All parrots great and small share a certain number of traits. This section gives you a broad picture of the various life stages of a pet parrot. Some species will have quirks not covered here, but in general the pattern outlined below applies to all types of parrot.
Most parrot species lay eggs in tree hollows in the wild. The parents share nest duty, and like all birds hatched in a nest, parrots enter the world naked and blind. Their one instinct after hatching is to raise their heads and gape - i.e. open their mouths wide - when the parent bird returns. Parrots regurgitate food for their young – a highly efficient technique that allows them to store large amounts of food in their crops, rather than just bringing home a beakful.
When, after about two weeks, a parrot chick first opens its eyes, it 'imprints' on its parent, forming a deep bond of trust with it. Parrot chicks being hand-fed in captivity will imprint on a human. This is handy for anyone rearing and taming a bird, as the trust will be implicit. Parrots' instinctive fear of humans is otherwise strong, which is why wild-caught birds are never happy in captivity.
A parrot that has been handled by people from an early age has an intrinsic trust of other humans, which is very handy. Unless you spend time a lot of 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 behavioral problems. The best compromise is to let the natural parents raise the chicks, whilst making sure the birds have lots of contact with humans too.
A red-crowned parakeet chick
A bird that hasn’t imprinted on humans or been handled from an early age can still be tamed, given time and patience. They are intelligent animals, and as with dogs you can use positive reinforcement and the age-old trick of bribing with treats.
Parrots grow 'pin feathers' after three weeks or so. These give the birds a scaly, reptilian look that underlines the fact that they are evolved from the dinosaurs. They get their first full set of feathers between four and 15 weeks, depending on the species.
Clipping a Parrot Chick’s Wings
The practice of clipping parrots' wings before they 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 can't use its wings. Some clipped birds never master full flight, suffering a flying phobia - a very sorry state for any bird equipped to fly.
Once a young parrot can fly, its parents stop feeding it so frequently, as the youngster can now find its own food. However, parrots still rely on their parents for food and protection for a week or two more after their first flight (depending on the species).
Blue and yellow macaw chicks sporting their first feathers
If raised by its parents in captivity, a young parrot will get the perfect nutritional mix during weaning - a combination of regurgitated food, and the fruit, vegetables and pellets that its parents eat. Breeders who are hand-rearing gradually introduce new solid foods while phasing out formula feed. This is not something a novice should attempt without expert advice, as there is a risk of malnutrition if you get the balance wrong.
Parrots, being highly intelligent animals, have their own versions of adolescence and puberty. And yes, they will become uncooperative, difficult to please and prone to tantrums at this time! It is during this important and stressful phase that they establish their unique personalities and find 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 reach maturity between one and four years of age. You will notice a personality change as they approach maturity. In some this temper change may manifest as aggression, especially in the mating season. But it's worth the little annoyances, as an adult parrot is a truly wonderful friend and companion. Once mature, they are calm, if sometimes mischievous, and will always surprise and delight you with their intelligence and big personality.
So, those first few mating seasons in late adolescence are trials you need to bear if you're to enjoy a friendly, characterful mature parrot!
A mature Blue-headed Pionus - worth waiting for!
One of the only real problems parrot-keepers encounter is if the bird has been kept in complete isolation from other parrots. The pet will be imprinted on its owner, and humans in general, and will tend to become sexually attracted to people. The parrot's bird brain will assume you are its mate. Some hand-reared parrots actually reject fellow birds as potential mates in these circumstances.
The unwanted affection is awkward. A lovesick male bird will regurgitate food for you, do unspeakable things to your hand, shoulder arm, etc, and a female bird will press her back against you as an invitation to mate.
But there are other associated problems too. A human-fixated parrot will become aggressive towards other people, who it sees as rivals for your affection, resulting in angry squawking, and potential physical danger if the parrot is outside the cage.
A dissatisfied sexually mature bird may become ill and start self-plucking. It may also – there’s no gentler word for it – scream. This will all end after the breeding season, but is obviously an issue that needs addressing via training and proper socialization (see the Parrot Training section of this guide).
Moluccan Cockatoo - beware the over-affectionate bird!
Once they have fretted their way through a few adolescent breeding seasons, parrots finally find their true personalities. At this point they tend to become set in their ways, but the upside is that many species become as docile, friendly and affectionate as a mature family dog. (There are exceptions, such as the larger Macaws, which often develop a certain cantankerous vindictiveness as they get older).
Having said all that, each parrot is an individual, and you can't always second-guess how they will turn out. Some are complete softies, while some have a wicked streak that may need some extra positive-reinforcement training to control.
How Long Do Parrots Live?
In the wild a parrot that makes it into adulthood will usually live for 20 to 30 years. In captivity, they can live a lot longer. Some of the bigger species (and the not-so-large, in the case of the African Grey), can live to 60 and even 90 years. There have been many claims for birds that have passed the 100 mark, although these are usually hard to verify. Many of us choose our first parrots in adulthood, and so long-lived birds frequently outlive their original owners.
Many parrots such as this African Grey have a long lifespan
Budgerigars have the shortest lifespans of the parrot family, usually 8 to 10 years, and rarely passing 15. The equally small parrotlets, however, can reach up to 30 years.