THE BREEDING OF PSITTACINES

By R. J. Topper

IFCB 1978

There is no such thing as one correct way in the handling, care or breeding of psittacine birds.

One of the key factors in the breeding of psittacine birds is nutrition. If we look into the investigations that have been done on these birds in their wild or native habitats, we will find that they are predominantly grain eaters. This is to the exclusion, for the most part, of seeds. We normally think in terms of seeds representing flowering type plants and grain representing non-flowering plants, which would include what we call grass seeds. However, we have to be cognizant of the fact that there is no such thing as a grain or combination of grains or seeds that can give a bird the total nutrient levels that it requires and has been able to obtain in its natural habitat. Certainly, birds eat many things; berries, fruits, nuts, grains, some seeds, grubs, etc. Realizing that we cannot duplicate these exactly, we certainly hope to be able to nutritionally or chemically duplicate the intake of these total nutrient compounds that the bird needs in order to be healthy and to give us good breeding results.

The ways we can effectively duplicate the natural habitat nutrients are to give good and complete grain mixes and various oils, and to use chemical, vitamin or nutrient additives, fruits, fruit supplements, soft food mixes and sprouted seeds. It would seem that, at least from my experience, the primary supplemental items that the birds want are apple and soft food mixes, including sprouted seeds and greens. They seem to have a time clock in their heads. If you don’t give them the mix they are used to on a given day and/or you don’t give it to them at approximately the time of day they are used to getting it, they certainly are vociferous in letting you know about it.

One of the primary supplements given near and during breeding season is fresh corn on the cob. The birds seem to enjoy it, it is nutritious, is easy for the hens to make crop milk, and thus takes quite a strain off of the hens in feeding the young.

Another type of feeding that we have on occasion employed or will encounter is Gevage, hand feeding, tube feeding or whatever you may call it. This method of feeding may be done by choice or by necessity. There are on occasion hens that will refuse to feed their young or may feed them to a certain point and then discontinue feeding. Rather than take a chance that the young will perish in the nest with a bird of this type, we naturally will pull them and hand feed. We can further increase the productivity of these birds by permitting the to lay and hatch their eggs and then pull the young and hand feed them. We generally find that these hens will go back to the nest, though we only permit them to have one further clutch as we do not feel that over-breeding can be of any advantage to the bird.

We know that we cannot duplicate the exact foods that the parent birds would ordinarily feed their young. However, we do attempt to come as close as possible by making up mixes of grain and cereals with supplemental additives, such as vitamins and electrolytes. We cook these mixes and thus give it some semblance of the pre-digested quality that the parent will have when feeding the baby. The formula that we use is a fairly standard one, made up basically of safflower or soy meals, baby foods of high protein level, oatmeal, cream of rice, wheat heart cereal, masa harina (which is a corn meal) with additives such as baby vegetables (predominantly Spinach) for the greens, tri-calcium phosphate to help the growth of the babies’ bone structure and vitamins. Through experience we have found that this particular formula is successful in feeding baby birds literally from day of hatch to the day they are weaned. We have used it successfully on every Psittacine bird we have in our collection with the exception of the pure fruit and nectar eaters, such as lories.

Another key area of consideration in breeding of psittacine birds is housing. These do not have to be aviaries of any particular type, size or method of construction. We experienced successful results in breeding many birds, including some of the larger parakeets, parrots and macaws, in relatively small breeding cages. I am quite convinced, however, that nutrition is the primary factor in bringing any bird

into good condition and ultimately breeding that bird. However, when we do breed birds in small cages, we give those birds rest periods in larger flight areas so that they can maintain their good body condition through exercise and normal flight. Some of the largest birds, such as macaws and cockatoos, have been successfully raised in amazingly small cages by many aviculturists. Macaws have been known to regularly breed in areas as small as two and one-half feet by three feet. The breeding urges are rather strong in all these birds, and unusually confining conditions do not necessarily preclude successful breeding. One aspect we have found that will at times preclude breeding, particularly in cockatoos, is where a bird has been hand fed and played with and made inordinately tame. We do find many of these birds will have absolutely nothing to do with other birds, and we have found no practical way to get them to breed. When we hand feed babies we want to use as breeding stock, we handle them only for the short period of time necessary to get the food into them and then ignore them, leaving them (hopefully with other babies) in the nest or box in which they are held during feeding. We find that this gives these birds a far greater opportunity to realize they are birds.

An important feature in any aviary or cage is the perches. Both the diameter and the stability or steadiness of the perch are of paramount importance. Naturally, if the perch moves, proper mating frequently cannot take place. Further, the comfort of the birds and their ability to hang on to the perch, particularly the hens, is of great importance. The perch should be of such size that when the bird has its feet clamped on it, the claws are approximately two-thirds of the way around the total circumference of the perch. One of the best types of perches is the natural tree limb. If possible, stay away from the dowel perch, which is often found in commercial cages and, I am afraid, all too frequently used by breeders. The dowel is much too round, smooth, small and, in general, unnatural for the bird. To find a dowel of adequate size in a hard wood that these birds will not eat up in a matter of minutes is very difficult. Realizing that all psittacines are chewing animals (as they need this chewing to keep their beaks in good condition), we certainly should give them something to chew on, hopefully something other than their perches. Assuming that we use perch woods hard enough that the birds cannot destroy, such as dry eucalyptus, then provide some other wood, such as 2 x 4’s in small pieces, hung in various places around the aviary so that the birds will have something not only to keep them out of mischief but to give them the constant ability to satisfy their instinctive chewing action.

Nest boxes also play an important part in the breeding of psittacine birds. There is no such thing as an absolute rule in the use of a nest box of given size or type for any particular bird. We have seen a pair of birds use a box 9 x 9″ x 6′ deep for their first clutch and for the second clutch in the same aviary in the same year use a box that is 10 x 12″ x 12″ deep. However, we do attempt to standardize on a particular box for a given type of bird. We have found in approximately eighty percent of our breeding stock that the same size and type of box will be readily accepted year in and year out by the same species of birds. When we find birds that do not seem to be well settled or properly acclimated to a particular box, these birds will be given a choice of up to four different types, sizes and shapes of nest boxes. We will let them pick the box they want, and if they seem totally content in that box, we will pull the others. On occasion we will leave the other boxes simply because the birds do not seem to be fully content, and we generally find that in subsequent clutches they will take a different box. As a general rule, we attempt to make our nest boxes approximately one to one and a half inches greater in width and front-to-back dimensions than the bird is long from head to tail. The only exceptions to this are those rather long tailed parakeets, such as the Ring Neck, Princess, Plum Head, etc. In those cases we found that a box approximately one to two inches longer than the body of the birds seemed not only to be satisfactory but generally preferred by the birds. In the case of large macaws, we use steel drums or garbage cans, generally the thirty-two gallon size, and the various cockatoos will use anything from twenty gallon steel drums up to fifty-five gallon steel drums.

Of paramount importance in any nest box is a ladder which the bird must have. Otherwise, many hens will enter the nest box by jumping on the eggs, subsequently breaking them and/or killing young that may be in the box. These ladders should be made of wire and preferably spaced away from the inside frontal facing of the box at least one quarter to one half inch so the birds cannot get their feet or nails hung up.

The hole for entry is generally ten to fifteen percent wider than the dimension of the body of the particular bird to use that nest. There are certain exceptions to this, such as in the case of the Blue Bonnets where the hens are obviously much smaller than the males. In those cases, we make a box where the body of the bird will easily fit through the hole and then cover it entirely with a piece of bark, drilling only a small eighth inch or quarter inch hole. The hen will pick out her own entry to the exact size of her own body, thus precluding entry to the male. He, for some reason, will not attempt to get into the box. However, should you leave a normal nest entry hole, you will ordinarily find that the male will go into the box, disturbing the hen and frequently killing the young.

Other types of next boxes used for various birds can be found of a specialty type. A good example would be Hooded Parakeets where we found successful breeding in two types of conditions. One is a bale of moss where the birds will burrow into the moss, generally from the top, going almost straight down and then off at an angle. We also make nest boxes for these birds in an “L” shape where they can enter the box, go down and off to the side. We found with these particular birds (evidently being termite hill or ant hill nesters in their native habitat) that they have a peculiar habit of circling the box. As a result, we staple bark on the outside of the box, not for a natural appearance but merely to give them a footing. We find that the hens prefer to be able to run entirely around their boxes.

I realize that many people refer to any box of more than two feet in depth as being a grandfather type. However, the majority of our nest boxes range in depth from sixteen to thirty inches. What we consider the grandfather boxes are nests that are from five to seven feet in depth. Particular birds that seem to enjoy boxes of that type are the King Parakeets, Crimson Parakeets, Barraband Parakeets and the Princess of Wales. (The last bird mentioned is one I have seen very successfully breeding in boxes that are normally construed as cockatiel boxes.) As a generality, it is wise to make the size of the nest box smaller, rather than larger, than your estimation of what truly is necessary.

We had some problems several years ago in attempting to breed Plum Head and Blossom Head Parakeets. We found them constantly chewing through the bottom of the box and invariably cowering in one corner. Though we occasionally had clutches of eggs, we never really, in our estimation, successfully bred these birds. I finally designed a box that has the shape of an “A” frame where the top of the box is very narrow, only about three and a half inches to four inches in width. The bottom of the box is also quite narrow, approximately eight inches in width and nine inches front to back. These boxes are thirty-six inches deep. Since that time we found the Plum Heads are very successful breeders, all of them preferring this type of box.

The nesting material which we place in the boxes is fairly standardized for most birds. We happen to be fortunate in that we have a ready supply available to us of coarse shavings (not sawdust, which we know can be dangerous as babies can ingest the material and die from it). We mix the coarse shavings approximately fifty percent with rotted wood and bark which has been sterilized by placing it in an oven at approximately 200 degrees F for a period of forty-five minutes to one hour. Once this mix is made, we will add one-third sterilized potting soil, which can be obtained from any nursery, and two-thirds of the previous mix. We then make this quite wet, squeeze all the excess moisture out and load the boxes from one and one-half to three inches deep with the mixture. We use a sterilized potting soil for two reasons, (1) because it retains a substantial amount of moisture as it has various types of moss and humus in it and (2) it is sterilized and thus precludes the possibility of unwanted and dangerous bacteria which other types of dirt frequently harbor.

If we are fortunate enough to select our breeding stock and pick only the best breeders, we certainly have precluded many of our problems. However, the majority of us are not so fortunate. As a result, we occasionally find hens that are going to jump into their nest boxes, destroying the eggs and/or the young, regardless of the ladders we may install. I have seen specialty boxes constructed to curtail this wherein a long tunnel was built extending from the hole of the box. The bird lands at the entrance of the tunnel and has to walk at a rather slow pace to get through the narrow tunnel until she gets to the nest box itself. We have not had much success in using this. However, I have seen other aviculturists use it quite success- fully. We use another method to curtail the problem. We create a cross of perch material that will be installed inside the nest box, going from front to back and side to side, generally installed approximately two to three inches above the height of a sitting hen in the bottom of the box. We discovered that the hens will jump onto these cross perches and then rather gingerly step down to the bottom of the box. This has eliminated a lot of problems of that type.
Behavioral patterns are of great import in the successful breeding of psittacines. However, few of us really have the opportunity to observe our birds to learn all their habits. The peculiarities of each bird can be as varied as the differences found in human beings.

We find in certain birds, particularly the rosellas, that the hens seem to come into breeding condition slightly after the males. Thus, the males are quite active in attempting to breed and force the hens toward the nest boxes, driving them quite hard on occasion. Death sometimes results. To preclude this possibility, we catch the males and cut every other primary feather back to the point of the secondaries on one wing. They can still fly, yet it slows them down enough so that the hens can stay ahead of the males. On one occasion approximately three years ago a pair of Golden Mantels that had bred successfully for approximately five years went into the normal breeding season. Since I knew the bird well, I did not observe them too closely. What I did not realize was that the hen evidently came into breeding condition earlier than the male. The female, acting as the aggressor, debeaked the male, and we lost him. If I had not seen it, I would not have believed it. This particular case illustrates the fact that we can never know our birds too well. Constant observation is always necessary for successful breeding. It is very important to get to know on a personally familiar basis every bird in our breeding collection. It is not realistic to expect all individuals of a species to follow the exact same pattern. We must expect variances from bird to bird.

The proximity of birds to each other is also important. We attempt to keep pairs of the same species separated by at least three or four flights. All flights should be double-wired because birds are likely to fight with adjacent neighbors when they are in breeding condition. There are certain exceptions, however. Pileated Parakeets, for example, have far greater breeding success when we keep them in every other flight. It seems when one male comes into breeding condition, each male down the line follows his lead. When widely separated, breeding is spotty and scattered. We have also found greater success in keeping the Princess of Wales Parakeets close enough to hear each other. The call of one bird tends to bring the others of the same species into breeding condition. On the other hand, we never put two varieties of rosellas next door to each other.

There are a few psittacines that can be successfully bred in colonies rather than in individual pairs. The love birds fall into this category with the exception of the more difficult species such as Abyssinians and Madagascars. Budgerigars certainly will colony breed, and this is often done when breeding for commercial quantity rather than for quality. We find, however, only one Australian parakeet, the Crimson Wing, is distinctly more likely to breed successfully in colonies than as single pairs. All cockatoos will also colony breed quite successfully. The key point with the cockatoos is to be certain that the nest boxes are widely separated, preferably at either end of the flight. As long as the birds can stay out of the way of each other, they seem to do better when they have company in their flight rather than one pair per flight. With cockatoos the size of the flight cage is not really of great importance.
I am firmly convinced that virtually any psittacine can be cage bred, including birds as large as cockatoos and macaws. All of our flights are the same size. They are four feet wide, fifteen feet long and eight feet high at peak of the roof. We have a drop front on these flights, thus making them draft free. Roosting perches must be in an area that is draft free. The wire areas of our flights are eight feet long. They are approximately eighty inches in height, extending out from front. The rear of the flight is approximately seven feet long and entirely made of plywood. In certain of our flights, such as those for cockatoos and macaws, we wire the entire interior of the plywood area so they cannot chew their way out.

Temperature in the aviary (and particularly the chill factor in cold weather) will be warner in the roosting area. We have not actually taken the temperature of the birds. However, it is known that many animals tend to lower their body temperature when they sleep. We believe this may well be the case with the birds. Since birds have normally high metabolism rate and body temperatures, we believe that it is important that they be given as much shelter as possible when roosting. One of the greatest detriments to our Dirds is drafts. A draft does not necessarily mean cold air. Moving air constitutes a draft for a bird. Many times we have seen pet birds kept indoors at absolute constant temperatures. Then the slightest draft, such as a forced air furnace going on and creating moving air, seems to lead to upper respiratory infections or so-called “colds”. Cold air tends to go in straight lines, not around corners, and if an aviary is properly constructed, the birds will be able to remain totally draft free.

The directions the aviaries face are not nearly as important as has been reported on occasion in the past. The primary or preferred direction in the northern hemisphere has been stated as south, the second most preferred direction is east, etc. Our aviaries face virtually every direction, and we found great success in breeding our birds in any one of these aviaries. Should we find a pair of birds that does not breed in a particular aviary, we may move them to another cage, perhaps to an aviary immediately adjacent to the one they were in or perhaps at the opposite end of the breeding pens.

In-breeding any birds can be disastrous. This should never be done because it can ruin the strain, strength and, ultimately, the overall health of the birds. We know that when birds (particularly budgerigars, are bred for show purposes, in-breeding and line-breeding are used. Line-breeding is slightly varied from in-breeding in that there is (to a degree) a certain amount of out-crossing of stock. However, my personal belief is that line-breeding is just a sophisticated way of saying in-breeding. The attempt to get the best show animal and the best pedigree line frequently seems to cause some of the weakest animals and those must susceptible to sickness and disease. We know that certain faults can be eliminated in birds through selective theoretic line-breeding. However, what constitutes a fault to one person may not necessarily be a fault to another. The so-called show standards which have been set up for birds seem to vary from show to show and from judge to judge except for budgerigars.

If this happens to be your forte, do what you see fit in the breeding of your birds, but remember first, foremost and always, that the strength of the bird is far more important to continual successful breeding than the appearance of its shape or color.

In summary, we cannot say that all birds are bred in captivity the same way. However, in general, we can say that the majority of psittacines are effectively bred the same way with few exceptions. First, nutrition is of greatest importance. Second, proper surrounding or housing is essential, whether it be cage or aviary. Third, adequate and properly designed nest boxes, as to size, overall dimension, depth and nesting materials, is important. Virtually any psittacine will breed within a reasonable period of time upon proper acclimation to its surroundings, its conditions and the aforementioned necessities. There are no mysteries in the breeding of these birds, only the application of good common sense with judicious observation of your birds and a few simple rules properly applied.

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