There is a large controversy in the breeding world of which method of breeding is better, colony or cage breeding. While colony breeding is more natural, being able to provide enough space to match the conditions of wild colony breeding is near impossible. Meanwhile cage breeding allows you to have greater control in the outcome of your breeding program. There is no right or wrong to this basic question, but both methods come with different pros and cons that we will be sharing below. If you are looking into becoming a breeder, we strongly recommend you review both methods before deciding what method will work best for you and your birds.
The various differences include time management, space needs, bird species, diseases, costs, natural selection, environment, fighting, fertility, genetics and more. I have long debated both methods, and have had some measure of success with both methods. Here I will try to explain the differences in my experiences and let you be the judge of which method is better for you as a breeder.
The feeding, watering and cleaning all takes time when you are a breeder. How much time varies greatly from colony to cage breeders. Colony breeding usually includes only a few mass feeding/watering stations and the aviary flight cleaning. This method is much less time consuming than individually maintaining each caged pair. Washing dishes alone is a huge daily chore when you are a cage breeder! Feeding individual portions of food and any supplements takes time and effort.
Colony breeders definitely have an advantage when it comes to time management on this topic. Full time breeders’ who’s main income source is breeding has more flexibility in this regard as they can either have extra time for more colonies or be able to handle more cage pairs. Part time or hobby breeders will need to look at the number of pairs they have and how much time they have available to invest in both options.
Breeding problems are a major concern in both types of breeding. When selecting pairs for cage breeding, you must be willing to give them enough time to accept one another and be willing to adjust pairings based on fertility issues or incompatibility. When breeding in a colony, you can allow the pairs to form naturally, which reduces the issues of infertility in pairs and often the more virile males may fertilize multiple females at once! Also natural selection comes into play where the birds will naturally prefer partners that are healthy and virile.
Genetics and Inbreeding
Cage breeding allows you to know who the parents of each clutch are and if any issues are found, you can quickly isolate the breeding pair and try to resolve it. Sex-linked nests are possible as you can keep track of the pedigree of your birds and their bloodlines.
In a colony you have no control over what genetics you will end up with in the offspring as well as being unable to avoid inbreeding among family lines. You have no control over who is mating with whom. Hens will often lay eggs in another hen’s nest and you won’t be certain on any bird’s parentage.
It only takes a few generations of inbreeding in a colony for the effects to catch up with you. This includes shortened lifespans, genetic weaknesses and abnormalities.
Depending on the species, the males will occasionally abandon one hen (even if she has eggs or chicks) in favor of another hen that may grab his attention in a colony. The abandoned hen can suffer from weakness of herself and her chicks after the loss of a mate’s attention.
Colony breeding takes space, much more space than cage breeding the same number of pairs. On average it takes about three times the amount of space if not more. The less space you have in a colony the greater the chance of fighting when it’s breeding time where hormones are high. In the wild, birds that don’t get along for any reason generally have unlimited space to avoid one another. However in a colony flight, they are limited in where they can go to avoid a fight and have more opportunities to interact and have conflicts.
You will also need more nestboxes in in a colony. Infighting becomes a major issue over prime nesting sites. Even if every nestbox looks the same to us, the birds will disagree. Hens will fight to the death over a desired nestbox, even if it’s already in use by another hen. In cage breeding, each pair gets one nest and this becomes a non-issue.
Species Vary Greatly
Some species do not breed well in a community setting. For example, African Greys tend to prefer quiet places to breed away from other pairs. Green Cheek Conures tend to fight each other to the death when competing for a mate or even when defending a nest. While cockatiels and budgies tend to be very community oriented and breed better when they can hear and see other pairs mating.
Indian Ringnecks are known to have hens killing an unwanted male suitor. Many breeders keep these hens with wings slightly trimmed and males fully flighted so the males have a better chance to escape. A large colony flight can aid in having more space for escape, however ringnecks are well known to not be faithful mates. Once a pair has accepted one another, cage breeding can be preferred to keep them together and lessen the chance of a mate-swap or unwanted suitor conflict.
In the case of lovebirds, you cannot tell males from females without DNA testing. If you are a cage breeder, you will need to DNA test your pairings otherwise you can easily end up with two males bonded up and no babies! In a colony they will naturally pair up and DNA testing becomes less of an issue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a “lovebird pair” only to discover by DNA they were the same gender but already bonded with their cage partner.
So do your research on your chosen species, as they are not all equal and determine which breeding method is best suited for your birds. Also remember that if you have more than one breeding species, they should be kept in separate colonies to avoid unnecessary fighting.
One major issue with colony breeding is when diseases are accidentally introduced into the aviary. The chances of cross-contamination in a colony is much higher and disease prevention becomes a major job. In the event of an outbreak, it may cause the loss of an entire colony to become infected. Prevention includes 90 day quarantine prior to introduction into a colony as well as disease testing and a vet checkup. This can become costly, but even more costly if you loose an entire flock!
An advantage of cage breeding is if you do have a bird loss due to illness or a disease is identified you can quickly assess and quarantine any affected birds. Some diseases are airborne or shed in their feather dust, so this method still may travel through an entire flock but with luck you can isolate and test easier once identified. I still recommend disease prevention, but this is not always cost effective to fully test every bird in your possession, costing $100 to $400 or more per bird!
Most breeders need to break even at minimum or profit at best to be able to sustain a steady breeding program. One consideration is how much will each setup will cost you and how to minimize losses. Both methods can become costly depending on number of birds, type of species, space needs, housing requirements, feeding options, etc.
For example, if you are a multi-species breeder like myself, you have to consider that most species cannot be housed in the same breeding flight to avoid inter-species fighting, dietary differences, and breeding needs differences. So you may need several large flights vs a cage for each pairing.
You also should consider just how large your breeding space needs to be. Whether indoors or outdoors is best and how much space each option would cost during different seasons of the year depending on where you live.
Profits come into play when you look at the outcome of your chicks. If you do well in pairing birds that are fertile and have high yield hatchlings, then it can be just as profitable as allowing birds free choice to breed in a colony where fertility issues tend to be lessened. Overall, less spread of disease and injury can improve your profits and losses as well.
While some species may thrive in a large colony, you may need to consider if you have the space and extra resources to successfully avoid fighting, a large variety of bloodlines to lessen inbreeding. Record keeping becomes near impossible, but fertility may be higher. Diseases can decimate an entire flock if prevention measures are not maintained.
In cage breeding, you have greater control over pedigree, genetics, fighting and disease isolation. However fertility may suffer and a greater knowledge of pair selection will be required. You will also need to have more time invested in daily maintenance, feeding, watering and record keeping.