Canadian Parrot Symposium

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Breeding Parrots in a Mixed Indoor Collection

Stephen P. Hartman
Hartman Aviary, Sunbury, Ohio


Indoor aviary management of species segregation and environments for increased production is becoming critical as competition to produce babies increases. Medical and technical advances in the past 15 years have made it possible for most breeders to be successful on at least a limited level. As many of the thousands of non-producing pairs begin to produce, the competition for buyers will stabilize prices and possibly even lower them on some of the more common species. As this avicultural evolution continues it will become even more important to lower overhead and maximize the production potential of your birds.

As the breeding technology increases, the educational level of aviary owners will need to grow to maintain a competitive edge. Uneducated hobby breeders and would be merchants will be quickly excluded from the industry as the information available to the serious producers become available. At each level of understanding of avian husbandry we are continuing to see a manyfold increase in the technology necessary to competitively compete in this business.

Attention to aviary design and management requires close attention to the characteristics and needs of each type of bird you house. As you get to know your birds and the specific environment necessary for maximum production it will be necessary to design environments that are species specific and easily managed.

Factors to be considered and managed

Conflict in the aviary from noncompatible species can eliminate production in some species and reduce production in others. Factors for consideration when grouping species for maximum production and lower long term overhead include:

Species characteristics:

  • Large flock or small flock origin
  • Quiet or loud
  • Timid or aggressive
  • Mate aggression tendencies
  • Sub-canopy, open area and ground dwelling habits
  • Nest boxes

Reproduction cues and stimulus:

  • Breeding season
  • Diet variations
  • Pheromones
  • Lighting
  • Temperature
  • Low pressure zones and ionized air
  • Rain - sprinkler systems

Carrying capacity of environment. Avoiding diminishing returns.

  • Size - cage consistency
  • Bio control / sanitation - Disease manage- ment
  • Watering systems
  • Cleanable environment
  • Noise
  • Privacy
  • Ventilation

Determining Species Characteristics.

Each species has specific tolerance levels for each aspect of its environment. We need to take a close look at behaviors and social habits in order to correctly populate a given environment.

Large flock or small flock

Small birds tend to travel in large flocks and larger birds in small groups. Small birds in large flocks tend to use sentries as early warning for predators. The sounds these small birds make at the sight of a perceived predator can be unnerving to larger parrots who have fewer predators to be concerned with.

Quiet or loud

In the wild all parrots make considerable noise. In captivity however some species make more noise, and some less than they would in the wild. African greys and pionus are examples of quiet birds in the aviary. Introducing one pair of amazons or conures into a large flock of African Greys can shut down production completely.

Timid or aggressive

African parrots and most cockatoos are quiet timid birds when a threat to their territory is present. Macaws and amazons on the other hand will attack anything that comes close to their nest site. In an indoor aviary this aggressive trait can be very intimidating to timid birds.

Mate aggression tendencies

Several species of cockatoos, the eclectus and a few other species have a reputation for misplaced aggression toward their mates. In most species (with the eclectus being an exception), the male is the aggressor. Factors promoting this aggressive tendency have been elusive thus far. Anecdotal information collected regarding these attacks indicate that the carrying capacity of the environment has been exceeded. Possible contributing factors include:

  • Noise made by other males of the same species.
  • Visual eye contact of the male by another male, or a keeper.
  • I suspect Pheromones may also come into play.
  • Cage size does not seen to contribute.

Sub-canopy, open area and ground dwelling habits

What is the preferred habitat of the bird? Is it likely to be nesting in a barren dead tree, in a cliff or is it comfortable in a living tree with foliage intact? These habitats are important because of the security requirements of each species.

Cliff nesters and those birds that prefer large dead trees with no foliage will probably require more security, as in visual barriers, and will likely be more tolerant of light entering their nest box. Because of the open view from these sites few predators are able to approach unnoticed and this leads to higher fledging rates and smaller clutch sizes.

Sub-canopy nesters can generally be characterizes as smaller species that are more aggressive at defending their nesting territory and will often have larger clutches. Sub canopy nests are more likely to be predated. Because of this, these species produce larger clutches and require darker nest cavities.

Nest box requirements

In most cases nest box size and style is not very important. Greater emphasis should be placed on quality construction, ease of maintenance and serviceability. I have narrowed down the number of different styles of nest boxes to 6. These 6 boxes will service over 50 different species we house. Standardizing nest boxes makes it more practical to have extras on hand and switch out boxes as repairs are needed.

Thirty gallon garbage cans laid on their side work well for our large macaws and cockatoos. The lid is cut in half and a piano hinge is bolted on at the cut to reattach the two halves. One half of the lid is then bolted to the can in its normal position. This allows the other half of the lid to serve as the inspection door. A hole about 8" square is cut in the bottom and serves as the birds' entrance. Inside the can I place 5 - two by fours (wood) cut to fit the length of the can. Two pieces of cardboard about 18" long and 4" wide are covered with glue and laid in the bottom as though they were barrel straps only on the inside. The boards are laid on this glued surface and when dried serve as a wood bottom barrel. A small amount of shavings are placed on top of the boards and the birds make more shavings out of the wood as they chew it up. Boards last between a few minutes and years and are replaced as necessary.

Garbage can nest box installation is made easy by cutting a round hole in the side of the cage. This hole should be similar to the diameter of the can just below the handles. Slide the bottom of the can into the hole in the cage up to the handles. Attach the handles to the wire on the outside of the cage with hog rings. On the rim of the bottom of the can at the top edge drill a small hole. Attach a wire from this hole to the roof of the cage. This will support the can and allow easy removal and installation.

Medium size cockatoos have all metal nest boxes. The size we use is 18" square and 24" high. My cockatoos ore notorious for jumping on their eggs so all cockatoo boxes have a platform that require them to slowly negotiate their descent to the bottom. The platform is in the middle of the box. The bird enters the opening and steps in on to the platform. A hole approximately the size of the nest box opening is cut in the corner of the platform. A wire ladder on the wall allows the bird to descend to the egg chamber.

African greys, pionus, amazons, etc. have wooden boot or L-shape nest boxes. The vertical portion is 1' wide and 8" deep. The bottom is 8" high by 1' by 18". This box sits on a shelf on the corner of the outside of the cage. Because of the way the box is positioned much of the exterior is adjacent to wire. This serves as an extra precaution against escape. All boxes are constructed the same so individual panels can be easily swapped or replaced as necessary.

Larger conures, some African greys and Indian ringnecks use a 1' by 1' by 2' high wood box. All boxes except for the garbage cans have a ladder stood off one inch from the wall inside the box. In no cases do I allow the inside of nest boxes to be lined with wire. There are too many birds missing toenails already from this practice. Any situation that requires extra security because of excessive chewing have wire formed around the exterior of the box. If a hole appears on a box when a pair is about ready to produce the wire can easily be pried away and a thin board glued over the hole. This usually solves the problem since the birds normally stop chewing when the first egg is laid.

Small conures and lories use a standard cockatiel nest box. These boxes are attached to a 2' by 2' piece of 3/4" plywood. A hole is cut through the plywood to allow the birds to enter the box. The plywood is then hooked to the back of the cage so that the hole in the plywood aligns with the hole in the cage.

Reproduction cues and stimulus:

Breeding season

Breeding seasons in parrots are similar for most species. Even so, there are some species like amazons which require more specialized environmental manipulation for maximum production.

Most of our birds begin production in December or January with the highest egg production in February and March. With a few exceptions these birds will produce a minimum of three clutches with the maximum being seven clutches per year. African greys and cockatoos have a less specific breeding season and breed year round. Indian ringnecks and Amazons seem to have the most specific breeding season in our aviary.

Species that may breed year round should not be housed with species like amazons which need to have the lights turned down and temperatures decreased for seasonal stimulation.

Diet variations

Nutritional information is being developed at an astonishing rate. Just 5 years ago most parrots were fed similar diets. Today pellet and extruded food manufactures have as many as 15 specialized formulas. These formulas are species specific as well as seasonally specific. Grouping birds with similar dietary needs together will greatly facilitate feeding.

Diet manipulation for enhanced production is based on changing the variety of foods and fat content of diets. Processed foods are the base of my diet. During breeding season they account for about 50% and during nonbreeding account for about 70% of the diet. The balance is made up from 30 items including but not limited to: 8 types of beans, corn, rice, squash, pumpkin, onions, yams, carrots, oats, apples, grapes, endive, bananas, sunflower seeds, mixed nuts, etc.. During the off season the diet is reduced to pellets and a few types of soft food. Treats that consist of sunflower seeds and nuts are reduced by about half during the off season. Prior to the breeding season dietary fat levels are doubled and many varieties of vegetables are added as the % of pellets in the diet are reduced.

Obesity is a contributor to poor production. It has been known for some time that overweight birds will not be productive breeders. No eggs or infertile eggs are the result. Certain species like amazons and rose breasted cockatoos are some of the most notorious for this problem. I have found that my diet is so tasty that even with low fat levels all of my birds tend to overeat.

Providing appropriate amounts of food and lowering the environmental temperature are two ways to decrease body weight.

Caution needs to be used when reducing food supplies. As the allotment of food decreases the birds may increase their consumption even though you are still providing them with more than they normally consume. For example if you are normally providing 30 ounces of food to a cage per day and the birds are consuming 15 ounces, a reduction to 20 ounces may cause them to consume all 20 ounces because they see their food supply diminishing. Furthermore, there can be greater consumption by the most aggressive bird in a cage and the mate can end up starving to death. Food reduction needs to be done gradually.

Lowering environmental temperatures while decreasing the food supply in the winter is my strategy. Lower energy pellets are also added to the diet while reducing the amount of tasty soft foods. Ambient temperatures are allowed to get as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. During breeding season I over feed to avoid hens not getting enough to eat.

Pheromones

Chemical attracters and dispersers called pheromones may be active in our aviaries. It is well shown in other types of animals that pheromones play an important part in reproduction. The pheromones associated with bringing birds into condition to breed are advantageous. But, what if there are other territorial pheromones that cause cessation of production in neighboring pairs of the same species? Could this be why some species like hyacinths and hawkheads often don't breed in close proximity to other pair of the same species?

As I acquired birds and began introducing them into my population I noticed a schedule of molting that did not seem to have any correlation to other seasonal events. I began to notice during the second and third years that there were two distinct periods when most of the birds would molt. This occurred in the spring and fall. By the fourth year almost all birds molted at the end of the summer or after they had finished breeding for the year.

A second phenomenon which I do not totally understand is that for each pair of the same species that is housed in the same zone, egg production begins on about the same day. For example, all umbrella cockatoos in the same zone will lay their first egg within a 5 day period. I see this with almost all species on a regular basis.

Is it possible that one pair of birds that produces more than the normal amount of pheromones can control production for a species? What if they are reducing production in other pairs? Could this be why few indoor facilities are super producers?

Lighting

Three tiers of lights are used to simulate the sunrise and sunset of normal daylight. Full spectrum fluorescent lighting is used in all areas for the daylight. Incandescent bulbs are used for transition lighting and moonlight.

I am not sure whether the full spectrum lights contribute to contentment of the birds or increase production but I use them just in case. I chose fluorescent lighting because of the lower operating cost, better ability to duplicate natural light and its excellent distribution qualities.

Inexpensive timers and photo sensitive switches are used to regulate the sequence of lighting. The main fluorescent lighting is regulated by a high capacity timing switch capable of handling in excess of 50 tubes. Incandescent lights which come on for a short period before and after the fluorescent are controlled by small inexpensive home lamp timers. These incandescent lights are installed into photo activated switches that screw into the socket before the bulb. Moonlight is created by small 7.5 watt photo activated night lights which turn on automatically when all other lights turn off.

Seasonal stimulation can be achieved by decreasing the day length to eight hours for a period of about eight weeks. This reduction should coincide with decreased environmental temperatures and food supply. Day length can be shortened and lengthened at a rate of about one half to one hour every 4 or 5 days. This scenario will take about 4 months to complete. It may be possible to change the day length at a much faster rate but I suspect we will ultimately find the minimum day length will need to be held for at least two months.

Temperature

Environmental temperatures follow the seasonal outside temperatures except for the hottest and coldest times of the year.

In the summer I try to keep the maximum temperature below 85 degrees Fahrenheit. We do this with a combination of increased ventilation and air conditioning. Ventilation is slowed or eliminated from 2 P.M. to 8 P.M. during the hottest time of the day. In the wood frame building we run the air conditioning to keep the temperature below 85. In the masonry building the mass of concrete and block serves as a heat sink and moderates the temperature at acceptable levels. Air flow from fans is maintained at all times.

Winter temperatures are kept above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two reasons. Water lines and sprinkler systems are important to my operation so I must keep the temperature above freezing. Because of the possibility of uneven heating some areas could have cold spots that are several degrees below the average room temperature. 40 degrees gives me enough margin of error. The second reason for maintaining these temperature is the unknown health of all of the birds. Ill birds may succumb too quickly for us to notice at lower temperatures.

Low pressure zones and ionized air

Springtime brings with it many changes including low pressure zones and an increase in thunderstorms. Low pressure leads to storms which leads to lightning which ionizes the air when its voltage is released. The fresh clean smell after a storm is from the effect of the ionization. The invigorating feeling we get from this may affect our birds in the same refreshing manner. Adequate ventilation is important to supply the birds with this possible reproduction trigger.

Rain - Sprinkler systems

Many styles are available, we use low volume super wet pesticide spray heads. The water is sprayed in a two foot elliptical pattern. The delivery is 2 ounces of water per minute at about 50 pounds of water pressure. Spray heads are placed in line with the main perch so that both birds can bath at the same time.

The sprinklers are turned on once each week for 1/2 hour prior to cleaning. Each zone has its own separate system. Too many spray heads on one circuit can reduce the water pressure needed for hosing in another zone.

Carrying capacity of environment. Avoiding diminishing returns.

Aviary environments need to be designed and managed to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity.

Carrying capacity of an environment is the total number of units (birds) that can be supported or sustained without exceeding the limits of any one of the environmental supports. Diminishing returns are experienced when an additional pair is added to an environment and the overall percentage of production decreases. It is important to design your environment so that each individual pair has little impact on each of the others. Adequate caging, disease control, noise, privacy and ventilation are some of the most often exceeded segments of the environment.

Size - cage consistency

Cage size is normally based on size of the birds to be housed. For efficient utilization of space cages of similar size should be concentrated in the same area. Similar size cages in the same environment will facilitate easier cleaning and feeding. Privacy barriers will also be easier to install when all cages are the same dimensions.

Caging

Population density is an important consideration in developing housing strategies for the birds. Over the years each remodel or modification finds us with larger cages and significant lower densities than when we started.

Once the caging plan for a zone has been decided the next priority becomes developing the highest quality caging possible. My requirements for quality cages always include: easily cleaned and maintained, easy nest box inspection and maintenance, no areas that may harm the birds and they must be escape proof.

All cages are designed to be large enough to allow the birds to fly a few wing beats from one perch to another.

Disease management

When all environmental conditions are adequate a low stress situation occurs and disease problems will be minimal. Two problem areas often overlooked are dust and subclinical diseases.

Many species can be health hazards to others. Cockatoos, greys and cockatiels tend to shed a lot of feather dust. This dust can be fatal to other non dusty species after a few years of exposure.

Even dusty species have much less dust in the wild environment. As birds in the wild fly, move around and get rained on most of the dust is removed from their bodies. Wild birds also spend much less time in the nest than captive birds. Captive birds are often in a dusty nest box most of the year while wild birds may be in the nest for as little as 6 to 8 weeks.

Non-dusty species like macaws can be even more sensitive to dusty environments. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a disease we will probably hear a lot of in the future.

Other species like cockatiels and lovebirds harbor many types of diseases which can be injurious to your more valuable parrots.

Often diseases which kill some species have less obvious effects on other species. An example is beak and feather which has disastrous consequences in old world birds but effects new world birds at a much lower rate. We may find out someday that some diseases at sub-clinical levels are not noticed except in production rates?

Watering systems

Labor costs and disease management make automatic watering systems a necessity in a well managed aviary. Open water dishes serve as a reservoir for unwanted bacteria and viruses. An open water dish can have unacceptable levels of bacteria in as little as 4 hours. In a viral outbreak, water dishes can serve as the vector of transmission between birds as dust settles into the water and is consumed by uninfected birds.

Automatic watering systems are easy to install and quickly pay for themselves in labor savings. Labor savings alone will pay for most systems in as little as two months. In addition to decreased labor cost your birds will be getting fresh water with each drink.

Cleanable environment / bio control /sanitation

Long term survival of an aviary often depends upon the efficiency of the operation. Many aviculturalists become disenchanted and throw in the towel when they tire of the amount of work necessary to clean the environment to their standards. It is necessary to design a system that is easy to clean and maintain. If proper research and planning is undertaken before construction you should be able to maintain and clean each cage in as little as 10 minutes per week.

Easily cleaned environments lend themselves to efficient operations with very little possibility of disease transmission to other birds.

Disinfectants have been eliminated from my aviary. Concern over the build up of toxic residues on cage wire has prompted me to switch to strictly soap and water for cleaning. We are more interested in removing unwanted contaminants than in neutralizing them. All of the zones are designed to be hoseable from ceiling to floor with the exception of the lights. This allows us to remove all the dust from the environment once each week. I believe that many disease problems are accelerated by the availability of the sponge layer of dust, on walls and ceilings, to harbor contaminants until a strategic flap of a wing or other disturbance sends the disease laden dust throughout the room.

Noise

Subtle noises abound in the wild. In the aviary when the birds are quiet the sound can be deafening. In a quiet room small abrupt noises can be a irritant to a resting bird. We have eliminated this lack of background noise by placing small radios in each room to break up the monotony of the quiet. Visual barriers are made of sound absorbing styrofoam and all zones have sound absorbing sky hedges in front of each cage.

Privacy

Privacy is important for successful breeding in an indoor aviary. A limited field of view containing only other birds who are normally in competition for the same nest site is counter productive. In my designs I attempt to give the birds as large a field of view with out seeing other birds. I accomplish this with strategic placement of sky hedges (explanation to follow), curtains, fixed partitions and walls.

All cages have solid partitions that completely conceal the view of adjoining cages. Styrofoam subsiding panels work great for this purpose. They are light weight, inexpensive, easy to cut, easy to install and absorb some of the noise. This material is available at any lumber yard for about $10.00 for a 4' by 8' sheet. Pieces can be easily glued together with silicon caulk to create larger panels. These panels are attached to the side of the cage with special holders made out of scrap cage wire that position the panels 4 inches from the cage.

When rooms are found to be too large and need to be broken up walls are easily constructed using Styrofoam panels. Partial walls can also be constructed as sound barriers.

Most of my nest boxes and top perches are above 7' high. Birds perched at this level are able to see each other accross the isles. Since this is where they spend the majority of their time I have developed what I call a sky hedge to break up their view. The sky hedges are hanging trellises made from scrap cage wire. Scrap wire can be put together to make a fence about two foot high by four feet long. In the middle of the bottom a small platform is attached to hold a potted ivy plant. The ivy is trained to grow horizontally and cover the wire. These trellises hang from a 3/4" pipe that runs to length of all rooms. This is not a complete barrier but usually obscures about 75 % of the birds view.

Most of my zones have isles that are only 3' to 4' wide. Shielding the birds from seeing each other across the isle decreases male aggression and greatly lowers the noise level in the aviary. In these areas I have run a line the length of the room just under the sky hedge. On this line is hung inexpensive shower curtains. When entering the room to feed or clean the curtain is pushed ahead to the end of the room and pulled back with you as you exit the room.

Ventilation

Ventilation is often the first portion of the environment to have its carrying capacity exceeded. This one area is responsible for more aspects of the environment than any other. Ventilators do more than just ventilate. I have at least 4 objectives in mind when I consider ventilation. Controlled air movement can help to regulate air quality (content), humidity, temperature and to bring in odors from the outside.

Stagnant and uncirculated air acquires additional gasses and dirt not found in clean air from the outside. Toxic gasses accumulate from many sources. By-products of the birds respiration, drains, radiation from the ground, feces, bird dust, decaying food, bacteria and funguses that grow on all surfaces, and by-products of electrical appliances like lights fans and water heaters can contribute to poor air quality. When left in the birds environment these toxins can directly and, or indirectly cause health problems and lower production.

Just as we need water to survive, so do bacteria and fungus. By controlling the humidity level in the aviary we can keep the growth of these organisms to an acceptable level. A good ventilation system will exchange the air from every corner of the room. If high moisture levels are allowed to occur in corners and under cages there will be unacceptable levels in these areas and problems will eventually occur.

Moving air generally creates a cooler feeling. Summer time heat can be removed from the aviary and a cool breeze generated to make the birds feel more comfortable. Generally the birds are perching near the top of the room. This area is where the heat will collect in a room not properly ventilated. Periodically the temperature of the room should be taken at the floor, half way up the wall and at the ceiling. If the temperature varies by more than 10 degrees in the summer it may mean you don't have enough air movement in the room.

Many of the factors causing my birds to begin the reproduction process are a mystery to me. Since parrots in the wild tend to breed at the onset of the rainy season I like to bring in the fresh odor of air ionized by the early spring lightening. Many gasses are also given off by the ground as the winter thaw allows rejuvenated soil to begin the new season. Just as these smells cause us to take a deep breath of spring air, I feel a jubilation in the early morning raucous activity of my birds.

All of these factors are taken into account in determining the rate air is exchanged in each room. Because I have three different facilities I have three different programs tailored to each situation. In the house there is a ventilator fan operating continuously year round. This is done primarily to create a lower air pressure in the bird area to keep any air or dust from getting into the living area. There are additional blowers that will increase the rate of exchange as needed during the year.

Building one was constructed first and is wood frame with central heat and air conditioning capabilities. Even when cooling in the summer and heating in the winter the air exchangers are removing and replacing air in the building. The exception is that in the winter the air exchangers turn off during the last half of the night and also in the summer during the hottest part of the afternoon. This is done to keep the building from getting too cold or too hot.

Building two was constructed knowing all the pitfalls with wood frame construction. This building is all masonry. The heat sink properties of masonry work well to help moderate the enviromental temperature. This goes a long way to reduce the stress on the other factors ventilation is responsible for. Centrally placed ceiling fans in each zone continuously move the air around the room. A large vacuum chamber in the attic has separate lines that go to each of the four zones. This vacuum removes air continuously from each zone and fresh air is pulled in to each room from the ends of the building. Multiple fans in the vacuum chamber allow the building to be set for different continuous flow rates on a seasonal basis.

Conclusion

Different species and zones in our aviary are conditioned to produce at different times of the year. We do this primarily by changing diet and lighting and ventilation sequences. Seasonal lighting and diet changes need to be developed in advance. Last minute, abrupt or poorly thought out changes may end up being counter productive.

In the past I have attempted to produce an even number of babies each month of the year. This strategy was to satisfy my market and not be in competition with other breeders in the summer. Due to a high number of infertile eggs in some species like amazons we have begun to sequence the lights to severely reduce the day length and bring all males into season at the same time. Once males are triggered to reproduce, nest boxes are replaced and the hens will start their part of the process. This should result in a higher number of fertile eggs.

With all known factors taken into consideration this is the way I have grouped my birds. ** Large macaws alone ** Large cockatoos alone ** Small cockatoos with eclectus, ** Amazons alone ** African greys, other African birds, and pionus ** Lories, conures, mini macaws, and ringnecks. **

Stephen Hartman

Stephen Hartman obtained a B.S. degree from the College of Agriculture at The Ohio State University in 1977. He worked 15 years in the construction industry before getting involved in psittacine aviculture in 1987. He now produces parrots for the pet industry as a full time business.

At Hartman Aviary, emphasis is placed on a long term,
high quality life for birds. The facility is constructed and managed to be efficient, productive, and economically viable. Hartman Aviary is a 5000 square foot indoor facility housing approximately 250 psittacines. This collection includes over 50 species with over 35 species breeding on a regular basis. Efficient design and management allow this facility to operate on less than 70 hours of labor each week.


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