Q: I read that you will have a closer bond with a bird if you get it as a baby. Will the bond be even closer if I hand feed it?
-Max W., Clarksville, TN
A: In the last 10-15 years, bird keepers have undergone a drastic and much needed transformation in the way they care for their birds. It is much more widely known that birds cannot survive on seed-only diets or live in tiny cages. The avian sciences have had huge advances, and veterinary care has also improved. The internet gives us instant access to everything we want to know, and it has changed the lives of millions of pet birds all over the world.
The problem with the internet, though, is that once something is published it is there forever: good or bad, right or wrong. Articles written 20 years ago turn up in a google search as readily as those written last year. Unless you actively look for the date it was published, you have no idea if the information it contains is current.
I have no doubt that you turned up several sources suggesting that getting a bird as a baby will create a closer human/parrot bond. Let me assure you, this is old school thinking which originated with breeders. Years ago the majority of parrot care books were written by people who bred parrots, and breeders were once considered to be the go-to people for bird information. These books, some written in the early 1990's, are still available and are still used by people researching parrot ownership.
In the current world, we know that parrots kept for breeding and parrots kept for companionship have very different lives. A parrot that is used for breeding purposes is typically left to procreate with its mate with little or reduced human interaction.
A companion parrot is encouraged to socialize with humans and will come to regard them as flock members. Breeders have different experiences with their birds than owners do. Without living with a companion parrot, one isn’t qualified to make judgments about their bonding practices.
Since parrots have become so popular as pets, it has given the world’s parrot owners time and opportunity to conduct our own parrot “studies” (without realizing that’s what we were doing) by comparing notes with our counterparts. We are finally getting practical information with which to work.
Bonding has nothing to do with the parrot’s age.
Bonding does not begin with hand feeding. At no point does a nestling look up at you and think you are its mother. You aren’t adored. You are the person with the food, and that is all. If someone else enters the room with a syringe full of formula, then that person will get the same attention and response from the bird. Parent raised chicks go on to be great companion birds as well, which tells us that hand feeding by a human is not necessary at all.
Once a bird has been weaned and is independent enough to feed itself, it enters a new phase in its development, and the hand feeding experience then becomes irrelevant. This new bird does not spend the day thinking about food and survival. It has wings, toys and a room out there beyond the cage to conquer. The hand fed bird is altogether gone, and you start over to build a relationship with this bird.
A few years later, as your bird reaches sexual maturity, a new bird emerges again. With each change your bird goes through, you have to relearn and adapt to a changing relationship. Your bird sees you a little differently and reassesses the purpose of your relationship with each change.
Bonding doesn’t start at any specific point in time. It is a constantly evolving endeavor. Bonding is entirely the result of accumulated experiences with you. Those experiences can start at any age, and your relationship will always be a work in progress.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.