|deciding what kind to breed||
|putting pairs together||
|setting up cages||
|diet & care||
|egg laying & incubation||
This is meant to be a guide for people who want to breed birds, and are just starting out. It would be very difficult for me to discuss here, at any length, topics which might benefit an experienced breeder. Hopefully, if you're considering breeding birds, or have just gotten into breeding, you will find some useful information here.
Please make sure, before you begin buying birds for breeding, that this is what you want to do. Breeding parrots requires a whole lot of time and commitment on your part. If you only have one or two pairs, and you intend to let the parent birds raise the babies themselves, or plan to sell the babies to someone else to handfeed, then there might be no more time involved than for feeding the adult birds and keeping their cages and nestboxes clean. However, you must also be prepared for unforeseen circumstances, such as separating two birds when they fight, or artificially incubating or fostering eggs if the pair fails to sit on them, or handfeeding through the night if the new parents fail to feed a very young chick. You should have enough funds in reserve to be able to see a vet with a sick or injured baby or adult bird at a moment's notice. If you work outside the home, you should find a suitable person who can handfeed for you ahead of time, so that if the parents fail to properly feed the chick, you can remove it from the nestbox and have that person take care of it.
If you plan to do the handfeeding yourself, so that you can raise and sell tame babies which will make good pets, then there will be a lot more time required on your part. Depending on the number of pairs you have, you might be tied up for many weeks out of the year with handfeeding. You won't be able to take vacations during this time. Your work schedule must be such that it allows you to feed at least 4 times daily. And you must be able to run a sick baby to the vet if necessary, or have arrangements made for someone who could do it for you.
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Deciding What Kind to Breed
Some people decide to breed because they have a number of pets, perhaps more than they can handle, and decide to get mates for some of them. Please remember that when you do this, you are essentially giving up your pet. In order for the two birds to bond successfully, you have to distance yourself from the original pet. Once he gets lonely enough, he will likely accept the new bird as a mate. Then after he has accepted the new mate, he will likely be jealous and aggressive towards you.
Most people, when they first start out breeding, are content with a pair or two. But then they wonder what it would be like to have something different, or they are anxious for something to start having babies, and they begin to collect more pairs. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this, as long as you can afford to properly care for them, have the proper facilities, and you recognize what is happening. I call it the "Noah's Ark Syndrome"; the collecting of as many different kinds of pairs as you can.
At some point, you will have to stop. Will you have the types of birds you really wanted? It is wise to plan your breeding set-up, and decide ahead of time exactly what you hope to accomplish with your breeding program, and purchase your pairs accordingly. Plan your breeding cages, and layout, so that you know you will have enough room for the size of cage a particular pair will go into.
In choosing what types of birds to breed, you will need to consider these things:
- What will the pair cost?
- Do you have room for the size of cage required?
- Will they be too noisy?
- Are they an easy type to breed in captivity? Are they known for being good parents?
- Will the babies be sold mostly as pets, or breeding stock, or both?
- If being sold for pets, will they be easy to sell (are they popular as pets)?
- If selling the babies to other breeders, are they in demand?
- Is there a lot of competition in your area from other breeders of this type of bird?
If you are planning on different types of birds in the same room or building, you will want to consider the risk of disease transmission, and whether the birds are compatible if housed within eyesight of each other. For good, current information on avian disease carriers and susceptible species, it would be wise to consult an avian veterinarian in your area.
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Putting Pairs Together
The most obvious thing you need to do, in order to successfully set up a breeding pair, is to make sure you have a male and a female. Unless their sexes have already been determined before you get them, this may be easier said than done. Most parrot family members are monomorphic, meaning that the adults look basically the same. Even in dimorphic birds, where the adult males and females look different, these differences sometimes don't show up until they are mature. In Cockatiels, this happens when they complete their first moult. In Indian Ringnecked Parakeets, the males usually don't get the ring around their necks until their third year. In Cockatoos, some females develop red eyes, while the males' eyes stay black, but this can take up to five years to become readily visible.
With less expensive birds that mature fairly quickly, such as Lovebirds and Cockatiels, you may decide to wait until you know what you have, judging by their behaviours or markings, or even try setting up some experimental pairs to see how they get along. But with more expensive birds that take a long time to mature, you probably don't want to wait for years just to find out you have two males or females together. In this case, you will want to get the birds "sexed".
A few years ago, the only way to do this was to have the birds surgically sexed by an Avian Veterinarian/Surgeon. Surgical sexing is still commonly performed, and may be advisable if there are concerns about the age or overall condition of the bird, or if there are concerns about the condition of the bird's reproductive system. The surgery involves anesthetizing the bird, putting a tiny incision in the abdomen, and inserting a laparoscope (a narrow fiber-optic veiwing device). If the bird has testicles, it's a male, and if an ovary is seen, then it's a female. The anesthesia used is very safe, and the birds completely recover from it in about 5 to 10 minutes. The added bonus is that the vet can also look at the other internal organs, and possibly see if there is a problem the owner is unaware of, for example, a medical problem that needs treatment.
Today, however, there is avian DNA (genetic) sexing, and for most breeders, this has definite advantages. If the bird is young, and likely in good health, then the sex can be determined withou surgery by simply taking a blood sample from a clipped toenail or a feather sample of a few freshly-pulled small feathers. The sample is then sent to the lab, and the lab can determine through DNA chromosomal analysis the sex of the bird accurately. The cost is quite a bit less than the surgery, and there is no risk to the bird.
Once you've determined that you have a true pair, putting them together must be done with caution. In some types of birds the males are known to be aggressive; in a few types it's the females. If you've done some research into the type of birds you're getting, then you should already be aware of unusual aggressive tendencies they might be known for.
Let's assume that you buy a pair of birds, and it's known that the males can be aggressive towards females. If the two birds have previously been together in another breeding situation, when you get them home, set them up immediately in the same cage. If you separate them, the male may get angry because he thinks that the female has "left him", and when you put them together, he may attack her. Still, you should stay at home, at least for a day or two, to observe them. If the male becomes aggressive toward the hen, then you will have to take him out, and you should have a spare cage ready just in case this happens. When the hen seems ready to have him back, then you can try putting him in with her again.
If, on the other hand, the two birds have never been together, then you can do one of several things. First, you could put them together right away in their cage, monitoring them for a few days. Second, you could put them in identical cages, both at the same height, and let them socialize. You would put them together when they both showed an interest in each other. Third, you could put the female into the breeding cage, and the male beside her in a separate cage, until you see her showing an interest in him.
One important rule is to never put a non-aggressive bird into the cage of a more aggressive bird. This is a recipe for disaster, because the more aggressive bird has had the cage all to itself and has established a territoriality and dominance in there, plus it knows the cage better and can fly or climb around faster. This puts the newcomer at a huge disadvantage, and it could certainly be seriously hurt, or worse.
Really, this is something you have to "play by ear". No one can tell you how two birds are going to get along once they are in a new home, but if you're careful, most pairings go just fine.
INTERBREEDING AND HYBRIDIZING
This last bit is about ethics. Most honest, ethical breeders do not approve of breeding closely related birds, and avoid it whenever possible. It can cause genetic problems, and degrades the vitality of the species. Some unethical breeders might try to sell you brother and sister from the same clutch. It is up to you to view the two clutches of babies or multiple breeding pairs, and attempt see for yourself that the person you are buying the babies from is being honest with you. If this is not possible, ask for referrals from people who know the breeder, and know that they have enough pairs to produce unrelated babies to sell.
Hybridization is when someone breeds two different species together. A hybrid in the bird world is rarely, if ever, as beautiful as either of his parents, and most breeders try to keep the different species separate and pure for ethical reasons. Using a hybrid for a breeder is frowned upon as well, and fortunately most of those produced go into the pet trade, and hopefully not as breeders. Try to make sure that your breeding stock is a pure species, for the species' sake, and also because you may find that hybrid babies are more difficult to sell.
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Setting Up Cages
People who breed parrots normally don't clip their birds' wings; they allow them full flight for exercise. Also, with their wings unclipped, they can balance better while mating. With this in mind, the cage should be long enough to allow some flight. Most breeding cages are longer than they are high; height doesn't really give the birds a whole lot more room. The width of the cage should at least be wide enough to allow a full wingspread and flight.
If you are only planning on a couple of pairs, storebought (commercial) cages might do. But for a number of pairs, they might prove too expensive for the average person, and most breeders construct their own cages for this reason. Another advantage to building your own cage is that you can construct the cage to exactly fit whatever space you have. You can even stack cages, one on top of another, to maximize the use of space. Bottom trays can be made out of sheet metal, and they pull out and slide back in, to make cage cleaning easier. You'll also need to decide if you want a bottom of wire on your cage, to prevent the birds from going down and tearing up their paper.
Galvanized welded wire mesh is the material of choice for this. (Do NOT use chicken wire! Chicken wire has twists in the wire which can cause a climbing parrot to become stuck.) Welded wire has square or rectangular openings, and can be bought in different thicknesses (gauges) appropriate to the type of bird being housed in them. The smaller the gauge number, the thicker the wire. It is recommended that the wire be rinsed with vinegar (a mild acid) to remove any residual lead or zinc on the wire before using.
The wire is attached at the seams by little straps of metal, called J-clips. A pair of J-clip pliers will need to be purchased; these pliers clamp the metal clips around the edges of two sheets of wire to hold the cage together.
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When a pair of birds approaches breeding age, a nestbox should be placed on the cage. The nestbox is usually placed on the outside of the cage to give the breeder birds the maximum amount of room inside their cage, and to allow easy access for the caretaker. The most common design is a tall box that is just big enough in width to allow the birds to turn around inside, and deep enough that the birds can't completely empty all of the nesting material out of it. Birds have a hinged tail to allow them to maneuver inside a box when they are standing in the center. Extra height is needed, as parrot family members like to dig down quite a bit before they decide to stop and make their nest. Some nestboxes are L-shaped, with the "boot" being off to the side to prevent the parent birds from jumping down onto their eggs and potentially breaking them.
The material of choice is for the box is wood, usually plywood that is of an appropriate thickness for the type of bird being bred. Unlike metal, wood is warm and helps hold moisture in the box during incubation. The box can be nailed or screwed together. (I like screws, because they are not as sharp if exposed, and can be removed to replace a section of the box, if necessary.) If you have a large number of breeding pairs, metal boxes can be used to alleviate the problem of constant repairs. Also they are easier to clean and can be disinfected, if necessary. Metal boxes are more costly initially, because you have to have someone make them for you, but will outlast wooden ones. The ideal nestbox, if you can afford it, is a metal box with a wooden liner that drops into the main nesting cavity. The liner can be slid out and replaced when it becomes dirty or damaged.
The opening, or nest hole for the birds, should be located near the top of the box. It should be just big enough to allow the birds to squeeze in. On a wooden box, they will likely chew the hole somewhat and modify it to their liking. You'll also need a hinged trap door on the outside of the box, on the upper part of one of the sides, to allow yourself access to check on things, and remove the babies when it's time. I usually make mine about 1/4 to 1/3 of the height of the box.
You may want to attach a strip of welded wire mesh on the inside of the box, below the hole, and running down toward the bottom of the box. This would serve as a ladder of sorts, for the pair to easily climb in and out without having to jump, which might break eggs. You can use screws or large staples to attach the wire.
The box should be filled right up to just below the hole with pine or aspen shavings. Don't use cedar shavings, because cedar has aromatic oils which may be harmful to adult birds, chicks, and growing embryos if the oil penetrates the eggs. The adult birds will remove shavings from the box by kicking them out of the nest hole with their feet. They are usually fairly adept at deciding the proper level. If they go down too far (and there is bare floor instead of shavings), then your nestbox is not deep enough. If allowed to hatch on this bare nestbox bottom, the babies will likely develop a condition called "spraddle leg". (Please see Spraddle Leg in the Illnesses and Other Problems section, below.)
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Diet & Care
Good diet is important for any bird, but becomes especially important when you want your birds to be in good condition for breeding. The female will use nutrients from her body in the egg-laying process, and good food is critical for her to recover her strength and vitality while she is sitting. After the chicks hatch, the diet you give your birds will be passed on to the babies to help them grow well, and to help their immune systems be strong.
If your birds are on a seed diet, and are reluctant to eat vegetables and other soft, nutritious food, then you need to address this some time before the hen lays eggs. Switching the pair to a pelleted diet at some point would be advisable, but it wouldn't be wise to try altering their diet during the egg-laying period, as it might stress the pair and they could abandon or destroy their eggs. If they start to lay while on a seed diet, however, you can try to supplement their seeds with soft foods, and you may discover that during this period they will take more than they did before. Also, it's very important to use a good vitamin-mineral supplement in their water or on their soft food, and to provide a cuttlebone or mineral block, as well.
If your birds are already on a pelleted diet, they are probably also willing to eat a variety of soft foods, and you will notice an increase of consumption of these at breeding time. Birds on pellets don't need additional vitamins added to their diet because you might actually "over-vitaminize" them. Still, a cuttlebone or mineral block in the cage won't harm them, and it may be beneficial for those birds who need more calcium than the average bird, such as African Greys.
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Egg Laying & Incubation
You should be in the habit of peeking in the nestbox every day, even if you know there is nothing happening. This will accustom your pair to the routine. Sometimes birds scramble around in the nestbox if they aren't used to having you open it and look in, and this could cause them to break or damage their eggs. I like to check just after feeding, so even if they're hiding in the nestbox and can't see me, they'll know I'm coming to look just after they hear me filling their cups.
Usually, just before a female lays eggs, her droppings will become larger and a bit smelly. This is normal. You may also notice a slight bulge in her lower abdomen the day before she lays an egg. Most parrot family members lay eggs every other day, but there might only be only one day between layings, or as many as several days. Clutch sizes are generally 3-5 eggs, but some types are known for laying only two. The most eggs I ever had successfully hatch under a pair of birds was seven! They were Fischer's Lovebirds, and had spent a considerable amount of time carrying wet, sloppy newspaper that they had dunked in their water bowl into their nest. All the babies lived.
Instinctively, most females don't sit "tightly" on the first one or two eggs. An egg will stay dormant for a few days if the internal temperature is not raised to a high enough level. This delay in starting to sit can help the eggs hatch more at the same time, so the babies are not spread out too far in age. If they were, the bigger ones would get all the food and the tiny ones, just hatched, would suffer and possibly die.
There is an old wives' tale that if you touch a bird's eggs, the parents will abandon them. This is not true! If necessary, you can handle the eggs carefully to check them for fertility (called candling), and replace them in the position you found them, with the blunt end angled slightly upward. There are good books available to purchase that detail candling and show excellent pictures.
Incubation of the eggs takes about 2 1/2 to almost 4 weeks depending on the species of bird, with the bigger birds generally taking the longest. During this time, you should provide a bath for the pair, in case they need to add some humidity to the nest. If you spray your birds once or twice a week, continue to do so, but be prepared for them to possibly want it a bit more frequently shortly before the babies are due to hatch.
Near the end of the incubation period, and before the babies hatch, you may suddenly see the female sitting outside and not on her eggs. Don't panic....she is probably letting the eggs have a "cool down period", which is something they sometimes do in the last 1-3 days of incubation.
If your pair repeatedly fails to sit on fertile eggs, you may have to invest in an incubator, or find a breeder who would be willing to let you put the eggs in theirs. Again, there are good books on the market that detail artificial incubation. Another option would be to put the eggs under another pair of birds of the same species, perhaps ones that are sitting on unfertilized eggs. This is called "fostering", and if done correctly, can give a higher hatch percentage than artificial methods. Some pairs will even hatch and feed the offspring of another species, until it is time to remove them from the nest for handfeeding.
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The Handfeeding Decision
Before your babies hatch, you should decide how you want them to be raised. If you let the parent birds raise the babies themselves, they'll be better socialized as birds and will potentially make better breeders, if that is your intention. However, if you want the babies to be really tame as pets, then you have two options. The first would be to handle the babies at least daily, after they are about 3 1/2 weeks old. Some parent birds are very tolerant of this, others not. You must have some time available to do this, as it has to be done fairly often, especially as the babies get older.
The second, and most common option, is to remove the babies from the nest and hand feed them. Some breeders advertise "handfed from day one", as if this is a bonus to the buyer; that somehow the babies will be tamer. It is my opinion that the babies turn out just as tame if you wait for a bit before taking them from the parents, unless the parent birds fail to feed them. The ideal time to remove the chicks is about 3-4 weeks old, with 3 1/2 weeks being about average. At this point the babies are in the "pinfeather" stage; they look like little porcupines, with quills all over. As a group, a clutch of pinfeather babies are capable of maintaining body heat without an artificial heat source. If you have only one chick, you may have to give some added heat for a week or so. This can be done with a heating pad on low heat, placed on the outside of the side of the container that you place the baby in. Never put a heating pad directly under a baby or its container, because if it gets too warm there is no way he can move away from the heat.
Another benefit of waiting until the babies are in the pinfeather stage is that they've had the benefit of their parents feeding them during the crucial first weeks of life. Studies have shown that, to a point, the parent birds do a better job than people. The babies gain weight better and the parent birds pass on beneficial antibodies which give the babies some immunity to disease. After a certain point, the babies will develop at the same rate regardless of whether they are being handraised or parent-raised.
Once your babies hatch, they should be checked at least daily to ascertain their condition. You should be able to look down inside the nestbox and see them. They'll be tiny, and at first the parents don't feed them much. The adult birds produce a liquid substance called "crop milk", and feed only that at first. However, you should be able to see a very tiny bump at the top of the newly-hatched babie's chest where its crop is, and the baby should look strong and active. (Please see Illnesses and Other Problems, below.) If you think the babies are not being fed or kept warm, you may have to intervene.
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Handfeeding - Newly Hatched
Handfeeding is a method of raising very tame babies with good pet qualities. As was mentioned in the previous section, it is unnecessary and risky to intentionally take the babies from the nest before they reach pinfeather stage. If, however, your parent birds won't feed the babies, then you must be prepared to care for them. Before your babies hatch, you should have gathered together the equipment for a brooder. You can buy a commercially available one, or you can make your own. Requirements for a brooder would be a container you can disinfect, such as a clear plastic bin available at pet shops, a heating device, a source of humidity, and a thermometer.
The way I set mine up is as follows:
- A small-animal bin (clear plastic with plastic lid, available at pet stores)
- A large heavy glass bottle (an old-fashioned milk bottle works well for this) filled with water and an aquarium heater inside and hooked on the top, set in the corner of the bin
- 3/4 inch of water on the bottom of the bin
- a heating pad on low under the bin
- a large 4-cup pyrex (glass) measuring cup to hold the baby, set in the water on the bottom of the bin. This measuring cup has an inch of shavings on the bottom with a kleenex* over top of them. The baby can't fall out, because this set-up is only used for very tiny babies that can't walk, and the sides of the measuring cup are about 4 inches high *Please note: Some breeders have had babies die from the use of scented kleenex. Also, there are new tissues on the market that have an anti-virus (virucidal) chemical embedded in them that can potentially harm babies. Please check the box, and use only plain white kleenex.
- a towel to cover the top of the bin, leaving a corner open
- a thermometer set into the measuring cup next to the baby, to maintain an accurate temperature
With this arrangement, I can set up my brooder and have it at the proper temperature in less than 5 minutes. I fill the bottle with warm water, which I have taken the temperature of before I fill it. Then I can quickly set the aquarium heater so that the light goes off. Now I know the heater is set for the right temperature. I also put warm water on the bottom of the bin; this is for humidity, and with the heating pad underneath, set on low, the water will stay warm and release humidity into the air. I then place the baby at the bottom of the measuring cup (with the shavings and kleenex) and place this in the bin near the water filled bottle. I can regulate the temperature that registers on the thermometer beside the baby by moving him away from, or closer to, the water bottle. I cover the lid with a towel and leave the corner of the towel (opposite to where the baby is) open for fresh air. I check the thermometer every 5 minutes or so until I am certain that it is constant.
A newly-hatched baby, 1 or 2 days old, needs at least 95-98º F. heat. As he grows, the heat is gradually reduced, until he is in the pinfeather stage (at around 4 weeks old) and no longer needs artificial heat. At this age, he can be kept at room temperature of about 72 degrees F. Essentially, you are reducing the heat about a degree per day, but 5 degrees every 5 days is easier for adjustment purposes.
This baby will need to be fed very small amounts of food frequently at first. The formula should be a bit more liquidy than it will be later. There are good products available at stores for feeding very young chicks. You should have some on hand before the babies hatch, just in case you might need it. As well, you should have a very small spoon, or a supply of plastic pipettes or small syringes, for feeding this very tiny baby. When the baby's crop is almost empty, you have to feed him again. At first, with a day-old chick, this might be as often as every hour or two, even through the night, depending on how much food he takes and how fast he digests it. Speedy digestion is good, and shows that the baby is strong and that his crop is working correctly. As he grows, you'll be able to give him larger amounts to fill his crop and he'll be able to go longer between feedings. At least once a day, usually at night, you need to let him go a bit past feeding time, which allows his crop to completely empty, so that you're not always adding new food on top of old food. Never letting the crop completely empty can cause the food to go bad, and cause a condition called "sour crop". (Please read the Handfeeding - Pinfeather Baby section below for more details on handfeeding.)
One more point: babies that were never fed by their parents have no beneficial bacteria in their gut. These good bacteria help the baby digest its food. Without them, the baby could become dehydrated, his crop could be slow, or he may fail to thrive and grow at an optimal rate. If the baby was fed by its parents, even once, you don't have to worry about this. The most commonly used method of establishing this bacterial flora is to purchase a product designed to put good bacteria into the baby. Some formulas, such as "Day 1", provide this bacterial culture, but if your formula does not, you can also use a tiny bit of live culture yogurt, mixed into the first one or two feedings, to accomplish the same result. Once a few bacteria are in the baby's digestive system, they will grow on their own, and level off at the proper amount.
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Most breeders eventually start banding their babies. Banding is a good idea because it shows that the babies have been born in captivity. As countries, provinces, and even individual states in the U.S. become more restrictive at their borders and within their boundaries, banding is becoming all the more important. For example, in some parts of the U.S., it is illegal to buy or sell a bird that is not closed-banded (breeder banded).
There are two main sources of breeder bands. First, you can order bands from the ring secretary of a bird club or association. There should be some clubs in your area; you can check with your local library for clubs near you. The advantage to this method of obtaining your bands is that another person may have an easier time tracing your band and finding you, if necessary.
The other source of bands are those companies that sell them privately, without a club association. Some of these companies advertise in bird magazines. The advantage to this type of band is that you have control over what is printed on them, such as a more personalized code.
You should order your bands well in advance of the time you'll need them, because there probably won't be time to have them made up once your babies hatch. Banding can only be accomplished during a short time of the baby's development. He has to be big enough, or the band will fall off. If he is too big, you won't get the band on over his foot. Banding is done about the time the baby's eyes open, which is around 11-13 days old, on average. Smaller birds develop faster and so need to be banded earlier than bigger birds. If you are checking the nest daily, you will see when their eyes open.
If you are inexperienced at banding, it is easier to band a bit early and potentially have the band fall off, rather than banding late and have to try to cram the band on a baby's foot that is too big. You can always reband if one comes off. You should try to have an experienced bander show you how to band if you are not familiar or comfortable with the method.
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Handfeeding - Pinfeather Baby
By the time the babies are 3 to 3 1/2 weeks old, they will have quills, or pinfeathers, covering most of their body. At this point they are usually capable of maintaining their own heat, but if you only have one baby, you might want to put a heating pad on the outside of the side (never underneath) of his container for a few days. I like to leave the babies together, one clutch to a container, as long as possible. This helps them stay warm and the constant touching benefits them emotionally. If they get too big to all be in one container, you can split them up, but try not to put any one baby by himself. The added benefit of this is that the babies will not become too people-oriented too early, and may make better breeders if they should ever be set up with a mate.
SPOON OR SYRINGE?
Most experienced breeders use a syringe to handfeed their babies. I recommend starting with a spoon because it's safer and you'll become practiced, having learned about your babies' requirements before you make the decision of whether or not to use a syringe. Many breeders continue to use the spoon, as it takes longer to feed and promotes better bonding with the person doing the handfeeding. The spoon is better and safer for these reasons:
- If the food is too warm, the baby can let you know by his reaction. With a syringe, some or all of the food might bypass the sensitive beak and tongue and burn the baby before you know it.
- You can't choke and asphyxiate a baby by shooting too much at once into his mouth with a spoon.
- You can't overfeed the baby. With a spoon, you feed slowly, which gives the baby a chance to feel his fullness, and he will let you know when to stop. The crop can't become overstretched and saggy, and you will learn what a full crop looks and feels like this way.
- The baby pumps up and down more for the food from a spoon, and this helps him swallow properly. It also stimulates his crop to start and continue the motion of pushing the food through (peristaltic waves).
- The lengthier handfeeding session helps the baby get used to you faster, so he is less stressed by you (instead of his parents) feeding him.
I would heartily recommend that anyone planning to handfeed babies by syringe first visit an established breeder and watch them, and perhaps later help them handfeed their babies. This is something that takes some time and practice to be able to do properly. If you already have experience with a spoon, it is not quite as difficult to change to a syringe.
There are many good handfeeding formulas on the market. Call a few successful breeders, and ask them to make recommendations on the type they use, and ask them where they buy it. Follow the directions on the packaging for preparation.
The temperature of the formula should be as close to 100 degrees F. as possible, but never above 105 F. The best way to determine the temperature is with a thermometer. Using your wrist is not very accurate, and you must realize that if the formula is a bit too hot (over 105 degrees), it can mildly burn or irritate the crop and cause an infection to set in.
At first, pinfeather chicks will need 4 or 5 feedings a day, but at this age, they can go 7 hours overnight with no ill effects. This overnight period also allows the crop to completely empty, and avoids the possibility of old food in the crop going sour. During the day, the babies need to be fed each time their crop is almost empty. The length of time between feedings will be determined by how much food they take, and their age and digestion rate. As they grow and their crops get larger, you'll be able to cut them back to 4, then 3, then 2 feedings a day by the time they are almost ready to wean.
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When you see your babies playing with things in their beaks and trying to climb out of their container, it's time to set them up in a new environment and start the weaning process. This should be about the time that you've cut them down to two feedings a day; one in the morning and one at night. Have a cage ready that is easily cleaned, and that allows easy access for handfeeding. If you can separate the babies, with each having his own cage, this is ideal. This is the time when they will benefit from being separated, and will start to form a stronger bond with humans. If not, as it can be quite expensive to do this, then the babies can be taken out, one at a time, for short periods during the day and handled.
Put newspaper on the bottom of the cage, and place food and water on the bottom of the cage in heavy, shallow dishes that the babies can't tip over. Put one low perch in the cage, and put food and water cups by this perch also. Put the babies in this cage during the day, and back into their bins at night. After they're used to the cage and perching comfortably, you can leave them in it overnight as well.
The food you offer should be primarily the food you want them to wean onto. This would be pellets in most cases, and you should get the "high performance" or baby version of the pellets, as they have higher protein, fat, calories, and calcium needed by growing babies. They can be on these higher nutrient pellets until they go through their first moult, at around 7 months to a year old. They are basically grown at weaning age, but continue to develop and fill out during much of their first year.
One trick that can be used to help babies to wean is to start them out with some Rice Krispies and chopped up Cheerios mixed into their pellets. These are soft and easy to eat, but be careful not to give them too much or let it carry on too long; the pellets are what you are really trying to get them to eat.
I have noticed that if a baby is really hungry, they will refuse to try to eat on their own. So the best way to get them to nibble is to take the edge off of their hunger. Start by feeding them a small feeding in the morning. After this, they are much more likely to experiment than they would if they were empty. Later, you can feed them more to make up for what they missed. But after a few days, you might find that they are not very interested, and you can wait until the evening feeding. This evening feeding , before they go to bed for the night, should be a big one.....give them as much as they'll take. It has to get them through the night with no opportunity to eat.
After a while, maybe a week or a bit more, you'll find that they're not taking as much in the evening. This is because they're almost eating enough on their own during the day, and they already have quite a bit of food in their crops when you go to feed them. This is your cue to cut back on the evening feeding, and within a few days, they should be weaned.
After they have been weaned, and not had any supplemental feedings from you for 3 or 4 days, they should be ready to go to their new homes. Some babies regress when they go to a new environment, and you must tell the new owner to watch the droppings, to ensure that the baby continues to eat.
Remember, different babies wean at different times, just as human babies learn to walk or drink from a cup at different ages. You need to tailor your schedule to each individual baby, within reason.
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Illnesses & Other Problems
This is only a general guide to a few of the problems which, although they are not frequent, are common enough that you should be aware of them. Please remember that, if your bird is sick, we recommend that you see a qualified avian veterinarian immediately. As well, if you feel overwhelmed by a certain situation, or that you need some help, find an experienced breeder near you that you can call and ask for advice. Please don't e-mail them, as most breeders are fairly busy; they can ask you the proper questions and a complicated situation can be figured out much more quickly by phone.
- Eggs Broken This can be caused by the parents jumping on their eggs as they descend from the hole, or by the parents panicking when in the box and running around, or by one of the parents intentionally breaking the eggs, possibly due to a lack of nutrients in the diet. If you see any broken eggs, you should remove them right away, as they are a source of bacterial contamination in the nest. Try to determine the cause and remedy the problem.
- Eggs Disappear When the eggs suddenly disappear, and if you look through the shavings and can't find them, then it is pretty certain that one of the parents has eaten them. This can be caused by a disturbance, as when the pair feels that their nest is unsafe. It can also be caused by a lack of nutrients in the diet, when one of the birds feels a need to eat the shell or other parts due to a deficiency of some sort. If this happens, make sure their diet is top-notch, and that there is a calcium source available to them in their cage. Sometimes, if the eggs are not fertile, the parent bird can tell by the lack of movement inside it, I suppose. It is possible that the pair may cover the eggs or destroy them, instinctively knowing there is no hope of them hatching.
- Eggs Fail to Hatch This can be caused by a number of things. The eggs may be infertile, they may be fertile but got chilled early in the incubation process, the chick failed to pip (break the shell), or pipped and was too weak to make it all the way out of the egg.
Infertility can be caused by one or both members of the pair not being mature enough, or because the birds mate but don't mate properly, or by failing to mate at all. If the eggs are fertilized, but not very developed, then the cause could be a disturbance early in the incubation. Viruses have also been implicated in early embryonic death. If the chicks are well developed, but failed to hatch, humidity (either too low or too high) is likely the cause. If the humidity is too low, the chick can't break through the membrane and begin pipping the egg, because the membrane is too tough. If the humidity is too high, when he breaks through the membrane, there is too much fluid in the egg and he drowns, or it is too cramped and there is not a big enough airspace for him to turn his head properly and break through the egg shell.
The only way you can determine what is going on is to open the eggs and inspect them, making sure you wait until you are positive the eggs are no good. It would be advisable to candle (shine a light through) them ahead of time to make sure. Try to find a good book on incubation; it will explain candling in detail, and what to look for when you open the eggs.
AFTER HATCHING (IN THE NEST)
- Parents Abandon Babies Sometimes new parents fail to feed their babies. You can tell that this is happening if the parents haven't gone in the nestbox for an hour or more, the babies' crops are empty, and they look weak and feel cold to the touch. Perhaps one baby has died. At this point, you'll likely decide to take the babies out of the nest, get them warm as quickly as possible, and handfeed them. Abandoning can be caused by a change in the environment which frightens the parents off the nest, or simply by inexperience and not knowing what to do. Most often, these parent birds will take better care of their babies in subsequent nests.
- Large Clutches If there's a larger than average number of babies in the nest (for the type of bird you are breeding), then there is a risk that the parents might not do a good job of feeding all of them. Particularly if the newly-hatched babies are quite a bit smaller than the older ones, they might not get their parents' attention as often, and their older siblings will stretch their necks up over them and get most of the food. Then, you might notice these younger babies not growing at the same rate as the older ones, which further compounds the problem. You may have to intervene and remove the oldest babies for handfeeding, so that the younger ones can catch up. Ideally, you don't want to just leave one chick in the nest, nor do you want to take out only one. In the case of three babies, however, it is best to take the one older baby, and leave two together in the nest.
- Parents Picking on Babies If your babies have fairly well-developed wing and tail feathers, but hardly any pinfeathers on their bodies, the parents are likely picking on them and chewing off their smaller feathers. It's not what you want to see, but it usually isn't too serious, and if you take the babies out at 3 1/2 weeks for handfeeding, the feathers will be grown back in by the time they wean.
- Mites Some birds, particularly smaller birds, may have a few mites on them and it isn't noticeable. Then, when there are babies in the nest, the mites have an easy source of nourishment, and they rapidly multiply. You may notice a small colony of tiny, slow moving, red critters. They are about the size of specks of red pepper. The treatment for these is to dust the adult and baby birds with a Pyrethrin-based dust, wash the cage with Javex (Clorox) in the water, and dust anything wooden (the nestboxes and perches) with the powder. Due to the disturbance, the parent birds may not resume feeding their babies after this, so be prepared to begin handfeeding if they don't. If you have carpeting in that room, you might want to sprinkle some of the powder on the carpet and brush it in with a broom, in case any mites have fallen to the floor. Once the mites are eliminated, there's no need at all to use anything to prevent their return. Only treat the birds and cages that are involved.
- Slow Growth (Stunting) This can be caused by poor diet being provided to the parents, mites in the nestbox, or too many babies in the nest, among other things. The baby looks like his head and feet are abnormally large compared to other babies of the same kind. This is something you develop an eye for, if it occurs. If you can find and remedy the cause, the baby should recover and grow normally.
- Spraddle Leg Spraddle leg is a condition where the legs of the babies are splayed out sideways, instead of being tucked underneath them. It is most often caused by the babies being on a hard, flat surface, such as when the shavings have been completely emptied out of the box. If you check the box and notice it is empty, you can add some shavings to it very slowly, a small handful at a time, to gradually build it up without covering the eggs or babies. Spraddle leg, if caught early, can be corrected inexpensively by an avian vet, but if left too long, can be a permanent deformity. A good reason to check nest boxes daily.
- Babies Die Unfortunately, this sometimes happens, and there might be no apparent logical reason. If you are serious about the health of your parent birds and your babies however, then this can be a learning experience. Refrigerate (do not freeze) the body and take it to your vet as soon as possible, but within 24 hours, and have an autopsy done. Most likely a cause will surface that may be treatable in your other babies or the parent birds. Then you can raise and sell your babies knowing they are healthy.
- Slow Crop A healthy baby digests his food fairly quickly. You can see powerful movements in the muscles of the crop (peristaltic waves) pushing the food through. Sometimes the first hint that a baby is not well is when his crop starts to move food more slowly than before. Instead of emptying in two or three hours, the food seems to just sit there. When you go to feed him at the usual time, his crop is still half full. The causes are numerous, and if you see this sign, it would be best to see a vet.
- Impaction Impaction is when the food in the crop becomes hard and dough-like in texture, preventing the baby from digesting it. The most common cause of this is when certain formulas are mixed with luke-warm water, and the formula doesn't have a chance to absorb enough water before it is fed. Once the food is in the crop, it continues to absorb water, but there isn't enough, and it forms a hard mass. To remedy this, give the baby warm water, and gently massage the crop. Continue to do this until the crop can completely empty.
To prevent this condition, mix formula using very hot, almost boiling water. This will give the cereal grains in the formula a chance to cook and fluff up, absorbing as much water as they can. Of course, the formula will have to be cooled before it is fed, and if it thickens up too much, you can add more water before feeding.
- Overly Large, Saggy Crop It is possible, when feeding with a syringe, to feed a baby until its crop is overly tight. Each time this happens the crop is stretched, and can eventually become saggy. The lower portion of the crop hangs down, and the food that's in the lower portion is trapped, and will potentially sit there and become sour. To prevent this, do not overfeed; feed only until the crop is full, but not tight. Once a baby has this condition, you'll have to massage the crop after each feeding to make sure any food from the last feeding gets digested. There is also a way a support can be put under the lower part of the crop, so that it is held up in a normal position. Seek veterinary advice.
- Dehydration If a baby becomes dehydrated, his skin will be red and shiny instead of soft and pink, and he'll look thinner than normal. The top of his head will feel hard instead of plump and soft. There are products available from pet stores or the pharmacy to help the electrolytic balance in the baby's body. Dehydration in very young babies can be caused by not establishing the proper bacterial flora in the gut when the baby was never fed by the parent birds. Not as common in older babies, it can be caused by regurgitation, illness, or the formula not containing the proper amount of water.
- Crop Stasis This is when the crop stops moving food completely, and is a much more serious problem; a sign of a very sick baby. He needs immediate veterinary attention to intravenously get nutrients into his body. You have no time to lose....keep him warm!
- Crop Burn This is caused by feeding food by syringe that is too hot. If you know you have done this, because the baby violently reacts to the temperature, you should see a vet immediately. At the very least, even if it is a mild burn, the baby should go on medication to prevent infection. If it is more severe, a scab may form on the inside of the crop wall, and when it falls off, there will be a hole in the crop! This can be sutured by the vet, with no lasting ill effects to the baby, as long as you are aware and on the lookout for it.
- Crop Infection This is not uncommon, and can be caused by a variety of things. Babies can get off to a poor start and be more susceptible. Things like stress, being chilled, not allowing the crop to completely empty once a day, and numerous other things can also cause it. One culprit is a fungal organism which lives in the crop, and is there all the time, called Candida. If the baby has an overgrowth of this organism in his crop, his crop will be slow, and he may beg incessantly for food because he is always hungry. This condition needs a type of medication that a only a vet can prescribe.
- Regurgitation Some babies regurgitate (bring up food) for no apparent reason, and are healthy otherwise. My thinking is that in some, it may be a way of starting to refuse food. If you see this in a feathered baby, and everything else about the baby is normal, including its weight, you could watch carefully and begin the weaning process if the baby is at the right stage of development. If the baby is very young, the regurgitation is excessive, or you feel unsure about the health of the baby, please see a vet.
- Failure to Pump for Food/Refusing This can be another sign of a baby ready to wean, but as above, if you are unsure or the baby is obviously too young to wean, please see a vet.
- Delayed Weaning Some babies just naturally take longer to wean than others. As well, if you are inexperienced in weaning babies, it may take longer because you are hesitant, and don't want to cut the babies back too quickly. Beyond this, because weaning is stressful, there are babies whose failure to wean can be the first sign of an illness or other problem. It's sometimes seen in babies who are small and haven't received the proper nutrients in their early development for one reason or another. It can also be an indication of an infection, and would be an indication that a vet visit is needed.
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Selling Your Babies
Some people have the room to keep their babies, but most do not. There may be friends and family you'd like to give some of your babies to, but at some point you'll need to decide where the rest will go.
If you've let the parent birds raise the babies themselves, then the people who will be most interested in the babies will be other breeders. Before you begin breeding, you should look for breeders in your area, possibly club members, or perhaps in groups on the Internet, who might be interested in the type of birds you're breeding.
You may not have the time to handfeed your babies. If this is the case, there are other breeders and stores who will take the babies from the pinfeather stage and raise them. You won't get as much money for your babies this way, but handfeeding, advertising, answering the phone, and seeing potential buyers is very time-consuming, and you need to decide for yourself if you have that time.
If you've handraised your babies to the weaning stage, then you can either sell them privately to pet owners, or sell them to stores, which will then resell them. If you sell privately, then the newspaper, Internet, and word of mouth are all good means to advertise them. Be prepared to see people in your home and do lengthy interviews, because not all prospective bird owners are knowledgeable about the type of birds you breed. Be honest, and tell them the bad points, along with good, of the kind of bird you're selling. This is the only way to sell your babies and personally see to it that they get good homes.
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