Dot Schwarz looks at the history of Parrot husbandry.
Everything changes, so does personal experience, advice and research concerning our absolutely life changing experience of keeping or breeding captive Parrots. I’ve noted some recent trends concerning nutrition, environment and enrichment that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own practice.
They’re not completely separate topics. What we feed a captive Parrot and how we present the food makes a difference to the Parrots’ well-being and health. The environment, cages, ‘out of cage time’ and whether or not the Parrot has access to an aviary effect how well the Parrot will adapt to captivity, a life very different from her wild cousins.
Remember that Parrots -unlike dogs and cats- are still essentially wild creatures. The more you adapt their lives to imitate wild bird behaviour, the easier it is for them to live contented lives. Fortunately, one of the remarkable trends emerging from scientific research and personal experience is awareness of not just a Parrots’ physical requirements in captivity but also their psychological needs.
Twenty years ago, when I started out keeping and caring for Parrots, I never came across the term enrichment. Enrichment had for some time been an aspect of care in zoos with various species but the most commonly kept birds, Parrots, were never thought of as requiring enrichment.
The general view was that Parrots like all birds, having small brains, were governed by instinct (a view now totally discredited) and their requirements were therefore basic; a perch and food.
After Dr Irene Pepperberg’s revolutionary discoveries which are reinforced by other similar studies into cognitive behaviour in birds, it’s now accepted not only in the scientific world, but by the majority of experienced Parrot keepers that Parrots are as intelligent as some mammals, and in captivity they require occupational and emotional support to enable them to become well adjusted.
Enrichment is now considered essential to a captive Parrot’s well being.
How different the attitude used to be! In one of the first handbooks I bought (first edition 1976) the author recommended sharing his breakfast with Jacko, (a popular name for a wild caught Parrot) of coffee and fresh rolls and butter.
Those days have mostly passed – but not entirely. In Asia, some Parrots are still routinely chained to perches. Wing clipping, already illegal in some European countries and increasingly unpopular globally, is still practised virtually everywhere. Advice on how to clip wings can be found on line.
The diametrically opposed opinion gives rise to forthright articles and books explaining why the practice is cruel and unnecessary. Not so long ago – a couple of decades – Parrots could be kept in a small round cage without room to stretch their wings and fed a seed mix consisting mostly of sunflower.
These sad birds sat on a perch all day had no interaction with any other animals and had nothing to do at all.
I’m not getting involved in the seeds versus pellets debate, which continues unabated. You can of course buy Lafeber pellets which combine the two. But what has changed is a growing trend for fresh food, fruit, vegetables, and wild plants like dandelions, hawthorn berries, rosehips, etc. The list is endless.
There are owners who feed exclusively fresh or home – prepared items. This is time consuming and you need a lot of information to ensure that you are providing the correct amount of nutrients.
A fresh diet however is more akin to wild Parrots’ diet. No one can replicate the variety and complexity of the wild diet. What wild Parrots actually eat is not even known for all species.
Different species consume widely varying diets, and many wild Parrot diets are still not fully understood. Animal protein, via insects and their pupae are now known to figure in a lot of wild Parrot’s diets.
Whatever your main base diet may be, either seeds pellets or a mix of the two, you can add fresh food in unlimited variety. As with food you prepare for yourself, it should be washed thoroughly to make sure there is no chemical residue such as fertilisers remaining.
Parrot expert Rosemary Low advocates growing wheat grass, dandelions and similar food stuffs in pots outside the aviary. A brilliant idea that I’ve imitated. The humble dandelion, ubiquitous dock, chickweed and similar, easily provide – just for the picking – treats and valuable nutrients for our charges.
Enlightened breeders and caregivers with aviaries will now provide branches for gnawing and foraging. Willow, ash, elder, apple, pear, and eucalyptus are some of the ideal types of wood for a Parrot to chew.
They provide occupational enrichment and fresh bark can be of nutritional benefit. Ensure branches are not from trees that have been sprayed or have been collected near busy roads where they could have been contaminated by car exhaust fumes. Given the right conditions and opportunities, Parrots will keep their beaks, nails and feathers in pristine condition.
Another recent development is that Parrot food suppliers now sell alongside generic Parrot mix, species specific diets. Such as the Parrot Premium No Nut No Sunflower.
That wasn’t the case twenty years ago.
I find sprouting seeds and legumes make a valued addition to a Parrot’s diet. My evidence is largely anecdotal. But I have seen the feather condition of Parrots fed sprouts (10-30% of the diet) improve significantly. Sprouts are after all, a living food with a high vitamin content.
Learning the technique of how to ‘sprout’ is fiddly but not too difficult. I sprout human grade seeds, then add them to the bird’s diets and use some in our own salads.
Another new food gaining favour is herbal teas. Different herbs are said to have a number of benefits. I have used thistle tea for an Amazon with liver complaint and there was a definite positive effect.
Caring and conscientious breeders don’t clip fledglings’ wings. If they clip after the bird has fledged and the buyer receives a non-flighted bird, she can with patience and care teach the bird to fly again.
I’ve included these pictures of Bobo an Umbrella Cockatoo who came here clipped and heavily plucked (her tail had been cut off) and within two years was flighted again, albeit clumsily.
The captive bird’s most important environment will be her cage. Simply buy the largest cage possible and ensure that the perches are natural wood not plastic. They should also be of varying widths. A flat perch is beneficial to a bird with any foot problems.
A large diameter perch is preferable to a small diameter perch. And if like me, you don’t enjoy nail clipping, providing sanded perches ensures that the Parrot trims their own nails as they move about on the perch.
Modern owners now know important space is to a bird and try to provide as much out of cage time as possible. Is there a magic number of hours? Probably not, but 3-4 hours provides a reasonable minimum.
Should you share meals with your Parrot? Some of us do.
Foraging as part of a modern strategy for optimum nutrition
Wild Parrots don’t find their food neatly arranged in bowls- they have to seek it out by foraging and exploring. And you can replicate this behaviour by hiding it in parcels! There are plenty of ingenious methods for wrapping food, hiding it and so forth.
Keeping my two Macaws gainfully employed is a challenge. I have found that the baffle cage works a treat.
Filled with walnuts in shell or shredded paper with seeds interspersed keeps Mina and Benni happy for hours winkling out the treats. Innovations in foraging toys have multiplied. Buy them or make your own. Like human toddlers, Parrots adore unwrapping parcels to obtain the treasure. And like my own toddlers – oh, so long ago – will often play with the wrapping as much as the wrapped-up article.
This is a word that only became popular a decade or so. It includes many sorts of enrichment – visual, auditory or physical.
To keep Parrots in a shed without a view is downright cruel. They love to see wild birds, observe what’s happening around them. Apart from the Kakapo there are virtually no other solitary Parrots and most occur in large flocks.
In the wild a Parrot would never be alone, and thankfully there is a growing trend to keep them in pairs or flocks.
Nor do Parrots inhabit a silent world. The sounds of nature, wind, rain, other creatures are meaningful to them. Parrots have learned to adapt to human sounds; many will dance (especially members of the Cockatoo family). Others will sing along with you.
Free flying as enrichment
Indoor flying clubs
I came across the first indoor flying club in Canada over 20 years ago. The idea did not seem to spread. But recently it has. Groups of Parrot owners hire a large enclosed space and meet regularly to exercise and socialise their birds.
Here is my experience of Parrots and other birds in the Suffolk group. Lissey Quartiez one of the founding members of the group, hires a large barn near Ipswich out as a riding manège.
The owners hire it. So once a month, for the last eight months, Parrot enthusiasts, around a dozen, have brought their birds to free fly in the barn, socialise and generally have an enjoyable morning. Both Parrots and people make new friends.
The morning ends with a convivial lunch in a nearby café that welcomes avian guests.
Some of the members, like myself, free fly out of doors. This is a growing trend worldwide. It was unheard of when I got my first birds. And it is the ultimate enrichment to fly your Parrots outside.
I must end with a warning that free flight is not something to undertake lightly.
You need time, experience, and to help you acquire this you will need a hands-on mentor to teach you and your bird.