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Test  New Price
DNA Gender blood or dried eggshell specimen  $        11.99
DNA Gender Feather specimen  $        13.99
PBFD (Peak and feathers)  $        20.00
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West Nile Virus  $        20.00
Pick any two of PDV PBD Psitta or DNA Sex  $        38.00
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Pick any three of APV PBD PSITTA OR DNA Sex  $        55.00
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Hand-rearing: Some simple basics by Tony Silva

The breeding season has started. This is evident by the number of messages that I receive each week discussing issues that are being faced by individuals hand-rearing young parrots. This quest for information is the subject of this article.

Hand-rearing is a rewarding, challenging, time consuming and frustrating affair. No one can ever claim that they never face issues in hand-rearing, but it is possible to significantly diminish the problems if some very basic provisos are followed. On the other hand, if the breeder attempts to cut corners, the flow of problems will be incessant. They can then expect a continuous chain of events that will severely affect the health of the chicks being reared.

So how can a hand-rearer achieve greater success and reduce the presence of problems?

Two words describe the answer: hygiene and providing a proper diet.

Hygiene encompasses keeping the chicks on a clean substrate, keeping the brooder immaculately clean, thoroughly washing the feeding instruments and then disinfecting them and continuously applying a disinfection policy—wiping surfaces down continuously, reducing dust, washing hands and then disinfecting them and reducing the contact the young have with outsiders.

Proper diet means understanding the importance of the appropriate water: ensuring solid ratio and the dietary needs of the young, feeding the young according to a strict schedule, feeding the formula at the proper tempera ensuring that the formula is made fresh each time. I must state that I do not recommend attempting to mix various ingredients to produce a formula in order to economize. When I get messages regarding this subject, my fire escalates and my response is short and to the point: If you cannot purchase one of the countless formulas available on the market worldwide why did you venture into breeding? The commercial formulations are not optimum, but they produce results far better than someone wanting to rear young on a mashed banana and oatmeal cereal, which are woefully deficient in minerals and calcium.

Let me discuss some of the points mentioned above in greater detail.

Newly hatched chicks have an undeveloped immune system. This makes them especially vulnerable to infection. This is why strict hygiene is important. This is also why chicks that are incubator hatched should be kept separate from those removed from the nest, which have often been fed by the parents and have a different bacterial platform.
With incubator hatched chicks, I start them on tissue but quickly transfer them to shavings, which are absorbent and prevents them from sitting in their feces. In over 40 years of hand-rearing, I have only ever experienced a handful of chicks that have swallowed the shavings. I have such a low incidence of this because I keep the chicks satiated; they are never—and note that the word never is stressed—allowed to empty during the day.

When breeders tell me that they must allow the chicks to empty before the next feeding, I always state that the problem is one related to management and not digestion. In the wild and in the nest the chicks are kept fed at all times. I follow this dictum. Visitors to my home, who have entered the nursery invariably make a comment as to how quiet it is. This is because the chicks are kept fed; they do not have to frantically vocalize or move to capture my attention to let me know that they are hungry.

When chicks are allowed to empty between feedings, they must often be kept singly, or they will grasp and pump each other, this in an attempt to obtain a feed. In the process,  they often damage the tender bill. Raising the chicks alone is unnatural and often produces behavioral issues that become evident much later in life. By rearing chicks together they display a natural behavior and can learn from opening their eyes that contact is pleasurable—they seek warmth from each other, often play preen or mouth each other´s feet. I have observed these same behaviors in nests in which I have placed a video camera.

To maintain the level of hygiene, we change the bedding three times daily; the soiled shavings are used as ground cover for the trees in the yard. The chicks are transferred to clean tubes and the used tubes are washed in soapy water first and then in a disinfectant solution. This means of cleaning must be understood, as most disinfectants lose their properties in the presence of organic matter. By neutralizing the organics, the disinfectant can play its role. We use this same principal of cleaning for all instruments used for feeding, the nursery walls and floor, feeding surfaces and brooders. This task is performed daily.

Because all commercial formulas contain some fat, the instruments used for feeding chicks will need to be washed with soap and water vigorously to eliminate the grease residues.

Feeding syringes are assigned to specific brooders. They are kept in plastic cups that bear a number that corresponds to a brooder. This deters cross contamination. The formula, once made, is poured into the respective plastic cup and from there the chicks are fed.
To deter the introduction of a pathogen into the nursery, we have two separate areas: one for incubator hatched and one for chicks hatched under the parents. The room containing the incubator hatched young are fed first. Simple disinfection procedures are used when going from one room to the other: hands are disinfected, different stocks are used and sandals are exchanged.
Visitors are not normally allowed to enter the hand-rearing rooms, but if they are they must wear a smock, sandals that we provide and they are not allowed to touch or handle the chicks. This is important because diseases such as polyomavirus and psittacine beak and feather disease can easily be transported and transmitted to the chicks through contact.

Commercial formulas are the best product for feeding chicks. They are not excellent, but they are good. I state this because all formulations are based on poultry science and do not take into account the different needs of the different parrot species. What the breeder can do is to incorporate other ingredients to make these formulas much more suitable. These include pureed vegetables for Eclectus Parrots, fat in the form of nut butter for macaws, conures, amazons and African Greys Psittacus erithacus and fruits and vegetables for lorries. We always have on hand steamed carrot, broccoli and sweet potatoes that are liquefied and poured into ice cube trays. These facilities their use when needed. Fruit is always cut fresh. I prefer tropical fruits over temperate fruits, which are less nutritious. The tropical fruits we use are papaya, guava, and mango. Papaya is the staple but the others are also employed if in a season. For fat, we employ natural peanut butter that does not contain hydrogenated fat or sugar. We boost the fat in the formula for all species, but especially for those requiring fat.

This means that 250 ml of formula contain a teaspoon of peanut butter for the non-fat requiring species and a tablespoon for species requiring fat. I do this after having examined the crop contents of many wild chicks, which are invariably fed by their parents the foods with the highest fat content. The fat satiates hunger and deters the desperate agitation seen in hungry chicks.
Areas of important and not related to hygiene and diet are broader and formula temperature. Newly hatched chicks cannot thermoregulate. They must, therefore, be kept warm. We start at 32-33 degrees Celcius and slowly drop this as the chicks feather. Unless they are kept sufficiently warmed, the chicks will become listless or hyperactive as they move incessantly to try and warm themselves, injuring the toes and wingtips in the process. Chicks that are cold also display a slow digestion.

Formula temperature is also important, as cool food will be rejected; hot food, on the other hand, may cause severe burning to the tender crop walls. We feed formula at 40 deg Celcius. We heat the water in the microwave with the peanut butter or pureed vegetables (fruit are added afterward) and vigorously stir this before adding the powdered formula. This is then stirred again until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed and all hot spots are eliminated. This also gives the microwave heated water the opportunity to reach its temperature (which invariably increases after microwaving) and thus prevent burned crops.

If you have issues with a chick not digesting, please do not utilize tonics (which are not intended for birds and often contain high amounts of iron and occasionally arsenic and lead). You can use tea or what I refer to as papaya cream, which is made by adding the seeds and some of the flesh of a ripe papaya to a blender, liquidizing this with some Pedialyte (an oral electrolyte solution) and then passing this through a fine colander to remove any large seed particles. This is warmed and fed to the chicks. The unused portion should be refrigerated, where it will set like jelly. Once warmed it refers to a liquid. This works far better in starting crop motility than any other product I have used. Once digestion has resumed, you can slowly start incorporating formula into the papaya cream.

When crop stasis occurs, it is important to consider the cause: bacteria, fungus or the ingestion of the substrate on which the chick are maintained. These are management issues that must be addressed along with stimulating the crop back into movement.
Future articles will cover each point in greater details. The intention here is to stimulate the breeder into thinking and to start preparing for the upcoming breeding season.

Tony Silva 

Lessons in aviculture

By Tony Silva

When I was a kid, I periodically visited the now vanished Sedgewick Studio, a bird store owned by the eccentric Erling Kjelland. He believed in ´witching´– the process of sexing birds by suspending a pendulum over its head. If the pendulum swung back and forth, it was one gender; if it moved in a circle it was another. Erling was flamboyant and either took a strong like or dislike to you. I also became friends with Bill Wilson, who bred many difficult species, including the Red-faced Lovebird Agapornis pullaria and to whom credit for the captive population of the very endangered Rothschild´s Myna or Bali Starling Leucopsar rothschildi must go. He imported and distributed the birds at a time when trade was possible and long before anyone knew about iron storage disease. I had the privilege of becoming friends with Ed Bish, the Curator of Birds of Bush Gardens in Tampa, who was breeding large numbers of Golden Conures Guarouba guaruba before many had even become familiar with the species; Stan Sindel, who developed the dry lory diet that today in one form or another is employed worldwide; and Tom Ireland, an aviculturist from Florida who bred many conures at a time when this group was deemed undesirable. The list continued with Bob Berry, George Smith, Jim Hayward, Harry Sissen, Dave West, Paulo Bertagnolio, Steffano Rattalino, Alvaro Rossman Carvalhaes, J. Hammerli, John Scott, Philippe Beraut, Dr Jean Delacour, Gloria Allen, Peter Chapman and hundreds others. All of these individuals had a passion: they live(d) for their birds. They and many others taught me that aviculture is not learned by reading books or articles; it is a skill that must be developed with time, observation and a clear and profound appreciation of the birds one keeps.

During my 40 years as an aviculturist, I have learned to respect—to highly respect—several breeders. These individuals truly understood their parrots. One was Ramon Noegel, whose accomplishments in breeding Amazon parrots has passed into the history books. He achieved more world first inseminations for this group than anyone else.

I recently spent time with another individual who I have long admired—Don Wells. We first met some 30 years ago at a time when he was deeply involved in the wild bird trade. He had personal hands-on experience gathered by roughing it in the tropics. Don knew the right people, has a profound bird knowledge and is a keen observer. That acumen of information eventually led him to become a hardcore aviculturist, operating a breeding facility on Bali and producing many species that most would not recognize even in photographs. His achievements with Indonesian parrots are worthy of a serious tome. When someone recently asked me about a lory diet, I blindly recommended Don´s version of the Neff diet (Rüdiger Neff is a very successful German loriculturist.)

So what, after 40 years, do we all have in common—or better said, what have all of these individuals taught me that I regard as key to success? The list is short, simple and precise:

  • Know the birds. Investigate their habitat, distribution, diet and nesting habits. Today the amount of information available is substantially more than 40 years ago. Scientific papers describing field research are available on the internet and can be used as an excellent reference point. With all of this information, start observing your birds. They will teach you what is suitable or not, what will induce or deter breeding, what makes them healthy or ill, and what diet is best. The true aviculturist never stops listening to his or her birds. And more importantly, he or she never stops asking questions.
  • Think outside the box, or as Bob Berry used to say: There is more than one way to skin a cat. Parrots are living entities and like all living beings they have individual personalities. Expect some birds to behave against the norm. Do not try to force their behavior to conform to what is considered standard. As an example, the Golden Conure is a highly sociable species that in the wild breeds in groups, with multiple hens often laying in the same cavity. I have several pairs and have bred them together as a flock and separately one pair per aviary. One male that I call ´Slinky´(because as a chick he bounced all day) does not want to live in a colony and will kill chicks as they hatch. Otherwise he is a typical Golden Conure living in a flock, being active, noisy and playful. When separated with his mate, he is the perfect father—attentive, always keeping the chicks and hen fed and never damaging a feather on the young, though he is constantly preening them. He is the exception and I have to be flexible enough to understand that.
  • Hygiene is imperative. I have seen spectacular aviaries housing equally imposing birds, but the aviaries, food and water bowls were very dirty; rat feces were evident in the food bowls and the smell of ammonia from the rodent urine permeated the air. The breeder could not understand why disease was rampant. Hygiene needs to cover all aspects and ranges from rodent and insect control, which can spread pathogens, to cage cleaning and disinfection. Chlorine bleach can work as a great disinfectant, but in the presence of organic matter, it quickly loses its strength. Many other disinfectants have the same requirement. This means that placing dirty bowls in a tub of water containing chlorine may not make them sterile. (They should be scrubbed of all food and feces using soapy water, rinsed and then soaked in the chlorinated water.) Understanding how disinfectants work is important. Spoiled food, accumulation of droppings, dirty bowls and water from an unclean source can all cause illness or death.

I have been told that breeding birds should not be disturbed and thus cleaning needs to come to a halt when the birds are breeding. I do not accept this argument. Birds can be accustomed to just about any disturbance. The key word is accustomed. Do not expect the pair to suddenly confront a new noise or action and not react. Start all processes before the breeding season, so that the birds become accustomed to the activity by the time they nest.

This statement needs to be quantified for it to be understood. About 30 years ago, Susan Buzzeli took me to see a pair of Hyacinth Macaws Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus in a shopping mall in Minnesotta. They were rearing a young on the floor of a cage in a storefront window. There was a line of viewers packed in front of the enclosure much as they would in front of stores on Black Friday. They wanted to see the ´baby parrot´. The pair fed and cared for their young as if no one was around; they were accustomed and thus accepted the presence of people peering at their young. They had shown this tolerance while reared more then one young. I have a friend whose Yellow-naped Amazons Amazona auropalliata nest successfully on their cage bottom in their livingroom. They have done so yearly for 17 years. The cage is next to a television set. Finally, countless bird parks and zoological parks breed parrots in cages in front of thousands of visitors passing by daily. The birds thrive and breed unabated. In my collection we clean cages with a pressure washer, replace perches and do all of the necessary chores throughout the year. The pairs continue to incubate as if nothing was happening. When pressure cleaning cages during the breeding season, we wait for the warmest time of the day, so that any eggs temporarily abandoned by birds curious about what is occurring do not chill. These pairs continue to incubate as soon as the worker moves on to the next bank of aviaries.

  • Be observant. Ramon Noegel told me many years ago that the parrots talk to their caretaker but that most people are deaf when they talk. I have come to learn that these words, which initially sparked an internal laugh, are very true. Every action by the birds is intended to communicate with us.

So how do parrots communicate? This subject would require volumes. I can give three examples. A) In a case where two pairs of amazons are housed in adjacent enclosures and the two males are always displaying, trying to attack each other and chasing their mates away, they are telling you that one pair should be moved or a solid partition erected. If you do not do so, they will either never settle down to breed or will end up injuring their mates, this to either keep them away from the competing male or as a means of venting built up anger. (Visualization is recommended when not nesting but when breeding, it can incite aggression.) B) Another example involves a pair of cockatoos. The male is always seen displaying on the perch but the female is on the enclosure floor, perches only infrequently and avoids contact with the male. The two birds are never seen eating together. The hen is afraid and is telling you so. Unless measures are taken, the male will likely injure his mate. C) We employ an automatic watering system at the farm. Some weeks ago, we were back flushing the system and had stopped the water flow. One bird, a macaw near the work area, kept walking over to the water nipple, touching it and screaming loudly when anyone walked by. It was clearly alerting us that it had no water available. Signs may be less subtle. But subtle or overt, parrots always communicate with us. It is our responsibility to listen to them.

My recommendation when walking around is to ´listen´ to your birds. Their method of communication does not used words but actions; yes, they can scream loudly to attract our attention or as a means of alerting us of a problem. But most words are in the form of behavior—a parrot version of sign language.

The key to becoming a good listener is to watch, mentally record and to intimately know every bird in your care. I personally look at every bird in my collection when I am home. I do this early in the morning and if I arrive home before dark, I do the same. They are a constant source of lessons and few understand my own birds more than I do.

  • Know when to act. In aviculture there are moments when the breeder must act quickly. Just two weeks ago, my aviary attendant and I rushed to remove a female Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis that was being very aggressively chased by her mate. They had lived together for years but something triggered the vitriol in the male. Had we not acted quickly, the cornered female would have been injured. In contrast, it is common for incubating hens to emerge from their nest and for the eggs to undergo some level of chilling during those periods. In the recent cold spell in South Florida, I watched as several caique hens emerged, played and fed in the morning; their eggs clearly chilled. I did not rush and remove the eggs because I knew they would be fine. (They all hatched.) An ill bird should never be left for later, as each passing minute will mean that its health will continue to deteriorate. In contrast, pulling a chick for hand-rearing that is being well cared for requires no alacrity. Judge each situation and act accordingly.
  • Continuity is key. I know breeders that change nests, the brand of pellets, mates and even the location of the birds constantly. They cannot understand why their birds do not breed. Some pairs respond to change and start breeding immediately, but most will simply not nest until they have adapted to a dramatic change in environment or diet. When I moved my birds from the house in Miami Beach to the farm in the Redlands, many pairs that had nested regularly each year took a recess. They had to adapt to a whole new environment, even though their cages, nests and diet were the same.
  • If parrots bred like chickens, they would be worthless. These words were repeated to me more than once by Dr. Jean Decalour. He was absolutely correct. Parrots are not chickens. They will not start laying the day after they are released into a cage. Young pairs will need to mature; adult pairs will need to adapt to changes in surroundings and husbandry when brought into your collection. Wild birds may have an even longer adaption curve, as they must become accustomed to captivity. Provide the birds with the best care, conditions and diet possible and they will reward you—in due course.

Each week I receive an average of 72 pleas for help via Facebook. Of these, 47% are asking what they can do about inducing a pair of birds to lay. Some display frustration that they have owned a pair for 7 months and still no eggs. My response is that aviculture requires patience. If you do not have it when you entered aviculture, you will develop it in due course. I can give an example. An aviculturist friend waited 17 years before he could induce a pair of Long-billed Corellas (also called Slender-billed Cockatoos) to nest. This aviculturist had tremendous experience and was very successful. The birds were simply not ready. If you expect overnight success, buy Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus, some lovebirds or Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus and forego the rest of the parrots.

These golden rules have helped guide me through failures and successes. I hope that readers will print them and review the list periodically. If you do, I am certain that they will help guide you through this very fascinating hobby called aviculture.

Hand-rearing parrots: some basic guidelines

By Tony Silva

After the essentials of proper bird care, the next biggest source of questions I receive on a daily basis involves hand-rearing. The types of queries typically suggest a misunderstanding of heat requirements, diet, hygiene and weaning.  Many aviculturists also erringly believe that all species can be treated using the exact same methodology. My intention here is to significantly reduce the cases of morbidity and mortality that I hear about when someone with little experience decides to experiment with hand-rearing.

In this article, my goal is NOT to encourage someone to take the young from their parents and experiment with hand-rearing; rather, the intention is to provide a framework for those that are intent on trying hand-rearing but may not have a full understanding of the process and requirements for success.

Hand-rearing was developed in the New World. The first written references to hand-rearing date back to the era of Discovery, when the conquistadores recorded that Amerindians took nestling parrots from the nest and reared them for pets, feeding them on a macerated mash from the mouth. Columbus acquired some of these birds and returned to Spain with tame Cuban Amazons Amazona leucocephala that were used in the processions that followed his first trip in 1492.

In the US, the proximity of the tropics and availability of tame young conures and Amazons from Cuba, Mexico and Central America is what I believe contributed to the refinement of this technique. Aviculturists saw that the resulting tame youngsters could become perfect pets and began to experiment. Harriett Lee, Velma Hart, Dave West, Ken Wyatt, K.C. Lint, Ferne Hubbell, Ralph Small and other early American aviculturists contributed significantly to the development of the technique and many of their principles are still in use today.

So long is the history of hand-rearing in the US that the first commercial hand-rearing formulas, brooders and gavage needles were produced and marketed by American companies. American aviculturists were already breeding from hand-reared young when European and Australian aviculturists were shunning the process, believing that the young produced would be inferior. Indeed, the ever-growing mountain of evidence suggests that when properly socialized hand-reared birds are merely tamer versions of parent reared young. As an example, hand-reared Scarlet Macaws are being used in the reintroduction program in Costa Rica, the survival rate being the same as in chicks fledged in the wild.

This entrenched perception that hand-reared birds are inferior is still held by some aviculturists, particularly in central and eastern Europe—Spanish and Portuguese breeders commonly rely on hand-rearing to provide tame young for the pet trade– but even these stalwart central and western Europeans are rapidly converting to become hand-rearers as they realize that breeders from Vietnam to India, from Taiwan to South Africa, from Mexico to Brazil and from Canada to New Zealand regularly take the young from the nest for hand-rearing. During my last visit to Australia, in 2014, after a hiatus of about two decades, I found that hand-rearing was now a common practice. The same happened with New Zealand during a visit in April 2015.

Many factors can force the breeder to hand-rear: A pair that lacks experience may not feed the young sufficiently to permit them to grow, inexperience on the part of the parents can often contribute to losses, illness on the part of the hen or young may impede success, or the clutch may be so large that the smallest are crowded out at feeding time and would perish unless removed. Some breeders do intentionally take the young. The reasons for this may range from producing tame young for pets to the need to produce a larger number of chicks each season. With species that normally rear a single clutch per year, such as Amazons, the pair can often be induced to produce a replacement clutch if the young are removed at a young age.

Before ever attempting to hand-rear, I highly recommend spending time observing someone perform this task. So many variables can come into play that it is impossible to describe every scenario in writing. By watching the process repeatedly, the subtleties displayed between young (even of the same species) will become evident. This visual experience will allow the breeder to perceive the way chicks should be held—the head should never be restrained, or swallowing will be thwarted—and of the importance of contact points along the bill, which induce a feeding response. In neo-tropical parrots this contact point is very visual in the form of soft, bulbous pads along the commissures of the mouth. In African Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus this is near the base of the bill.

The next important step is to have the necessary hand-rearing equipment on hand. The list of items and some observations follow:

  1. A brooder. Nearly all species of neonate parrots will require heat. As they age and they begin to feather, the chicks can thermoregulate themselves and supplementary heat will not be required.

A good brooder is a prerequisite for success. By referring to a brooder I am visualizing a professionally made piece of equipment that is calibrated, reliable and capable of maintaining a temperature as high as 37 degrees Celsius. A brooder is NOT a cardboard, wooden or Styrofoam box with an incandescent bulb for heat. Yes that bulb will generate heat, but the heat can be difficult to control and the light will keep the young permanently in a bright environment—an unnatural event for birds that naturally nest in a dark cavity or produce a nest of raddled twigs wich is dark. Keep the young in a dark, warm, humid environment that is stable and does not fluctuate as a result of changes in room temperature. There are enough reliable brooders available at a reasonable price that the aviculturist should not improvise.

  1. Brooder temperature. The smaller the young, the higher the temperature required; the more feathered it becomes the less heat required. Behavior will be the primary gauge as to what is the ideal temperature.

My recommendation is to start newly hatched young at a temperature of 36.6 degrees C. This heat is required by most species. In newly hatched Eclectus Parrots kept at a lower temperature, the chicks become hyperactive to warm themselves, suffer bruising of the limbs and become dehydrated.

At the ideal temperature, the chicks should not pant but they should not be shivering. A classic sign of chilling is slowed digestion. When chicks are content, they sleep long periods of time. In a group they will huddle together, or stay slightly separate. As they age, the temperature can be reduced slowly. Once outside the brooder, we place them in tubs partly covered with a towel. They are then maintained at room temperature.

  1. Brooder humidity. I recommend keeping the young at between 40-50% humidity. This will keep their skin supple. Humidity is an important consideration and in the wild is increased by adding fresh leaves to the nest. If inadequate, the young can become dehydrated or their skin will begin to flake off.
  2. Comfort is in numbers. With very few exceptions, most parrots lay more than one egg; some produce very large clutches. Evolution has created a certain comfort in a group. We always keep more than one chick together—from birth to weaning. They will display a greater level of comfort and better weight gains than if singly kept. I do this even with species that produce a single egg clutch. The end result is a much happier young.

My goal is always to keep the same species together, but if this is not possible grouping of different genera is not a problem.

  1. Nesting substrate. Except for the few species that nest in cliff faces, where sand is the most common substrate, parrots have evolved to use a wooden substrate on which to lay and rear their young. They produce this covering by chewing the slivers from the inside of the nesting cavity, or they can be seen carrying material to the nest. In the wild Galahs will add eucalyptus leaves to the nest, or in captivity pieces of willow, bamboo or palm fronds to produce a distinctive passerine-like nest. Other cockatoos will carry anything found within their enclosure into the nest. The Quaker Parakeet will carry more comfortable material into their twig nests on which they can lay and rear their young. All of this suggests that the young should be kept on an absorbent, comfortable substrate. We use a soft pine but other breeders utilize cellulose, dried crushed corn cob, tissue or towels. I prefer the pine because it is highly absorbent and keeps the young parrots, which are fed a constant dose of liquid formula and defecate continuously, dry and clean. We change the substrate multiple times daily. Irrespective of the substrate used, the key is that the young never be allowed to sit on a wet, soiled substrate.

Over the years I have seen breeders that keep their chicks on wire mesh. The argument is often that the chicks would eat the substrate. I find this practice unnatural and prefer a softer lining. But if the young are to be kept on mesh, then it should be a soft, plastic coated mesh—never wire, which can cause bruising of the soft tissue.

As to the argument that chicks will eat any soft substrate on which they are kept and this is why the mesh needs to be employed, I must point out that in virtually every case where I have seen ingestion of the substrate, it is a result of the chicks being hungry. Young whose appetite has been satiated will sleep long periods of time; they will not be biting at each other trying to extract food from one another, or calling frantically trying to get your attention, or eating the substrate to satiate their hunger.

  1. Water quality. Nestling parrots have an underdeveloped immune system. Water with a high level of pathogens will make them sick. Use bottled water or boil the water and store it in a refrigerator if your water is suspect. Wash all utensils with the same boiled or bottled water, or your efforts will be undermined.

Allow me to explain why I always stress good water quality. Earlier this year I visited a breeder that was doing everything right—except that the instruments used for feeding the young and the formula preparation bowls were being washed with tap water. The accoutrements were apparently allowed to air dry and this was believed to have a sterilizing effect. But it did not; had the utensils been exposed to the sun, perhaps then the pathogens would have died. When I recommended that the instruments be cultured, the breeder was hesitant, but at my insistence swabs were taken from inside the syringes used for feeding the young. The culture plates showed a heavy growth of coliform bacteria within the day. It was this bacteria that was the direct cause of the morbidity in the collection.

  1. With the ready availability of commercial formula preparations that only require the addition of water, I can never understand why some breeders still conjure up their own versions, which often display an improper vitamin, mineral and calcium ratio. The commercial formulations are balanced and have been empirically tested. For the vast majority of species reared in aviculture, they only require the addition of water.

For newly hatched young we employ a more liquid formulation, but as the young age the consistency thickens. We try to make the formula the consistency of porridge once the chicks are a few weeks old. We do augment the diet with peanut butter for macaws and Golden Conures, two species that feed their young on relatively fatty diets in the wild, but apart from water this is the only addition to the commercial preparations.

The formula brand you select should be readily available. It is not good to switch from brand to brand because the one you chose is irregularly available. Select one brand, test it and if it does not produce the desired results after the young are weaned, switch to another. Ask fellow breeders in your country about their experience with a specific brand.

The formula should be kept in a sealed container preferably in a cool, dry place. Once mixed, the excess should be discarded. It should not be reheated. If possible, do not return the feeding instrument repeatedly to the receptacle containing formula in order to continue feeding other young. Ideally you should insert the feeding instrument only once into the formula to prevent cross contamination. This can be achieved by using multiple syringes for feeding the young: fill them all at once and do not refill them before they have been thoroughly washed and disinfected.

  1. Formula temperature. We try to feed the formula at 40 deg C. At this temperature chicks readily accept the formula. Cool food will be rejected; the young will barely swallow the formulation, except when they are gavage fed, when they have little control of their intake. If it the formula is too hot, the chick´s mouth and crop will be burned. When heated in a microwave understand that hot spots will be created and that the formula temperature will continue to increase after removal from the microwave. Boiling water using a conventional pot or even the microwave, mixing the heated water with the formula and then stirring the preparation until the desired temperature and consistency has been attained is the ideal preparation mode. Also, buy a good calibrated thermometer—do not rely on you finger, palm or the back of the hand. Visit any professional cook and you will see how tolerant they can be of heat and you will understand that the finger, palm or hand are not an accurate gauge!
  2. Feeding tools. Plastic pipettes and droppers with the tip cut at an angle, stainless gavage needles attached to a syringe, syringes of various types with or without a piece of catheter tube, a spoon with the sides bent upwards to form a funnel and even a ketchup bottle with a piece of catheter attached to the tip can all be used for rearing young. After having tried every imaginable tool (including a meat baster, straw and crimped can), I have settled on two: a small demitasse spoon with the sides bent upwards for newly hatched chicks, as this is natural and encourages feeding; as the sides of the spoon comes in contact with the commissures of the mouth, the chick will begin to pump. After about a week we employ a stainless steel catheter attached to a syringe. We have different gavage needles and utilize the one most suitable for the particular young.
  3. Clean is the dogma of the hand-rearer. Unless you follow an extreme hygiene policy, you will experience problems; it will only a matter of time before problems arise. Feeding tools, brooders and everything that comes in contact with the young should not be kept in a kitchen or bathroom, where pathogens can abound. Placing syringes, feeding needles and bowls used for mixing formula washed in the same sink where you wash raw chicken, fish or meat, wash soil laden vegetables or place your potted plants to water is an absolute no-no—unless you thoroughly wash and disinfect the sink and surrounding area each time.

Each year I visit dozens of aviculturists. Some have tremendous experience; others are novices. In one case I saw the hobbyist´s young daughter play outside in the yard, then come inside, reach into the brooder and bring me a young Green-cheeked Conure to look at. The girl´s father kept tacit; the girl apparently handled the young parrots quite regularly. But the girl had not washed her hands and when I broached the subject, the breeder turned white: he had never given thought to the possible contamination of the chicks and breeders.

In my opinion, baby parrots are not toys and should not be handled by children. If they are allowed to handle the young birds, then they must wash and disinfect their hands.

An understanding of hygiene is a key element to success. Everything coming in contact with the young parrots must be kept scrupulously clean. Feeding surfaces, brooders, tools, hands, tubs used to hold the chicks and everything else must be washed first with soapy water and then disinfected. This is necessary because organic matter can and will undermine the killing properties of the disinfectant you are using. As an example, I have forced hobbyists who wipe everything with a diluted chlorine solution to perform cultures, only to be amazed that the surface was not as clean as they argued and firmly believed.

  1. Dispensing antibiotics, antifungals and anti-protozoa medication should not be part of the daily routine. When you use these regularly, there is a management flaw and this must be addressed. Medications should not be used prophylactically but rather should target specific illnesses. Under virtually all circumstances, maintaining the young at the correct temperature, employing the proper hygiene protocol and using a good formula can avoid the use of medications. If you must constantly employ medications, something is seriously wrong. The causal factor needs to be identified and corrected.
  2. A good gram scale that reads to multiple decimal points is an important tool in the hand-rearing room. The young should be weighed before the first feeding. The baseline reference can be found in many books, or the breeder can create it by recording data for every chick produced, then referencing this information as necessary. Weighing is important because it allows problems to be detected long before it would otherwise become evident.
  3. At what stage do you take the young to commence hand-feeding? The answer to this question depends on many factors: the species you are breeding, your schedule, the rearing abilities of the pair and your ultimate production goal. Some species like conures are very easily reared. Caiques and Galahs can be a challenge to rear from hatching. Allowing the pair to rear the young for at least a few days or ideally two weeks should always be the goal. By then the young will be larger and sturdier. Newly hatched chicks in my experience should be fed every two hours from 0600-2300 hours irrespective if they have food in the crop or not. Some may not agree with this schedule, but it is based on field experience. If the parents keep the young full almost continuously, why should we deviate and change what is natural?

If your schedule means that you will be away for much of the day, then the older the young the better. There is, however, a stage where the chick can prove difficult to feed. Handling it while in the nest and possibly even offering it a feeding from syringe or other feeding instrument while still with the parents can make this segue less traumatic. But this requires a very tolerant pair. Decades ago I tried this with a Yellow-shouldered Amazon. As soon as I closed the nest door and allowed her back inside, she entered and killed one of the three youngsters.

If the pair tolerates intrusion and are feeding the young, then perhaps you can supplementary feed the chicks to make then tame while allowing them to fledge with the parents. With species such as Amazons and Ring-necked Parakeet this will mean a single clutch will be produced in the year. This may be sufficient for the aviculturist and would be worth attempting if you lack the necessary time to be a nursemaid to parrots—a 7-day task that starts before sunrise, extends beyond sunset and can last for much of the year with species that are continuous nesters like Eclectus Parrots.

When hand-rearing, avoid mixing parent-reared young with chicks that were incubator hatched. They will have different gut flora or exposure to different pathogens and can sicken each other when mixed. Rear each group separately and employ all of the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination.

  1. Not all parrots are the same. Some newly hatched chicks are initially fed by their parents on their backs. Others have a propensity to throw themselves on their backs after feeding. Caiques are notorious for aspirating during their first few days of their lives. Placing them in a small espresso coffee cup lined with tissue can stop such incidences. We use disposable paper cups. The tissue restrains the chicks in a standing fashion and deters aspiration. For African Greys we keep them in deep tubs, as once they start feathering they begin to kick all of the absorbent substrate out of the tub they are maintained in.
  2. This is a traumatic stage for both the young, who are hungry, want to shed the excess weight they gained while growing up in order to take to the wing and do not know how to feed themselves, and for the breeder, who will be trying to feed a young with no interest in food and whose sole objective is to fly. Patience is key at this stage. Some species are much better than others. Green-cheeked Conures can nip mercilessly; Eclectus hens first become aggressive and then they cry incessantly; cockatoos will simply sit and beg; and Amazons will try to skirt you and take off to exercise their wings. Introduce the young to as varied a diet as possible, including colorful pieces of fruits and vegetables, wheat bread, pellets, seeds, etc. We provide a bowl containing some pellets, seeds, fresh corn, peas, steamed carrot and broccoli, a piece of wheat bread and cracked nuts. The food is offered in small amounts but changed often. This is to encourage weaning.

During weaning, try to feed the young at least once during the night. We feed twice daily at this stage because starvation will not encourage weaning but will make the begging more recalcitrant.

Keeping several young together can help encourage weaning. We also try to keep them near a bird that is eating by itself, so they can observe and learn.

  1. Pet or breeder? When you hand-rear, you must know whether the young will be kept as a pet or made into a breeder. With both, we provide toys and enrichment, as this is the starting point in producing a bird that is emotionally stable and happy to play with others or by itself. If the bird is to become a pet, then multiple daily cuddling sessions that include training to step up and down are important. For future breeders, avoid imprinting and encourage chewing, interaction with other birds and flocking behavior. This can make a difference when the birds are finally established for breeding. We have not had any problems with birds reared to understand that they are birds becoming future breeders.

Hand-rearing is a time consuming task that not everyone can perform, but it can produce a deeper understanding of the species you keep and can produce birds whose stamina, size and breeding potential will equal those that were parent-reared. When learned, hand-rearing can be a rewarding experience.

I sat quietly on the ground, behind a short bush. The White-bellied Caiques Pionites leucogaster were in a dead Bertholletia excelsa sapling whose trunk had been broken about 18 feet from the ground by a larger, falling branch from an adjacent tree.  The scenario was typical. The fight in the Brazilian Amazon between trees is fierce, as they each struggle to work their way through the canopy to reach the sun. The cleft had created an opening in which termites were swarming. That activity attracted the caiques, which played, jumped, chased and interacted with the insects. I do not believe any were eaten; it was only a game—a means of burning energy for the three immature birds, whose species was possible to identify by the presence of black head feathers interspersed with the apricot colored feathers that cover the head. The parents preened nearby. The scene reminded me of a playground where the kids are brought to play and where the parents watch askance to insure that they do not get into trouble. After over an hour of watching, the parents called loudly. The chicks froze momentarily and then the group disappeared from sight. The cause of the alarm call was an agouti, a rodent about the size of a small cat that was looking for fallen food.

I have made similar observations across the globe. Parrots do not just live in their environment; they enjoy it, playing, chewing, exploring and interacting with it to stay occupied.

In captivity, this activity is not always possible. Birds maintained for breeding in a sterile environment have only a perch, possibly the ground if the enclosure is of the walk-in design, a nesting box if they are intended for breeding and their food. In the worst-case scenarios, the perch is plastic or metal and the nesting box is also metal. Pet birds do not invariably have a better environment in which to live. I have seen many pets kept in a metal cage with a metal or plastic perch and nothing else. The perception that the birds should not be distracted if they are intended for breeding or that the pet bird has its owner to interact with is simply not enough. These birds need far more.

Parrots kept for breeding do not need to be housed in a sterile environment. Indeed it appears that if the birds are mentally challenged they will be much better breeders. In trials using the ubiquitous Green-cheeked Conure Pyrrhura molinae I found a difference in the level of reproduction between pairs receiving no toys and no enrichment and those that received fresh branches for chewing, palm seeds, pods, section of green coconuts and toys. The two groups were housed in adjacent enclosures, fed the same diet and given the same nest design. The main difference was that the birds receiving enrichment seemed more content. Their level of fertility was 92.8% while those in cages receiving no enrichment had a fertility rate of 81.3%. One of the birds kept in what could be described as a sterile environment despoiled its chest feathers. Another chewed the crown feathers from its mate. Those receiving enrichment remained in immaculate condition.

This trial and the general experience gathered over more than four decades has taught me that keeping occupied does not deter breeding. Indeed, the desire to reproduce is not thwarted by having branches, pods, coconuts and much more being added to the cage. Instead I believe that the mental well being is developed and this will lead to more successful breeding. I state this because I firmly believe that for parrots to reproduce they must not only be healthy, feel safe in their environment, receive the proper diet and have access to a suitable nest, but that their mental well being will be the deciding factor. Boredom will not lead to breeding, but a natural state of euphoria will. This was evident in the aforementioned trial using Green-cheeked Conures.

In pet birds kept in a sterile environment plucking is not uncommon. The birds become bored and pluck as a result. They may also pluck to cause a reaction in their owner, who will typically come rushing and admonish the bird for chewing its feathers. The attention, albeit temporary, is enough to want more. In many cases the bird denudes itself completely. Other factors (including skin fungus, disease, etc) can cause plucking, but boredom must never be ruled out.

In addition, pet birds that can spend considerable time exploring, chewing and playing tend to exhibit less aggression when played with. They also tend to want to cuddle more than a bird that sits in a sterile cage and wants to suddenly burn all of the energy it has built up since the previous play session.

Because of my field experience, my own birds receive continuous enrichment. They are given coconuts (whole for large birds, split for smaller birds), palm seeds, pods, palm fronds and flower stalks, branches, flowers, pine cones, pieces of decomposing wood for chewing, sections of old perches that have holes drilled into the side where seeds are wedged, and much more. I try to be creative. The Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus receive trays of clean sand into which millet seeds have been mixed to encourage natural foraging. (Galahs like many terrestrial parrots have evolved to feed on grass seeds.) Seashells, pieces of PVC pipe, an old water bottle with a stone inside and a string that extends out from the cap so that it can be suspended from the enclosure ceiling, vertical swinging perches and more complement the enrichment. Chew toys and some plastic toys are also used. I want my birds to be occupied; to interact with their environment and toys and to burn the energy that they would normally use in foraging or exploring their environment.

Those that do not live in an environment where palm seeds, coconuts, palm fronds are more are available are not at a disadvantage. Look around your environment and see what is available. Branches with leaves are best, but branches taken from trees in winter are also suitable. Many birds appreciate pinecones. They can be offered in their natural state or seeds can be wedged throughout. Nuts can be wrapped in paper and inserted into a tissue or small cardboard box or the center of a roll of paper towels. There is no limit in what can be found around the home or yard that can help keep our birds amused.

The caveats when looking at enrichment are several. Always use items from an insecticide and pesticide free source, do not provide items with pieces that the birds can chew and swallow, never employ anything in which chemicals, scented products or fertilizers have been housed, disregard anything with a sharp edge that can cut, and never use plastic, twine or anything that can wrap around a toe (restricting blood flow) or can cause asphyxia. I avoid using ropes because they can come apart and the pieces can strangulate a toe, or the soiled rope can become a breeding ground for bacteria if the bird defecates on it. This is a personal choice but many birds do enjoy swinging from a piece of rope.

When acquiring toys, look them over for potentially edible parts, gaps where a toe or head can get stuck, which come from countries where lead is still used, or which have sharp edges. A friend recently lost a pet Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus who chewed metal pieces from a toy. The part was not well secured. The best toys can be chewed, but I also like those made of Plexiglas that the bird has to work to extract a nut or seed. Rotate the toys very frequently to insure boredom does not set in. You can write the date they are removed on toys containing wooden parts using a pencil. Other types of toys can be placed in a plastic bag onto which a date can be written or a piece of paper containing the date of removal can be affixed with tape. This will let you know not to return the same toy for some time. Those items that are badly chewed should be discarded.

With enrichment, a different situation applies. They can be left in the cage much longer. My macaws receive the seeds of the Foxtail Palm Woodyetia bifurcata regularly, as they eat the fatty interior. Some birds will start by eating the juicy outer covering and then leave the seeds to dry for several weeks, when they return and eat the flesh. Green coconuts tend to be eaten quickly, as the birds seek to get the meat and water. They often then neglect the coconut until it has started to dry, when they remove the fibrous covering. Branches can be denuded, the bark eaten and then the exposed wood chewed to slivers after it has dried. During the weekly cage cleaning we remove eaten items and leave those that still have a useful life.

In closing I always recommend that the bird owner or breeder place himself in the bird´s body. Do so while looking at the environment. Would you be bored or would you find sufficient enrichment and toys to be active, mentally challenged and content? Strive for the latter and your birds will be much happier pets and more successful breeders.

 

My avicultural career spans more than four decades. During this time, I have kept and bred a huge array of species, many of which have disappeared from aviculture or have always been very rare. These species have ranged from the Spix´s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii to the Prioniturus parrots. During these more than 40 years of keeping parrots, one group has proved more enigmatic than the others: the cockatoos. They are exceptionally intelligent, hardy and complex. I have tried again and again to understand why some males aggress their mates yet that answer still eludes me, though each passing year brings new revelations.

Male cockatoos, including those from long established pairs that have bred very successfully for many years, can suddenly cause great pain to their keeper, who finds the hen viciously injured or dead; the mandible will display trauma and in some cases the head, wings and body will display bite marks. I have found that trauma is most common to the upper mandible but that it is also seen in the lower mandible. The trauma may be as simple as some puncture wounds to as serious as the amputation of the mandible. I have also seen males that not only killed their mates but who then proceeded to remove a leg or wing, chewing on them like they would a twig when found by their caretaker.

Decades ago it was believed that the males attacked their mate because they were unreceptive to breeding. The male wanted to mate and the hen eschewed his advances. This was believed to have triggered an escalation in the attempt to mate and eventually an attack.  The occasional hen was found dead while incubating eggs or even while rearing young. These latter incidences were considered anomalies; the focus was on an unreceptive hen.

I was never fully convinced that mate aggression was solely due to rejection on the part of the female. During the years, I have spoken to various veterinarians, who have found no link to mate aggression with the breeding season or the degree of sexual stimulus in the hen; indeed in over 49% of the cases necropsied by three veterinarians, the hen displayed follicular development. Males were killing their mates as a response to factors that were not limited (though apparently include) breeding.

Until some years ago I was convinced that mate aggression was only seen in captivity. It was an artifact of captivity, of keeping two birds together in a cage from which the aggresse could not escape. I have now discarded this belief. Dead hens displaying the injuries typical of mate aggression have been found in their nest in the wild (Peter Chapman verbal communication, 2013). I also found evidence of this in Timor Leste in Indonesia, when a climber who had scaled a tree containing a cockatoo nest to measure the cavity interior, found a partly decomposed body. The bird displayed the typical crushed mandible. Also in Indonesia I was shown a badly injured bird that was near death. It was a hen and her upper mandible had been crushed. Two other incidences are suggestive of male aggression, though some predator could well have attacked the two incubating hens involved.

When I asked Don Wells, an aviculturist par excellence and a person who has had considerable field experience and whom I respect immensely, if he had ever seen evidence of mate aggression, he responded in the affirmative. He had seen hens with healed punctured wounds across the bridge of the beak. Similar observations have been made by trappers in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and on multiple islands in Indonesia.

Aggression is most common in the white cockatoos but it has also been reported in the black cockatoos and Galah or Rose-breasted Cockatoo. In the white species, the Moluccan, Ducorps´s, Red-vented, the corellas, Major Mitchells and sulphur-crested cockatoos (both Cacatua sulphurea and Cacatua galerita) are the species in which more incidences are reported. In my opinion the long-term survival of the Red-vented and Ducorps´s Cockatoos in aviculture is doomed as a result of mate aggression.

Based on the above, we know that mate aggression incontrovertibly occurs in the wild, that it is not necessarily linked to breeding and that it must be understood and controlled in order to safeguard captive populations of several species that are in serious decline in the wild.

Let´s start to dissect possible causes and solutions.

First I will enumerate the list of alleged causal factors: illness, either clinical or subclinical; confinement in too small an enclosure; imprinting on the caretaker; agitation by other birds of their kind or even the same genus; hormonal changes; a dietary imbalance; the offering of an inadequate nest—usually too shallow; incompatibility; and the aforementioned breeding asynchrony.

Having a compatible pair is in my opinion the first line of defense. Pairing two birds that are incompatible greatly heightens the risk of injury. Allowing natural pairing and pairing birds of the same age is important and in my opinion reduces the risk. If an elderly male pairs with a younger female, a hormonal implant can lower his libido until the hen matures. Pairing two young birds if only two individuals are available would be the next best option. By growing together, one can expect compatibility to develop, though by no means does this offer a guarantee of détente.

Aviculturists have responded to the threat of male aggression by clipping the flight feathers from one wing, this to slow the male. Wing clipping is partly successful if the flight cage is sufficiently long enough to allow a hen to fly out of reach. The minimum length would be 3.6 m but much longer flight cages would be even more successful. A male intent on injuring the hen will persistently chase her until she is tired, when he moves in for the kill; I have seen such males stop eating and enter a murderous mental state that is not easily described. The longer the cage and more difficult it is for the male to reach the hen, the greater the chances the hen will remain unscathed.

Even in a long flight cage, making it difficult for the male to approach the female will further reduce the risk of injury. Offering a nesting box with two entrances will prevent the hen from being imprisoned inside, where she can be an easy target. The double-entranced nest should have a divider down the center so that the male cannot simply enter, perch near the top and block the female´s exit. The female should be able to escape easily by exiting out through the side opposite to the male. The cage should also contain obstacles to make an attack difficult. A male with clipped wings can grasp the side of the flight or perch suspended from the aviary roof to try to catch a flying female. Solid aviary sides and a roof can make this difficult. (The enclosure can have open ends and an enclosed mid section, as cockatoos come from relatively open forests and dislike dark enclosures.) The male would then be relegated to walking to the enclosure floor, across the aviary and climbing to a perch, allowing the female to flee easily. Where the cage center cannot be made solid, baffles suspended from the enclosure roof can be used. These should be suspended on multiple successions on opposite sides of the aviary. They should allow a gap sufficiently large to permit the female to maneuver in flight from one end to the other while making it difficult for the male to pursue her. Baffles are normally used for the smaller species, whose lesser weight may allow the males to glide some distance even with clipped wings.

Placing a ball on the tip of the bill has also been tried, though the beak continues to grow and the bumper (made from dental acrylic) eventually falls off. The solution (like clipping the flight feathers) is temporary at best.

Some males can be especially treacherous and cunning. I have seen cases where a male changed his attitude overnight. From being especially aggressive, he switched to a placid bird. I was optimistic the first time I made this observation as the male was repeatedly seen perching and feeding the hen. Then slowly his plan came to light. He began to remove the flight feathers from the female, this to incapacitate her. This process took days. I watched closely. Then he became a demon and would have killed the hen had someone not been nearby to interfere. She nonetheless suffered several puncture bites—one to the beak and two to the wings. The female recovered. Subsequently I watched the same behavior in other males, suggesting that the first incidence was not isolated.

In another case, a male with an acrylic bumper attached to his bill, flew at the hen, grasped her with his feet and then frantically hit the female on the head. He could not puncture her beak but caused injuries from the repeated blows.

The above incidences have demonstrated how intelligent and cunning cockatoos can be.

Flying pairs in groups after the breeding season can also have a calming effect. I have found that same sex groups are best when dealing with imprinted males, which can and will fight with one another. How the groups are kept depends on the individual birds. I have some Cacatua sulphurea eleonora and Cacatua moluccensis that I can keep together and others in which more than one male will result in explosive battles. I decide how they are to be housed depending on the experience gather over time with the individual birds. As the breeding season approaches—in our case winter and spring, the birds are separated in the summer—the pairs are returned to their cages. I often add one male at a time to a cage containing females, including his former mate. This allows me to provide the mate of choice. In 37% of the cases, the males chose new mates and did not re pair with the hen with which they bred successfully the previous year. Studies in Australia have shown an equally high incidence of divorce in wild cockatoos.

Due to the continuation of problems of mate aggression being reported, other solutions were thus needed and one was proposed. Dr. Scott McDonald developed the most contentious method of controlling aggression: beak-bisecting surgery. It involves splitting the lower mandible on the male. This eliminates the crushing strength. The birds can eat normally, but some will require periodic catching to cut the bill, which can overgrow. Though cthe procedure is controversial and was eventually recanted by Scott, I know of only one case of a male with a bisected bill being able to injure a hen.

The above summarizes the cause and methods used by aviculturists to address mate aggression. But none focus on the reason as to why males aggress their mates? Is there a behavioral aspect that we have failed to understand? I believe so. My theory is not etched in stone and will probably be modified over time. My current state of thought is enumerated below.

During more than 40 years as an aviculturist, I have bred nearly all of the cockatoo species and subspecies. I have also spent considerable time visiting aviculturists worldwide and observing these birds in the wild. Isolated observations were noted and then placed in the back of my mind as isolated examples. Today many of these thoughts have been meshed into a theory.

Thailand once had a very active trader by the name of Daeng. He kept a flock of Indonesian cockatoos in an aviary. The birds bred very successfully. I had forgotten this until Don Wells mentioned it during a lecture I gave at AVES convention in Australia in 2013. I immediately flashed back and recalled seeing multiple males threatening each other with wings open and crest raised; they screamed and lunged. I asked Daeng if he ever recorded an injury. He shook his head in the negative.  He then had an employee open nest after nest and show me the contents: eggs and chicks. The birds were breeding successfully in a colony—a situation that many would think would result in complete failure. I asked if egg breakage was a problem. Again the response was in the negative.

William Peratino has been breeding Moluccan Cockatoos for many years. I first met Will in the 1980s. I recently asked him about his method of breeding. He keeps them in a group and when two birds pair and want to nest, they are separated into a breeding cage, though the males can see and threaten each other. Another friend who wishes to be unnamed maintains a flock of Major Michell´s Cockatoo in a lanai. The group contains 11 females and 7 males. The majority are offspring of two original pairs. The cockatoos breed in ceramic jars placed between low growing plants. The males become especially garrulous when nesting, when they will chase and mock battle or perch in a central metal beam and lunge at each other. The fighting can seem vicious, though not once has an injury been recorded. The hens are relegated to the incubation process while the males spent energy in their battles. Each year young fledge into the group. Not one chick has ever been injured, though the literature contains many reports of male cockatoos attacking their male offspring when these fledge in the traditional one pair per aviary concept.

I have also seen other cockatoos breed in colonies. Australians are at the forefront of these trials, which in one particular problematic species (Callocephalon fimbriatum) also seems to have another beneficial result: halting feather mutilation. (In one Australian collection, where dozens of completely plucked Callocephalon were brought together, the birds all feathered out.) Such pairs can breed in full peace. Barry Blanch has two pairs of Callocephalon fimbriatum that nest a short distance from one another, the nests being across the aviary. Mate aggression or other means of fighting has never been reported. Zanda and Calytorhynchus black cockatoos are also bred multiple pairs to an aviary, and white cockatoos are being bred in multi-species enclosures containing other cockatoos or Platycercus or Alisterus species. The presence of the other birds seems to distract the focus on one particular individual. The use of Australian parakeets is the replication of a concept known to African cichlid breeders as “dither” fish. These other species become agitated in the presence of aggression, distracting the aggressor, or they become the focus of attacks themselves, though this rarely occurs. In the US, experiments involving the rearing of a young macaw with a pair of cockatoos is producing interesting results. When the cockatoo male becomes aggressive, the larger, bolder macaw seems to interfere, reducing the likelihood of physical contact among the cockatoos.

Observations in the wild also suggest that males may behave like my friend´s Major Mitchells or Daeng´s cockatoos. They may spend time displaying and chasing each other, often in a central tree, while the females carry out most of the incubation. I have observed males of several species sitting on an emergent dipterocarp on more than one Indonesian island. The birds would suddenly suspend themselves, flap their wings and call, then spring upright and fly at another male.  The two would scream, lunge at one another and often fly away a short distance before returning. I have observed contact on more than one occasion, but through binoculars could not observe any injuries. On each occasion multiple males gathered to display. Interestingly at the time hens were found incubating eggs. Bonnie Zimmerman, who has actively studied cockatoos in Indonesia and has more experience with wild Cacatua moluccensis than anyone I know, has also observed displays in a central tree and chasing.

The incidences of mate aggression in the wild have occurred in areas where the forest was greatly disrupted as a result of deforestation or trapping was occurring. Such activity, I believe, could have contributed to the aggression. Clearly much more data is needed to provide clarity to this enigma.

Could the inability to display and vent aggression towards one another be the reason for the aggression in captivity, where the tendency is to keep pairs isolated visually? Could the incidences of injury be lessened if pairs were kept in a large enclosure with access to attached flight cages for breeding? Could the solution be in the way cockatoos are managed and not in trying to adapt a behavior by clipping the flight feathers or bisecting their beak?

I do not have the definitive word, though my current thinking is to allow pairs to visualize groups containing both sexes, to pair only birds that have nexused from a group, to give each bird the opportunity each year to switch mates if they so desire, and to continue to gather data.

We are in the process of acquiring a piece of land to house the cockatoos so that various ideas can be put to practice. One will include a large flight containing multiple pairs. That cage will contain a maze giving access to breeding cages. Observations made here and gathered over the next few years will, I hope, clarify further the complicated personalities of cockatoos.

In the mean time, share and publish your findings. By combining the observations of many, we will begin to better understand a group that in the case of the species from Indonesia and the Philippines faces a very uncertain future in the wild. By managing our captive birds, we can work towards establishing captive self-sustaining populations and at least maintain these birds for posterity.

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