Tips -- not secrets -- from 50 years of parrot breeding
by Rosemary Low

I will not apologise for stating the obvious when I say you only get out of something what you put in. This is most certainly the case where breeding parrots is concerned.  If you cannot apply love and hard work, don’t bother! The more time you spend with your birds, the better you get to know them and to observe what they need or the idiosyncrasies of certain individuals.

Let’s face it! Most breeders have too many birds. You learn mainly by close observations and if you have time only to rush around and feed them, and clean out the aviaries when necessary (or overdue), you will miss so many important details -- small things that make up the big picture. Small signs that make all the difference between breeding failure and breeding success.

Fresh branches for gnawing are vitally important for all parrots

Over the years I have seen it happen many times!  A breeder with just a few pairs has outstanding success with them. “This is easy! I will double the number of aviaries!”  He expects to double the number of young -- but unless he is retired and can spend most of the day with his birds, it doesn’t work like that.

My belief is that the breeder with just a few pairs achieves a much better ratio of young to breeding pairs than occurs in a big collection. Large collections might produce a lot of youngsters but the average number of young per pair is very unlikely to be high.

In a big collection there is seldom time to get to know each bird and to have a good relationship with it.  In aviaries where the parrots fly away from the onlooker, owner or feeder,  it probably means they see people only when they are fed. If you cannot study birds closely you miss clues of poor health, incompatibility, leg rings causing injury, prolonged moult and many other danger signs.  Not only that, what pleasure is there in keeping birds that do not respond to your presence? For me, the greatest joy in keeping parrots is the relationship I have with every one them.

Overall the number of parrots that I keep, about 26, gives me more satisfaction that when I was responsible for the care of 500 or so or, when in my own collection, I had 80 or 90.  Indeed, the responsibility hung heavily on me because with such a large number it was inevitable that important factors that affected the welfare of some birds were missed. 

So my tip number one is: limit the number of birds you keep to the time you have available to care for each one in an exemplary manner.                   

Tip number two is: do not under-estimate how long it takes to maintain aviaries in a clean and safe condition. If possible, allow a set time every week for checking welded mesh and structures. Unrepaired holes or damage can lead to escapes or the entry of predators. Too many birds are lost in this way. If you as yet have no birds but are thinking of going into birdkeeping, be aware that wooden aviaries are very difficult to maintain in a safe and hygienic condition. Aviaries with aluminium framework will last for many years in good condition and still look smart.

Aviaries constructed with aluminium framework
are easier to construct, maintain and keep clean

Tip number three: talk to your birds. Most parrots are highly social and inquisitive and enjoy interacting with other creatures. Talk to them! They will respond. Because they are so vocal, it is possible that they look with suspicion on silent creatures.

Talking to them means spending time getting to know each one and observing it more closely. I have already mentioned how important this is. By talking to them you build up a rapport that increases your enjoyment of bird keeping. When someone says to me: “I always talk to my birds”, as though that is silly or unusual, I always think: “Well, of course! Why not?”

Tip number four. If you are having success in breeding a particular species, do not think of changing your method because someone else is even more successful. And if you fail consistently, do not expect to succeed by copying the management of a successful aviculturist. In aviculture conditions are never precisely the same in any two collections. Most of our methods are not quantifiable. Even if we could precisely replicate every aspect of management, the personalities and behaviour of individual birds vary -- just as do those of the person looking after them. Often people cannot define the real reason for their success. I put it down to attention to detail, seen through a constantly observant pair of eyes!

I recall that some years ago, when I was visiting the USA, someone complained bitterly that they had copied the method I had described in an article for  breeding a certain species, but that method had not worked!  I was just surprised at his naïvity!

Tip number five. Adopt a routine, and stick to it, especially regarding time. Birds -- in aviaries and in the wild -- are very much creatures of habit. They also appear to have an inbuilt clock and know when their food is late. This can make them anxious or bad-tempered.  I started to keep Budgerigars when I was twelve years old and would get up at 6.15am to feed them before I went to school. Some people are amazed when I tell them this habit has persisted throughout my life. I firmly believe that the first feed should be as early in the day as possible, although I admit it is not vital for mainly seed-eating species. For softbills and lories, who usually ignore the previous day’s food, it is important.

Tip number six. If  you have more birds than you, or you and your partner, can feed without hired help, you have too many birds. (This does not apply, of course, in commercial breeding establishments.) I recall an American friend telling me that the man he had employed to feed his birds, chopped up the fruit and vegetables -- and then threw them over the wall because he was too lazy to deliver them to the many cages. One  day my friend chanced upon a big pile of rotting fruit. The moral of this story is: if you have to employ someone, supervise them closely.

Tip number seven. Colour is of extreme importance in the lives of birds.  Consider this in deciding what to wear around your birds. Muted colours and shades of green are best. They do not appreciate brightly coloured clothes, especially in solid colours. This applies particularly to red.  White, seen in nature mainly in flowers and blossom and in the plumage of cockatoos and egrets, should also be avoided. (Veterinarians, please note!)

Tip number eight. Perches! This is a subject to which, in my opinion, most breeders fail to give enough thought. Why is it so important? Don’t you just need one at each end of the aviary? No! Be imaginative. Most parrots enjoy vertical perches. Imagine what it is like to wear an uncomfortable pair of shoes all day and every day. Bad perching is the equivalent for our parrots. Perches can fall into this category because they are ancient and shiny, too wide, dirty, plastic, metal (please don’t!) -- or simply missing altogether. I recall visiting one place where, to my dismay, all the birds were clinging to the wire. The perches had long disintegrated or fallen down. Clearly here was a couple who should have already given up keeping parrots! (Equally dismaying was the state of the windows in the house which were totally obliterated by cobwebs -- I thought I was in a horror movie!)

Aviaries can be made more interesting
by planting hardy shrubs such as elder

Natural wood perches are recommended.  Given a choice, many parrots opt for surprisingly thin perches.  They greatly enjoy thin, springy branches, especially willow. Nothing makes most parrots more excited than  a new supply of fresh-cut branches. The pleasure they give makes it worth the effort. Parrots need a choice of perch sizes, because always gripping a perch of the same circumference is not good for their feet.  Perches in cages must be washed frequently; they soon become sticky from fruits.

It is a lot of work to keep aviaries and cages supplied with suitable branches. Most parrots would be nibbling and gnawing all day long if provided with enough fresh-cut wood or berry-laden branches such as hawthorn. Finding a supply can be a major problem for some urban dwellers. Seek advice from other local parrot keepers as they will be able to  recommend suitable trees.

Tip number nine. Do not breed from aggressive birds. Aggression is inherited. This results in such problems as males killing females and breeding birds with a poor temperament, unsuitable for pets.

Tip number ten. You will receive much more satisfaction from birdkeeping if you know in your heart that you are doing everything possible regarding environmental enrichment. My heart sinks when I see an aviary containing nothing but a perch at each end. My own aviaries are made into interesting environments. There are tough shrubs such as elder growing through the gravel on the floor or in tubs, stainless steel dishes hung from the roof to provide not only a satisfying bath but also a swing, and a simple swing made from a length of apple branch with a length of chain stapled at each end. Depending on how playful the pair of birds is, other items on which they can  swing or gnaw are also provided.

Tip number eleven. Cultivate your cynical side!  When  you see a “true breeding pair” offered for sale, you are right to enquire whether they are wearing the correct size rings and have DNA sexing certificate with matching ring numbers!  If not, they could be another “pair” of  cocks!


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