QUESTIONS I CAN'T ANSWER
by Linda Greeson
I often observe behavior patterns in our birds for which I can find no explanation. Extensive reading and discussions with other breeders leave many of my questions unanswered.
Much of the behavior that puzzles me is related to the birds' breeding habits. With most creatures on this earth putting a male and female together at the appropriate time will invariably result in mating. A female dog in heat is supremely attractive to all male dogs, no matter how inappropriate the match. I once owned a female poodle, all of nine pounds in weight, who drove my huge male St Bernards to distraction when she came into season. They actually became physically ill unless I farmed out either the poodle or the frustrated St Bernards during this time.
Parrots, on the contrary, are very discriminating in choosing a mate, males and females alike. I have many times offered a hen or a cock in prime breeding condition three to four mates before the pair would progress further than a platonic relationship. What I cannot fathom is what controls these arbitrary choices. Do birds, like humans, make decisions in choosing a mate by differences in appearance and personality? Is it possible that they have some instinct, still intact from their wild state, by which they know that this particular mix of genes will not produce healthy offspring? Why are they so fussy?
In the wild most large birds await the start of the rainy season to begin nesting. The heavy and frequent rains in the tropics assure them that when their chicks are hatched there will be an abundant supply of food to feed their young.
Many domesticated birds are housed indoors, frequently with air conditioning controlling both temperature and humidity. Artificial light rather than the changes in length of daylight hours controls their exposure to light. Our rainy season in Florida is unpredictable; it does not occur regularly during the same months each year. Why then, do these indoor birds react to the beginning of our rainy season in the same way they did in the wild? How do these birds, housed in a completely artificial atmosphere, decide that it is time to go to nest when the rains start outside?
It is not too uncommon in nesting birds to have the hen throw the newly laid eggs completely out of the nest, either one or all. Orthinologists report that these discarded eggs are almost always infertile. Since the fertility of the egg at this early stage cannot be determined by man without microscopic examination, how does the bird decide whether or not they are clear?
There are times when discarding the eggs makes perfect sense. When eggs are due to hatch in 21 days, for example, on the twenty second day some hens are observed to promptly discard the unhatched eggs. I have a well marked calendar and keep accurate records at each breeding cage and still often run into difficulties keeping track. How does the hen know exactly when the allotted time has expired? We know that this ability is part of her instinctive behavior, but how in the world does this hen keep such an accurate count of the passage of time?
Again, if some birds of the same species manage their eggs so intelligently, many will sit faithfully on clear eggs well past the time for incubation. Most breeders can quite easily determine whether or not an egg is fertile by observation of the condition of the shell quite early on in the hatching procedure. If one hen is clever enough to recognize infertile eggs when newly laid, why does another not seem to recognize what seems to us to be obvious?
Most distressing for the breeder is the occurrence of one chick in a clutch being pushed to one side, or even completely out of the nest, by parents who are taking excellent care of the other chicks. I have lost count of the number of times we have taken pity on the neglected chick, hand feeding it and nurturing it to apparent good health. In three to six months the chicks invariably die with necropsies showing internal congenital defects. I am still soft hearted enough to continue taking care of the occasional neglected chick, but I do it with the full knowledge that it will have a short life span. We have never once succeeded in keeping one of these chicks alive more than six months, although the hereditary defect has been impossible for us to detect. How then do the parent birds know, at a very early stage in its development, that this chick should be allowed to die before time and effort are expended in trying to rear it? What do they see and know that we, experienced breeders, are unable to observe?
We have a pair of Budgies who sit faithfully and take excellent care of their babies until the age of ten days. Unless we remove the chicks for hand feeding before this time the parents invariably kill destroy the chicks. The explanation that I have found for this behavior is that the parents are anxious to start on another clutch and decide to clear the nest. To me this does not seem at all logical. Is this not against the universal law of nature that each species must be propagated to survive? The chicks we rescue before the slaughter starts are strong and healthy and show no physical defects to account for their parent's behavior. The second clutch is then cared for faithfully until maturity by these same parents. When so much effort has gone into hatching and feeding the first clutch, why destroy them to sooner start another?
Many of our larger birds engage in chewing activities that defy a reasonable explanation. Even though we have placed identical branches in their cages just for them to gnaw on, they will invariable select their perches for this activity. They work away industriously, using their beaks much as a carpenter uses a plane. They usually select the center portion of the perch for this, not satisfied until the halves crash to the ground. Replacing perches is a routine chore in the aviary. These are the same birds who frequently amaze me with behavior that proves their high level of intelligence. Why in the world do they choose to destroy the perches so necessary to their comfort?
Even more puzzling are the habits of a pair of Chattering Lories who at breeding time chew out the bottom of their nest box. They make a large enough hole for loss of a whole clutch. Reinforcement of the bottom of the box with heavy wire has prevented the loss of chicks, but why do seemingly intelligent birds work so hard in the one area that will destroy their young? Unless in the wild the birds had the whole depth of a tree trunk to work on, the result there would be the same.
During the winter cold spells we have here in Florida we are concerned about the welfare of our outside birds. They all have sheltered places to roost and many have nest boxes available where they could be quite comfortable on chilly nights. Very few take advantage of the shelter provided. Many sleep hanging by beaks and toes on the cold wire when at least their wooden perches would be warmer for their feet. Talk about not having sense enough to come in out of the rain! They do not seem to have sense enough to come in out of the cold. And why sleep hanging on the wire instead of roosting on a comfortable perch anyway? How can a bird rest properly when suspended by his toes and beak on the side of a wire cage?
Many of our birds habitually soak their food in their water bowls. This is a sensible procedure for things like hard biscuits, much like dunking our doughnuts. As we clean and change water bowls so frequently, we wonder why they cannot differentiate between the hard foods that profit by the soaking and the already soft foods that disintegrate in the water making an inedible mess.
When we can find the time to sit quietly and watch the birds' normal activities, many interesting habits can be observed. When presented with a new and unfamiliar food, we have seen our birds perch on the edge of the food dish, heads turned side to side, looking the new item over very carefully. They then turn about, still carefully balanced on the edge of the food bowl, and seemingly deliberately defecate on its contents. The message they are sending us seems loud and clear, and may be repeated for several days before the new food is accepted. Certainly their purpose in this behavior could not be just a method of communicating their displeasure to the feeder. They often follow the same procedure to deposit their droppings into their water bowls. With an entire cage to choose from for this function, the frequency with which it happens must be more than accidental. Why this fouling of food and water?
When reaching the stage in their development when nature intends for them to start to fly, baby birds all go through a slimming down stage. Instinct tells them that to be successful, first attempts at flight require less weight.
The question I cannot answer is how does this baby bird know just when and how much to drastically cut down on his food intake? Their perfectly timed and managed reduction diets would be the envy of Weight Watchers.
A domestically bred bird who escapes from our aviaries into the wood lands surrounding us apparently does not retain survival instincts necessary to live. The bird usually returns to the cages from which it has escaped in desperate need of food and water. We live on a fresh water lake and fruit and nut trees are plentiful. If other instinctive behaviors remain so strong, why not the ability to survive by making use of the food and water provided by nature?
It seems to be a universal habit with almost all species to become very vocal just at sundown. The smaller birds chatter loudly, and the big Macaws and Cockatoos often let forth with ear piecing screams. Even our pet birds, housed on porches and patios, do a great deal of talking and laughing in the early evening. It has been suggested to me that in their wild state the birds are marking their territory and warning off predators before they roost for the night. Having been housed in comfortable, protected surroundings with no danger from predators for so many generations, why does this behavior so universally persist?
We have one pair of Cockatoos who habitually clear their nest box of any nesting material we have provided just before laying their first clutch of eggs. We have tried them with an endless variety of materials, but none that have not been vigorously swept out as breeding season approaches. The soft wood we offer, hoping they will provide their own cushioning for their eggs, is never used for this purpose. Inevitably, if the eggs are not promptly removed to the incubator for hatching, they rattle around on the bare surface of the box and are cracked. Over the years we have rescued many eggs for artificial incubation and have been successful in rearing many of their beautiful offspring. When on occasion, we try "just one more time", the clutch is lost. Other pairs of the same species happily nest in shavings and rear their young in a more conventional manner. Why is this one pair different?
The most fascinating part about breeding exotic birds is that each day offers an opportunity to learn. No one will ever know all about parrots. Never a day passes without some new experience, some new bit of knowledge, or a new question to ponder on and wonder about. It is true that some chores are endlessly repetitive, but there are always new and different experiences that maintain my interest, and add to the store of knowledge that never seems sufficient to provide answers for all my questions.
Last Updated: April 26, 2013
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