The various species of parrot share many traits. The following paragraphs give a broad overview of what you can expect to encounter in the various life stages of your pet birds. Some species will have quirks not covered here, but in general the pattern outlined below applies to all types of parrot.
In the wild, most species of parrot lay their eggs in tree hollows. The parent birds share incubation duties. Like all birds reared in a nest, parrot hatchlings are naked and blind, their one instinct being to raise their heads and gape when they hear the parent bird return. Parrots regurgitate food for their young – a highly efficient way of dealing with insatiable appetites, allowing the birds to carry a large amount of food in their crops, rather than just a beakful.
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo at 35 days old
Like many birds, when a parrot chick first opens its eyes, it imprints on its parent – i.e. forms a deep bond of trust with it. In the absence of a parrot parent, the chick will imprint on a human. This is very handy when rearing and taming a bird. In these circumstances you will, in the parrot’s eyes, be the parent bird.
Imprinting is the reason birds can be so easily tamed and trained. Their instinctive fear of humans is otherwise strong, and this is why wild-caught birds never settle properly in captivity. Imprinting works in a general sense – a parrot reared by a human will have an intrinsic trust in all humans. Unless you spend time with the bird when it is young, a parrot reared by other parrots will assume, quite sensibly, that you’re a big carnivorous mammal with the sole intention of catching and killing it.
An all-or-nothing approach to hand-rearing is not good practice, however. Parrots denied contact with other parrots during their first few months suffer psychological damage, manifesting as behavioural problems further down the line. The best compromise is to let the natural parents raise the chicks, whilst making sure the birds have lots of contact with humans too.
Chicks like this Cockatiel imprint on their parent or foster-parent
A bird that hasn’t imprinted on humans can still be tamed, using positive reinforcement and the age-old trick of bribing with treats. It takes time and effort, but in a bird as long-lived as the average parrot, it’s a good time investment.
Parrots are dependent on their parents until they grow their first full set of feathers and can fly. Pin feathers are the first signs of the full plumage to come, and give the parrot a scaly, reptilian look that underlines their ancestry as the heirs of the dinosaurs. The birds will get their full set of feathers between four and 15 weeks, depending on the species.
Clipping a Parrot Chick’s Wings
The practice of clipping the bird’s wings before it can fly is generally frowned upon amongst modern bird keepers, flight being such a central part of a bird’s life. A parrot’s psychological development may be stunted if its wings don’t work in the way that nature intended. Some clipped birds never master flight properly, suffering, it would appear, from a flying phobia. That’s a tragic problem to inflict on a bird!
Once the young parrot is able to fly, its parents will assume – quite rightly – that it is capable of finding its own food. But even after their first flight, parrots rely on their parents for food and protection for a week or two more (depending on the species).
Three-week-old Green-Cheeked Conure
Adjusting from a diet of regurgitated seed (or the equivalent if the bird is being hand-fed) to solid fruit, vegetables, pellets and seeds, may take a few days. Nature has sorted this out though, and the parents don’t abandon their chick to its fate immediately. Breeders carry out the follow-on weaning by gradually introducing new solid foods and phasing out formula feed. It’s not something that anyone other than an expert should attempt, due to the risk of malnutrition or getting the balance wrong.
It may seem an odd concept, but parrots, as highly intelligent animals, undergo all the trials and tribulations of adolescence and puberty. They will become uncooperative, difficult to please, prone to tantrums… just the sort of challenges you would expect in the average human teenager. This is an important and stressful time for them, as they establish both their unique personality, and their place in the larger group.
Parrot Mating Age
The age at which a parrot becomes sexually mature varies between species, and indeed between sexes, but they will usually be willing and able to mate between one and four years. They undergo a personality change as they approach maturity. Some of this initial temper change may manifest as aggression, with anger flaring up in the mating season. In general, the mature parrot is the reason people want to keep parrots in the first place – a calm, possibly mischievous pet, always surprising in their intelligence and sheer personality. The first few mating seasons are a barrier you need to cross in order to reach those mature years!
Maturity: worth waiting for!
One of the only real problems you might encounter is if your pet has imprinted on humans, and there have been no other parrots around. The bird can become sexually attached to its owner, its bird brain assuming that you are the intended mate. Some hand-reared parrots have been known to reject fellow birds as potential mates in these circumstances.
There are obvious downsides to this; but the unwanted affection is the least of the problems. A parrot that chooses a human as its mate will become aggressive towards other people, resulting in lots of high-volume angry squawking, if caged, and potential physical danger, if outside the cage. Such a bird, if male, will regurgitate food for you, do unspeakable things to your hand, shoulder arm, etc, or, if female, press her back against you as an invitation to mate.
A dissatisfied sexually mature bird may begin to lose condition, start self-plucking and – there’s no gentler word for it – scream. It will all end once the breeding season passes, but is an issue that needs addressing via training and proper socialisation (see the Parrot Training section of this guide).
Moluccan Cockatoo - beware the over-affectionate bird!
Once they have survived half a dozen breeding seasons, parrots finally relax into their true personalities. They can become set in their ways, but the upside is that many species become as docile and affectionate as a mature family dog. (There are exceptions, such as the larger Macaws, which often develop a certain vindictiveness). There’s no accounting for personality, though, and each bird is an individual. Some are complete softies, some have a wicked streak that keeps you on your toes.
How Long Do Parrots Live?
In the wild a parrot will rarely make it beyond 30 years. In captivity, however, some of the bigger species (and the not-so-large, in the case of the African Grey), can live between 60 and 90 years. As many people choose their first bird in adulthood, it follows that long-lived birds will frequently outlive their original owners.
Many parrots such as this African Grey live a long time
Budgerigars have the shortest lifespan, rarely passing 15 years; but the equally small parrotlets can clock up 20-30 years.