Words and Photographs by Dr Bob Doneley
BVSc FACVSc (Avian Health)
September marks the beginning of Spring and as we pack away our winter clothes for another year, the days will become longer and warmer and another breeding season will be upon us. So, have you given any thought to your preparations for the season? Which birds are you intending to breed? How did they do last year? What problems did you encounter last season? Success in breeding requires forethought and now is the time to start planning, to reflect on the problems and mistakes of last year, and to ensure that they don’t happen again this year.::nl
Why Do Birds Breed?
When considering the upcoming breeding season it is always helpful to review in your mind the processes that birds have to go through in order to breed. Why do birds want to breed? Breeding, while essential for the survival of a species, is a very energy-consuming activity which represents quite a dangerous time for both parents and offspring in the wild. Darwinian selection therefore dictates that birds will reproduce when the chances of success (survival of parents and offspring) are optimal. Biologists have determined that the triggers to reproductive activity are likely to be:
- the presence of a suitable mate
- the presence of a suitable nest site
- increasing day length and rainfall
- increased energy content in food—the result of longer days and increased rainfall.
When these factors come together the chances of survival and reproductive success are at their highest which means that the birds
are most likely to breed. Much of the breeding process is innate to birds, developed over several million years of evolution, and is therefore just as relevant to pet and aviary birds as it is to wild birds. What this means is that our chances of successfully breeding birds depends on how we apply these factors within our aviaries.
Selecting a suitable pair for breeding is about more than just getting two birds and putting them in an aviary or breeding cage. You need to ask yourself the following questions:
• Are these birds old enough to breed? On several occasions I have been asked to investigate poor breeding success, only to
find that the birds in question were too young to breed. If you are just starting off with a new species you must do your homework—
there are numerous sources of information detailing the age at which a species will reach maturity. The ABK A Guide to… series
is an excellent starting point. Remember that for every claim of a pair breeding young there are dozens of pairs that did not breed
• Are they a true pair? Many species are sexually monomorphic ie both cocks and hens appear identical to the human eye. If this is
the case with your own birds you need to have their sex determined before the breeding season commences. Forget all these claims
of sexing birds by suspending a needle or wedding ring on a thread over the bird’s head or back—any such guess about the sex of a bird has a 50% chance of being right! Surgical or DNA sexing are the only techniques that, as a scientist and veterinarian, I can recommend. DNA sexing has the advantage of not needing a veterinarian to collect the sample, but it is not as accurate as the
lab’s claim and there is usually a two to three week turnaround time. Surgical sexing does carry a slight anaesthetic and surgical
risk but it also gives immediate information on both the sex of the bird and its maturity and health. Unfortunately surgical sexing is
not a routine veterinary procedure and your local veterinarian may not be able to perform it—another disadvantage of this procedure
but if you have a nearby avian veterinarian who does surgical sexing I would strongly recommend it as a pre-breeding season procedure for new unproven birds or for pairs which you have had trouble breeding.
• Are they compatible? Not all birds like each other. We don’t know why, we just know that not all pairs are compatible. If possible,
flock all your birds together and allow them to choose their own mates. This is the ideal, but is not often feasible or practical for
most aviculturists. Be prepared to swap partners around to find compatible pairs—and once you get a compatible pair, treat them
• Are they healthy and on a good diet that forms the foundation for successful breeding? A recent endoscopic examination I
performed on a non-breeding DNA-sexed macaw cock showed that, while it was indeed a cock, this bird had probable testicular
cancer—the reason why it wasn’t able to breed. Birds must be healthy and on a quality well-balanced diet in order to be in the
best possible condition to be able to breed successfully.
Remember, reproductive success is not just defined by the ability to lay eggs—it is defined by the ability to produce healthy, viable offspring year after year. This cannot be achieved on a seed-only diet, with the occasional scrap of greens and cuttlefish thrown in. Over the last 25 years I have visited the collections of many very successful aviculturists. I have seen full-flight aviaries, suspended flights, birdrooms with breeding cages, walk-in aviaries, mixed species collections, specialist collections, pelleted diets, seedbased diets, lorikeet diets and so on. The single common factor I have found between all these success stories is the amount of time and effort the aviculturists put into feeding their birds. The computer industry has an expression, ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’. This truly applies to aviculture. If you don’t put the effort into researching your birds’ dietary requirements and then attempting to meet them, don’t blame the birds or the weather for your results!
The full article you can read by purchasing Australian Birdkeeper magazine