|This is an exciting time for companion parrot lovers because the field of aviculture is changing so rapidly. As older ideas give way to newer practices, there grows to be greater diversity of methods used by breeders in the areas of weaning and socialization. Small scale breeders are often recognized as doing an excellent job in socializing babies because their lower production allows them to attend to each bappie with more care.
Avian behavior consultants are teaching us that certain rearing practices do impact the personality of the parrot and its long-term success in the home as a companion bird. It does matter if baby Greys are abundance weaned before going to their new homes. It does matter if they are given flying experience prior to being gradually clipped back. Hand-fed birds often struggle with behavioral problems, such as plucking, which are rarely seen in wild-caught birds. I believe that wild-caughts have been able to develop "inner resources" upon which they are able to draw on in times of change, such as when the "family flock" leaves on vacation.
As a small scale breeder of Congo African Greys, I have done extensive research into which breeding and rearing practices will produce birds that retain the best of their wild counterparts, and at the same time, can live happily in a domestic environment.
My approach to breeding and rearing is grounded in two distinct factors. First, it is imperative to look at the wild and to examine processes of growth, weaning and fledging within the flock, trying to capture the "essence" of this experience, the qualities of the experience that most make them what they are as adult Greys. Second, is to proceed with an ever-present awareness that, by breeding Greys and keeping them as companions, we are engaged in the process of domesticating them.
Greys in the wild have evolved into creatures of incredible intelligence, with instincts and a certain set of skills necessary to survival. This set of personality characteristics has to have developed in response to challenge-----challenge of living in the wild and with a certain social structure.
Several factors point to the degree of complexity they are able to attain in their personalities. First, they are long-lived and go through a distinct developmental process (development of curiosity, exploration, weaning, fledging, participating in and learning flock dynamics, etc..) in reaching maturity. They manifest distinct life changes (infancy, adolescence, breeding years, etc..). Further, we know from our breeding efforts that there are optimal times in a chick’s life for learning certain developmental tasks, such as exercising his curiosity as it leads him to explore.
They are capable of developing and maintaining several ongoing relationships on different levels with all members of the family flock. The birds establish these differing relationships based on the cues they receive from each individual.
Greys demonstrate a wide range of emotions and desires, such as the ability to feel loss, boredom, irritation, happiness and contentment. Moreover, they are capable of learning our language and using it appropriately.
THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH
The complex personality of an African Grey cannot develop in a vacuum, without guidance and instruction. Yet, it is often a "vacuum," an experiential void in which they meet few challenges, which breeders provide for these birds until they are sold. Most traditional breeding practices place a chick in a brooder or plastic container until it is ready for a cage. Thereafter, the bird is caged for the majority of the time, with perhaps a few toys and/or clutch mates, and is clipped to prevent flying on or before the occasion of the first attempt.
Being raised in this way truncates the normal developmental process. It is not easy or even possible in some cases for the bird to backtrack and pick up where it left off once it does find itself in more benevolent surroundings. For, even if benevolent, these new surroundings will present a challenge for which the bird is largely unprepared.
When I examine the natural process of baby parrot development in the wild, it strikes me that it is one of cyclically encountering new challenges. At each, the babies feel fear/caution/anxiety, meet the challenge finally, and come away from the encounter with increased confidence. If we look at the developmental process of human children, who certainly manifest complex personalities, a parallel cycle occurs. Each new challenge, each new "first," must be met by summoning up the qualities which a complex personality has at its disposal (or can develop), making decisions and choices, and learning from these. This learning process results in confidence and a readiness to meet the challenge.
The fundamental problem with the more traditional approach for raising baby parrots is its failure to address the developmental stages a young parrot must go through to grow into a confident, agile, secure companion bird.
AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH
My approach to rearing baby Greys includes providing experiences which serve to present the same degree of challenge that they would find in wild circumstances.
I use many of the techniques developed by breeder and behavior consultant Phoebe Linden. The babies are kept in a cardboard box once graduated from a brooder. In the box, they are challenged by the sight and presence of new toys and fresh foods that are placed there to stimulate curiosity and exploration, as well as by watching the goings-on in our home. At about 6 weeks, one of a clutch will succeed in climbing up on the edge of the box. I interpret this as a message that they are ready for the next challenge. Then I move them to a California Cage stack, containing three compartments. The stack is adjacent to the cage inhabited by Rollo, my own Grey, who assumes the role of "Nanny Bird."
The babies are placed in the bottom cage within another cardboard box. They can then retain the sense of security afforded by the box, yet have a larger, safer area in which to explore. More foods and new toys are available for exploration. Once they have ventured out of the box and learned to walk comfortably on the wire bottom of the cage, I begin to open the cage door. While this isn’t an experience they would have in the wild, it is one which presents a degree of challenge.
I block off an area on the floor in which they can explore and they do so with delight. Before long, when I open this door, they come "barreling out" with enthusiasm. They investigate the many toys scattered over the floor, and practice walking and flapping. They do much more flapping in preparation for flying when out of the cage, even though the cage they are in offers plenty of space for this. In this way, they demonstrate an awareness of space and a desire to have a sense of expanse around them in order to fully practice the things which will allow them to develop physically.
Once they show the ability to get some lift and are beginning to appear bored with the challenges presented by this activity, I move them into the middle cage. This cage has a small side door, which opens out onto a climbing and play area shared by Rollo. This area encompasses a 2" by 2" wooden structure which they can traverse, as well as two "trees" complete with natural branches to chew and destroy. Toys are hung everywhere and food dishes are plentiful and at different heights. This middle cage presents further challenges: the unfamiliar and higher perching set-up, different toys and food dishes, and the opportunity to climb out when they so desire. Interestingly, I have never had to show the babies where the opening is. They know it from the first day, and their wild instincts drive them through it at the appropriate time in a true "fledging" experience. I cannot help but think that providing for this pivotal "graduation" experience deepens and serves to underscore the whole developmental process of the chick. Another new challenge is the presence of Rollo, who now visits the babies in their cage to preen them and to communicate with them, as well as to model for them relationships with other family members and pets.
According to their own innate timetable, the babies emerge from the middle cage through that side door. At first, they crouch with some fear on the plywood platform right outside the door. Shortly however, they begin to explore, learning how to navigate their way around the branches and wooden structure. They also begin to experiment with height. The natural branches allow them to attain different perching heights in relation to each other, and I think this has some importance to them. They also meet the new challenge of being spritzed with water for bathing.
Inevitably, they take their first flights. At first, their attempts are very "helter skelter" and their demeanor is one of insecurity and uncertainty, coupled with bravado. However, their attempts are met with much praise and enthusiasm on our parts. For the first time, I not only provide reassurance, but I also become the cheering section.
I never clip the babies back until they demonstrate that they have achieved the measure of confidence and coordination that allows them to fly naturally and effortlessly. This takes anywhere from two weeks to four weeks, depending upon the bird. They are then very gradually clipped back, one flight feather at a time on each side. Throughout this process, they continue to fly, and since the effort involved is slightly greater with each day, they develop physically even further. A bird that has been allowed to fully develop its flight capacity is forever a different bird from one who has not.
Thus begins the last developmental stage in my care. They now need to learn to meet the challenge of staying caged up for periods of up to 8 hours, being alone without clutchmates, of traveling, showering, being outside and learning to stay on their play structure without wandering. This last stage is the saddest to me and the one in which things do not come so "naturally." However, these new challenges are offset by "projects" provided, which further stimulate curiosity and investigation, as well as a more complex relationship with me. They learn to step-up, go to other people when asked and to move around to different places in the house.
At this point, they must learn to live within the boundaries we establish for them in our homes. It is not until they have successfully completed all of these stages that they are allowed to go to new homes. This is usually not before 16 weeks, well after they have become food-independent.
This last stage is critically important. Many times, I hear breeders refer to socializing their birds by handling them and showing them affection. This practice, of course, is beneficial in that it helps to develop trust. However, defining socialization in this limited fashion fails to provide the babies with the range of skills they need to integrate themselves into a new home with minimal stress. I think that the process of socialization is far more complex. I like to think of it as "bappie boot camp" which gently and lovingly readies them for the transition to a new home, a transition they now have the skills to make with minimal stress.
It is critically important for those seeking to add a young parrot to their families to challenge breeders with questions about methods of weaning and fledging young parrots. Not only will this help to ensure their happiness with the birds they eventually purchase, but it will encourage the field of aviculture to continue to develop methods which will guarantee us companion birds capable of living comfortably and happily in our world, and who at the same time will retain their magical wild natures and capabilities.
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This article was published in the Winter 1999 issue of The Grey Play Round Table Magazine.