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Dutch Law Bans Hand-Rearing of Young Parrots: What’s Your Opinion?


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This month (July, 2014) the Netherlands became the first country to outlaw the hand-rearing of parrots. The law covers all Psittacines, including parakeets, cockatoos and lovebirds, and imposes fines and/or jail time upon violators. Bird breeders and private owners may not remove nestlings from their parents before the young are feeding on their own and otherwise independent; species-specific time frames are set out in the legislation. The process of hand-rearing, long touted as a means of bonding parrots to people, has been linked to a host of behavioral and health problems. While several countries extend similar protections to young dogs, cats and monkeys, the Dutch law is the first to include birds.


Bird breeders and owners worldwide are lining up for and against this ground-breaking law, and discussions have sometimes become heated. Where do you stand? Please let me know by posting your thoughts and opinions below.


Health Concerns (Physical and Mental)

While hand-reared parrots initially bond readily to their caretakers and so seem ideally-suited for life as companion birds, research conducted at the Netherlands’ Clinic for Birds (please see article below) suggests that problems often arise as the birds mature. Groups that have long lobbied for this law, including the Dutch Parrot Foundation, argue that parent-rearing is essential to such intelligent, social birds. Weakened immune systems, certain diseases, severe behavioral problems and other concerns have been linked to hand-rearing.


Cockateil and budgies

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Breeding Failures

Also, parrots that bond with humans often refuse to accept mates once they mature. Throughout my career, I have seen this occur in animals as diverse as Great Horned Owls and Gorillas, and it is generally irreversible. This phenomenon even extends to birds fostered by closely-related species. In zoos, the eggs of rare birds are sometimes pulled and placed below a hen of a related, more common species. This causes the rare female to produce a second clutch, increasing the potential population. Such chicks often identify with their foster species…in some cases imitating their call and preferring that species as mates. There are no set rules…Pink Pigeons fostered by Ring-necked Doves did fine for us at the Bronx Zoo, but human-reared birds of many species proved to be poor breeders.


Pet conure

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Does Hand-Rearing Perpetuate Bad Husbandry?

While critics of the new law abound, advocates believe that other countries will follow the Netherlands’ lead in time. I found one point raised by the Dutch Parrot Foundation to be particularly interesting, and in line with what I’ve observed over many decades of animal-keeping.


When environmental conditions and health are not ideal, captive animals curtail reproduction. With very few exceptions, this holds true for all taxa, from invertebrates to mammals. And when captives do breed, many species will refuse to raise the young, or may even kill and consume them, if all is not well (for example, many first-time hamster keepers learn the hard way that disturbing a new mom by frequently checking her litter invariably leads to disaster). Strange as it may sound, such behavior makes good sense, from a survival standpoint – parents do not waste time and resources caring for offspring that will not likely survive.


The same holds true with parrots. Some of the law’s opponents claim that hand-rearing saves lives, because so many parrots refuse to incubate eggs or abandon their chicks. However, the Dutch Parrot Society maintains that a pair’s failure to care for their chicks is a clear indication of bad husbandry practices. A poor chick-rearing record should be seen as a call for more research and better living conditions, not as an impetus to remove the chicks from their parents. Viewed in this way, one might say that chick-pulling allows sub-standard husbandry practices to continue, and does little to add to our understanding of certain species’ needs.


According to those who favor the law, once parrots are provided with a proper species-specific diet, suitably-sized and designed enclosures and other appropriate conditions, both breeding frequency and parenting success will improve. My experience with the Bronx Zoo’s huge, diverse bird collection, and with many other animal groups, also bears this out. Well, I’m not sure how this information will be received, but I’m betting there will be sparks! Please post your thoughts below.



Further Reading

Breeding Lovebirds

The Negative Effects of Hand-Rearing (Netherlands’ Clinic for Birds)

Smart Birds: Cockatoos Solve a Complex Five-Step Puzzle

Goffin's Cockatoo in flight

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Marah09013

Think you have a smart parrot? That may be, but a Goffin’s Cockatoo has recently set a new standard by which bird – and indeed animal – intelligence will be measured. Pipin, as the avian genius is known, demonstrated a skill previously known to exist only in chimpanzees. Using sequential problem solving abilities, Pipin (and, after a time, several of his “lab partners”) figured out how to open 5 different locks – each of which jammed the next lock, and each requiring a different physical maneuver – in order to obtain a treat. Mastering the task, which took nearly 2 hours, required the bird to solve problems, remember what he learned and apply it to a different task, and focus on a distant reward…and, I assume, to have patience!


The Experiment

The fascinating research into Psittacine intelligence was conducted at the University of Vienna, and published in the journal PLoS ONE (8(7): e68979;doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.oo68979; 7/13). Ten Goffin’s Cockatoos were presented with a box containing a treat. The door to the box was transparent, so that the birds could see the treat (a nut) within, and was secured by 5 locks.


Lock number 1 had to be opened before the cockatoos could get to lock number 2, which had to be opened in order to gain access to lock number 3, and so on. Opening each lock required a different physical action – removing a pin, screw and bolt, turning a wheel and shifting a latch.


Without prior training, Pipin opened the box in less than 2 hours. The article stressed the speed of his problem solving, which of course is impressive. But I’m equally surprised by the fact that he could keep at a problem for such a long time. As anyone who has tried to train parrots (or toddlers!) knows, their attention spans are relatively short (or so I thought…maybe birds and 2-year-old children have been tricking me all along!).


Five other “less-cerebrally-gifted” but still quite intelligent Goffin’s Cockatoos solved the puzzle after watching Pipin perform or following exposure to each lock individually.


Juvenile Goffin's Cockatoo

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Researchers Make the Test More Difficult


Sequential problem solving requires a parrot or person to remember and then apply what has been learned, and to work for a distant reward. In order to test these and related abilities, the University of Vienna researchers scrambled the locks, so that number 3 was first in line, followed by number 5, etc. Once a cockatoo had mastered a lock, it rarely became confused if the lock’s place in the puzzle was changed. And locks that were disabled by the researchers (left unlocked) were given a quick glance and then ignored.


How Bright is Your Parrot?

I’ve spent a lifetime working with parrots and other animals, yet never fail to be amazed by stories of learning abilities relayed to me by readers and zoo visitors. Please be sure to post your own “smart bird” tales below!




Further Reading

Kea Intelligence Shocks Researchers http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatbirdblog/2011/06/24/kea-parrot-intelligence-shocks-researchers/#.U7AokrEnUpo

African Gray Parrot Wins Talking Contest and Lands Movie Role http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatbirdblog/2011/02/22/african-grey-parrot-wins-international-talking-contest%E2%80%A6and-a-movie-role/#.U7Ao3LEnUpo

Sequential Problem Solving in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Original Article) http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0068979

The African Pygmy Goose – Keeping the World’s Smallest Waterfowl

Pygmy GooseDucks and geese have many endearing qualities, but few private keepers have the space and flowing water required by most species. Although not common in captivity, the diminutive African Pygmy Goose, Nettapus auritus, is an ideal alternative to its larger relatives. Those I’ve cared for have been delightful, and quite hardy once established. The Indian Pygmy Goose, N. coromandelianus, offers another option; I’ll cover its care in the future.

Natural History

Averaging 12 inches in length, the African Pygmy Goose is the smallest of the world’s waterfowl. Technically a “perching duck”, its common name is derived from the stubby, goose-like bill.  Others which share its un-duck-like habit of nesting in trees include the strikingly-marked Mandarin and Wood Ducks (please see the article below).

African Pygmy Geese are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa andMadagascar. They reside in swamps, marshes, flooded savannas, sluggish rivers and similar densely-vegetated habitats (please see photo). Shy and secretive, they do not frequent open water, and fly into thick brush when disturbed.  Read More »

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