, and much more easily, to their new homes. (By “well-reared,” I am referring to hand-rearing that included Abundance Weaning™ and a full fledging experience, at a minimum.) Further, if the previous home had included elements of deprivation, these individuals literally blossom when placed once again into more benevolent circumstances.
Further, I see behavioral similarities among the population of parrots who were weaned according to artificial time frames and whose wings were clipped before they ever learned to fly. These include dependent and sexually-oriented behavior toward one person, a lack of foraging ability, and fearful behavior that is inappropriate to the environmental context. I see these birds as permanently impaired and destined to a long existence in captivity that includes significant levels of stress. Often, the consulting process can improve their quality of life, but they will never be the birds that they would have been had they enjoyed a better beginning.
Chris’ blog post generated many comments on my Facebook page and a respectful discussion took place, although participants embrace many strongly-held and widely-divergent opinions. One breeder shared that she chooses to incubator-hatch her parrot eggs so that she can avoid the stress to the parents of having their babies repeatedly removed. Another disagreed with this approach because of the proven detrimental effects that accrue when babies are not allowed contact with their parents. My gratitude goes out to all who participated. Chris Shank, in various episodes of her guest blog, has brought to our attention the necessary components to successful parent-rearing. However, she herself questions whether the time frames for taming and training the babies produced this way are realistic when breeding for the pet trade.
Co-parenting seems to be a more viable answer. This is the process during which babies remain with their parents, thus receiving all the benefits of a parent-reared bird, but also have regular positive contact with people for both play and supplemental feeding. For this to be a viable approach, however, the parent birds must themselves be friendly enough toward humans. However, finding breeders who co-parent is next to impossible. Further, at this stage, just trying to find a breeder who is knowledgeable about behavior, practices, Abundance Weaning, and fledges his/her babies is also next to impossible. I know this first-hand. Over the past two years, I have had several clients ask me to help them find a good breeder. We determine the species that they prefer to adopt and identify the geographical areas they can consider. We then identify potential breeders and I provide to the client a list of questions to ask the breeder to determine whether he/she really is a viable candidate. We then evaluate the answers together. Initially, I believed that to be an approach designed to ensure success.
I had a total of seven such experiences in the past two years and not one of them turned out satisfactorily. We found breeders who talked the talk, but that was as far as it went. One breeder agreed to fledge the baby parrot, but then clipped the wings without telling my client beforehand. She later explained that she was afraid the baby would hurt himself. She had said that she fledges her babies, but in the end clearly knew nothing about the process and did not understand the value. Another breeder was unable to support the baby into becoming food independent and finally insisted that the owner come and adopt her unweaned baby parrot. (This bird was well past the age when independent eating skills could be expected.) These experiences should never happen, yet, they are the norm.
The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is “weaned” at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems. Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by “farming industry practices.” That is the answer. You are the answer.
That will be solution enough until we can figure out an even better way of rearing baby parrots…until breeders realize that the market is demanding higher standards of them. My hope is that we will see a great deal more co-parenting and parent-rearing.
And in the meantime, consider seriously adopting an older parrot who needs a home. I can assure you that adopting a baby is no insurance policy against having behavior issues. All parrots will present you with challenges. There are so many adult parrots who need homes. If they come with problems, then get an experienced behavior consultant to help you. Problems can be solved!
Let’s keep this discussion alive, so that another 26 years doesn’t slip between our fingers, characterized by a lack of awareness and change. Captive parrots deserve better from us.
Addendum: If you are a breeder who co-parents or parent-rears and sends babies home fully-flighted, I would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pamela Clark’s References:
- Feenders, G., & Bateson, M. (2013). Hand rearing affects emotional responses but not basic cognitive performance in European starlings. Animal behaviour, 86(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.002
- Fox, R. 2006. “HandRearing: Behavioral Impacts and Implications for Captive Parrot Welfare.” Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.
- Linden, P. G. 1993. “Abundance Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #13. September/October 1993. Volume 3, Number 5. Pages 18 – 21.
- Linden, P. G. 1994. “Fledgling Stress Syndrome.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #19. Volume 4, Number 5. Pages 42 – 44.
- Linden, P. G. 1995. “The Developmental Impact of Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #20. Volume 4, Number 6. Pages 4 – 10.
- Linden, P. G. 1995. “Eating Skills for Recently Weaned Chicks.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #23. Date unknown. Volume 5, Number 3. Pages 38 – 45.
- Linden, P, G. with Leuscher, A. 2006. “Behavioral Development of Psittacine Companions: Neonates, Neophytes, and Fledglings.” Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.
- Meder, A. (1989), Effects of hand‐rearing on the behavioral development of infant and juvenile gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla). Dev. Psychobiol., 22: 357-376. doi:10.1002/dev.420220404
Position: Hand-Feeding: World Parrot Trust
One of the emerging and recurrent debates in parrot keeping is the question of whether to hand-feed baby parrots or to let the parent birds raise their chicks. Some claim that hand-feeding a young parrot will lead to a happier pet bird which is more tame and more strongly bonded with its owner. Others have asserted that allowing the parents to raise their own young will produce healthier and better-adjusted birds which themselves will make better parents later in life. Not surprisingly, there is some truth to both assertions, and of course there are exceptions to every rule.
In principle, the World Parrot Trust supports husbandry choices for parrots which most closely reflect what these birds have experienced through millions of years of evolution. In the case of feeding baby parrots, with a few important caveats, their own parents are uniquely qualified for the job.
The importance of parental nurturing
If you ever get the privilege to watch the process in person, you will find there is a lot more going on inside a parrot nest than just the deposit of food from adult to chick. There are complex interactions between the chick and its mother and father, and of course, for most parrots, among siblings as well. In the wild, these interactions go even further to include insects in the nest litter, or bats hanging from the top of the cavity, and other animals coming and going from the cavity. In one of our studies of a Caribbean Amazon, a nest camera revealed a chick perched happily on the end of an iguana’s tail!
Based on what we know about the development of other complex, intelligent, and slow-to-mature species, these early experiences, particularly relations with parents and siblings, are likely to be very important to the healthy development and successful fledging of the chicks. It’s nearly impossible for a hand-rearer to mimic such complex interactions throughout the day and night, whereas a parrot parent will very often do an outstanding job (particularly, it turns out, if it too was raised by its own parents).
The positives of hand-rearing
Like nearly everything else with parrots, the reality isn’t so black-and-white. In the case of hand-rearing, there are of course instances when one or both parents, for whatever reason, choose not to rear their chicks, or make parenting decisions which threaten the chicks' survival. Or in some cases, one of the parents is unable to care for the young. In these instances, very often it becomes essential for the chicks to be pulled from the nest and hand-fed or left in the nest and given supplementary feeding. There is ample evidence that such birds, particularly if socialized well through fledging and independence, can grow to be happy and healthy parrots.
One final detail worth thinking about, regardless of whether a parrot is hand-reared or parent-reared, is that for nearly all parrot species, companion birds will consume a diet which bears only the faintest resemblance to what birds of the same species would eat in the wild. While of course this matters from a nutritional standpoint, there are other issues as well. One has to do with the phenomenally complex chemistry of wild tree seeds, fruits, buds, and bark, and the other has to do with their structure. Studies of wild parrots which sample the foods in chicks’ crops generally find a complex and coarse collection of ingredients – whole seeds with hard shells, insects, bark, soil, and other contents, none of which one is likely to find in a companion chick’s crop whether it’s fed by a human or its parent. In light of this, not only should parrot parents rear their chicks whenever possible, caregivers should be providing the adult parrots with as diverse and complex a collection of foods as they can manage, which will enable the parents the choice to feed their chicks the best possible combination of foods.
In sum, there are advantages for both methods of raising chicks, but in general, a parrot is the best parent for a parrot youngster.