All material Copyright © 1991–2002 by the Canadian Parrot Symposium unless otherwise noted. For permission and information about reprinting articles, please e-mail your request.
Should You Breed Your Pet Parrot?
Kashmir K. Csaky
Enchanted Emerald Forest Macaws
Many pet bird owners are tormented by the prospect of breeding their birds. They may want to breed birds, yet are fearful of everything from losing their pet's affection to doubting their ability to properly raise the babies. What I will briefly discuss here are the pitfalls, myths and preparations that must be made for the companion bird owner to become a bird breeder.
Some frequently asked questions:
· Will my bird still love me if I breed it?
· Can I mate my bird once, either as a stud, or find a stud for my hen?
· Should I breed my bird because it is feather picking?
· My bird has numerous behavioral problems. Will it make a good breeder?
· My bird is a captive bred baby. Will it make a good breeding bird?
· My pet bird is rare, am I obligated to breed it?
· How old should my bird be before breeding is an option?
· I don't have the money for a fancy nursery. What should I do?
· What should I know before I breed my birds?
· What do I do with the babies?
· Can I really make a contribution to aviculture?
Will my bird still love me if I breed it?
This is likely the biggest fear of most pet bird owners. We love our birds so much and want the very best for them. We feed them the best foods, buy them expensive toys and we avoid going on vacations so as not to upset them. The fear that they will no longer love us is heart breaking. The possibility that our birds will not only rescind their affections, but will also attack us in an attempt to chase us out of their territory is more than many people can handle. So, they decide that they will not breed their bird.
Unfortunately there is no easy answer. It is possible for pet birds to remain loving pets, yet this is not always the outcome of breeding a pet bird. The species and the specific circumstances must be taken into consideration. Birds that are very territorial in the wild, because they must protect their young from their own species, can become very aggressive towards anyone that they consider a threat. When the breeder has a strong relationship with both birds it is possible that they will not consider their human companion a threat. In fact the presence of the human companion may be a form of security for the birds.
My own birds are very comfortable with me. My Hyacinth Macaws are wild caught birds, yet they are not at all disturbed by my presence at any time. They take nuts from my hand through an open door, even when they have babies in the nest.
With one pair of Scarlets the male loves to have his head rubbed even when he has babies to care for, though the female becomes very upset when she sees him getting a head rub. I have no solid background information about these birds, but their behavior leads me to believe they were both captive raised and were hand-fed as babies. It is obvious to me they were pets at some time, yet I did not purchase them as pets.
Another pair of Scarlets consists of a wild caught male, who still had a quarantine band when I purchased him, and a domestic female. I am assuming that I was given correct information when I purchased the hen. I was told she was hatched at Busch Gardens and should now be 26 years old. She is a very sweet bird who has always loved everyone. As I write this, the pair have two nine week old babies in the nest. My husband and I take the babies out of the nest every day and weigh them. The parents were a little uncomfortable with this the first few times. However, they now are very unconcerned. In spite of all our interference they continue to take good care of the babies.
There are people with many different species who are discovering that they can breed their pets and maintain their affections. They can also handle the babies in full view of the parents without stressing the parents.
Can I mate my bird once, either as a stud or find a stud for my hen?
As a general rule, no! Birds do not mate like dogs and cats. The courtship and bonding process and the nesting rituals can be protracted. Parrots can develop very deep bonds. Separating a pair of compatible birds can be very stressful for the birds and the humans. This practice is very unwise. Birds do break bonds and then pair with another mate. This occurs on rare occasions and requires a large aviary with many free flying birds that choose their own mates. Most pet bird owners would not have the space or funds to provide this type of situation.
Should I breed my bird because it is feather picking?
There are many reasons that birds feather pick. Though sexual frustration can be one reason, this is seldom the case. When birds feather pick and are paired with a mate they will sometimes choose to feather pick their mate as well as themselves. It is my opinion that birds that are bad feather pickers may have a predisposition to feather picking. They may pass this predisposition to their offspring. I feel that trying to breed a bird because it feather picks is one of the worst reasons for breeding. From my informal observations it seems that if neither parent feather picks, the chances are less than 10% that the offspring will pick. If one of the parents picks the odds increase to about 70% . If both parents pick the chances are 90% that their babies will also feather pick. With feather picking being such an undesirable trait in pet birds, I do not recommend setting up birds for breeding just because they feather pick.
My bird has numerous behavioral problems. Will it make a good breeder?
If a compatible mate is found there is the possibility that it will become a good breeding bird. Yet, the reasons for the behavioral problems must be determined. Is the bird truly neurotic or simply out of control? A bird that has not had proper boundaries set for it by the owner can still become a good breeding bird when properly paired. However, a bird that has become very neurotic due to abuse or neglect is not likely to become a good breeder and is unlikely to produce babies that will make good pets.
My bird is a captive bred baby. Will it make a good breeding bird?
I feel that the captive raised baby has the best potential for producing well in captivity. These birds are comfortable, secure in their environment and are generally in good health. Wild caught birds are likely to feel that their own survival is threatened in captivity. Therefore, before they will reproduce, they must become aggressive enough to feel that they can defend themselves and their offspring from us. Then they must feel comfortable enough to believe we will still bring them food and water. It takes a long time before wild birds develop this type of confidence. Should they choose to breed, they may still be nervous parents.
There is still some speculation that captive raised birds are not good parents since they have not learned parenting skills from their avian parents. However, there are now some species of captive raised parrots that have produced many generations of babies. When captive raised birds seem to lack parenting skills it is sometimes possible for the breeder to teach their birds the skills they lack; this is not possible with wild caught birds.
John Dunbar, who raises Hyacinth Macaws, has a captive bred male that he hand-raised and a female that was also a hand-raised pet. When they had their first baby they did not know what to do with it. He hand-fed the baby every two hours for two days while the parents huddled around him and watched what he did. After this period of instruction they began feeding the baby themselves.
At the IV International Parrot Convention in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Neville Connors mentioned that captive raised black Cockatoos made better breeders than wild caught birds. His birds were all incubator-hatched and hand-fed.
One note of caution I must add here concerns the breeding of white Cockatoos. Male white Cockatoos have been known to frequently kill their mates. This behavior has perplexed and dismayed aviculturists. Though there are many theories, it is unknown why this occurs. The only aviary I know of that has been free of any kind of mate aggression has extremely large flights. I have been told that captive raised males are more likely to kill their mates.
My pet bird is rare, am I obligated to breed it?
If you have a rare bird, you have increased responsibilities. One of the responsibilities is to make an effort to breed the bird and increase the future gene pool.
It is often difficult to determine if a bird will be a good or poor breeding bird. When a bird masturbates on the owner's arm or on its toys, this is an indication that the bird may want to breed. Yet, a pet may not want to breed with another bird! Rushing to buy a mate and placing it with an uninterested individual may result in many years of wasted time and could result in no production at all. The newly purchased mate may have been a good producing bird had it been paired with a compatible parrot.
Purchasing a mate for a bird can also be an expensive ordeal especially if the bird is rare. After all of the preparations and expenses, your choice may be rejected. I recommend video dating. Acquire video tapes of potential mates and allow your bird to view the videos. Should the bird show any particular interest in an individual, you are much more likely to have a good match.
It is possible that your bird may have no interest in mating with another bird. If this is the case, it will be a waste of time and money to try and breed this bird. However, with rare birds, changes should be made to encourage it to reproduce at some later time. It must learn that it is a bird. This confused bird should be given an outdoor flight, so that it can spend time in a more natural environment. It should have photographs of birds of its species placed near its cage. It should be shown the dating videos frequently. A soft sculpture toy that resembles its species should be kept nearby. If it begins to show some interest in the photographs, video tapes or the soft sculptured toys, then it is time to begin thinking about breeding again.
How old should my bird be before breeding is an option?
In the wild birds do not have healthy foods available to them year round. They must beware of predators. There are also mature birds that share their environment who have chosen all the good nesting sites. In captivity young birds do not have to contend with the stress that wild birds do and they become sexually mature at a younger age. Pet birds reach sexual maturity before their bodies are physically mature. Older birds in a territory prevent younger birds from growing up too fast, especially young males. Birds like humans are capable of reproduction before they are physically and emotionally mature. Like humans they should not reproduce too young. We do not know the long term effects of birds breeding too young and too often. This type of abusive breeding may shorten the lives of the breeding birds and produce small and weak offspring.
Birds that are emotionally immature may break eggs and mutilate babies. Mature birds that accidentally break eggs or mutilate unresponsive babies are likely to learn from their mistakes. However, with emotionally immature birds this destructive behavior may become a habit. It could become so ingrained it may continue their entire life. Breeding should not occur until birds are fully mature, emotionally and physically as well as sexually.
I don't have the money for a fancy nursery. What should I do?
The nursery need not be elaborate. Yet there should be an area designated as the nursery. This can be a large corner of a room or a former guest room. There should be a water source nearby to make cleanup easier.
Our nursery is a converted guest room. We try to use items that make cleanup fast and easy. The babies are fed on a large wooden table with a Plexiglas cover. When babies are no longer fed in containers, the table is slick and they can slip while being fed. So, at that stage we put a rubber bath mat on the table. The wall near the table is also covered with Plexiglas. There is a paper towel and toilet paper dispenser under the table.
We try to keep everything easily accessible. There is a microwave oven in the room. Bottled water and dried baby formula are also stored in the nursery, along with cleaning and feeding supplies. One of the most important tools we keep in the nursery is our scale. By carefully monitoring and recording the weights of all our babies we have a good idea how well a chick is thriving. Our scale weighs to the nearest gram. It can be used for relatively young chicks as well as adult birds. For hatchlings and very young babies we use an egg scale that weighs to the hundredths of a gram. I feel that every bird owner should have a scale and use it. A change in weight is often an indication of change in the bird's general health.
We keep our babies in small plastic tubs lined with Neotex rubber mats and paper towels. These mats are washable and can tolerate chorine bleach. We also place the Neotex rubber mats over the wire in the baby cages. Our large containers are lined with dry deck. These products help keep the babies dry and clean. They are also very helpful for birds that have leg or feet problems.
What should I know before I breed my birds?
You should try to accumulate as much knowledge as you possibly can. Most pet bird owners try to learn how to be good pet owners and how to keep their pets healthy and happy. Yet they do not try to learn about wild bird behavior; this is shortsighted. The majority of pet birds are still only one generation from the wild and much of their behavior is still instinctive, especially breeding behavior. Pet bird owners also often overlook the possibility of disease; I assume they feel that their birds are not at risk. The more birds you have the greater the risk of disease and the more important it is to gain knowledge about disease. There are also health risks that are associated with breeding and the rearing of babies. These should be fully researched so that if the situation arises, the birds will get immediate care.
When breeding your pet you will be faced with some choices that you may not have considered. Will you incubate eggs? Will you hand-feed babies? Will you only do these things if the parents fail at incubation or rearing babies? If you can stand by and watch babies and eggs die you will not need to learn to artificially incubate eggs or hand-feed babies. However, if you cannot stand by and do nothing you will need to be proficient at artificial incubation and you should be an excellent hand-feeder. Even if your birds are good parents and you do not need to incubate or hand-feed, co-parenting is still hard work and you must have an intuitive understanding of what the parent birds need to properly care for their chicks.
What do I do with the babies?
I have heard so many pet bird owners say, "I could never sell the babies." For most people it is not really selling the babies that is so difficult, it is the fear that their baby will not go to a loving home. If you do not have a big breeding operation, if you co-parent raise your babies and you only raise a few babies a year, you can pick and choose who your babies go to. This is assuming that your babies are sweet and healthy. Babies that are raised by loving humans and their avian parents are both good pets and breeders and are in demand.
Can I really make a contribution to aviculture?
Most small or in-home breeders have the mistaken idea that only the large aviaries can make a real contribution to aviculture. There are only a few big aviaries that really make a contribution. Most do not have the time or take the time to keep good records of what they are doing or what procedures actually lead to positive or negative results. The small aviculturist has more time to record what is actually occurring. If small breeders network with other aviculturists this combined information can result in more accurate information about a species than large aviaries can produce. Even if an individual's birds are atypical there may still be a common thread that can be detected when comparing them to many other pairs. The differences themselves may prove to be valuable information. It is my belief that the small breeders hold the key to the future of aviculture, whether the birds they breed are rare or are common species.