Managing Pet Parrot Puberty




One of the most significant decisions a psittacine owner can be faced with is whether to procure a mate or friend for a pet parrot, and give him/her the chance to live as a pair, or even raise a family. At a time when pet aviculture is hoping to assist the psittacine conservation movement, the responsibilities related to this decision confront the pet owner on emotional, ethical and commercial levels.

Making the step from pet owner to breeding pet owner is not difficult per se but it demands a certain level of professionalism not required of those keeping single birds. This article will consider many of the pros and cons of ‘pairing’ your pet parrot, and discuss various ways to go about it.

BREEDING CONSIDERATIONS


Naming a business ‘The Perfect Parrot’ represented for me a lifetime search for just such a psittacine. At present, I don’t have the data to bestow this label on a single species, so when people ask me which hookbill is the most perfect, I tend to reply ‘the baby parrot’. Indeed, all the joys, heartaches, life lessons and love I can envision are wrapped up in these tiny creatures entrusted to our care and, if one is lucky enough to own the parents and watch the process unfold, well…that can be pure magic.

To be sure, choosing to breed one’s pet parrot offers supreme rewards—it also is more work. So what should be the determining factor? For me, it was always simple; the happiness and welfare of the parrot.

Here are a few of our ‘do nots’ when considering this question.

• Do not enter the breeding arena with monetary profit as your primary motive.
Be willing to sustain financial loss. Be willing to keep unique offspring, and be willing to experience exclusion from part of your pet’s private life.

• Never force two reluctant birds to pair. In the case of cockatoos, king parrots, lories, some Hawk-headeds, lovebirds and Amazons, this can result in zero production, competition, mate abuse or death.

• Resolve not to mix species or hybridise.
Many professionals will avoid even the cross of known subspecies.

Learn to recognise pure birds (a near impossibility where one-eighth and one-sixteenth hybrids abound), or deal only with knowledgeable experts who have references. Aviculture is still full of breeders selling impure strains of Janday Conures, Green-winged Macaws, Grand Eclectus and more.

• Do not consider breeding as a way to wash your hands of a no-longerfavourite pet. Many handfed and humanimpressed hookbills truly need human interaction. Placing them with a mate out in the backyard does not absolve the owner from his ties to the bird. As the years pass, some of my paired pets distance themselves from me, but that is their choice.

On a more personal note, buying an unrelated, sexed companion for your pet is exciting for you and it, and can be problem-solving as well. When psittacine puberty arrives, it can bring with it an array of changes within the single parrot household. Most of these difficulties can be coped with by making adjustments to the household routine. As one or two annual breeding seasons pass and the pet ages a few years past puberty, equilibrium is often reached and the home becomes stable once again.

In some cases we have recommended mild behaviour modification undertaken with the aid of professional counsel. I have to admit, I make a practice of spending as little effort as possible modifying instinctual behaviour in my psittacine pets or breeders.

Such modifications can cause a chain reaction which only creates a different unsavoury mannerism down the line.

PUBERTY BLUES


Common puberty changes in hookbills include increased chewing and destruction, seeking darkness and nesting sites, aggression against strangers or ‘bonded’ humans and birds, screaming, despondency, feather-picking, change in appetite, masturbation and egg-laying.

The need for professionalism becomes apparent when the pet owner tries to balance cause and cures in an efficient manner. For example, a change in eating habits may necessitate higher protein foods or greater amounts of greens and buds in a bird’s diet, but providing this could also increase the nesting impulse.

Giving a cardboard play box to your single pet bird may stop the screeching and satiate chewing and nest-seeking urges, but it might also increase territorial behaviour in males, or lead to a clutch of eggs in females.

To be sure, we must accept that male territorial behaviour during breeding season is natural. This is a time when they need to let their hormones go and we, as owners, must give them their space.

Egg-laying and setting to term in a sheltered box is also natural for a female.

But a responsible owner must see to it that this phase does not become a habitual string of laying cycles which limit her healthy life, deplete her calcium and risk egg-binding hazards.

Our goals here are not to shut off instinctual behaviours, but to channel them in directions acceptable in the home pet situation. Inexperienced owners should observe their bird’s activities, take notes, mark down dates, and be prepared to seek advice if behaviour turns incomprehensible.

Most puberty problems do not occur overnight. The pet keeper may be at fault for waiting until things progress to a point where they have to seek help. For example, it was fun to sit and pet your female Sulphur-crested Cockatoo ‘down under’ until she began screaming for such attention, stopped eating well, started to bite, or plucked the feathers raw beneath her wings.

Two decades ago, the first female Amazon Parrot I kept as a pet coerced me into stroking her lower back and cloacal area in bed in the mornings. I learned this was non-productive for her welfare and would likely produce a sexually dysfunctional bird, so such activity ceased.

We no longer recommend any such intimate petting for captive psittacines. It accelerates the human/parrot relationship towards a dead end and makes it difficult to ascertain how sexually active the pet actually is. Masturbation by a parrot in its own cage with perch or toys is normal and serves as a sign that changes are in store.

TAKING POSITIVE STEPS


Many times the puberty phase of a pet bird can be focused into a newer, more interesting environment. It was for maturing pets that we first began building outdoor play cages in the backyard. These 1.8m x 1.8m (6ft x 6ft) enclosures on legs are packed with rotting logs, branches, gravel trays, seeded grasses and flowers.

Rain was allowed to wet greenery, or an early morning sprinkling was provided.

Our single parrots loved to be put outside in the garden during the day to ‘play wild bird’. They come into the house for the evening. We see grown Amazons fluffing and posturing threats at the sparrows eating spilled seed on the grass beneath the cage!

A rule of thumb for owners with pets in the midst of parrot puberty is ‘do not panic—go slowly, and try the simplest changes first’.

Puberty and its challenges provide a period of training for owner and bird alike. I believe too many young captiveraised psittacines are placed in hard-core breeding situations before their young organs and their emotional maturity are ready for the strain. No one publishes accounts of how long these ‘teenage’ birds produce babies before burning out or collapsing with nutrient deficiency.

Furthermore, some breeders in a hurry observe the inability of the young pair to set eggs to term, or hatch and feed chicks; then promptly label the pair ‘poor parents’, buy an incubator, and go merrily on their way pulling eggs and handfeeding from day one. I no longer consider this imaginative aviculture.

TWO VITAL QUESTIONS


From a keeper’s viewpoint, we hear two main reservations about pairing one’s pet bird for companionship and potential breeding. The first is, ‘I will lose my pet’s affections’, and the second consideration is ‘What will I do with the babies?’

The past two decades have witnessed a growth of small avicultural hobby breeders—parrot owners with fewer than four pairs, for example, who do not depend upon the babies for financial income. Many of these hobbyists began breeding by pairing a longtime pet who simply would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

My own modest collection consisted entirely of second and third generation captive-raised pet parrots coming of age to breed. It was the smartest decision I ever made. I have a personal relationship with each and every bird in my aviary, especially the ones I handfed myself. I am part of the family. Sometimes a former pet offers less affection, but I really earn the affection I do receive, and it means so much because it is given freely.

There is no reason you need to lose your parrot’s affection just because you pair him or her. One secret is to pair your bird with another handfed bird, preferably a baby with which you establish friendship. We know of conures breeding in the living room, African Greys in the kitchen, Double Yellow-heads in the den with a TV, cockatoos in the living room, Eclectus in the bedroom, macaws burrowed into an old couch. In no case are these birds totally mean or nasty to their owners, even when on eggs. In this realm, we hobby pet owners set the new limits.

What to do with offspring? For starters, don’t worry about it. More than likely, you will not be able to part with the first chick.

However, there is a long list of people who will accept and offer a loving home to adoptable parrot babies, and I knew some hobbyists, God bless them, who chose to distribute their offspring this way. Beyond that, if hobbyists are willing to shy away from retail values asked for parrots and just look for the best possible homes, normally the local bird store is willing to pay modestly for healthy, social babies.

Invariably, we note that psittacines raised in the living room of devoted hobbyists have endearing personalities.

However, choose well the pet store to support. It may be necessary to cultivate more caring habits among the owner and staff. We have always refused to sell any bird to a commercial store that keeps handfed parrots away from the public, behind glass. Handfed babies need human interaction.

LIFE BONDS


Many species of parakeets, Cockatiels, lovebirds, Australian parrots, and to a certain extent conures, lorikeets and cockatoos are flocking birds. They are most content in a situation where there are other members. In a family, or even with one owner who has time, such instincts may be satisfied. But should we, as keepers, begin a new schedule of working more hours, bring a new spouse or human baby into the home, or merely acquire another pet parrot which will divide our attentions somewhat, the flock, as our pet knows it, is disrupted.

Sensitive parrot keepers do more than just barge ahead with their own lives, leaving their pets to cope as best they can.

They recognise when they can no longer satisfy all their parrot’s needs. Yet it is not always the best solution to banish a pet which is no longer really content to the breeding cage.

Type of species, sex, how it was brought up (alone or around other birds), and its attitude towards each member of the family should all be considered. Perhaps your hormonally excited hookbill needs longer wings and more space to fly off energy; perhaps it needs a different cage environment to pique is curiosity. Female psittacines—except in certain cases of female-dominant species, such as Eclectus and lovebirds—may accept a new addition to the flock better than males.

We find the easiest situation for pairing pets is to introduce a grown female to an unrelated fledgling or very young male.

Age difference—sometimes four years or more—seems to make less difference to bonding in captive-raised psittacines.

There are cases where the grown parrot even helped feed its future mate by regurgitation! By the time a fledgling male grows into puberty, the female has usually accepted him into the household and the bonding process begins. With Cockatiels, conures, Senegals, lorikeets and small parrots, this can take a matter of just weeks.

We always specify that a companion parrot be given its own cage when brought into a home. This is no time to scrimp on expenses and force two birds to share a cage. If mature birds are introduced, prepare to take weeks or months before contact is made. Your attitude should be one of ‘here is your companion, if you so choose’. The birds will make it clear when one of the cages becomes obsolete.

Those trying to pair deeply imprinted pet male parrots with new females may discover a Catch-22 with their bird— unhappy being alone without gratifying his instincts, but too possessive of his human owners to even try accepting a female companion. Much dysfunctional behaviour can result. I have several former pets which went on loan to other aviaries during the bonding process because they could not detach from me enough even to experience the joy of having a head preened by another parrot. After successful bonding (sometimes laying), the pets came back to my home and all was fine. They still interact with me, but I am no longer number one.

Incidentally, it is the joy of being preened by another parrot which we consider paramount to mate acceptance by former handfed pets. In order to initiate this, we have used many techniques: group games on the floor, eating treats together, shower therapy (where both are taken in to be wetted, at which time aggression normally dissipates), and gently holding one bird’s head down while the more willing bird is allowed to preen head feathers. Allopreening is a critical point in many parrot friendships. Birds raised with and around other birds are way ahead in this flock activity.

FINDING NEUTRAL TERRITORY


Some pet stores allow the introduction of a client’s pet to a prospective companion on the ‘neutral ground’ in the store (after vet exams). In the case of cockatoos, Amazons and macaws, befriending can be apparent in a few days.

Reputable bird shops will guarantee that Budgerigars, lovebirds, or Cockatiels bought to be paired with a house pet will prove opposite gender and compatible.

Otherwise exchange is possible.
On no condition do we recommend introduction of two pet birds in the cage territory of one of them—certainly not the dominant or male bird. A neutral site is always best. Upon successful friendship, many problems—screaming, biting and feather-plucking, for example—can disappear abruptly.

COMPANIONS


One alternative to pairing a pet with potential breeding is to purchase a companion bird outside genus lines. This seems to work best when the parrots are of opposite gender and have ancestors from different continents. Thus colour, behaviour, noise-making, sexual signals and response are all dissimilar, while companionable behaviour may still be likely.

Whatever the choices made, it should be remembered that puberty, mating and procreation urges are natural in our pet psittacines. We owe it to them to try to understand.
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