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| Breeding Season
by Rosemary Low
The breeding season should be the most exciting time of the year; for many breeders, however, it is the most stressful. There is so much that can go wrong! Careful preparation can help to prevent problems. The most important consideration is breeding from birds which are 100% fit. It is asking for trouble to use birds which are anything less.
I would suggest that three months before you expect a pair to lay you review their past record. If this leaves something to be desired and you do not know why, and the value of the birds merits spending money on them, consult an avian veterinarian. Low-grade bacterial infections and even Candida infections can result in reduced fertility and/or hatchability and, if chicks hatch, disease can be passed on which causes their death at an early age. Low-grade bacterial infections may not be immediately life-threatening but they should be treated with the same seriousness as any other form of disease. This should be so for the birds' sake, and because it is not cheap to feed and house parrots, as we all know, and without some financial incentive many people will give up. And we owe it to our birds to provide the best possible health care.
Some non-productive pairs can be turned into prolific pairs with a little veterinary attention. You might ask a vet. to random-test a number of birds, or just concentrate on those with poor breeding records. He will carry out whatever tests you ask for— faecal analysis to reveal the presence of harmful bacteria and the fungus Candida albicans, testing for Chlamydia (psittacosis) and blood profiles of individual birds.
Another important aspect is making sure your birds are really fit, not just healthy. These days there are some excellent supplements designed for parrots—specifically for pets and for breeding birds. They really do make a difference if fed as directed, which might be, for example, for six weeks before the first eggs are expected.
Now for a few comments on nest-boxes. If you have a pair of birds which steadfastly refuse to enter their nest-box, move its position so that it is facing in a different direction. The result may be that the birds enter within minutes! Also check that the entrance hole is large enough. This may sound obvious but failing to notice that the entrance is too small could waste an entire breeding season. If young birds, which have never nested before, refuse to enter the nest-box, try making the entrance larger. It is always a good idea to offer a choice of nest sites.
Another reason for failure to breed is lack of stimuli. Diet can provide the stimulus needed if it is not the same throughout the year. For example, some conure breeders control the start of the breeding season, so that all females lay at the same time. For three months before laying the diet contains very few fruits and vegetables. These foods are resumed to form a large proportion of the diet. The same can apply with, for example, Amazons, which need additional protein. Of course, a food stimulus should be timed to coincide with the normal breeding season, which is not very flexible in the case of Amazons. But there are considerable advantages,including the potential for fostering, when pairs synchronise their laying activities.
It is extremely important that females are not overweight prior to egglaying. The result could be egg-binding or even prolapse of the oviduct. Flying exercise is very important. It is vital that pairs are healthy and that they accept a balanced diet.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I would emphasise the importance of ensuring that laying females have sufficient calcium — not just a cuttlefish bone. Females of any species which lay more than two eggs in a clutch should be given a calcium supplement prior to the breeding season, about four weeks before eggs are expected. There are several liquid and powder calcium supplements available for birds, also some in the form of a block. Some of these supplements also contain Vitamin D. Note that an excess can be harmful; however,calcium cannot be absorbed without the presence of Vitamin D or exposure to sunlight. If a female is in a state of collapse after laying, this is probably because she was so deficient in calcium she has drawn on the reserve in her bones.
A laying female who deserts the nest, looking sick, may be suffering from egg-binding. She needs immediate heat, fluids and a calcium injection from a vet. The calcium will be absorbed straight into the blood stream and will usually result in a rapid recovery provided that action has been taken quickly. However, in rare cases, an egg is so large that the female cannot pass it. An x-ray will show this and the vet will have to operate to remove the egg.
In most cases of egg-binding, the problem is very obvious as the female deteriorates so quickly. However, I will relate a highly unusual case in which this was not so. A female Yellow-fronted Amazon (Amazona o.ochrocephala) in my care laid a single egg which did not hatch. She appeared slightly unwell but the vet. could not find anything wrong. She started to lose weight and died six weeks later. On autopsy the vet found an egg inside her which had been there since just after the first egg was laid, judging from its condition. Unfortunately, at the time no x-ray machine was available. This case emphasises the importance of a complete veterinary examination which should include an x-ray in cases where the cause of the problem is not apparent. I have never forgotten this case because, in effect, the female died of neglect.
Another problem associated with lack of calcium is broken eggs. The breeder might blame the bird when, in fact, the fault is his own. A calcium-deficient diet results in thin-shelled eggs. However, these days one has to look elsewhere for the cause in most cases of egg-breaking. It may be due to the wrong type of nest-box. Personally, I do not like ordinary upright nest-boxes, because the incubating bird drops straight down on to the eggs. The use of L-shaped, inverted L-shape or even horizontal nest-boxes is better, in my opinion. Macaws, especially, like horizontal boxes. Incidentally, ensure that the box is well supported. Large birds such as macaws and Moluccan Cockatoos (Cacatua moluccensis) do need spacious nest-boxes. Often the boxes provided are too small. And with birds which can be aggressive, such as Eclectus, I find the best design is a horizontal box about 2ft (60cm) long, 10in (15cm) wide and 11in (28cm) high. The female can back off the eggs or young when nest inspection takes place. In an upright box she cannot back off or move away from the inspection door. Although birds like nest-boxes which are high up, they are difficult to inspect.
Another problem is egg-breaking. It may result from the use of young, inexperienced birds. Such cases are usually easily cured. The eggs should be put in an incubator or fostered and replaced with plastic eggs. My own choice is always a trustworthy female.
It does not matter if the eggs are not of the same size. For example, rather than place an egg of a pair of Stella's Lorikeets (Charmosyna papou goliathina) in an incubator, after the other egg was broken, I gave it to an incubating Yellow-fronted Amazon. When the egg started to pip I removed it to a hatcher and hand-reared the chick. Its parents often broke the eggs after incubating for some days or even a couple of weeks. Why did they do this? We have to assess the circumstances of every pair and try to work out the reason. In this case the Stella's were housed in a large building which contained about 200 parrots in suspended cages. The Stella's were in the next row to some very noisy and aggressive Amazons. If there was a disturbance the Amazons would become very excited and aggressive. I believe this unsettled the Stella's. The pair was moved to a small, quiet birdroom which contains only lorikeets. There were no more broken eggs and they have proved to be prolific.
Another problem which besets most breeders at some time is dead-in-shell, that is, the chick dying in the egg not long before it is due to hatch. Countless reasons have been suggested but I will only mention one here. It is humidity. Parrot species originate from a wide range of environments; in captivity some species do well in humid conditions, although the threat of fungal growth on foods and the increased possibility of chicks contracting Candida in the nest must always be borne in mind.Other species do better in a dry climate. If in doubt, refer to a book which gives information regarding the species' natural habitat. Generally speaking dead-in-shell is more likely to be caused by excessive humidity, rather than lack of it. However, recently there has been a trend in the UK towards using kiln-dried wood chips as nesting material. I have heard a number of reports from breeders which indicate that hatchability is very poor when this is used.
At this point it might be useful to consider the different types of breeding facilities. In my opinion, a large building containing many pairs of unrelated species is the worst type. It is too noisy, there are too many distractions which can make birds nervous or aggressive and, most importantly, disease, if present, is impossible to control. I favour small units, whether they are enclosed buildings or outdoor aviaries. Ideally, every group of parrots, such as Amazons, lories or parrakeets, should be in a separate location. Some species, especially Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus), do not breed well — or do not breed at all — if they can see their neighbors, so solid partitions between suspended cages are desirable.
Know your birds
Mention has already been made of fostering eggs. It is always an advantage to know the habits of individual females and species. For example, in my experience, Eclectus will sit only one or two days at most past the incubation period of 28 days, then they destroy the eggs. If fostering eggs to a nest which contains infertile eggs this must be taken into account. On the other hand, Amazons will generally incubate well past the actual incubation period. In 1990 I experienced an extraordinary happening, also with a Yellow-fronted Amazon. Yellow-shouldered Amazons (Amazona barbadensis) lay later in the season than other Amazons. That year a pair of Yellow-shouldered destroyed their first clutch at Palmitos Park just before the eggs were due to hatch. The female laid the first of the three eggs of her second clutch on June 1. After two weeks I transferred the eggs to an incubator to ensure there would be no repeat of the first-round tragedy. At the time, so late in the year for Amazons, only one other female had eggs, the Yellow-front; the first egg had been laid on May 10. The clutch proved to be infertile. I decided to leave the eggs in the nest in the optimistic hope that she would still be incubating when the Yellow-shouldered was due to hatch. On June 25, when the first barbadensis egg started to pip in the incubator, I placed the pipping egg in the Yellow-front's nest. It hatched the next day when she had been sitting for 47 days. Yes forty seven! When the other two eggs hatched they were also transferred to her nest. Two chicks were reared and fledged by the Yellow-fronts — but there was a problem with the third.
When it was four weeks old it seemed weak and I removed it for handrearing. I suspected a calcium deficiency and, after one week, during which its food was supplemented daily with calcium, it was in perfect condition. I am quite happy to put chicks of different species and ages in the same brooder, provided that I know they are healthy. This young Yellow-shouldered Amazon, which was a female, was the subject of yet another interesting happening. It shared the brooder with an Eclectus Parrot and two much younger Green-naped Lorikeets (Trichoglossus h.haematodus) who were in a tub, whereas the Eclectus and the Amazon could walk about the floor, which had a welded mesh base. When the Amazon was six weeks old I noticed that the lorikeets often had food over them and that their crops sometimes seemed slow to empty. They were in excellent health so I could not understand why apparently they were vomiting. Then one day, when the lorikeets were 17 and 19 days old, I saw what was happening. The Amazon, not yet seven weeks old, was feeding the lorikeet chicks! Needless to say, I immediately moved her to a weaning cage. Everyone who hand-rears parrot chicks should be aware that this can happen. It is the second case I have seen.
Fostering is a most useful technique for those who cannot or will not hand-rear chicks from an early age. However, one needs to be aware of the circumstances in which it can be carried out. Broadly speaking, parrots can be divided into two groups: cockatoos (including Cockatiels) and the rest. Cockatoos are distinctive in behavior, appearance and vocalisation, and this also applies to their chicks. Cockatiels are therefore the best foster parents during the first few days of their life. Although it is not unknown for other species to feed Cockatiel or cockatoo chicks, the chances of this happening are not good. Some parrots will feed totally unrelated species, others will not. However, the chances of acceptance are highest when a chick is placed in a foster nest containing newly hatched or very young chicks either as a pipping egg or on hatching. This is partly because as chicks grow the characteristics between the different species become more pronounced. There should never be a problem in fostering a chick of the same genus as differences in behavior are minimal. Such young can even be fledged with their foster parents who accept them despite difference in size and coloration. It is my usual practice to remove chicks of different genera for hand-rearing at about four weeks. However, I once allowed a pair of Double Yellow-headed Amazons (Amazona o.oratrix) to rear three Queen of Bavaria's Conures (Guaruba guarouba) from hatching to independence — totally without problems. Some species imprint on humans more easily than others. The Queen of Bavaria's Conure imprints very easily indeed. There are advantages in fostering, rather than hand-rearing, birds which are to be used for breeding purposes and not as pets, in my opinion.
The most important factor to consider when fostering chicks of totally different species is the length of time which they normally spend in the nest before fledging. Australian parrakeets fledge after about five weeks whereas conures, for example, spend eight weeks in the nest. When the parrakeet chicks fledge the foster-parents may not continue to feed a chick of another species which is not developed enough to leave the nest. Such chicks must then be removed for hand-rearing. When fostering young of the same species remember that there is a limit to the number which certain species can rear. Occasionally Eclectus lay three eggs and hatch them all. But one must be removed for hand-rearing because they will only feed two well.
A question which is sometimes asked is whether a female without a mate which is laying eggs, can be used as a foster parent. Also, if one member of a pair dies, can the remaining partner rear young on his or her own? Because females with very young chicks are normally fed by the male, a single mother may not come off the nest often enough to feed a chick, or she may feed the chick and neglect herself. Therefore while such a bird can be used to hatch eggs, when the egg pips it should be moved elsewhere. In the case of a single bird being left to rear a chick which has started to feather, this is acceptable and usually successful.
Fostering can also be useful to stimulate an inexperienced pair to feed their chick, if they show no interest in doing so. Their chick should be removed and replaced with a chick of the same or closely related species aged four or five days. Its more vigorous demands for food often trigger the feeding instinct. However, a valuable chick should not be used, in case of failure!
Death of chicks in the nest
Breeders often blame the birds when they find chicks dead in the nest. But they should be blaming themselves in nine cases out of ten. In my experience, most parrots are good parents if they are provided with the right conditions and suitable rearing food. I will mention some of the circumstances in which chicks die or are abandoned by the parents.
1. They are sick, usually suffering from a bacterial infection or a fungal infection (Candida albicans). 2. The diet is inadequate to rear the chick beyond a certain stage. 3. The parents cease to brood the young at night before they are feathered. This is a common problem in early nesting species such as Plumheads. 4. The parents have been breeding too long without a break and gradually lose interest in rearing the young. When the female spends increasing periods outside the nest the male will start to mate with her again. Then she goes in to clear out the nest for the next clutch, and she kills the young. 5. One or both of the parents are sick. 6. Chicks could be killed if regular nest inspection is not carried out and the nest is suddenly inspected, especially if inspection is carried out in an unsympathetic way. It should take place from outside the aviary from a service passage.
Also note that birds are often unjustly blamed for killing chicks. The chicks die, then the parents chew them up - a natural instinct to clear out the nest. However, on occasions parrots do kill or mutilate newly hatched chicks. This is most likely to happen with very excitable species, such as certain Amazons (eg, bodini and barbadensis) and usually with inexperienced pairs. However, sometimes an aggressive male is to blame and the only answer is to foster eggs before they hatch. Sometimes a newly hatched chick is found dead with an injury to the upper mandible. This is often due to inexperience when the new parent is trying to feed the chick. In two pairs of Palm Cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) the first chick of each pair died on the first day in this way. Thereafter, both pairs reared their young without any problems.
With most parrot species, daily nest inspection is not difficult, if the nest-box is correctly sited and of the right design. The inspection door should be in the back or side — never in the top. Admittedly, there are some species in which nest inspection is not easy, especially Grey Parrots and certain Amazons or macaws and Moluccan Cockatoos. For other species, nest inspection which commences even before the first egg is laid and is carried out on a regular basis, and always announced by a gentle knock on the box, is not usually a problem. Nest inspection is so important because it saves eggs and chicks which would otherwise be lost. When nest-boxes are inspected on a regular basis, preferably daily, it is unusual to find chicks dead in the nest. The experienced breeder knows when a chick is not thriving and removes it for hand-rearing. The chick's parents also know; they may continue to feed an ailing chick or they may kill it. I remember finding one of three Red-bellied Parrots (Poicephalus rufiventris) in a corner of the nest-box and buried up to its head in nesting material. The two healthy chick were on the other side of the nest-box. When I had weighed the chicks on the previous day I knew that this one was not thriving but my hand-rearing facilities were already stretched to the limit. I delayed taking the chick. Next day I had to do so; the chick was treated for a bacterial infection and it survived.
When inspecting younger chicks in the nest it is usually necessary to handle them. They should feel solid, the abdomen should be well rounded and the breast bone should not be prominent. However, do NOT touch chicks in the nest if you do not have the time or the inclination to wash your hands between each nest-box. If you do not do so you could be transferring an infectious disease right through your collection.
Physical problems with chicks
In my experience, physical problems with chicks usually result either from a diet which is deficient in some aspect or due to the female removing the nest litter from beneath the chick. Both can result in leg deformities. Some rare females insist on their chicks being on the bare wood of the nest-box; no matter how carefully one places wood shavings beneath them, the female will remove them. There is a danger of splayed legs in this case because as the chick grows it does not have a firm surface to grip. With small species, providing a concave nest base, as Budgerigar breeders do, may help. There are other reasons for the problem. If a chick with splayed legs is of ringing age, simply ring both legs, then hold the legs in the proper position by passing ribbon or soft cord through the rings to form a figure of eight. After about three weeks the cord can be removed. Even in a nest with other chicks this method causes no problems and is highly successful. Leg deformities or other deformities, such as broken wings, which are the result of calcium-deficient diets, must be dealt with by removing the chick from the nest. It amazes me how many novice breeders produce birds such as Greys and cockatoos with rickets without even being aware of the fact. If you see bent leg bones or a crooked spine in a chick you can be certain that it is suffering from rickets. Here again the breeder has not realised the importance of calcium additives. Some species, especially Greys, macaws and cockatoos, have a higher calcium requirement than others. This also applies to some individual females. If they look unwell while laying or rearing,calcium supplementation may help them.
Newly fledged young
When parent-reared young leave the nest the likelihood of problems occurring increases. It is extremely important to spend as much time as possible watching them at this time. If they fledge prematurely before they can fly, they will fall on the floor. In a cage this is not usually a problem; in an aviary most parents will not feed chicks which are on the ground. The answer is simple: just replace the chicks in the nest and they will be fed. However, if they are on the ground because they are weak or unable to fly because they have been plucked, they must be removed for hand-rearing. At this stage they will be very nervous and probably will not accept food readily. The easiest way to feed them is to wrap them firmly in a towel and syringe feed into the crop. If you are not experienced at this procedure, do not learn on feathered young as they are more difficult to feed. I have found that spoon-feeding into the side of the beak is a good alternative method.
The other danger when young fledge is that they may be attacked by the male. Some males target their sons only and attack them within a couple of days of fledging. If you have a male which does this, remove the male just before the young fledge. The female can manage on her own unless she has a very large brood. My method is to keep the male in a small cage inside the aviary or, in the case of a suspended cage, near by. He is not returned until they young are removed.
Many breeders are not aware how many factors are inherited from their parents by the young. I have found that this type of male aggression can be inherited. Thus the males from such pairs are best not used for breeding. Temperament is a very important feature for the breeder to select for, especially for species in which killing of females or young by the male is well-known, such as Cuban Amazons and white cockatoos.
Sometimes young which have been attacked have the upper mandible partly ripped off. These young can be weaned on to a liquid food and can exist on this for weeks or months until they have learned how to deal with their disability. You can use a hand-rearing mixture which is slightly sweetened to make it more palatable if necessary.
Reducing the possibility of poor results
So far I have discussed certain situations in which problems occur. Now let us take a more general look at why breeding results may be poor. The reason is often that the birds themselves are not suitable for breeding purposes. Many breeders buy birds of which they have no prior knowledge, especially if they see a "breeding pair" advertised. Of course there are some genuine reasons for selling pairs — but would you sell your best breeding pairs? If you were forced to sell, you would probably not need to advertise them. Bear in mind that breeding the larger parrot species only commenced in earnest 20 years ago. There must be a lot of birds around now that are no longer capable of breeding. Unfortunately, there are also many which have come from aviaries which have suffered outbreaks of potentially devastating viral diseases such as PDD (proventricular dilatation disease). Both these factors should make anyone very wary of buying in any bird which was not hatched that season. So often people buy adults because they are too impatient to wait for young birds to mature. This often proves to be a very expensive policy. I have said this many times before — but apparently it cannot be stated too often: the best birds for breeding are those which hatched in your own aviaries. You know their history and they know your management. Set aside young unrelated pairs for breeding, or keep back one young one and bring in one from another source so that the two can be paired at an early age. It is much harder to pair up adult birds. Incompatability is the cause of more breeding failures than many breeders realise.
Also, consider that one does not have to wait long for captive-bred birds to mature, even those of large species. A Moluccan Cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis) reared in my care laid her first egg at 23 months and I know of Blue and Yellow and Green-winged Macaws (Ara ararauna and Ara chloroptera) which have laid at three years and a Hyacinthine Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) which laid at four years. Now that chicks can be DNA-sexed while in the nest, breeders have no excuse for not keeping back young birds. The lack of aviary space is no reason as all breeding facilities, no matter how small, should be designed with this in mind.
With the smaller species, such as lovebirds and Cockatiels, poor breeding results may have a different origin. Colony breeding is often attempted, especially by beginners. Few birds breed well in colonies, often because the aviaries are not large enough. Another factor to be considered is special foods for pairs with young. In a colony it is difficult to ensure that pairs feeding chicks receive the extras.
Many breeders do not appreciate how important it is to stimulate pairs to feed their chicks by offering extras two or three times daily. These extras will vary according to the species but they can make all the difference between healthy well-fed chicks and those that die early from malnutrition.
Another very important aspect is the size of the cage or aviary. The reason I do not favour suspended cages is not because of the design, which is very useful for certain birds, but because these cages seem to encourage people to give their breeding pairs the absolutely minimum space. Unfortunately, parrot breeding has become parrot farming. In some collections too little thought is given to the quality of life of the birds and too much emphasis is put on crowding as many cages as possible into a given space. I believe that an aviary 12ft long (3.6m) is the absolute minimum for any parrot of Pionus size and larger, also for the Australian parrakeets, with the exception of Neophemas (Grass Parrakeets).
And size isn't everything. Try to make their environment an interesting one. It isn't only pet birds who enjoy playing with things. Adult birds do, too, but seldom have the chance. You don't have to buy expensive parrot toys. Small birds derive enormous enjoyment from a V-shaped branch (with buds and twigs) placed over the perch like a swing. For the larger species a swing can be made very easily by cutting part of a branch from an apple or pear tree. Chose a branch with two natural protrusions, then loop a length of chain (which you can buy at a hardware store) around the perch and tighten the loop by using a key ring. Then suspend it from the aviary roof. All my aviaries have swings, some of them made from rope, and hanging water dishes. Best of all is a knotted skipping rope, on which they will play for hours. A visitor to my aviaries once commented; 'I've never seen so many happy birds!' — because they are all so active. Contentment of the pairs will increase breeding success. Parrots are so intelligent! Forget all the anti-anthropomorphic rubbish you might read. Treat them as though they are people and you will begin to understand what they need.
I will leave you with a final thought. If our birds fail to rear their young, don't blame them. Ninety per cent of the time it is us who are at fault. We are just not clever enough to know why — or we simply don't give enough thought to it.