Food Independence & Transition Weaning
by Sally Blanchard
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The Difference between Weaning and Food Independence
Weaning is the process by which a young parrot learns to eat on his own. In the wild, food independence is a gradual process started long before a chick has fledged. However, no young bird could possibly be weaned until he has learned to fly and can travel with his parents and the flock. During these travels, a young parrot learns from instruction and example about foraging and gathering his own food. While he is still in the nest, his parents (and in some species, other caretaker birds) are responsible for filling all of his nutritional needs. Breeding season usually comes during and just after the rainy season, which guarantees abundant food for parrot babies when they hatch.
Chicks are fed whenever the parents have food to give them and not according to some arbitrary timetable. In the last few years, nest box videos have clearly shown that parents don’t feed according to any schedule and do not let the crop empty between feedings. Wild parrot babies are not deprived if there is abundant food available. At first, most of the food is partially predigested by the parents and then regurgitated into the baby’s beak as pabulum. As the chick matures; the variety and consistency of the food changes. Gradually he learns to manipulate larger pieces and different types of food. By the time he fledges, he is familiar with many of the foods that will be available to him throughout his life but he does not yet know how and where to find them. He does not know where foods grow and how to take them from the plant and manipulate them for his consumption. These lessons take longer. Although he reaches a point where he is pretty much eating on his own, his parents continue feeding him until his food independence is evident. While the odds are against the successful raising of every parrot chick, wild parrots have evolved to be good parents. It is their biological imperative to raise their young as well as possible for success and survival of the species.
Domestically-raised Chicks and Food Independence
Almost from the beginning of modern aviculture, it has been acceptable to deprive domestically-raised baby parrots of food to force them to wean. Sadly, the concept of the “weaning cage” was developed by breeders who did not really understand the emotional needs of baby parrots. The idea was that when it was “time to wean the bird” he or she was put in a small cage with one perch and a bowl of food (usually nothing but seed). The theory was that if the bird had nothing else to do, he or she would automatically eat rather than go hungry. I’ve walked into far too many bird shops and aviaries with agitated, head-bobbing, wing-flicking, whining babies housed in cages with nothing to develop their curiosity. Imagine a young parrot learning to eat in the rainforest. After he fledges, his parents and/or flock teach him foraging techniques, food choices, and food manipulation through guidance and example in a rain forest smorgasbord. Learning to eat is an adventure and is certainly not based on boredom or deprivation.
Too many of the protocols that became entrenched as far as the breeding and hand-feeding of parrots had much more to do with the convenience of the people involved than the developmental needs of the chicks. Some parrots are forced to wean long before their natural weaning time. Years ago, someone decided this was the way to do it and few breeders challenged this accepted method. In the mid-80’s, as most of my work shifted from taming wild-caught parrots to working with domestically-raised parrots, I began to see a correlation between weaning trauma and behavioral dysfunction. Weaning trauma is the insecurity and dysfunction caused by deprivation and/or forced weaning, gavage feeding until weaning, and inadequate nutrition. The more handfed parrots I worked with, the more obvious this cause-and-effect connection became.
I discovered that parrots who were fed a limited amount of food on a strict timetable ultimately had behavioral problems in their new homes. Bappies who were fed an abundant variety of healthy foods frequently during the day were far more secure with their new human family. When I was hand-feeding my young Amazons after they came to live with me I often fed them soft, moist, and warm foods with my fingers which mimic the beak feeding of an adult parrot. I usually fed such foods as cooked yellow-orange vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, and carrots but any nutritionally sound gloppy food was accepted. Now several companies make manufactured hand-weaning foods. I prefer the ones that have no artificial coloring. These nutrition-packed pellets are soaked in warm/hot water and then finger fed to eager chicks. However, I still prefer pieces of steamed vegetables or mashed fresh fruits … preferably organic. Breeders who interact with their chicks in a nurturing manner create a more emotionally secure chick. With a good hand-feeder, there is never any desperate food begging or excessive hunger. Breeders who feed their chicks abundantly have reported to me that they weaned more readily if they are fed as needed instead of being deprived of food in an effort to force them to wean. Parrots who have been abundantly weaned with nurturing techniques are clearly more secure and contented, and have much greater pet potential than chicks force weaned with deprivation.
Excessive Food Begging and Regression Weaning
Hopefully, if you have purchased a baby parrot, he will be secure, well-socialized, and fully-weaned. Even if this is true, you may have some problems with immediate adjustment. Many recently weaned birds become a bit insecure in a new location and will begin food begging again. Some parrots even become excessively aggressive when they get too hungry. I have worked with more than one hyperactive baby grey who was not getting enough to eat and was throwing himself out of the cage when someone opened the door. Caregivers confused this with aggression when it was actually hunger.
Excessive food begging beyond weaning is common with several species but there are far too many crying cockatoos and gronking macaws who are insecure from being underfed. Many handfed macaw bappies have not been fed well enough or long enough. In the wild, these large parrots are still being fed by their parents up to a year of age or older, yet many macaw chicks are weaned and expected to be food independent before they are 4 or 5 months old. Some parrots who are forced to eat on their own too soon become insecure because they don’t even have the physical skills to successfully manipulate their foods. A macaw, or any other parrot who normally holds food in a foot to manipulate it, can’t possibly be food independent until he has developed the dexterity and balance skills to hold food in his foot without losing his balance. Therefore, early socialization that involves working with other skills will also encourage food security.
Several years ago, I bird-sat a newly weaned Green-winged Macaw. The owners were appalled when they returned and discovered that I had to start hand-feeding him again. No amount of logical explanation would calm their unreasonable anger. They would only listen to the advice of the bird’s breeder who seemed to have no concept of what had happened. The breeder told them I had spoiled the macaw by feeding him again. With all the confusing changes, the bird had become quite insecure and started food begging almost incessantly. He needed some extra hand-feeding and cuddling to feel secure again, but they felt that since he was weaned, he was no longer a baby. He was a baby and was still going to be a baby for close to a year. Even though they seemed unwilling to follow my advice, I tried to convince them that they needed to watch him closely for the next month or so and handfeed him if he became agitated or exhibited any food begging behaviors.
Be Prepared - Regression Weaning
Food begging from a weaned bird is not necessarily a sign that the bird was force-weaned or weaned too young, although parrots with hand-feeding trauma are more likely to become insecure in a new situation. When you bring your bird home, it will be important to have some of what he has been eating on hand, even if it is not what you plan to continue feeding him. The first few days in a new home is not the time to begin converting birds to another diet. Don’t ignore your baby if he becomes insecure and wants to be handfed some more. The old adage “Do not pay attention to a screaming bird” does not apply to an insecure, recently-weaned parrot. In order for him to comfortably eat on his own, he needs to feel secure. While you do not want to reward him for begging by running up to him and grabbing him up to cuddle, it is advisable to “regression wean” him by offering food with your fingers, a spoon, or syringe a few times each day until he is more relaxed and secure in his new situation.
I received a call from the new caregivers of a 5 month old Hyacinth Macaw. He was sold as a fully weaned bird when, in reality, this is far too young for this macaw to be properly weaned. The bird called constantly and was driving the couple crazy. The breeder told them not to start hand-feeding the macaw again. Luckily they called me and I insisted that they start hand-feeding him again, whether they used a syringe or fed soft foods with their fingers. They followed my advice and called me within a few days saying, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” The macaw weaned on his own several weeks later. Unfortunately he was somewhat stunted physically but turned out to be an emotionally healthy Hyacinth.
Do not let anyone convince you that a food begging bird should not be handfed again or he will never be weaned. This is nonsense. I don’t recommend regressing a weaned parrot to complete hand-feeding again or getting him to “pump on the syringe.” Hopefully, he will accept some warm, soft foods from your fingers. If this doesn’t seem to work, try a spoon with the sides bent up or ask your breeder, veterinarian, or bird shop to provide you with a syringe and some hand-feeding formula and have them show you how to use the syringe to just dribble some formula into his beak. Then gradually transition him to take food from your fingers. As he becomes more secure, offer him a crock or plate of nutritious steamed veggies and show him how to eat from the bowl. This activity helps his sense of security and also helps him develop a healthy appetite. Most regression-weaned chicks will readily wean themselves once they are more secure. If not, gradually reducing the amount of food being handfed will encourage weaning.
Recognizing the signs of Food-begging in Baby Parrots
- Feathers are fluffed, especially on head and neck.
- Wings are held slightly away from side.
- Rapid wing flicking.
- Head bobbing with open beak.
- Lunging with head and beak.
- Repetitive calling.
- Excessive frenetic, and even aggressive energy.
In macaws, the call is a repetitive “gronking” sound. In other parrots, it may be a beeping or even a rapid-fire machine gun eh eh eh eh sound. Excessive food begging can be a sign of weaning trauma, malnutrition, or even a sick baby parrot. Check with your avian veterinarian to be sure. Weaned parrots who are doing a lot of food begging need to be reassured with “regression weaning” even though they may be considered “weaned” by the breeder.