Hand-Rearing Parrots

During 2015 we hand-reared several third generation Blue-throated Macaws Ara glaucogularis, a species which in the wild has a population at the time of writing that numbers less than 400 individuals, giving it a Critically Endangered status under IUCN Red List criteria. This number represents a recovery from a low of 110 individuals. The chicks referenced, whose grandparents I also bred, were produced by a pair of three year old individuals. Each generation was hand-reared.

Originally I hand-reared the first Blue-throated Macaw  clutch to learn more about this species, whose first appearance in aviculture dates back to only the late 1970s. At the time the bird was called Caninde Macaw Ara caninde and its range was believed to extend from Bolivia through Paraguay to northern Argentina. The name and distribution were extracted from the writings of Sánchez Labrador and Felix de Azara dating from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s. Confusion with the Blue and Gold Macaw Ara ararauna, which is called Arara caninde in Portuguese, added to the enigma. The first attempt to clarify the matter dates to 1981, when the currently used name of Ara glaucogularis was assigned. The differences in appearance and behavior of a living specimen exhibited at the then Walsrode Bird Park in Germany led Johann Ingels, Ken Parkes and John Farrand to pen the first article on the species– in 1981. They proved that the various hypotheses that the birds were a mutation, sport, subspecies or form of the Blue and Gold Macaw were erroneous. Another decade would pass before the species was first observed in the wild and its range defined to the Llanos de los Moxos in north-central Bolivia.

The experience gathered with the first Blue-throated Macaw chick that I reared proved that in many respects this species differs dramatically from the Blue and Gold. The Blue-throated chicks are quieter, less active and display the distinctive morphology (more compressed bill) from a very young age. As adults, they have a distinct courtship display and a beak that is the most probably the strongest of the Ara macaws, except for the Great Green Ara ambiguus. There is no doubt that the Blue-throat is a valid and distinctive species.

After having acquired sufficient data on the development of young, I still continued to hand-rear the chicks because it provided a means of increasing the numbers in a critically endangered species. If the pairs were allowed to rear their young, most produced a single clutch per year.  But by removing the eggs or chicks when they were small, the pair could be induced to produce three or four times as many young—a boost for the captive population of such a rara avis.

Each generation was hand-reared using the same protocol. They are fed, cleaned and kept in groups preferably of their own kind. Every attempt to prevent imprinting is taken. If only a single Blue-throated Macaw is being hand-reared, then that chick is kept with a macaw of another species. As the young grow they are not only introduced to solid food but also enrichment, including leafed branches, pods and palm seeds. The young are encouraged to explore and to develop as birds. Once weaned, they are kept in a group in a flight cage where they mature. There have been no aberrant behaviors ever observed. Indeed the hand-reared chicks are identical to those reared by the parents, except that from the onset they are far tamer.  These hand-reared chicks are capable parents when allowed to incubate and rear their own young.

I point the above out because a recent lecturer in the Czech Republic suggested that hand-reared parrots display aberrant behavior or are otherwise inferior to their parent reared counterparts. I disagree. When properly hand-reared, there is no truth to such claims. Let me dissect this subject.

One argument periodically heard is that hand-reared birds lack the knowledge to rear their own young. This claim fails to take into account that like call, breeding display and flying, the DNA contains the roadmap for behavior. Chris Castles has been releasing and studying Scarlet Ara macao and Buffon´s Macaws Ara ambiguus in Costa Rica for more than a decade. His data, accumulated over many releases, shows that there is no difference in survivability in the wild in hand-reared versus parent-reared young. He has also found no difference in parenting abilities in both groups. Yellow-shouldered Amazons Amazona barbadensis hand-reared and then released on Margarita Island proved to be capable parents when they bred. The same has been found in a long list of other parrot species.

The usual point of attack in hand-rearing is imprinting and the species most commonly referenced are cockatoos. Many cockatoos (primarily males) on reaching sexual maturity display hormonally induced bouts of aggression, where their owner or mate is attacked. Many females die when viciously attacked by one of these males and more than one owner has rushed himself or herself to the emergency room for suturing. Had such behavior been seen only in hand-reared individuals, then the claim of emotionally disturbed birds resulting from hand-rearing would be correct. But wild males when paired or kept as pets display the same behavior; indeed there is documented evidence to suggest that aggression is also seen in the wild. It was an attempt to reduce this behavior that in the 1980s a nesting box manufacturer in the US started offering a T-shaped nest with two entrances. The theory was that a hen could escape being entrapped by her mate through the second hole. American veterinarians experimented with acrylic beak bumpers, honing down the point of the beak or beak bisecting surgery to address mate killing. The T-shaped nest and beak modification procedures were invented to initially address wild cockatoos. Any experienced veterinarian will confirm that hand-reared birds are no less aggressive or mate killers than their wild counterparts. They will concur that socialization are more important in establishing a behavior pattern than the mere act of hand-rearing.

Another issue attributed to hand-reared birds is the production of young of inferior weight or size. Hand-rearing can produce chicks whose weight is inferior to their parent reared counterparts if the liquid:solids ratio is erring, the chicks are fed inadequate amounts of formula, the fat content in the formula is inadequate (especially in macaws and some conures) or the formula is deficient in calcium, minerals and vitamins. In weight gain comparables from a study I conducted in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil during 1985-86, 1988 and 1989 involving hundreds of nestling Yellow-winged Amazons Amazona aestiva xanthopteryx, Sharp-tailed Conures Thectocercus acuticaudatus and Maximilian´s Parrots Pionus maximiliani being parent reared I found that commercial diets could easily achieve the same weight gains if the aforementioned factors were taken into account. Commercial formulas have been empirically proven to produce very good results. They are now widely used across the globe.

The multiple generations of Green-cheeked Pyrrhura molinae, Sun Aratinga solstitialis and Golden Conures Guaruba guarouba, Scarlet Macaws Ara macao, blue Yellow-naped Amazons Amazona auropalliata, lutino Dusky-headed Conures Aratinga weddellii and dozens of other species that are in US aviculture are testament that hand-rearing does not produce inferior young, or their populations would have vanished given that the last imports of wild stock predates 1992 or in the case of mutations the original genepool was tiny. Many of the young from these birds have been exported to markets across the world and they are breeding successfully. So is the current population of Spix´s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii, the most endangered parrot in the world and a species whose current number of 110 originates primarily from hand-reared birds.

Hand-reared is often used to increase numbers of a given species. I have often heard the argument that a breeder hand-rears to “parrot farm”, suggesting that the parents are kept on a minimal diet and that the only objective is to generate sales without regard to quality or the pet potential of the species. Again the claim has huge weaknesses. Parrots kept in poor conditions or fed a poor diet may breed once or twice, but soon they will sit idle. The goal of every serious breeder is to provide their birds with the best care possible so that they breed for many decades.

Young that enter the pet trade can generally be traced to the breeder through leg bands. A breeder who produces inferior birds will soon find that the market for his young will dry up, as stores, dealers and individuals will eschew them. This is because the hobby can only be sustained if good quality birds are engendered year after year.

There are some that argue vehemently against hand-rearing because it is deemed “unnatural”. If we accept this interpretation of this procedure, then we have to recognize that keeping parrots confined to an aviary is equally unnatural. These birds have evolved to fly over vast areas, to interact continuously with their environment, to live in flocks or family groups either the whole or part of the year, and to harvest certain foods at specific times of the year. All this is negated in captivity. The diet fed to captive parrots is equally unnatural. Apple, pear, spinach, carrot, broccoli and many other fruits or vegetables have been domesticated for the human palette and are not part of the natural diet of parrots, except when the parrots raid these in farms. Apple for example has been produced in a high sugar content form for the human taste bud. The wild type is bitter and astringent. Almost all seeds varieties and all manufactured diets used for feeding cage birds are also unnatural for feeding parrots. They are the result of human breeding in the case of seeds or research intended to produce a faster growing chicken in the case of manufactured diets. The walnuts, filberts, Brazilnuts and almonds fed to macaws have a different oil composition than do the palm nuts on which they feed in the wild. The refined sugar, condensed milk and baby cereal added to the diet of lorikeets, which in the wild feed on fresh pollen, nectar and even insects, are also unnatural. What I am arguing is that there is nothing natural about the way we keep and feed our caged parrots and this negates the argument that hand-rearing is unnatural. That the birds survive and breed is merely a demonstration that parrots are highly adaptable: most species survive in captivity, reproduce in artificial nesting boxes and feed on a diet whose background is foreign.

There are further arguments that can be used to show that parrots kept in captivity are housed under unnatural conditions and that the application of the world “unnatural” cannot be solely restricted to hand-rearing. The majority of parrots come from tropical and temperate areas. Lories, Amazons, macaws, Indonesian cockatoos and many other species did not evolve to withstand snow and the frigid temperatures seen across Europe and parts of the US, where they are kept outdoors and exposed to temperatures that they would never experience in the wild. The birds thrive, display a joy for life that is evident and have adapted to living in a foreign land.

Housing most parrot species in pairs is also not normal when seen from a wild perspective. Pyrrhura conures retain their young from one year to the next, so that they can act as helpers in rearing the future clutch. In captivity everyone breeds them in pairs; only with Blue-throated Conures Pyrrhura cruentata are trios utilized—and then not commonly. Yellow-faced Parrots Alipiopsitta xanthops nest in terrestrial termitaria and not in tree cavities, yet in captivity they readily utilize nesting boxes. Greater Vasa Parrots Coracopsis vasa uses polyandry in the wild, where more than one male attends to a female. In captivity many breeders keep them in a single pair per aviary. The list of “unnatural” conditions under which we keep our parrots is endless. It would be very hypocritical to state that only hand-rearing in unnatural.

So why hand-rear? There are many answers to this question. They range from saving a chick that would be doomed in the nest because of illness or inexperienced or negligent parents to producing tame youngsters for the pet market to boosting production of a rare species. If the current captive population of Blue-throated Macaws worldwide had been allowed to only parent rear their young, the population today would probably number the same as that in the wild. Instead it is many, many times greater. In the USA alone there are many more captive bred Blue-throated Macaws than there are in the wild population.

In defense of hand-rearing, I am not advocating that it is the only means of producing young; rather, I am arguing that it another means of skinning the cat, as Bob Berry the late Curator of Birds of Houston Zoo in Texas used to say. In other words, hand-rearing is one more husbandry tool available to the breeder, much like surgical or genetic sexing and bacterial culturing. It can be used, if deemed appropriate or as part of a protocol, by the individual breeder.

I suppose I can answer the claim that hand-rearing produces emotionally inferior birds by noting that perhaps it is not the birds but the procedure used by the breeder that engenders problems. When properly practiced, hand-rearing produces results that are equal to those produced by parent-rearing.