It's Play Time!
One of my favorite times here at Avalon Aviary is when the bappies (baby parrots) are starting to become very exploratory. This stage occurs when the they are able to sustain their own body temperature and are feeling brave enough to climb out of the wicker baskets which serve as their "nests" and discover the world.
First, let me explain about our use of baskets. After talking with Eb Cravens at the first Pet Bird Report conference about his use of baskets, we started using baskets to brood and fledge our birds. When our babies are climbing out of the largest plastic container we can fit into our darkened, environmentally controlled brooders, we move them into large baskets with tall handles made only with untreated natural materials. The birds LOVE their baskets - these dark, natural hideaways must really feel like dark, cozy nests. They know which is their basket and return to it when they have a need to feel more safe. As a direct consequence of brooding in baskets, their fear stages have been virtually eliminated.
Initially on heating pads, these baskets are draped with large colorful beach towels. The beach towel is draped around the basket and across the handle in such a way that it is dark in the basket - it looks like a slightly-parted tent opening in the front and is nice and dark in the back of the basket. Each basket is lined with a cloth hand or bath towel in good condition (no strings to catch toes), topped with paper toweling folded 3 deep that is replaced at every feeding. The cloth towel is replaced daily unless it gets extremely soiled. We maintain at least one spare basket of each style so when we have to wash the baskets themselves, the babies can be returned to a familiar-looking basket while their old basket is drying. We wash out the baskets using Dawn dish detergent followed by a mild, safe disinfectant like Citrucidal. The baskets are allowed to dry in the sun (also a natural disinfectant).
We dangle toys from the handles and sides, and put small washable toys and small food and water dishes inside the baskets for the babies to explore with their beaks. At this stage they are shy but when they feel courageous they will explore all kinds of things with their beaks and tongues. They get only a little water in their water dishes as they tend to spill everything. For food, they get chunks of all kinds of veggies, fruits, cooked grains and cooked beans. They also get a sampling of different kinds of pellets and a little bit of a seed mix that has dried fruit, veggies, pumpkin seeds and lots of other goodies in it. In other words, their basket world is full of things to explore.
Aviary has Babies are never alone in a basket. No matter what the size difference, babies that are from single-baby clutches are clutched in our brooders and then in their baskets together. Since Avalon is a closed aviary, this isn't as much of a biosecurity risk as it otherwise might be. I put them together more by age and developmental stage than by size. I find that a young Pionus loves to snuggle under a young Blue & Gold, and the Blue & Gold loves to nurture it's Pionus brother or sister! Touch is SO important for all of us, and since they aren't in with their parents at this stage at least they can snuggle with each other when we aren't feeding or playing with them. Last year I had a Blue & Gold adopt a Blue Headed Pionus. They were best buddies - the Blue & Gold always sought out his Pionus and vice versa - they didn't want to take their naps without each other. They preened and snuggled, and sometimes fed each other. They were overall good friends. (I would not try this with older birds. Because of their size differences the littler bird could be badly hurt intentionally or unintentionally by the larger bird.)
After a week or so in their baskets they usually begin peeking out while still in the nursery, sometimes going so far as to perch on the edge of the basket. Sometimes they will move from one basket to another and go check out their neighbors (unnerving to their hand feeder who thinks she has lost a baby!) When they are exhibiting regular exploring behaviors beyond the confines of their baskets we move them in their baskets during the day into the family room. If they are still on heat, we move their heating pads with them. First, we put a big washable drop cloth (different sizes available from paint supply places) down to protect the entire carpet. Then we bring the "basketeers" out and set their baskets in clusters centered around the middle of the drop cloth. In the middle we put large crocks of food items, and spread out a variety of colorful toys. We also sometimes put washable colorful rag rugs in this area to further stimulate the young birds visually. These are changed and washed part way through the day. After a number of birds have been playing in the middle it can get very messy and it's easier to pick up a couple of rag rugs mid-day than the whole drop cloth.
When the babies are first moved into the family room, they are a little overwhelmed and tend to hide in their baskets, peeing out when they feel brave. They have control over when they come out of their safe little nest. I think this choice builds their self-esteem and self-confidence. Eventually, after hours or even days, they venture out of their baskets driven by their own curiosity, thus overcoming fear. They will perch on the side of the basket or climb down and sleep near their basket. After a while, they will go visit their neighbors, seek out people, and eventually migrate to the center of the room where the toys and food items are kept. Usually there are other birds playing in this area and peer pressure is very effective in coaxing shy youngsters out to explore unknown territory and expand their horizons.
Now the fun really starts! The young birds learn rapidly at this stage and are so much fun to observe and interact with as the staff encourages and roots them on! From their assortment of toys, food items and floor coverings they discover new shapes, textures and colors. They experiment with new small toys and then gradually with larger and larger ones. Sometimes they try to play with a huge toy and end up tripping and doing a beak plant as they try to carry it around. Often one bird will start playing with a particular toy and a couple of others will join in the fun. Just like kids will do, whatever one bird is playing with the others want too!
While in the family room they learn about standing and walking around on (and tripping over) different surfaces. They learn to climb up on things and perch on different objects (food dishes, toys, lumps in a towel, each other…). We put out low concrete perches for them to learn to stand on so they don't have such razor-sharp nails. We put down colorful rag rugs and towels for them to snuggle in when they are tired and its just too far back to their baskets. They also learn to climb up the handle of their basket and when they can do that easily, we take the covering towel off the basket which gives them better access to the handle. This makes it easier to practice climbing. When perching they practice flapping which gives them strength for that first flight. This is also a good time to teach them to climb up ladders, as well as instill their understanding of how to "step up".
On the family room floor they play together and share toys and food. Sometimes the birds themselves become the toy as they play with each other's body parts. They teach and learn appropriate bird social skills as they interact with each other with their beaks, feet and wings. They learn that if they grab too hard with their beak their friend will tell them about it!
As they safely explore their enlarged space on the drop cloth and some very energetic playing they eventually tire themselves out. Then it's time to return to their baskets for a long nap, either inside the basket or in big feathered heaps in front. Sometimes they just sleep in the middle of the floor with newfound friends, again in big sleepy heaps. Last year in this environment our trio of young red fronted macaws would just lie down and crash in the middle of the floor when they felt tired.
While there are some risks in letting the young birds play on the floor, the largest being that they could be stepped on, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. If you choose to play with your birds on the floor, everyone must be very careful and watch where they are walking to ensure the birds' safety.
The birds often take their first flights from their basket perches. When they are building up those pectoral muscles and are getting ready for that first flight we clip the leading two feathers on each wing to make sure they don't get too much lift and speed. This makes that first flight much safer. First flights can be graceful, with the bird accurately going from one basket handle to another accurately. Some birds just wind up and fly for flying's sake. At that first flight, they don't understand at all about windows and will build up a full head of steam just in time to smack into a pane of glass, or even the wall. Clipping those first two primaries ahead of time reduces their momentum and helps prevent accidents if they do fly into something. After they are perching regularly on their baskets and have taken a few early flights we expand their world and add low playstands to their repertoire of experiences.
During all these stages we play with the youngsters a lot and teach our customers to play with them as well. The birds learn to play in towels and to cuddle with people in towels on their laps as they sit on the floor. During drop-cloth times our place becomes very popular! I remember late one Saturday afternoon after many people had been playing with them, they they were all sacked out around on the floor a man and his young son (maybe 10 years old) came for their first visit. They sat down on one edge of the drop cloth and surveyed the young birds in various stages of sleeping. One double yellow-headed amazon (2 months old) looked at them and came running over to stand in front of their crossed-legged towel-draped laps. The bird cocked his head and said, clear as a bell, "HI!" in the most enthusiastic voice, and proceeded to clamber up onto the man's lap and go to sleep.
Since we have been raising babies with these experiences I believe their self-confidence and willingness to accept new situations without a significant unreasonable fear response has been appreciably increased. I believe they also have started playing with food earlier and they tend to have better manners. Having so much interaction with other birds at young ages also helps them later in life when they might have to get along with another bird - at least they know they are birds!