I started using nanny birds to help raise African Grey babies indoors for two reasons: (1) I wanted to parent rear or co-parent chicks, believing that this would give them the most optimal start in life due to factors like associative learning, but was meeting with some obstacles, and (2) I had information about African Greys that led me to believe that they flock with a certain social structure and customs that include extended parenting of chicks and the influence of other juveniles. It has been observed in Africa by Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s students that groups of young fledglings seem to hang out in trees with other young Greys of one or two years of age.
I have had very pleasant and rewarding successes in doing this, which might also be supportive of the “fledgling tree” observation. My male Grey, Rollo, that I raised was my first nanny bird. At the ages of one to three years, he readily and with interest, participated in preening the babies, playing alongside them, vocalizing for them, and interacting with them in other ways. When I first brought the chicks into the house, and throughout the time they were in a box, I would bring him over and just show them to him. He was obviously interested and showed no signs of aggression, or other negative reaction. I came to trust him, and he would get in the box with them. His primary contribution to their welfare at this point was in preening them and providing physical closeness. I never left him in the box, and always closely supervised these interactions.
At about the age of seven weeks, I usually provide some “floor time” for the babies, in order to encourage the development of curiosity and the desire to explore. I’ll spread out a large sheet, scatter around some toys, and place the babies down among them. Again, Rollo seemed to enjoy playing alongside them, although he did not directly interact with them, other than to preen them occasionally, feed them occasionally, or struggle over a toy with one of them.
I have constructed an area of my home I call African Alley. It is 18 feet long. Rollo’s cage is at one end, a smaller cage stands in the middle, and at the other end is a three-cage stack. All are California Cages, and they are joined by an elaborate playgym of natural branches and PVC. When the babies are about 8 weeks old, I move them into the bottom cage of this stack. At that point, Rollo has access to them most of the time, in that he can crawl through the little door on the side of the cage. He doesn’t choose to but maybe once or twice in the time they are in there, but does enjoy “showing off” for them from his cage during the hours that I continue to allow them to play on the floor. I have photos of him hanging upside down from his door, preening a chick on the floor who is looking up at him with curiosity and interest.
When the chicks are about 9.5 weeks, I move them up into the middle cage where they encounter different, more challenging perches and toys, and from which they emerge by themselves when they are ready to fledge. On these CA Cage stacks there are doors on the side of each cage for the placement of nestboxes. I use them as an exit for the babies who are being instinctively shoved toward fledging. Once they have emerged to fledge on their own, they and Rollo interact frequently.
One of the things I find most interesting is the influence he has on male chicks. Even if I were not able to sex them visually, or to DNA sex them, it would be obvious which were males because of the way they interact with Rollo. The females will usually keep more to themselves, or will enjoy playing or perching in a group. The males and Rollo begin, at this stage, to engage in what I term “sparring.” Since the structure provides opportunities for vertical perching on natural branches or parts of trees, the young males will vie for the top branch or perch with Rollo. There is never any real aggression, but it seems to be a sorting out process, by which they decide who is strongest, etc. Oddly, Rollo does not usually take the top perch for himself, but will “fight” for it with enthusiasm. This may simply be because his cage, which is his territory, is nearby. I don’t know.
Towards the end of last year, I noticed an increase in Rollo’s aggression levels and the fact that he was engaging in pre-sexual activities with another female in the house that he has also enjoyed playing with. I’m feeling that his participation this year in this may be either more problematic or that he may lack interest. We will see. The chicks I have in the house are only 7 weeks old at this point, and I have just started allowing them supervised floor time. However, I have two young (9 months old) females that I have been placing down with them, and these sisters show a similar willingness to interact positively with the babies. I am looking forward to seeing what differences, if any, will manifest in how they relate to the babies, being female.
I have also, until recently had another female, just a year younger than Rollo, in the middle cage. She has shown less interest in interacting with the babies, but did so on an intermittent basis.
In all, I have five adult Greys in my living area, where African Alley is located. I do believe that these other adults serve to model behaviors for the babies, and that this is of benefit to them, even if they are not directly interacting with them. For instance, Greys usually do not talk before a year of age, although there are exceptions. In the last clutches I raised, there was a female who, at 20 weeks, said a number of words and phrases. I think this may be due to having so much talking behavior modeled for her and the other chicks at an early age. Most of the babies I raise talk very early.
And, I have been able to directly observe a chick emulating or copying the behavior of an adult Grey immediately after it was demonstrated.
I have wondered many times if the more “negative” behaviors (biting, etc) that are sometimes demonstrated by adult birds would also be copied. For instance, the female Grey who resided in the middle cage for some time was/is a very nervous, unsociable bird. This was why I kept her in the first place, in that I was concerned about her “pet potential.” However, I have not found this to be true. The babies seem to learn behaviors that are”socially rewarding” and since I have more input than the nanny birds do into their rearing, I have an impact on this.
I have no idea whether this idea will work with other species. I believe there to be a significant difference between New World parrots and Old World species. So far, I have only heard of this “social” factor being used in either rearing or rehabilitating older birds with African Greys and cockatoos. I am the only one I know of who is using nanny birds to help raise chicks, but Katy McElroy is experimenting with this principle to help rehab cockatoos who don’t seem to understand their place in the social scheme of things, the same way I am with Greys. Both species appear to have a social structure upon which they depend, not only for instruction of young, but for it’s obvious other advantages as well.
I suspect that it would also work with the smaller species of cockatoos (Rose-breasteds for one) perhaps. I see some similarities in the manner in which both Greys and cockatoos behave in the wild, in that the social flock structure appears to have significance that it doesn’t to the New World parrots.
I just don’t know of anyone else who is attempting this. However, as I say, Katy McElroy is experimenting with the rehabilitation of cockatoos by placing them with other young birds. I think that this rehabilitation is just the flip side of the coin from rearing babies, in that the acceptance shown the older birds is indicative of a social “willingness” that other species do not display always.
I do at this time, however, have an opportunity to do a little experimenting. I have a five year old DYH male Amazon. Recently, I was given a 7 week old YN chick that has a deformed leg (extends out backward with foot facing upward). I’m hand feeding him and trying to consult with enough vets to figure out what to do about his leg. When Harpo (DYH) saw Dragan (YN), his tail fanned, head feathers ruffled, and a lusty greeting was forthcoming. He was not being aggressive, but was excited. I’m working on introducing them in a supervised manner to see what Harpo will do. He quite obviously recognized Dragan as a fellow Amazon, even though Dragan was not yet feathered. I found his reaction quite fascinating. We’ll see….
Most people don’t seem to “bother” with such things for the smaller birds, but I’ve found that having a “nanny bird” is very helpful to young cockatiels. My preference for a “nanny,” however, is actually a mature, tame male – preferably one that talks. When I’m using a nanny male in the tiel baby cage, I find that the babies are calmer, have fewer night frights, wean quicker, stay friendlier to me with less effort, have fewer disagreements with each other, and typically half or more of the young males learn to speak if the nanny bird does. Thinking of astonished phone calls from buyers of young tiels whose bird unexpectedly started uttering the nanny bird’s favorite phrase at 10 – 16 weeks of age still brings a smile.
My personal observations of my best nanny males are that he preens the babies, feeds them if they beg excessively, teaches them to eat, stops squabbles, teaches them by example to seek interaction with me and other humans, and discourages them from “picking” on each other. I almost never see chewed tails when there is a good nanny in the baby cage.
I’ve never had the numbers or a good bird available to try it with any of the bigger species, but in my personal experience a good nanny is invaluable when I have too many baby tiels hand feeding or weaning to give each one as much one-on-one time and attention as I would like to.