This article was previously published in Bird Breeder magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Socialization of Baby Birds
by Laurella Desborough
During the past few years, a conversation has developed between pet bird owners and bird breeders regarding the socialization of baby birds, which can be characterized as contentious and divisive. When a pet bird owner believes that his/her bird has a behavior problem, the owner seeks to find a solution and reason for the problem. Sometimes the owner blames the bird breeder for some supposed failure in the rearing process, which may have produced this problematic bird.
Baby birds are generally hatched and raised by bird breeders, sometimes in nurseries at small backyard facilities and sometimes at large breeding farms. Bird breeders may sell the birds at an early age, prior to or during weaning, to pet stores or brokers, and sometimes directly to the pet owners. When baby birds are sold prior to or near weaning, the major socialization that has occurred involves interacting with clutch mates or other baby birds in the brooder or baby cages, interacting with the hand-feeder while being handled or fed and perhaps learning the "Up" command from the hand-feeder. Thus, the bird has the opportunity to learn that humans are okay, because they provide food and comfort. Further, the bird learns to feel at ease with other birds in the brooder or cage. Most parrots learn the "Up" command quickly, even when their physical skills are not developed sufficiently for them to easily comply with the intent.
Baby birds that are sold to brokers and pet stores will continue to learn about people and other birds in this new environment. They may learn that many people stick fingers at them through cage bars. They may learn that there is a great variety of people to deal with, not all of them treating the birds with gentleness and respect. They may learn that they have to fit into cages with other strange birds. They may learn that not everyone who handles them knows how to do it smoothly. All of these new events, people, places, diets and routines can be confusing and stressful to baby birds, no matter how wonderfully they have been raised and cared-for by the bird breeder. All of these experiences in the pet store or at the bird brokers are part of the socialization of each baby bird.
When a pet store specializes in birds, the owner or manager carefully trains the employees in the care and handling of baby birds, and the store's protocols include guiding the bird-buying public in the proper care and handling of the baby birds in the store. Then, the bird receives positive socialization and feels comfortable and secure. The best bird stores educate their employees and demand that excellent care be given to the baby birds. The best bird stores teach their clients about the care of the bird that the client purchases. They provide this education through the use of direct demonstrations of handling, through written information about the specific species being purchased and through recommendation of a good veterinarian. This process takes time and effort, but the end result is a happy bird and a happy owner.
Bird breeders who sell directly to the public often provide their clients with a lot of species-specific information on the bird being purchased. The bird breeder who sells to the public may also keep the baby birds well past weaning. The young birds have the opportunity to learn about a variety of foods, how to play with toys and other birds, to maneuver in bird cages, to fly and land with skill and to respond to commands such as "Up" and "Perch." During this period, they also develop confidence and are ready to go home with their new owner. This is the period of post-weaning stabilization, which generally occurs following the month that the baby bird has weaned from formula feedings.
Bird breeders who work large facilities simply do not have the time, the employees or the cage space to put all their birds through this process for a month after weaning. If they did, it would greatly increase the price of the bird because costs would increase. Some species would not be recommended to remain with the breeder during this time. These species make the transition much more easily at an earlier age. However, that is not to say that the management and staff of the breeding farms are giving the birds less than excellent care if they fail to put the birds through the stabilization process. Large farms must have good disease prevention practices and must do everything possible to raise healthy, happy babies. Their livelihood depends on producing an excellent product that will result in repeat business the following year. They cannot afford to produce babies that do not satisfy their market or they will go out of business. Large bird farms employ the services of avian veterinarians to provide guidance on medical issues and also employ sufficient manpower to take care of the daily work.
Now, let's go back to the issue of socialization of baby birds. Birds go through a series of stages of socialization, not just one stage, while being hand-fed. These stages of socialization continue to occur after the bird leaves the bird breeder, goes to a pet store or to the new owner. In fact, various periods of socialization will occur over the next five or six years, until the bird reaches maturity. Although most of the larger parrots can be reproductively viable at under 5 or 6 years of age, most are not really mature until then. Smaller parrots mature earlier. So, all these discussions about "proper" socialization of birds may be best addressed to the pet owner — the one who will be with the bird during these periods of socialization.
Part of the problem is that some pet owners just want to love and enjoy their bird, not provide direction to it (as if the bird should come in a "ready-to-use" package). The pet owner is emotionally attached to the bird, but he or she may have little or no realization that the young bird has a serious need for guidance as it develops over the coming months and years. The pet owner may have little knowledge of the specific species of bird and its natural characteristics. In fact, the pet owner may have little understanding of birds in general. As Gail Worth recently commented, "Pet owners often think that birds are like dogs. They want the bird to change a behavior that they do not like, but the behavior is natural to the bird." There seems to be an inclination among many pet bird owners to have a preconceived notion of what the bird should be and do. When difficulties arise, it is easier to blame someone than to recognize the true problem, which is a lack of basic knowledge about bird behavior and, specifically, a lack of information about the species of bird they have. Bird breeders, bird stores, bird behavior consultants and pet bird owners need to recognize the situation: Simply put, young birds continue to need guidance, and it is nobody's fault. Birds need guidance through their various periods of socialization for several years in order to become healthy, happy adult companion birds.