Selling Unweaned Babies

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Q: We have been involved in breeding parrots for the pet trade for many years. We have always sold our babies to those who are skilled in handfeeding, and this has never caused the babies any suffering. We have heard that you do the same. Over the last few years, there seems to have been a major increase in those who say that the sale of unweaned babies is an unacceptable practice. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I have always been concerned about any potential blanket “policies” that could result in a negative influence on aviculture. One that needs to be addressed at this time is the desire of a well meaning influential few to ban the sale of unweaned birds. In a very short time, this movement has gained alarming momentum. This is very understandable because it plays on the emotions of many bird lovers. The sight of only one baby that is starving to death due to crop stasis because it was put into the wrong hands can cause any bird lover to think, “There should be a law against this.” Fortunately, horrible situations like this represent a very small minority of bird sales nationwide.

It is my experience that most top professional breeders in the United States sell the vast majority of their production unweaned. They sell to pet shops that are extremely skilled in handrearing techniques. Those professional breeders who do sell unweaned babies to the public require that the buyer prove their handfeeding skills before the baby is released to them. Reputable pet shops that sell unweaned birds to the public do so only after the buyer has been given extensive instructions and hands on training in handfeeding. These babies stay in the shop until the buyers have demonstrated their proficiency. These shops also require that the buyers return on a weekly basis to have their birds weighed and examined.

Professional breeders and those who conduct themselves in a professional manner are not the ones who cause these problems. Yet, it would be the professional breeders, as well as all of the best bird shops in the U.S., that would suffer the most if such a blanket policy, regulation or legislation were ever adopted.

There is also the problem of those people who are misinformed about the best time to transfer a baby from the farm to the pet shop. The majority of full-time professionals, whether they are bird shop owners or breeders, have learned that parrots ship better, adjust to change better and become better socialized when transferred to a pet shop situation before they are weaned. They are at an age where they would normally be sitting in a dark tree hollow with several clutch mates. Being confined to a semi-dark shipping crate with a few “buddies” is a circumstance that seems completely natural to them. They are also at a stage of psychological development where their main overriding desire is to be fed on a regular basis. Within a few hours of being uncrated, they are usually thinking about being fed. With the very reliable, higher priced, counter-to-counter airline service, the babies usually never miss a feeding.

On the other hand, birds that are recently weaned or close to weaning react in an extremely negative way when transferred to such dramatically different surroundings. Many of them will “back flip” and go into screaming fits when approached. If they are not transferred to a pet shop situation during the dependent handfeeding stage of development, they have a difficult time making the psychological transition. Transferring birds to pet shops at the “just weaned” stage can cause many to become biters and pluckers. Some “revert” and refuse to eat or be handfed. At that point, they must be restrained and force fed with a feeding tube. This is an extremely negative experience for both shop owner and bird.

If they are not transferred until they are well past the “just weaned” stage, most will not allow strangers to handle them. The more dependent a baby is on being handfed, the more likely it is to be friendly with any set of hands. Because of this, some of the most successful bird shops in the county believe that if they can’t get the babies young enough, they would rather not have them. (This is true of most of the pet species, the one major exception being cockatoos.) They have made these judgments after many years of seeing firsthand, which babies end up being well adjusted companions and which do not. They also realize that to a potential customer, a fully weaned bird looks no different than an older bird. Seeing the babies being handfed in the pet shops is the only way many customers are assured that they are really buying babies. Even if they wait for them to be weaned in the shops, they can begin to bond and play with them while they are in their most impressionable stage. If pet shops were permitted to purchase only weaned birds, it would all but put them out of the bird business. Only budgies, cockatiels and lovebirds would remain in inventory.

I believe that those who are responsible for the majority of suffering due to the sale of unweaned birds are breeders who sell their “out of the nest” or “still handfeeding” babies to anyone who shows up with the money and claims that they know how to handfeed. Most of the remaining abuses come from pet shops that do not usually handle “large” birds but special order them on request for customers. I would guess that these shops, as well, are assured by their customers that they know how to handfeed. When I was just starting out, I used to sell an occasional bird to a private party. Of course, whenever I asked the question, “Have you ever handfed?” the answer was always the same: “Of course!” All too often, further interrogation revealed that they had owned a bird at one time and used to feed it peanuts “by hand” through the bars of the cage.

The sale of unweaned birds to those who are skilled in the handfeeding process is an acceptable and proper practice. The seller, however, should be responsible for establishing that the customer has the skills that are necessary. Therefore, I believe there are many valid commercial and professional reasons not to discourage the sale of unweaned birds to skilled individuals.