Breeding African Greys can be a very rewarding and learning experience, but it also requires an uncommon dedication. The breeding pairs, the babies, and your clients deserve an informed, committed, ethical, responsible, and knowledgeable breeder.Breeding Greys is not just a matter of buying two birds, putting them together and letting nature take its course. Healthy and productive breeding pairs are required. Parents need the proper environment and diet to breed successfully. Chicks must be properly hand fed, weaned and socialized in order to develop into good companion birds. More effort is required to assure that the babies go only to good homes, in educating the new owners and in keeping in touch to make sure that all is going well. All of this takes time, knowledge and extraordinary commitment and should not be entered into lightly.
Start-up expenses will be considerable. Social engagements will be planned around your feeding schedule; vacations will be very rare; holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are just another day in the life of a breeder. Feeding and watering the breeding pairs, cleaning cages, tidying up the aviary, routine maintenance, and handfeeding the babies comes before convenience or pleasure.
More is known today than ever before to help us meet the challenge of raising healthy, well-socialized companion birds. Given their intelligence and sensitivity, perhaps breeding and raising African Greys is the most challenging of all. Those who are drawn to this endeavor by their compassion and deep desire to nurture and contribute to the well being of these most beloved of earth’s creatures will be rewarded beyond measure.
This is the first of a series of articles I have written on breeding Greys. It covers setting up, mating and breeding through the hatching of baby chicks. Additional articles on hatching, brooders, handfeeding, weaning and socializing babies will follow.
One of the most important first steps to successful breeding is a healthy pair of adult birds. Learn and understand the physical signs of healthy birds. Birds that have malformed feathers or pluck their feathers may be seriously ill. Some disease processes can cause plucking. Although plucking itself is unlikely to be inherited, the inability to handle stress as evidenced by plucking may well have a genetic component. Calm birds in good feather are obviously more desirable than terrified feather pluckers.
Other signs of ill health are a fluffed bird, a bird sitting low on the perch, respiratory sounds, tail bobbing, swelling or discharge from the eyes or nares, a pasted vent, feces containing undigested food, and abnormal color of urine, urates or feces. Although some foods can cause discoloration of the urine or the feces, the cause of any and all abnormalities should be investigated. Ideally, one should buy birds from a trusted source that agrees to make the sale conditional on a clean bill of health. Plan to pick up the birds on the way to an appointment with your avian vet. Consider taking a separate carrier for each bird.
Get as much history on the birds as possible. Previous diet, approximate age, and health history will be most useful for management purposes. If the pair is proven, the breeding history regarding the number of times per year the pair produces and the number of eggs per clutch can assist you in determining if the pair is comfortable with the way you have them set up. Find out what style of nestbox and cage size they were accustomed to before purchase.
Baseline Medical Data
A number of medical tests and procedures should be performed to ensure the birds are suitable for breeding. First, is a thorough physical examination. Surgical sexing including an examination of the internal organs can be done as necessary. Second, are bacteriologic tests such as a Gram’s stain and a Culture and Sensitivity, which may be recommended based on the Gram’s stain results. Some avian vets routinely do a Culture and Sensitivity instead of the Gram’s Stain. Third, is a fecal flotation for the presence of worms. Worming can produce surprising results and should be considered. Last, are blood tests that should include a Complete Blood Count, a Complete Blood Chemistry Panel, and a PBFD screen. In the event of anomalous test results or professional observations of concern, a DNA blood probe for latent or active psittacosis infection, or testing for heavy metal poisoning, or an electrophoresis screen for aspergillosis can be run. If the birds have not been vaccinated against polyomavirus, the first of the two shots can be administered at this time. If the seller will provide you with reports of past examinations, go over the reports with your avian vet or contact the seller’s avian vet to discuss the records.
Essential Quarantine and Diet Strategies
The absolute minimum quarantine period is 30 to 60 days. Unfortunately, in most homes the airflow is shared and strict quarantine is impossible. Many breeders don’t have an off-site or outdoors quarantine location. If the birds are a pair, quarantine them together in a large cage in an out-of-the-way area unless you can quarantine them out-of-doors. If one bird of the pair must be medicated as a result of the health examination findings, cage the birds separately until the sick bird is medicated as directed and rechecked to make sure the health problem has been corrected. If they are singles, introduce them after quarantine as you would any other potential pair.
Feed quarantine birds last, change their cages last, and keep a smock and shoes near the door for use only in the quarantine room. If the birds were on a seed diet previous to purchase, begin the change from seeds to pellets and offer a varied diet of soft foods while they are being quarantined. Pellets and soft foods are a much more nutritious diet than seeds for the pair to feed the babies. Only two of my pairs failed to begin eating the pellets during quarantine; it took me three years to get them off seed and onto pellets and soft foods. If a new pair is on a seed diet, offer soft foods and the birds’ normal ration of seeds in the morning. Several kinds of pellets should be available at all times. Remove the soft foods and the seed dish in the afternoon. The birds will have pellets and water until the next morning. Eventually, from boredom or hunger, they will begin to eat the pellets. It is very important to continue giving them seeds until they accept a varied nutritious diet even if it takes several weeks, months, or years. They are in a stressful situation initially and seeds are familiar food. Familiarity of any sort reduces stress.
Cage and Nestbox Etiquette
The smallest cage I use is a 4x4x4 suspended cage constructed from 1×1 inch wire. The boot nestbox is best. Most Greys will scramble into the box when you enter the aviary unannounced. To cut down on panic, knock twice on the door, waiting between each knock, and then pause again after you open the door. The birds quickly learn they have enough time to get safely into the nestbox after this signal.
The hens will lay in the farthest corner of the “toe” of the boot, so there is little concern about the males diving into an egg-laden nest or onto the babies. The basic shape is a vertical grandfather 12x12x24 with a boot toe extension measuring 12x12x12. One by twelve inch pine planking holds up better than plywood. Another advantage of pine planking is that it doesn’t contain glue or other adhesives, as does plywood, which the birds chew. Placing hunks of left over 1×12 pine plank or lengths of 2×4 on the bottom of the cage can satisfy a pair’s need to chew and spare the nestbox or perches. A large chunk of a natural wood branch, thoroughly disinfected, may serve as well.
An interior wire ladder is required from the cage side bottom of the nestbox entry hole to the floor of the nestbox. It should be securely fastened at the top and bottom to avoid separation from the nestbox and so the birds don’t get trapped inside or prevented from entering the box. Four inches of pine shavings can be used as nestbox substrate and should be replaced after each clutch is removed from the nestbox. A dilute solution of a bird-safe disinfectant, such as OxyFresh, Citricidal, or Kennelsol, can be sprayed on and wiped from the surface of the now empty box.
Do Not Disturb
Disturb the birds as little as possible. Pairs should feel that the nestbox is theirs alone – a safe place to raise a family. Pairs who are protective or who feel vulnerable will feel more secure if the nestbox isn’t inspected at all. Closed circuit cameras can be installed to keep an eye on breeding activity. Some of the new video cameras are very small and inconspicuous. The large bulky color video cameras can be purchased second hand for under $100. Black and white surveillance cameras are intended, in many cases, for low light locations and can be very useful for observing the birds’ activities. You will need a power supply (around $25) and enough co-ax cable to reach from the camera to one of your television input connections.
If the female spends the night in the nestbox, she may have layed an egg. Watch the next morning when the lights come on. If she spends two nights in the nestbox, she surely has layed. If the pair will tolerate nestbox inspection, you can check the nestbox once a week until you find the first egg; otherwise, rely on watching via the camera. Pair incompatibility, as well as human interference, can play a role in eliciting protective behavior. This protective behavior can take the form of expressions of fear, anxiety, and insecurity by excessive or prolonged growling upon inspection, hiding in the nestbox when out of the presence of the caregiver, injuries to the babies, less production, and fewer eggs. The cameras can be very useful with these pairs. Having the box checked daily before I got them disturbed one of my pairs. This particular pair, once double clutchers with two babies per clutch, has given me triple clutches with three and four babies per clutch. Their increased production can be attributed to being disturbed less; making them feel more secure.
The addition of one-quarter teaspoon of Neo-Calglucon to the soft foods after the first egg is discovered will replace the calcium drawn from the hen’s body for the formation of the cuticle of the egg. Supplementation should be continued until two weeks after the last egg is layed. A laying hen’s blood calcium can rise to over 25 during egg laying from the normal reference values of 7.0 to 9.5 for African Greys. This indicates the massive amount of calcium that is withdrawn from the organs and the bones. Keeping accurate records for each pair can give you an idea of how many eggs you can expect. This enables you to determine when to discontinue the calcium supplementation. Since Neo-Calglucon is so safe, it is of little consequence if the pair gets it for several extra days. When the pair is feeding babies, extra calcium added to the soft foods could be hazardous to the babies. If your hen has chronically low blood calcium levels, consult your avian vet.
Spirulina is added to my “birdie bread” and Wheatgrass is sprinkled on the soft foods. The majority of soft foods, grains, sprouts, and beans are organically grown and are from the health food store. Sweet corn is well loved and eagerly consumed. My Grey breeding birds are fed Harrison’s Bird Diet. No supplemental vitamins/minerals should be offered if birds are on a pellet-based diet. Birds who are on pellets and a varied soft food diet are getting all the vitamins and minerals they need unless a bird has low blood calcium. A small quantity of seeds can be offered twice a week as a treat. Breeder formulation pellets should be offered when the pair is feeding babies.
Mating to Hatching
My Greys usually copulate in the morning for about ten days before the hen lays. Once they start copulating in the evening as well, laying is eminent.
Steady and sturdy perches are important as mating often occurs over an extended period of time, on the average for more than 10 minutes. Perches should be the right diameter; if they are too large or too small, the hen may be unable to sustain her balance during mating. Perches ranging in diameter from one and a half inches to three inches along the length will provide the hen with a choice for secure footing. Some hens will benefit from a second perch positioned four inches away from the first. She will be able to lean forward and brace herself for balance and footing during mating. Breeding Greys are most comfortable if their perches are above their caretaker’s head. When limited by the height of the room, lower perches will not adversely affect birds that are otherwise secure in their cage and secure in their nestbox.
If you know your birds or watch them on camera, you will have a pretty good idea of when incubation has begun and be able to calculate hatch dates within two or three days. Some hens begin incubating with the first egg; others may wait until the second egg. If the first two babies are the same age, based on development, the hen begins incubating with the second egg. If the babies are three days apart in age, based on development, the hen begins incubation with the first egg. If incubation begins with the second egg rather than the first, this can be a significant advantage if the clutch is large. The age difference between the first and last baby is not as great and there is less chance of the youngest getting lost in the shuffle. Most Greys are good parents; how they manage to feed their lazy babies I can’t even guess, as it is not unusual for the handfeeder to have to wake the babies up between spoonfuls of formula.
It is important for the health and safety of the babies that the pair be provided with cage and nestbox security. In addition to video cameras, one of the best purchases you can make for monitoring activities once the babies hatch is a remote infant monitor from Radio Shack. The unit is amazingly sensitive. You can hear the parents leaving and entering the box as well as the babies making their distinctive feeding sounds. The receiving portion of the monitor can be placed against the top of the boot or hung facing the wall of the boot.
Feeding the Parents and the Babies
If the breeding pair aren’t paper chewers, the bottom of the cage can be lined with newspaper when they are feeding babies. The paper can be changed three times a day to avoid the birds retrieving a spoiled morsel of food. Giving the parents an over abundance of soft foods will help them feel secure that there is plenty of food for even the largest brood. The parents and the babies in the nestbox will consume an amazing amount of food. Parent birds, provided with an abundance of nutritious foods at 8 or 9am, at 3pm and at 9pm, will produce healthy fat babies. An hour before the lights go out, another bowl of food that won’t spoil by morning should be offered such as sweet corn, sprouts, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Sprinkle all of the soft foods with Wheatgrass and provide unlimited Harrison’s pellets and the babies will sprout the most beautiful fire engine red tails above the characteristic dark margins of immatures. Pellets should be available at all times. The birds will gorge themselves shortly before lights out and feed the babies during the night. In the early morning, they will finish off the bowl of food given the night before.
Don’t be concerned if the hen is seen outside the nestbox infrequently. She will come out only to relieve herself, have a drink of water, or to be fed by the male when the babies are very young. When the babies are a little older, the hen may eat for herself rather than depend on the male for all of the food for her and the growing brood. The male will typically feed the hen in the box or at the entrance. If she comes out of the box for any reason, the male will often feed her then also. It is so strange to see an adult female, or any adult, with a bulging crop.
I reward the parents with dry seeds and pomegranates after pulling the babies. My pairs aren’t offered seeds or pomegranates while they are feeding babies. Since the breeding birds love dry seeds and pomegranates, they would fill the babies up with them instead of the nourishing soft foods and pellets.
Pulling Babies From the Nest
Leaving the babies with the parents until the oldest chick is around 24 days old will produce heftier babies than pulling them earlier. A study of my own Grey babies showed clearly and conclusively: The longer the babies were fed by the parents, the better their weights were at 24 days (maximum days fed by the parents) when compared to same-age weights of babies who were pulled earlier than 24 days of age.
This length of time is also very advantageous for handfeeding purposes, if the clutch is three or four, because you aren’t feeding very young babies.
A size 14 band will fit on the legs of most 25 day old chicks. If banding is not a consideration, the babies can be left with the parents for a month.
Next month’s article will discuss brooders and handfeeding baby chicks.