Rosemary Low explains more about breeding Parrots.
If you are considering breeding Parrots you need to know the most important factors that lead to success. I believe that these are as follows:
A feeling for keeping livestock: ie, a sympathetic attitude and a very observant disposition.
Enough time to properly care for the number of Parrots you keep.
A limited number of pairs.
Being strong-willed enough to specialise rather than to add species just because you like the look of them.
Not starting too ambitiously but with free-breeding species that mature quickly to teach you the basics of Parrot breeding.
Making up pairs from young birds.
Experience does enter the success equation to a degree, but many beginners are successful while others keep Parrots for years with very poor breeding results.
Take a look at our breeding and handfeeding food here.
This is not only because they have too many birds and not enough time to devote to each pair, but because they lack the ability to identify with the Parrots in their care. Yes, it is all about caring and that derives from careful observation and trying to work out what is best for each pair.
It is wise to specialise?
While luck plays a part in any endeavour, would-be breeders who continually complain of bad luck should probably be substituting that term with “bad management” and lack of knowledge of the species.
The breeders, who specialise in one group or genus of Parrots, or in a few selected species, generally have much better results than those with a wide diversity of species. The knowledge of those who are continually changing the species they keep tends to be superficial.
Another advantage of acquiring two or more pairs of each species is that eggs and chicks can often be fostered, should the need arise. This is preferable to hand-rearing which is work-intensive and often, or usually, problematic for those with limited experience.
However, more importantly, parent-reared birds are usually superior for breeding purposes. Hand-reared birds, unless socialised with their own species as soon as they are weaned, usually have behavioural problems. Also, they are fearless and thus often very aggressive towards the keeper when they are breeding.
Without potential foster parents, you are more likely to need an incubator.
My recommendation to the beginner would be to buy a small model and upgrade to a more expensive one if this is eventually warranted.
A small incubator, suitable for a beginner
Do your homework
Individuality in all members of the Parrot family is very obvious. Added to this is the different range of behaviours natural to the great number of Parrot species kept in captivity – in the region of 200 species.
However, many keepers standardise the way their Parrots are fed and housed. They have little consideration for the requirements of species and individuals.
Research into the requirements of the species to be kept is very important. Yet many new breeders buy on a whim, perhaps at a large show. The best course of action is to visit such a show and speak to as many sellers/breeders as possible of a species that seems suitable. Read books by reputable authors about breeding Parrots.
When designing breeding aviaries, remember that every pair must have their own enclosure, separated from the next by double welded mesh. Even young birds can cause a fatal injury to another in the adjoining aviary.
Aviaries must never be designed so that one is entered through a door in the side of an aviary with a common boundary; sooner or later a door will not be closed or wear will leave a gap through which a bird enters the next aviary — almost certainly to be killed.
Aviaries should be built with a service passage running their length, with a separate entry door to each aviary.
Breeding aviaries should be double-wired and spacious, with some shade
For each pair of the commonly kept, medium-sized Parrots, such as Cockatiels, Redrumps, Ringnecks and Green-cheeked Conures, I would suggest an aviary at least 3.6m (12ft) to 4.2m (14ft) long, 91cm (3ft) wide and 1.8m (6ft) high.
Recommended size for the indoor quarters is 1.2m (4ft) to 1.8m (6ft) long and 91cm (3ft) wide. Half depth cages, that is, 91cm (3ft) off the floor and the same height, are adequate.
The area below can be tiled for ease of cleaning or a vinyl floor can be laid above the concrete. Here is a useful tip: the floor of half-depth cages can be constructed of a smaller gauge (thinner) welded mesh. This means that more waste falls on to the floor, making cleaning easier.
Problems in breeding Parrots are frequently encountered because the aviary is too small. This is especially the case with inexpensive birds such as Cockatiels, Rosellas and Ringnecks.
Some owners are reluctant to spend money in building them an aviary of appropriate size because the cost is so much higher than that of the birds. In fact, these fast-flying birds are more active and need a longer flight than, for example, a pair of Amazons.
Many Cockatiels have to tolerate cramped conditions and do reasonably well under the circumstances, because they are flock species with a relatively low aggression threshold.
But Ringnecks and other Psittacula parakeets are female-dominant species. A male can feel very threatened by the close presence of a female and might be too intimidated to breed.
Have a look at these great aviaries.
Be aware of potential problems
The breeding season is the most stressful time of the year for many breeding Parrots. Some females die, the most common reasons being a calcium deficiency that results in egg-binding, and being attacked by the male.
Some males die feeding a large nestful of chicks, or perhaps even because a pair of the same (or a closely related) species is housed so close that territorial aggression causes extreme stress. Such birds might defend their territory to the degree that they neglect the female, or they vent their aggression on her with fatal results.
Where breeding pairs of the same or related species are housed in close proximity, the area of the aviary that contains the nest-box is best screened with solid partitions. This gives a pair a greater sense of security.
Broken eggs and mutilated chicks can ensue if male aggression is not reduced. Some Parrot species are naturally more aggressive than others. Such species can prove very difficult to breed if they have visual contact with others.
Cages only 1.8m (6ft) long are entirely unsuitable for active birds like the larger parakeets. Little pleasure is to be gained in keeping them in cages – and breeding results suffer along with the birds. Even in a 3.6m (12ft) flight they can only open their wings a couple of times – but at least they can fly.
This is so important for their well-being and for that of their young. Birds bred in cramped conditions are unlikely to be strong flyers or healthy breeding stock. Resist the temptation to cram in as many pairs as possible. And remember to allocate at least one aviary for young birds.
Only a few Parrot species are not aggressive and welcome the company of their own kind when breeding. They have evolved to live and breed in close proximity and aggression levels are very low.
Species that can be bred on the colony system are Budgerigars, Cockatiels and Peach-faced Lovebirds.
The great advantage of colony breeding is that the Parrots are able to choose their own mates. Incompatibility is a major reason for breeding failure among the larger Parrots. Many Parrots just tolerate their companion but will never breed unless they have a change of partner.
This reason for breeding failure is often overlooked. If after many years one partner dies, it can be very difficult to persuade some birds to accept a new partner.
Making Up Pairs
This is one reason why the wise breeder always chooses young birds for breeding. Most immature birds readily pair up with another of a similar age.
Acquiring adult pairs is not normally the quick route to breeding success. If adult pairs are offered for sale it is often because they are not successful breeders, they have health problems or they have come to the end of their reproductive life. Yes, unfortunately, not all breeders are honest!
I would advise purchasing them in the year they hatch. Buy DNA-sexed birds wearing rings that can be matched to the sexing certificate.
It is advisable to purchase directly from the breeder. The immune system is not fully functional in young birds, thus on the premises of a dealer, birds arrive from various sources, increasing the risk of disease transmission.
Resulting deaths cause extreme disappointment and often bewilderment to the purchaser, who has no idea why the bird died. It might look well, but the stress of moving it triggers perhaps a low-grade infection or a virus, resulting in a fatality.
Furthermore, a new bird could pass on a virus to existing stock, resulting in devastating losses.
A suitable nest-box is important. The deeper the box, the darker the interior. Most Parrots feel more secure in a dark box and a shallow nest can result in the young fledging too early. Inverted L-shaped boxes offer advantages over vertical ones.
A ladder must lead from the entrance hole to the base. Most breeders put the ladder immediately below the entrance. However, it is easier for the birds to use if it is attached to the side, not the front of the box.
There are two options, neither without risks. Nailing pieces of wood is the best method, provided that the interior is checked regularly to ensure they have not been gnawed away.
A popular alternative is nailing a piece of welded mesh inside but be aware that birds have died when the leg ring or foot became trapped. The welded mesh should have the loose ends clipped right back to the vertical strands.
Gnawing wood stimulates Parrots to breed, so screw small pieces of wood to the inside of the nest (nails might be hazardous when the wood is gnawed away). Parrots can then create extra nesting material.
The inspection door of the nest-box should be just above the level of the eggs or chicks. Never, ever, make the inspection door in the roof because birds become very nervous when the roof is lifted off.
Parrots prefer an entrance only just large enough for them to squeeze into: too large and the nest-box might be ignored as the birds do not feel secure.
Some birds refuse to enter nest-boxes facing in the wrong direction. The best is facing north.
The hatching of chicks is an exciting event for all breeders. Regular inspection of the nest-box is advisable. Unless the parents are extremely aggressive or very nervous, in which case the use of a nest-box camera is recommended.
I would urge all breeders to ring their chicks. Identifying the individual — and the breeder where the ring carries the breeder’s code or initials — is important as it reduces the likelihood of related birds being paired together after they are sold.
The ring should also provide the information, throughout its life, of the year it hatched. Ringing is especially important for breeders of mutations who need to keep track of parentage.
Inexperienced breeders might be apprehensive about fitting closed rings — but this is easy if carried out at the correct age.
In Budgerigars and others Parrots, where two toes point forwards and two backwards, the ring is placed over the three longest toes and moved down until it meets the fourth toe. This toe should be gently eased through the ring, using a wooden toothpick or a sharpened matchstick.
If this appears impossible because the chick’s toes are already too large, smearing them with Vaseline (petroleum jelly) and gently easing the ring on might prove successful. On no account force the ring or the chick’s leg could be broken.
It is important that the breeder knows the correct ring size for the species. If a chick is ringed too early it will immediately be apparent because the ring will be too loose. Remove the ring and wait a couple of days, or the ring might get lost in the nest litter.
Chicks are usually ringed just before their eyes open. There is slight variation when comparing species. In part, to the size of the tarsus — the part of the leg immediately above the toes. This is where the ring stays.
The age at which chicks of the same species should be ringed can differ according to growth rate. This is influenced by the proficiency of the parents or the hand feeder, diet, ambient temperature and the number of chicks in the nest.
The ring details (including colour) should be recorded immediately in a book kept for that purpose. The information can later be transferred to a computer if desired.
Soft foods for young birds
While chicks are in the nest, the parents need different foods. Many Parrot chicks have died because the parents have filled their crops with dry sunflower seed which is very difficult to digest.
Breeding and hand-feeding food is available here.
Depending on the species or preferences, rearing foods should include egg food (home-made or proprietary), soaked and sprouted seeds, pulses (peas and beans) and maize that have been soaked overnight then cooked, frozen thawed sweet corn, tender young corn cobs and, of course, the time-honoured rearing food, chickweed.
Smooth sowthistle, tender young dandelion leaves and seeding dock are also very valuable.
Some breeders are ignorant of a fact of vital importance: that young birds should not be weaned immediately on to hard foods.
Many breeders treat Grey Parrots, for example, as weaned as early as 12 weeks. While they might be independent of humans for food at 14 or 16 weeks (very seldom as early as 12 weeks), this does not mean that they can be fed like adults.
Countless young Parrots die because owners make this mistake. The weaning period is gradual and starts with soft items of food. Yet most people expect young Parrots to eat hard seeds or pellets within days of being weaned. If these soft and easily digested items are not available, the young ones lose weight and die. This happens to countless Parrots in “unexplained” deaths.
Temporary separation and flocking as breeding incentives
Separating male and female for a few weeks before the start of the breeding season is an idea that can be considered in the case of pairs that have never bred or which have stopped breeding. Assuming that the species is one with a strong or fairly strong pair bond, it is always the male who should be removed from the female’s aviary. This is to prevent aggression on the male’s part when the pair is reunited.
Reuniting the two birds will usually cause great excitement and is an enormous stimulus to breeding. However, in species in which the pair bond is very strong, such as Cockatoos and Macaws, the separation should not be too long — perhaps only two weeks. Separating them for longer could cause stress or depression and it is probably best if they are within earshot of each other.
An increasing number of breeders are giving their Macaws, Greys and other birds, the opportunity to congregate in a large aviary out of the breeding season. This results in increased fitness and in the more natural situation of wild birds. Then young ones find partners and the fidelity of an established pair is tested.
They have the opportunity to change partners if they wish. Even the large Macaws will do so on occasion. This opportunity is very important for pairs that have never bred, probably due to incompatibility.
It should be noted that the males of most Amazon Parrots are too aggressive for both sexes to be flocked during the winter months. However, they might benefit from a short period of separation. One problem in breeding Amazon Parrots is that often male and female do not come into breeding condition at the same time, resulting in clear eggs. Temporary separation might solve this problem, resulting in the production of a nest full of young.
There is one factor that Parrot breeders should never forget. We are not producing dogs or cats or other animals that have been domesticated for countless generations. We are trying to breed from either wild-caught birds or those which (with the exception of Cockatiels and Australian Parakeets) are probably only one to five generations away from wild-caught stock. They are still, essentially, wild birds that have yet to become domesticated.
Even the smallest concessions towards a more natural lifestyle and environment should reap rewards. Many Parrots are from forested areas – yet how many of us attempt to fill their aviaries with fresh-cut branches? This cover adds to their sense of security and well-being – so should we not be taking a lot more trouble to provide the right environment for our breeding pairs?
Too many breeding pairs of Parrots are kept in conditions that are little better than those in which battery chickens are kept. Before you make a decision about breeding these highly intelligent birds, ask yourself whether you can keep them in a way which you can be proud of.
All Parrots need access to outdoor aviaries for at least part of the year and most need flights which are long enough for them to flap their wings at least five times.
If you are breeding Parrots take a look at our breeding and handfeeding food here.