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Breeding Parrots for Human Companionship

Genetic selection for the Habitat of Your Living Room

by James J. Murphy, Avian Biologist, MS

Abstract

The multibillion dollar world wide companion bird business that has captured the hearts and minds of millions of people across the globe is the only large scale human enterprise in history that deals in what are essentially wild birds. Many of these birds snagged from the wild are unfit for the Habitat of Your Living Room and the endless training sessions that follow simply end by passing these unfortunate birds from household to household. Or worse, end up in breeding facilities only to pass their own brand of maladaptation down to the next generation of companion birds. There is a better way. Select your breeding stock that demonstrates the best companionship quality and is thus better fit for the domestic environment. Why? Because that is where they are all going. Commonly bred parrots go either directly from the breeder to our home as house pets and companions or as breeding stock to provide birds for our homes. These birds are not going back to the dwindling wild places; like Cocker Spaniels, they are not for release and we not only should acknowledge this obvious fact but also elect to breed only those birds best suited for the task at hand. Hunting dogs are bred for hunting, cutting horses are bred for cutting cattle. The list of selective behavioral breeding is long indeed. Commonly bred parrots can and should be bred for companionship quality to increase the quality of life for the birds and their owners.

Companion parrots genetically selected for Health and Vigor, Natural Tameness and the Pronounced Ability to Talk not only reduce the stress on the parrots themselves but also provide the human household with a much more suitable companion. These three characteristics are all under genetic influence and thus can be selected for in each generation. These feathered living room ambassadors are a constant reminder to the general public that the wild parrots must remain wild and their habitat must be saved. Reminders beget action.

The generational selection for tameness will fix juvenile characteristics into adulthood (neotonize the behavioral patterns) and greatly decrease the major behavioral stresses associated with wild adult behavioral problems that plague the parrot keeping community today.

The multi-billion dollar companion bird industry is expanding rapidly. The interest in companion parrots is currently at an all-time global high. At no other time in history have people invested so much time and money and emotion into the cultivation, adoration and adornment of a group of birds that are either snatched unwillingly from the wild or are the offspring of what are essentially wild birds. This situation needs to change.

At this point in time, parrot breeding for the companion bird market is without direction. Breeders large and small produce offspring in ever increasing numbers without regard to their suitability as house pets. This is very understandable when you consider that only two decades ago little was known about the breeding requirements of most parrot species and producing a baby, any baby, was a minor miracle. But this is no longer the case as quantum leaps have been made in parrot breeding know-how and thousands of domestically raised parrots are produced for the pet trade annually. The prices of parrots reflect this massive surge (in the USA) and are dropping rapidly as supply overtakes demand.

Today large and small breeders across the nation produce thousands of young domestic parrots of commonly bred species for the companion bird market every season. It is time now to take a look at what we are doing and how we are shaping the future of the companion bird industry. Remember that we are only talking about common generationally bred species here; and not rare or difficult to breed birds that should not be in held as pets in the first place.

By simply placing two birds of the opposite sex in the same breeding flight without regard to their suitability as a house pet is called "random breeding". Random breeding at best only produces random results. This is not the strategy used in any other professional animal breeding enterprise and it should not be so with companion parrots. Thoroughbred breeding farms simply do not breed horses to produce more and more horses; this is not the objective. The objective is to breed for the finest quality of animal for the task at hand. Is companion parrot breeding exempt from this centuries old idea?

At this point in time, the reader can only imagine a strain of wildly colored Amazon parrots that are naturally tame and can out talk a good contemporary African Grey. Or very calm and intelligent talking African Greys that are disinclined to feather pluck. Or companion parrots in general that raise their own tame babies? Thus making hand-feeding a thing of the past! Impossible, you say? Not at all, and all of this will come to pass-eventually-without any real conscious attempt on the part of the breeding community.

The painstakingly slow spread of the realization that nice, calm, birds breed more readily than overly shy or overly aggressive ones will slowly emerge. And the practice of breeding the stressed out, neurotic feather-plucking behavioral misfits that you could not even give away to the enraged finger biter suffering from acute testosterone poisoning that was given to you because the previous owner feared its attacks could never be mistaken for professional animal breeding. Currently, in the parlance of the companion parrot breeding community there is the expression of "breeder quality". These are universally recognized code words that means very poor pet (companionship) quality -unlikely to sell even to the most naive buyer. "Well, he didn"t make a good pet no matter what we tried but I"m sure he"d make a good breeder-bet he"ll even grow back some of his feathers" is the standard byline. Yet, these may be the least valuable additions to the companion bird breeding aviary.

Down breeding, with all its ramifications, will eventually began to leach out of the pet parrot breeders" mentality, pushed by growing awareness of the benefits of quality breeding coupled with market demands. All this will eventually come to pass as this new and exciting venture matures. But if left on its own, without direction, it will take a long time-a very long time. All the while, the Misery Index of Companion Parrots will remain unacceptably high as too many parrots basically unfit for the Habitat of Your Living Room will continue to pass their genes (and their torment) down to the next generation. But then on the bright side, the Band-Aid industry will continue to flourish.
To be fair, many good quality birds are being bred in large and small aviaries around the world. Without a doubt! However, entirely too many of these dysfunctional birds end up in companion bird breeding aviaries only to pass their personal brand of torment down to the next generation. The prevailing idea of breeding every member of the commonly bred species of companion parrots without regard to their merit as a house pet makes about as much sense as breeding every dog that comes along without regard to health or temperament! A number of once fine quality dog breeds have been greatly demoted due to the lack of quality breeding and the enthusiasm for making money.

This brings us to Rule Number One in animal breeding: 'If you breed alligators to alligators. YOU GET ALLIGATORS'.

To be sure, continued mistreatment of any good individual can produce an angry, unmanageable bird or child or horse or white rat. However, the behavior of all vertebrates is determined by a combination of two factors: 1) Genetics, and 2) Experience (training). It is mainly the genetic aspects that we will discuss here. Therefore, the birds we are looking for as breeder stock are much rarer than average. We will begin by eliminating as prospective breeding candidates those birds that exhibit the more extreme behavioral expressions that are simply unfit for the domestic companion bird environment.

Just by eliminating the overly shy (often referred to as "phobic" or more recently "reverting back to the wild") and overly aggressive from the breeding pool will begin to reduce the overall stress levels of the next generation of companion parrots significantly. The reduction of stress alone will greatly contribute to the health of all the domestic birds.

Quality breeding through appropriate trait selection does not have to take a very long time. But we are talking in parrot generational terms here-have no doubts about it! This time will pass without regard to how you spend it. Every breeder, large or small has the opportunity to contribute to the ultimate goal. Here at White Mt. Bird Farm, we have bred Amazons to F4 and will shortly reach F5 generation in Amazon parrots. If the following procedures are followed in the main, every breeder will see a noticeable improvement in the companionship quality of their babies during their career as a bird breeder. So, if your homegrown baby parrots are destined for the pet trade-breed for the pet trade! Breed selectively for the task at hand. Breed parrots that are best fit for the Habitat of Your Living Room!

Founder Stock - the wild-caught generation

The founder stock of any breeding program is composed of the initial birds used to establish your breeding lines. They are the hereditary base line to which all future generations are built. These birds set the genetic trend or direction of travel in the coming generations. Therefore, it is important to start off with the best breeding stock available.

Wild-caught birds make up the majority of most commercial and hobby companion bird aviaries. This business is too young to be otherwise. Within the ranks of these aviaries" initial wild-caught population is, typically, a mixed bag of behavioral genetics representing the wide array of innate behavioral patterns or biologically prepared learning potentials. Within these ranks may well be the wildest of the wild as well as outstanding specimens of superior breeding stock best suited for the companion bird market. We have all seen examples of both. The extremely aggressive or extremely shy members tend to breed less frequently in their new environment or not at all. This may be a blessing in disguise.

Ideally, whenever possible, choose your wild-caught stock with a very critical eye. Sometimes, in choosing a bird, its negative characteristics are more obvious than its positive attributes. Choosing a screaming feather-plucker for your founder stock of any species would be questionable at best. Breeding a feather-plucker to a feather-plucker would be unwise. Though it may be difficult to prove, the propensity to feather pluck may well have a very strong biological component. Many of these birds are often simply too sensitive for the domestic environment. With an adequate supply of good birds to choose from, avoid the feather pluckers.

Wild-caught birds that sit calmly on the perch as you approach their enclosure will get more consideration from me then those flying wildly to the rear of the flight, screaming or growling all the way. There are very fine wild-caught birds out there to be procured for your founder stock, but you must pay attention. With wild-caught birds, you may only get a few minutes or at best a few exposures to a particular bird to make up your mind to buy it or not. Look for details in grooming and behavior. Steady, well-feathered and groomed birds of good temperament are always a plus. Wild-caught birds of that description that are also good talkers without having first been a house pet are a double plus. All birds did not all come out of the same cookie cutter. Not all African Greys make good talkers, not all cockatoos are hatched friendly to humans. Wild-caught birds are the hardest to judge when critically selecting your founder stock. Their offspring, however, are the easiest.

Mature wild-caught birds that have had the experience of being a house pet for some period of time often make the buyer"s questions easier. "Why do you want to sell this bird?" is always the first leading question. Asking about its character and how it reacts to family members may provide a clue (if only about the present owners). Very often people want to sell their "rejects". So be very mindful of this. The flip side of this situation is that a large number of people do not know how to relate to and handle a wild-caught parrot and they may be holding a jewel of a bird and be oblivious to it.

Heavily fondled, hand-raised cockatoos are often rendered useless as breeders, being completely disoriented in selecting appropriate reproductive partners. Males are more affected then the females by this process, it seems. The solution to this problem is to let the parents raise their own babies that are destined to become breeding stock. Parent raised cockatoos will need handling almost daily after they start to feather out to gain any insight into the magnitude of innate shyness or aggressiveness. Do not allow the parent birds to have access to the nest-box during this handling activity.

I have in my aviary a wild-caught male African Grey that I accepted as a partial trade-in for a Panama Amazon. The owner simply did not like the looks of an African Grey. Fair enough. This bird, dubbed "Gabby" was calm, steady on the perch and possessed an enormous vocabulary, and quickly learned to reproduce the mumbling voice inflections of one of my employees who was going through massive teeth extractions to uncanny perfection. Gabby also has perfectly clear speech as well. If all my third generation baby Greys turned out as gifted as this mature draftee out of the wild, I would be enormously pleased. He is very steady on the perch, never prone to growling and comes readily to the food bowl to grab a favorite morsel. And Gabby keeps all of his feathered clothing on at all times.

The point here to remember is this: Superior wild-caught founder stock is available to the discriminating eye. All the principles that apply to good horse breeding or good dog breeding apply to good companion parrot breeding. Only the traits we are looking for are different. Selecting high quality initial breeding stock makes the trait selection of their offspring just that much easier. And these traits are:

Health and Vigor, Natural Tameness and the Pronounced Ability to Talk

Early manifestation trait selection starts primarily in the nursery of hand-fed babies before the learning process has had the chance to mask the natural traits in any baby we are considering for future breeding stock. The manifestation of preferred traits that accent companionship quality in domestically bred baby parrots can often be observed well before the perching stage of the young bird's development. When the young bird is selected for breeding, keep the baby in close social contact with others of his species to avoid possibly imprinting the youngster on humans. Amazons seem nearly immune to this; however on the other end of the spectrum, cockatoos are very prone to misprinting on humans and should be parent raised to avoid imprinting on the wrong subject.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Parent raised babies will need to be handled for 15 to 20 minutes on a near daily bases in order to determine behavioral differences within the clutch. Be sure the parents are excluded from entering the nest box while you are removing or replacing the chicks- an angry parent may injure the chick while trying to protect it.)

 

Health and Vigor

Health and vigor is the first consideration above all else. No other physical trait is more important when considering the future generations of your breeding lines. Inserting bad or sickly genes in your breeding stock is a mistake that will come back to haunt you and future generations of parrots from now and into the deep time of the future. Good health is not a negotiable issue. It is one of those few absolutes that do not change with current circumstances. We start the examination with a good over view of the parents (if possible) of the potential candidates for quality breeding. Do the parents show any obvious flaws? Are they feather plucked? Or does the adult parent bird feather-pluck before each breeding season? Does their health record indicate recurring health problems? Are there a lot of stress marks on their feathers? Are they flighty or very nervous birds even after being in captivity for several years? A "yes" to any of these questions is a red alert flag to be doubly careful in evaluating the babies of these birds. In a clean, well managed nursery, any domestic baby parrot that is weak and sickly during its early critical development period is not a candidate for prime breeding stock.


Natural Tameness

During the normal developmental process of mammals and birds, behavior unfolds in a fairly predictable manner. Young ones are eager to learn new things, explore new territory and willing to associate and even play with members of a different species. They are quite "tame" at this early stage in life. In years past, forest babies of all descriptions—from squirrels to raccoons and ever bear cubs—were taken from the wild, only to have their behavior radically change as maturity set in.

At maturity they shed their earlier tameness and acquired the suspicion, wariness and territoriality that characterizes the adult behavior of their species. By selective breeding we can tap into this natural process of unfolding behaviors that all animals go through from infant to adult and retain tameness in the adult bird. This is fundamental to the domestication process.

Natural tameness in adult animals is a juvenile trait. And natural tameness toward humans is the key that unlocks domestication and a central ingredient in lowering the Misery Index of Parrots. Juveniles of all animals are tolerant, if not outright friendly to members of other species. Normal adult behavior is to be intolerant of other species. Most young parrots are friendly to strangers. And as a general statement, just the opposite is true of adult house birds, as we might expect. Young parrots are likely to associate with a multitude of strangers—a juvenile trait. Many adult birds associate (read: bond) with only one person—a wild adult trait.

All domestic birds and mammals display the trait of perpetual juvenility and that trait is referred to as neoteny—which means genetically extending juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Selecting for this most essential juvenile characteristic is practiced in the commercial animal breeding industries of today. Ostrich breeders in South Africa select out the aggressive males for the meat market and retain the calm, less aggressive males for breeding stock and thus pass the tamer, more juvenile disposition down to the next generation. New Zealand elk breeders striving to rapidly domesticate this member of the North American deer family select out the unmanageable bulls and cows and use these individuals to stimulate the consumer meat market. The ostriches and the elk are becoming domesticated. They are becoming neotenized. So can it be with companion parrots. And in my opinion, must come to pass if we are to reduce the Misery Index of wild parrots in our living room and reduce the theft of wild parrots from the forest or their ancestors. It is only by producing a domesticated companion bird so superior to the wild type that we can ever expect to dampen the theft from the wild.

Perpetuating juvenile behavior into adulthood through selection for tameness has other seemingly unrelated consequences. Territorial defense behavior that is seen primarily as adult behavior decreases greatly. That translates into a dramatic drop in nest site aggression in your breeding birds and decreased cage-site territorial aggression in the home. These are qualities that are greatly desired in the companion bird breeding business. Again, genetically tame and calm birds are in themselves much more satisfied in their urban homes.

The most striking recent well documented example of selection for tameness comes out of Russia. Geneticist D. K. Belyaev studied Red foxes (Vulpes fulva) reared for their fur. These animals have been reared in semi-natural fur farms for over 100 years and were selected for fur traits—not behavior traits. The captive foxes demonstrated three distinctly different characteristic responses to humans. Thirty percent were extremely aggressive toward man, 60% were either fearful or aggressively fearful, and 10% displayed a quite exploratory reaction without either fear or aggression. The objective was to breed animals similar in behavior to domestic dogs by selecting and breeding the tamest individuals. Twenty years later the experiment succeeded in turning wild foxes into tame, border collie-like fox-dogs. The highly selected "tame" fox-dogs actively sought human contact and would whine and wag their tails when people approached. This behavior was in sharp contrast to the wild foxes that showed fearful and aggressive behavior to humans.

Other changes occurred as a result of selection for tameness. For example, the tame foxes shed during the wrong season, developed black and white patterned fur and developed changes in their hormonal profile. The typically monoestrus (once a year) cycle of reproduction was disturbed and the animal—behaving like dogs—would breed at any time of the year.

The Pronounced Ability to Talk

In parrots, the ability to talk is genetically defined—like a good nose in a hunting dog, you breed for it. All traits within a population are variable and the early appearance of this trait is highly desirable. Given the same vocal stimulation, it is easy to observe the differences in the babies" vocal inclinations, even of the same clutch. The pronounced ability to talk is the easiest of all traits to look for; all you really have to do is talk and listen.

When hand-feeding the chicks that just have their eyes open, be sure to talk to the babies. Use a voice that conveys soothing pleasure. Here, the hand-feeders are encouraged to say things like "Ah oh, Dinner time" or any consistent phrase when feeding the babies. Each hand-feeder will usually have his or her verbal announcement that signals feeding time. The consistence of the same voice message at feeding time conveys an idea to the babies that they are going to be fed. When leaving the nursery, you might say "Bye-bye, now" to eventually convey the idea of leaving. Voice contact is very important. Voice tone—i.e. happy and calm—is extremely important in all voice contact species. Parrots are very much a voice -contact and identification species. Also, keep in mind to have the hand-feeders agree on the verbiage to be used so that there is the consistency in words and actions to convey real meaning.

As the young parrots age, more and more verbiage will be added to the voice contact messages. The choice is yours, just be consistent and always associate a word sound with a meaningful action or item. It will not be long before the most precocious talking chick will begin to try his/her hand (wing) at voice contact. Mark the most precocious talker(s) for possible inclusion into the breeding pool.

Additional "talking aids" include a female Panama Amazon with an astounding vocabulary that she likes to share with anything that will listen. She is placed in the baby barn with all the youngsters that are old enough to sleep on a perch. Birds learn faster from other birds.

For years, many biologists felt very strongly that parrots only mimicked human speech. The term "to parrot something" meant to repeat the words with no awareness of their meaning. Dr. Irene Pepperburg, building on the works of Dr. Donald Griffith and others, has begun to bring that era to a close. Parrots do understand the meaning of many a spoken word when properly conditioned to establish the spoken word sound with the meaning. Certainly, this same propensity to associate a given vocalization with meaning also exists in the wild.

Real talent is expressed early in all creatures large and small and it is no different in parrots. If the literature is correct, the average African grey starts to talk between a year and a year and a half of age. At White Mountain Bird Farm, we do not even consider a Grey chick for breeding stock unless the chick is articulating well in English by the end of its fourth month. In 1994, we had two qualifiers. The gentle male spoke clearly at two and a half months (2nd generation), an unrelated gentle calm female (2nd generation) spoke clearly between her third and fourth month. In 1995, we had no qualifying chicks. In 1996, we had a brother and sister team that made the grade. They will not be bred together. This is all we got out of twenty-one breeding pairs of African greys. Champions by definition are not common. Quality selection knows no compromises.

Our best breeding to date is a pair of Double Yellow-headed Amazons. The male, dubbed "Bert" vocalizes in English, never Amazon-ese. His mate, Bessy, a very tame and excellent talker, began to vocalize in core Double Yellow-headed Amazon contact calls when she was five years old. She vocalized only in English prior to that time. They are still calm, tame and very talkative many years later.

What then becomes of the birds that are culled from the breeding colonies and unfit as a house pet? These birds would do well in a large display aviary with good food and no nest boxes. Let them live out their life in open and unstressed surroundings. They did not ask to be taken from the wild and for a number of valid reasons can not be released back to it. But they can be released into large exhibit flights with no nest boxes. Care must be taken to monitor the birds for compatibility in these non-breeding display flights.

I receive calls weekly from disparate callers to take their nearly naked frustrated bird and give it a better home. I no longer take in these poor miserable souls but refer the callers to an individual that has the goodness of heart to take in these birds and place them in large flights (without nest boxes) and lets them live out their lives the best they can. Many unscrupulous breeders—large and small—will take in these unfit birds and try to breed them—using them as free or cheap breeding stock. Avoid this temptation; it only perpetuates the unfit and serves to increase the Misery Index of Parrots.


Suggested Readings

1. Masson, J. M. and McCarthy, S. When Elephants Weep-The Emotional Lives of Animals
2. Griffin, John, Ph.D.
3. Barber, Theodore Z. The Human Nature of Birds
4. Dr. Irene Pepperberg"s home page on the Internet. Read about the African Grey named Alex.
5. Grandin, Temple, editor. Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals Academic Press, 1998


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