Bird Breeding

Several months ago, I received three similar questions from three parts of the world—one from the Italy, another from India and a third from Taiwan. The breeders wanted to know what species I recommended that was easily bred, required little care and would make them money. My first thought was a wooden parrot carving: it would require no care, cleaning or feeding, could never become ill and would always be beautiful. But then it would never breed, which would only cause additional stress on the breeder—will the eggs be fertile, would they hatch and would the parents care for the young? All jest aside, that query sent my mind pondering on what an aviculturist needs to understand to be successful. That question is long and has many answers. But before delving into what constitutes a good aviculturist, we must look at what I define as the four pillars of bird keeping: diet, hygiene, patience and experience, which accumulates and allow one to take steps to more difficult or delicate species or to a larger collection.

In today´s avicultural world, breeding is anathema to many. There may be excess numbers of some species, including Sun and Green-cheeked Conures and Umbrella Cockatoos (especially males), but there are just as many species that are disappearing. In the United States, where I reside, the Grey-cheeked Parakeet, Golden-winged Parakeet, Great-billed Parrot, fig parrots, Hanging Parrots, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Red-bellied Macaw, Red-vented Cockatoo, Patagonian Conure, Wagler´s Conure, Coral-billed Parrot, Lilacine Amazon, Yellow-billed Amazon, Black-billed Amazon, Tucuman Amazon, Mealy Amazon and many other species that were once imported in large numbers are declining and are at a level that I deem to be unsustainable; we may be able to keep them alive for a few years, but they will eventually disappear due to the lack of genetic diversity. Some of the species that have already vanished from private aviculture in the US include the Blue-rumped Parrot, Pesquet´s Parrot and Diademed Amazons, these the three that first come to mind. We had an opportunity to establish them when they were imported, but aviculture was in its infancy and key elements like husbandry and behavior were poorly understood. Iron storage disease and the harmful effects of excess protein were not even under consideration.

To describe how the situation has changed, I would like to recall scenes from the 1970s and 1980s. I can remember visiting Gator´s of Miami and seeing hundreds of Blue- and Yellow-streaked Lories at a bargain price of US$69.00 each, Bern Levine´s Pet Farm where you could see cages full of Slender-billed Conures that had attracted so little attention and had gone unsold for so long that they were laying eggs on the enclosure floor, David Putnam´s quarantine station in Louisiana and seeing cages of Philippine Blue-naped Parrots and Red-vented Cockatoos, or Matthew Block´s facility in Miami, where he had cages full of Yellow- and Black-billed Amazons, which were not of great interest to aviculturists, except to the few fans of Caribbean Amazons. Such sights will be no more.

Only a few of these species are held in small numbers by a few aviculturists that are intent on stopping their extinction from US aviaries. An example of one of these breeders is Chris Touchton Norveldt. During a recent visit I was euphoric at the sight of species breeding whose numbers in the US could be counted on one hand. She is the epitome of the modern breeder: a specialist whose focus is a closely related group. Such specialization permits a true understanding of the birds.

Many of the once numerous species have suffered from massive habitat loss, which often allowed massive trapping. Today many of these species are not only destined to disappear from our aviaries but also, sadly, from the wild. I have spent 40 years, yes four decades of my life, studying parrots in the wild. Many areas where I once saw parrots in significant numbers now contain African Oil Palm plantations, or are a barren nadir that resulted from deforestation and then the lateralization of the soil. I have seen this same situation in Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and many other countries.

The species that are on the road to disappearing need attention and a concerted breeding effort, along with an intensive in situ education and conservation program; simply claiming that there is no trade or taking credit for having banned trade is utopian thinking that will not save them, as this does not take into account that in many countries where parrots are native there is a local demand for pets or that the habitats that once supported the parrots exist no more. Every individuals of these highly threatened species kept as a pet, sitting in a rescue or languishing in an aviary and not paired should be and the greatest effort taken to breed them, the progeny being destined for the preservation of the species. Under no circumstances should such birds be sold for pets.

Not all breeding can thus be seen as being bad. Indeed, for many of these species, captivity may offer the only chance of our children´s children to see them alive. For this to occur, the next generation of aviculturist must be formed. One is not born an aviculturist; one becomes an aviculturist through trials and tribulations, by learning from mistakes, being observant, having a profound passion for the birds (which require attention 365 days a year) and by having an insatiable curiosity that never ceases. I learn something new every single day–and I have been breeding parrots for over 40 years. I do not know everything; in fact I often joke that with each passing day and the accumulation of experience I know less. One never has all the answers. On the contrary, the birds will teach you that when you feel you have learned everything, something will happen that will call into question all of your experience. This is what is so fascinating about bird keeping: you can continue to learn your whole life.

The evolution of thinking that resulted from the norm being questioned has brought huge progress to aviculture. I can recall when the most suitable diet was seed based, with fruits and vegetables added two or three times a week. Monkey chow, an extruded biscuit sold for feeding primates, was often added to the diet. The first macaw I bred was fed parrot mix and monkey chow daily and a mixture of fruits and vegetables three times weekly. My first Green-winged Macaws survived on dry coconut and monkey chow. This is what it had received during quarantine and it never ate anything else. Today I know that with effort it could have and should have been forced to eat a more balanced diet.

Today´s breeder has forgotten about monkey chow, whose level of vitamins A and D are probably excessive for many species. Many modern breeders have replaced the parrot mix that was the staple of yesteryear with pellets or crumbles. The manufactured diets, which were introduced by the late Dr Ted Lafeber, sparked ridicule when he first marketed them, but today they represent a significant component in the diet of captive parrots, especially in the US; in Europe many still rely on seed-based diets and in the emerging markets of Asia extruded diets are prohibitively priced.

Where possible, I recommend feeding a pelleted diet supplemented with fruits, vegetables and other foods as it can eliminate many of the nutritional deficiencies that Dr Lafeber documented as contributing to disease.

To me, diet is the most important component in the life of a captive bird. I define diet loosely to include not only edible items but also enrichment, which can often augment the diet. The enrichment provides mental well-being and emulates nature, where a significant portion of the day is spent foraging. We provide our birds with pellets, seeds, nuts, whole grain bread, cooked whole grain pasta and brown rice, vegetables and fruit. I once fed more fruit than vegetables but have come to understand that commercial fruits have significant levels of sugars to make them attractive to humans. Wild parrots rarely have access to ripe, sweet fruit, which are also attractive to primates, bats, other mammals, insects and frugiverous birds. To eliminate the competition, the parrots feed on fruit long before it has fully ripened. I have seen wild Golden Conures eat cajú, the fruit to which the cashew nut is attached; the fruit is virtually unknown outside the tropics. The fruit is sweet and palatable when ripe, but the Golden Conures feed on it when it is unripe, when it is terribly astringent. I will never forget the face of Ricardo Novaro, an architect who worked on the expansion of Loro Parque, when I jokingly told him to bite an unripe cashew fruit in Costa Rica: he could barely talk afterwards, as the fruit had constricted his mouth. The same would have happened to a mammal. The parrots feed on the fruit when it is green and when its sugar level is low.

Because parrots feed on items that tend not to be sweet, I have come to the opinion that fruits should form only a small portion of the diet and that when fed, varieties that have a lower sugar content or which are tropical should be used; by tropical I am thinking about those fruits, berries and pods that are eaten by humans but which have never been fully domesticated. The main supplementation should come in the form of vegetables—green leafy, bright orange, red and every other color imaginable. We provide peas, par boiled carrot, sweet potatoes and pumpkin, which are important sources of beta-carotene, steamed broccoli, okra and beets, raw zucchini, various types of greens and more.

The birds also receive enrichment. This enrichment provides food for the mind and the body. Place a handful of palm seeds (say those of the Foxtail Palm) in the cage of a pair of Blue-throated Macaws, and they will forgo their diet for these. The birds delight in chewing them, playing with them and eating them. I have several Moluccan Cockatoos that were suffering from plucking and self-inflicted wounds when they arrived. Each one of those birds had received medical attention, had access to toys and received an excellent diet. When we placed them in groups and trained them to enjoy the enrichment, the birds immediately stopped. They eventually feathered out.

When the birds have adapted to the enrichment, it is interesting to watch how the display the same behaviors as their wild counterparts. I have seen Umbrella Cockatoos that were captive bred drink the water from green coconuts much as birds in the wild.

The enrichment allows a natural foraging behavior to develop. This behavioral allows a group, even of different species, to behave as a flock; most wild parrots are flocking species. The group establishes a hierarchy or works together to achieve a common goal. A green coconut for example first has the fibrous covering removed, an effort in which the entire flock devotes considerable time. Once de-husked, one bird will chew a hole into the hard-brown shell. Once this is achieved, all the birds will eat the flesh, the group taking turns in biting a piece, which they take and then slowly eat, relishing every minute particle.

This availability of enrichment does not mean that toys should be discarded; on the contrary, the approach should be to provide the birds with toys but also the available enrichment. This can range from branches with or without leaves to pine cones to pods and seeds, even whole green coconuts. In Argentina the Blue-crowned Conure is known as the parrot of the stick (“loro de los palos”) because they tend to chew branch tips to a point. Normally one bird will remove the leaves while another decorticates the branch and chews the tip to a point. This same behavior is seen in many macaw species. Wild Orange-winged Amazons in Belém do Pará, Brazil, come into the city to eat the green pods of the Royal Poinciana, the birds chewing off small pods and flying to a nearby tree to eat the seeds, often as a pair; one holds the pod against the perch while the two chew into it from opposite sides. I have thrown branches containing pods into cages containing this species and have watched the exact same behavior.

With enrichment, the intention is to allow a natural behavior to develop. With toys, the bird tends to play alone; with enrichment the flock mentality comes into play.

Diet in its many forms is a vital component. It provides the base of good health that will allow breeding in pairs or long-term health in pets. Diet must be adapted to suit the needs of the species. This means that no single diet can be fed to every bird. Dr Kitti Remington found that pellets are not a suitable diet for Grey-cheeked Parakeets, as the high level of vitamin D can prove lethal.  Excess fat in the diet of cockatoos can cause fatty liver disease. Fatty diets can contribute to fatty tumors in Galahs or Rose-breasted Cockatoos. The large macaws, on the other hand, have evolved to feed primarily on palm seeds, which have a high fat content. They need fat for optimum health and breeding. The same applies to African Grey Parrots.

One could write a book about diet, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. The serious aviculturist will investigate a proper diet and will understand that seeds or pellets alone are unsuitable for long-term physical and mental health. Effort must go into developing a diet to suit the various groups under one´s care.

The second pillar is in my opinion hygiene. One can feed an excellent diet, but provide poor water or keep the birds in dirty conditions and they will sicken; the illness is part a cause-effect scenario.

The first prong of this pillar is water quality. Water borne pathogens are a reality that must never be overlooked, even in the most developed countries. In my own collection, the well water passes through filters, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet radiation and chlorination. Without these steps, we have been able to culture bacteria in the water, including Klebsiella. Insuring that the water is highly potable and pathogen free (including amoebas) is a must. I recommend working with a municipal water company or laboratory for periodic testing to insure that the water offered to the birds for drinking, for cleaning (puddles in traditional aviaries can be used for drinking by birds, thus contracting any pathogen) or for bathing (as in an overhead mister) is of the utmost quality. Even the dishes should be washed in water that is incontrovertibly bacteria free.

Water should be available to the birds in a manner that precludes contamination. In my collection, I rely on an automatic watering system. The birds drink from stainless steel nipples. I favor this method over water bowls, which often become the dumping ground for food; many parrots have the habit of soaking their food. When the birds also defecate in their water, combined with food and vitamins in those cases where the breeder adds a supplement to the water, the result is a bacterial soup. Birds that drink this bacteria laden liquid will eventually fall ill.

Where an automatic watering system is not available, an option is a water bottle with a stainless steel tip containing a ball bearing. This precludes defecation and food from contaminating the water, but the use of a water bottle should not be construed as not requiring that fresh water be provided daily. (I state this because recently I had a conversation with a person who did not change the water in the bottle until the birds had drank it dry!) The bottle will need disinfection and thorough cleaning on a daily basis to prevent bacteria from growing inside. Water bowls can also be used but will need close monitoring and changed several times daily.

Aviary, incubation and hand-rearing room hygiene is also of utmost importance. Feces that dry can become aerosolized and contribute to illness, including Chlamydophila. Constant cleaning is thus a necessity, but understanding how cleaning products work is imperative for disinfection to take place.

Most disinfecting compounds quickly lose their efficacy in the presence of organic matter. (Water pH can also affect cleaning properties.)  It is thus important to first eliminate organic matter and oils with soapy and water before applying a disinfectant. In my incubation and hand-rearing rooms, we wipe all surfaces, including walls ,daily with a soapy water solution. This is then wiped with clean water and then with a disinfectant. The importance of the daily chore is to eliminate feather shaft particles, which in growing babies is a constant problem. Shavings or other absorbent substrate on which chicks are maintained contribute further to the dust load. The constant wiping helps reduce the particulate matter and helps control any bacteria bloom. (Hygiene in hand-rearing is also important and will be addressed in a separate paper in the future.)

In our hand-rearing room, we maintain a HEPA filter that aids in controlling aerosolized particles. The filter is cleaned several times daily. The same type of filter can be used in an indoor bird room.

In the aviary, hygiene is equally important, for it can control both morbidity and mortality. Our aviaries are all suspended. The late Ramon Noegel, an American aviculturist who contributed significantly to parrot breeding, popularized this aviary concept. The primary advantage is that feces and unwanted food falls through the enclosure floor and out of reach. This reduces the risk of bacteria and parasite contamination. But such aviaries will require cleaning. We use a hose to wash cages, as this eliminates the risk of aerosolizing fomites that result when the pressure cleaner is employed. When the cages are empty, we disinfect and then pressure wash them. This insures greater hygiene. In standard aviaries, hygiene is also very important. Such cages should have a drain system installed to facilitate cleaning.

In aviary construction, wooded frames should be avoided, along with any other porous surfaces. Feces will impregnate the wood, which can and will be chewed by the birds. The risk of disease is then exponentially increased. Perches should be attached in such a fashion so they can easily be replaced once soiled. (Chewing and the rubbing of food may also make the perches smooth, which makes gripping difficult and this is yet another incidence where they will need to be replaced.)

For birds housed indoors in cages, wooden floors or cages that lack a grid that keep the birds from walking across their feces should be avoided. In my opinion birds maintained in such enclosures will be under constant contact with pathogens: the wood will become moist with spilled water and turn into a growing medium for bacteria, and the birds will walk across the cage floor and perhaps eat food that has come in contact with fecal matter. Avoid wooden based cages and always employ a grid or mesh bottom to keep the birds from coming in contact with fecal matter and discarded food

I have visited collections worldwide and am sometimes shocked at the lack of hygiene. Feces accumulates, along with food, on the enclosure floor; the birds walk across this and then preen themselves or clean their feet. That they become ill is thus not surprising. The breeders then wonder why they must use antibiotics to sustain their flock. Such reliance on chemicals is flawed and will in the end cause the demise of the flock. Instead the focus should be on disease prevention.

Some breeders will argue that cleaning will disrupt pairs that are breeding. I disagree and feel that most pairs will readily adapt to a routine. (They adapt to being fed and to having their nest inspected, so why would they not become accustomed to cleaning?) We may not wash cages weekly during the breeding season, but we do not forego cleaning them completely. A close eye is kept and the minute the cage appears soiled it is cleaned. This is normally every other week.

The third pillar is patience. This pillar includes observation, research and understanding the idiosyncrasies of the species that you keep; the combined accumulation of data will quickly show that parrots are never in any rush (except to die when they fall ill) and thus my heading for this pillar of having patience. I often receive emails from new aviculturists who cannot understand why the pairs of wild African Greys they had bought a year before have still not nested, or are perplexed because the Patagonian Conures they acquired congregate in a far corner of the aviary, without showing any interest in their nest.

Captive bred parrots go through a maturation phase before they breed. Young Green-cheeked Conures can breed at a year of age, but Scarlet and Green-winged Macaws, African Greys, Umbrella Cockatoos and Yellow-naped Amazons can take an average 5 years to mature. (These species can all mature much earlier, but this typically happens in the collection of an experienced aviculture that can intensely manage his flock.) Wild birds can take as long to acclimate to confinement, this as they adapt to a captive diet, which initially will be seen as foreign—sunflower seeds do not grow in most areas where parrots originate. Many birds will only take a balanced diet through coaxing, a process that can take months or years. The wild birds must also adapt to their caretaker, often being paired with any available mate (and not one selected through pair bonding from the flock) and totally foreign surroundings. The adaptability of parrots is such that after the acclimatization period, many of these wild birds will readily breed and do so very successfully.

Some species can be relatively easy to breed. Cockatiels, Budgerigars, Lovebirds, Sun and Green-cheeked Conures breed readily. A good diet, suitable nest and some quiet is all they require. At the other end of the spectrum, the primarily green conures (White-eyed, Mitred, Red-masked and Wagler´s) can test the patience level of even a seasoned aviculturist. My first pair of White-eyed Conures nested nine years after I acquired them! They had become tame, accepted a good diet and the nest that I provided, but no stimulus could motivate them until they decided to breed.

Understanding each species is important and can make the level of patience more tolerable. The same applies to the idiosyncrasies of the birds being maintained. Brotogeris parrots, a genus that is notoriously difficult to breed, can often be induced to lay by filling their nest with a block of cork, which emulates the arboreal termitaria used by this group in the wild. The relatively narrow nesting cavities used by wild parrots can explain why a pair of Goffin´s Cockatoo offered a nest large enough for a large dog to sleep in will not nest. The investigation will also reveal the sociable nature of some species. Golden Conures nest in the wild as family units. Single pairs in cages will breed, but often-recalcitrant pairs will immediately breed when placed nears groups of their kind. As an example, when I had a single pair, they would nest once yearly but now that I have five pairs, they will produce multiple clutches each year. On the other hand, Hawk-headed Parrots are highly territorial in nature and in my opinion breed best when they cannot hear another pair of their kind.

Research will allow you to understand the biology of the species and will endow you with the patience necessary to try different husbandry techniques, diets and housing until success is finally achieved.

The last and final pillar is experience. I like to akin this to the saying that a child must learn to crawl before he can walk. An individual with no experience cannot expect to succeed in breeding, for example, Moluccan Cockatoos, in which the males can be inordinately aggression and where egg breakage, poor incubation and inadequate parental care are commonly heard complaints. Nor can the pair of birds, which require space, be expected to thrive in a small cage, where the male will be in close contact with the female and where the risk of injury can aggravate.

When I started in aviculture, I started with small birds. I bred canaries, Cockatiels and small conures. I experienced egg binding, infertile eggs, abandoned eggs and young, illness and failures. The disasters proved as good a lesson as the successes. The accumulating experience gave me the confidence to breed other species. By the time I bred my first African Grey or macaw, I had a vast amount of first hand experience under my belt and this contributed to my problem solving abilities and ultimately the successes.

The early experience taught me to identify an ill bird, hand-rear young and handle birds without fear, this in order to clip their wings or nails or to examine them closely. I read books, articles and consulted with other breeders, but nothing could ever have come close to the lessons I learned first hand.

I point this out because a common question I receive is: “What book can I read to learn to breed birds?” or “What tips can you give me to guarantee success?” Books, articles and the internet (if the source is knowledgeable and reliable and unfortunately many on the internet espouse advice that is erring or misleading) can provide the foundation, but the pillars must be built with personal experience, using common sense, hard work and patience. Aviculture is not an easy hobby but tenacity will yield rewards.

This is why I recommend for beginners a pair of Cockatiels or lovebirds or a group of Budgerigars. They are great teachers of the breeding process. This physical experience can shed an insight that would never be acquired through any assiduous research project. These birds will also help you understand if the effort to clean cages, prepare food and attend to the birds on a daily basis is really for you. If after a year or two of success, you find that the passion has grown, then proceed to another species, perhaps the aforementioned Green-cheeked or Sun Conures. Take short steps; if you run in aviculture, the consequences can prove costly and frustrating.

Once you have understood the principal of the four pillars, aviculture will prove more fascinating and enjoyable. Less time will be spent in disease management and more in doing what breeders so desire: rearing young.

Good luck!