How to Buy Breeding Stock

Jumping into the Great Unknown

© Howard Voren

For the beginner, trying to make the right decisions concerning the purchase of breeding stock is like jumping into the great unknown. Do I buy local, or "out of state"? Do I buy young, older or proven pairs? Do I buy from breeders, jobbers or at bird swaps? Do I demand health certificates or do I take the word of the seller that the birds are in good health? These are some of the difficult questions that enter the mind of any thoughtful buyer. These are also questions that have no simple answers. All of your decisions have to be made by considering the individual circumstances surrounding the purchase you wish to make. Any of the above scenarios are acceptable under the right circumstances and each individual situation must be considered on its own merit.

What often appears to be the best advice might leave you with nothing to buy!

It is easy to understand the logic behind the following prudent suggestions:

  • You should only buy birds from local sources so they do not have to undergo the stress of shipping and they can be visually and physically inspected before they are placed in your our custody.
  • You should only buy from reputable aviculturists who's aviaries you have inspected and appear clean.
  • You should only buy from a closed facility (one which for x number of years has not purchased birds from any outside sources and only increases their breeding stock by holding back offspring that they themselves produce).
  • You should require the seller to supply a health certificate.
  • You should not pay for the birds until your avian veterinarian reexamines them and certifies that the birds are in good health.
  • If they are a proven pair, you should receive a list of those who previously purchased the babies so you can verify that they have in fact been regularly producing.
  • Last but not least, you should only purchase birds that you really need to augment your existing collection.

The possibility of following all or even most of these suggestions seldom exists in the real world. Some of them are also inconsistent with other important goals.

The question as to whether you should purchase locally or from other states where birds have to be shipped to you "sight unseen" is something that you do not always have a choice about. Even if you do have a choice, you are often better off buying from a well known "out of state" seller with a national reputation to uphold rather than a local unknown dealer. Your goal should be the acquisition of the best pair of birds possible to obtain. Only if all else is equal, should the fact that the birds have to be shipped to you, become a major consideration.

If the birds that you are purchasing are in good condition, the stress of shipping should not cause any problems. In fact with the premium freight services like Delta's Pet First, U.S. Air's P.D.Q. and Continental's Quick-Pak service, the birds will go through less stress getting from point A to point B than most human passengers. The false idea that shipping, in and of itself, causes enough stress to be detrimental to a birds health, has its roots in the days of mass importation. Unscrupulous dealers would ship sick birds to clients and claim that poor handling on the part of the airline or the stress of shipping caused the birds to become ill. This excuse was usually followed by the statement that they only guarantee live delivery and if the birds arrived in poor health they should take it up with the airline. This charade caused quite a bit of negative feelings towards the airlines on the part of many aviculturists. Healthy birds in good condition if shipped with seed and fruits (such as apple, oranges or grapes for moisture instead of water) should have no trouble spending two days in a shipping crate. Bear in mind that I am talking about birds that are in top condition when shipped.

Being able to see what you are buying before you purchase is always a good idea, but in this case it is seldom possible. When you do get to see the birds the first thing that you should look at is their chest. It should be well rounded and meaty, not v-shaped. You should be looking for the same plumpness that you look for when purchasing a chicken breast in the supermarket.

Also note whether or not the birds are alert and active. Check the droppings. The white urates should be pure white, without tinges of yellow or green. The green fecal should be firm enough to have shape to it. If fed a pelleted diet it is often normal for the bird to have brown feces. If the birds are shipped to you, serious inspection of droppings can only be made after the birds have had twenty four hours to settle in. The combined stress of shipping, new surroundings and a different diet will often cause the droppings to appear abnormal for a short period of time.

Again, try to buy from those that have a reputation to uphold and will guarantee healthy arrival of the birds. Those who have continually advertised in the national publications are the best bet. In most cases, those that cheat their clients will not be able to build the client list that is required to bear the expense of continual national advertising. No nationally known aviculturist that I know would ever ship a bird that is in an obvious state of poor health.

Requiring that the seller provide a veterinary health certificate can be a double edged sword that is more likely to hurt than help the buyer. The type of exam that is performed by a vet in order to issue a health certificate is one that looks for obvious signs of disease. As previously stated, it is extremely rare that a seller with a good national reputation will ship a bird that shows obvious signs of poor health.

What can and does happen is that all the combined stresses that go along with placing the bird in a new environment will compromise the bird's immune system. This can result in the bird becoming ill from problems that it was harboring before it was shipped but able to fight off until its immune system was compromised by the stress.

If you required the seller to obtain certification that the birds were healthy before they were shipped, then they are within their rights to ignore your complaints. In this situation you have paid for a health certificate that protects the seller, not the buyer. If you feel that you would like the birds to go through a health check, it should be done buy your veterinarian within 72 hours after you have received the birds.

Have the seller agree to a full refund on the cost of the birds if your vet finds that they have some type of major problem. You will lose the cost of shipping both ways and the vet expense. If the only problem that the birds have is a minor bacterial infection it will pay you to keep them and cure them if they are a good pair of birds. In the case of a conflict of opinion, allow your vet to consult with the seller's vet to determine whether or not a problem should be considered major or minor.

The only exception to this is when you are purchasing birds that are infamous for papilloma. This disease is very prevalent in green-winged and all the mini-macaws, although all adult imported macaws should be suspect. When purchasing pairs of these macaws, you should demand and offer to pay for a papilloma test prior to having the birds shipped to you. Contact the vet that will be doing the exam, send a check for the service and ask that the band numbers of the birds be recorded on the certificate. If the seller refuses to have the birds examined at your expense by their vet, look for another seller.

The value of trying to buy birds from a "closed facility" has been greatly diminished since importation has been stopped. Papilloma, polyoma, Pacheco's virus, wasting syndrome (PDD) and beak and feather disease (PBFD) were all introduced into American aviaries by imported birds. The logical reasoning was that if you ceased to introduce new birds into your aviary, you ended the possibility of introducing any of the imported diseases that you didn't already have.

Many of these diseases could be harbored by birds for years before they would show symptoms, yet they might at any time be shedding the disease. The farther importation falls into the past, the less the likelihood is of being hurt by this type of problem from birds that were previously imported. Most of the imported birds that were going to "break" with these types of diseases have already done so. When outbreaks of these diseases did take place in aviaries, the causative agents were not particular as to whether they infected domestically bred or imported birds. That is why it is always important to quarantine you new acquisitions.

Above and beyond this, responsible aviculturists realize the need to expand their gene pools to reduce inbreeding, so that we can insure that there will be pet birds in the future. We at the Institute have a large enough population in many species, so we do not have to rely on the introduction of new blood lines from other aviaries. However, this is not true of all of the species that we breed. It is also not true for most of the species that are produced by some of the finest small facilities throughout the United States. We all have the responsibility to trade blood lines with other facilities, in order to insure the future of aviculture in the U.S.

Many newcomers to the industry are surprised to find out that the long standing custom is to pay for the birds before they are shipped. The industry evolved to this point after shippers found out that they could not exist unless they enforced this policy.

They were all faced with the unfortunate reality that there were more than just a few people who made their living by receiving shipments of birds that they had no intention of paying for. It was also not uncommon for buyers to accept C.O.D. cash terms on the telephone, only to refuse to pay for the birds when they arrived at the airport of destination. They would then try to talk the seller into releasing the birds to them with the promise that the money would be in the mail the following day. Due to this kind of history the seller has every right to demand payment "up front." If you feel that you can't trust the seller with your money, you shouldn't trust their birds.

Trying to determine that the seller runs a clean facility is very difficult. I don't know any professional aviculturists who would permit people to walk through their aviaries and disturb their breeders just so they can sell a pair of birds. Allowing public access is also an unsound practice from the standpoint of disease control.

How clean an aviary is kept is not necessarily a major determining factor in whether or not you should purchase a pair of bird. I have purchased some of my best breeders from aviaries whose owners had lost interest and were in the process of slowly selling out. When people lose interest, it is very common for them to stop cleaning up as often and allow their facility to degrade to the point were many would consider it dirty.

I have also purchased some of my worst "deals" from facilities that are spotless. Although much more prevalent in dirty aviaries than in clean ones, bacterial infections are something you should worry about even from the cleanest facility. If you have any doubts about the bacterial status of a pair of birds, have your vet check them and run a bacterial culture.

As far as some of the dangerous viruses are concerned, they do not discriminate between clean and dirty facilities. It can be difficult to determine if a breeder is selling out due to legitimate reasons or due to an unstoppable viral disease. If you are dealing with a facility that is selling out, you might ask for a letter from their avian veterinarian certifying that to the best of their knowledge the birds being liquidated do not come from an aviary that has had recent problems with any of the deadly viral diseases.

One of the most common mistakes made by novices is the decision to call around looking to purchase proven pairs. It's like a rabbit looking for a carrot in a trap. If he doesn't get snared, he's lucky. There are many legitimate and honest people that decide to sell good proven pairs. This is usually in cases where they are selling out completely or eliminating a certain type of bird from their production or overproduction. The chances are slim, however, of you finding one by calling around talking to aviculturists that have babies for sale.

Look instead for those who advertise, pairs for sale. They will usually be the ones that are directly selling out or those that are brokering the pairs for the breeder. Some of the brokers that liquidate entire aviaries for those who are selling out will make the rounds of the large bird sales and swaps. These sales can also harbor some good finds and fantastic buys. Life teaches us, however, that these types of opportunities are not usually around when you are looking for them. You will stumble into them when you least expect it and have to be ready to make a fast decision with the money to back it up. If legitimate proven pairs are found, don't expect them to be offered at a bargain basement price. You will seldom find real diamonds for the price of glass.

You must also realize that it will be next to impossible to verify if the pair that you are buying is in fact a proven pair, unless the seller is selling out completely and they only have one pair of the specific type of birds that you are buying. In cases like this the seller should not be bothered by a request to speak to those that have previously purchased the babies. In most other scenarios, asking to speak to former clients is usually unfruitful. If you are buying a proven pair from someone who is selling a few pairs of a certain species because they have overproduction, they, understandably, will not take the chance of introducing you to their clients. They need to protect their future sales potential.

In fact, one of the biggest reasons that cause people to sell proven pairs is that they do not have a market for the birds that they produce. I have purchased "proven" pairs of Amazons from small "backyard breeders" that still have the last three years worth of production sitting in holding cages. Asking to speak to clients that do not exist is foolish. In cases like this I have no choice but to accept the word of the seller that the pair that I am buying did in fact produce the babies that they are showing me. Also remember that although regularly producing pairs commonly take one to three years off after being moved to different circumstances, it is not uncommon for pairs that have never produced to begin producing a short time after being moved.

The purchase of young "untried" sexed pairs will guarantee a wait, but will also guarantee that you are not buying someone else's problem or retired pair. It also allows you to know the true age of your birds. Success is something that is worth waiting for. A major advantage in this is that the birds mature using your aviaries as their only frame of reference. Birds that have matured elsewhere might resent how they are kept in comparison with where they came from, even though, in your opinion, their housing is improved.

When purchasing young birds, try to buy those that have been raised, weaned and socialized with other birds of the same type. In most species, hand raised birds that are imprinted on humans do not present a problem as long as they are not overly dependent on human contact.

This can happen when babies are not given the opportunity to socialize with other birds of the same or similar type during and directly after the hand feeding and weaning stages of development. Parent raised and weaned birds are the best choice, when breeding potential is the only consideration but they are seldom available. They will usually breed at a much earlier age, especially in the larger species.

The next best option are hand raised birds that have always been kept in a group of the same or similar species and have not been handled during the weaning stage in order to keep them from cementing their bond with humans. These also make the worst pets due to their lack of desire for human contact. Tame, imprinted parrots that have grown up socializing with other similar birds will take longer to begin serious breeding. How much longer is usually relative to the size of the birds. Green-cheeked conures might only take a few months longer, but with the larger macaws you will be waiting several extra years. One of the major advantages in working with tame birds as breeders is their saleability after they are retired. When tame imprinted pairs are no longer productive, they can be split up and sold as pets. A few months away from their mates will usually result in them, once again, accepting human companionship.

Heeding the advice that you should only purchase what you need to augment your existing "collection" is presumptive. You can only guess what your future needs will be. You might desire to purchase more pairs of the same types that you are already producing in sufficient quantities, in order to enhance your gene pool. There is also the fact that having a larger "species availability" list makes you more attractive as a supplier. In cases like this you might wish to purchase green-cheek conures even though you are already producing maroon-bellied conures. You also never know if you will ever have another opportunity to purchase a pair as good as the pair that you are considering at the moment. These as well as many other considerations that are specific to your set of personal circumstances must all be considered when trying to make a decision as to whether or not a particular pair of birds is a worthwhile addition to your collection. Always bear in mind that a good pair of domestically bred birds, whose age and origin can be verified by band number and code, is an investment that can be resold if necessary.