During my more than 40 years´ as an aviculturist I have been a prodigious note taker. I write down everything of interest, or have ledgers where I continuously add notes. An old edition of Joseph Forshaw´s Parrots of the World has a broken spine and is full of pieces of paper containing notes, or these are added to the margins of text or illustrations. I also have notebooks containing notes, note cards with measurements of eggs and their weight, or I have memory sticks full of observations and comments. The whole affair seems chaotic but for me it is well organized. I know where everything goes or is located.
I often start taking notes, add periodically to the file and then a decade or more later review what I have written, this to allow me to make a deciphered observation. Sometimes previous writing is scratched or corrected. Theories evolve over time with the accumulation of data.
One area that has always attracted my attention has been feather plucking. The notes have gone from comments that a particular bird was sexually frustrated because it lacked a nest or a mate to a suspicion of illness. A case in point reads as follows: “February 13, 1977: Jenday Conure acquired from Erling Kjelland, Sedgewick Studio, imported by George Kroesen. Female plucking because it had no nest.” Four years later I wrote under the same bird: “Continues to pluck. Breeding successfully but strips its feathers after nesting. Maybe hormone imbalance? “ In 1988 the entry reads: “[Veterinarian] Rich Nye came to sex birds, checked the Jenday Conure that plucks seasonally. Said to treat with tetracycline, maybe it has a low grade bacterial infection?” The Jenday Conure never ceased plucking, even after a treatment with antibiotics and an anti mycotic. Indeed over time the chest became bare. Its offspring were primarily sold, but those that were retained never plucked.
I have notes for every species that I have bred or kept. The combined files fill multiple file cabinets.
Some twenty years after the publication of Psittaculture, a book started before my arrival as curator at Loro Parque and completed in 1991, with considerable data observed in that collection, I pulled out the original. It was long overdue for a revision. That revision eventually led to a completely new book being written, with a different format.
That writing process required that I, Tony Silva, go back and review many notes, ask experienced aviculturists many questions --Don Wells, Gordon Dosser, Rafael Zamora Padrón, Dr Stacy Gellis, etc will be laughing if they happen to read this--to obtain their opinion and then compare and contrast with mine (there is, as the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat) and then review the compendium of information to come up with something that was impartial, accurate and helpful.
During this process I reviewed notes on many species that I have bred for many generations. Three in particular will form the basis of this paper: the Solomon Island Eclectus, Severe Macaw and Cuban Amazon. These three species were subjected to three rearing methods: parent rearing, hand-rearing and then flocking in a cage, and selling immediately on weaning to buyers, with whom I maintained contact. The data when reviewed shed some very interesting information, especially as it pertains to plucking. Feather plucking or mutilation as we know it today can have many causes. From a skin fungus to illness to boredom to a broad list in between have been implicated. Some species are more prone to pluck than others. Eclectus, African Greys, macaws, cockatoos and conures come to mind. I continuously see individuals with some level of plucking. Within those groups, some are more prone to pluck than others. Blue and Gold Macaws often pluck, while of the thousands of Blue-throated Macaws that I have seen in South America, Mexico, Europe and the US I have never seen a single plucked individual. Does this suggest that the Blue and Gold is more vulnerable to a series of conditions?
Possibly. It is also the most common large macaw, so numbers may not indicate that it has a greater propensity to despoil itself. The same scenario is seen in the African Grey, which often plucks, while the Timneh Grey rarely, if ever, plucks. Does some specific factor come into play here?
Diet is often attributed to be the cause of plucking. In almost four decades of travel to remote areas where parrots are found, I have seen countless parrots kept as pets. Their wings are often badly clipped and the birds fight with village dogs for scraps of food; their diet tends to be fairly limited and often composed of starchy vegetables, fruits and some of the items they normally eat in the wild. I have seen many pet Blue and Gold Macaws but not one was plucked.
Parrots in villages are typically kept as pets or as “toys” for the young children. As an example, along the Amazon River, I have seen countless parrots that slept in huts at night but which during the day wandered about. The birds often perched outside in rain and drank water that collected in pails or gourds. They never had food invariably available but ate scraps or shared the food that the family ate. More than once I saw them eating boiled fish scraps from a caldereta (fish stew) that was left over from the family meal and in the company of village dogs. All the hard rules that I adhere to—super clean water, excellent diet, strict hygiene and gentle care—were being violated. The birds, however, always appear healthy and content. They also never plucked.
When they perished, the cause was never ascribed to mutilation or feather plucking, which in the former could have contributed to bacterial infection (a problem in a hot and humid climate) and to the second to exposure to the elements. To a questionnaire I developed and asked during three visits to the area north of Manaus and involving 13 villages the response was the following:
- Birds that vanished (eaten by a predator, stolen or flew away): 41%
- Birds that drowned (invariably in the river, bodies recovered): 7%
- Birds that died from an animal attack: 32%
- Birds that died from disease (looked ill, threw up, would not eat): 9%
- Other (simply did not know): 11%
To the questions about feather destruction or plucking the results were as follows:
- Bird never plucked: 89%
- Bird had poor feather: 3%
- Could not figure out what I was talking about: 8%
To those that responded in the affirmative to feather plucking, I showed a photo of a plucked Blue-fronted Amazon and Scarlet Macaw. Four responded that the bird looked different, while one was unsure. Further inquiry suggested that the bird´s tail feathers were plucked for body adornment, that a dog or child pulled some feathers, or that a dog had grasped the bird, which lost some feathers as a result. None had ever seen birds with a naked body, though one laughed and said that some macaws they had shot and eaten looked like that after cooking. Had I only ever observed a few village birds, I would have felt that the absence of plucking was isolated. But birds that do not despoil their feathers are the norm.
I have made the same observations elsewhere. In Indonesia I have seen many Eclectus parrots as pets, though these were invariably tethered to a perch. They had a metal ring or even an adapted piece of coconut shell that served as a leg band to which they could be tied to a perch. In some cases a rusty tin cup provided water and food. Not one of those Eclectus plucked.
I have no way of knowing what the lifespan of these parrots is, but I saw a particular Festive Amazon and Blue and Gold, the former recognizable by a missing eye that resulted from an attack from some predator and the latter by having three yellow flight feathers (primaries 3-5) on the right wing, for more than 20 years. Children grew and married, but the parrots still lived with the caboclo family. (Caboclos are river people, who tend to have Indian and European ancestry.) The birds moved to higher ground when the rivers swelled and returned to the shack next to the river during the dry season. They were family members. This suggests that when no accident happens, the birds in villages can be as long lived as those in captivity.
The only common denominator is most cases has been access to enrichment. The birds can chew branches or pods. They are often able to chew everything nearby. They compete with nature in a humid environment for the destruction of their surroundings. The Festive Amazon would chew holes into the thatched roof of the hut. Humidity and decomposition contributed equally to the destruction of the thatching, which was replaced with regularity. These field observations led to the aforementioned study. For three generations I kept or followed many youngsters of the three species. When I could not account for the birds it was because they were sold or because their owners moved or changed telephone numbers and could not be located. Those that I did follow or keep track of indicated the following percentages despoiled their feathers (partial, localized or general plucking or chewing of the feathers):
The numbers of birds involved in the study varied from year to year. The fewest numbers were one for each group and the highest was 15, these divided equally amongst the three groups. The study was started long before I had realized the importance of enrichment. The pet birds had access to commercially made toys, spent paper towel rolls, clothespins and more. None received enrichment per se.
The above study suggests that the method of rearing is very important; the first few months are clearly important and teach the bird much about itself. I recently visited Xavier Viader and his wife Teresa Masuet at Psittacus Catalonia, a breeder in Spain who produces hundreds of young African Greys each year. The young are primarily sold weaned and after experiencing flocking and some level of training (primarily stepping or flying to the hand on command); they are also introduced to many play items before weaning. The result are birds that are very balanced emotionally and which readily adapt to changes—a tremendous benefit in a species that is notoriously suspicious and nervous of changes.
My own experience and lengthy conversations with Teresa Masuet, Rafael Zamora Padrón of Loro Parque and many other aviculturists who regularly hand-rear young suggests that when socialized from an early age through weaning and beyond hand rearing does not have the negative effects often ascribed to it, especially in Europe. It is when the chick is kept in isolation and made into a pet from weaning that problems will likely develop. This may explain the predominance of plucked birds that were hand-reared. (Yes many wild birds also pluck, but the reasons could well be the lack of enrichment or flocking behavior or even disease, including skin fungus.) In a group or when parent reared, the young learn to interact with one another; they have play sessions in which they explore their cage, toys and enrichment. They learn that parameters must be established and that a pecking order is paramount to survival.
This view can be described using observations I have made in the feral flock of Severe Macaws that lives in the central part Miami Beach, Florida. In a flock I observed, one individual quickly became the dominant bird. He was always the first to explore new items, to feed and to perch, selecting a particular spot. The other birds followed, but none ever challenged that individual for what it perceived was the premium perching site. That individual also often perched on the central frond of a palm while the other flock members fed. Any real or perceived threat resulted in him calling, causing the flock to scamper out of danger.
These observations reaffirm what I have observed time and time again. With very, very few exceptions, parrots flock in the wild. They are far more tolerant of one another than was previously believed. This may explain why pairs that refuse to breed as singletons will readily do so when placed in a large flight cage with others of their kind. Even Amazon parrot, which can be vicious when breeding, seem to tolerate others of their kind when breeding if physical barriers are erected and the enclosure is very large. The use of helpers—young from previous clutches that assist in rearing their siblings—further affirms the degree of tolerance when the birds learn to live with others of their kind. These observations when carried through to hand-rearing can have important implications.
When made into pets, the young in my study that were flocked or parent reared tended to play with toys or enrichment much more intensively than those that were hand-reared and made into pets from the onset of weaning. They did not find that their lifeline was their owner as did the imprinted individuals. The latter tended to react far worse when another bird entered the home than when it happened in the two other groups. Indeed, the young that were flocked or parent reared tended to become less aggressive and more tolerant of other pet birds in the home, the birds often learning to play with one another.
So while far more research is needed, one solution for a happier bird with fewer socialization problems may be to hand-rear the young and then wean them in a group. Potential owners can play with their bird, which should be kept as a flock member until at least a month beyond weaning or ideally after it has gone through the first molt, at around 6 months of age.
Flocking can even have implication for birds that are emotionally unbalanced. As an example, I have in the past few years been extremely concerned about the plight of a number of Indonesian cockatoos. I have pleaded and purchased unwanted pets. Some came to me with serious disorders: plucking, self mutilation, extreme aggression towards their owners, neurosis, etc. In virtually all the cases, the response to the birds when placed in a group has been incredible. Self mutilators have recovered. Birds that were going to be destroyed because of repeated attacks on their owners have learned to live in a group and respect the boundaries of other flock members. This does not mean that when paired they could be fully trusted—they could not, but the same could be said of parent-reared and even wild caught cockatoos—but their behavior improved dramatically.
I have also found that enrichment is a key component to preventing destructive behaviors. In my case, my birds so enjoy and look forward to the enrichment they receive, which ranges from whole green coconuts to branches to palm seeds and pods, that they scream madly when they see a wheel barrel of enrichment. They immediately begin to enjoy whatever is provided.
Enrichment in my opinion is important because it provides mental stimulation, allows flock interaction, gives the birds a food source (they will eat the bark of branches, the seeds in pods or palm seeds, etc), and keeps them focused for long periods of time. Toys are important, but enrichment is available everywhere in the world and should be provided.
In enrichment, we always try to incorporate elements that are used in the wild. African Greys feed extensively on the fibrous covering of the seeds of the oil palm; their beaks are not sufficiently strong to crack the stone to reach the oily endocarp. We provide our African Greys with whole green coconuts that are equally fibrous and allow the birds to perform the same function. With Golden Conures we add forked branches suspended from the top of their enclosure with a chain, so that they can grasp the branch and spin. I tried this after observing wild birds grasp thin branches and spin while flapping their wings. This is invariably their preferred amenity. Some birds also receive pieces of sugarcane suspended in their enclosure. I do not like the idea of offering such sugary foods, but find that the birds enjoy chewing the fibers and provide them to species that would normally consume nectar in the wild. I started this concept after making observations at Loro Parque.
The evolution of parrot keeping has been rapid in the past few decades. Formerly sterile cages are now filled with toys. The original toys were offered to be destroyed. Today many toys involve complex systems to force the bird to work to obtain a hidden morsel. The addition of enrichment and a flock experience may be seen as a means of improving the quality of life in a captive bird. Both emulate natural behaviors and can lead to birds that are emotionally much more stable and healthy.
In summary, parrot keepers from all sectors (breeders, pet owners, rescues and dealers) should look at natural behaviors and attempt to apply, within reason, elements from the wild, this to make the birds happier, balanced and both mentally and physically challenged.
Until next time….