Husbandry Guidelines for Breeding Parrots


Commercial breeding operations that supply the pet trade with captive bred parrots were rare outside the US and South Africa until about twenty years ago, when facilities that specifically produce young for pets started appearing in Brazil, Asia and elsewhere. Today hundreds of young amazons, caiques, macaws and conures, to mention just a few groups, are captive bred each year and they ultimately become pets. Advances in aviculture relating to diet, disease control and incubation and hand-rearing of young have been profound in recent decades and it is these advances that have allowed commercial operations to proliferate.

I have visited breeding facilities throughout the world and have 40 years of experience in breeding parrots; to date I have bred 82% of the approximately 350 parrot species. I have also studied parrots throughout the world and have amassed significant data on breeding biology, diet and behavior. This experience and data has led me to come to some conclusions.

Water is a source of pathogens throughout the world, resulting in many avian mortalities. Most aviculturists in the US, Australia and Europe utilize tap water, but in Asia, India and Latin America often treat the drinking water by boiling it. Many then make the mistake of pouring the water into freshly washed dishes that were rinsed in the questionable tap water. This often undermines the treating of the water. Placing dishes on the ground can also be a source of pathogens. There is also the risk of bacteria proliferating in a dish of water where food has been dunked; in a tropical climate, the food added to the drinking water, a habit of many parrots, soon results in a bacterial soup. Because of all this, I highly recommend an automatic watering system. The parrots quickly learn to drink from the nipples—wedging a sunflower seed into the nipple to allow the system to drip for a short while is all that is typically required– and the water flowing into the system can be filtered, passed through UV filtration and chlorinated. All my birds drink water that has passed through filtration and UV disinfection before being chlorinated and entering a storage tank. From this storage tank the water goes into a pressurized tank than supplies the birds with drinking water. We treat the water thus because in the countryside where the farm is located only well water is available and in a well bacteria can be a be a problem.

The water is transported to the cages by plastic pipe. Each cage has a water nipple that is accessible to the birds. The center spigot, when moved, releases water, which the birds drink; many also learn to bathe by moving the spigot until it drips. The nipple is inspected daily while the birds are being fed. This allows early detection of any malfunction. A tap at each bank of aviaries allows the water in the pipes to be refreshed, so that the birds always have very fresh water.

Once weekly, additional chlorine is used to flush the pipes. The tap is then opened to flush all the hyper chlorinated water from the pipes before the birds are allowed to drink again.

Treating water and then providing it in an automatic system reduces considerable manpower, which can then devote the time to diet and management of the flock. It also reduces pathogens considerably, and healthy birds are more likely to breed than those that are clinically ill.

The perception of cage size requirements has evolved over decades. Thirty years ago I bred African Greys Psittacus erithacus in cages as small as 90 cm (3 ft) square, feeling that the small enclosure met the requirements for security that these parrots needed. Over time fertility and reproduction began to wane. This species was at the time readily available as imports and the pairs were replaced. But my curious mind thought of an experiment involving Maroon-bellied Conures Pyrrhura frontalis to prove whether the waning reproduction in the African Greys was due to cage size or some other factor. For the trials 12 pairs of Maroon-bellied Conures were acquired. Six pairs were placed in cages 60 cm (2 ft) square and another six were placed in flights 1.8 m (6 ft) long x 60 cm (2 ft) wide x 90 cm (3 ft) high. Within 14 months all of the birds, which were fresh imports, began to breed. After a period averaging 7 years the pairs in the 60 cm square cages became woefully unproductive, with many clear eggs, while those in the 1.8 meter (& ft) long enclosures continued to breed successfully. When several of the pairs housed in the small cages were placed in the 1.8 m (6 ft) cages their fecundity returned. The diet, lighting and room temperature was identical in both cases. This suggested that the inability to fly had long term effects. The pairs in the 1.8 m long cages continued to reproduce for another 5 years, when the experiment stopped; the space was needed for another species. These results clearly demonstrated that enclosure size directly affected long term reproductive health.

My minimum enclosure recommendations follow; if the birds can be given more space than by all means it should be offered. All of the enclosures are suspended, so as to reduce the birds coming in contact with the ground, where feces, spilled food and a plethora of parasites can congregate. These cages also make vermin control (including rodents and snakes) easier when combined with a small mesh size; I prefer a mesh of 13 x 75 mm (1/2 x 3 in), which can exclude most snakes and all but the smallest rodents. The floor of the suspended cages should be pressure washed regularly to maintain hygiene.

Large Amazons, large macaws, Hawk-headed Parrots Deroptyus accipitrinus, African Greys, Indonesian and Australian parakeets (excluding Neophema), Asiatic parrots, Eclectus: 3.6 m (12 ft) long x 1.2 m (4 ft) square.

Small Amazons, large conures (i.e., Patagonian Cyanoliseus patagonus), large Poicephalus, large lories, fig parrots, miniature macaws, Neophema parakeets: 2.4 m (8 ft) long x 90 cm (3 ft) wide x 1.2 m (4 ft) high.

Cockatiels Nymphycus hollandicus, Caiques, small conures, Brotogeris parakeets, small lories, small African Poicephalus parrots: 1.8 m (6 ft) x 90 cm (3 ft) wide x 1.2 m (high).

Lovebirds, parrotlets: 1.2 m (4 ft) long x 90 cm (3 ft) x 1.2 m (4 ft) high.

For species that readily breed in colonies (some conures, Brotogeris parakeets, etc), the cage should be sized accordingly.

The cages should be constructed of wire, except for very aggressive cockatoos and Amazons, where the side walls in the center should be solid. This will deter aggressive males from readily climbing up the sides to attack their mates; such males should have one wing clipped during the breeding season. The perches should be at each extreme. We use perch holders to facilitate perch replacement. The cages should have doors at both the front and rear to facilitate cleaning, the introduction of enrichment, catching birds and perch replacement. The food bowls should be placed in a hatch to prevent the birds from scattering them throughout the cages. The hatch also deters escapees. In our case and as already mentioned we use 13 x 75 mm (½ x 3 in) mesh for the aviaries, but construct the foot hatches from 25 x 25 mm (1 x 1 in) mesh to facilitate cleaning. The door giving access to the food hatch should open up and should have a piece of PVC pipe attached horizontally across the front, this to prevent the birds from opening the hatch and escaping. This pipe should be filled with sand and capped. Another solution is to attach a section of metal pipe with wire, which will hold the door closed in case someone forgets to latch it close or the birds manage to open the hatch. The food hatch is covered with a metal shelf to prevent the birds from defecating into their food bowls. In my case, my birds are housed outdoors and the covering is also intended to prevent wild birds from defecating into the food bowl. Before this shelf was introduced, we periodically had health issues as a result of contamination from wild birds, which would defecate into the food bowls. After its use was implemented, such problems have been reduced almost to zero.

In our aviary, we cover the front part of the enclosure but leave the rear part exposed to the elements. This gives the birds access to the elements.

The nesting boxes should be covered with a mesh cage and have a corresponding door to that of the nesting box. This will prevent birds from escaping. I know of countless cases where the nests fell, or the birds chewed holes and escaped. The cage covering the nest should be affixed to the cage to insure the highest level of containment.

The nests should be attached outside the cage, so as not to reduce flight space.

The year long management protocol should vary according to species. African Greys should have the nest blocked after the main breeding season. Studies I conducted in Africa showed that the pairs leave the nesting area after the young fledge. They do not sleep in tree cavities like conures or caiques for example throughout the year. Blocking the nest after breeding was found to induce nesting the following season. Macaws, cockatoos and Amazons benefit from being flown together after breeding, this to replicate the flocking behavior seen in the wild. In the case of macaws, the pairs can be introduced into a large flight cage. Amazons and cockatoos should be separated by sex and allowed to flock in a large cage. As the breeding season approaches, they are returned to their breeding aviaries. This simple practice can result in improved fertility. Keen observation while flocking pairs often results in switched mates; divorce is not unknown in parrots.

Dietary management should focus on before, during and after the breeding season. Studies I performed on caiques (both White-bellied Pionites l. leucogaster and Black-headed Pionites m. melanocephala), Dusky-headed Conures Aratinga wedddellii and Red-bellied Parrots Poicephalus rufiventris demonstrated how productivity could be boosted by modifying the diet. All of the pairs were placed on a good pelleted mix. During the non breeding season they received maintenance pellets with some very small amounts of seeds or nuts and only vegetables (broccoli and par-boiled carrot, beets and sweet potatoes). Two months before the commencement of the breeding season, the birds were placed on breeder pellets and fed very regularly on fresh corn on the cob, fruit (papaya, guava, apple, grapes, etc) and, thrice weekly, on a mix containing either whole wheat pasta or brown rice, par boiled carrot and sweet potatoes, peas and other vegetables and sprouted mung beans or partly boiled garbanzo and pinto beans. Nuts, seeds and whole grain bread supplemented the diet. This diet continued through the breeding season. Towards the end of the breeding season the pellets were switched again to maintenance pellets but the birds were fed the foods also offered during the breeding season. These foods were slowly reduced over a period of a month to segue to the more austere non breeding diet.

Results in 12 pairs of caiques showed a 31% higher reproductive rate in the birds whose diet was manipulated compared to birds fed breeder pellets and fruits, seeds, nuts, the aforementioned pasta or brown rice and vegetables thrice weekly. Similar results were seen in the conures and Red-bellied Parrots.

So Manny short of spending a week in the Philippines with you enjoying the food, culture and people, this is my recommendation.