Bird Rearing (and Internet Caution)

The internet is full of “expert” advice. Often such advice covers key areas like diet, avian medicine and pet ownership. The advice is often generated by people who have only recently entered aviculture and have become self professed experts even though they have extremely limited knowledge and do not understand that parrots are complex creatures that can have varying behaviors even at the subspecific level. Unless you have had extensive experience with a specific species, it is impossible to provide guidance, especially if it is extrapolated from another species or is learned by reading bits and pieces of information from multiple sources, many spurious at best.

The case in point about variability even at the subspecies level must be understood. The Hanh´s Macaw Diopsittaca nobilis nobilis for example is very different from the Noble Macaw Diopsittaca nobilis cumanensis in behavior and needs, even though the two morphologically look quite alike. The two in turn are very different from the larger macaws, which evolved to feed on seeds, drupes and pods that are rich in fat. To say that all macaws are alike is misleading and likely to result in problems at some stage.

The self-professed expert issue recently hit home when a woman adopted a Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccesis male, a bird that had been a pet but which could no longer be kept by its aging owner. She had contacted me after reading something I had posted on my Facebook page. The bird was tame, tractable and affectionate but it would often scream loudly in the middle of the night, making a wailing call that had caused complaints from the adjacent townhouse that shared a common wall. After questioning the owner, it was clear that the cockatoo was becoming voluble on full moon nights and that it could see outside, having its cage placed before a window.

Cockatoos, especially Moluccans, can become quite vocal if they can see the full moon and the bird was behaving naturally. She had read that the cockatoos were not noisy and thus agreed to adopt the bird. Clearly she had not researched the adoption well enough to make an informed decision. My recommendation was to move the bird away from the window, to block the view of the outdoors by closing the curtains at night and if the situation persisted to cover the cage at night to allow the bird to rest and not be in view of the moon.

Parrots are a large group and species from the same genera can inhabit a broad area. Cockatoos are found from the Philippines to the Solomon Islands, formerly across much of Indonesia, including New Guinea and throughout Australia. The behavior of the Philippine Red-vented Cockatoo Cacatua haematuropygia is not the same as that of a Goffin´s Cacatua goffini or the Australian Little Corella Cacatua sanguinea. The three may be similar—indeed they are now commonly referred to by ornithologists as “corellas”– but the vocal abilities are vastly different, as is the behavior in general. The Red-vented Cockatoo is very rare now but in decades past when it was widely imported and kept as pets in the US, it proved a quiet, rather meek bird by cockatoo standards. In contrast, the Little Corella is noisy, assertive and cheeky.

When deciding on acquiring a pet either through adoption or purchase from a breeder or store, it is important to obtain as much information as possible. Question the experience of the person giving the advice. Having had a couple of parrots for a few years does not make you an expert. Indeed, after more than 40 years of parrot keeping, I am learning daily and I regard nothing that I know as etched in stone. Parrots are individuals and as such it is impossible to generalize. They are also complex creatures with a high level of intelligence. All of this combined allows behavior that were previously unknown to be occasionally uncovered. A case in point is the Vasa Parrot Coracopsis vasa, a species whose aviculture history spans almost 150 years, yet only in the past decades has it been learned that females mate and are fed by more than one male. This explains why in the past when housed in pairs, the females occasionally killed their mates. I bred this species many years ago and noticed some aggression on the part of the female but never would have imagined that it was as a result of a complex breeding system whereby multiple males attend to a single female.

In aviculture, it is possible to provide general information on behavior—for example, Scarlet Macaws Ara macao can be unpredictable pets, often nipping without warning, but I have met a few extremely gentle individuals who have never once bit their owners—though one must be cognizant that exceptions always apply.

After researching the species of interest on the internet or by reading a book, question owners of that species. Bird clubs, many bird stores and most rescues will allow you to speak to individuals who have actual experience with the species that interests you. Ask about behavior, tractability, diet, vocal powers and individual traits. Several interviews can help establish a pattern, though it must never be forgotten that parrots are not photocopies that will be identical to each other.

The generalized information accumulated will often but not invariably suggest the following:

Cockatoos are generally vocal, destructive to wood and other objects and some males, as they reach sexual maturity, can become hormonally aggressive. Many males remain calm and gentle—these are the so-called “pliant” males– but others can call incessantly, display and become quite nasty, biting or chasing their owner for no apparent reason one moment and demanding affection the next. Understanding their behavior is key to having a relationship with one of these assertive, hormonally charged males. It is also possible to have a chemical implant inserted into the bird to reduce the level of aggression when they are in a breeding mode. Cockatoos also have powder downs—feathers under the wings that are used to maintain the feather structure—that can cause an allergic reaction in many people. Constant cleaning, ideally daily spraying of the bird before cage cleaning (to allow the powder on the feathers to stick to the water and fall to the cage floor, where they can get discarded) and running a HEPA filter are key to controlling the level of “dust”. That said, cockatoos are exceptionally intelligent, thrive on attention and can become incredibly tame, attached pets. They are ideal for the person with considerable time at home but like a young child need to be trained to play alone and become a bird—never a human with feathers, who throws temper tantrums when not attached to their owners.

Macaws are a diverse group whose pet potential, destructive abilities and noise level can vary considerably between the species. The largest macaw is the longest parrots while the smallest is more diminutive than the largest conure. The macaw species can vary in their temperament and personality. Military and Scarlet Macaws are extremely intelligent but can nip without warning; the Military to me is the most playful and fun to rear from a young age. Buffon´s and Hyacinth Macaws can be menacing but docile pets. The smaller species tend to be noisier but can make charming and active companions.

Amazons are extroverts with strong personalities, often display very good talking abilities and as they mature unpredictable personalities. Yet they are so intelligent that they have been in demand since Columbus returned to Europe on his first trip in 1493 with Cuban Amazons Amazona leucocephala. The personality and beauty make tAmazons one of my favorite groups.

Amazons are perfect for the busy, noisy household. They like activity. Most become single person pets, taking a strong like and equally strong dislike of other persons. I do not recommend them around small children, which are liable to insert a finger into a cage. Males in particular can become sexually aggressive when in a breeding mode. Understanding their body language—flared head and tail fathers, mumbling sounds, moving their beaks as if they were chewing and flashing the eyes (contracting and dilating the pupil) are signs that they should be left alone for the moment. As with all parrots that become sexually active, avoid giving them access to dark areas, including boxes, as these can bring about an increase in libido.

African Greys are to me fantastic birds—they are intelligent, can become extolled talkers and if they like you, can become a companion for life. They like a constant environment; changes, loud noises and aggressive, forceful individuals are not normally good African Grey owners. I find that children can make them nervous, though our Coco adores my son and when he was a child would alert us if he even whimpered. Greys (along with Eclectus) are vulnerable to plucking and need to be kept mentally challenged and physically occupied. Enrichment, toys, play sessions and even stints of watching television or playing outside with a harness in place are an important part of the daily routine.

African Greys that are wing clipped must be ever watched when outside their cage or on a play stand, as when frightened they can fall down; their weight and the impact can cause the breast to split open. If they are wing clipped, the area around their cage should be carpeted and every possible measure should be taken to prevent the bird from being frightened off the perch. The ideal location for a cage should be an area with a solid wall and possibly a side window where the bird can look outside. They should not be placed in such a location that anyone can walk all around.

Conures are noisy, curious, energy packed and in many cases noisy. They are hardy, colorful and can become incredible good pets. As with all parrots, establishing rules and boundaries when young is important: they need to learn to step up and down from the hand, should never be allowed to become shoulder perching birds (where they can acquire an air of dominance), need to learn to play on their own (so that they do not call incessantly when someone is home) and need to be introduced to as many people as possible when young, this to prevent them from becoming fixated on one individual and aggressive towards everyone else.

Conures can naturally be very vocal or in the case of the smaller Pyrrhuras quiet. The group thus has a species for every situation. They are an ideal beginner´s bird—after the Budgerigar and Cockatiel, the latter to me one of the most wonderful of pet birds.

Caiques are clowns—no other word can describe this parrot species so well. They can be loud, assertive and unpredictable. They also enjoy the company of each other or in the absence of another member of their species will bond with any other bird. In my opinion, they are best kept in pairs (gender is not important) though this will pose management problems, as the birds can become little demons. I have seen two caiques kept as pets attack and kill another bird, or become difficult to handle. But I have also seen pairs that proved extremely manageable pets. The most successful groups were kept by owners who established strict rules and adhered to these; each clearly delineated the route of conduct for their birds: teaching them to step up and down, never allowing them to perch on the shoulder, playing with them alone but also as a pair, never allowing them out unsupervised (a strict rule to follow with all parrots) and introducing them to other household pets when young.

Ring-necks and other Asiatic parakeets belong to a non-bonded category, a group of parrots in which mutual preening, sidling while perched and close contact while feeding is very rare; these birds tolerate each other except when breeding, when the male will suddenly show interest in the female, which is dominant and which at other times may charge an approaching male. These birds dislike being touched. Indeed, forcing them to be petted can often cause tremendous stress. They can talk and make fabulous aviary pets—a bird kept in a large enclosure and enjoyed for its sheer beauty. These birds are adept flyers and thus need to fly. They are the perfect pet for the person that does not have a lot of time for one on one contact but who can provide a flight cage in a yard or sun room.

Eclectus parrots are also members of the non-bonded category. The females are assertive and can at times prove outright aggressive to a male. There is normally limited contact between the sexes; indeed in the wild a female may be serviced by multiple males, who feed her in exchange for a change at mating and passing their DNA to the next generation. When this happens, there is no mutual preening as would be typical in macaws, for example. This is why the head feathering is unique and more akin to hair than feathers: the sheath covering the feather easily falls off, not requiring preening by another bird—only those parts of the body that they can reach are covered in what is considered a typical feather.

Eclectus can make fairly good pets. I prefer males to females, though know of many very tractable females. They can learn to talk and seem to enjoy the company of their owners, but they dislike the level of handling that an Amazon would expect.

Plucking can be a problem in many Eclectus and this can be due to skin fungus, boredom, dietary deficiency or even illness. I find that keeping them busy with enrichment is very important to reduce the likelihood of feather plucking. We provide ours with green coconuts, royal Poinciana pods, fresh branches (willow, pine, elm, etc), palm fronds and flowers, palm seeds and even banana stalks and leaves. The birds once accustomed will enjoy the enrichment far more than they would a toy.

As explained, the Eclectus are non-bonded. The largest group of parrots belongs to the bonded category, a group that includes cockatoos, caiques, macaws, Amazons, most conures (the Slender-billed and Austral along with Pionus parrots seem to have qualities that make them intermediate between the bonded and non-bonded categories), lories, African parrots and many others. The bonded parrots enjoy physical contact. Two birds will preen each other and can mate and even courtship feed, irrespective of gender. Two birds of different species can become friends, and this explains the reports of hybrids involving two distinct species—such as between macaws and conures, between distinct genera of cockatoos, the Cockatiel and a cockatoo, and even such disparate species as a lorikeet and a King Parrot Alisterus scapularis. Birds in this group demand physical contact and when kept as pets will need far more attention than the non-bonded group.

Understanding the pair bond concept can certainly lead to a better owner:pet relationship.

Our knowledge of diets today is significant. We are not at a point I believe that we have mastered the dietary requirements of all species, but the plethora of diseases caused by malnutrition seen thirty years ago have been reduced significantly. The currently fed diets (pellets, seed mixes, other foods including soak and boil, etc) are based on poultry research and empirical results over many decades. Such diets are not perfect, as field research shows that different genera and even species have different dietary requirements, but they are a vast improvement from yesteryear.

When looking at a diet, always review the composition. Hemp seed for example has been recommended as a great nutritional addition to a seed diet but this seed is fatty and should not be fed to pet Amazons and cockatoos, which are prone to obesity or fatty liver disease. Hemp however can be fed in great moderation (and here the key is moderation) to many breeding birds kept in flight cages, particularly those housed outdoors where they will burn the energy produced from the fat. Peanuts, nuts and high carbohydrate foods must also be considered as problematic for some species. The large macaws on the other hand can process fat in a reasonable amount, as they have evolved to feed on fatty palm seeds.

The diet fed to your birds should be well researched. Discuss your diet plan with your veterinarian, fellow bird owners and your local bird store. If you rely on the internet, question the information from sources with no training in nutrition, long term practical experience keeping and even breeding the species that interests you, field research or veterinary medicine.

Understanding the wild diet and behaviors of the species of interests can shed considerable light on what is or is not a suitable diet. Birds from dry, open areas tend to fly considerable distances each day to find food. They have generally evolved to eat low fat foods. Macaws from a forest rich in palms will typically harvest these for food, as the hard seeds are not easily cracked open by other animals, thus eliminating competition.

Parrots that feed on fruit in the wild compete with other birds and animals for the same resources. They have thus evolved to attack the fruit when still green, when it tends to be unappealing to other birds or animals; tannins, toxic alkaloids and more can make them bitter or even induce a level of illness. By eating then unripe, they eliminate competition, but then this exposes them to toxins. The parrots eat clay, it is believed, to have it bind with the toxins, so that these can be excreted.

The plants concentrate astringent or toxic properties in unripe fruit to deter predation, as such fruits when dispersed tend not to sprout; by having the fruit consumed when mature, seeds that fall can germinate and thus continue to give life to the ecosystem.

The unripe fruit tends to be bitter. In contrast, most fruit given to parrots in captivity was adapted for the human taste: it must be sweet, juicy and highly palatable. Taste a wild and cultivated apple and you will quickly get an idea of what I am describing. I am therefore less inclined to feed a large amount of cultivated fruit—we feed mainly “wild” fruits that have not been exposed to genetic breeding to make them sweeter. For the brunt of the diet, I opt for more vegetables, especially carrot, sweet potatoes, beets and pumpkin, which have been steamed; also steamed broccoli; raw hot peppers, green leafy vegetables, peas, fresh corn (selecting the least sweet type), flowers from an insecticide free source, herbs, zucchini and many more. Steaming but not boiling (which can destroy vital nutritious elements) is important in some cases to break the fibers and make certain elements more accessible. Follow the dietary recommendations for humans and you will do well when preparing vegetables.

Pulses that have been par-boiled, so that they retain their structure, cooked brown rice, whole wheat pasta and quinoa, cooked egg, sprouted seeds and grains, and whole grain bread are also used to augment the diet. Nuts are added to the diet of macaws. A good brand of pelleted feed and seed mix rounds off the diet. The percentage of each element varies depending on species, season and even age. The intention is to provide variety, avoid obesity (a problem in many senescing birds) and keep the birds motivated.

Parrot keeping is one of the most enjoyable hobbies. When properly cared for, these birds can live to be quite old, can provide a lifelong companionship and can become an esteemed member of the household. All decisions – from what species to acquire to diet–should be made based on sound advice from an experienced source with the appropriate qualifications. This will insure the best owner:pet relationship and reduce the likelihood of illness, malnutrition and behavioral problems.