Tending the Flock

The Welfare of Breeding Birds

The bird breeder's primary tool is the power of observation. Both the permanent staff, whether it consists of employees or family members, and any temporary workers need guidelines to be sure all the birds' needs are taken care of and no indications of problems are overlooked. The bird breeder is keenly aware of the need for sanitary conditions and proper handling of animals. Protocols vary according to the physical facility, the climate, the types of birds being kept and preferences for ease of work. Basic feeding and watering routines are usually simple to follow, but perpetual attentiveness to upkeep and details is equally important. If one part of the system fails, especially if the owner is incapacitated, conditions can quickly get out of hand. If it is necessary to rely on a supporting staff during times of absence, they should receive training which includes the fundaments behind the owner's choices so that mistakes are not made in his or her absence.

Aviary Structures and Layout

The outdoor aviary with suspended breeding flights has many advantages, especially for ease of caretaking. Sunlight is a natural sanitizer which also provides a source of vitamin D3, a vitamin which birds do not manufacture without UV rays. Rain gives the birds the incentive to bathe, cleans perches and keeps dust at a minimum. Breezes refresh. In warm to tropical climates, if adequate shade is supplied, the birds will be able to maintain proper body temperature as long as water is supplied. A more enclosed area, containing the nest box, may be added in cooler climates, or the nest box itself may suffice to keep the birds warm.

The indoor facility has other advantages. Adequate lighting, artificial heat and cooling can be supplied. The risk of both predators and escape can be avoided. A proper set-up, with both good air exchange, will minimize the spreading of airborne dust and other debris. The suspended cage is best for most birds, either hanging, on a washable stand, or a combination of the two. A solid floor with a drain will allow cleaning to be quickly done, which allows for fewer intrusions on the breeding birds' privacy.

The indoor/outdoor facility, with flights on both sides of an external wall, is an option which can be considered in all types of climate to provide sunlight and the other benefits of outdoor life, while also providing total shelter when necessary. A porthole or other type door between the two sections allows the caretaker to keep the birds confined indoors during inclement weather, or to restrict them to the outside while repair and cleaning are undertaken inside the building. Generally the nest box is kept on the inside which eliminates the need for special care to protect it from the elements or to have concerns about escape.

When determining which pairs should are to be housed near others, noise and visibility factors are considered and a balance is established by determining which birds behave as part of a flock, are competitive toward each other or are simply too noisy or too sensitive for their neighbors. A good layout does much to promote well-being and eliminate stress. Pairs which constantly compete with one another or feel dominated by other pairs may not achieve breeding success. Chattering and calling are indications of security, but, especially when housing different species in an indoor facility, care must be taken to give quieter pairs the less intense locations.

The Mindful Eye

The bird breeder's staff, whether it consists of family members or hired help, is trained to make sure food and clean water are always available, that all cages, nest boxes and cage furnishings are in safe condition, and that no predators or pests are present. In addition, the staff learns to properly handle the birds and to observe both birds and cages while taking care of daily chores.

If proper perches are not available, the birds may not breed or may not be able to access their nest boxes. Perches should be kept clean so that the birds are less likely to digest or inhale pathogenic material. However, caution should be taken not to stir up dust in the cage while cleaning. It is even more critical not to transfer debris from one cage to another through cleaning utensils. A bit of caked debris may be harmless to the residents of one cage, but may create an illness when spread throughout the neighbors' cage by means of a cleaning cloth.

The inside of the nest box should have the proper amount of the right kind of substrate. If eggs are to be removed for incubation, a different type of substrate might be used than if the eggs are to be hatched in the box. A primary concern would be proper cushioning of the eggs. If the eggs are to be partially incubated in the box, the amount of humidity a substrate holds becomes important. If the chicks are to be hatched in the box, a third consideration is given to whether the chicks might ingest the material.

The overall condition of the boxes must be observed. If the box is entirely on the outside of the cage, the box must be constantly checked for damage to make sure holes have not been opened. Any hardware on the boxes must also be checked. In addition to the possibility of escape, holes make entrances for predators and pests such as wasps or mice. The box which is inside the cage should also be observed for holes and damage and exposed screws or nails, but only the part outside the cage needs to be checked on a regular basis.

Enrichment

Access to bathing water and/or misters is essential not only for health, but for enjoyment. Birds which dip their food will leave bits in water bowls and few birds will bathe in dirty water. This is an additional reason to make sure water bowls are cleaned frequently. Misting systems require maintenance and the water coming out of the system should be checked if there is reason to doubt the quality of the supply or the cleanliness of the water lines.

Some breeders keep toys in the breeding cage; others do not. Birds may turn their attention to a toy rather than to the mate, so many breeders prefer to supply "browse" in the form of safe branches or other vegetable matter which may be shared with the mate. Breeders may also add to the nest box entrance an extra layer of soft wood with a hole cut smaller than that of the box. The birds then shape the hole as they like, which aids with the pair bond and provides chewing material at the same time. As a general rule, no cloth or rope toys should be used in breeding cages, nor any toys in which a bird could be trapped or to which a leg band could become attached either to the toy or to its hanger.

With some pairs, if the caretaker treats one or both as pets, the result may be the birds will not bond or will lose their bond, and squabbles or "mate aggression" may begin. Such birds are also more likely to destroy eggs or neglect the care of young. It is up to the breeder to determine which birds prefer or tolerate a bit of personal attention and which birds do not, and to make all the caretakers aware of these requirements.

Physical Condition of the Birds

Aviculturists have many reasons to pay attention to feather condition. Does a bird have a dominant gene for piedness or other color mutation? Is a hen plucking because she is ready to nest? Is there a problem, such as an allergy to a food, an imbalance of nutrients, an illness? The staff must also be trained to observe and report feather condition.

Breeding birds do not normally have clipped wings. Occasionally, if a mate is observed to be somewhat more aggressive than the other, the aviculturist may try clipping a few wing feathers of the more aggressive bird to "even out the playing field" until the birds establish a bond. If this does not occur, the birds may be separated and reintroduced in another season, paired with others, or rejected for breeding purposes.

Each bird's feet are to be observed, as well as anything in the cage which will affect foot health. Does a perch have sharp spots? Does a rough perch keep the nails at a proper length without injuring the foot, is another type perch better, or does it need to be moved to a different spot in the cage? Do the nails need to be groomed? Any injury will be addressed. Healthy feet are needed by both male and female breeders if they are to breed successfully.

Emergency Preparedness

Every facility should have a first aid kit available and all workers should know where it is and how to use its supplies. At least one veterinarian's phone number should be made available to the staff if the managers or owners are out of touch with the facility. In addition, every facility should have animal carriers, or travelling or evacuations cages to accommodate every size and type of bird kept.

Breeding Diets

The determination is made to feed pellets, sprouts, raw fresh foods, baked goods, grains, seeds, nuts, supplements, or specialized diets according to the types of birds being bred, type of facility, climate and availability. Breeders often feed two or three types of diet according to the breeding season. Before the breeding season starts, the birds must be in top shape and not overweight. During breeding, the birds are fed a more protein rich diet. If chicks are being fed, the diet may again be changed. This cycle of feeding imitates the feeding cycle of wild birds. This is not a "starvation" practice, nor an attempt by the aviculturist to artificially bring about a molt.

Commercially prepared treats are manufactured with the desires of the pet owner in mind, to be used in training or cajoling the pet bird. Although the breeding birds may also be given treats from time to time, the aviculturist's main concerns are proper nutrition and the birds' interest in the foods which are provided.

Disease Prevention

In addition to eliminating pathogens at the facility, an aviculturist must maintain a quarantine protocol for any new birds being brought in. Occasionally, breeders with the same protocol may share birds without going through quarantine; however, this "partnering" relationship should only exist if total trust can be maintained. If both have been breeding birds for many years in their respective facilities, most health issues should have had time to surface, such as birds which might be latent carriers of an illness. Openness between the parties is essential and each must fully disclose any known health issues. Both quarantine and isolation protocols must be followed, or both facilities would be put at risk.

Birds taken outside the breeding facility should not be reintroduced without going through a complete quarantine period, whether they have been taken to a veterinarian's office, or to another place where contact with other birds or people who have birds. The only exception to this would be if arrangements are made with the veterinarian to provide a clean examination room and to enter and leave the facility before any other avian patients have been seen. Generally, the best practice is to have the veterinarian visit the facility. If a bird must be taken to a veterinarian for emergency care, either for injury or if a pathogen is suspected, the bird may be returned to a separate isolation area for the treatment period, with or without its mate depending on the cause of the infirmity. The time spent in isolation should be at least as long as the quarantine period required for a bird removed from the facility.

Young Birds

No breeding facility should take in young birds from outside sources other than through the "partnering" relationship described above. During the hand-feeding period, birds hatched in nest boxes should not be grouped with birds hatched in incubators, even if all are the product of the same facility.

Young birds may be sold "weaned" or "unweaned," depending on the abilities of the purchaser. Neither the supposed ease of "bonding" with a pet, or a lower price, is a good reason for a novice to purchase an unweaned bird. The requirements and risks are many. The young birds must be maintained in an appropriate brooder at temperatures which vary throughout the weaning period. Proper sanitation techniques used by a knowledgeable hand-feeder are often neglected or misunderstood by the novice. Feeding and weaning are separate skills. Children, visitors who want to hold the new pet, or household pets may bring in diseases, or may unwittingly injure the bird. In a home, the usual rooms available for feeding chicks are bathrooms and kitchens, either of which may be a dangerous room for a bird to be kept, both because of sanitation and products used in those areas. In addition to the heartache of having an injured or dead chick, the novice risks spending much more money than the cost of purchasing a fully weaned bird. A person who wants to learn how to hand-feed should ask a breeder, professional hand-feeder or veterinarian to teach them and should not take on the task alone until they have experience and the proper supplies.

Experienced hand-feeders purchase unweaned birds either to keep or to resell. The wise breeder works only with trusted hand feeders who carefully select the birds they bring into their nurseries. Contracts should be drawn up to declare what, if any, responsibility the breeder may have after sale. If breeders work with hand-feeders under a contract where birds are supplied without payment, or with partial payment, the breeder will want to be sure that no other birds are brought in at the time those birds are being cared for. If the breeder and private hand-feeder are to be partners throughout the process, all details should be written in the contract. If the hand-feeder will be selling the birds when weaned, these details should include the production of any care brochures or other information which will accompany the bird to its new owner.

You may also wish to read the article on Writing a Pet Bird Care Booklet.

Please visit the links on the right for more detailed information on various species.

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