This is the first in a new series of what I’ll call “Myth-Buster Articles”, which will focus on beliefs or practices that have aroused debate among bird keepers. After reviewing the available research and my own and other’s experiences, I will attempt to sort fact from fiction. Today I’ll compare the “pet value” of hand-reared, parent-reared and “co-parented” parrots.
“Hand-reared” refers to chicks that are pulled from the nest soon after hatching and fed by hand until fledged. Such birds have long been considered to be the gold standard in parrot pet. However, behavioral problems that are sometimes exhibited by hand-reared individuals have led some to question the value of this technique.
It is important to realize that parrots are intelligent, adaptable animals, and individuals develop distinct personalities. This clouds the issue of hand vs. parent rearing, as experiences later in life can affect a parrot’s behavior, for better or worse, regardless of rearing technique.
As a general rule, hand-reared birds make ideal pets, being calmer around people and easier to tame than those raised by their parents.
Many actively seek out human companionship and, indeed, may prefer people to their own species. They tend to be less stressed by changes in their environments and novel objects or animals, and are more easily taught to perform tricks and imitate words.
The Down Side of Hand-Reared Parrots
The very traits mentioned above sometimes “backfire” and negatively impact both parrot and owner.
Hand-reared parrots of either sex may see humans as both potential mates and competitors. During the breeding season, and sometimes year-round, such birds can be very aggressive towards “mates” that do not respond appropriately (“appropriately” in parrot terms, that is!) and people who are viewed as competing for their “mate’s” attention. This problem arises in many hand-reared animals…for example, I have been attacked by a “tame” Sambar buck (an elk-sized Asian deer) and offered mouse snacks by an amorous Great Horned Owl!
Also, such parrots are often poor breeders, failing to choose proper nesting sites or to feed their chicks appropriately.
Physically moving about can also be problematic for hand-reared parrots. While equipped with instincts, young parrots also learn a great deal from their parents. Activities such as climbing, manipulating food, flying and landing can be very challenging for those that have not had the benefit of parental training.
“Co-parenting” is a technique wherein parrots are fed and cared for by their parents but are handled by human caretakers on a daily basis as well. In many ways it is an ideal compromise between hand and parent-rearing. Fifteen to thirty minutes of handling daily, beginning when the chicks are 4-5 weeks old, has been shown to produce relatively tame birds.
Interestingly, some co-parented birds seem to be even less fearful of new objects and environmental changes than are hand-reared birds. Co-parented parrots learn important physical skills from their parents and are often in better health and weight than those that are hand-reared (raising parrot chicks on formula is fraught with difficulties).
Defensive behavior by parrot parents is a major co-parenting problem. Even long-term, affectionate pets may violently defend their nests against intrusion. In addition to the danger of severe bites, daily removal of the chicks can greatly stress the adults, leading to illnesses caused by weakened immune systems. Stressed parents may also attack their chicks, often fatally.
Important Note: Parrot sellers sometimes claim that un-weaned parrot chicks (those still requiring hand-feeding) mature into the ultimate parrot pets. However, feeding parrot chicks is a difficult task, with health problems and early fatalities being routine even in zoos. Unless you are an expert, be sure to purchase only hand-raised parrots that are weaned and feeding on their own. Please see this article for more on feeding parrot chicks.
A UC Davis researcher’s work with hand-reared parrots