Pet Birds: Hand-raised or Parent-raised: Behavioral Issues Associated with Hand-reared Chicks

Article by:  Jeannine Miesle, M.A., M.Ed


Main Article: Hand-raised or Parent-raised: Which Is Better For The Birds? by Jeannine Miesle M.A., M.Ed.


10. Behavioral Issues Associated with Hand-reared Chicks

So what are the consequences of hand-raising chicks? Because these birds were raised in an unnatural manner, they “never developed an appropriate sense of self.” 2 Pulling the eggs, artificially incubating them, and hand-feeding the chicks result in birds which have imprinted on humans instead of other birds. Even if they are allowed a few weeks in the nest before being pulled, the result is almost the same. The imprinting is not quite the same as it is with the artificially incubated chicks, but very close. Consequently, these birds “often have a human self-orientation, leading to the development of an abnormal human‐bird bond.” 2

10.1 Aberrant Behavior Involving Developmental Skills

According to A. Gallagher, There is a specific window of time during which birds learn initial, social developmental skills. They are learning how to be birds from other birds in the nest during this time. If this learning time is not permitted, and is instead replaced with abnormal human self-identification, it is essentially impossible to reverse. This bond produces many undesirable behaviors:

  • “Separation anxiety. The new human family becomes the bird’s flock. The bird does not understand why the flock leaves it alone all day, defenseless. If this were a wild scenario, a lone bird would be defenseless against a predator. This situation causes severe anxieties for many companion birds. 2
  • “Aggression. The new owners generally have no real understanding of the techniques required to discipline or train their bird as would naturally occur in the flock situation. This is why you will hear of many birds becoming ‘feral’ and aggressive after being cuddly babies. 2
  • Sexually-fueled separation anxiety. Before maturity, the bird will choose a mate from the human flock. The bird has the same expectations as the wild-breeding pairs. The bird expects to never be more than a few yards from its breeding mate. It does not understand the need for us to enter another room without it, go to work or leave for holidays. Again, extreme separation anxiety and neurotic behaviors occur, resulting in screaming, feather plucking and self-mutilation, stereotypic behaviors, nervous tics, aggression, and destructive behaviors. 2
  • “Mate aggression. The bird will adore one family member (its breeding mate) but attack all others who come close. 2:  (Aviaweb Note: Also refer Breeding Mate Aggression / aggressive behavior towards a breeding partner.)
  • Territorial aggression. These birds will defend their cage from other flock members, biting anyone who ventures too near the nest site (cage). Often birds will develop a predilection for other sites around the house for nesting and defense, e.g. behind kitchen appliances, in drawers, behind cushions, under beds or other furniture, even inside the owner’s clothes while being worn! 2
  • “Sexual frustration. Aggression is usually a result of failure on the part of the human to provide gratification. The human is the “chosen one,” the mate they want to reproduce with. When you pet and love on her, that's foreplay to a bird who doesn't have another bird for a mate. When the attention you give the bird doesn't result in continuing the natural progression to breeding, she is frustrated and takes her anger out on the "chosen person" for not finishing what he/she started. The frustration can be huge, and the bird will often turn on herself or himself to relieve the frustration. Because hand-fed birds are abnormally attached to the chosen person, they will scream, self-mutilate, attack, masturbate, and lay eggs more than parent-raised birds. 2
  • “Excessive egg production. Female birds (hens) breed as a result of several external factors. The primary factors are generally long day lengths, a high-energy, high-calorie diet, frequent bathing, a stable mate, and nesting environment. Birds with an abnormal human‐bird bond, kept under artificial light after dusk and on a seed-based diet, have all the prerequisites for egg-laying. These birds generally lay large numbers of eggs. “This excess production has a dramatic impact of the hen’s nutritional status and often results in osteopenia (low bone density leading to osteoporosis), cloacal prolapses, fractures, and reproductive complications. When laying, most birds will display territorial aggression around the nest site.” 2

Some owners attempt to relieve the bird’s anxiety by obtaining another bird, but often neither bird has the skills needed for social interaction, so “they often appear to live like ‘two lamps on a shelf’ with no recognition of each other.” 2 Once this abnormal human-bird bond develops and problem behaviors begin, it is very difficult to completely eliminate them, but these behaviors can be modified with education and training. 2

Pamela Clark’s Blog, Early Beginnings for Parrots, Appendix  III 

10.2 The Connection between Hand-Rearing, Aberrant Behaviors, and Health Issues in Specific Species

There is evidence of a pathological connection between hand-rearing and aberrant behavior in adult companion birds. Any species may exhibit these unwanted behaviors, but the groups in which these are most often seen are the cockatoos, Amazons, and to a somewhat lesser extent, macaws. Behavioral disorders are most frequently encountered in the larger psittacine species, although they can be found in the smaller species as well. And although physical health issues are more commonly seen in the smaller species, such as the cockatiel, budgerigar and parrotlets as a result of hand-rearing, they may be found in the larger species as well. 2

10.3 Differences in Behavioral Development toward Novel Objects

Parental separation and hand-rearing affect the development of other behaviors. When first introduced to new objects, hand-raised birds did not display as much fear as parent-raised birds. However, this fear was only postponed. By the time the birds were a year old, both hand-reared and parent-reared birds, housed under similar conditions after weaning, reacted in the same way after being exposed to new objects. It’s possible that delayed maturation or “generalized exposure to new items” played a part in the difference. 12 Birds become less fearful of new things in their environment, indicating that they are sensitive to changes for quite a while after weaning; then they gradually adapt to new environmental conditions. “In the wild, this may aid them in decreasing the risks of predation or ingestion of toxic materials. It also may increase the chances that they’ll find new foraging sites, nest sites, or mates.” 12

As a result, parrots that dwell in frequently changing environments tend to be less fearful of new situations and objects than those that inhabit relatively constant, predictable environments. Birds in captivity display the same behaviors. When young birds are exposed to items that are new or frequently rotated and environments that are diverse, they have less fear of new places or objects. These findings emphasize the importance of regular rotation of toys and other enrichments; simply providing the enrichments and leaving them indefinitely is not stimulating for the bird. There must be frequent changes in their environments. However, we must be very careful when presenting new objects or housing to fearful birds; too many changes too close together can intensify the fearful behaviors. “Individual differences in reactivity to novel experiences must always be considered when providing enrichment opportunities or new environments to birds.” 12

Image 10A: This hand-raised African grey parrot on the left (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with a novel object, a child’s teething toy in the shape of a monkey. Although the bird did not panic, it was reluctant to approach this new toy. The reluctance to approach a novel object is referred to as “neophobia” (image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland, in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).   Image 10B: This parent-raised African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with the same novel object as the parrot in Figure 6- A. Despite the fact that this bird had also never been in contact with the toy, it immediately approached this new toy and started to explore it with its beak and feet  (image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).

Image 10A: This hand-raised African grey parrot on the left (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with a novel object, a child’s teething toy in the shape of a monkey. Although the bird did not panic, it was reluctant to approach this new toy. The reluctance to approach a novel object is referred to as “neophobia” (image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland, in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).:

Image 10B: This parent-raised African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with the same novel object as the parrot in Figure 6- A. Despite the fact that this bird had also never been in contact with the toy, it immediately approached this new toy and started to explore it with its beak and feet (image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).

10.4 Abnormal Sexual Behaviors in Hand-reared Birds.

Hand-raised birds are also more prone to develop abnormal sexual behaviors toward humans. These include regurgitation, masturbation, courtship behavior, territorial aggression, sudden onset of phobic behaviors, excessive vocalizations, continued begging and whining for food (including delayed weaning), and feather-damaging behavior. “Many of these abnormal behaviors may develop as a result of frustration (e.g., inability to sexually bond with humans) or to seek attention from the caregiver. As such, they appear similar to the “orphanage syndrome” or “relative-attachment disorder” described in human children who have been deprived of affection and stability in their early childhood.” 12 Birds that are hand-reared are deprived of the necessary contact with other birds of the same species as well as with their parents and siblings. This contact with conspecifics is needed to establish normal social and sexual behaviors. 12

Image 11: Loving parents feeding their baby (image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).Image 11: Loving parents feeding their baby (image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).

Image 12: Three of this pair’s chicks at 3 weeks (image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).

Image 12: Three of this pair’s chicks at 3 weeks (image courtesy Alona Samorodska; used with permission).