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Why You Should DNA Test Your Pet Bird

It's more than just knowing if your bird is a boy or a girl. There's health reasons too.

Krystle Bartholomew

Golden conures
Can you tell which golden conure is a boy or a girl?

Most pet bird owners want to know whether the new addition to their family is a boy or a girl. However, because a bird’s reproductive organs are all internal, this information can be hard to come by. For most parrot species, there aren’t ways to tell males and females apart, so you may not want to get too attached to a name for your new bird until his or her DNA has been tested. 

What is DNA Sexing? 
DNA sexing is a straightforward process: with a few plucked feathers or a blood sample (usually taken from the vein in the toenail), the service you choose will analyze the DNA of your parrot for his or her sex chromosomes. The lab will duplicate the DNA thousands of times to see the distinction between these chromosomes.

Even someone with decades of parrot experience has to rely on DNA sexing to know the gender for certain. Jamie Whittaker, a parrot behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and owner of ABC Birds in Humble, Texas, recommends against guessing your parrot’s sex based on his or her personality.

"We had a bird that, by his behavior, we would have sworn was female,” she said. A DNA test eventually proved otherwise. If an expert can get it wrong, you can too.

A bird’s appearance is not a reliable method of determining sex, either. "There are a few discerning eyes in the business,” Whittaker said. "If a male and female are standing beside one another, head shape and eye spacing are more noticeable.” Unless your bird belongs to a specific species, though — such as the Psittacula parrots, Eclectus, some cockatoos, Poicephalus parrots and others — these are not guaranteed methods of determining gender. DNA sexing is far more reliable; most labs boast over 99-percent accuracy and have an enormous database of previously tested birds to compare against.

Most breeders and pet shops will not know the gender of your new bird, but if you request it, some will DNA sex a bird before you adopt him or her. However, Whittaker encourages people not to choose a bird based on sex. The variation in personality means that you might not get what you expect, and those expectations can change how you interact with your bird. Over time, this will change your bird’s behavior — not always for the better.

"You’ll end up creating a bird you can’t live with,” Whittaker said.

Why You Should Know Your Bird’s Gender
Male and female birds may look and act similarly, but it’s still important to know their gender, especially if your bird gets sick. A female with a swollen abdomen and signs of weakness would probably be diagnosed with a reproductive problem, such as egg-binding, a condition where the bird cannot pass a formed egg. A male with these symptoms, however, might be suffering from malfunctioning organs or cancer. The same treatment will obviously not work on both conditions. Your veterinarian will be able to treat your pet bird more quickly and effectively if his or her sex is confirmed.

It’s also possible to prevent a serious condition like egg-binding in known females. Ensure that your bird gets plenty of exercise to strengthen her muscles, give her food sources with extra calcium to replace what’s lost in producing an egg and discourage her nesting behavior. Even if your hen doesn’t have a mate, she can still lay eggs.

Egg-laying and nesting are normal hormonal behaviors for birds. For some birds, especially the New World species such as conures and macaws, these behaviors usually occur in the springtime, when longer daylight hours signal that it’s a good time to raise chicks. (For some Old World birds however, such as African parrots, shorter daylight hours bring on hormonal behaviors.) Your bird may have a sudden temporary personality change due to her hormones. Knowing your bird’s gender will help you prepare for this time of the year.

A bird’s favorite person, for example, may suddenly become potential mate material when breeding season is nigh. A favorite toy could also fill this role. Either way, your bird will be very possessive and act aggressively toward anyone interfering with the object of her affection. A male might attempt to get his companion’s attention with flashy wing displays and lots of noise. Females might exhibit a behavior called flat backing by bowing forward on her perch. She’ll also try to find a safe place to nest — a corner or somewhere with three walls will do. Depending on the species, males may try to nest, too. Unlike females, they won’t produce eggs.

If you’re bringing a new parrot into a home that already contains birds, or if you plan to get more birds in the future, it’s necessary that you know the gender for the sake of house unity. A male and female of the same species living together can bond and have babies without your blessing.

A group of same-species (or even the same genus) birds can get along just fine as long as a bird of the opposite sex doesn’t get thrown in the mix. It is not easy to breed birds; putting yourself in that situation accidentally is a recipe for disaster.

DNA sexing can shed light on your pet bird’s hormonal behavior and medical conditions. It will also ensure that you provide the best possible care for your new pet.

Loved this article? Then check these out: 

Is Your Bird Afraid Of Men?
Male-Female Conure Behavior Differences

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Posted: December 22, 2014, 4:00 p.m. PDT

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