February 2001 Magazine
(This concludes this article. Part I of this article is at http://www.birdsnways.com/wisdom/ww54e.htm)
I consider this to be the most important thing in raising confident babies and the single biggest factor in avoiding the clinging, feather-plucking, self-mutilating, neurotic Cockatoo or naked, fearful African Grey or biting, screaming Amazon. Our baby birds fly through weaning. In Nature, birds fly or they die. Simple as that and birds know it instinctively. I believe that clipping wings before a bird has really mastered flight has a lifelong detrimental effect on the personality, making him more prone to neurotic behavior like screaming and feather plucking. None of our babies (over 500 psittacines) have ever become screamers or pluckers or biters.
Our babies learn to fly really well. They master flying up and down and turning in tight places. They learn to take off from all types of perches. They learn to land on many surfaces. They get enough practice that it becomes easy for them to go where they want to go. We encourage them to explore and try to laugh with them when the landing spot they choose turns out to be not quite as stable as it looked. They learn that the play gym is a good place to land. Ron and I are usually fairly stable. Grandchildren are okay if you don't surprise them. Door frames are good. Lamp shades and piles of paper are not very stable when you are a Cockatoo weighing 600+ grams, but okay if you are a Senegal at 130 grams. Our home is as safe as we can make it for birds learning to fly. Flight lessons are strictly supervised. In fact, all play outside the cage is supervised.
Our babies stay here until they are good flyers. We give them a gradual wing clip before they go to their new homes. When they leave they are not traumatized. They have the confidence that comes from knowing that they are independent and that they can take care of themselves. Having their flight feathers clipped after they have mastered flight does not seem to phase them at all. The confidence is already there. Most of our Cockatoo babies go home when they are around six or seven months of age. Some of them stay here until they are eight or nine months old. They all go home when they are ready, not before. Amazon and African Grey Parrots go to their new homes at about four to six months of age. The smaller African Parrots, Senegals and Meyer's, are usually ready when they are three or four months old.
Training and Learning
The babies receive early instruction in Up, Down, Come and GoPoop. The Up and Down commands are true training for a conditioned response. Every time we pick the baby up, we say, "Up." Every time we put the baby down, we say, "Down." By the time the baby is able to stand and perch, he already knows that when we say those words, he is moving onto our hand (Up) or off of our hand (Down). These two commands are used for controlling the bird's position in our lives throughout his life. Later, these two commands can be used to train him to step on and off a stick, too. We have used this training to rescue birds from trees where we could not safely reach them. A bird that is in hormone overload or is over-stimulated can be moved from a play area to his cage for some quiet time using a stick. A nervous house sitter can manage the family pet with more confidence using a stick and the Up and Down commands. When a bird decides that he'd like to be the ruler of the universe and gets obnoxious about it, a short session of "laddering" usually reminds him that his people are in charge of making major decisions for him. Laddering is "UP", "UP", "UP", "UP", from one hand to the other. About six "UP"s in a row are usually sufficient to get your point across and remind him of his place in the family. You want to establish that you are still the one in charge. The trick is to do it enough times so he knows it's your idea AND to stop before he rebels. Keep your hands low, moving the one he's on down, so you don't end up with him higher than your chest. We recommend that the bird owner and other members of the family practice laddering with the bird once or twice a week. Lavish praise follows every attempt at cooperation.
The Come and Go Poop learning is for our convenience. It is not necessary for the health or safety of the bird. Come is easy to teach at a certain age of development. When very young babies are being handfed, they assume the begging position and plant their feet. They act like their feet are glued to the spot. They will turn around, but they will not move at this age. When they are about half feathered, all of a sudden, they will come running when they see you. At that point, you start calling them to come to you. A clutch of African Grey babies is very comical when they come running and tumbling over each other. Their little red tail feathers stick out half an inch and their gray plush leggings give them the look of children in snowsuits.
Go Poop is taught by watching the baby and saying the words when he goes. We are really just "naming" a natural action. After he knows what the phrase means, we ask him to Go Poop before we pick him up or take him out to play, much the same way that you tell the kids to Go Potty before they get in the car to go on a trip. He quickly learns that if he wants to come out and play, he needs to Go Poop first. Some babies learn to say Go Poop and go when they want to come out. It is nothing rigid. We never ask him to "Hold it", only to go.
Support for Owners
Support and care provided after the baby goes to his new home is essential. Since not every possible situation can be covered in a Baby Book, even one that is going on 50 pages, we provide resources for our babies' owners after the baby goes home. I am almost always available by telephone or email. We have an email list that owners are encouraged to join where everyone can share experiences, funny stories and photographs. We also share hazard alerts and research developments. This is a good place to compare molting patterns, bathing options, behavior and to brag about the clever things the birds do and say.
Our babies have a flexible schedule, but they do have a schedule. They have variety within their structure. They get up, have their cages cleaned, breakfast served, play time in cages, take a nap, more play time in cages, play time with the family, eat dinner and go to sleep for the night. This is their basic daily activity schedule. Within this schedule, there may be a lot of variety.
Breakfast always has Soak&Simmer and a sprouted seed mix. This is topped with a variety of foods. These may include hard-cooked eggs, fresh fruits or vegetables, nuts or pasta. Today, it was eggs, peas and corn. Yesterday it was apples and broccoli.
Play with the family can be any time of the day, but always includes an evening session. One of our Umbrella Cockatoo babies has been out to play three times today. He played on his play gym this morning while Ron read the paper. He helped Samantha and Stephen build a Lego house this afternoon and now he's helping me write this article. He will come out again today for his regular play, dinner and bedtime routine.
The way that we breed birds and raise babies has produced over 500 psittacines in fourteen years that have been good pets and good breeders. We provide healthy birds to knowledgeable people. Both the bird and the human can approach this new relationship with the confidence that comes from knowing what to expect from each other. The bird expects the same healthy diet that he learned to eat when he was here. He expects to spend a reasonable amount of time in his cage, entertaining himself with toys, while his people are at work or busy at home. He expects to play with his people and join in family activities for a reasonable amount of time every day. He expects grooming and health care on a regular schedule and protection from danger and disease. He expects lots of love and companionship. The bird's owner can expect to provide everything that the bird needs and some of the things that the bird wants. The owner can expect an intelligent companion that is sometimes loving and sometimes indifferent, sometimes wants to play and sometimes wants to sleep, sometimes wants to be held and sometimes doesn't want to be touched, sometimes quiet and sometimes loud. The bird may or may not speak English, but he will never be boring. You will enjoy each other.
Raising confident baby birds and placing them in the right home is possible. It takes time and effort. Food independence is one step in the weaning process. It is not the last step. A baby bird is not ready for the transition to a new home as soon as he is eating independently. This move should be made after the baby has become a competent flyer. I don't know which of these things makes our baby birds such good pets. I believe that every single step is important. It is my sincere hope that other breeders will duplicate our success.
Winged Wisdom Note: Kelly Tucker is a pet owner and breeder of many species of exotic birds. She has bred over 500 birds at Tucker Farms, her MAP certified aviary. Kelly is the author of "The Birdkeeper's Legislative Handbook" and has written articles for many major bird publications including Bird Talk and Parrot World. She is also in demand as a speaker on topics such as bird care, breeding, safety and legislation. Kelly is a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the Amazona Society, the Avicultural Society of America and the American Federation of Aviculture.
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