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Care and Breeding of Budgerigars
by Eric Peake
The budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) is a grass parakeet originating in Australia. A ground feeding bird living in colonies, it flies to its feeding grounds in large groups. The rainy season dictates its breeding pattern. Once the babies are independent, they form a crèche which forms a new breeding colony for the forthcoming breeding season.
It has been observed that some birds will reproduce at an early age of six months whereas others will not breed until their second year. The majority of birds kept in captivity breed successfully on a twelve month cycle. The cock bird is capable of reproducing ten months of the year. The only time fertility is low is during the annual moult. The cycle of breeding for the hen is safer once the bird is a year old. A maternal and breeding instinct is reached once the nest box is placed into position. Observations have shown that the breeding instinct becomes noticeable when the color of the hen's cere turns to brown. The maternal instinct follows within a period of three weeks. At this time her crop milk starts to form. One of the most difficult things that fanciers come up against is not recognizing the time when the cock and the hen are in breeding condition together. Being colony birds, they will usually come into condition around the same time. On observation, the fancier will notice the hen's chewing any wood within the structure of the aviary, as this stimulates their breeding instinct. Along with this behavior, the hens, in top breeding condition, will try to mate each other. If the sexes are kept separate this produces a problem with the maiden hens. If the colony is kept with sexes mixed the stimulation of the hen in turn affects the cock birds.
Around two to three weeks prior to the breeding season, the selected pairs must be pre-mated or married in a single cage to form a bond. One week is sufficient for bonding. Then they are reintroduced back into the colony where the cock bird will guard his mate and thus help to ensure fertility.
Because budgerigars are southern hemisphere birds, their geographical seasons are opposite to ours in the northern hemisphere. In the modern exhibition breeding program many fanciers pair their birds in October-November so as to obtain young chicks as early as possible with the new year band number. This practice has been adopted over many years. The disadvantage of this is that many eggs are found to be infertile. The cause is undoubtably breeding in the southern hemisphere time frame on a northern hemisphere weather/season pattern. The advantage of breeding in October-November is that early babies are mature for the forthcoming show season. Sadly, due to so much infertility only a small percentage of birds end up being represented on the show bench. It is unfortunate that the commercial minded breeder is in favor of this practice. Although there have been no documented studies done, as many fanciers are reluctant to take part in such a venture, it would show that the second clutch of eggs being laid in January-February has a higher fertility rate. This is due to the bonding of the pair being much stronger. One of the key factors of successful breeding is that the birds must be comfortable both in temperature conditions and daylight hours. As spring in the northern hemisphere starts (March-April), fanciers who begin their breeding at this time usually have a higher fertility rate in the first clutch due to a warmer climate and longer daylight hours. The only disadvantage to this practice is that sometimes good exhibition budgerigars are born during the latter part of the year making then immature in comparison with the early bred babies of October-November or January, when exhibited.
Most budgerigars will nest in any kind of nest box. The most important thing is that the fancier can attend to the nest box without disturbing the birds. The usual clutch of eggs is around five or six. As budgerigars are born with around three hundred eggs within their system, some hens can lay up to fourteen eggs in one clutch; but this is unusual.
Fertilization from the cock bird on one mating can fill all the eggs. Sometimes the first egg will be full, the second clear, then the rest full. On observation, about day four, against a bright light the egg can show a clear yellow color. No fertilization has taken place. If the egg shows a cloudy orange color in these early stages, then fertilization was complete, however the growth of the unborn chick has ceased. These eggs can be discarded. The fertilized egg on day three to four will appear to have a red area with veins radiating from it. This is the start of the circulatory system of the baby. It is very important to leave the eggs alone as continuous handling of the eggs can cause problems. The hens sometimes detect human scent on the eggs and may discard eggs from the nest or may desert the entire clutch altogether.
Healthy babies usually hatch around eighteen days after the egg has been laid. If the hen does not sit tight on the early eggs sometimes two chicks hatch on the same day. This can cause confusion if eggs are moved from different nests especially if eggs are not marked for identification.
Banding or ringing of the babies usually takes place seven to ten days after birth. As the chicks get older, farming out or distribution of chicks of the same age group proves an advantage when chicks fledge the nest. This method of distribution ensures the hen will lay her next clutch of eggs without being harassed by chicks of different ages.
The cock bird will feed the babies as will the hen. If she has small chicks at the same time she lays her next clutch of eggs she may attack the babies and once cannibalism is experienced it is rare for the hen to revert back to normality. Also at this stage, feather plucking, usually done by the cock, will distress the babies. There is a school of thought that this could be heredity. My own opinion is that it is a combination of stress and heredity.
It is very important during incubation and rearing of the chicks that certain conditions be met. Good ventilation in the bird room is essential. Humidity within the nest box is a must for adequate incubation and hatching. A liberal supply of medicated sawdust helps to not only keep the nest box clean, but also activates the hen into breeding condition.
During the early stages of the chicks' growth it is essential that the fancier feeds a clean and varied diet. It has been noted by scientists that budgerigars, if fed on a plain, uninteresting diet, grow at a rate that is slow or below the mean. Birds tested with a wide variety diet have shown significantly that the chicks grow faster and stronger. It must be noted that this will not change the genetic structure of the bird, eg: if the parents are small birds their babies will not be larger due to their diet. Only in cases of hidden genetic qualities would you see the contrary.
Feeding of budgerigars consists of good quality seed (75% canary, 25% millets forming the basic mixture). Additional foods such as apple, carrot, green food and corn on the cob add variety and nutrition to the diet. Multivitamins and grit along with cuttlefish bone and mineral blocks will form the additives necessary in the diet.
In the non-breeding season condition seed fed to the birds will help to prepare for the breeding season. Condition seed is a multi-mix seed of all forms. Some of these seeds are oil-based, eg: hemp and linseed. These seeds fed during the breeding season can cause over heating and should only be fed in the non-breeding season.
During the last ten years there has been seen on the market many forms of additives. Unless these are fed according to manufacturer's instructions overfeeding can cause serious side effects.
My final note on feeding is that during the rearing of the babies, I personally give a soft food mixture of egg, milk and bread cooked in a souffle. This is given each morning. Any soft food not eaten by that evening is discarded as this can cause sourness in the food.
Housing of budgerigars can be done in two ways. The serious exhibitor must breed in cages. This guarantees the parentage of each chick produced, although some experts say this goes against nature because the budgerigar is a colony breeding bird. Separation of the pairs creates isolation and sometimes the cock and hen will not mate. Some fanciers divide the cages by means of wire to create the colony illusion. This is sometimes effective but can be disastrous if two territorial minded cocks are next to each other. If cages are used the fancier must provide flights to condition the birds prior to the breeding season. Outside flights are essential to obtain optimal conditions including sunlight, rain, wind and fresh air. There are fanciers who have only inside flights. A big problem can be insufficient ventilation which can lead to respiratory disorders in the birds. The flights whether inside or outside must have perches or vantage points within good distances of one another to facilitate adequate flight and exercise. Over filled aviaries with too many perches makes the birds lazy and overweight which is detrimental to the breeding program. Overcrowding of birds can lead to disease, decreased fertility and aggression amongst the birds.
Another form of breeding is colony breeding. This is done in large aviaries with more than three or four pairs. The advantage to this system is that fertility is high and the group usually form a family type bond. Disadvantages include aggressiveness between certain birds, usually hens, and guaranteed parentage is questionable. This system parallels the natural, "in the wild" environment and behaviour for the birds. The 'ideal' system would be long, large aviaries adjacent to one another, wire connected, with one pair to each unit. This unfortunately is impractical in most cases because of space and cost.
In conclusion, I have learned many things related to the care and breeding of budgerigars. The most important is that you must give the time and effort to your birds on a regular daily basis. The birds sense your caring and prosper in relation to that caring. Above all, you must not take your birds for granted. Too many people keep too many birds. It is known that if a small group is kept for breeding, then the natural instinct to propagate the species will succeed. I have not mentioned dirt and filth in the care and breeding of budgerigars because this separates the bird lover from the birdkeeper driven by greed, lack of common sense and education.
Born in North Wales, U.K., Eric Peake is rated as one of the outstanding bird artists of the day. Acclaimed internationally, his many years in aviculture have given him unparalleled opportunity to study the subjects which he paints. He has the rare ability to capture the mood and stance of the living bird. His lifelike works are so incredibly detailed that in April 1989, one of Eric's original paintings of parrots was presented to H.R.H. Princess of Wales, Princess Diana. The exquisite texture and warmth of feathers elevates him to the 'cream' of world class bird artists.