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A better bond? The plight of unweaned chicks.

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

This article first appeared in 'Parrot News' the Parrot Society Of Australia magazine in the May - June 2021 edition. All photos included provided by Linda Plumstead of Macaws and More.

Purchasing unweaned chicks has become increasingly popular recently. Chicks ranging in age from as young as 3 weeks old are often sold by breeders to inexperienced and experienced companion parrot owners. The primary driver behind this fad is the misconception that by hand-raising a parrot from a young age you will “have a better bond” with them. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, when we consider the natural ethology of parrots we can see how this belief is highly flawed. In the wild, parents hatch and raise chicks before becoming independent and socialising with other flock members. The age at which a parrot would fledge and wean depends on their species. Parrotlets and Budgies may only be a few months, others such as Black Cockatoos may take upwards of 18 months. One thing is consistent, eventually, they leave their parents and begin to form relationships with conspecifics of a similar age range. When we bring a parrot into our home pre-weaning and hand raise them we become their ‘parental figure’, they rely on us to feed them, clean them and show them the ropes.

During this stage it can seem like they have an incredibly strong bond to us but eventually, like all young maturing parrots, they naturally begin to look elsewhere for relationships they would form as they become independent. This can lead to aggressive behaviour directed towards the ‘parental figure’ as they try to find their own way. The ensuring heartache of the parrot’s owner and the effort required to overcome these problems are an enormous strain on the relationship and can lead to the parrot being re-homed. This isn’t always the case, but it is a common issue and one that should be considered before bringing home an unweaned chick.

By bringing home unweaned chicks, we are also depriving them of critical socialisation during a sensitive developmental phase of their life. The vast majority of parrot species lay multiple eggs and therefore chicks are often raised together with their clutch mates. In the early stages of life they provide each other warmth and comfort and as they grow, begin to explore their nest and later begin to fledge they are playmates. They learn how to interact appropriately with other parrots, they play with each other which helps to build fine and gross motor skills, they encourage one another to try new foods or activities, and they provide confidence through social facilitation. Flock fledging and weaning is an incredibly important part of a young parrot’s life, and this is even more true in captivity when being hand-raised as they do not have the opportunity to learn from their biological parents. Parrots deprived of this important early social aspect are more likely to develop many of the common behaviour problems we see in companion parrots including biting, over-bonding through sexual imprinting, screaming, separation anxiety, and feather destructive behaviour.

Besides the behavioural issues that we are more likely to see in these parrots, there are also many physical / health dangers associated with hand raising, especially for the inexperienced. Many people are unprepared and poorly informed about the requirements of hand raising a chick from a young age. Chicks who have little to no feather development need to be kept in a brooder that provides a certain temperature and humidity level, this needs to be changed gradually as the chick ages. The formula needs to be heated and fed at a certain temperature and thickness (which changes at different stages in development) in order for the chick to be able to properly process the food, too cold and it can slow the crop down leading to sour crop and malnutrition, too hot and it can burn a hole into the chicks crop, to thin and the bird does not get enough nutrition. Chicks need to be fed particular amounts and on a regular basis, including overnight, to ensure they are receiving adequate nutrition in the very early stages. This means having a hand raiser who is available during the day for feeds but is also willing to get up at night. Aspiration pneumonia can occur if a hand raiser inadvertently pushes food into the bird’s lungs during feeding, this occurs even with experienced hand-raisers and is significantly more likely to occur for the inexperienced. Health issues in young chicks can be hard to recognise unless you are well versed in the signs, failure to notice an infection or health issue quickly, and therefore delayed vet treatment can be disastrous. Any of the above listed potential problems can lead to long term health issues including malnutrition leading to poor intestinal health, metabolic bone disease, and many can and are often fatal. Hand-feeding parrot chicks is a specialised skill that should be honed through the close mentorship of an experienced hand raiser, not something that should be practised with a helpless, fragile baby bird.

In Australia, each State regulates the sale of unweaned chicks, in some States it is illegal to sell a chick of any species unweaned, in other States they only protect native species. It is up to us, aviculturists of all kinds, whether companion parrot owners, breeders, hobbyists, or trainers/behaviour consultants, to advocate and educate against the sale of unweaned parrot chicks for any reason. This practice does not improve the lives or relationships of companion parrots and owners, but rather is harmful to both and will continue to add to the increasing issue of parrots ending up in rescues or being passed from home to home.

If you are considering adding a parrot to your family, then please, do not contribute to the problem by purchasing an unweaned chick. There is no benefit to you, your family or your new parrot companion, rather you are paying, often the same price, to take on this huge responsibility, with the high possibility of health or behavioural challenges forming. It is only when everyone refuses to purchase these birds from unscrupulous, unethical, or uneducated breeders/raisers that they will no longer be able to continue this harmful practice.

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