Old world Aviaries

Preparing the collection for breeding

by Darrel K. Styles, DVM

This is the time of year we expect many of our psittacine birds to come into breeding condition. So, the advent of spring is a good time to do routine maintenance of the birds to ensure a successful breeding season.

Unlike mammals, where the male is always in season and the female cycles, both male and female birds must come into breeding condition in order to reproduce. However, this is typically an asynchronous process--the males come into condition first. The natural rationale behind this phenomenon is that the male begins to stake out his breeding territory and have it well established by the time the female is ready to breed.

Physiologically, the testes begin to increase in size. Their growth is remarkable, being huge in species like budgies compared to body size. Of course, the testes produce large amounts of the male hormone testosterone, which makes the males very aggressive. In the wild, this aggression is directed onto rival male birds until the pecking order has been established.

The females come into condition somewhat later and avoid the aggressive males until they are ready to accept them. However, in captive situations, the female cannot escape and often, as is the case with cockatoos, mate injury results. This may explain why we see a lot of avian trauma this time of year in all species.

The first step to successful breeding is ensuring that you have a true pair. You don't know how often I look at people's birds and discover that they do not have a true pair. If the birds have been correctly sexed, then there should be a black tattoo (just a black blob of India ink) in the wing web. You must catch the birds and open their wings, look at the wing web that faces the body, blow or wet back the feathers, and if the bird has been sexed, there should be a tattoo. The rule is right wing for males and left wing for females. The way I remember this is that if you are a chauvinist, then males are always right; if you are a feminist, then ladies are left. If the birds are not tattooed, then you cannot be sure unless the birds are sexually dimorphic. (Hens and cocks have visible characteristics that distinguish them.) However, sexual differences can be subtle, and clear dimorphism is uncommon in most parrots except for glaring examples like Eclectus. So, you need to get the birds sexed.

Next, are the birds of a good age? For large psittacines, the birds should be about 3 years old minimum and a little older for macaws. I have also seen birds that were too old to try to breed, but they have to be very old. (I know of one scarlet macaw hen that was still laying at 50.)

It helps if the female is older than the male. Males seem to have a harder time figuring out what they are supposed to do; most females would agree with that. It is even tougher if the male is hand-raised and imprinted on humans. But with time and nature, they eventually figure out how the game is played. Ideally, a hand-fed female placed with a wild-caught or parent-raised male is a good match.

Also, make sure the birds are aggression matched. We all know of males abusing females, but in new-world birds the opposite is common. I have seen some pretty tough old Yellow-naped Amazon hens make mincemeat out of wimpy, inexperienced males. But, the good thing about most new-world birds is that they either like each other or hate each other almost immediately when they are introduced. There is little delayed aggression, such as we see in cockatoos.

Ensure the birds are in good breeding condition. When you examine your birds, make sure they are in good flesh by feeling the breast muscles. They should be nice and domed. If the breast is very sharp, the bird may be ill and should be seen by a vet. If the breast is dimpled (shows cleavage), the bird is too fat. Fat birds do not breed well. This is one of the biggest problems I see in Amazons. Obese males simply have little or no interest in breeding. Obesity is also a big problem in galahs (rose-breasted cockatoos). While you have the birds in hand, give them a good once-over to look for any problems you might easily identify, such as papillomas in the cloaca.

Cutting the birds' nails is a good prebreeding practice. If you were a female, would you want those sharp claws on your back? For example, I had a client who had Queen-of-Bavaria (golden) conures that had been together for 7 years and produced nothing. He had tried everything from changing nest boxes to moving the cage. I took the birds out of the cage and examined them. They looked fine except for monster nails. I trimmed them, and 2 weeks later there were four eggs in the nest box. My client sold each of those chicks for $4500. Not bad for paying the vet for a couples of hours for a farm call.

If you have cockatoos, it is a good time to clip the male's wings and take a bit of the wind out of his sails. This lets the female escape more easily if he is being too aggressive.

Stressing the birds may have something to do with bringing them into condition. I know of a famous aviculturist who "scares" birds this time of year by going into the aviary in a Halloween mask and yelling at them. I don't suggest this, but if you do a prebreeding examination and nail trim, you may introduce sufficient stress. But this is pure speculation. No one has confirmed the effectiveness of this type of activity.

Make sure the breeding environment is ready. Perches should be secure and not rocking on their attachments to the cage. Also, you want rough perches not PVC pipe. Natural branches are best because the female needs to sustain a good grip while the male mounts her and may not feel secure on an unstable or smooth perch. (If it is a mounting species like Amazons. Macaws just back up to each other and are very proud of copulating in front of you.)

Make sure nest boxes are in good repair. No leaks or you are asking for fungal problems. No holes or rotten spots for the birds to escape from. No unwanted intruders like mice, roaches, or ants. And, good clean dry substrate (shavings or whatever you use) so the birds can be stimulated by digging. Also, I have had great success by nailing a small piece of thin plywood over the nest box hole with just a small hole in the plywood so the birds can chew into the nest box. (This is mainly for birds who are healthy but otherwise won't breed or are not sufficiently stimulated to do so.) I tried this with some green-winged macaws that hadn't bred in years and got three fertile eggs. Maybe they are like kids. If you tell them they can't, then they will. If you have cockatoos, you may want to use a nest box with a double opening so the female can escape. I have seen females cockatoos held captive until they starved.

Finally, increase the amount of favorite (not fatty) foods like fresh fruits and a few nuts. Don't just give them more seed. Birds seem to be stimulated by fresh food flow. You can add a little mineral powder if you want, but a calcium block in the cage should be more than sufficient.

These are but a few suggestions for preparing the aviary. With a little luck and the right combination, chicks will be in the nursery soon.

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