May 1999 Magazine
This is the third in a series of articles I have written on breeding Greys. The first article Breeding African Greys - Part I covered setting up, mating and breeding through the hatching of baby chicks. Part II addressed brooders, handfeeding and caring for the baby chicks. Part III covers weaning, fledging, advanced socialization and finding buyers.
Further articles will contain information on the egg and hatching.
Babies on a 8am, 12pm, 4pm, 8pm and 12am handfeeding schedule will have good weight gains until they begin to refuse formula at around ten weeks of age. The first feeding to drop is the 12pm feeding; then drop the 8pm feeding. The 8am and the midnight feedings are the last to go. Soaked warm Zupreem Primate Biscuits can be substituted for the morning feeding if the babies are only losing the few grams a day. Add a feeding back in if the weight loss is more than expected. Weaning is a dynamic rather than a rigid process with the bird as your guide. Expect that one step forward will be accompanied by an occasional two steps back to cater to the individual baby's emotional and physical needs. Weaning is a process, a long process, not an event.
My Grey babies will, on average, lose around 30 grams from their peak weight at around 10 weeks. This can be attributed to the very early introduction of weaning foods. When the oldest baby begins picking at his band, his toes, his clutch mates' toes, the poops, or the design on a receiving blanket, put the weaning foods in the brooder. This usually happens around 5-6 weeks old.
Place a wide, shallow, light colored bowl and a few small pieces of brightly colored fruits and veggies along with a small portion of birdie bread and a teaspoon of a bean/grains mixture. Use several of the following cut into very small pieces: an apple with the peel left on, a square of cooked carrot, a green pea, sprouts (the pink lentils are very eye catching), a quartered red or white grape, a blueberry or a cranberry cut in half. In an effort to ensure that the babies are successful nibbling on the weaning foods, very small pieces are offered. They can pin the food down either in the bowl or on the floor of the brooder and nibble on it. If you scatter food on the brooder floor, the babies may pick at the high contrast poops thinking these are just another weaning food. At this time, remove the poop frequently so the babies don't have access to it.
Use another bowl for the crunchy foods. Offer several different kinds of small pellets and add a few Cherrios and a couple of Multi-Grain Chex. These foods are easy for the babies to bite into. If the babies have to struggle with foods that are difficult to eat or to bite into, they will get discouraged. The littlest ones, who can barely waddle around, will have their beaks coated with birdie bread. The oldest chick will lead the way.
The youngest babies proceed at an accelerated rate due to the example of eating the weaning foods set by the older birds. The youngest baby in a clutch will wean earlier than one would expect. Timely weaning indicates a healthy bird - both physically and psychologically.
When they are a little older, begin to add larger size pellets. Give a bowl of fresh soft foods after each handfeeding except after the midnight feeding. When the babies have a full crop, they are more willing to explore the weaning foods. Eating the weaning foods is a natural and normal activity for weaning babies because of this very early introduction. The transition from handfeeding to eating on their own is an easy one. By offering very warm pieces of soaked primate biscuit as a substitute for a feeding, a baby can sometimes go from two feedings a day to none in the space of a day or two. The babies will eat four or five bowls of soft and crunchy weaning foods and several soaked primate biscuits a day - they are too full to hold formula too.
Encourage the new owners and responsible others in the home to continue feeding a very warm soaked primate biscuit or other soft warm foods several times a week. Feeding by hand is pleasurable for both the bird and the owners. It is also a useful way to include others who are not the bird's special person. A Grey need never be a one-person bird. Life will be more interesting for the bird if he has a whole "flock" of humans with whom to interact.
A young weaned Grey should be fed a breeder formulation pellet until he is one year old. The breeder pellet has higher protein, higher fat, and more calories than the maintenance pellet. The youngster will have to put back on the weight lost during weaning. The breeder pellet will also prepare the body for the first molt which occurs at around 8 months.
Weaning is one of the most important times in a Grey's life - make it as stress free as possible for him. If you will make food available early and in abundance, attractively presented and interesting, you will have an easy time with your weaning babies. Most importantly, the baby will not feel starved and will not come to see you as the cause of his starvation. Forced weaned baby birds cannot feel safe. Therefore, they are behaving predictably when they act fearfully and suspicious of humans. Intended or not, the lesson learned by a forced weaned baby is very clear: He cannot rely on the very person whom the baby is totally dependent upon to meet his most basic needs. Forced weaning is crazy making and can result in the following life-long distressed behaviors:
- picky eating
- chronic begging
- food phobias
- a distrust of humans
- loud vocalizing or calling
- separation anxiety
- plucking or feather chewing from stress
- excessive digging
- agitated nipping or pinching
Babies are individuals and should be allowed to wean at their own rate. A successful weaning schedule is one in which the baby never feels deprived and always feels safe, cared for, and loved.
The Weaning Cage and Advanced Socialization
When the babies are mostly feathered, they can be introduced to the weaning cage. The Midwest 24x19x20 crate has a full size door that is very convenient and has ample interior room for a clutch. Begin by leaving the mostly feathered babies in the weaning cage for an hour and gradually increase the time over a week or so until you feel they will be comfortable and warm spending their first night in the weaning cage.
Begin with a natural branch lying on the floor of the cage. As the babies become more and more coordinated, raise the perch up to the first vertical bar that is about 6 inches from the bottom of the cage. Leave the food bowls on the floor of the cage and put the water in put in a cup and hanger so it won't get tipped over. Remove the water cup after the midnight feeding. Water drinking is a learned behavior; watch the babies very closely to make sure they are drinking. Give them soft foods four or five times a day. Put many toys in the cage so they aren't fearful of toys when they go to their new homes. The new owners should continue to expose them to new toys.
Touch and kiss the babies a lot. You can put your whole head inside the cage and kiss nearby body parts. Position the weaning cage on the kitchen countertop or on a stand where the most activity takes place. They will soon become accustomed to movement and commotion. Speak to them and interact with them many, many times a day. By the time they are in the weaning cage, they should be accustomed to being kissed and touched. Place your hands on either side of the birds' body under the wings and kiss them on the back between the wings; lift one wing at a time and kiss the side of the body.
They have long before this time welcomed full body petting - from head to tail. Some babies love to have the bare area under the bottom beak kissed. Hold the head loosely (palm on the top of the head) and kiss the sides of the beak or the top curve of the beak. Demonstrate the handling, kissing, and cuddling to the new owners if they are local so they will have an idea of what the babies expect and will accept. Selling early and locally gives you more time to get to know the new owners and more time to educate them. The new owners get to practice the handling, the cuddling, the soft coaxing tones, the slow movements, the offering of toys and foods. They will enjoy feeding the babies the small pieces of food by hand.
The Importance of Flight
Allow the babies to fly until they have learned to control their flight, can land where they intend to, and can land on the floor safely. Drapes or blinds on windows and patio doors should be closed until the babies learn they are solid. It can get a little wild with babies landing on your head, on the edge of the newspaper, and various other places that won't hold their weight. Watching two fledglings trying to land on a lampshade at the same time can be quite amusing. Allowing them to fledge helps enormously with the weaning process. If they are never allowed to fly, they will be clumsy, anxious, and insecure. Bred into the bones is the notion that birds fly - that's what birds do - they fly. They want to fly so badly that they cannot concentrate on eating until they are proficient flyers. Eating is not nearly as much fun as flying. Being able to do both makes for a self-confident, independent, well-adjusted bird.
Before Your Babies Leave Your Care
Keep the baby for seven to ten days after he is fully weaned. The blood calcium test results will be invalid if the baby is still on the handfeeding formula that contains the calcium required for growth and health. He should be eating on his own and maintaining his weight. The routine pre-purchase health exam covers: Gram's stain, Complete Blood Count, blood calcium level test, and the PBFD screen. DNA sexing, polyomavirus vaccination and micro-chipping are much appreciated by the new owner. I have never had a Grey baby who required a daily calcium supplementation but it does happen. If a bird needs daily calcium supplementation, it does not mean the bird is unhealthy or will suffer from ill health in the future. It is very important the new owner understand that a blood calcium level test should be run at each annual exam.
Don't risk the life or psychological well being of a Grey baby by selling him unweaned. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to handfeed but subtle signs of illness or dysfunction may be missed by the novice handfeeder. Leaving aside the very real dangers of aspiration, underfeeding, and crop burns experienced by some babies in the hands of novices, breeders who sell only weaned babies have light years more experience in properly weaning and socializing a baby Grey than does the retail client. Don't devalue your knowledge, skill, and talent by letting an unprofessional finish your work raising a healthy, well-adjusted baby.
How can you be sure the baby will stay in the home you have chosen for him if you leave the weaning and socializing to a retail client? Greys are the most vulnerable and sensitive of birds and they need careful, aware, and considerate socialization techniques. Greys are thought of by some as cage-bound, plucking, shy, one-person birds. This need never be true. A Grey baby should be assertive, unafraid, adventurous and curious.
Take the time to make sure the babies are successful; encourage independence and exploration; expose them to many new safe experiences; accustom them to variety, movement, new locations, and normal household activity. The old canard that a bird must be fed by the owner to establish a bond is an idea whose time has long passed. A trusting, well adjusted, properly socialized bird will quickly adapt to the new owner, although sometimes the adjustment can take longer than the normal three weeks. A well-socialized baby bird expects only good times with humans - and why not? All of his experiences so far have been pleasant ones.
Educate the Buyer
The importance of a varied diet is an area of care that should be extensively discussed with the buyer. Feeding Your Pet Bird (ISBN 0-8120-1521-5) published by Barron's and authored by Petra Burgmann DVM, is an excellent book to offer as a part of the purchase price or for sale to the buyer. Consider printing a pamphlet that covers diet, cages, household dangers, toys, recipes for "birdie bread" and the beans/grains mix, as well as health and care information for the new owner.
Recommend organic human-grade foods for the bird; ask the buyer to consider feeding organic Harrison's Bird Diet. The babies will be accustomed to eating several different pellets and should accept almost any pellet. The maintenance pellet for the juvenile and adult years should be in the lower protein range.
Strongly encourage local buyers to visit as frequently as possible before the baby is weaned. Encourage them to delay choosing a particular baby for as long as possible; give yourself as much time as possible to determine which baby would be best in their home. Birds are such complex animals and psychologically evolve in complex ways as personality begins to form and develop. Invite the local owners to accompany you to the vet's office. Encourage them to ask questions of the vet and to open an account at the clinic so they will receive an annual notice that the health check is due. Should the baby have a low blood calcium level, the avian vet can instruct the owners how to supplement the bird.
Sell your babies to someone you would want as a friend. Interview the buyers carefully before you accept a deposit for a baby. After the baby leaves, keep in touch to make sure that all is going well.
More is known today than ever before to help us meet the challenge of raising healthy, well-socialized companion birds. Given their intelligence and sensitivity, perhaps breeding and raising African Greys is the most challenging of all. Those who are drawn to this endeavor by their compassion and deep desire to nurture and contribute to the well being of these most beloved of earth's creatures will be rewarded beyond measure.
Birds n Ways Note: Bobbi Brinker owns Bobbi's Tropical Treasures, has been breeding birds for 11 years. She is also the owner and administrator of the many "Connection" bird email lists on the Internet.
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