F.A.Q. About Breeding

During the past few months, I set aside several of the questions that I received via Facebook. These were questions that were valid and of interest to avicultural in general. I believe that answering them in this public forum without mentioning the person’s name will be helpful to others who may be experiencing the same issues.

 

QUESTION: My Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus are getting smaller and they are now producing only two chicks per clutch.  As usual, I followed the original message with a series of questions, which allowed me to better understand the root of the problem. If the question concerns breeding, I invariably ask the person to describe housing conditions, the nest type and diet. Getting a clear answer on the latter invariably requires multiple follow up questions. Usually the respondent will answer simply “seeds” or a “seed mix”. In most cases the birds are fed a millet, often foxtail millet, sometimes paddy rice, and little else. This diet is skewed towards deficiencies. That the birds can breed and rear their young is a testament to their tenacity and domestication over decades.

ANSWER: Diet is the foundation of good health. Provide the birds with a balanced, nutritious diet and they will prosper. On the other hand, feeding a diet that is composed of poor quality nutrients that are deficient in vitamins, minerals, calcium and other key elements and the result being engendered will be runts or illness, if not death.

Cockatiels are inhabitants of the Australian hinterland, where they have evolved to survive primarily on grass seeds. They wait until rains come to breed, when there is a flush of unripened seeds, which are growing and nutritionally superior to the dry seeds. They rear their young on this bounty. If conditions are right, they will produce several clutches in rapid succession. They do not breed when food is scarce or of poor quality.  In times of drought they can move over a broad area to find suitable conditions in which to reproduce. This explains why in some years birds are present in a particular area. They then disappear from that site and may not appear for a few more years.

In aviculture, food (even of poor quality) is invariably available and this typically contributes to continuous breeding, but the deficiencies soon reveal themselves: the hen depletes her stored calcium, dying from egg binding or producing thin-shelled eggs that break under her body weight when she incubates or the young suffer from rickets, look small, or many fail to fledge. The bird can only eat what is available in their cage; in the wild they can forage and even during the hardest of droughts can find some variety, but not so when all that is available is one or two types of seeds and nothing else.

To produce Cockatiels is easy. To produce good quality Budgerigars (or Cockatiels or any parrots for that matter) requires a lot of work, expense and devotion.

In this modern day, aviculturists have pelleted feeds available, which are marketed as a complete feed. (I disagree and feel that the pellets or crumbles can form the basis for the diet, which should be supplemented with greens or eggfood at the very least.) For those unable to buy this extruded food, they can supply a mixed seed diet. Various types of millets, steel cut oats, canary and other small seeds, safflower and sunflower, can be mixed to produce a mix that is far superior to a single seed fare. This seed blend can be supplemented with greens. Spinach has oxalic acid that can interfere with calcium adsorption, but it can be fed once weekly without any detrimental effect. Endive, beet or carrot tops and many other leafy vegetables can be fed—and will be relished. Garden weeds like dandelion, sorrel and plantain are highly nutrition and will be eaten from the base to the flower head by the birds. They can be fed ad lib as long as they come from a pesticide and insecticide free source. Cockatiels as a whole do not readily take fruits, but many will eat a commercial eggfood preparation, or one can be made by finely grating carrot and adding to these chopped boiled egg, wholewheat breadcrumbs and fresh or drained canned corn. This softfood can be sprinkled with a vitamin supplement and calcium. Once adapted to eating this food, the birds will devour it with gusto. The crop of the young is transparent enough to see that this eggfood and greens are being avidly fed to them by the parents.

Even after one clutch, the aviculturist will see a significant difference in quality in the young reared on this diet compared to those reared on a single, nutritionally poor foxtail millet.

 

Question: My macaws feed each other and mate, but they do not lay eggs. What tips can you give me to get them to breed? I usually question the writer as to how the birds are housed, what the nest dimensions are, how long have they owned the birds and what diet are they feeding the birds. In many cases, the birds were acquired only months earlier but already the potential breeder is distraught at not having had success.

 

ANSWER: My response invariably contains the same starting sentence: If parrots bred like chickens, they would sell for the price of a chicken. This is the cold, hard fact. That sometimes a pair will breed soon after they are acquired is an anomaly. Most pairs require an adaptation phase, where they become accustomed to their new enclosure, new diet (as rarely do two people feed exactly the same diet in the same proportions), nesting box and their keeper. I waited 11 years before a pair of Red-fronted Macaws bred. They were wild imports that refused every nesting box that I could provide. Eventually they nested in an open-topped box on their enclosure floor. I suspect that they had become bored with my attempt to entice them into every elaborate nest imaginable, including one that consisted of three chambers connected with a small tunnel, the entire nest forming a large C, this in an attempt to emulate the swerving tunnel that forms the cliff nests used by this species in the wild.

The greatest virtue that a parrot breeder can have is patience. The second virtue is understanding the birds. They communicate their likes and dislikes, but we must understand their language. A pair that opens their wings, sticks their head inside their nest and screams is telling you that they are afraid to enter. They dislike their nest. It may be too light or too large or the wrong shape, or the birds may have entered and then quickly fled because of rodents.

To breed parrots, you need to have a pair. Behavior is never infallible. Two males or two females can bond, feeding each other, pretending to mate and spending long periods of time inside their nest. They should be sexed using a scientific method. Witching—suspending a ball or piece of crystal over the bird´s head, so that it gyrates or swings to determine gender—is merely a game of guessing. I have used this method on proven pairs and about 50% of the times, the pendulum swung in a manner that identified the bird´s true gender.  In the other 50%, the witching proved wrong. Fifty percent is as good as guessing. Many nonetheless believe in this method. One hard-core believer recently visited me. I allowed him to check on six pairs, all proven. The witching proved wrong in 9 out of 12 cases!

Head and body size, coloration and behavior are also NOT true guides. These parameters fail to take into account individual variability or the background of the birds. The pair also needs to be compatible. Two macaws that sit at opposite ends of the cage or never interact or feed together will probably never breed. They are telling you that they dislike each other. In my experience, they will rarely overcome this emotion. I know of a pair of Scarlet Macaws that have been repeatedly surgically sexed to verify their gender, receive an excellent diet, live in a spacious cage and have a proper nest, but they have failed to nest in the 33 years they have been kept together. The owner is patient… but in this case patience will never yield results because the birds detest each other.

After having a pair, diet and proper housing come into play.  Each parrot species has its own dietary requirements. Macaws and African Greys require high fat diets. On the other hand, high fat diets will produce fatty lipomas (tumors) in Rose-breasted Cockatoos and cause obesity that will affect fertility in Amazon parrots. Within the macaws, different species have different fatty requirements. The Green-winged Macaw has evolved to crush hard, oil rich palm seeds. It has a high fat requirement as evinced by the diet it consumes in the wild. In contrast, the Red-fronted Macaw comes from a dry area where palms are uncommon. It feeds on pods, legumes and even shoots. They will take peanuts from farming plots but this may be a fairly recent event, as peanuts and corn were brought to the area by peasants to supplement their meager diet. These examples show that the same diet cannot be fed to all species.

Because I have described diet in the past, I will only superficially summarize that information. The diet should be varied, where possible emulate the natural diet (especially in terms of fat and protein content) and contain a broad variety of items—pellets, seeds, fruits, vegetables, healthy table food and, depending on the species, nuts.

In my opinion, vegetables should be offered in greater quantity than fruits. If you observe wild parrots, it immediately becomes apparent that they do not wait for fruit to ripen; if they waited for the fruit to ripen, they would compete with a myriad of other animals, including primates and bats. To eliminate this competition for a limited resource, the parrots eat the fruit when it is green, typically bitter or astringent and low in sugar.  Besides, most cultivated fruits have been produced with an exorbitant sugar content to make them attractive to humans. Simply bite into a cultivated apple and then a crab apple and you will quickly note the difference.

Nests used by wild parrots tend to be small. There are exceptions, but these species are merely utilizing an available cavity. Tree nesting parrots utilize small, often tight fits. More than once in my life I have found chicks in wild nests that would have been unable to fledge because they lacked the dexterity to maneuver out of a tight entrance hole. This is why offering a pair of macaws—or any species for that matter– a nesting box the size of a child´s bedroom is to discourage breeding. The smaller nest provides the feeling of security. We offer our large macaws nests 90cm (36 inches) long x 35 cm (14 inches) wide x 40-45 cm (16-18 inches) high. I have seen nests three times this size offered to a pair, who for years did as previously described: they would place their head inside the entrance and scream, or they chewed around the entrance, or in general avoided contact with the cavity. When given a smaller nest as described above, many of these pairs were inside within a day and three weeks later the females in one particular pair was incubating eggs.

The trend is to give pairs nests filled with shavings. I do not do this. After having observed a vast array of parrot species nesting in the wild, it has become very apparent that nest preparation is a nesting stimulus. The time spent in chewing and kicking out the excess nesting material has a stimulating effect. In the nests offered to my pairs, I place only pieces of rotted wood, which the birds must chew into slivers. They discard the excess. This activity replicates a natural behavior that induces gonadal development. In Moluccan Cockatoos I have seen a direct correlation between this behavior and fertile eggs, with previously successful pairs producing clear eggs if their nest was filled with shavings and they did not need to spend any time inside before laying.

The nest should also be dark. I have never seen a wild parrot nest in a cavity that it brightly light. Darkness allows the incubating bird, the eggs and ultimately the chicks to remain hidden from sight. This increases the likelihood of success. In a brightly lit nest, on the other hand, predators would almost certainly predate on the incubating bird, eggs or chicks.

 

Question: If I rear a Sun Conure and a Green-cheeked Conure together, can I produce Suncheek Conures? I have received this same question four times in as many months.

 

ANSWER: The answer is simple: No. Having an understanding of the name given to a species can certainly help understand its background. The Catalina Macaw is a hybrid between the Scarlet and the Blue and Gold (or reverse pairing). The name Catalina Macaw is derived from the now defunct Catalina Island Bird Park, where this hybrid was first produced. Their developer, as a means of giving that form recognition, can name the hybrid or mutation anything that they deem fit.

This year we inadvertently produced a very unique hybrid. In a flight cage containing Amazon parrots, I placed a male Illiger´s Macaw. This bird was accustomed to sleeping in the nest; the Amazons never sleep in a nest. The first night, the small macaw called all night, so the next day I affixed a small nest to the cage. I never worried about the birds as the Amazons were all males. The group included Yellow-crowned, Double Yellow-headed, Yellow-winged Amazons and a single Vinaceous Amazon, which I had acquired with an understanding that it was a male; the other birds had been DNA sexed by me and placed in same sex groups as I did not want any fighting. Overs months, the birds in the group separated into “pairs”. These “pairs” fed, played and roosted together. There was really never any aggression in the group.

This spring when I returned home from a prolonged European work trip, I immediately left my suitcase inside the house and went to see my birds. It was getting dark and I could not see with certainty but the Vinaceous Amazon could not be accounted for. The Illiger´s was in the nest. I had thought about getting a flashlight and looking inside the nest, but that would have caused pandemonium in the birds. So I waited for daybreak. The sun had not yet emerged when I was standing in front of the cage. The Vinaceous was clearly gone; the Illiger´s was inside the nest. Something made me open the nest and to my great surprise the Vinaceous was inside resting next to the Illiger´s. The Double Yellow-headed Amazon immediately flew to the front of the cage and began to display with the Vinaceous, which had hesitatingly emerged. What the nest contained was my greatest surprise: a chick aged about a week. The bird was in fact a female and it had nested under amicable terms in the Illiger´s Macaw nest. Had that experiment been attempted it would have failed, with one bird or another being injured, but Murphy´s Law had not peered its head. The chick eventually had to be taken for hand-rearing. It was coined by a worker the Redland Amazon, this after the city in which I reside. I suppose that we could take that liberty as I have never heard of this hybrid pairing before.

Now back to the Suncheek. It is not a hybrid but the pairing of a pineapple and a dilute.  So rearing a Sun and a Green-cheeked Conure will not yield this coveted new form. These two conures belong to two separate genera and not the same as with the Catalina Macaw. Moreover, the Suncheek is a mutation—a color produced in captivity through selective breeding and NOT hybridization. If you breed a Sun Conure to a Green-cheeked Conure you will produce a bird whose appearance to me in unattractive and which will be a hybrid.

Over the next few months, I will continue to select a few questions and answer them in this forum as a means of sharing information.