Principals of aviculture
When I was a kid, I periodically visited the now vanished Sedgewick Studio, a bird store owned by the eccentric Erling Kjelland. He believed in ´witching´– the process of sexing birds by suspending a pendulum over its head. If the pendulum swung back and forth, it was one gender; if it moved in a circle it was another. Erling was flamboyant and either took a strong like or dislike to you. I also became friends with Bill Wilson, who bred many difficult species, including the Red-faced Lovebird Agapornis pullaria and to whom credit for the captive population of the very endangered Rothschild´s Myna or Bali Starling Leucopsar rothschildi must go. He imported and distributed the birds at a time when trade was possible and long before anyone knew about iron storage disease. I had the privilege of becoming friends with Ed Bish, the Curator of Birds of Bush Gardens in Tampa, who was breeding large numbers of Golden Conures Guarouba guaruba before many had even become familiar with the species; Stan Sindel, who developed the dry lory diet that today in one form or another is employed worldwide; and Tom Ireland, an aviculturist from Florida who bred many conures at a time when this group was deemed undesirable. The list continued with Bob Berry, George Smith, Jim Hayward, Harry Sissen, Dave West, Paulo Bertagnolio, Steffano Rattalino, Alvaro Rossman Carvalhaes, J. Hammerli, John Scott, Philippe Beraut, Dr Jean Delacour, Gloria Allen, Peter Chapman and hundreds others. All of these individuals had a passion: they live(d) for their birds. They and many others taught me that aviculture is not learned by reading books or articles; it is a skill that must be developed with time, observation and a clear and profound appreciation for the birds one keeps.
During my 40 years as an aviculturist, I have learned to respect—to highly respect—several breeders. These individuals truly understood their parrots. One was Ramon Noegel, whose accomplishments in breeding Amazon parrots has passed into the history books. He achieved more world first breedings for this group than anyone else.
I recently spent time with another individual who I have long admired—Don Wells. We first met some 30 years ago at a time when he was deeply involved in the wild bird trade. He had personal hands-on experience gathered by roughing it in the tropics. Don knew the right people, has a profound bird knowledge and is a keen observer. That acumen of information eventually led him to become a hardcore aviculturist, operating a breeding facility on Bali and producing many species that most would not recognize even in photographs. His achievements with Indonesian parrots are worthy of a serious tome. When someone recently asked me about a lory diet, I blindly recommended Don´s version of the Neff diet (Rüdiger Neff is a very successful German loriculturist.)
So what, after 40 years, do we all have in common—or better said, what have all of these individuals taught me that I regard as key to success? The list is short, simple and precise:
- Know the birds. Investigate their habitat, distribution, diet and nesting habits. Today the amount of information available is substantially more than 40 years ago. Scientific papers describing field research are available on the internet and can be used as an excellent reference point. With all of this information, start observing your birds. They will teach you what is suitable or not, what will induce or deter breeding, what makes them healthy or ill, and what diet is best. The true aviculturist never stops listening to his or her birds. And more importantly, he or she never stops asking questions.
- Think outside the box, or as Bob Berry, once the Curator of Birds at Houston Zoo, used to say: There is more than one way to skin a cat. Parrots are living entities and like all living beings they have individual personalities. Expect some birds to behave against the norm. Do not try to force their behavior to conform to what is considered standard. As an example, the Golden Conure is a highly sociable species that in the wild breeds in groups, with multiple hens often laying in the same cavity. I have several pairs and have bred them together as a flock and separately one pair per aviary. One male that I call ´Slinky´(because as a chick he bounced all day) does not want to live in a colony and will kill chicks as they hatch. Otherwise he is a typical Golden Conure living in a flock, being active, noisy and playful. When separated with his mate, he is the perfect father—attentive, always keeping the chicks and hen fed and never damaging a feather on the young, though he is constantly preening them. He is the exception and I have to be flexible enough to understand that.
- Hygiene is imperative. I have seen spectacular aviaries housing equally imposing birds, but the aviaries, food and water bowls were very dirty; rat feces were evident in the food bowls and the smell of ammonia from the rodent urine permeated the air. The breeder could not understand why disease was rampant. Hygiene needs to cover all aspects and ranges from rodent and insect control, which can spread pathogens, to cage cleaning and disinfection. Chlorine bleach can work as a great disinfectant, but in the presence of organic matter, it quickly loses its strength. Many other disinfectants have the same requirement. This means that placing dirty bowls in a tub of water containing chlorine may not make them sterile. (They should be scrubbed of all food and feces using soapy water, rinsed and then soaked in the chlorinated water.) Understanding how disinfectants work is important. Spoiled food, accumulation of droppings, dirty bowls and water from an unclean source can all cause illness or death.
I have been told that breeding birds should not be disturbed and thus cleaning needs to come to a halt when the birds are breeding. I do not accept this argument. Birds can be accustomed to just about any disturbance. The key word is accustomed. Do not expect the pair to suddenly confront a new noise or action and not react. Start all processes before the breeding season, so that the birds become accustomed to the activity by the time they nest.
This statement needs to be quantified for it to be understood. About 30 years ago, Susan Buzzeli took me to see a pair of Hyacinth Macaws Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus in a shopping mall in Minnesotta. They were rearing a young on the floor of a cage in a storefront window. There was a line of viewers packed in front of the enclosure much as they would in front of stores on Black Friday. They wanted to see the ´baby parrot´. The pair fed and cared for their young as if no one was around; they were accustomed and thus accepted the presence of people peering at their young. They had shown this tolerance while reared more then one young. I have a friend whose Yellow-naped Amazons Amazona auropalliata nest successfully on their cage bottom in their living room. They have done so yearly for 17 years. The cage is next to a television set. Finally, countless bird parks and zoological parks breed parrots in cages in front of which thousands of visitors pass by daily. The birds thrive and breed unabated. In my collection we clean cages with a pressure washer, replace perches and do all of the necessary chores throughout the year. The pairs continue to incubate as if nothing was happening. When pressure cleaning cages during the breeding season, we wait for the warmest time of the day, so that any eggs temporarily abandoned by birds curious about what is occurring do not chill. These pairs continue to incubate as soon as the worker moves on to the next bank of aviaries.
- Be cognizant of the needs of the birds. I am often sent photographs of aviaries. I have seen some Australian parrots (primarily Rosellas) housed in dark, enclosed aviaries. The breeder did not understand that these birds come from open, brightly lit habitats and that the conditions under which he was keeping his bird was not conducive to breeding. (This is why it is so important to understand how the parrots live in the wild, as enumerated in 1 above.) Another aviculturist offered metal perches without understanding that parrots in the wild spend much of their time chewing. The birds were kept in sterile aviaries and consequently plucked. Had they been given wooden perches, which the birds could chew, as well as enrichment, I am sure that most would never have plucked or once they did many would have recovered.
- Understand nutrition. Cucumber and lettuce are primarily water, rice in the husk is a hollow calorie, and a seed diet with a piece of apple is not a nutritious diet. Feed seeds or pellets amounting to 50 and 60% of the whole diet, respectively. The rest of the diet should consist of vegetables including steamed carrot, broccoli, beet root, sweet potatoes and pumpkin, and raw corn kernels, zucchini, hot peppers and peas; greens (including those rich in oxalic acid like spinach, which should be fed no more than twice weekly); cooked pulses (especially garbanzo beans, which are an excellent source of protein); nuts for macaws; whole grain bread; soft food, egg food and more. Fruit can be fed, but select tropical varieties and never amounting more than 10% of the whole diet. This low percentage is because in the wild parrots eat fruits green in order to avoid competing with other fruit predators. Green fruit has a low sugar content. Most fruits available have been produced to be especially sweet and thus are not natural for feeding parrots.
- Be observant. Ramon Noegel told me many years ago that the parrots talk to their caretaker but that most people are deaf when they talk. I have come to learn that these words, which initially sparked an internal laugh, are very true. Every action by the birds is intended to communicate with us.
So how do parrots communicate? This subject would require volumes. I can give three examples. A) In a case where two pairs of amazons are housed in adjacent enclosures and the two males are always displaying, trying to attack each other and chasing their mates away, they are telling you that one pair should be moved or a solid partition erected. If you do not do so, they will either never settle down to breed or will end up injuring their mates, this to either keep them away from the competing male or as a means of venting built up anger. (Visualization is recommended when not nesting but when breeding, it can incite aggression.) B) Another example involves a pair of cockatoos. The male is always seen displaying on the perch but the female is on the enclosure floor, perches only infrequently and avoids contact with the male. The two birds are never seen eating together. The hen is afraid and is telling you so. Unless measures are taken, the male will likely injure his mate. C) We employ an automatic watering system at the farm. Some weeks ago, we were back flushing the system and had stopped the water flow. One bird, a macaw near the work area, kept walking over to the water nipple, touching it and screaming loudly when anyone walked by. It was clearly alerting us that it had no water available. Signs may be less subtle. But subtle or overt, parrots always communicate with us. It is our responsibility to listen to them.
My recommendation when walking around is to ´listen´ to your birds. Their method of communication does not used words but actions; yes, they can scream loudly to attract our attention or as a means of alerting us of a problem. But most words are in the form of behavior—a parrot version of sign language.
The key is to becoming a good listener is to watch, mentally record and to intimately know every bird in your care. I personally look at every bird in my collection when I am home. I do this early in the morning and if I arrive home before dark, I do the same. They are a constant source of lessons and few understand my own birds more than I do.
- Know when to act. In aviculture there are moments when the breeder must act quickly. Just two weeks ago, my aviary attendant and I rushed to remove a female Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis that was being very aggressively chased by her mate. They had lived together for years but something triggered the vitriol in the male. Had we not acted quickly, the cornered female would have been injured. In contrast, it is common for incubating hens to emerge from their nest and for the eggs to undergo some level of chilling during those periods. In the recent cold spell in South Florida, I watched as several caique hens emerged, played and fed in the morning; their eggs clearly chilled. I did not rush and remove the eggs because I knew they would be fine. (They all hatched.) An ill bird should never be left for later, as each passing minute will mean that its health will continue to deteriorate. In contrast, pulling a chick for hand-rearing that is being well cared for requires no alacrity. Judge each situation and act accordingly.
- Continuity is key. I know breeders that change nests, the brand of pellets, mates and even the location of the birds constantly. They cannot understand why their birds do not breed. Some pairs respond to change and start breeding immediately, but most will simply not nest until they have adapted to a dramatic change in environment or diet. When I moved my birds from the house in Miami Beach to the farm in the Redland, many pairs that had nested regularly each year took a recess. They had to adapt to a whole new environment, even though their cages, nests and diet were the same.
- Patience. If parrots bred like chickens, they would be worthless. These words were repeated to me more than once by Dr Jean Decalour. He was absolutely correct. Parrots are not chickens. They will not start laying the day after they are released into a cage. Young pairs will need to mature; adult pairs will need to adapt to changes in surroundings and husbandry when brought into your collection. Wild birds may have an even longer adaption curve, as they must become accustomed to captivity. Provide the birds with the best care, conditions and diet possible and they will reward you—in due course.
Each week I receive an average of 72 pleas for help via Facebook. Of these, 47% are asking what can they do about inducing a pair of birds to lay. Some display frustration that they have owned a pair for 7 months and still no eggs. My response is that aviculture requires patience. If you do not have it when you entered aviculture, you will develop it in due course. I can give an example. An aviculturist friend waited 17 years before he could induce a pair of Long-billed Corellas (also called Slender-billed Cockatoos) to nest. This aviculturist had tremendous experience and was very successful. The birds were simply not ready. If you expect overnight success, buy Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus, some lovebirds or Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus and forego the rest of the parrots.
These golden rules have helped guide me through failures and successes. I hope that readers will print them and review the list periodically. If you do, I am certain that they will help guide you through this very fascinating hobby called aviculture.