Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 1, 2014

Are you my mother?

By Pamela Holz | Jul 24, 2012

“We have a bird named Pretty Boy and I am his mom and Mom is his girlfriend…” wrote my daughter in her school journal.

“Very funny,” commented her teacher.

Funny? I suppose so if it also wasn’t true enough to be kind of embarrassing. I don’t know what’s worse, the bird’s name (trust me, we didn’t pick it), the fact that he thinks we’re a mated pair, or the idea that, despite that, he still cheats on me (he “wolf whistles” at my other daughter regularly).

Now, the bird in question is a cockatoo, a member of the parrot family. Like with any pet, parrots come with their own specialized rules of handling. One of these is that they tend to bond deeply to one person, and just one person. Add to that their longevity (some live as long as people) and this trait can be problematic. Going on vacation, changing owners, etc., may be difficult.

Part of the problem lies within how birds form identity. Pet parrots are usually hand-raised by humans, not by their bird parents. This helps them be good pets by being friendly around humans because, well, then they kind of think they are human.

Parrots, like many birds, imprint on the first caretaker they see. They learn their identity the first time they open their eyes. It’s a rather simple thought process: I see you, so you must be mom. If you are my mom, I must be what you are. A duckling, raised by a duck, will then know he’s duck. A duckling raised by a chicken, however, will follow this simple logic and think he’s also a chicken.

If you have ever watched specials or read about raising condors in California or whooping cranes in Wisconsin, you know that these captive breeding programs uses puppets to raise the chicks.

Since the goal is to get the birds released back to the wild, we don’t want them to lose their natural fear of humans. We also want them to think they are who they really are (in other words, foster bird parents of another species wouldn’t work as well, either). Puppets designed to look and act like their parents feed and care for the chicks and the chicks think, hey, I’m a condor. Or, I must be a crane. Lastly, when they reach maturity, they will also seek out their own kind (as opposed to Pretty Boy, who is happy with a human mate). Chicks, wild-raised by released birds, are a main measure of success for these captive breeding programs.

The nature of birds to imprint is another reason why untrained individuals should not take care of any baby birds they find. Not if you want them to lead healthy, natural lives. When I worked in wildlife rehabilitation, we had several non-releasable owls. These owls would never be able to survive on their own not because of any injury or disease. In fact, all three were very healthy. No, they were doomed to spend their entire lives in cages because they thought they were human.

When they were just teeny, tiny owlets, someone thought they’d make a good pet. But wild animals are called wild for a reason, and that means they don’t make good pets (or legal ones, for that matter). Since you can’t undo the imprinting process, the birds are stuck believing themselves human. This thinking themselves human gives them several strikes against being able to survive on their own.

For example, they would never reproduce, not being interested in their own kind as potential mates. They wouldn’t have the hunting skills necessary to find food on their own since mom and dad owl didn’t show them how. They’d have no fear of humans and hang around them, making the people nervous about disease and other issues (though birds can’t get rabies). And of course, all the other owls would make fun of their strange ways, like eating with the wrong foot.

Okay, the last part was just for fun, but you get the picture. There are very good reasons that only licensed individuals are allowed to raise orphaned animals, like birds. They are trained for it.

Supposedly even raising pet birds, like parrots, can be tricky.

No, I think I will leave the chick-raising to the experts. I, after all, have enough to deal with, what with the Pretty Boy-inspired soap opera at my house. (And I haven’t even mentioned his jealousy over the rabbit or our rabbit love triangle, but that is a story for another day).

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