Can all birds be tamed and will they stay tame?

posted in: Miscellaneous | 5

This is a 3-part series on rearing birds by aviculturist Lee Chiu San in response to a request to comment on an earlier post on the hand-raised Sooty-Headed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus aurigaster) at a resort in Lake Toba, Indonesia. The first part deals with whether birds can be tamed and whether they will remain tame.

“I will give my opinions (purely personal, not backed by irrefutable scientific research) firstly on what was reported at Lake Toba, and secondly, on the questions pertaining to tame birds. Most of the observations on tameness were made on species widely represented in aviculture. I make no apologies for the fact that I am as much into aviculture as ornithology. In this field, birds that can be tamed usually carry a premium over those that cannot.

“Can all birds be tamed? Not all.

“There are differences between different bird genera. Talking about parent-raised birds, including those bred in aviaries with little human contact, if unmolested, quite a number of doves, starlings and egrets will go about their own business and ignore people around.

“If food is regularly offered, these species can be attracted, to the point where they become persistent beggars.

[Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) do not hesitate to make themselves at home if you welcome them (left).]

“On the other hand, some species, such as Psittacula parakeets, certain rails and babblers never allow humans to make a close approach.

“The situation is again different when baby birds are raised by human beings.

“In the instance reported from Lake Toba, where hand-raised baby birds were released and fed regularly by visitors and staff in general, they associate people with a source of food, and follow people around.

“Will hand-raised baby birds remain tame into adulthood?

“Again, not all. Cockatoos and cockatiels will remain tame all their lives. With other species such as hand-raised Psittacula parakeets, Eos lories and Pycnonotus Bulbuls (Red Whiskered and Straw Headed) tameness has to be maintained through daily human contacts, otherwise the birds will behave as wild ones again.

“And despite tremendous effort, certain hand-raised baby birds will revert to wild behaviour and become extremely suspicious of humans once they reach adulthood. The classic example of this is the Hwamei, (Garrulax canorus), a songster which performs if people keep their distance, but which dashes in panic against the bars of its cage or aviary once anyone gets near.

“Even within the same species, personalities differ. Some individuals will become more independent and stand-offish with age, while others will persist with begging behaviour and stick close to people long into adulthood. This is noticeable and very easily observed over a period of time in common species such as the Domestic Pigeon (Columba livia) and the Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus).

“Next comes the question – do the birds have an emotional bond with people? Is their tameness simply a lack of fear, a view that human beings are a source of food, or do they actually seek human company for non-materialistic reasons?

“If tameness is defined as a lack of fear for human beings, whatever the underlying emotion, certain species become tame, even when raised by their own parents. Top on the list would be the local Mynas (both the Common and the Javan) but the spotted dove can become quite demanding too. Wild-born thrushes and robins quickly lose their fear once they see people as suppliers of food. Orienatal Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis), shamas and Indian Rock Thrushes become tame easily. There are also countless anecdotes about the tameness of the European Robin.

“Not all birds develop an emotional bond to people. By emotional bond I mean an attachment that does not equate to material advantage, one in which the bird seeks out the company of its preferred human even at the cost of foregoing food or suffering some inconvenience.

“But some definitely do. Almost all of these are species that have either a strong pair bond, or social bond in nature. Top of the list would be the large corvines, the large parrots, various starlings and mynas, and of course pigeons and doves. Much has also been written about bonding between humans and ducks and geese.

“Several characteristics are common to all the above species. There is not only a parent/child bond. Into adulthood, they form very strong pair bonds, perhaps lasting a lifetime. Outside of the breeding season, the pairs may join others to congregate in larger flocks with distinctly ordered social structures and rankings.

“When raised separate from others of the same species, such birds may transfer their attachment to human beings.

“This attachment is definitely emotional, not transactional.

“Birds closely bonded to people will leave food and follow when their favourite human being walks away. They will sit in the sun, or in the rain, and suffer the discomfort, if that is where their human companion wants to be.

“And they will expose themselves to risk if they perceive that their human companion is in danger.

“Parrots and crows have alarm calls and other warning behaviour. If their chosen human does something that they think is dangerous, such as walk towards a cat or dog to pet it, they will start screaming in protest. If the human persists in getting closer to what the birds see as a dangerous animal, they may fly down, exposing themselves to danger, in an attempt to obstruct the person’s approach.

“As a last resort, they may bite their favourite human. This bite is not a manifestation of jealousy as some pet-owners mistakenly believe. It is an alarm signal. In the wild, a bird whose avian companion does not respond to warnings may be shocked into taking flight through the pain of a sudden bite. Pet birds apply such bird-brained logic to human companions.”

Image by Lee Chiu San.

The second part of the series will deal with whether it is desirable to tame birds…

5 Responses

  1. Tou Jing Yi

    Very interesting article, aviculturist might be an expert field itself within ornithology as they would understand the aviculturist aspect of ornithology that the average ornithologist might not be aware of.

    I once kept 2 domestic fowl raised from young, but didn’t manage to see such close bonding as described in the article, but one of them do felt more comfortable around me, and would even take a small nap beside me when I am busy doing some paper cutting. It would often come to let me hug it even when food is not offered, more or less like a dog. However, food orientation is still very strong in both individuals where food is around, the human technically turns invisible.


  2. Lee Chiu San

    Sorry to hear that your domestic chickens did not really bond with you, but I would not have expected them to. Our domestic chickens are descended from various jungle fowl, or perhaps hybrids of several species.

    Technically, jungle fowl are pheasants. The pair bond, and the social bond, are not very strong in pheasants. Each male tends to hold and defend a territory, without much interaction with other males (except to fight them off). Family groups consist of one male and his harem. And in any case, he treats the females as possessions, rather than companions.

    To get a bird that will really bond, you will need one of a species that naturally has a social structure, that is, one that pairs with its mate, and then lives in a larger organisation where the pair interact with other birds of the same species.

  3. Tou Jing Yi

    Dear Lee,

    Thanks for the comments, both my fowls were hens that was the variety bred for their meat.

    It is quite interesting that they have learn that I might be their lead male or parent that the one closer to me, will actually give out its loud 4 note shout when it needs me, when it is inside the cage and it is really hungry, when I let them out opposite the house to stay around our small vegetable garden, it will return by itself after some time and shout out for me to open the gate to let her in.

    For my first semester in university, she grew very skinny and unhealthy, but during my first sem break, her appetite improves and got much healthier in terms of weight and feathers. Later on, it did not get the same problems during my latter semesters.

    And definitely they seemed to trust my family members than outsiders, just like what we could see in other pet fowls or few other birds. They will allow me to make them squat down and rest but wont allow strangers to do the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.