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 Four: To Clip or Not to Clip?

The previous three episodes of this blog examined all of the reasons why allowing flight must be thoroughly considered before any decision to clip wings is made – in each and every case. Flight is the very best choice for physical and psychological health for the parrot and offers many benefits to the caregiver as well.

Courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

In a perfect world, all baby parrots would be parent-raised, fully fledged, and never have their wings clipped. In a perfect world, no one would adopt a parrot unless they could keep the bird fully flighted. However, this is not a perfect world.

The complicated lives of the complicated people who live with complicated parrots can make this decision a challenging one for those who have embraced wing clipping in the past. In addition to that, not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. This blog will take a look at how one goes about deciding this crucial question: “Is allowing flight the right choice for me and my parrot?”

It’s a Study of One

Careful consideration must be given to all aspects and all projected consequences of each option.  Many questions must be asked and answered about the home environment, the family, and the parrot. When owners take the time to do a thorough analysis, the choice then can be made with confidence. 

If we decide to clip those flight feathers, we may regret the need, but we will rest confidently in the knowledge that the choice is the right one, because the other has been thoroughly researched and found impossible.  If we decide to allow flight, our commitment to this will be complete and this will serve us well as prepare to live with a bird who flies.

Each parrot and his environment are a study of one.

Assessing the Environment

Not every home can safely accommodate a fully flighted parrot. Future episodes of this blog will deliver specific recommendations for how to live safely and successfully with birds who fly. Today, we will merely take a look at some of the considerations necessary to making a decision.

Can you secure your home by arranging your entrances and exits in such a way that the parrot cannot be lost if he chooses to fly to you?  Companion parrots will rarely fly out an open door without reason. They are typically afraid of the unfamiliar and will not consciously make a decision to leave the familiarity of the home for the strangeness of the outdoors.

They are most frequently lost when they try to join us as we leave or enter the home. Especially at risk are parrots who have gotten used to hanging out on shoulders. When we open a door to either enter or exit the home, a flighted parrot will often try to join us. Hitting the shoulder at the same moment that we open the door often provides that perfect instant of startle when they instead fly off out the door. Having a double-entry system will prevent this.

Family Members and Visitors

Are all family members reliable, in terms of keeping doors shut and remaining mindful about the use of ceiling fans and other hazards? If you have several small children around, the danger of loss could increase if doors are constantly being left open. Yours may be 100% reliable, while their friends may not. Living with parrots might need to wait until they are older.

It doesn’t do a bird much good to be flighted if he spends the majority of each day in his cage for safety’s sake.

Even adult visitors will need monitoring. One African grey loved to fly in a circuit around the living area. There was a sliding glass door between two of the rooms that was always left open…until a well-meaning visitor closed it and a tragedy occurred. Dangers must be anticipated and prevented, which requires constant mindfulness.

An Outdoor Aviary?

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

Is there room for an outdoor aviary or screened-in porch and are you willing to go to the expense and inconvenience of providing such a safe space out-of-doors? Aside from the fact that parrots need exposure to real sunlight for health, a flighted parrot will be safest if he is exposed regularly to the sights and sounds of your neighborhood. In the event of loss, this familiarity can keep him from startling and flying too far away for recovery.

Other Pets

Are there other animals in the home who might pose a danger? Most cats are not much of a risk to medium- to large-sized parrots, but will absolutely be attracted to the manner in which small birds fly.

Dogs with a prey drive may well leap up to catch a flighted parrot, but leave a perched bird alone. Dogs (and possibly some cats) can be trained a “leave it” cue, but this would require a good degree of training skill and persistent effort on your part.

Occasionally one parrot will develop aggressive behavior toward another. Training can resolve this situation as well, but in rare cases it could be best for everyone’s safety to perform a partial clip until such training is well under way. It is not typically necessary to perform a full wing clip to solve this problem temporarily. Removing about 1.5 inches of length from the first two or three leading primary flight feathers makes it more difficult to fly, which generally leads to a drastic reduction in such aggressive behavior.

Assessing Ourselves

As much as we might like to think that we are good candidates for living with a flighted parrot, not all of us are.  We must honestly assess ourselves, as well.

Am I interested in training my bird and am I willing to devote the time to learn how? As I stated in my last blog post about the benefits of flight to caregivers, clipping wings and training are too sides of the same coin. (In reality of course, clipped birds need training too.) While clipping wings may accomplish a measure of compliance, you have no such advantage with a flighted companion. Reinforcing cued behaviors to maintain compliance and teaching a recall behavior are essential.

Training birds is fun, results in better relationships, and doesn’t take more than a few minutes each day. But, if you are unfamiliar with effective training strategies, this will require study, planning and preparation. If you feel that your life is out of control and you lose your keys once a week, it might not be the right time to live with birds who fly.

An Inconvenient Truth

Are you willing to tolerate some damage to household items? This should be minimal if you set up the house correctly and work on behavioral management. However, it will still happen.

Parrots often change their behavior as they get older and we will at times be absent-minded. How many remote controls are you willing to replace? Is it important enough to you to allow your bird flight to put up with the occasional need to repair woodwork or replace closet doors (as a real-life example)?

Parrot Perches

Photo courtesy of David Hull

Parrots need their own “furniture.” For flighted birds, this is essential. Since they can go where they want, they will use yours if they don’t have their own. To me, there is no greater frustration than watching a parrot perch on a bookcase and chew the spines of my beloved books.

Setting up an appropriate environment for flighted birds will remove your home a few steps from Martha Stewart standards. Can you make peace with this?

Assessing the Parrot

Not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. 

First, any decision to clip wings should never be made for the purpose of correcting behavior problems. It was common, when I was working as a veterinary technician, for a client to come in stating that she wanted her birds wings clipped because he was becoming “uppity.”

In other words, the owner wanted the clip for the purpose of making the parrot feel less safe so that he would be more compliant. This is not ethical. “Uppity behavior,” and any other problems, can be addressed through training – using positive reinforcement effectively, coupled with thoughtful arrangement of the environment. If you have a behavior problem, please call me for a consultation before you think about clipping wings.

Fully Flighted = Excellent Skills

In regards to the parrot himself, any decision to clip should be based upon safety considerations. Many older parrots will not learn to fly even if you allow their flight feathers to grow out. This creates a dangerous situation.

A bird with flight capability, but who lacks flight skills, is at greater risk of both physical injury and permanent loss than the parrot who practices flying regularly. Most of the accidents and injuries that are touted as reasons for clipping have occurred because of limited or nonexistent skills.

It is also too easy to imagine that the bird who doesn’t fly… can’t or won’t fly. These birds are regularly lost when owners take them outside on shoulders or perches, imagining that they will never fly off. All it takes is a startle, generating a spurt of adrenaline, a bit of breeze, and that bird is gone. Sadly then, he is often lost for good since he doesn’t have the skills to keep himself safe and then fly back.

If you are going to allow your parrot to keep his flight feathers, it is crucial that he uses them to fly as his primary means of getting around. Only in this way will he develop the skills he needs. Fully flighted parrots must develop stamina, the ability to maneuver in tight places, and to fly upward and downward at steep inclines. This will make their recovery more certain if they are ever lost outside.

Evaluating Candidates

Great candidates for the recovery of flight are those young parrots who were fledged well by the breeder, but then had their wings clipped before adoption. Typically, once they molt for the first time they regain flight easily. Unfortunately these days in the United States, breeders who fledge babies are rare.

Young parrots who never fledged, but who are allowed to retain flight feathers after the first molt, often also learn to fly well. That instinct to fly usually remains for at least a year after clipping. These individuals may need a little encouragement, but can still become great flyers.

Evaluating older parrots for flight can be difficult. I remember one conversation I had with Barbara Heidenreich and Chris Shank on this topic. We agreed that a heavy-bodied bird who had been clipped for eight years or longer is not likely to regain flight and would be a poor candidate. Exceptions exist, however.

Parrots with long tails (cockatiels, conures, macaws, etc) are often described as “light-bodied.” These individuals may be more likely to regain flight, even after a few years of clipping. Parrots with short tails (Amazons, caiques, African greys, etc) are termed “heavy-bodied” and often have a harder time learning to fly later.

For these birds, initial attempts at flight are not reinforcing. Flying is too hard and they frequently decide that it is not worth the effort, especially if they have been clipped for long enough that they have lost that urge to change location frequently that is a hallmark of the parrot spirit.

Small cockatoos do frequently regain flight, even after an extended period of clipped wings. Their dynamic, sprightly personalities seem to provide them with more drive for frequent activity. In addition, they tend to have wider wing spans in relation to their body size than other species do, which makes those early attempts less punishing.

Get a Mentor to Ensure Success

I strongly encourage you to engage the services of a mentor if you do decide to allow your clipped parrot to regain flight. It can be invaluable to speak with an experienced advocate who will evaluate your home for dangers, help you set up the correct environment, and provide you with the training knowledge you need.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

I’ve never yet talked to anyone who regretted the decision to allow flight. It’s an emotional experience that words struggle to convey. The rewards so far outweigh the inconvenience. It’s akin to touching the wildish heart of the natural world.

Please stay tuned for the next episode of this series, which will provide information on living successfully with flighted birds, including setting up your home and the necessary training.

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 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!