Old World Aviaries

In Praise of the Hawk-headed Parrot

Dennis Saydak
The Best Little Hen House on the Internet
(reprinted with permission)
Young Hawk Head from Old World Aviaries

"I personally feel Hawk-headed Parrots are one of the greatest pet birds possible." - Linda Smith (Whispering Oaks Aviaries, Texas)

(Photo at right is of a young Hawk Head from Old World Aviaries.)

Thanks for the wonderful introduction Linda. Contrary to some opinions that exist about this unique and absolutely magnificent genus, Hawk-headed Parrots certainly do make marvelous pets. If you are willing to accept and respect their special needs and behaviors, the rewards of keeping a pet hawk head are tremendous. They are very affectionat, and their entertaining body language and playful antics are a joy to experience. They also have great talking ability. If a unique, adorable, and acrobatic pet is what you seek all wrapped up in a very conspicuous bundle of feathers, you need not look any further than this stunningly beautiful parrot.

Some experts, such as Rosemary Low, do not recommend hawk heads as pets. Others claim they are best suited for the experienced aviculturist. They cite incidents of aggression, territorial behavior, and difficulty in breeding as the basis for their opinions. Based on personal experience as a delighted hawk-head pet owner and breeder, I strongly disagree with Rosemary's negative pet recommendation in particular. As a breeder, I do not find hawk heads particularly difficult to work with or care for provided that proper methods and common sense are used when pairing birds.

It is absolutely amazing to me how a few "words of wisdom" from one or two experts can "contaminate" an entire species; especially when the experience drawn from is not pet related. This is unjustified and unnecessary fear-mongering in my opinion. It is regrettable that this wonderful species has on occasion been branded with an undeserved stigma. Whenever parrots are allowed to revert to a wild state, such as being placed in a large free-flight aviary, kept in a mixed collection, or paired up for breeding, certain natural behaviors designed for survival in the wild will surface that normally may not be of particular concern or even seen in a pet situation. Perhaps these environmental factors are the true basis of the concerns? To fault this species because the behavior of some individuals doesn't measure up to certain unrealistic human-imposed expectations is wrong. People must learn to understand, accept, and accommodate natural behavior from any pet parrot, giving special consideration to the environment into which the bird is placed. It should be acknowledged that no species should be expected to conform to someone's every whim. Pet owners should appreciate and enjoy parrots for what they truly are, complex wonders of nature, not feathered toys and certainly not disposable pets.

I kept my first hawk head, a male named Gomez, as a pet for the better part of 8 years. Throughout this time he was the friendliest, most gregarious and trustworthy pet parrot you could imagine. Gomez absolutely loved the company of the few other birds in the house. I would consider him the perfect pet bird for just about any responsible person. I should point out that Gomez was entirely parent reared and subsequently tamed during his first year. Did I get lucky with his positive demeanor? Is Gomez an exception? Based on three other adult hawk heads I have, I seriously doubt it. Gomez was always relatively quiet, extremely gentle, and affectionate, and he enjoyed being handled to the max throughout his years as a pet.

I tried for many years to locate a mate for Gomez without success. Reputable breeders couldn't supply one and several pet owners with a hen I spoke to couldn't bear to part with theirs under any circumstances. They spoke very highly of their cherished Hawkheads. Finally, I was given the choice between two lady hawk heads; I chose the more aggressive aviary bird just to be different. Within a few hours of her arrival, Ceasar settled right in and quickly became a real sweetheart, displaying the same good nature as Gomez. She was also 8 years old at the time. These two mature birds clearly indicate that hawk heads can be quite predictable under the right circumstances. This leads me to believe that a bird's environment plays a larger part in its behavior than we may realize and perhaps more with hawk heads than with other species. Of course, now that Ceasar and Gomez are "married," they want nothing to do with me, and I can't fault them for that. They simply have more important things to do with their lives now.

Because of their relative rarity, especially as pets, hawk heads haven't received nearly all the good press they deserve. The old adage applies here -- bad news travels at the speed of light but good news is rarely heard. As a result, their pet potential is highly underrated. This is the consensus opinion from the experienced members of the Yahoo (Internet) hawk-head discussion group. Properly raised, properly socialized, and properly cared for, baby hawk heads make endearing long term pets for their very lucky owners. The basics of raising and caring for hawk heads long-term are similar to most other species. It is very important not to spoil the bird nor to encourage or reward negative behavior. Unfortunately many pet owners do not understand the significance of this until they have a "problem child" on their hands.

Special needs of the pet hawk head:

Cages: Because they are so energetic and active, pet hawk heads benefit from a relatively large cage (minimum size recommended is 30"wide X 24"deep). Bigger can be better because there is more room for exercise, multiple perches, and hanging toys. Several perches should be placed at different levels for interest and challenge. Bar spacing should be appropriate for the species (1" or less is ideal). Hawk heads will use every cubic inch of cage space available to them with their antics. They prefer to fly from perch to perch rather than climb around on the bars as many other species do.

Diet: An inadequate or inappropriate diet can lead not only to health problems but can also be a major factor in many behavioral issues. Some people do not understand this, especially novices. For example, a recently weaned baby will become excessively noisy if it is continuously hungry. This happens all to often as a result of being given an insufficient amount of familiar food. A hungry bird is also usually very cantankerous and nippy, which is a good start towards having a biting bird. Even though there may be food available in the dish, a bird can go hungry and certainly be unsatisfied if it doesn't recognize or accept the food offered. It will likely become less trusting towards its owner in short order. This stressful situation, for the bird and pet owner, sets the stage for further problems as the bird matures, because it was deprived and made insecure from the beginning. Territorial, aggressive, and unpredictable behavior may be the unfortunate result. The principle of feeding familiar foods abundantly should definitely continue for an appropriate period whenever any new baby parrot arrives at its new home. Once the baby is doing well, it is ok to expand the food items offered, but definitely not at the expense of depriving the bird.

A varied and nutritious diet is essential. Our hawk heads prefer a larger amount of fruit in their diet than many other species. They particularly relish apple, orange, pear and just about any exotic fruit, such as papaya, mango, and pomegranate. Blueberries and raspberries are also a wonderful treat. Pine nuts and shelled almonds are offered on a regular basis. Peppers, which are high in vitamin A, are quickly devoured along with many other vegetables. We also provide maintenance pellets daily. High-protein items such as a bean and rice mix can be offered in moderation to pet hawk heads. However, be aware that over feeding high-protein foods can contribute to breeding (i.e., aggressive) behavior in mature birds.

Negative behavior avoidance: Potential for the development of bad or unpredictable behavior in Hawkheads certainly does exist just as it does with other species. A wide variety of reasons apply, but inadvertent mistakes made by the owner and the lack of proper training top the list. It seems that every dog owner understands the necessity and importance of proper handling and training of their animal. By comparison, very few pet parrot owners understand that the same requirements apply to parrots until bad behavior develops as a result of inadequate or no training.

Hawk heads can become very excited especially if you play rough with them. This may seem neat at first, but it is a sure way to instill and reinforce aggressive behavior Avoid doing this at all cost. Instead, treat them gently and with respect, and you will be rewarded with a well-behaved bird.

In summary: It has been my experience that hawk heads really do make very suitable long-term pets. I find them to be just as stable and predictable as other species under the right circumstances. As with any other species, it is essential to treat and handle them appropriately to prevent behavior problems from developing. If not, bad behavior can occur through no fault of the bird. It is all too easy to blame the species rather than to accept responsibility for causing the problem and correcting it. Advice on behavior issues should ideally be obtained from someone who has a positive attitude toward hawk heads and, preferably, has experience raising this species.

It is my goal to see this species become better established in Canadian aviculture and also as a deserving and very worthy pet species. In my humble opinion, it is extremely shortsighted of not support both endeavors. There are very few dedicated breeders working with hawk heads in Canada and even fewer with breeding success. If only a handful of "experts" keep hawk heads, there is a significant risk that they will eventually disappear from Canadian aviculture. All that is needed is for a few breeders to experience a contagious disease outbreak in their flock and old age will soon take care of the rest of the domestic bird population. This is especially worrisome in Canada where birds are mostly kept indoors. Importation from the wild is no longer a viable or legal option for replacement of birds. We must treasure and manage what we have very effectively, or risk losing them forever.

In conclusion: I extend an invitation to pet owners, breeders and anyone else interested in learning more about the fabulous Hawk-headed Parrot to join the Yahoo Hawkhead Discussion Group -- a forum where all manner of information regarding Hawk-headed Parrots is discussed: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Hawkheads/

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