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Interacting with breeding companion birds

Expert Question

Is it unreasonable to try to breed "pet" parrots or tame and interact with a breeding pair. I have pairs of macaws, cockatoos, conures and caiques. I would like to have nice friendly birds that give me an occasional baby. Breeders say you can't have it both ways. Am I wasting my time? Thanks.
John A.

Expert Answer

Hello, John. Thank you for writing. Your question about breeding companion parrots and taming/interacting with breeding parrots is interesting and contains many issues.

To answer your question directly, no, I don’t think it’s a waste of time to interact with either breeding or companion parrots, as long as those interactions are comfortable for them and benefit the parrots. Interactions should be primarily designed to improve the welfare of the birds by providing for their physical and emotional needs. The goal of getting something from them, like a baby, is one that deserves serious consideration, which is why I’m really glad you wrote. More on dealing with eventual chicks below.

Take Inventory of Their Environment
Hanging out with parrots, seeing what they want and need and then giving that to them – that’s the primary responsibility of caregivers. So, first and always, provide your parrots with the very best environment possible with room to flap, climb, bathe, explore, chew and fly. Environments that allow parrots to act like parrots – loud, flashy, busy, mulch making, foraging entities – these are the environments that enhance parrots’ innate skill sets. Both great parent birds and happy companion birds appreciate environments that allow them to act like parrots. Your job, John, and mine, as caregivers, is to observe them carefully – both when they know we’re doing it, and when they are unaware of our presence – and allow those objective observations, not our desires, to be the basis for decisions that enhance their well-being.

Each potential pair is different, as is each individual. Therefore, each requires a different set of decisions. There is no blanket correct answer to your question.
For instance, you might have a male and female cockatoo that both seek out your attention and are affectionate with you. However, when they cannot see you watching them, you might notice that the hen continually backs away from the male. She may hop to another perch whenever he comes close, or he might strike at her around the food dishes. These parrots would not be candidates for breeding due to unreasonable amounts of stress for the hen.

A Bunch of Questions
You mention having quite a few (8) parrots. That’s a lot to take care of! I have nine in my house, with 40 outside in aviaries, so I know exactly what your daily workload is like. If we were speaking together, I’d ask you a bunch of questions about each parrot before giving you an opinion about which – if any – of your individuals might potentially work as companions who remain friendly breeders and the potential dynamic between them.

There are so many variables between the various species you mention -- cockatoos, macaws, caiques and conures. Each species has its own set of peculiarities, as does each individual. You’d need to dedicate yourself to a new level of education about each species, the conditions considered optimal for them, how well or poorly they typically parent in captivity, and then compare that information to what you know first-hand before deciding to set them up, or not.

Additionally, each individual in your care has their own history, including how they were parented, that has significant impact on their ability to incubate, much less parent, helpless chicks. Chicks who were incubator-hatched and human-raised from Day One probably have a lesser chance of being successful parents than chicks who were parent-raised. Along those lines, if you decide to set up your birds, you’ll need to be ready to incubate eggs, hatch and raise chicks from Day One, and round-the-clock feedings are no picnic.
Even then, if you could listen to conversations of breeders of these species, you’d notice huge differences in the concerns/opinions expressed. Also, a wide variety of opinions as to the “friendliness” of proven pairs among any species would be evident. Also, there are a wide variety of opinions as to which species make good parents.

Any time we’re considering making changes to companion parrots’ lives, a primary area of examination is always, “Is the environment conducive to the desired behaviors?” Macaws, for instance, need a large nesting box and lots of substrate in addition to their regular copious amounts of chewing materials. With so many species in your care, the environmental considerations are myriad.

How Much Time Do Busy Parents of Infants Have for Extraneous Friendships?
I’m sure you’ve noticed how having children affects human friendships. Even best friends – especially best friends – are expected to understand that parents of infants simply no longer have the time to meet for dinner, participate in long conversations, join your book club, or whatever. Parrot parents are the same.

If the myriad conditions and personalities happen to coincide and the parrots successfully breed, lay fertile eggs, incubate, and raise viable chicks, you’ll need to manage your expectations about companionship. Face it, you’ll be extra baggage for about 3 month, minimal. Nest making, love making, laying, incubating and rearing are pretty much full-time endeavors and frankly, even if the parrots still like you, they simply will not have the time nor inclination to hang out with you, watch television, help with the feeding routine, or do whatever else you consider part of companionship.

As a caregiver of parent birds, you’ll be relegated to, “Hello, my name is John, and I’ll be your server for the next three months.” That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, you’ll be considered an intruder and possibly attacked – at least during breeding and baby season.

Here Are Babies – Now What Happens?
If the myriad conditions and personalities happen to coincide and the parrots successfully breed, lay fertile eggs, incubate, and raise viable chicks, you will need decide what to do with the babies. You cannot realistically keep them all, correct? Rarely will you get an “occasional baby”. If everything goes “right,” you might get 4 conures, 3 caiques, 2 cockatoos and 2 macaws – eleven babies! In one season. Not counting the very real possibility of 2 clutches per year per pair. (22 babies!) That’s a lot of beaks to feed, boxes to clean, and bodies to care for. And, while extremely challenging, time-consuming, potentially expensive and heartbreaking (yes, you’ll make mistakes – everyone does), hand-rearing the babies is the easier part!

. . . Part of the Problem, or Part of the Solution?
Finding great life-long homes for the youngsters is the more difficult challenge because most great parrot caregivers no longer buy babies; they adopt unwanted older parrots instead. And there are thousands of parrots that already, through no fault of their own, need homes. For every adorable baby sold, it’s one less place available for an older homeless parrot.

Anyone thinking of breeding parrots or buying babies must seriously examine the issue of the existing homeless and ask themselves if they want to contribute to this sadness. First, every domestically raised new baby takes one of the limited spaces that might otherwise go to an older parrot. Second, once those young parrots leave your care, they are at risk of becoming one of the homeless. It happens.

Even if you promise to take back any parrot, at any time, for any reason, some will slip through the cracks. People get embarrassed that they can’t handle the parrot, they give the bird to someone else, a “great home,” but that person’s life changes, and the parrot goes to someone else, then the parrot’s name is changed, the people move, and the trail goes cold. As I write these words, they clutch in my throat. If you doubt me, spend some time on the websites for Phoenix Landing, The Gabriel Foundation, The Oasis, Foster Parrots, or any of the other great rescue facilities and take a good hard look at the faces of those parrots – cockatoos, macaws, caiques and conures – who need and deserve great homes. Doubtless, they were bred and harvested by well-meaning people, but those people are no longer part of the solution.

Enjoy What – and Who – You Already Have
So, put in the time and effort to get to know each of your parrots as individuals, and relax into the process; enjoy their company and watch how they change over time. You have at least 8 parrots – there’s a wealth of information, companionship and intrigue for you right within your own home; a lifetime of pleasure and learning. Not all opposite sex parrots of the same species want to breed – many are happy living side-by-side with an opposite sex friend and never breeding. Brother/sister-type relationships happen all the time in captivity and these are optimal.

As months and years pass, you’ll see which, if any, of the parrots bond to each other – you’ll notice them sharing food bowls, destroying the same toy, sleeping on the same perch, becoming increasingly inseparable. You can then decide whether or not to set up a pair, give them a nest box and privacy and let Nature take her course. However, given the state of unwanted parrots, it’s far better to replace potentially viable eggs with fallow eggs and manage your pairs that way. Either that, or firmly commit to keeping every single parrot raised by your parrots for every day of their life and for providing for each individual even beyond your lifespan should it come to that. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

All best,
Phoebe Linden

Phoebe Green Linden
About Phoebe Green Linden

In 1986, Phoebe married the love of her life, Harry Linden, at the place of her avicultural beginning, the Santa Barbara Bird Farm. 20 years of dedicated observations and avid learning have formed her opinions surrounding psittacine neonates, neophytes, fledglings and adults who benefit markedly from thoughtfully arranged environments. She and Harry include boxes, playgyms, cages, aviaries and agreed-upon furniture and counter surfaces for parrot activities. There are no spaces in their home or on their property untouched by parrot dander.

During the years they raised parrots for the pet trade (they no longer do, since 2001) and continuing through today, they have dedicated themselves to developing environments that increase observable natural behaviours such as exercising, interacting, foraging for foods, touching, preening, flapping, flying, showering, mulch-making, wild bird watching, helping with chores, and goofing off—not always seen in captive birds. Their experiences are happily shared with World Parrot Trust members with the objective to foster enrichment for captive psittacines and their caregivers.