Letters


Dear Parrots magazine,

Response to a reader's query

It was interesting to read the question submitted by Alan Baker about parent-rearing his African Grey chicks, and yet still wanting to socialise and tame the babies.

While I realise that many breeders would simply pull the babies at a very early stage and hand-feed them in the nursery (the personal recommendation given by expert aviculturist, Muriel Barnes, in her well written reply), I would like to expand upon this question and perhaps get Alan thinking about some imaginative alternatives.

The African species we have raised and co-parented, all have a volatile streak in them and must be carefully observed when undertaking parent-rearing/human socialisation.  Obviously the closer the relationship between the psittacines and the keeper, the better the human is able to insert him or herself into the raising equation, when the proper time arrives.

I have known of hobbyists who could take from the box and handle their baby Double Yellow-headed Amazons with the cock and hen right there in the cage watching all this activity.  It was astounding to me, as this Amazon species can be one of the most ferocious and unpredictable of hookbills when in nesting mode.  So when is the correct time to begin getting to know the new Grey babies and introducing oneself to them?

With most parrots, the older the chicks become and the longer parents have been taking care of them and feeding them, without any interruptions or break in their secure routine, then the more the adult hen and cock are going to begin loosening their 24/7 protective bond over their offspring.

This can manifest outwardly to the breeder in several ways: 1) We notice the hen begins to spend longer and longer periods away from the chicks and outside the nesting chamber, eating, preening, perhaps sunning herself or bathing, etc. 2) The attentive protectionism of the early weeks after neonate hatch - that is nervousness, running back to the box and diving in when a human comes by, etc. - begins to ebb significantly. 3) The parents actually begin to sleep outside the box, since babies are now quite warm and feathered, and are taking up most of the floor area of the nest by themselves without Mum or Dad.

We found with our psittacine pairs that these factors came into play about the fifth or sixth week of chick age (depending upon the size of the parrot, i.e. Grey versus Cockatoo versus Macaw and so forth).

Now I consider it essential for the protection of the babies to have some sort of lockout mechanism arranged for the nest box, so that when the aviculturist decides to open up the checking door to 'meet and greet' the babies, then the adults cannot enter the front hole of the box and cause mischief.  This for us can be as simple as a large towel or t-shirt stuffed into the entrance hole.  It could also be a sliding thin plywood or metal slat.  I do not like wire lockout doors as they allow sounds from my socialisation practises below to emanate from the entrance, and tend to draw the parents up to the opening in an irate mood.

Okay, so we have the parents outside for a one hour afternoon siesta.  Chicks are six weeks old.  
We block the in-hole, open up the back of the box, and give the babies their first glimpse of direct light in their entire lives.

They do not like it of course.  They shy, retreat, perhaps growl if their parents have taught them to.  The idea first time is not to touch the chicks.  Give them your best baby begging vocalisation (try to copy it correct for the species) six, seven, eight or ten times, while closing the check door slowly, then slowly re-open it, showing them that light comes briefly, then safe darkness will be back shortly.  Try to establish an announcement sound they can recognise as a feeding sound.  They will soon know it means you are coming, and later on if you choose to supplementally hand-feed them, it will be your feeding vocalisation.

If and when the offspring become very quiet and just watch you when the door opens, then you can begin very slowly inserting a hand into the box check opening and touching the most calm chick on the beak only.  The youngest chick is usually the least suspicious.  Use your fingernails, as they are most like Mummy's beak, give a little vibration shimmy with your hand to simulate regurgitating motion, and presto, you are on your way to socialising those parent-reared Greys, Amazons, or whatever.

We do not force the issue by doing this every day thereafter, preferring every three days or so, but you will surely find that: 1) The chicks become more and more comfortable with the interruption and light and touch, which after a few days has expanded to soft and gentle finger preening on the cheeks and nape, and 2) The parents become more and more accepting of the lockout and intrusion into their breeding life.  They know by now it is only a few minutes and then they are allowed back in the box where obviously all is the same and well.

Incidentally, make sure you do not forget to remove the towel or such from the entrance when you stop interacting with the babies.  It is not hard to neglect in the euphoria of greeting and touching those precious little ones!

To be sure, Muriel is right, and not all parrots are trustworthy in such a situation.  There are no hard and fast rules.  But if the aviculturist is conscientious, patient and very observant, he will most likely be pleased with the ensuing results.

Good luck Alan, keep us all posted.  Feel free to contact me with any questions.  This is advanced bird-keeping you are attempting, and you are to be congratulated for stretching the envelope.

Not only that, but your baby Greys will thank you - you are preparing them in the best way possible to become better, complete psittacines, yet able to live comfortably and stably in the world of people.

With aloha, Eb Cravens


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