New to parrot breeding? There are many considerations you should consider before allowing your pet birds to breed or becoming a breeder. While I will be going into more detail on specific topics in later posts (and will add links to each section as they are created), this article is all about the basics to get you started or things to prepare for prior to breeding. The species of your birds may alter some of the information below, but most of this is basic to any parrot. If unsure about details of your species, find a reputable breeder of that species to help you get started with a successful breeding program or ask your avian veterinarian and make sure to acquire healthy bloodlines for your breeding stock.
Pets Vs Breeders
One of the biggest issues I am asked about from a potential breeder is if they can allow their pet birds to breed. You will often hear that pets should never be breeders, that’s because there are two major issues that arise with breeding a pet bird. One problem is that a hand raised baby that is tame, will no longer be your sweet feathered baby once it’s hormones get into breeding mode. They often turn aggressive, protective and territorial. Say goodbye to your feathered baby, once a breeder they tend to go wild and loose their tame qualities. Rarely will you ever be able to handle that bird again as a tame pet, and you will forever be fighting the breeding instinct you have awakened in them.
The second, more controversial issue has to do with how they were raised vs instinct. Birds that were hand raised, often do not have the learned knowledge of caring for their babies well. You have to remember they were hand fed by a person and may not have the learned skills like those from parent raised birds. The also do not bond as easily to a bird mate to allow fertilization, as they are predisposed to bond with their human caretakers. They will tend to have more issues with fertility, incubation, feeding and baby aggression. That said, I have found that pets who have ‘gone wild’, self-bonded with a bird partner, or was not as ‘hand raised’ as the owners were led to believe do just fine as breeders, but they tend to rely on instinct alone and I just ensure that I am ready to step in or problem solve if any issues arise. You will need more monitoring of first time parents and their babies to avoid potential losses.
Business vs Hobby
Aviculture is the term used for bird breeding, however it’s considered a part of agriculture when it comes to the business end of breeding. Check your state requirements for breeding. In some states you can easily stay a hobbyist for years without registering as a business, while other states have a maximum count of breeder females before you are legally required to register as a breeder (in Mississippi the number is 5 breeding females when you need to register). For those who are going to register as a business, the NAICS code for parrot breeding is 112990. Check your local laws for specific information and tax filing requirements.
There are many organizations that help educate aviculturists including local or national breeding clubs. Many national bird clubs are species specific while most local bird clubs are not. One of the national organizations for all aviculturists is the American Federation of Aviculture. I highly recommend joining them if you wish to learn more and attend their seminars. The AFA is a great resource for conservation, legislation, and education.
Disease management includes how you setup your breeding space, health testing and quarantine practices. The easiest to discuss is health testing on your breeding stock prior to introduction into your breeding area. Many avian diseases are airborne and highly contagious through bird feather dust and air particles. Remember that birds are susceptible to the human flu and cold as well as other zoonotic viruses. The Merck Veterinary Manual has a great reference on diseases and disease management you can read here.
Your best option is a 90 day quarantine to allow for a full health check with your avian vet as well as a recommended DNA disease screening. The 90 days is in the event of Avian Polyomavirus (APV) which can be shed by the carrier up to 90 days after the 10 day incubation period before it can be retested until negative. Without proper testing, you may have this highly contagious airborne virus without ever seeing any symptoms in your adult bird suddenly introduced into your breeding room and unknowingly infecting your other birds. This is a major killer of baby birds, and it’s thought that budgerigar parakeets (budgies) and lovebirds have high occurrences of this disease. Contact your avian vet for an available vaccine for APV.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual: “Aviary control methods include avoiding the housing of budgerigars or lovebirds on premises where other species are bred, adhering to standard hygiene procedures, preventing access to the nursery by visitors, and not introducing birds into the aviary without 90 days quarantine and testing. Eliminating APV infection from an infected budgerigar aviary is challenging. First, all breeding must be stopped for 6 mo. The presence of infected neonates, fledglings, and adults propagates the disease. During this time, adult birds are moved to a non-infected area while the entire aviary is disinfected. Nest boxes should be disinfected or discarded and replaced. After 6 mo, adult breeding birds can be returned to a clean aviary and breeding resumed.”
Once your bird has cleared it’s 90 quarantine with standard hygiene procedures, DNA disease testing and a veterinary health evaluation (recommended) then you are ready to introduce your breeding pair into your breeding environment. We recommend a separate building or facility for your breeders that can keep them isolated from any babies, rescues, pets etc that may not be properly screened and can be isolated from visitors as needed for disease management. Some diseases like Psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) can also be carried on a person’s clothing, so be very aware of your bio-hazard practices, especially when you or visitors have poultry.
Disease management in your breeding facility is something to consider when keeping your breeding records (identification of potential issues in offspring), planning your environment and cage hygiene cleaning procedures and when choosing colony vs cage breeding. Being able to quickly isolate a suspected pair is essential to preventing a larger outbreak in a potentially infected aviary. A breeding aviary can be quickly overrun by an outbreak if you aren’t careful, even for a reputable breeder! There is nothing worse than loosing an entire breeding stock due to a disease sneaking into your aviary even though the birds appear perfectly healthy!
When you begin breeding, you will want to keep good records. Which records you keep with depend greatly on the style of breeding you use, colony or cage. Many breeders use index cards or other paper record keeping of their birds and babies. Some of the things you will want to keep recorded are hatch dates, band ID’s, family trees or relatives, DNA & hatch certificates, egg records, health records, and more. One of the first things you want to start with is an unrelated breeding pair that you know are in good health prior to breeding.
Band records are very important for identification purposes. If you’re lucky a band will have the year it hatched on it, to verify it’s age as well. If you receive an unbanded breeder, you can give it a ‘willie’ band (band you put on a separate holder to associate with the bird’s records that is not physically on the bird’s leg) or band it with an open band yourself. If you only have a few pairs, this isn’t a major issue.. but once you start getting many pairs that may look alike it can become a necessity. I use both methods depending on the species when I receive an unbanded breeder.
Even once you’ve sold your birds, you will want to keep records of the babies. You may receive them back in the future or the customers may want information later. Or heaven forbid their bird is ever lost, you can be the bridge to it’s recovery and ownership verification by way of it’s band number. The ones you keep for future breeders, you will want to know the family tree and bloodlines so you don’t cross breed more than 50% of the bloodline. Never breed siblings together! Inbreeding can lead to infertility, disabilities and shorter lifespans in the babies. Also knowing the genetic makeup of the parents and their other siblings can help you learn what the hidden genetics are or if a gene is sex-link nest (DNA not required to gender reveal) or if you need to DNA test a sex-linked gene. We’ll get more into that in our genetics articles.
Keeping egg records is a great way to help identify potential issues with the breeding pair. This includes health issues, behavioral issues or genetic issues. The better your egg records the easier it will be to help problem solve your losses. Some of the egg issues are NF (non-fertile), DIS (dead in shell), DBB (dead before banding), broken or abandoned eggs. Once you see a pattern, you can begin problem solving the potential causes of these losses. These issues happen to all breeders, be ready for them!
First of all, breeding is time consuming. The more pairs you are breeding the more time is required. Evaluate your available time to commit to the upkeep and care of your birds, not only now but in the next few years. Breeding is a long-term project and you often have to plan 1 to 3 years in advance (if not more for some species) before a new pair is successfully breeding babies.
Feeding and watering is a daily necessity that cannot be overstated as time consuming. Say goodbye to vacations and sick days unless you have someone trained to take over in your absence! They MUST have daily food and water checks/changes. Bacteria is the biggest risk to your birds’ health for not only the breeding pair but also the egg health and baby survivability. You also need time to be “on call” and check in on your birds in the event of cage escapes, fights, illness, injuries, baby health checks, baby plucking and feeding checks. You also will need either lighting on timers or be available at regular times to turn on and off artificial lighting if they are indoors.
Cleaning… no one realizes just how much cleaning is involved when you have a breeding program. Birds are quite simply.. MESSY by nature! You have to have an environment that will be easy to manage cleaning tasks in. The floors are a chore, daily at minimum if not multiple times a day depending on your setup (sweeping, vacuuming and mopping). Cages are a whole different issue. If you have a pressure washer this is a great investment for a breeder. You will need daily dish cleaning and weekly cage maintenance as well as seasonal cleaning and bi-yearly deep cleaning. Weekly maintenance includes cleaning cage trays and perch/toy cleaning checks, a shop vac can be really useful as well as an avian safe cleaning spray. We use Mango Pet Product’s Pet Focus Aviary and Cage Cleaner for our daily and weekly cleaning tasks. Your seasonal cleaning includes cleaning cages in between breeding sessions to ensure your cages remain poop and bacteria free environments for your birds. You will need extra holding cages while you safely clean out their breeding cage and nest box.
The bi-yearly deep cleaning can be done as often as needed but I recommend twice a year minimum. The deep cleaning means clearing out your breeding room to use a 3 cup to 1 gallon bleach to water ratio to disinfect the aviary room from fungal and mold spores as well as kill off potential diseases in the environment from flourishing from bacteria or other cross-contamination exposure. Your birds need removed from this environment while you do this until it can be washed, rinsed, dried and aired out before bringing your birds back in to avoid the toxic fumes to your birds. This is also a great time to clean the walls (I promise they will acquire poop!), floors and air conditioner, heater and air purifier filters. (I highly recommend having a HEPA air purifier for dander and dust for the health of you and your birds!)
Early on you will want to decide if you are going to specialize in your breeding program or risk the issues of breeding multiple species. The more types of parrots you breed, the more complex the issues and the more opportunity for complications. I strongly recommend starting with one breed you love most and become a specialist in your field. But as time goes on, if you want to expand your species list then expand your education and the differences of each type of parrot as you do so. I specialized during my first 10 years of breeding, working with a mentor before I branched out and this was the best learning experience!
With specialty breeding, you have the advantage of not only knowledge base, but having the need for only one type of housing, nestbox, feed, formula, etc. This is the primary reason for specializing. When you need a flight for off-season… this could become a major expense having one for each species! Different species have major differences in breeding requirements, like a Quaker preferring having sticks to decorate their nestbox or finches needing certain nesting material to build a nest or African Grey’s needing a quiet environment. Knowing your breed’s quirks and needs can become a real challenge when you don’t specialize. Breeding seasons can greatly vary between species, and how you hand feed the babies can be hugely different. Having baby housing for each species can also vary greatly.
Most parrot species cannot be bred in a colony aviary due to aggression of their own kind when breeding. This includes males vs males for the attention of a female, females vs females for prime nesting spots, and in some species (like ringnecks) the females will kill a male they don’t accept as a mate. If you want to colony breed, do your research on your species of choice. Only a few species have evolved to live and breed in close proximity to one another where aggression levels are lowered. Cockatiels, Budgerigars, Finches and Lovebirds are some of the ones that can be successfully colony bred.
As mentioned earlier, being able to isolate infected pairs if suspected of disease or illness can become a major issue in the colony system where an entire breeding colony can quickly become infected. If you do colony breed, health screening and disease testing becomes a necessity. You also need to keep a closer eye out for any developing illnesses that are bacteria or protozoa based, if infected you will have to treat the entire colony at the same time to eliminate re-infection.
Cage breeding also has the advantage of knowing the breeding pair for each baby and being able to track bloodlines and genetics. This also includes planning baby genetics if you wish to breed for certain mutations or quality improvements. Cage breeding in this discussion is either cage breeding for smaller birds or flight breeding for medium birds and aviary breeding for large birds, as long as they are isolated pairs the intent is the same as far as potential issues in breeding.
Ideally, you want to plan ahead for breeding more than a few pairs. This means that for each pair you need a breeding cage/flight/aviary, a clean nestbox, feeding and watering dishes/bottles, and extra perches/toys. You also need a flight for young birds that are not breeding, and ideally a flight for off-season playtime, to allow for flight and to recover their health from the stresses of breeding.
You also need to consider your food costs, including breeding feed, formula for hand rearing, soft food for new hatchlings, fresh foods like chop, and supplemental nutrients & calcium sources. You will need to plan for vet costs, health and dna testing of your breeders and dna testing of your babies as well as any medical expenses if you have a disease or illness outbreak in your aviary.
How you house your babies will also vary on species and sizes if you are hand rearing them. You will want to find your own method for keeping the young chicks safe and warm until they are completely weaned. You will also need a flight cage for the weaning chicks to exercise and avoid overheating in a ‘baby bin’. Just because a bird starts weaning at 5 weeks for a cockatiel, doesn’t mean they will be fully weaned until upwards of 7-10 weeks before they can safely be homed without health risks.
Another thing to remember is that you may loose birds.. more than you want to. This can be from poor aviary management, egg binding, over-stressed or over-bred pairs, fighting, nutritional deficiencies in the newborn chicks that may need to be problem solved. Not all your eggs are going to hatch, and those that do can easily die before they are old enough to be safely handfed and then weaned. There are so many variables to not have something slip through the cracks on occasion that will need to be addressed as you go. I can honestly say that I never stop learning from my mistakes, and constantly evaluate what I’m doing and how I can improve my birds and minimize losses. As the old proverb goes, don’t count your chickens before they hatch.. or in this case don’t count on healthy babies before they successfully wean!
Breeding Seasons and Age
Different species begin breeding at different ages, some as early as 1 year old while others may be 5 years before being ready to breed. Their length of highest reproductive health will vary as well due to species/age and how often they are allowed to breed each year. Over breeding a pair may seem good in the short term, but you WILL wear out your birds quickly which will lead to future breeding problems or early death. Make sure to do your research based on your breed of parrot as to what their reproductive age is and how often they breed in the wild. Use this as your general guideline to a healthy breeding timeline.
Another difference in species is the season of the year they breed in the wild. Most parrots are seasonal breeders, while you can sometimes try to trick them with artificial environment conditions to breed them out of season it’s not advisable unless you are able to let them rest for the amount of time they need and then cycle in another pair to breed the next clutch, etc. Do your research and talk to other breeders of the species you plan to breed, as they may be able to help direct you to the seasonal needs of your chosen parrot type.
Pairing Your Birds
Buying “proven pairs” or adult aged birds is often not the fasted route to a successful breeding pair. Many breeders are not completely honest about their breeders, and if they are selling them it’s often because they are having issues breeding the pair, they have a health problem or they are getting to the end of their reproductive ‘sweet spot’. The smart breeder will save birds from their own stock for future generations or buy young birds that have been hatched that year and come with hatch and DNA certificates matching their band id (reputable breeders will have this!). Pairing them young is usually the quickest path to a fertile pairing with a same aged bird that they can bond with before breeding age.
Gender Check! Make sure your pair is male and female (DNA test them!), there are many un-reputable breeders or new hobbyists that don’t really know or won’t tell the truth about the genders. I can’t tell you how many birds I’ve received from other breeders that either didn’t tell the truth for fast sell or purely guessed on gender and were wrong. Even ‘proven pairs’ were occasionally sold to me and ended up being too young to breed or were the same gender! It’s very easy to waste a year or more of a breeding pair because of this.
Never breed more than 50% of the same bloodline. This basically means never breed siblings. If you are breeding to improve a bloodline or isolate a genetic mutation, you can safely breed a parent to child or half-siblings without detriment to the bird’s health or fertility. But you don’t want for example to ever have any combination that would end up with more than half of the bloodlines be the same. This is fairly easy when it’s siblings, but if you start with only a few sets of breeders, your bloodlines can quickly become inbred after a few generations of breeding the decedents together! This is where having good relations with other reputable breeders can be important, getting in new bloodlines for future generations.
The next consideration is the genetic mutations or colors you have and want to obtain. If you let your birds self-pair or colony breed then this will be a non-issue and you’ll just get whatever they produce. However if you are selecting your pairs for cage breeding, you’ll want to learn a little about the genetics of your species, both what you have and what you want to achieve and pair them up based on possible outcomes. You may also want to pair them based on traits that you want to improve, like size or quality of a trait. This is essential for show breeders, to improve the species. That said, your pairings may need to be re-evaluated if they have breeding issues or don’t accept one another at mates. The nesting hen can be also attacked by a stressed male, so keep an eye on the pair to make sure they’re cohabiting happily. Several things can cause the male to become over-stressed, usually lack-of-space-related issues or the presence of noisy and/or territorial neighbors (humans, pets and other birds!)
Before you ever give them a nestbox, you need to make sure they are in good breeding condition and health. Both before and during breeding they will need more nutrition than your average pet birds or your birds could die of malnutrition while breeding. They need a higher fat diet than a pet bird, this is because they will use their energy reserves while breeding and raising their young. In some breeds this is more necessary than others. Calcium and vitamin D3 is another huge requirement for breeders. Calcium deficiency or lack of calcium absorption is the primary cause of egg binding in female breeders. Knock on wood I have yet to have egg binding in my current breeding program due to keeping the calcium and D3 supplements as part of my nutrition program.
I highly recommend Morning Bird’s Breeder Blend supplement or another similar option for keeping essential vitamins and minerals to give optimal health for your breeders and their babies. The things you are looking for are protein, folic acid, amino acids and Vitamins A, C, D3, B, E, K. Your calcium source is going to be a second supplement to add to the mixture depending on the species will determine your best source, but if in doubt there is a liquid or powder supplement available.
Healthy breeders give healthy babies! The supplements should be given in addition to a high protein pellet based diet (with seeds for treats or as a mixed diet). It is also recommended that a fresh chop or variety of fresh fruits, veggies and proteins are offered either daily or weekly. This will also aid in stimulating breeding, the higher the nutrition options available the more it will encourage your birds to want to breed. For my base breeding mix, I use a high protein based pellet mixed with safflower, sunflower, millet and cracked corn. I also offer a treat mixture with nuts and dried berries to the medium+ birds, and then offer a daily fresh food treat that I vary from chop to protein mix to fresh fruits and veggies. Your base diet can easily be adjusted based on the species you are breeding!
Daily fresh water is an absolute must! One of the biggest health risks to your breeders and the babies is bacteria that builds up quickly in stale and soiled water. If you don’t have the time to change water daily or have some type of daily clean watering system, then you don’t need to be breeding in the first place. A high number of DIS or DBB baby losses, is often simply due to bacteria or poor breeder nutrition!
Also, don’t neglect offering more digestible soft foods for the newly hatched babies. Offering the parents soft foods in addition to their normal breeder diet like Miracle Meal from Morning Bird or other similar soft food, fresh chop, egg food, soaked/sprouted seeds, cooked bean mash, fresh corn, etc will ensure the babies are offered more digestible foods for young babies. Sometimes deaths can occur from parents over-feeding young babies too much dry seed that may be harder to digest. When my pairs are feeding young babies, they will go through a lot more water than normal to help soak the seeds as they prepare to feed babies. By offering soft food options, this helps them in feeding. If you have dandelion greens or chickweed, it’s a great option for some breeds! Be sure you don’t leave fresh food more than 3-6 hours without changing it out to avoid harmful bacteria growth.
There are many things that can cause fertility issues in your birds. Sometimes it involves a lot of trial and error on the breeder’s part to solve an infertile pair’s issue. This is list the most common issues, but if these don’t solve your problem then ask an avian vet for other options they can help you diagnose. The most obvious issue is pair incompatibility, sometimes they simply haven’t bonded yet or just don’t get along. To solve, swap out the partners and see if you get better results. Sometimes it just takes time for a new pairing to bond enough to accept a male’s attention, in this case just give them some time to bond before breeding season.
If the female is laying eggs, the issue is often times an infertile male. Causes can be an inbred male, low sperm count, long-length show quality feathering, a bird with other health issues (like seizures), or something as simple as their nails are too long! If the nails are too long, the female won’t allow the male to properly mount. Show breeders often have issues with the high-quality long feathering getting in the way of the breeding process, and you can either pluck or trim the male’s vent or try AI options to assist. Low sperm count is often an issue that can’t be easily diagnosed but can be easily solved with a fertility supplement like Morning Bird’s Fertility Formula that I use. The vitamin E especially helps males improve sperm count. I once diagnosed an infertile pair from another breeder because the male was unknowingly having seizures so he was removed from the breeding program and the female was re-paired successfully. Inbreeding and in some cross-breeding situations it will make the males infertile and they need to be removed from your breeding program.
Not all breeding pairs are created equal!! Even if they successfully hatch their eggs, issues can arise with parenting problems. Having parent raised breeders are the best option to have less complications in this area as many of these behaviors can be learned as they are raised. However other issues can arise from stress caused by aggression from nearby pairs, a lack of cage space, too many chicks in the nest, and more. This stress can cause attacks on the chicks or mates, feather plucking chicks, neglect of chicks or even death of a parent from nutritional loss when feeding too many chicks. Another issue is new parents that are still learning how to cope with actual babies for the first few times, may need some assistance with raising their first few clutches of chicks until they get the hang of it.
In events where babies become at risk or need emergency alternative parenting, you will need to prepare to either pull the babies early for hand rearing away from the parents… or you will need to have a foster pair setup that you know in advance is good at rearing chicks. I usually keep my older or infertile pairs that are great at baby raising but don’t have many hatching babies or infertile eggs. I set them up to breed at the same time and so they will be ready to accept new chicks around the time of the other pairs. In the event that a foster isn’t needed for an emergency situation, you can utilize them by splitting up nests that have too many babies to ease the stress of the more prolific breeders. Some breeds of similar of sizes and dietary needs will even accept another species chick until ready to feather out. Just be sure to pull them early enough to avoid any potential rejection once they begin to feather. For example, I have a cockatiel pair that will happily raise a green cheek conure baby, or a green cheek conure pair that will easily take on a sun conure baby. Knowing your individual pairs is key to helping decide your options in the case of fostering.
Nesting & Boxes
Once again, each species has different nesting needs. Do your research on what your type of parrot prefers. Find out what they use the the wild and mimic it as closely as possible. Nestbox sizes, shapes and materials can greatly differ from one species to another.
If your birds were successfully breeding with another breeder (aka a confirmed proven pair), I would highly recommend you find out their nestbox setup as often times a pair will not accept a new type of box if they have always used one type. I have had some birds have poor or unsuccessful breeding when using the nestbox type I use for other pairs of that same species only to find out the original breeder of that pair used a completely different setup and they were only having trouble accepting the changes. Once trying to mimic their previous setup, they have improved their success rates. This can even be an issue in the type of boxed they were raised in themselves! Some breeds use nest building material and a frame to build it in. Others prefer a wooden box with pine shavings and some want sticks to decorate with! Generally the larger the breed the larger the nest box, up to and including boot shaped boxes instead of simple square, tall or wide boxes.
You will need to replace these boxes regularly, either between breeding seasons or if the condition deteriorates. If you do reuse a nestbox, ensure it is cleaned and disinfected safely, removing any bacteria, mold or mildew between each clutch. The condition of the nestbox will be your indicator of if it can be reused. However I recommend only using a nestbox for the same pair as a disease prevention method. Label your nestboxes so you know which pair used which box. Be very careful how you clean a box as any remaining residue can be absorbed by the box material and cause health issues for your breeders and chicks if not properly cleaned. Pet Focus is my preferred cleaner since it is bird safe and non-toxic. Grape seed extract (GSE) and hydrogen peroxide are commonly used disinfectants (after cleaning) that is safe for birds. (Legal disclaimer: Use my method only at your own risk. If in doubt, ask your avian vet for their professional opinion on safe cleaning options.) Most of the time, I simply prefer to use a new nestbox when one becomes too soiled to comfortably clean and reuse.
For nesting material, it will vary on species. Small birds like finches and canaries love the sisal and jute fiber bedding to build nests with. Most breeds prefer pine shavings in the box. Quakers for example love sticks to decorate their box entrances with and wood shavings inside. For my breeding boxes, I use coarse grain walnut shells (can be purchased in hardware store as an abrasive material) as a base then top with pine shavings. I have found that this base of walnut shells helps with incubation temps and less breaking of eggs from the pairs that like to toss most of the shavings out when prepping their nests.
Parrot eggs generally incubate between 18-24 days and is dependent on species. That said, a bird can lay an egg up to 7 days before beginning incubation and the egg will still be viable. They do this in the wild to have more babies hatch at the same time and increase survivability. The further apart they hatch, the more likely that the younger babies will die in favor of the parents feeding the oldest or healthiest babies with priority. This is especially important in larger clutches.
Each species lays different amounts of eggs as a ‘norm’ but each pair will vary within a range of that norm. They will usually lay eggs every other day, sometimes every few days until they finish laying. Fertility won’t generally show during egg candling until it’s been incubating for 7-10 days at the very earliest. As long as the egg gets enough heat and is not permitted to lose too much heat for too long a time, everything will be fine as long as the egg is fertile, not spoiled by bacteria or affected by any parental diseases or lack of nutrition.
Assuming you are not using an incubator to hatch your eggs, a hen cannot overheat her eggs no matter how much she sits them. A hen who leaves her nest occasionally to feed or exercise in general isn’t in danger of letting her eggs cool from a temperature drop. The eggs do get cool but if she returns within a short time frame the will remain viable as long as they aren’t allowed to cool for too long at a time. Sometimes a male will help with the incubating to give the hen a break, but this is species and pairing specific. Natural incubation is my preferred method, as it has less complications and less risk for dead in shell eggs. Also upon hatching, the parents should give the babies much needed immunities for the first few days (much like humans!) and honestly hand feeding day old hatchlings is always risky of aspiration no matter how talented you get!
However some breeders swear by egg incubator hatching, and for those that choose this method, you will have more to control but also monitor. Make sure to purchase a high quality incubator if you choose this method, it will be worth the investment in the long run to do it right and not skimp here (trust me, I’ve made this error). Temperature, humidity and egg turning are the key ingredients to successful incubator hatching. Read the instructions for your specific egg incubator, many require 24-48 hour pre-setup before use to reach a stable environment. You also will want to wait to put the eggs in either by waiting at least 2 weeks before moving eggs from the hen or waiting a few days after the hen finished laying her last egg. The transfer of the egg is the most crucial moment to get correct as variations between hen and incubator is the most sensitive change to the egg viability.
While a hen cannot overheat her eggs, an incubator easily can. Finding the right combination of humidity to heat for your breed is very important and may need to be adjusted with experience. Temperatures that have been used successfully range from 98.7 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. About 99 degrees seems to work well for most types of parrot eggs. Humidity ranges between 38 and 52 percent have often been used successfully for various purposes. An egg should undergo a specific percentage of weight loss during the incubation period, which is achieved by the evaporation of water through the pores of the shell or the egg will not hatch.
As a general rule, increasing the incubation temperature can shorten the time period in which it takes a chick to hatch, but there is less time for the required water loss to take place. When using higher temperatures, a lower humidity should be used to allow sufficient water loss during the shortened time period. Conversely, if lower temperatures are used, the chick will take longer to hatch, and higher humidity should be used in order to keep too much evaporation from taking place. Obviously this is a balancing act that takes time to get right for your breed and incubator. Another consideration is that large eggs do better at lower humidity levels at 38 to 45 percent, while smaller eggs do better at the higher range of 46 to 52 percent. Once again, do your research ahead of time and then alter as needed.
Egg turning is the biggest key ingredient in successful hatching, while some breeders turn eggs every hour, research has shown a higher success rate when eggs are turned between 4-8 times a day. Some incubators will give you the option of turning the eggs manually by hand or using an automatic egg turner. What you choose is up to your schedule and preference. An automatic turner is often more reliable by using regular intervals and keeping the temperature/humidity levels at a more stable level with less opening for manual operation. The less an egg is handled, generally the lower the risk of potential problems. If you choose to do it by hand, use disposable gloves to avoid contamination from your skin’s natural oils and any bacteria. You may also want to mark your eggs to help you indicate visually where your top position is.
Hatching will usually be a passive experience for a breeder if the birds are hatching their own eggs. Just check for the hatch date and only interfere if absolutely necessary, more harm can be done trying to help than allowing a bird to hatch on it’s own. A baby can go the first 3 days without being fed by the parent before you need to worry.
Hatching becomes more labor intensive if you are incubator hatching your chicks. There are three stages to hatching that you can watch for to judge when the process is about to begin. From start to finish it takes about 3 days to hatch from stage one to fully hatched. During this time frame you can sometimes even hear the chick chirp inside the egg!
The first stage is what is referred to as the ‘draw down’ which is when the air sac in the egg enlarges. The air sac will change from a round area to an elliptical space that will extend down one side of the egg while the other side remains near the top where it started out. The second stage is the first pip of the egg shell, this is when the chick uses it’s egg tooth on top of the beak (this will go away as they grow up) to begin cracking open the egg. It will start as a small dot and grow larger as they begin hatching. At this point the incubation process is complete and stage three begins, the actual hatching from the egg. You can adjust the humidity higher to ease the hatching process. If a chick is not humid enough during hatching the internal membrane can become stuck to the chick and can die while trying to get out, and you may have to assist VERY CAREFULLY!
Brooders and Baby Bins
I generally recommend waiting 3 weeks before removing a baby from parent-feeding unless you need to step in for the health or safety of the baby. Sometimes you do have to step in early and then you’ll need a brooder setup to maintain the chick’s humidity and temperature that varies upon age. Once removed from the nest you will need to commit to hand feeding a baby bird on a regular schedule until fully weaned. For breeders who have another job, I recommend waiting until later to to pull the babies so you don’t have to feed as often or through the night.
If you do have or make a brooder, a relative humidity greater than 50% is required initially with a very young hatchling or any incubator hatched chick. Hatchlings (no feathers) should be maintained at 95° – 97°F (35° – 36°C). As the chick gets older, they have a greater tolerance for temperature fluctuations. Generally, the temperature can be lowered by one degree every 2 – 3 days as the feathering progresses. Chicks with new feathers (pinfeathers) should be fine at 75° – 85°F (24° – 30°C) depending on the development of the feathers. Fully feathered and weaned chicks can be maintained at room temperature. Always monitor your bird for signs of overheating or chilling. Wings extended or drooping and panting indicate overheating. Shivering and huddling together indicate cold.
One little trick I have used for many years successfully in my ‘baby bin’ brooder system is having a new feather duster in one corner of the brooder for cold chicks to snuggle into that can trap body warmth and yet allow them to move away from it if they need to cool off. The more babies in one brooder bin, the more you’ll find they will huddle together for warmth and spread apart for cooling off. I don’t generally recommend heat lamps or heating pads unless they can be temperature monitored and direct contact can be avoided. A chick needs to be able to get warmer and cooler as needed. The biggest issue I have run into with other breeders is burns on the chicks or overheating babies. As long as a fresh feather duster or stuffed animal is used for each clutch, they can usually self maintain a temperature without harm of burns.
That said, my baby bin’s are covered on 4 sides with the top mostly covered to retain heat but open at the ‘cool end’ to allow in fresh air. Keep your brooder away from drafts or air vents that can alter your temperatures unexpectedly. The more chicks in a brooder, the bigger it needs to be and vice versa for heat retention. Make sure to change your brooder bedding once or twice a day depending on how quickly it becomes soiled. I use super absorbent paper towels layered under small animal bedding or pine shavings. Some breeders use high quality temperature controlled commercial brooders, while many use homemade brooders ranging from a fish tank (get a new one for your breeding, don’t use reused tanks from reptiles or fish) to plastic bins with a grate on top. NEVER use an enclosed homemade brooder, you must have fresh air although I hope this should be obvious, use a grate top if needed.
Leg Band Types
Leg bands are only a means for identifying individual birds. Many states and the federal government require permits to transfer certain species of birds into another state as well as breeding or owning exotic birds. One of the requirements for obtaining a sate permit is a bird’s band number as proof that a bird was either legally imported or domestically bred. While some pet owners may choose to have a band removed for health issues (getting caught in a cage or due to a leg injury), removing a leg band may present problems in the future, especially if the owner wants to move to a different state that requires a permit or when trying to sell a bird to someone out of state. Closed bands are circular, seemless and usually made of stainless steel. Size is very important here. If you use a band that is too large, it could slide up over the “knee” joint or slide down over its foot, preventing the bird from using its foot properly. If the band is too tight, you could prevent circulation and cause swelling. You can use a size chart from the company you order your bands from (if in doubt call them and ask). Or you can use a leg gauge to measure the bird’s leg so that you band the bird with the appropriate size band. Some breeds have a few band sizes that may fit depending on the size range of your individual bird within the species average.
There are two types of leg bands available depending on the size you need to order for your species. There are open and closed bands. An open band is not available for large parrot breeds, a closed band must be used from stainless steel so their more powerful beak cannot crush it on their leg. For smaller breeds you do have the option of an open band, which requires a special banding tool (similar to pliers with a hole in the middle that is the exact size of the band). Open bands are made out of aluminum and can be used to band adult birds for general identification. However closed bands are much safer and a more permanent record of it’s true origin as they can only be placed on the bird while it’s young and feet are smaller and not fully hardened. A closed band is a great way to know your bird was not stolen and re-banded by an unscrupulous breeder or bird swapper. If you miss the short banding window and the toes have gotten too large or hardened too much to properly apply a closed band, then having open bands handy is a useful second choice and better than nothing!
Some breeders will use band for specific years so you can know the year it hatched and was banded, assuming it is a closed band (no slit in the side) this is usually an accurate way to determine a bird’s general age in the future. Many larger breeders or non-show breeders won’t use dated bands as it’s harder to pre-plan the number of chicks you’ll have in any given year and can be costly to over-print yearly bands. The color of the band is purely the breeder’s choice. Some breeders have a color coding system they like to use. I have different colors for different sized bands so I can easily tell which color band I need for a particular species. And to answer a question I get asked frequently… No, there is no built in information tracker like a dog’s pet chip or location finder. It is only for identification of the individual birds from a certain breeder. The format is usually the breeder’s initials, followed by a sideways state abbreviation, a year (optional) then 1-4 digit number for the ID.
If you’re looking at my bands, they would be FGA-MS-20-123 or FGA-MS-1234, depending if I used a year indicated band or not (breeder-state-year-number). The dashes are not visible on the bands, just spaces in the place of a dash. But when you see it written on a certificate this is how it would be written. FGA stands for Feathered Gardens Aviary, while some breeders use their name initials. For show breeders that may be using bands printed through a show organization it will usually be a letter and number combination for the club member and they will also have an additional sideways 3 letter club code imprinted (replacing the state abbreviation). My National Cockatiel Association bands that I used in the past when I was a show breeder were NCS-19M-17-123 (club-breeder-year-number) for example. Most leg bands in the USA are made by L&M Leg Bands, including most club bands. If a bird is ever lost, this company does keep records of which breeders or aviaries have used what breeder ID’s so you can try to track down the breeder if needed.
Applying a Leg Band
It is much easier to have a partner ready to help hold a bird that is having an open band applied or removed so you can use your hands for the banding with tools and not keeping a squirming bird still enough to band it in the first place! Wiggly little things they are! If using a closed band, an experienced breeder can usually do this solo but again, grab a partner if needed. Before you band make sure the crop is fairly empty (right before a feeding is great timing) to avoid the bird from aspirating if their crop gets pressed on and causes them to regurgitate food.
With open bands, the ends of the band are separated by a space or a slit to enable them to be placed on a mature bird’s leg and then pinched together. It is best to use a banding tool that can be ordered from L&M Leg Bands to fit the correct band size. You will need a banding tool for each size band you will be using. The tip of the tool is the band spreader that you will insert into the band to open it up just enough to fit around the leg if it’s not already opened for you. Gently wrap the band around the leg between the ankle and foot. Then while holding the band in place with your fingers, you will very carefully and gently use the open hole in the middle of the specialized pliers to encircle the band to gradually close it until both ends of the band are evenly touching. If your band closes crooked or the edges overlap, I recommend using a pair of band cutters to remove the defective band and try again.
Whenever able to do so, use closed bands. They are the safest option and more reliable identification. These bands slip over the feet to rest on the lower leg. To apply this type of band, your bird needs to be young enough that the toes aren’t so small that it easily falls off, and not too old that you cannot flex the 3 front toes forward and the back toe cannot be bent though the band. There is only a short window of opportunity that a parrot can be banded generally between the 2nd and 3rd week of age. If the band falls off the foot, then try again in a couple days until it stays on. If you pull for hand feeding at this age, then band them as you pull them so you know which nest each chick came from. If you pull later, then you’ll need to do this while they are still in the nestbox.
For closed bands you can use vegetable oil or Neosporin ointment as a lubricant around the toe joint if you are on the tail end of the limited 1 week time window of applying your band and the toes are getting larger but still flexible. Just don’t make it too slippery that you can hold the toes firmly. Hold the chick gently extending its right foot backwards, causing him to point his toes as it is impossible to get a band on a clenched foot. Gentleness is key here as chicks are very fragile, be patient and work slowly. Carefully hold the two front toes and the longest back toe together in one hand. Slip the band over these three toes with your other hand and slide the band over the foot joint (not the ankle). Once past the foot joint use a blunted toothpick or small crochet needle (depending on bird size), to carefully pull the remaining short toe through the band. Usually with such young chicks a towel is not necessary. You should be able to handle it with very little difficulty or get a partner.
Hand Feeding Tools
Here I will give the basics to hand feeding, but please check out our hand feeding post for more detailed information on various methods, feeding instruments, formulas, etc. When deciding to hand feed your chicks, you may be easily overwhelmed by the wide variety of options that are available to you. Each breeder, over time, will develop their preferred method and tool for hand feeding. But it’s always good to learn alternate methods in the event of situational needs to find another way that might work better for a particular chick or different species. Having worked with many breeds from tiny parrotlets to large macaws, I have had to learn just about every method and some are better than others with each breed.
My personal preference is an eye dropper for small birds and syringe for larger birds. Having worked at an avian vet as a veterinary technician, I was lucky to have been trained how to tube and gavage feed directly into the crop for ill or weak birds that won’t feed normally. I generally wouldn’t recommend this method for the new breeder unless taught with the guidance of a vet or trained breeder that uses this method regularly as there are more risks involved in this type of feeding.
Your tool options are spoon, needless syringe, eye dropper, pipette, gavage with a leur lock syringe, tube feeding with a syringe and the dixie-cup method. Depending on who you talk to, each breeder will swear by their favored method. If unsure what will work best for you, find a mentor to show you or try various methods until one works better than the other. You may change your choice over time as you get more comfortable with hand feeding in general.
The most important thing I can teach you that you must know if you are going to hand feed your chicks, is that in a bird’s throat there are two passages. The bird’s right side goes to the crop for feeding, and the left side goes to the lungs. The biggest risk with hand feeding (especially when younger) is aspirating the chick by either getting formula into the wrong passage or by pressing on the crop and having it regurgitate the food from the crop into the lungs. You will want to feed towards the right side of the bird’s throat, either feed straight from the right side or if feeding from the left side then go over the tongue to aim to the right side. If the baby is super tiny, I have used a curved tip eye dropper to more precisely aim to the right side or if they are poor eaters then slowly feed towards the roof of the beak and give them time to naturally swallow it (like feeding peanut butter to a dog). Each method has it’s pros and cons that we’ll discuss in greater detail in another post.
Power feeding, tube feeding and gavage feeding are all essentially force feeding methods which will not allow a bird to learn to eat or swallow naturally, but may allow for more accurate and faster feeding when feeding a high quantities of babies at one time. The biggest risk here is crop or throat trauma and crop burn (a baby will usually refuse food too hot to swallow). The dixie-cup and spoon methods are the most independent eating methods that require less precision on your part and tend to be the go-to methods for beginning breeders. While syringe, eyedropper and pipette are somewhere in between the two styles that mimics the parent feeding a little more naturally but carries it’s own risks.
Hand Feeding Basics
The biggest risks of hand feeding include aspiration, over-feeding, crop burn, sour crop, crop/throat trauma and crop impaction. These will be discussed in more detail later. There are several things that remain consistent despite your method. First choose your formula. The most widely used formula brand is Kaytee Exact, however there are many other good ones out there like Dr. D’s, Harrison’s, Higgin’s InTune and Roudybush. Regardless of which brand you choose, consistency and temperature are the things that cause the most issues. The younger the bird the thinner the formula should be (like runny baby food), and for older chicks you can gradually thicken it to an apple sauce consistency. If your bird seems to be coughing or ‘choking’ then thicken the mixture. If they are refusing the formula then try to thin it out or adjust the temperature. Formula that is too thin has less nutrients than your bird may need and too thick can cause crop impaction. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
As you first start learning, hand feeding will take more time as you adjust and practice and you are more likely to run into your formula getting cool before you’re finished feeding. The younger the bird the warmer it needs to be, as they start to wean they won’t be quite as picky. Because of this, feed from the youngest to oldest so that as your formula cools, you won’t have to heat it back up. The best method I have found to slow this down is to use a bowl of hot water and place a cup for my formula mixture (I prefer a shot glass for fewer birds or a small mug for lots/larger birds) that is placed into the hot water bowl to keep the formula warmer longer. I like to check my pre-heat my water to the correct temperature and then add it to a thermos for when I need to re-mix a fresh batch of formula during the same feeding session.
The temperature of the mixed formula should be between 100-104 degrees. Any hotter and you risk crop burn, any colder and they tend to refuse the formula or cause slow or sour crop. Most breeders use a stove to heat the water or larger batches of formula. Never heat mixed formula in a microwave, however if you choose pre-heat your water in the microwave, make sure that you stir it well before adding the power formula to ensure there are no ‘hot spots’ from uneven heating that can cause crop burn. Never save and re-use mixed formula for a later feeding, no matter how tempting or wasteful it may seem. While you may waste food and money, any previously mixed formula can harbor bacteria that can harm your bird or even cause death in the chick. Just don’t do it! If this becomes a major issue, then mix smaller batches at a time for your feeding and use the thermos method to keep your water hot for another mix in the same feeding session.
Place the feeding utensil of your choice against the the chick’s beak. This should start the feeding response. If you do not see the throat moving in a swallowing motion, do not attempt to feed as the chick could very easily choke or inhale the formula. If you don’t see a feeding response, tap against the beak with the syringe or spoon, and/or put a small drop of the formula on the tongue or aimed towards the roof of the mouth (top right). Once you see a feeding response administer the formula slowly, making sure you don’t overfeed or feed too quickly that the bird cannot swallow fast enough. Some birds take longer to adjust to hand feeding from parent feeding, while others will take to it like they’ve never swapped over!
After feeding, you can clean the chick of any spilled or spit out formula with a wet warm paper towel or wash cloth. Avoid getting the chick too chilled and place into a clean brooder. Ideally you should sanitize your utensil with grape seed extract to disinfect between birds, however I can say with honesty that most breeders simply don’t have time for this step. If you are following disease management protocols in your breeding aviary the need for this lessons. I do often see this done between clutches of birds, when separate clutches are in different brooders. But if they are in the same brooder.. cross contamination of anything that GSE will prevent is already too late as the babies are not isolated from one another. That said, if you have a bird with any suspect weakness, illness or possible disease then please sanitize or get a fresh utensil between feeding these babies. Between feedings, I use Pet Focus to soak my instruments when not in use, then re-wash with dawn dish soap and thoroughly rinse before using.
Hand Feeding Frequency
Every night (once daily) you want to ensure the crop has fully emptied before feeding. If the crop is not empty before the next day’s first feeding, give the chick some Pedialyte to help the chick prevent crop impaction, slow crop or sour crop. Once the crop empties, you can begin feeding normally. This generally is an issue if the formula isn’t being fed at the right temperature or consistency and usually in younger chicks. Make sure to adjust your next formula to prevent this from reoccurring. Once I realized what to adjust to prevent this issue, I have rarely had any occurrences of this in the past 5 years of breeding.
While I will give you general feeding time frames, you will also want to monitor your chick’s crop prior to feeding to ensure they are actually digesting their previous feeding. You don’t want their crop to get too empty during the daytime feedings, but you don’t want them over full that the old formula sours or they are at risk of regurgitating. The crop should be semi-empty and they will usually be begging loudly for food when the time comes. I have tried the method of force feeding certain amounts per day-age and force weaning with this method and I will say this… Just don’t do it. It was the worst method of hand feeding I have ever experienced and led to too many problems. Instead let the chick be your guide. If they refuse a feeding and the crop is relatively full, stop, take a break to allow them to burp out any air pockets, try again and then if still refusing they are done for that feeding. Don’t force it as long as the crop isn’t empty. Some feedings they may eat less and others they may decide they want more. Just be careful of the over eaters that don’t want to stop even though the crop is obviously full. Some just are little greedy chubs that don’t know when to quit!
As a general guideline, very young chicks and newborn chicks should be fed every 1-2 hours and through the night, allowing at least one feeding to fully empty daily. For finches this can be as frequently as every 30 minutes. After a few days you can gradually increase the time to every 3-4 hours then every 5-6 hours, let their hungry cries and crop fullness be your guide as they get older to know when to lengthen your intervals. After a few weeks of age, you can thicken the formula a bit more for the night feeding to sustain them for a 6 hour sleep and after another week or so an 8 hour sleep. I am a light sleeper, and keep the night feeding babies within hearing range of the bed so I know if they get hungry sooner than whatever timer have I set. Another trick my vet clued me in on was either adding a little low-sugar or all natural peanut butter to the night feeding formula (as long as they are fully digesting their formula each night) or using a higher fat variety of the same formula which will allow them to stay full a little longer at night so you can sleep if needed.
When they begin feeding every 4-5 hours (4 times a day), start offering sold or soft foods for them to begin taste testing and learning to eat on their own. This is the beginning of the weaning process which will generally take about the same amount of time for them to complete as it took for them to get to this point. They usually start weaning at the half way point of being able to eat on their own completely. This is only a general guideline and some breeds and individuals may need longer or less time to wean on their own time. By every 6 hours of formula feeding (3 times a day), they should have full access to a baby cage as they will be fully feathered at this point, learning to perch and play and ready to test out new foods! In our nursery we have a large play gym the weaning babies get to play around in during the daytime hours that is semi-enclosed for the younger birds to prevent falling out but allows the older birds to climb, play and learn to fly. At the bottom of this play gym we keep millet sprays and soft food or sprouted seeds for the younger babies to test out and up higher we keep available soft/fresh and normal bird food in separate bowls for them to snack on throughout the day.
They should be eating fairly regularly from these food sources throughout the day, regardless of how you are housing them at the age of feeding every 6 hours, (a baby-friendly cage or larger baby bins with more normal air temps). However, they are not yet weaned by this point! Don’t make the mistake of homing them too early, which will cause dangerous weight loss and possible fatality. If you are selling your bird unweaned with the buyer being an experienced hand feeder, this is the ideal age to do so when the new owner wants to do the weaning themselves. However if you are selling weaned birds, then you need to allow for the birds to fully refuse formula feeding for 3 full days before calling them weaned. I recommend allowing them a minimum of 7 days of self-feeding and weight monitoring before selling them.
To weight your babies, I suggest a small digital scale with an optional baby-bowl or perch for easily weighing your birds. You can inexpensively use a kitchen scale that weighs in grams to monitor weight. You want to make sure your bird doesn’t loose too much weight, the danger watch is if they loose 10% or more of their weight. If they begin to loose too much, then resume hand feeding until they refuse again and contact your vet if they loose more than 10% of their weight for a proper health evaluation as it could require further treatment options to avoid death from malnutrition.
I strongly suggest that breeders supply you with a sample of the baby’s adult food to allow the new owners to slowly convert into the food of their choice, or provide the owner with the exact food to purchase that they are currently eating in advance of going home so they already have it on hand!
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: All the information on this post is based on the opinion and personal research and experience of this author, a non-veterinarian breeder. Do your research and contact a certified veterinarian, use all information here at your own risk.