Bountiful Weaning: Secret to A Happy Bird

I have been using a bountiful weaning concept combined with intensive socializing on my African Grey babies for many years. I believe these techniques are instrumental in producing babies that are well behaved, social, independent, curious and unafraid. It is the encouragement of these much desired traits that enables birds to become good companions, resulting in happy birds and happy bird owners.A bountiful weaning program and intensive socializing works for African Greys and I believe it will work for other species as well.

The way a bird is weaned can affect his personality and behavior for the rest of its life. For this reason, it is very important to the bird and the new owner to ensure that only the most effective weaning method is used.

A young bird is shaped by the varied circumstances he encounters as he is going through the weaning process. He is learning social behavior, flock relationships, food independence and how to fly. He regards his handfeeder and others around him as his flock or family. These relationships are crucial. The young bird relies on his handfeeder for food and security. He is building trust in humans via his prime caregiver/handfeeder.

Anything which interferes with this development, such as improper weaning methods, lack of toys, food deprivation or unsympathetic humans can seriously affect the young bird for the rest of its life. Improperly weaned birds will have problems in trusting humans, can develop poor eating habits and may even become feather mutilators.

For this reason, anyone buying a bird should ask questions about the techniques used during weaning and should never buy an unweaned bird.

A handfeeder who deprives a baby of food in a misguided attempt to wean him is setting the bird up for behavioral problems that may manifest themselves at a later period. Early exploration of brightly colored and small manageable pieces of food begins with a baby who is not hungry. A baby who whose hunger is satisfied is one who is willing to investigate not only the weaning foods but toys too. A hungry anxious baby will think of only one thing – his hunger and the handfeeder who is depriving him of food. It will be difficult for him to become a trusting, confident companion. He may regard a human as someone who once starved him. And his owner will have no idea of why his new companion is never satisfied, is fearful, and distrusts those who want to reassure and love and protect him.

Baby birds, especially Greys, are unforgiving when subjected to forced or deprivation weaning. All the old canards – cage bound, shy, nippy – stem from a handfeeder who has failed to appreciate the delicacy with which Greys babies must be handled – both physically and emotionally. The intelligence of the Grey, so splendid to behold, makes the youngsters very sensitive to unpleasant or dangerous experiences.

Forced or survival weaning is devastating to the babies. Its root is with a handfeeder who weans on a rigid schedule. Baby birds are very much individuals. Some are more confident naturally, independent of conscious encouragement by the handfeeder. Some babies are more dependent and need a little extra reassurance, an extra feeding for a longer time. Those handfeeders who believe that all babies who are “x” weeks old should be on “y” feedings a day and weaned by “z” weeks old are the ones who sell anxious, fearful, nervous birds who are suspicious of unfamiliar foods, cages, toys, locations, people. This kind of weaning makes for birds who view unusual events or new toys with a jaundiced eye because they haven’t learned to trust. How can they trust if the person upon whom they depended for life itself has withdrawn food and is allowing them to starve? Surely this is the baby’s take on the situation.

An enlightened handfeeder will employ bountiful weaning. “Abundance Weaning”, definitively described by Phoebe Linden in the Pet Bird Report, will produce a calm, trusting, confident youngster – a baby who expects only good things to happen. New toys are attacked vigorously; a new food immediately draws their attention; they will accept handling from strangers and from the new owner.

In a conscientiously applied program of bountiful weaning, babies are not allowed to go hungry. Nothing must interfere with the development of the baby. He must at all times feel safe and secure. Food in one form or another is offered often by the handfeeder. If the baby will only eat a small amount of formula, he still has a bowl of soft attractive soft foods in front of him. He is surrounded by food constantly. Phoebe Linden suggests offering morsels of hot wet foods to the babies during and prior to weaning.

All of my babies are offered food very early. When I see a baby begin picking at his feet, his sibling’s feet, or an imaginary spot on the brooder wall, I know they are ready for the weaning foods. This is usually around 6 weeks old although I have had the youngest of a large clutch begin exploring earlier because of the example set by an older chick. I begin with very small pellets – usually cockatiel size, because the smaller pellets allow the baby to be successful. The small pellets are easy to break and much more manageable for the clumsy babies. I add cereals such Cheerios and Chex – anything that is easy to eat or break apart.

Next I offer a low, light colored, heavy crock of very small pieces of apple, orange, a grape cut into eighths, a small portion of a beans/rice mix and a little crumbled up birdie bread. I use the brightly colored foods to draw their attention and the different taste sensations to interest and intrigue the babies. I use the light colored crock because the weaning foods will show up better against a light background. My babies, who are still holding up their toes when they walk, waddle around with their beaks covered with birdie bread … a sight to warm the heart. Even after a full feeding, the babies will go directly to the crocks of food. Later in the weaning process, the formula is mostly for reassurance.

The babies, before and after fledging, will seldom eat as much as I would like and they lose weight. With the bountiful weaning program, I have been able to hold the weight losses to a minimum. Most lose 30 grams, but I have had stubborn babies who lost more. These are the headstrong individuals who try to wean themselves early. There is nothing to be done except try to make the weaning foods as attractive as possible. It’s very dangerous to try to feed an unwilling bird. Aspiration is a real concern in this situation.

Sometimes I will have a sweeter, more dependent chick and continuing to handfeed him beyond the average weaning time will help with his self-confidence and independence. Sound contradictory? Not at all. Continuing a pleasant, fulfilling interaction (feeding) will help the baby be more confident if he knows that food is always available. The baby has options – we all gain self-confidence when we have options; and the luxury of not selecting the mature option but instead allowing another to indulge us out of love and kindness reassures the baby that food and attention and love and kindness will always be available to him.

In order for a buyer to reassure himself, he might ask a few questions of the handfeeder. First, to get an idea of how the handfeeder views the weaning process, a buyer might ask “When do your babies wean?” The answer should be “Babies are individuals and wean on a individual basis. I can’t say for sure when a particular baby will wean.”

Sally Blanchard published the best set of questions for the buyer to ask in the Pet Bird Report:

  1. Can you provide me with references?
  2. What do you want to know about me?
  3. Tell me about your guarantee?
  4. Tell me about the care and condition of the parent birds?
  5. Do you sell unweaned babies?
  6. At what age do you wean your babies?
  7. Do you routinely gavage (tube) feed your babies?
  8. What foods do you wean your baby parrots to?
  9. How many babies do you raise at one time?
  10. How do you socialize your babies?
  11. How much individual attention do you give your babies?
  12. Can you help me keep my baby a good pet?

Common-sense responses to common-sense questions will reassure you that you are buying from a quality breeder. A quality breeder will have his own set of questions to ask. A quality breeder cares where his baby bird is going, what the environment is like, whether there are children, whether there are other companion animals, whether the buyer has experience with birds, what the typical working hours are, whether the family is complete, what the social life is like, whether both the husband and wife want the bird. These are the kinds of questions a quality breeder will ask.

If all handfeeders used a bountiful weaning program, there would be fewer birds who needed rescuing. Fewer birds who were abused or neglected. Fewer birds who were naked, screaming, and isolated. How can it not be a better world when a bird has one permanent home and is a calm, trusting, well-behaved, and well-loved member of the family?

Interview the breeder extensively. Choose the breeder very carefully. Your bird will likely outlive you. It’s very important to buy a baby bird who has had the very best start in life – one who will step up into your heart as quickly as your hand.

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