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(Comment: Since I wrote this article, I have arrived at a better way to co-parent caique chicks. The method I describe in this article works, but to be effective you must spend lots of time with chick while it is out of the nest. My new approach to co-parenting chicks is to rotate the chicks of a clutch with the parents. To do this I leave one chick for 24 hours with the parents and hand-feed the rest of the clutch. I then exchange the chick with the parents with one of the other chicks in the clutch. I have found that rotating the chick with the parents from oldest to youngest results in chick that are both people and caique friendly. Further, you do not have to devote so much time to handling the chick as  in my original method.)

Keeping Pet Caiques in Pairs

John McMichael

 

Caiques are becoming increasingly popular pet birds and are among the parrots that remain tame when their owners keep them as pairs. Most people recommend keeping them as a male-female pair. You may also keep them as isosexual pairs, but the two birds seldom develop the same rapport with each other. I have kept two females together for well over a decade. While they accept each other, they have never developed the same affinity as my pet male-female pairs. I have never set up any male isosexual pairs, but I suspect they need to be set up while they are still very young. Because of their greater aggressiveness toward each other, setting up two mature males as an isosexual pair might be more challenging. However, early breeders knew that two male caiques can be perfectly happy with each other. Because caiques are monomorphic, early breeders could not easily determine their sex. Thus, when the late Tom Ireland (3) first set up his caiques for breeding, he tried all the recommended methods of the time for detecting a caique’s sex and still ended up with his only two females sharing the same cage, while pairs of males shared other cages. He noted that all of his isosexual pairs seem perfectly content, often with one member taking on the male or female role. He was only able to set true pairs once surgical sexing became available and he could accurately determine their sex.

The early, but unwanted lesson of early breeders, however, is that caiques are very content when kept in pairs. Even better is that they remain hand tame and both birds crave human attention. It also relieves us of some of the guilt we have about leaving our birds in their cage alone for long periods without attention. If they are part of a pair, they provide their own company.

I you decide to keep a pet pair, there are a few recommendations. First, it is far easier to socialize caiques when they are still young. Caiques usually reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age. Therefore, if you already have a caique younger than this, you can usually provide it with another young companion without too much trauma. If you want to secure a companion for an older bird, you must be more circumspect about introducing them to one another. I recommend introducing them outside the breeding season. In North America, caiques usually begin their breeding season in early November and it lasts until about May. You should not just throw the two birds together in the same cage and hope for the best. It is better to introduce them more gradually to each other. You should begin the introduction by setting their cages side-by-side so that they can see and interact with each other. Then, allow them to interact with each other directly while out of their cages. If all goes well, they will welcome each other’s company and visit each other’s cages and eventually share the same cage. Sometimes this goes well and other time not so well. Some older pets will not welcome a companion no matter what you do.

The problem, if you see it as one, is that a male-female pair may eventually want to breed, to lay eggs and to rear chicks. There are several ways to discouraging this. First, you should also interact with them as much as possible distract them from breeding. Second, caiques are stimulated to breed when other caiques or even other parrots go to nest. Thus, if you keep only one pair caiques, they are less likely to breed. Finally, do not provide them with a roost cavity that would also serve as a nest cavity. (In contrast, I highly recommend providing a roost cavity for a single pet caique) The idea is to distract and provide the fewest stimuli for breeding possible

Still, some pairs will insist on mating and producing a clutch of eggs. These pairs may even resort to laying and incubating their eggs on the floor of their cage. Many owners will allow this to run its course and just remove the eggs from the birds before they hatch. Others will take a more sympathetic approach to their pair and let the chicks hatch. This is the point at which things get dicey. Most pet bird owners have no idea about rearing chicks, especially altricial chicks. When this happens, professional breeders get many calls about what to do.

One option I recommend is to co-parent one or two the chicks. Surprisingly, you can do this even if you work a 9 to 5 job and still produce a wonderfully tame chick. This is because when you co-parent there is no need to hand-feed formula every few hours like commercial breeders do. You make the co-parenting fit your schedule. The concept of co-parenting, however, is relatively new. In this approach, one leaves the chick with its parents and you share in its rearing.

I do not know if others are applying this approach to rearing caiques, but there are people applying co-parenting to other parrot species. Casky (1) started what he called “assisted” feeding of his macaw chicks. He took to giving his chicks a supplemental feeding while they were still in nest because hand-reared macaws usually do not gain weight as readily as do parent reared macaws. This required that he handle the chick and he discovered that he also produced a more people friendly chick. They have also studying a form of co-parenting at the University of California at Davis where Millam and his coworkers (2, 5) discovered that by simply handling the chicks for 20 minutes everyday, they suffered less stress and became quite friendly. Others have found that the longer one leaves an African grey chick with its parents the less stressed it is later in life (6). Thus, there are reasons other than convenience to practice co-parenting.

At first, I only co-parented an occasional chick not really understanding what I was doing. Now co-parenting has become one of my general practices. One of the reasons I can do this is that I am a hobby breeder and can devote a lot of time to the chick. If I were trying to rear more than one or two chicks at a time, co-parenting would be nearly impossible. This is because devoting 15 to 20 minutes to each chick would be impractical. Thus, this practice would not be suitable for a large breeding operation.  Thus, if you only have a pair or two of caiques and you do not want to be tied down by mid-day chick feeding, this may be the answer.

If you keep a pair of caiques as pet or as breeder, I recommend a some what larger cage that is needed for a single bird. I use a cage that is 2’ x 2’ x 4’ with the longer dimension being horizontal. The nest box can be any shape, as long as there is at least an 8’ x 8’ square area where the hen can lay its eggs. I use a pine or aspen chips as the nesting substrate in the box which the pair usually chews into a finer texture. Because the pair chews the substrate so fine there is little danger of a chick developing a blockage from ingesting it. The pair will work the nest up to the time it lays the first egg. Often they will push much of the substrate out of the box, and you will need to add more substrate. I do not alter the pair’s diet during the breeding season very much from the off-season. I just make sure they receive somewhat greater ration of food and that they have a good source of protein and calcium. I aim for a diet of about 40% formulated food (pellets), 20% of a fortified safflower seed based seed mix, and 40% fresh fruits and vegetables. The additional protein and calcium source that I take care to provide during the breeding season is an extra ration of a mild yellow cheddar cheese. I also use regular tap water and avoid distilled or softened water.  Distilled and softened water lack the calcium and magnesium needed by the hen to make eggshell.

The breeding season for caiques in North America usually begins in the autumn with the hen laying her first egg between late November and the end of December. Their mating, however, necessarily begins much earlier. This is when you must keep close watch since the male will force himself on the hen, and in rare instances, the male may kill its mate at this time. If the male is too aggressive, you may have to separate them. You cannot separate them though if you want the egg to be fertile, an egg must be fertilized within 48 hours of laying. Fortunately, once the full clutch has been laid, and the hen goes to nest, the male usually becomes far less aggressive. The clutch is usually comprised of 3 to 4 eggs, which hen normally lays 2 to 3 days apart. The hen does not start incubating them seriously until after she has laid the second or third egg. The incubation period is usually 26 days, but can be longer depending on how tightly the hen sits with each egg hatching a few days apart in the same order in which hen laid them.

The difficult time begins when the chicks hatch. I check the nest box in the morning at least once a day a bit after the parents have had a chance to feed them. If you look first thing in the morning before the parents have had a chance to eat themselves, the chick’s crops will be empty. A convenient time to do this is when the pair is outside of their cage on their stand eating since they do not like the intrusion into their nest box. The things I look for at this time are whether the chicks are huddled together or with the remaining the eggs, are chicks warm to the touch, and whether the parents are chewing on the chicks’ feet or wings. If a chick is cool to the touch, not in the huddle or the parents have chewed it, I pull it immediately. However, it is best if you can leave them with the parents as long as possible. Most caiques only feed the first one or two chicks that hatch and neglect the chicks that hatch later. Thus, my practice is to pull the first hatched chick a day after the third hatches. I pull the next oldest chick if a fourth chick hatches. This leaves them with only two chicks to care for at any one time. The chicks you pull will often only be five to six days old, but they are much easier to hand-feed than a day-one chick. (If your schedule does not permit you to hand-feed these few chicks, I have found the bird shops are usually willing to buy these chicks and do the hand-feeding. Alternatively, if you belong to a bird club, there is usually a member that is willing to take on this task.) The parents usually care for the one or two left with them without any problem and these are the chicks I co-parent.

The first two to three weeks after the chick hatches, you only need to check the nest to see that it is doing well. Most caique parents get the chicks by the initial difficult phase of feeding them without and problem. Once a chick opens its eyes at about three weeks, however, it is time to begin the handling because this is when natural imprinting begins. You must begin handling the chicks at least once a day and preferably twice a day. One of the major positives of this approach is that the chick imprints on its parents as well as on you. Still, my practice is to handle the chick on the sly. I have found that if you are not stealthy about this, the parents will sometimes pluck the chick when it gets close to fledging time. This was also the experience of the Millam’s group at the University of California at Davis with the Amazon parrots. Because my pairs are hand tame, I simply move the pair to another room well away from where I handle the chicks. I give the parent a treat and time on their play stand while I am handling their chicks. I make this part of the parents’ routine even outside the breeding season, and while anxious about their chicks, they are usually very accepting of this practice. During the early morning handling I take the opportunity to give the chick a supplemental feeding with a commercial hand-feeding formula. I do this to be sure the chick is receiving adequate nutrition. However, I take care not to completely fill the chick’s crop, because you want the parents to finish the feeding once they have returned to the cage. I think this feeding helps strengthen the bond with you, but I cannot say this with certainty.

I repeat the handling of the chick in the evening, again out of sight of the parents. I do not give it any formula this time because the parents usually keep it full during the day. At the evening handling, I take more time with the chick than during the early morning one. I cup the chick in my hand to keep it warm and make clucking sounds to calm it. As it gets older, I start introducing it to other foods. I find that they usually take a liking to table grapes cut in half and held so they can scrape out the grape’s flesh with their lower mandible. I also make sure that the chick has a chance to look into my face. A sign that the co-parenting is going well is if the chick stares back at you in a long gaze. All the while, I keep talking to it. You only need to handle the chick for about five minutes at this time, but it is better if you can stretch it to fifteen or twenty. Missing an occasional handling is all right as long as it is infrequent.

Once its feathers grow in, the chick will start to peak out of the nest entrance. In a week or so, it usually leaves the box for the first time. This is what I define as fledging for a co-parented chick. In the days after it leaves the box for the first time, it will still prefer staying in the box than out on a perch with its parents. Soon though, it will be spending most of its time out with its parents, returning to the box for security and to sleep with its parents at night. After fledging, the chick is less inclined to spend time with you, but it will still be tame, but surprisingly the chick learns all it needs to survive without its parents, including how to eat on its own, within that first week of fledging. I have never had a problem with weaning a co-parented chick. Once you see the chick fending for itself, you can safely remove it to a cage of its own at that time. However, I like to leave it with the parents as long as possible and only remove it about a week before it is to go to its new home.

One of the joys of co-parenting is experiencing the growth and development of the chick. Because I handle them for so long, I feel I get to know the co-parented chicks in a more intimate way than I do my hand-fed ones. There is nothing quite like when you hold the chick up to your face and it gazes back into your eyes. You also learn that caiques pass through a development stage of shyness just before they fledge. Each time I co-parent, I learn something new about their development.

One of the most remarkable experiences I have encountered in co-parenting is that caique chicks purr. While I have hand-fed many caique chicks, and I never really noticed this. This may be because I usually rear many chicks at a time and never have the time to spend just holding a chick. This purring occurs in its early development, a chick only purrs when you cup its small body in your hand and it is content. The purring is due to the vibration of its muscles. At first, most of the purring seems to be due to the vibration of the muscularia complexus which is also called the “pipping muscle.” This muscle, which the chick uses to break out of the egg, is disproportionately large on a young chick. If you touch it lightly while a young chick is purring you will discover that this is a major source of the vibration. As the chick ages however, the vibration of this muscle decreases and the vibration spreads to the rest of the chick’s skeletal muscles. It is difficult to ascribe a role for purring in the natural rearing of the chick by the parents. It may be a signal to the parents to continue brooding, or it may be a way of creating warmth while the parents are away from the nest. Once the chick feathers out, however, the purring ceases.

Another difference from chicks that are hand-reared is that the soft pads in the commisure area where the upper and lower beak meet persist several weeks longer for parent and co-parented chicks than for hand-reared chicks. These pads are touch-sensitive and appear to stimulate the chick to take food in response. When a parent bird feeds its chick, it places its beak at a ninety-degree angle to that of the chick’s beak. This causes the parent’s beak to make contact with the soft pads and stimulate the feeding response. In contrast, when we hand-feed a chick there is only limited contact with these pads. I have no idea why these pads persist longer on parent reared birds, or their role is in the development of the chick.

Another influence on chick development that cannot be replicated by hand-rearing is the parental teaching of the social skills the chick will need later. One evidence of this is that when a pair of Senegal parrots is allowed to rear their chicks, the chicks learn their first vocalizations from their male parent (4). Ornithologists call this early babbling a sub-song because these vocalizations do not quite match the song of its tutor. In the case of Senegals, the chicks achieve sub-song capacity at about the same time they fledge. We know little about how this affects the chick, but one has to wonder if sub-song development correlates in some way with later social development.

During the rearing period, the parents may teach the chick much more than just their song. If you hand-rear a caique chick, especially a lone chick, the weaning period is often very prolonged. This is not the case for a co-parented chick. There is no need to add the weaning foods used to convert a hand-reared chick to an adult diet. A co-parented chick will have learned all it needs to know about what to eat within a week of leaving the nest. It seems clear that the chick learns from watching its parents’ behavior, particularly their feeding behavior.

Chicks reared in this way are a bit smaller than those I hand feed. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of debate. The reason for the difference seems to be that manufacturers have done a very good job of optimizing their hand-feeding formulae. In contrast, the parent birds feed their chicks what they find in their food dish, which includes some seed and lots of fruits and vegetables in addition to pellets. While larger chicks are more acceptable in the pet bird market, it may not be what is best for the chick. The chicks I have co-parented, while smaller, seem to be better fliers. I always allow the chicks I rear to fly for a minimum of a week until I sell them. Then I give the buyer the choice of whether to clip or not. While, I have not done a rigorous comparison of flight capacity, the lighter co-parented chicks seem more agile and better suited for flight than the heavier hand-fed chicks. One can certainly imagine that better flight capacity would be important for chicks reared by their parents in the wild. None-the-less, I plan to tinker with the supplemental feedings to help increase the final chick weight.

I hope this encourages people keep pairs a pets  take up co-parenting their caique chicks. Rearing chicks this way is extraordinarily rewarding. You get to know the chicks in a way you never experience when you hand-rear them. You also know that when it goes to a new owner, it will fare as well or better than one you may have hand-reared. I think a co-parented chick has a level of self-confidence lacking in hand-reared chicks and this makes it a better pet and a better breeder. So if someone offers you a co-parented chick, do not turn it down.

1.         Casky, K. 2000. Co-parenting macaws: a comparative study of parent-raised and hand-raised siblings, p. 31-36, 2000 Conference Proceedings. American Federation of Aviculture, Los Angeles, CA.

2.         Collette, J. C., J. R. Millam, K. C. Klasing, and P. S. Wakenell. 2000. Neonatal handling of Amazon parrots alters the stress response and immune function. Applied Animal Behavior Science 66:335-349.

3.         Ireland, T. 1988. Caiques (Audio recording), Convention of the American Federation of Aviculture.

4.         Masin, S., R. Massa, and L. Bottoni. 2004. Evidence of tutoring in the development of subsong in newly fledged Meyer's parrots Poicephalus meyeri. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 76:231-236.

5.         Millam, J. R. 1999. Husbandry and care of research parrot colonies. Poultry and Avian Biology Reviews 10:85-89.

6.         Schmid, R., M. G. Doherr, and A. Steigera. 2006. The influence of breeding method on the behaviour of adult African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 98:293-307.