Questions I Can’t Answer

I often detect behavioural patterns in our birds that I cannot explain. Many of my queries remain unresolved after extensive study and talks with other breeders.

Much of the birds’ behavior that perplexes me is connected to their mating practices. Putting a male and female together at the right moment will inevitably result in mating for most species on the planet. A female dog in heat is very appealing to all male canines, regardless of the match. I once had a nine-pound female poodle who drove my massive male St Bernards insane when she went into season. Unless I farmed out either the poodle or the furious St Bernards at this period, they really grew physically unwell.

Male and female parrots, on the other hand, are quite picky when it comes to partner selection. I’ve provided a hen or cock in good reproductive condition three to four mates before the couple progressed beyond a platonic bond. What I don’t understand is what drives these senseless decisions. Do birds, like humans, make partner selection judgments based on differences in appearance and personality? Is it feasible that they still retain some instinct from their wild existence that tells them that this specific blend of DNA will not create healthy offspring? Why are they being so picky?

Most big birds in the wild wait for the rainy season to begin breeding. The tropics’ heavy and regular rains promise them that when their eggs hatch, there will be an enough quantity of food to feed their young.

Many domesticated birds are kept inside, often with air conditioning that regulates both temperature and humidity. Their exposure to light is controlled by artificial light rather than fluctuations in the duration of daylight hours. Our rainy season in Florida is unpredictable; it does not occur on a yearly basis during the same months. So, why do these indoor birds respond to the start of our rainy season the same way they would in the wild? When the rains begin outside, how can these birds, who are confined in a wholly manufactured environment, determine it is time to go to nest?

It is fairly rare in nesting birds for the hen to totally remove the freshly deposited eggs from the nest, either one or all. According to otologists, these lost eggs are virtually usually sterile. Because man cannot assess the fertilization of the egg at this early stage without microscopic scrutiny, how can the bird detect whether or not they are clear?

There are instances when throwing out the eggs is the best option. When eggs are supposed to hatch in 21 days, for example, some chickens are spotted discarding the unhatched eggs on the 22nd day. I have a well-marked calendar and maintain exact notes at each breeding cage, yet I still have trouble keeping track. How does the hen know when the time limit has been reached? We know that this skill is part of her innate behavior, but how on earth can this hen maintain such a precise time?

Again, if some birds of the same species handle their eggs so cleverly, many will dependably sit on transparent eggs long after the period for incubation has passed. Most breeders can quickly assess whether an egg is viable by observing the state of the shell early in the hatching process. If one hen can distinguish infertile eggs when they are just deposited, why can another not seem to perceive what seems to humans to be obvious?

The incidence of one chick in a clutch being pushed to one side, or even totally out of the nest, by parents who are taking exceptional care of the other chicks is the most upsetting for the breeder. I’ve lost track of how many times we took pity on the poor chick, hand feeding and nurtured it to apparent health. The chicks die within three to six months, with necropsies revealing internal congenital abnormalities. I’m still soft-hearted enough to take care of the odd neglected chick, but I do it with the full awareness that it will die soon. We have never succeeded in keeping one of these chicks alive for more than six months, despite the fact that the congenital abnormality is impossible to detect. How can the parent birds know, at such an early period in its development, that this chick should be permitted to perish rather than wasting time and effort attempting to nurture it? What do they see and know that we, as experienced breeders, do not?

We have a couple of Budgies that sit faithfully and care for their offspring until they are 10 days old. Unless the chicks are removed for hand feeding before this period, the parents will inevitably murder and destroy the chicks. The theory I’ve come up with for this behavior is that the parents are eager to begin another clutch and opt to empty the nest. This does not seem rational to me. Isn’t it a universal rule of nature that each species must reproduce in order to survive? The chicks we save before slaughter are robust and healthy, with no physical flaws to explain their parents’ conduct. These same parents subsequently diligently care for the second clutch till adulthood. Why kill the first clutch after so much work has been put into hatching and nurturing it?

Many of our bigger birds engage in chewing behaviors that defy understanding. Despite the fact that we have put similar branches in their cages for them to nibble on, they will always choose their perches for this pastime. They labor hard, using their beaks as a carpenter might a plane. They normally choose the middle of the perch for this, not content until the parts collapse to the ground. Replacing perches is a daily task in the aviary. These are the same birds that regularly astound me with behavior that demonstrates their intellect. Why on earth do they chose to ruin the perches that are so essential to their comfort?

Even more perplexing are the behaviors of a couple of Chattering Lories, who gnaw off the bottom of their nest box during mating season. They provide a big enough hole to allow for the loss of a whole clutch. Heavy wire reinforcement at the bottom of the box has prevented chick loss, but why do apparently clever birds labor so hard in the one region that may kill their young? Unless the birds had the whole depth of a tree trunk to work on in the wild, the effect would be the same.

We are worried about the wellbeing of our outdoor birds during the winter cold spells we encounter here in Florida. They all have safe places to sleep, and many of them have nest boxes where they can stay warm on cold nights. Few people take use of the available shelter. Many sleep on the frigid wire by their beaks and toes, while their wooden perches would be warmer for their feet. Talk about not having the foresight to come in from the rain! They don’t appear to have the wisdom to come in from the cold. And why sleep on the wire when you might snooze on a cozy perch? How can a bird sleep when he is dangling by his toes and beak on the edge of a wire cage?

Many of our birds soak their food in their water dishes on a regular basis. This is a reasonable method for items like hard biscuits, similar to dipping our doughnuts. We wonder why, when we clean and replace water bowls so regularly, they can’t tell the difference between hard meals that benefit from soaking and already soft items that breakdown in the water, leaving an inedible mess.

Many intriguing behaviors may be seen when we take the time to sit quietly and study the birds’ daily activity. When provided with a new and unusual meal, we have seen our birds perching on the edge of the food dish, heads rotated side to side, attentively inspecting the new item. They then spin around, remaining delicately perched on the edge of the feeding dish, and defecate on its contents. They seem to be delivering us a loud and obvious message, which may be repeated for many days before the new meal is accepted. Their intention in this action could not be just to express their discontent to the feeding. They often use the same method to deposit their droppings into their water dishes. With a whole cage to pick from, the regularity with which it occurs must be more than coincidental. Why is food and water becoming contaminated?

Baby birds all go through a slimming down stage when they reach the time in their development when nature intended for them to start flying. Instinct tells them that in order to succeed, their initial efforts at flying must be lighter.

What I don’t understand is how this young bird knows when and how much to significantly reduce his food intake. Their carefully scheduled and regulated weight loss regimens would make Weight Watchers jealous.

A domestically produced bird that escapes from our aviaries into the wooded areas around us seems to lack the survival skills required to survive. In severe need of food and water, the bird frequently returns to the cages from which it fled. We dwell on a fresh water lake with plenty of fruit and nut trees. If other instinctual behaviors are so robust, why not the capacity to live by using nature’s food and water?

It seems to be a common trait across virtually all animals to become very loud right before dusk. The smaller birds chatter noisily, while the larger Macaws and Cockatoos often scream. Even our beloved birds, who live on porches and patios, speak and laugh a lot in the early evening. It has been proposed to me that the birds in their natural condition are marking their territory and warning off predators before roosting for the night. Why does this tendency remain after being kept in pleasant, safe environments with no threat of predators for so many generations?

We have one pair of Cockatoos that, shortly before laying their first clutch of eggs, clean their nest box of any nesting material we have given. We’ve tried them with an infinite number of materials, but none have survived the mating season without being forcefully swept away. We never utilize the soft wood we supply in the hopes that they would create their own padding for their eggs. If the eggs are not quickly relocated to the incubator for hatching, they will inevitably rattle about on the bare surface of the box and break. We have successfully reared several of their gorgeous kids after rescuing numerous eggs for artificial incubation throughout the years. When we attempt “just one more time,” the clutch is gone. Other couples of the same species nest in shavings and raise their young in a more traditional way. What makes this one pair unique?

The most exciting aspect about keeping exotic birds is that every day presents new opportunities to learn. Nobody will ever know all there is to know about parrots. Every day brings a new experience, a new piece of information, or a new question to contemplate and wonder about. True, certain jobs are endlessly repetitive, but there are always fresh and unusual experiences that keep my attention and contribute to the bank of information that never seems to be large enough to answer all of my questions.

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