Can parrots be bred successfully indoors?
Many years ago, before moving to South Florida, I kept my birds indoors. They had no exposure to sunlight, but they bred and I reared large numbers of a multitude of species, ranging from cockatoos (Moluccan Cacatua moluccensis, Citron-crested Cacatua sulphurea citrino-cristata and Little Corellas or Bare-eyes Cacatua sanguinea, to mention just three species) to African Greys Psittacus erithacus and Yellow-winged Amazons Amazona aestiva xanthopteryx. I never saw housing the birds indoors as a detriment, but rather learned that parrots are highly adaptable and that if they are provided with suitable conditions, an indoor bird room was never a deterrent when it came to breeding.
Natural sunlight is a superior disinfectant, killing fungi, bacteria and viruses. Sunlight facilitates a process whereby calcium is absorbed. Sunlight along with rain can contribute to a stunning plumage in parrots, with intense color. Sunlight also contributes towards breeding, as the short days of winter become longer in spring, inducing a biological clock inside the birds that stimulates many species into laying.
Without sunlight, I originally feared, breeding would be thwarted; that was at a time when even breeding a common Pyrrhura was deemed an achievement. Research, however, showed that artificial lighting had evolved rapidly and it was possible to purchase fluorescent strips whose rays emulated the sun. These full spectrum bulbs required frequent replacement, as age affected the output, but they contributed to success. Calcium and dietary supplementation of vitamin D contributed to strong bones and eggshells; never did my birds lay eggs that were soft shelled.
Indoors hygiene did require a strong emphasis. The cages, walls and floor required regular scrubbing—a process that is assisted by sunlight and rain in an outdoor aviary. The paper lining the floor underneath the cages (which were suspended) required being changed multiple times weekly, as moisture from the droppings, spilled food and misting to permit the birds to bathe, along with the heat of summer, would cause a fetid mess.
It was during the initial years that I investigated and learned proper cleaning. Simply mopping the floor was not enough. I would only spread around bacteria that had grown underneath the wet paper; shavings and sand were tried as a floor substrate but it was unsanitary, once contributed to outbreak of Chlamydiphilia (which spread in the contaminated pine shavings) and its removal proved back breaking. The paper could be picked up far easier and with it disappeared most fomites. The cement floor (which had been coated with a sealer to facilitate mopping) was then washed with soap and water, wiped with clean water and finally mopped again with a bleach solution. Adding bleach to the soapy water was ineffective, as the disinfection properties of the bleach were negated in the presence of organic matter.
Key to maintaining hygiene was airflow. Stagnant air contributes to bacterial and fungal blooms and to the spread of disease in an outbreak. In an indoor bird room airflow must never be compromised. I kept windows partly opened at all times and operated exhaust fans to insure that there was a continuous flow of fresh air across the entire bird room. This meant that the aviary was kept particularly cool in winter, but observations of wild parrots in Argentina, the southern parts of Australia and in New Zealand showed me that parrots are extremely tolerant of cold; only a few truly tropical species seem affected when the mercury drops. In cooler air pathogens are also less likely to bloom.
To emulate the natural photoperiod, I played with lighting using timers. I began to reduce the light from 15 hours at the peak of summer to 8 hours in winter. This phase started in September and took two months to complete. In February I began to reverse the photoperiod, so that more light became available.
In winter the birds received a spartan diet. Originally this consisted of seed mixes supplemented with whole grain bread and primate or dog chow; the latter two ingredients played a role in many parrot diets before the advent of pellets. When pellets became available, these along with seeds and nuts formed the basis for the spartan winter diet; the pellets allowed me to eliminate the primate and dog chow from the diet as I had always been concerned about excess vitamin D and iron in these foods. As spring approached and weeds in the yard began to sprout, these were added to the diet. Plantain, dandelion and others were given to the birds. On the first day of February, sprouting grains and seeds, vegetables and fruits were added in copious amounts to the diet. Concurrently the birds were given access to their nesting boxes; the entrance had been blocked in September. Only the Pyrrhura conures and caiques were allowed access their nest year round, as they normally like to sleep in the nesting box.
Every cleaning day, the birds were sprayed with water. They welcome the spring showers with brio. The reasoning for spraying the birds only on cleaning days was simple: it prevented the wet paper sprinkled with fecal matter and spilled food from becoming bacteria fodder. When spraying, a small shop vacuum cleaner was turned on. In the bird´s mind, this emulated thunder and induced them to bathe. (Anyone keeping a pet bird at home can stimulate them into bathing by offering a shallow basin filled with water or misting them both while running a vacuum cleaner.)
The combined effect of a dietary chance, bathing, increase in photoperiod and access to the nest had a profound effect on the birds: they became more active and vocal and consequently entered breeding condition. The nesting season was intense, though short. As August arrived, the hot weather significantly reduced breeding. Outdoors many species (especially macaws) welcome the hot weather and nest when the mercury is high, but this was not my experience indoors.
My many years of being an indoor aviculturist proved to me that when properly designed, an indoor bird room can be productive and yield similar results to outdoor aviaries. It has its inherent risks—pathogens can bloom easily in a confined space—but also its benefits—extremes in temperatures are never a problem.
So to the question that “Can I breed birds successfully indoors?” the answer is “yes!”