Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium

 

 

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All material Copyright 19912002 by the Canadian Parrot Symposium unless otherwise noted. For permission and information about reprinting articles, please e-mail your request.

Managing Baby African Parrots from Hatch to New Homes

Gwen Williams


Yes, these parrot babies are cute. They are also a big responsibility. The intelligence of African Greys has been compared to that of a five year old child and while they are like 2 year olds emotionally, I find that living with a Grey is in many ways more like living with a small child than living with many of the other more traditional pets. There is the advantage though that when the demands of a group of babies which you have bred becomes more than one person can reasonably cope with, unlike human offspring, it is legal (but not necessarily easy) to sell them. Oh, it is easy enough to find willing buyers for these black eyed beauties but how can I ensure that each one has the best chance at a happy life as a cherished avian companion?

Many buyers are looking for the perfect parrot. They want it to talk from day 1 and impress all their friends but sit silently in its cage when they wish to talk on the phone or listen to TV, neatly eat every crumb of foods offered, poop very infrequently and always in its cage, wait patiently for hours (and in some cases days) for attention when the owner is too busy or away from home, cuddle with anyone and on cue, never scream or pluck feathers and in some cases even match the wallpaper! Obviously buyer expectations must be managed. I encourage all potential novice parrot owners to read "Your Pet Bird - A Buyer's Guide" by Michele Lowell and all the issues of "The Pet Bird Report", "Birds Annual USA" and "Bird Talk" that they can find and also to join a parrot club and ask members about the birds which are of interest to them. I discourage anyone who is unwilling to do this research, uncertain that they can provide a suitable home, or unable to afford both the bird and a suitably large cage by stressing the physical and emotional needs of hand fed parrots and likely outcome (plucking, screaming, biting) when needs are not met.

I invite buyers to visit and reserve the baby of their choice with a deposit when the babies are a few weeks old and encourage them to read as many articles as possible on hand fed African Grey Parrots and all aspects of their care and development. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a book which I can recommend but maybe one day someone will write one. In any case, many clients do not fully understand all the messages in written material so I also try to explain the care and developmental stages of baby parrots during visits to watch the rapid growth and developmental changes which occur. The babies also benefit from the socialisation with people other than mom and my immediate family during visits. These visits (every 1 or 2 weeks) are time consuming (and not without health risks) but the benefits in educated owners and confident, outgoing babies get the baby off to a very smooth start in its new home and lessen my anxiety when I must say goodbye.

During visits we discuss the instinctive nature of bird behaviour and the need to understand it and adapt our care and handling of our pet parrot to mesh with its instincts as these cannot be eliminated.

I house my babies in brooders (AICU) until they are 5 to 6 weeks old and then place them in clear tubs or baby cages which we built. They are boxes lined with arborite and have acrylic trays containing newspaper and vinyl coated wire (1/2 inch by 1/2 inch mesh). They keep the babies clean and are easy to clean. I feed a commercial hand feeding formula using a bent spoon and keep the formula warm as I feed by placing the cup of formula in a tray of water with an aquarium heater (the older non-CSA approved model without thermostat). Spoon feeding takes a little longer but I don't have a large number of babies to feed, the babies like it, and I take the time to talk to each baby as I work.

Babies in my home are offered a wide variety of fresh and cooked vegetables and fruits as well as pellets from the age of 5 weeks and new owners are encouraged to continue to offer healthy foods. In the wild the parents teach the birds what to eat during the first few months of their life and babies will accept a diet of healthy foods easily during this time. It doesn't matter if he is just making a mess at first - he becomes familiar with tastes and textures before he learns to swallow.

Before fledging babies are handled gently with a hand under their feet (in the nest they would always have their feet on the bottom of the nest) to help them feel secure. Their head is supported so that they cannot see the faraway floor beneath them as babies have an instinctive fear of heights before fledging age to keep them from falling out of the nest prematurely. As the babies develop and begin to perch on a low perch in their baby cage they are encouraged to step onto my hand at feeding time and the new owners are taught how to hold a parrot and continue with the "UP" command to establish their dominance which will be very important as the baby progresses through its independence stages. As the babies become more confident they are encouraged to visit and explore toys (as well as foods) in their cage, on a towel on the floor and then the entire kitchen floor. Frequently babies show fear of people at about 6 weeks of age by growling loudly and threatening to lunge at hands, etc. This is largely the result of an instinct to defend their nest from intruders while the parents are away foraging. If this happens, I place the babies in a large clear tub in the kitchen for a day or two and encourage all family members to stroke and talk to the babies each time they pass and the babies soon get over this instinctive fear.

I feel that African Grey Parrots require a cage which has a space at least 2 feet by 2 feet by 2 1/2 feet high available to the bird (2 x 3 x 2 1/2 is even better) and a very large door. Parrots can defend a small door very well indeed! It is my experience that injuries and behaviour problems are far too common in smaller cages. The 19 by 19 inch parrot cages are suitable for smaller African parrots such as Senegals and Meyer's. I point out the potential dangers of open scroll work and converging bars and encourage owners to buy a large, quality cage with a powder coated finish as they will appreciate it at clean up time for many years to come. I also encourage owners to make or buy a play structure (preferably separate from the cage top) and perches for other rooms so that their bird can visit in the kitchen, shower, or family room.

For the bird's safety and security we discuss and demonstrate wing clipping, and filing nails instead of cutting for the first year. Baby Greys are very clumsy and need their nails to grip the perch. Sudden, severe nail clipping can result in a major anxiety attack! Blood feathers are explained, looked at (babies have lots!) and the need and method of pulling them should they bleed is shown. A young Grey is likely to have a bleeding blood feather at some point and it is best to be prepared. The dangers of Teflon are explained just in case it was missed in the reading. The importance of showers is explained and owners are encouraged to start gradually and project a happy, "this is fun" atmosphere as the bird will pick up on the mood and learn to enjoy bath time.

The buyers are always very impressed that the babies are so friendly and enjoy being touched and played with. This is the perfect lead in for a discussion about the developmental stages which all parrots go through. Just as one cannot reasonably expect to buy a young puppy and have it become an excellent pet without behavioural guidance, one should not expect that a baby parrot will not require some guidance and rules if it is to become a great pet. I stress that these independence stages will occur with every parrot and I stress the need to understand that every parrot instinctively tests to see where he fits in the pecking order of his flock. The trick is to make sure that all the people who wish to handle the parrot are higher than the bird in the pecking order. It is important to set the rules and limits very early in the process as each time the parrot 'wins' (bites and you back down) he will become more confident and will try harder the next time (ouch!). Love the bird but don't let him be the boss! Give the bird a very stern "evil eye" and insist that he obey the UP command every time he comes out of his cage and at other times when you ask. If you are not prepared to follow through if the bird hesitates, then don't handle him at that time. Sellers must explain that these independence stages will arrive and how to deal with them or buyers will spread the word that the bird they received was a "lemon" or that all Greys (Macaws, Amazons, parrots, etc.) make terrible pets because they bite or go wild! (I have even had pet shop personnel tell me this!)

Many clients want advice on how to teach their baby to talk. My advice is to use appropriate words to greet the bird and describe objects, events and activities. Greys like to understand the words they use and will surprise you with their verbal skills when they are ready. They frequently first talk to get your attention (when they are being ignored) and I have noticed that birds who spend all their time when the owner is present being handled or on their owner's shoulder do not bother to vocalise (they just lean over for a kiss or invite a head scratch instead). The parrot should spend part of the time entertaining itself with the owners talking to it as they go about their chores, etc. Greys are not normally screamers but they can learn from others! Unwanted loud noises (and plucking behaviours) should be totally ignored. Turning your back to the bird and leaving the room usually works with Greys. Any kind of verbal response or dramatic behaviour will encourage the bird to do it again.

Above all, love them and enjoy them! We have a responsibility to the babies we breed and sell and if we don't have the time or facilities to educate each new owner then we should sell our babies wholesale to a quality pet shop who will do it. Every baby deserves it!

Gwen Williams

Gwen Williams acquired her first parrot in 1989 and decided to try breeding African Grey Parrots less than a year later. Her breeding pairs (African Grey Congos, Timnehs, Senegals, Meyer's, and Red Bellied Parrots)
reside in her basement and the babies are raised in her dining room where they interact with the family daily. Her objective is to produce sweet, hand raised birds and help them to become cherished avian companions in families who understand parrot behaviour, development and care. She is a member of the African Parrot Society, attends conferences, and reads the Pet Bird Report and a wide variety of other books and magazines to gain additional insight into understanding and working with her birds. Since 1991 she has been president of the Ottawa Parrot Club where she encourages others to learn more about parrots and their care.


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