Nest or Nursery?

© Jean Pattison — The African Queen

At one of the conferences where I had lectured, as usual, after hours while gathered in the lobby, the topic came up about environment vs. genetics. On the plane trip home I had plenty of time to ponder some of the questions that were asked.

One of the questions asked that stuck out in my mind was why there are so many hand-fed babies being sold into the pet market. I had to assume the person asking the question was fairly new to the world of pet parrots. Had they been around for a number of years, they would have known that we purposely moved away from the parent raised birds that needed to be tamed when the majority of birds that went to the pet trade were imported. Most of the birds going into pet homes were trapped and tamed, and fewer of them were hand-fed because of the sheer numbers of inexpensive wild-caught imported birds being sold. During this time there were many breeders that started hand-feeing baby birds in larger numbers. They realized that when hand-fed, they will grow up with humans and become adjusted to human interaction at an early age and be much nicer companions. Also about this time there grew a wave of concern about trapping and importing birds into the United States, and the Wild Bird Conservation Act became law. With this law no more imported birds where brought into the USA. Much of the outcry in favor of getting this law to pass was that hand-fed babies make much better pets and this would promote the domestic production of hand raised babies for the Pet Trade.

During this age in aviculture hand raised birds became the norm and many bird behaviorists came on the scene. Without having the knowledge of how hand-feeding was actually done and the reasoning behind the methods, much was assumed about how it should be done. It was advocated that babies should have cuddle toys and hand-feeders should interact continually with the babies at an early age. Spending time playing and entertaining the babies, offering them bright shiny toys and changing them often was recommended. Allowing other members of the family to play and interact with the babies was also suggested. Give them lots of outside stimulation, so they would be well adjusted. Babies could be molded and shaped into creatures that fit into a family situation. To the novice pet owner, this was all so warm and fuzzy, and just seemed so right. The whole movement promoted spoiling the chicks and making them dependant on the hand-feeder. It was believed if a hand-feeder didn't do all these warm fuzzy things, they were not doing a good job and were actually bad breeders, and just in it for the money. What was never addressed was … what is so wrong with doing a job that you love and can make money while you do it? Isn't that everyone's dream?

Incubating eggs and feeding from the hatch, or pulling young chicks from the nest can be very labor intensive, and can only be accomplished as a labor of love. When feeding chicks that just hatched, there are days that the hand-feeder is feeding babies every 2-3 hours. Remember they hatch days apart, so when one chick is down to every four hour feedings, another hatches and starts the 2-3 hour feeding clock all over again

Professional breeders many years ago realized baby birds, like all babies have an important need to … sleep, eat and poop. This is what is needed to make a strong healthy baby. Professional breeders knew, that in a natural nest situation, birds were not being "played" with; they were not attended to by the parents, at every peep they made. Professional breeders didn't play and interact with their young babies during the important growing stages. They allowed them to sleep, eat and poop so they could grow properly.

Regardless whether the baby is in a nest cavity, or in a brooder, taken from the nest near weaning or incubator hatched, the adult birds can wind up with the same temperament. They can be raised to be birds with independence and sass, trust, and confidence, and not raised to be needy dependant spoiled children.

Anyone who has ever heard me lecture has heard me say, that a baby can be fed with a spoon, a syringe, a bent cup, by fingers, rubber feeding tube or metal gavage, and it will not affect the baby's temperament, or prevent the baby from weaning normally, or its ability to become a normal adult bird. It is how the instrument is used that makes the difference. And so it is with how a chick is cared for during the hand-feeding process. It is not the hand-feeding, or the age when taken from the nest, that changes the bird from being a bird, to being too human dependant, but how the baby is hand-fed and cared for.

Although we would all like to think we are raising our chicks as close to nature as we can achieve, how can this be possible? This whole environment is unnatural. When chicks are left with the parents in the aviary the parents are in the nests with the chicks much longer and much more often than parents with chicks in their natural habitat. At three weeks when parents in the wild are spending almost all of their time out of the nest foraging for food to feed their hungry babies in their natural habitat, in aviaries, parents have all the food they need right in front of them and are with the chicks much more often. One could begin to believe the parent birds make them more dependant birds than their wild counterparts. Of course, since parents are unnaturally in the nest much more, they will often resort to plucking the chicks, which can sometimes be quite severe.

I have fed chicks from day one, and have also taken African greys from the nest at eight weeks, with little difference in the weaned chick. Each situation is different just as each chick is different, even in siblings. When wild caught birds from Africa were first put into breeding situations, or established pairs moved to another breeder's aviary, the parents can be nervous, consequently the babies may be nervous. Over time, the parent birds adjust to the new environment and become calmer and secure raising their babies, so the babies are calmer. I do believe how babies are handled, not matter how young, can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Professional breeders know their birds, and how to handle each different pair and their chicks. Some species of parrot chicks can be left with the parents until almost weaning, and with a bit of work can become acclimated to the nursery and human interaction. With other species of parrots this would be an impossibility. One among many considerations is weather, if breeding outdoors. In 90 degree weather babies (as well as the parent birds) suffer from over heating and parents may be stressed from the heat and work of feeding. In this instance babies need to be taken from the nest at a much younger age than babies that hatch during less extreme times. Disease is also of great importance. When a chick is left in the nest, it can be exposed to any diseases that might show up in the environment and for this reason some breeders prefer to incubate eggs and hand-feed from day one.

Every pair of birds is different, just as every situation is different, just as every breeder/hand-feeder is different.

Since I specialize in the African parrots, I work with a species that is more prone to feather picking. I have heard it proclaimed that greys left with the parents longer or parent-reared, are less likely to feather pick. I have approximately 100 adult wild-caught imported greys, with four being feather pickers. I have about 12 parent reared greys with three being feather pickers. It would be very easy to say, based on those statistics, that parent reared greys are more likely to feather pick. I must ask … with such a small group, without controlled studies, how can any statements either way, be made with such factual implications?

I have found chicks from some pairs wean a certain way when I hand-feed, and wean differently with a different hand-feeder. For over 15 years I have sold a lot of my babies to certain private hand-feeders, we have learned which pair's chicks respond the best to which hand-feeder. If I raise a clutch of chicks from a certain pair, I may do a better job then one of the hand-feeders I sell to, while they can raise babies better than I can from a different pair. So enters genetics, and the difference in the situations in rearing these birds. This may also be true of how a hand-feeder relates to the age a baby is taken from the nest. With some pairs it may be necessary to leave babies with the parents longer, due to how they relate to the hand-feeder, while others can be taken early. This is not a science. And there are no scientific studies that prove at what age baby birds taken from the nest turn out to be "better pets." And, there are no hard fast rules about just what a better pet is. That just may be in the eyes of the beholder.