Article And Photos By Sandee L. Molenda, C.A.S.
"Parrot Fever" was once described to me as a human condition where one could not refrain from keeping parrots. I would have to say the extreme form of "parrot fever" is breeding. People that truly love their pets often want to make the jump from pet owner to breeder, but may not know how to do this. Yes, most pet owners have the skills to pick out birds and can find books on the mechanics of hand-feeding, but making the transition is much more complicated than buying a pair of birds and sticking up a nest box.
Considerations Before Getting Started
Understand the responsibilities and commitment involved before you buy your first pair of birds. If you are a single person, you will have different priorities and obligations then someone who has a family, especially a family with children. There will be strains on your time, space and finances. These things must be considered and discussed. This does not matter if you intend to breed parrotlets or macaws, have one pair or a hundred. You need the support of your family and they need to understand your new responsibilities. Also, breeding birds can be hard on a marriage, especially if your spouse does not share your love of birds. This is a very serious point to consider.
If you work at a job 10 hours a day, seven days a week, you will not have the time to devote to the care and feeding of your birds and babies. Even if you work a 40-hour week, if you plan on hand-feeding babies, you need to discuss this and make arrangements with your employer. You also need to think about things like vacations — who will care for your birds and what will you do with babies you are hand-feeding? Things are getting complicated and you have yet to buy a cage!
Speaking of buying things — finances are very important. Many bird breeders have had to give up their birds because of lack of financial planning. A budget is an absolute necessity and needs to be drawn up with the help of your family. Remember that breeding birds is not a way to get rich. At most, you can hope to break even. Most people lose money but this is not a commercial venture, it is a hobby. And it can be a very rewarding hobby if you are prepared and able to take on the responsibilities.
You also need to consider your immediate environment. If you live in a condominium, check with your homeowner or other association guidelines. No matter where you live, you also need to check with your local zoning and health departments for any restrictions. Some states require permits if you breed exotic birds, so you also need to check with your state for any laws that might apply. If you are not going to breed commercially, you probably won't need a taxpayer identification number or a business license. However, a seller's permit will allow you to obtain cages, food, etc., at wholesale cost, so you might wish to obtain this from your state. You will then be required to charge sales tax that will have to be given back to the state.
Finally, consider your location and your neighbors. Most people who have had to get rid of their birds have done so because of complaints by neighbors. Make sure you have a good relationship with them and do everything possible to minimize conflict — especially noise.
Choose the right bird species for your situation. Although my heart was set on cockatoos, I chose these lovely parrotlets instead because they best suited my living situation and budget.
Getting Started — Which Birds?
The most tantalizing question is what birds to breed? Naturally, many people want to breed the type of birds they kept as pets. When I got started, I wanted to breed cockatoos more than anything. However, once I figured out how much room they required, how much money they cost and how loud they could be in a residential neighborhood, I set my sights on something more practical.
If you live in an apartment, you probably want to keep something small and quiet. This does not mean it has to be common or boring. Australian grass parakeets are beautiful, quiet and do not take a lot of space. If noise is not a problem, lovebirds or birds from the Brotogeris species, such as grey cheeks, are wonderful. My favorites, of course, are parrotlets. They make excellent birds for apartments and condominiums or huge ranches like mine.
If you have a house or live in the suburbs, you might consider keeping your birds outside. In that case, the weather and disturbance of neighbors are going to be considerations. Outdoor birds need to be protected from predators, such as raccoons or cats.
Price and ease of breeding should also be considerations. You do not want to buy birds that are so expensive you cannot afford to feed or get proper veterinary care for them. Also, you do not want to start with birds that are so difficult to breed that you become discouraged or even lose birds.
Consider the marketability of your birds. Are you going to sell to pet shops? Have people come to your home? Both have advantages and disadvantages. With pet shops, you will not have strangers come to your home or take phone calls all day. However, you may have to take less money for your birds and you have no control over who buys them. Will you be shipping? If so, learn all you can and be aware of conditions such as weather and labor disputes that can affect your ability to ship birds. How will you advertise — locally, nationally or on the Internet? These are all questions that must be answered before you set up your first pair.
Breeding birds need privacy. Devoting a quiet room to the birds to be your "bird room" is the ideal.
Organizing Your Space Requirements
Now that you have talked with your family and your employer, checked the laws, found the money to finance your new hobby and decided what birds to breed, its time to get set up. Before you buy your first pair, you need to organize your space into four areas:
1) Breeding room
Breeding pairs need privacy and as little disturbance as possible. Everyone hears about birds that breed in the living room with the television going and the children running around but, believe me, that is the exception rather than the rule. It is best to have a separate room for your birds but a corner of a quiet room will also work well. Some people use their basement or garage after they have been climatized and weatherproofed.
A nursery may be a quiet corner in a busy room. You want babies to be able to rest in comfort but seclusion often leads to babies that are afraid and easily frightened. I keep mine in the living room where they can hear the television and are around people, other pets and household equipment, such as the vacuum cleaner.
The quarantine and hospital area may be in the same location. You want a private, isolated area that is completely awayfrom the rest of your birds. It should be easy to clean and disinfect — an unused bathroom often works well. It should also be able to be completely serviced independently of the other areas of the operation. Always clean and feed your quarantined or sick birds after you have done the others.
Remember to think about security as well. This is especially important if your birds are housed out of doors. Dogs are often good enough to keep most people away, but if you are going to invest in large quantities or especially rare birds, you will want to invest more in security. Many breeders have alarm and video camera systems to protect their flocks because incidents of thefts are increasing.
Supplies are important to successful bird breeding. Consider all supplies an investment and don't skimp when purchasing them. This photo shows supplies necessary for just the hand-feeding process.
Necessary Equipment and Supplies
The biggest mistake most new breeders make is trying to save money on supplies and equipment. Remember you are making an "investment" in your breeding endeavors, and you must spend money in order to make money.
Most people know how to buy cages and to make sure they are safe and secure. Be sure to buy the proper size cage for the species you choose to breed. Same with nest boxes. Also, decide how many cages you need and buy or make them all the same size and design, with similar nest box placement. This allows much quicker cleaning and feeding. Make sure all the food cups and water sources are uniform. Again, a little planning can save time and energy. You not only need breeding cages, but weaning, holding, transporting, quarantine and hospital cages as well. You do not need all of this at once, but it is something to keep in mind and add as you can afford it.
Incubators are different from brooders because they incubate the eggs not brood the babies. Incubators need to keep exact temperatures and humidity and must have very little vibration in order to properly incubate the eggs. Incubation of eggs is a very exacting science and one must be thoroughly educated on properly incubating the eggs for their species of birds. There are some excellent books available on incubation techniques, which are good to read even if you do not intend to incubate.
The most important investment will be your brooder. A brooder keeps the babies warm and comfortable while you are hand-feeding. It is a very necessary piece of equipment and care should be taken when choosing one. There are many companies that manufacture brooders at reasonable prices, and they will usually last a lifetime if properly maintained. Do not try and scrimp by using a heating pad or jerry-rig something you read about on the Internet. Babies need to be properly brooded in order to digest their food. A brooder keeps them warm and healthy and growing properly.
You also need a good quality scale to weigh your babies. Babies should be weighed every morning prior to their first feeding. This ensures that the birds are being properly fed by gaining weight. Also, the first sign of problems is usually weight loss. By weighing the babies daily, you will immediately be made aware of any potential problems.
Also, buy a proper egg candler. I often see notes about using a penlight but handling eggs is a delicate matter and dealing with enraged hens requires the proper equipment. Egg candlers are easy to find and are very inexpensive. Also, make sure you get anextra light — that way you will always be prepared and ready to go.
Exact record keeping greatly increases your chances of successful bird breeding. Whether using high-tech computer software or paper records, track all your babies from Day 1.
Feeding utensils such as syringes or spoons, gavage needles/tubes (if needed), bowls and mixing spoons are necessary. As well as a stove or microwave to heat water and a good quality instant thermometer to make sure the formula is not too hot. Feeding supplies consist of hand-feeding formula, supplements (optional), shavings or other substrate and baskets or other small containers for babies to sit in.
A high quality disinfectant is also necessary to keep babies' equipment as sterile as possible. Many people use bleach but I prefer Wavecide™, which can be purchased at a medical supply store. Dentagene™ by Oxyfresh™ is a non-toxic and biodegradable disinfectant unlike Wavecide™, which is very toxic. You need to keep your syringes in the disinfectant prior to use and anything that comes in contact with babies should be disinfected after a thorough scrubbing with soap and hot water. No disinfectant in the world will work if the item is not clean prior to disinfecting.
Emergency supplies are also very important to have on hand. Pedialyte™, vet wrap, bandages, cotton and cotton swabs, Quik Stop™ or other coagulant, hydrogen peroxide, tweezers and/or hemostats and bird nail clippers should be kept readily available. Phone numbers for an emergency veterinarian and/or clinic, as well as a pet poison control hotline, should be within easy access.
Even if you only have one pair of birds that produces once a year, you need to keep records. As more and more birds are produced in captivity and less and less are in the wild, it is vital that all breeders keep good records on their babies. This does not mean you need to go out and buy a new computer system; paper records work just as well. However, if you do have a computer, there are some excellent programs out there designed specifically for bird breeders.
These records should contain the identification information such as band code, date of hatch and parental information of the babies. Information should also be kept on the parents, including where the pair was purchased, date of purchase and band color (if applicable) of the babies. Any health or veterinary information should be included as well.
All babies should be banded or microchipped, ideally with a closed band slipped over the baby's leg when it is only a few days old. Many societies, such as AFA, sell bands to their members and register the babies in a database. However, it is also possible to obtain bands from companies, such as L & M. Each band should contain initials of the breeder or aviary and a numbered code to identify the birds. Some people include the state and year as well as using different colors to denote different bloodlines. A microchip can also be used to identify the larger birds.
Breeders should also keep track of the people who purchase their birds. This should include the bird information including bloodline and band number. This will allow the breeder to trace the bird if it becomes lost and provide unrelated birds should the buyer wish to purchase more birds in the future. All bird buyers should be given a receipt and paperwork denoting the bird's age. Many breeders stand behind the health of their birds and offer written healthguarantees outlining the responsibilities and limits of the breeder. Other breeders include care instructions, applications to bird clubs, "pedigrees" and references for other information.
Furthering Your Education
Breeding birds is more of an art than a science. There is always some new discovery or interesting insight coming along; even seasoned breeders of 20 years can learn something. Utilize a wide variety of sources in order to get the best and most accurate information. Join a Specialty organization, local bird club or national organization. Specialty organizations specialize in the type of bird that you breed and often sell bands and have classified advertising for their members. National organizations can keep you informed about pending legislation, conservation activities and disease outbreaks.
Attend a convention or symposium. They are held all over the United States and Canada as well as Europe, so they are easy to find. Whether it is large or small, attend one at least once a year. Things change so fast in aviculture, especially with regard to disease prevention and control and nutritional developments, usually once you read it in print, it is obsolete. [For a list of events, see the calendar section at www.birdtalk.com or a longer version in print in Bird Talk magazine.]
The Internet is both the best and worst place to find information. Anyone with an opinion and a keyboard can dispense advice and it can be impossible, especially for the novice, to discern fact from fiction. Some things are simply silly and others can be downright dangerous. Always double-check anything that can be potentially risky to your birds and do not be afraid to ask tough questions.
Breeding birds is hard work and a lot of responsibility. It can bring great joy or great heartbreak. It is a noble and rewarding endeavor that should make bird breeders proud. It is difficult to describe the feeling of looking in a nest of babies and knowing you helped bring them into the world. Or looking into the surprised, delighted eyes of a child when you place the baby into their hands. You know you have come full circle and you have made a difference. It's a fabulous feeling.
Sandee and Robert Molenda have been breeding birds since 1983 and parrotlets exclusively since 1986. They own The Parrotlet Ranch in Aptos, California, which has been certified under the Model Aviculture Program. Both have also been certified by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council under the Avian Specialist program. Currently, they have more than 100 breeding pairs of parrotlet, which include six of the seven nominate species, as well as many subspecies of the Forpus genus. Recently, they added Pacific blue, yellow and fallow color mutations to their aviary. They have also been successful in breeding a difficult species, the Mexican parrotlet, and are one of the first breeders of spectacled and the only breeder of yellow-faced parrotlets in the United States. .