Early Beginnings for Parrots

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 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 with 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 behaviour 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 behavioural abnormalities such as motor stereotypies.”
  • “Adverse events during early development have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing abnormal behaviour, and specifically motor stereotypies, 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? That 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 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-feeding 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 knowledgable about behavior, practices Abundance Weaning, and fledges 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 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: pamelaclarkcvt@gmail.com.

References:

Feenders, G., & Bateson, M. (2013). Hand rearing affects emotional responses but not basic cognitive performance in European starlings. Animal behaviour86(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

Part Three: The Benefits to Us

I have never read any discussion about living with flighted parrots in which the word “inconvenience” didn’t appear. It’s true. Living with flying birds can be inconvenient, in addition to messy, challenging, and chaotic.

Despite this reality, I would never go back to clipping wings. Most others who have adopted the lifestyle agree. They can’t imagine a scenario that would cause them to clip wings again.

Living with birds who fly is an experience so special …so remarkable …that no amount of inconvenience, chaos or mess will press you to give it up. My last blog episode examined the advantages to the birds of enjoying indoor flight. In this post, I will focus on all of the many advantages to us.

Why I Do It

I initially stopped clipping wings because I thought it was the right thing to do. Preventing their freedom of movement no longer seemed an ethical option. Never, however, could I have imagined the gifts that would accrue to me personally of making this change. I can enumerate them as follows:

  • Greater sensitivity to and skill at reading body language
  • Greater awareness of my surroundings and my animals
  • Knowledge of how behavior works and improved skills at teaching and motivating
  • Deeper commitment to being responsible for the safety of my flock
  • Parrots with no behavior problems
  • The ability to recognize illness earlier
  • The ability to identify discord between individuals earlier
  • A deep sense of pride at how I provide for my birds
  • A deeper, more trusting, relationship with my birds
  • A great deal more fun!

Reading Body Language

We generally gain knowledge on an “as needed” basis – to meet our lowest level of intellectual demand. If our parrots do less because they can’t easily move around, we have less need to develop greater sensitivity. Oh, we usually (but not always) learn how to avoid being bitten. And, if we have a fearful parrot, we may learn which environmental factors scare them and how to avoid those.  We learn to respond to very overt body language.

However, the potential for problems of all types increases when you live with multiple flighted parrots. To avoid conflicts and accidents, as well as to maintain trust and compliance, it’s necessary to become exceptionally more sensitive to and skilled at reading body language.

Bird who enjoy frequent movement are constantly giving us feedback about ourselves. This creates for us greater sensitivity in regards to how our movements affect them. Move too quickly, or use a scary gesture, and they fly away. When we live with clipped birds, this type of subtle feedback is absent. Living with those who can fly makes us more sensitive and considerate caregivers.

Greater Awareness of My Surroundings

Living with flighted birds comes with risks. Managing these risks successfully requires that we cultivate and maintain a greater awareness of our surroundings and our birds from moment to moment. This is simply a skill that develops over time.

Risk management is only one advantage from becoming more aware, however. The real gift is one of living more harmoniously with my flock. I will never forget the reverberation in my heart when I heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of you, you must be aware of your animal.”

My birds are infinitely aware of and sensitive to my movements. Thus, because I feel the truth of Barbara’s advice, I have required of myself that I learned to match their awareness with my own. This has created a much deeper connection to them that I struggle to describe.

Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills

Way back when, I taught stepping up through laddering. Because someone said I should. I got a reluctant parrot to step up by scaring him with a washcloth held close by. Because someone said I should. I kept a parrot on my hand by putting pressure on his toes. Because someone said I should.

I only got away with these strategies because at that time, I was also clipping wings and had pretty polite parrots who were willing to go along with my foolishness. Those types of interactions are aversive to parrots and rely on an attitude of force and command.

When you live with birds who fly, the use of force is completely off the table. They simply fly off if they don’t like what’s happening. If you respond to the behavior challenges that occur with a lack of skill, you can quickly lose all control over them. Your only option is to learn the principles that govern how behavior “works” and to use positive reinforcement skillfully in order to get the behavior that you want.

As my friend Leslie Mapes describes her experience:  “Giving my bird the ability to fly means that he is able to act on his environment and go where he wants to and connect with me (or not) when he wants to. His ability to move around on his own also makes me a better caregiver. I wouldn’t have it any other way for this very smart, very gifted flyer of a bird!”

Living Responsibly

Discussions about indoor flight are replete with cautions about the risks. They can land on hot stoves or fly out the door. They can drown in toilets. They can eat toxic houseplants, or fly into ceiling fans. Some of these presumed risks are very real; others are more imagined.

These risks can be handled successfully through skillful management of the environment, coupled with training. Nevertheless, living with birds who fly requires us to become and remain more watchful and responsible. We learn to automatically think ahead to anticipate potential problems and invent solutions before they arise. Rather than relying on the assumption that clipped wings will keep my birds safe, I must accept the responsibility for ensuring their physical safety.

I like how reader Rachel Crooks expressed it: “I think it’s my responsibility as an owner of a flighted creature to maintain an environment where they are safe to fly, rather than trying to adapt the bird to my environment.”

Absence of Behavior Problems

The majority of behavior problems are caused in part by inadequate environmental provisions – not enough choices, learning opportunities, foraging or freedom. A parrot who cannot move around at will is at greater risk for developing behavior problems.

This doesn’t mean that flighted parrots can’t also develop problems. They do. They can be loud. They can be aggressive. They can chew off feathers. However, the incidence of problems is much less among flighted birds.

My birds don’t need to scream for attention. If they need it, they fly to my proximity and indicate this in a quieter manner. They don’t need to bite; they simply fly away if I make a misstep. None of them destroy their feathers. The flying they do encourages normal preening and they are so busy, they aren’t prone to resorting to feather destruction for entertainment.

Recognizing Illness

We all know it – birds tend to hide signs of illness until they are so sick they can no longer do so. Even seriously ill parrots behave normally at times. This leads to their early loss too frequently – we just didn’t realize that something was wrong until it was too late.

Flying takes a lot of energy. If a parrot flies frequently as part of its daily behavior repertoire, an observed decrease in this activity is likely to signify the presence of  a problem. Clipped parrots often display lower levels of interaction with the environment, making it more difficult to identify behavioral signs of illness.

Thus, flight ability acts as an “early warning system.” If a bird begins to fly less, even if he appears normal in all other ways, I am going to get him to the vet without delay.

Recognizing Discord

Parrots have dynamic personalities. They don’t always get along. Some never do, while others can change their relationship dynamics over time. Those who used to be friendly can begin to have issues.

Differences in the expression of body language, along with issues of perceived territory, can cause some pretty consequential discord. Serious injuries and expensive veterinary bills can result.

Since parrots use flight to express themselves, in addition to moving around, peersonality problems become evident quickly. If I see one bird beginning to spend more time in the bedroom, away from the others, I know to look deeper into this behavior change. The likelihood is that someone is harassing her, at least on a subtle level. If I see any chasing happen, I know I’ve got a serious problem to solve.

Those who clip wings don’t have this advantage. Often problems between parrot personalities aren’t recognized until it’s too late.

A Sense of Pride

I believe that most of us feel guilt, on some level and at least some of the time, about keeping parrots at all. It was a blatantly stupid, arrogant, idea to take a creature who can fly, remove that ability, and confine it in a cage for human enjoyment. Those of us who choose to live with birds in our homes now carry the burden of this misuse of power deep in our souls, despite our distance from the original sin.

I contend that this quietly simmering unease causes us to make some really questionable decisions regarding our parrots. We want to make them happy, so feed them things they shouldn’t have, focus on the provision of physical affection, and allow them to hang out in closets for hours at a time. We give them what they want, rather than what they need.

I can’t forget that my birds didn’t evolve to live within four walls. But, by providing for flight, lots of freedom, and time outdoors, I can feel good about the quality of life that they enjoy at my hands. They can’t have it all, But they have enough to enjoy life to the fullest.

As behavior consultant Greg Glendell writes, “Is it a basic tenet of good animal husbandry that all creatures in captivity should be given the opportunity to carry out as many of their natural daily activities in captivity as they would in the wild.”

Relationships of Trust

This one is simple. Training always creates more trust. Clipping wings and training are two sides of the same coin. You either clip or you train. If you live with parrots who possess good flight skills, you don’t have any choice. You must provide training on a daily basis.

This ongoing behavioral guidance creates deep levels of trust in my relationships with my birds. Every interaction that I have with them involves choice for them. They don’t have to step up unless they want to. They don’t have to go back into their cages unless they want to. They don’t have to go outdoors unless they want to. But, they do want to because I have learned to be a good trainer and I know how to motivate them.

A Joyful Lifestyle

Parrots use flight for reasons other than moving around. They also use flight to express themselves. One might suddenly take it into his head to fly in circles, screaming happily. I get to share in that exhilaration.

One might fly to a perch and then flip upside down in silliness. I get to laugh. One might ace an especially complicated landing. I get to admire. I might find one in a completely unexpected place. I get to be surprised.

Birds who fly are simply more fun to be around. They reveal their unique personalities in a manner that sedentary birds cannot.

As reader Rachel Crooks describes, “As her flight feathers have come in over the past year, I have seen a huge growth in her confidence and independence. I love that she is able to explore and find new ways through flight to entertain and stimulate that little brain of hers! Part of her daily routine is to zoom around my apartment for 10 or 15 minutes purely for fun. My experience with her has taught me that flight isn’t a purely functional behaviour – it’s used as a way to communicate, to play, and to explore. I feel lucky to be able to experience this alongside my bird!”

My birds are also less dependent, which pleases me. They don’t need me for entertainment. They can go where they want and do what they want in an environment that provides them with plenty of opportunities.

In Summary

I will leave you with the words of reader Paula Hobson: “I have mixed feelings about keeping companion animals.  On the one hand, I feel most peaceful and happy in the company of my 2 dogs, 2 parrots, and 2 parakeets.  Their beauty, affection, curiosity, attention, and the fact that they are always exactly who they are in the moment helps ground me and keep me sane.  That they aren’t human keeps me alert and curious about what the world is like with their particular senses, abilities, and unique thought processes.  On the other hand, they live mostly indoors, will never mate and raise young, interact naturally with their own kind, or make use of their considerable intelligence and resourcefulness to survive in their natural habitats.  In recognition of their great (involuntary) sacrifice, I try to provide the best diet, environment, and fun/challenge for them.  This includes as much freedom as you can have in a modest 3-bedroom ranch home.  They are out of their cages unless I have visitors or need to have the door open for any length of time.  They have play areas on their cages, java tree, toy tree, parrot stand, and refrigerator top.  They fly to the bathroom when I shower, and to my bedroom when I dress.  Just seeing their grace and beauty during flight lifts my heart, every time.  The physiology of flight, from unique skeleton and respiratory system, and the visual processing of the brain for flight and landing, are integral to the birds’ being.  To cripple them by clipping the wings and forcing them to walk everywhere would so severely limit their experience and freedom that I do not think I could justify it to myself.  Imagine being kidnapped by an alien and having your hamstrings cut so you could only get around in a wheelchair.  For your own safety.  How would this affect your quality of life?  Your mood?  I believe all living beings have pleasure moving in their healthy bodies and in having freedom.  If it increases some risks to the birds, I choose that over depriving them of flight.”

Now that we have examined all of the many benefits of flight, I will in my next episode, get down to the business of discussing how to make this difficult decision. Is my house a suitable one for having birds who fly? Is having flighted birds right for me? Is my bird a good candidate for flight? See you then!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots, by offering behavior and husbandry consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resources

McKendry, Jim. Publication date unknown. Wing Clipping vs. Flighted Companion Parrots. World Parrot Trust: Ask an Expert. https://www.parrots.org/ask-an-expert/wing-clipping-vs-flighted-companion-parrots. Accessed 03/29/2019. Accessed 03/30/2019

Sarah and Three Birds and A Cloud. 2012. https://threebirdsandacloud.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/life-with-flighted-parrots. Accessed 04/08/2019.