Last summer, when we were delightedly hand-feeding seven Yellow Fronted Amazon and three Fuscicollis Cape Parrot chicks, I encountered a predicament. When the 'kids' were eight and nine weeks old respectively, I left Hawaii for ten days to fulfill a commitment to speak at a symposium on the mainland.
As April was left with all the bird chores, plus working a forty-hour week, we planned before I left how we could delay the fledging process in the nursery so that I would be back to supervise when our babies began flying all over the house.
Just as a background, there are lots of reasons that a baby Parrot caregiver may choose to "slow down" the pace towards fledging in his or her hand-fed chicks.
Sometimes the species in question is a notoriously bulky flyer - Red Tailed Greys & Vosmaeri Eclectus come to mind - or is perhaps, very slow to grow adventurous and outgoing such as Red-Bellied or Cape Parrots.
Delaying the fledging allows such chicks to fully develop all their growing flight feathers, gain balance and leg strength, plus become more self assured and competent in outlook before those telling first flights. Accordingly, calculated skillful flying then comes more easily.
Also, when we have several clutches being housed in proximity, there may be a large difference in ages between the eldest babies and the youngest. If fledging in the older chicks proceeds too soon, they can cause havoc with the peace and serenity of the young ones. Holding them back allows younger chicks to catch up a bit and while they may not be ready to fly when their big brothers and sisters do, they often are content to exercise their wings in the dark and watch all the activity without becoming fearful.
Premature Flying Affects Babies
It is a fact that many handfed Parrots fledge prematurely. After being pulled from the parents’ nestbox or incubator as two or three week olds, they are often cuddled and moved and carried about in lighted situations long before the same chick in the wild would even see direct sunlight. Many hobbyists are proud of the fact they are “socializing” their baby Parrots at such an early stage.
But the truth is, breeders can be pushing the birds to move ahead in their development long before nature says they should be doing so. Continuous x-ray research, by certain veterinarians in the United Kingdom, has shown that many birds raised thusly, end up with minute stress fractures in their bones because of too early and too strenuous pressures applieda on the young chicks’ skeletons.
Here at The Perfect Parrot, we believe in slowing the fledging process by urging babies to 'eat, sleep, poop only' in the dark of their nursery baskets, until they are several weeks, flapping and beginning to peer out into the light for stimulation.
Only then, by their own choice, do we encourage them to begin to venture beyond the dark.
This gives extra days to develop strong limbs and muscles before attempting flight.
It also lets their emotional stability increase with the realization that they are safe under their dark towel and can get used to strange sounds, movement and, of course humans, slowly at their own pace.
I am hearing lots of reports from the United Kingdom about so many breeders supplying the pet trade with baby Parrots raised in brightly lighted surroundings and clear plastic tub environments. I encourage any aviculturists that are doing this to rethink their methods.
"Chicks exposed to bright light and activity before nature says they are ready for it can develop serious behaviour problems."
Besides having eyes that are sensitive to light, babies in reclusive genera like Poicephalus, African Greys and miniature Macaws, may become jumpy and nervous around movement or noise. Other Parrots like Eclectus, Amazons, and Conures may be reticent about feeding, retreating and struggling because of visual fears. Furthermore, without sufficient dark space to rest within, younger sibling hookbills tend to burrow beneath elders as if to seek a parent bird to hide under, while older chicks will climb upon younger ones trying to get away from such a scene.
Take a look at your nursery with an unbiased eye! If you see clusters of baby birds huddled in the corners of hard, sterile tubs without the benefits of dark towels, fuzzy toy animals or any other nurturing devices, then you are raising future pets in obvious consternation, if not downright stress and fear. Emotional stability comes from a tranquil childhood in Parrots, just as it does in humans!
If I were a prospective pet purchaser in the UK, I would certainly inquire about the nursery environment in which a potential new psittacine was raised. It may be the difference between acquiring a self-assured, independent Parrot or one that has shyness issues and a ton of 'neediness'.
The fledging/weaning process in aviculture is often somewhat artificial and contrived. Parrots are fed on timetables made up by their keepers. Chicks are frequently plied with potent protein and fat-rich formulas, many days past the time when they would really wish to be slimming down and eating sparely in preparation for flight. I certainly do not wish to offend any readers, but I have noticed over the years that some hand-feeders who are overweight themselves may sometimes push their Parrots to eat and eat, even when the birds are not particularly hungry.
"Aviculture has very little fine-tuned knowledge of these subtle changes in caloric intake and their affects on fledging psittacines."
Good parent Parrots intuitively sense when their chicks’ appetites are changing, and they modify both what they eat for the babies and how much and how often they feed it, in accordance with the stage the chick is in. Aviculture has very little fine-tuned knowledge of these subtle changes in caloric intake and their affects on fledging psittacines.
This may be one reason so many overfed neophytes miss the 'weaning window' breeders talk about, instead going on eating too much and resisting both strenuous flight and the progression to solid, non-warmed foods ingested by their own efforts.
I personally believe that the high preponderance of fatty liver and other obesity diseases in certain species of hookbills is in fact related to the way they are hand-fed as baby birds. Though I agree with the concepts of 'abundance weaning' as devised by Phoebe and Harry Linden, I also caution that the 'abundance' part of it can be overdone, especially with regard to richness of foods given.
So, we can see that there are legitimate reasons for delaying the fledging process in certain baby hookbills, but how then do we go about it?
"Our use of baskets covered with a dark towel with just a front opening provides optimum peaceful security for babies". The paramount rule here is to keep the youngsters in a very quiet, serene, mostly dimly lit location (not dark though!).
Not only does human noise and activity prompt baby Parrots to begin exiting their covered baskets once they are used to such distraction, but it may, in the most timid of chicks, cause them to be nervous, fidgety and make them unable to settle down for days on end.
Our use of baskets covered with a dark towel with just a front opening provides optimum peaceful security for babies. They are kept in the shaded bathroom window seat a distance away from ringing telephones or blaring television/stereo.
Any slightly older more active chicks can be grouped with young eat-and-sleepers to keep the older siblings less prone to exploring. Flapping within the basket is perfectly fine and encouraged, we even feed chicks inside their basket sometimes rather than taking them out for the duration, then remove them very briefly, keeping them partially covered, to clean and re-line the basket linens.
Offering Destination Sites
Moreover, part of the fledging urge in chicks is due to a strong wish 'to get out of where they are', rather than purposely to go somewhere specific. We place second towel-draped baskets right next to the ones holding the babies. Elder babies will choose to climb out and away from clutch mates to be by themselves in these second baskets, which are basically about six or eight inches away from the first holding basket.
These new baskets have diversions like green branch sprigs, cut clean flowers, millet spray and a safe soft plastic toy or two for the birds to sample. That is the first step in controlling the entire fledging process, giving chicks a goal rather than just letting them go wherever. You will know precisely which siblings are on the verge of fledging because they all will be together in the new basket, often flapping madly after a meal!
A quiet atmosphere for chicks and the new destination site normally delays fledging about seven to ten days depending upon the species of psittacine and its social confidence around humans. If an owner wishes to prolong the tentative period prior to first flight, it can be done by moving all the holding baskets to another serene room location entirely different from the first. In our case this would mean putting the babies in their baskets on the bed in the master bedroom.
Those older birds which had been visually checking out the surroundings in the original room in preparation for first flight attempts, will now need several days to survey and accustom themselves to the new positioning before deciding to take off. Make sure the new spot is free from stressful noise and activity so chicks don't regress into shyness.
When a hand-feeder begins to take steps to monitor and influence the fledging process of their Parrots, he or she will be pleased at the way chicks begin to conform to predictable first-flight patterns and no longer just take off and crash about randomly.
Although this is advanced aviculture, it is well worth any extra effort that it entails.
Please Note - If you are not be familiar with Eb's policy of baskets, Eb believes in as natural a process as possible when managing birds in captivity (aviculture). He raises his babies in baskets covered with a cloth or towel to ensure the chicks are not exposed to bright light, as they would not be in their nest holes in the wild.
This article was originally published in Parrots Magazine in September 2008.