Breeding Questions

My daily routine is always the same: I wake up, brush my teeth, make a cup of coffee and then read emails. Each day without failure I receive at least one email asking the same question: “Sir could you provide some tips for breeding.” The questions come from India, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Taiwan, Brazil, across Europe, the US and the rest of the globe. Everyone expects a miracle formula, a simple recipe for success. My response is almost invariably the same.

Parrot breeding cannot be seen as a cooking recipe. You do not add a little of this and a little of that and expect the same outcome. Many variables come into play, including weather, humidity, diet, water quality, housing, the physical condition of the birds and much more. This is why parrots are as valuable as they are. If they bred like chickens, where the science is defined, they would be priced like chickens. They are not and this reflects the fact that breeding them is not as simple as many hope it can be.

When I discuss parrot breeding in a lecture, I define this as being 50% science and 50% the mental well being of the bird.  You can provide a pair of birds the best diet, the ideal nest and a huge aviary but if are stressed, bored or mentally feel that conditions for success are poor and they will simply not breed. Likewise, provide a mentally challenging environment where enrichment is provided on a daily basis and there is little stress but the diet is poor or the water quality is suspect and contributions to subclinical illness and breeding will be evasive. It is the sum of the total that contributes to success. When I see a chick in a breeder´s collection I am viewing the result of that sum total.

So let me discuss the elements for success.

Healthy birds will breed; ill birds will not. It is that simple. Insuring that the flock enters the breeding season without any illness is important. I personally observe each one of my birds daily. This is the step that follows reviewing the daily influx of emails. We take random cultures of the flock and pay particular attention to hygiene and water quality. We make sure the water the birds receive is better than that normally available in a home. The bowls are scrubbed daily and cleaning in an ongoing activity. I point this out because I have often visited collections with very poor breeding results. When I forced the issue, cultures of the water and birds were taken. The results invariably showed a mass growth of gram-negative bacteria. In some of these collections results improved a thousand fold when hygiene and water quality were addressed.

Diet is another extremely important component for success. Diet must also be seen as species specific; it is impossible to have a diet that is identically the same for every individual in a diverse collection; the diet can only be the same if all of the species bred have a similar dietary requirement, but very few collections specialize in just a few species. Diet must also be varied depending on time of year and on the location of the breeder. Allow me to explain.

In south Florida, our winters are benign. We may get a few chilly days but the sun will invariably rise and warm up the environment after a few days at most. We thus do not need to provide our birds with a fatty diet every day in order for them to produce the energy necessary for maintaining the body warm. On those few chilly days, we do provide some seeds even to species prone to obesity, including Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus and Amazons, but that is all.

A breeder in the Czech Republic on the other hand has harsh elements to cope with if the birds have access to the outdoors in winter or if the shelter is not kept warm enough on cold days. They will need to provide their birds with a diet overall much higher in fat in winter in order for the flock to cope with the elements.

In south Florida, we normally give a spartan, low fat diet to the birds in winter, except when the mercury drops. We do this for two reasons: to stop all breeding, so that we can take a break from the intensity of hand-rearing, and to prepare for a dietary change before the onset of spring. The Czech breeder cannot follow this regimen. That breeder can reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables in winter to lower the moisture content in the food during winter but he or she cannot drop the fat content intended to create a dramatic change in spring to prepare the birds for breeding.

Why do I regard this fat variance important? Many years ago I collected crop contents from adults and chicks in South America to better understand elements that trigger breeding. In every case the parents nested when certain fat rich foods became available. This fatty food was fed to the chicks. Subsequent work by Donald Brightsmith and Juan Cornejo have shown identical results.

In south Florida, the winter diet we feed most of our birds maintenance pellets (which contain a lower protein and fat content), low fat seeds and whole grain bread and nuts, the latter provided to the macaws.  Only the Eclectus Parrots receive a varied seed diet; we avoid feeding pellets to this group to deter toe-tapping syndrome, which arises when mineral and vitamin packed foods are fed. Species very prone to obesity receive a parakeet seed blend. We do provide at all times enrichment, which supplements the diet and mentally challenges the birds. The birds also receive some vegetables. This can include Royal Poinciana pods, palm seeds and Moringa oleifera branches, amongst other items. Immediately after New Year´s day, the diet changes. We switch to breeder pellets, which are higher in fat and protein. We also begin to offer large amounts of vegetables, especially those rich in beta-carotenes; these include pumpkin, carrot and yellow sweet potatoes, which are steamed to break the fibers and make the nutritious elements more available. We also provide steamed broccoli, green beans, beets, cauliflower and anything else that may be available locally. Greens are also provided. We offer cooked brown rice with scrambled egg, whole grain pasta, cooked pulses (especially garbanzo beans, which the birds readily take) and fruit, especially tropical varieties including guava, mango, carambola, papaya, some varieties of banana that are not very sweet, Hog plum and other locally produced fruit. We also provide some temperate fruits like apple, grapes and peaches, though there are used only out of necessity. I invariably select the tart varieties or feed them before they are very ripe. My intention with fruit is to provide them before they are fully ripe, much as they would be eaten in the wild. (Wild parrots compete with mammals and other birds for fruit, so eat these before they are ripened to eliminate some of the competition. Because of this, those fruits tend to have a low sugar content and even toxic alkaloids, which the birds nullify by eating bark or other elements. Commercial fruits tend to contain very high levels of sugar to make them palatable to the human consumer and this is why we avoid all cultivars except those that are tart.)

We also provide a sprouted seed mix. This includes mung and garbanzo beans, popcorn, lentils, various types of peas, small sunflower, safflower, milo, buckwheat, wheat and anything else that may be available. You will notice that I have mentioned sunflower and safflower—two seeds that are deemed fatty. This is correct but sprouting changes the chemical composition of the seed and converts fats to much more nutritious elements.

The diet is varied depending on species. Galahs and Amazons, which tend towards obesity, receive more vegetables and sprouts and less pellets and cooked foods. The higher content in the fat I believe is sufficient to emulate the wild. The caiques receive more fruits, vegetables and cooked foods. The Eclectus receive primarily vegetables and sprouts, and the macaws and African Greys Psittacus erithacus receive many more nuts, this in order to provide the fat they require. We simply do not feed the same amounts of every element to every species but try to emulate the wild diet.

Some breeders feed only pellets supplemented with the occasional piece of fruit. I find that this type of diet does not encourage breeding. I feel that pellets are a good addition to any diet but alone they contribute to eating apathy. Also, results of feeding trials by Daniel Gowland at Priam in Australia showed that a diet composed primarily of the best organic pellets does not contribute to the success claimed by manufacturer. On the other hand, when seeds were added to the diet results improved.

This change in diet I have described along with access to the nests is key to inducing breeding. The nests are simply not just filed with shavings. They are filled with chunks of wood, which the birds must chew into slivers or fine particles in order to nest. This activity—having to chew blocks of wood in order to access the nest—has a stimulating effect and emulates nature. In the wild all tree cavity and termite mound nesting parrots (or about 94% of all species) must spend time preparing the nest. Years ago I had pairs of Blue and Gold Macaws Ara ararauna laparascoped at the onset of the breeding and thrice during that same month. The result seen in pairs whose nest was filled with wood was dramatic. The gonads swelled and became much more active in pairs that had their nest filled with wood when compared to pairs who were simply given a nest filled with shavings. The time necessarily spent in the darkness of the nest invariably contributed to the gonadal development. The pairs who had to prepare their nest also produced many more fertile eggs than those pairs that were given a nest ready for egg laying.

Throughout the breeding season, we provide enrichment on a continuous basis. I do not believe, as some visitors have suggested, that keeping the birds mentally challenged has a deterring effect when it comes to breeding. On the contrary, I believe that keeping the birds mentally stimulated encourages breeding. This is why I believe that 50% of success is psychological.

A breeder in the Czech Republic cannot follow the same protocol. Tropical fruits are extremely expensive or not available. Reducing the fat content in the diet in winter is not possible. Pellets there—as in the rest of Europe—are not widely used. A Czech breeder can modify the diet by incorporating weeds (including dandelion and others) that are vitamin packed and which we cannot grow in subtropical Florida. Other items in this list include rosehips, hawthorn and rowanberries and many other incredible foods in spring. These along with sprouted seeds can bring a bird into breeding condition as quickly as can the regimen we employ. I know this for a fact, as part of my life was spent breeding birds in the US Midwest where the climate is cold, windy and inhospitable. There I used a long list of edible weeds, locally available berries and fruits, including crabapple and rosehips, the branches of pussy and weeping willow and anything else that during the course of daily activity I saw wild birds eat. I always felt that if the wild birds ate the items, they were also good for my cage birds. It never failed and I produced many young each year.

The single element that has never varied irrespective of where I have lived was providing wood inside the nest. I started this concept in 1988, after watching how wild amazons in Argentina spent several weeks chewing and preparing the nests. The daily activity changed from foraging to nest preparation. If this was an important element in the wild I felt it would also be in captivity. During the ensuing decades I have only affirmed this belief watching wild parrots from Australia to Zambia.

My more than 40 years as an aviculturist have highlighted the need to intensely manage the flock all year. The diet and nest are two very important elements but the psychological well being must never be overlooked. It is when the bird is mentally and physically happy that results are as expected. Good luck with this year´s breeding season to all!