In town with the two African Greys, Artha and Casper, one on each shoulder, they sit still. They know they are wearing harnesses and don’t try to fly off. When someone asks are they real? I’m tempted to say, ‘No, they’re electric.’ But I don’t.
They are both sociable and friendly. Their early experiences made them trusting and not fearful. Bringing up ‘baby’ be she two legged, four legged furred or feathered is an art as much as a science.
One size doesn’t fit all and what works for one person fails for another. Luck plays an important role. However, there are some situations that are more likely to achieve their aim – to produce a well-rounded contented pet Parrot. The first consideration is to find and connect with a breeder whom you trust.
Artha and Casper came from different parents who lived in Barrett Watson’s aviaries. For any pet owner, a well raised young bird is of inestimable value.
Although I had raised babies, foals, kittens, puppies, rabbits and poultry at different times, Artha was our first bird.
When she was 18 months old we decided to get a second bird as much for her sake as mine. She will probably outlive me (I’m in my 70s, she’s almost 20) whoever takes her is unlikely to give her as much time as I do. So I like to imagine that in her next home, she won’t be alone.
As with most questions of avian care, whether its nutrition, husbandry, or training, opinions are divided. Some say that a Parrot bonded to a human does better without another avian companion. Another viewpoint (which is one that I share) is that Parrots are still more wild than domesticated. They are flock animals that can fulfil their needs in company of other birds more easily than alone in a cage.
Since we were so delighted with the way Barrett had raised Artha that we went to him for a second chick.
Because of the risk of thefts and risks of hygiene, breeders are understandably reluctant to allow strangers into their aviaries. I was lucky in that I already knew Barrett for several years before acquiring Artha.
Barrett raises his chicks in similar manner as many other breeders but there are small subtle differences which translate into the friendly chicks that are a hallmark of Barrett’s husbandry. Chicks destined to be breeding birds will generally be parent raised; others intended as pets will be pulled at various stages between 2 and six weeks of age.
They will be put in a tub with another chick of similar age. The tub is covered with a towel so that it mimics the darkness of the nest box. Barrett or one of his helpers will feed with a curved spoon- a teaspoon bent to resemble a Parrot’s beak. Sometimes he uses a syringe. The advantage of spoon feeding is that is slower and gives the chick he opportunity to stop feeding when it has had enough.
Years ago Barrett told me he would weigh before and after each feeding but now with forty years of experience he judges by the eye alone. He raises 30 – 40 chicks a year and never advertises; they are sold on his reputation alone.
I had discussed with Barrett my intention of taking Parrots outside in harness, so he accustomed Artha and Casper to wearing one before a feed. This meant that from day one I could take them outside for walks fresh air and company.
Greys are sometimes said to be phobic and scared of new experiences. But a chick raised by a caring breeder won’t develop these tendencies.
Both Artha and Casper were already used to stepping up before they came home.
Teaching a flighted recall to me came easily to them within a few days. What a contrast this was to other Greys that since then, I have taken in or boarded. These birds were so frightened of human hands that it took months (in one case two years) before they learned to trust me.
Barrett encourages prospective pet owners to visit the un-weaned chick. I took notes of our visits. This extract from the second one.
August 15 Second visit.
Barrett has brought the baby to the stable yard. The baby is in a transporter in the tack room. Artha, who knows the tack room, flies on top of her mother’s cage. (Her mother lives and breeds in the tack room.)
Her mother comes out of the nest box and tries to bite her toes. Artha flies to the top shelf and perches on a pile of horse blankets. Barrett brings the baby out of the transporter and puts him on my hand. He hasn’t learnt ‘step up’ yet. The baby’s red tail feathers are so new that they curl up at the ends like a drake’s.
I fall in love at first sight. Artha flies down to my other hand. This is it! How will she react? What she does is amazing! She tries to feed the baby; they rub beaks. She grooms its eyelashes then loses interest and flies back to her vantage point.
‘That went off all right,’ says Barrett, who never flaps.
On the drive home Artha refused to talk or sing as she usually does in the car, even with the encouragement of Radio 2. Since both Artha and I captivated by the chick we will buy him whatever the sex.
Three weeks, I brought the baby home, large and sleek and shy in his carrier. At home, I took him out and put him on a perch. Artha repeated her feeding behaviour. The cat strolled in, the baby panicked and flew smack into the wall and crashed onto the floor. Grey babies seem the clumsiest fliers. The cat went out in disgust.
Friday October 19th
Casper has been here one month. Last night in the bathroom Casper stated to make liquid gurgling sounds. He is only 3.5 months old. Is he trying to talk?
Artha has started saying ‘You’re a good boy!’
The two Parrots are friends. Casper grooms Artha as well.
Casper’s results from the DNA testing came back. He is a male!
Tonight I checked on the two birds in the conservatory. For the first time they are sleeping side by side. This is what I wanted to happen but I can’t help feeling a tad jealous that Artha will no longer be my loving companion.
The two birds are an increasing delight. I was told that an over bonded Parrot like Artha would act jealous but she has not done so. She can do so many things with Casper that she can't with me.
For example I have never been able to swing by one leg from an elastic rope and whistle at the same time. Nor can I really cope with having my eyelashes tweaked but Casper seems to adore it.
Epilogue Since 2000, Artha and Casper have stayed friends but have never become a bonded pair. Caspar enjoyed a brief 8 month old marriage with a wild caught Grey (a rescue) who sadly died (clogged arteries from years of too many sunflower seed) and he mourned her for some months. He plucked out his chest feathers and spent most of the day sitting outside their nest box.
With maturity, they have both remained sociable and friendly. Artha goes shopping with our tenant. I have not emphasised the damage that free range Parrots make in a house but the pleasure they give us outweighs the annoyance they cause us. And having Parrots at liberty in a sitting room certainly encourages us to be tidy.
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