Breeding The Quaker Parrot

For anyone interested in breeding birds, whether they be a novice or boast years of experience, I think the Quaker is an excellent choice for many reasons. We have found that they are, by far, the easiest of all birds to breed. For one, the cost associated with starting a hobby or business of breeding birds will be considerably less, due to the availability of these birds and their very reasonable purchase price.

And unlike some other birds who can be unusually “picky”, a Quaker will usually bond quite closely with any mate provided to them—the only minor problem being that to provide a suitable mate, you will almost certainly have to have them surgically sexed or DNA tested to ensure that you do indeed have both a male and a female! If money and space permits, a simpler way to pair Quakers (although not 100% reliable every time) is to buy several youngsters, put them all together in a large flight cage, provide several Cockatiel or conure-sized nest boxes and let them pair up naturally. Quakers generally have no problems with picking a suitable mate.

Also, Quakers are sexually mature in as little as 12 to 18 months of age, meaning that even if you purchase them quite young and keep them as pets in your home, you won’t have long to wait before you have potential parents. If you choose to breed them in a colony environment, their group nesting behavior is especially interesting, with their huge communal nest providing a spectacular display for any aviary.

The increasing demand for Quakers as their popularity continues to grow is another reason they are an excellent choice, and their ability to withstand extreme temperatures makes breeding them a viable option for almost anyone, regardless of the climate. The following information that we are providing on breeding is based mostly on our personal experiences and is in no way intended as a complete and comprehensive guide to breeding and raising Quakers. Rather, it is simply an overview, a set of guidelines and suggestions offered to increase the reader’s understanding of some of the requirements and expectations when breeding Quakers.

Nesting

Quakers are the only psitticines who build communal nests, creating very complex and fascinating structures made entirely from twigs, branches, straw, leaves, and any other nesting material they may find suitable. In the wild, entire colonies of Quakers create a main nest structure, and each pair of Quakers “adds on” to that structure, building separate chambers very much like apartment buildings that contain several apartments. Each chamber usually consists of three separate areas, with each area having a pre-designated purpose. One area (the bedroom?) is used for the laying and incubating of eggs. One of nature’s most incredible self-contained life capsules, the fertilized egg contains all of the balanced nutrients and all of the genetic material for the creation of a new life. After the eggs hatch and the chicks begin to grow, they are then moved to one of the two remaining areas. When these chicks are approximately four to five weeks old, it is normal for the parents to then lay another clutch in the bedroom. The third area is often used by the parents as a “look-out” point to guard the nest, manned by the “sentinel” of the group.

Colony Breeding in a Captive Setting

Drawing on our personal experience, we found that colony breeding in our captive setting was not nearly as productive as it is when Quakers breed in their natural habitat. After experimenting with colony breeding for nearly a year and experiencing a drastic reduction in the number of eggs laid as well as the survival rate, we abandoned this method and returned to our initial—and much more productive—single-pair-to-a-cage method. We provide 3x3x3 cages for each pair constructed of 18 gauge welded wire (due to their extremely strong chewing ability) suspended from the ceiling with chain. We hang a cockatiel-sized nest box made of 24 gauge metal (also due to their chewing ability!) on the upper half on the end of each cage, and provide them with plenty of straw, twigs and branches with which to construct their nest. Metal nestboxes are sometimes used because they can be disinfected with a bleach solution and reused from one season to the next. Some pairs have done just as well with simple untreated pine shavings as a nesting material in a Cockatiel or conure sized pine nestbox. Like most other birds, Quakers prefer to be left alone during the incubation and nesting periods, and will protest quite loudly if disturbed. We have been known to peek in nestboxes using a flashlight or candling device for a quick look, but it is advisable to refrain from handling eggs or hatchlings unless you are prepared to pull them and care for them. Some Quakers will abandon eggs and/or babies or even destroy them if they have been handled by humans, although this is not always the case.

An adequate amount of calcium must be consumed by hens for them to lay, and in some cases calcium deficiencies in hens will cause them to eat the eggs they have laid (egg shells contain calcium). If this occurs you can remedy the situation by adding a calcium supplement to their water or food, providing a cuttlebone for them to chew on, or providing oyster or egg shells which can be purchased at any pet food store or pet shop.

Lighting

When breeding Quakers indoors, adjustments need to be made to ensure proper lighting. It is impossible to mimic the natural light cycles changes of the outdoors without some adjustments, and since the changing light cycle is what stimulates birds to lay, some effort must be taken in order for the birds to be productive.

When using artifical lighting to encourage the pair to lay, any windows or other sources of natural light should be covered or otherwise blocked to prevent the Quakers from becoming confused. Quakers who are subjected to natural lighting only will normally produce about twice a year. The use of artificial lighting at scheduled intervals will make the birds believe that it is springtime, and they will lay accordingly. Full spectrum lighting such as Vitalites should be used to provide 16 hours of light per day. The lights should be put on a timer to ensure that the full 16 hours of light is provided at regular intervals. Concerns regarding overbreeding by encouraging double-clutching are not necessary, as Quakers are famous for being prolific breeders in their natural habitat, and they will breed and raise several clutches before taking a break (usually lasting 2-3 months).

Diet

The food diet of a producing pair of quakers should be rich in vitamins and calcium. Avoid seed diets as they are high in fat and generally will result in vitamin deficiencies. One dish that we feed our breeders daily consists of a 3-bean mix supplemented with rice, corn and carrots. They get a small amount of this mix daily, and have pellets available at all times, along with cuttlebone. There are many different mixes and diets that have proven to be successful for breeding birds. My suggestion would be talk with other successful breeders about the diets they feed their birds, and use your best judgement. Not everyone feeds the same diet, but there are many diets that are healthy and adequate for breeders.

Breeding Cycles and Hatchlings

The Quakers normal cycle (once they begin breeding) is for the hen to lay one egg every other day until she has laid anywhere from four to eight eggs. (How the number of eggs to be laid is determined, I have no idea, and the number changes seemingly at random!) One major complication at this stage can be egg-binding in the female. Chances of this can be reduced if the hen is fed a proper, calcium-rich diet. If this does occur, calcium supplements such as Avimin or NeoCalGlucon can be placed directly in the beak of the hen. A more primitive solution consists of holding the female’s abdomen in lukewarm water for 3-10 minutes to relax the muscles, sometimes allowing passage of the egg. These procedures are recommended only for experienced breeders; new breeders should consult an avian vet if they feel the hen may be egg-bound.

With the laying of the second or third egg, the pair begins incubation (the practice of applying heat to stimulate growth of the embryo) which lasts anywhere from 24 to 28 days, oftentimes with the male sitting on the eggs and taking part in the process just as much as the female! Quakers sometimes know instinctively when an egg is “bad”, and will push it out of the way, ignoring it. How they perceive this is unknown, but one way for breeders to determine if an egg is viable is to use a probe light, or candler. This is an aviculturists tool used to view the outside and contents of an egg to determine if they are fertile, infertile, or even cracked, and to check the development and age of the embryo. The tool should have a narrow cool beam and be portable. Candling should be done in dim light or in the dark so that only the light passing through the shell is observed. The translucency of white-shelled eggs allows candling, with smaller eggs being more translucent since they have thinner shells. Use of a candler can find slightly damaged eggs that contain hairline cracks that cannot be seen by the naked eye. If found in time, the egg can be repaired with the use of clear fingernail polish and the embryo can then develop and hatch normally. Infertile eggs can be removed so that fertile eggs will receive full incubation attention.

You should wait at least 3 days after the last egg was laid before candling to determine whether they are fertile. If the egg is fertile and has been incubated for only about 3 days, you will see definite opacities along with a fine web of red blood vessels. In an egg that has been incubated for a longer period, the inside will appear more completely filled. It will be dark and fairly hard to see through. At this stage, you will be able to see the air pocket as it becomes larger in the wide end of the egg, where the chick will pip and emerge. When the embryo is 3/4 through its incubation, it may be detected by shining the light into the air space and observing for motion against the air sac membrane. The embryo is not always moving, but this activity will increase and be easier to detect closer to the piping date.

Use of a candler can also tell you if the air pocket is in the wrong position (on the bottom or side of egg). If it is, you may need to assist the chick to hatch. Many times a chick cannot hatch if it is in the wrong position inside the egg. If an egg is fertile but has not hatched, candling the egg will tell you if the embryo is still alive and moving. Some breeders have been in the business for so long that they have gained enough experience to be able to do this pretty accurately without a probe light. If you observe a chick that has piped but not rotated, it can still be saved, although it is a delicate and risky business. This usually occurs when the humidity is too low during incubation, resulting in excessive water loss. This in turn results in lack of proper lubrication of the membranes surrounding the chick.

The shape of the air cell can also be used to determine if an egg is close to hatching. The air cell will normally have a sharp edge that appears round during the incubation period. Within 24-48 hours of pip, the air cell will change shape and its perimeter will drop slightly or even a great deal on one side of the egg. This is called drawdown or internal pip and signified that the chick is moving its head toward the air cell. [Parrot Incubation Procedures, Jordan, 1989]. You can often candle eggs at this point and see movement of the chick’s head in response to the candling light.

If no development is observed after 2 weeks of incubation, the egg should be removed and broken to see if any blood rings or dead embryos can be found. A blood ring is left when an embryo dies very early in development and the extra embryonic blood vessels have continued to move down the yolk membrane.

Once eggs have piped naturally they should be transported to a hatcher that has a much higher humidity and slightly lower temperature than the incubator. The actual hatching will take about 2 days. Once hatched, the never-ending task of feeding a blind, helpless check begins, with you as the designated parent!

After eggs have been hatched by the parents, they are guarded closely by both. With normal green quakers, the babies are born with a very soft, light yellow down sparsely covering their bodies, which eventually turn into green pinfeathers with blue highlights as the babies mature. Babies that have become fully feathered (approximately 8-10 weeks of age) look almost exactly as they will for the rest of their lives. We normally pull baby Quakers from the nest when they are approximately 2 weeks old, right as their eyes are beginning to open, and raise them together in aquariums. We install a “grill” in the bottom of every aquarium constructed of 1/2″ x 1″ hardware cloth (cage material) with the edges bent over 1″ so that it fits right down into the bottom of the aquarium snugly. This produces a 1″ raised platform that prevents the babies from becoming spraddle-legged as they grow and reduces contamination resulting from direct contact with their droppings. It also gives them a head start on grasping with their feet to maintain balance. Another solution is to place shredded wood shavings or oat groats in the bottom of the container or attach small perches connected to suction cups on the sides of the aquarium to give them a sort of foothold. Young babies may occasionally eat the wood shavings in the bottom of the containers, as well as other non-paper material used for bedding, particularly if they are hungry and no “grill” is used to keep them off the bottom. Ingestion of this bedding can lead to internal obstructions and other serious problems, which is why we provide a grill.

Artificial Incubation

We do not recommend that new breeders pull eggs from the nest and attempt to hatch them in incubators unless absolutely necessary (such as when parents have abandoned them) due to the extremely small size of newborn Quaker hatchlings, and the amount of knowledge required to perform this successfully. Also in some cases the chick will need some assistance in emerging from the shell, which is an extremely delicate undertaking and is not recommended for the novice or first-time breeder! It bears no resemblance whatsoever to cracking an egg straight out of the refrigerator! The topic of incubation could fill a book by itself with the many different techniques leading to a successful hatching of eggs. Having the right equipment is as important as knowing the process. Temperature, humidity, ventilation, egg turning and sanitation are all important factors in the proper incubation of eggs (Brown, 1979). In our experience with eggs that have been artificially incubated, the growth pattern of the chicks has also been delayed somewhat. Instead, if eggs have been abandoned or are otherwise in danger, the first attempt at saving them should be to place the eggs in the nestbox of a hen who is currently laying her own eggs (aka known as “fostering”). We have done this on a few occasions and the hen will usually sit on the foster eggs as though they were her own, and feed the babies when they hatch.

In larger clutches that have all been laid by the same hen, there is a significant size difference between the first baby hatched and the last. The age differences within the same clutch can be two weeks or more. When a hen has a large clutch, extra supervision by the breeder should be practiced to ensure that the smallest babies are still being fed by the parents when needed. One way to ensure this is to pull only the largest two or three babies when they are approximately 10 days to 2 weeks of age, and leave the younger, smaller babies in the nest for the parents to continue feeding for a while (approximately one week). When the parents are doing a good job of keeping the babies’ crops full, it is a temptation to leave the chicks in the nest for an extra week. However, I think that the additional work involved in pulling them earlier pays off in tamer, friendlier babies that bond extremely well to humans, hardly aware that they are actually birds!

Handfeeding Babies

The handfeeding and weaning process is critical in producing healthy, emotionally secure, well-socialized Quakers. For anyone inexperienced in handfeeding who wants to handfeed their babies, I strongly suggest you ask a bird breeder who handfeeds the babies to give you extensive lessons and supervise you as you attempt it. This will give you a feel for how it’s done, and provides an opportunity to ask questions that will certainly arise. An experienced breeder will already have encountered most of the pitfalls and problems that occur with handfeeding, and there is no reason for you to make mistakes that others can prevent by sharing their information. Most breeders are only too happy to share their wealth of information, and will allow you to “pick their brain” to your heart’s content. Once you start feeding chicks on your own, follow the same steps that a quality breeder follows, and remain in close communication with the breeder and/or a qualified vet who can monitor the chick’s progress. In my opinion, handfeeding Quakers is a bit easier to learn than some of the other species, but should still be learned with a qualified mentor. The Quaker babies are quite willing to assist your learning experience by opening their mouths very wide when it is time for a feeding, standing on their legs and straining to reach the syringe. By the time they are about 3 1/2 to 4 weeks of age, they will recognize you as their food provider, and will scramble back and forth from one side of the aquarium to the other when they see you in the room, flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and begging to be fed. If you have never bred Quakers, this is one of the most comical sights you will ever see, and one of the most endearing!

For handfeeding these babies we prefer to use Exact Hand Feeding Formula for Parrots, which is mixed with warm water until it is the consistency of pancake or cake batter. There are several other handfeeding formulas available and we are not hyping any one particular brand over another; this is simply the brand we prefer to use. Follow the instructions on the package exactly as they are written. The formulas may look watery, but don’t deviate from the instructions. Thicker formula doesn’t necessarily mean healthier babies, and mixing too much formula for the amount of water prescribed could dehydrate them. It also causes slower digestion, meaning the baby is actually getting less formula than you should be feeding. Don’t switch brands partway through handfeeding a baby. We strongly discourage the use of a microwave to heat formulas as it can create hot spots which will burn the chicks crop and can cause severe or even fatal damage. Temperature should be 100–103 degrees. Never feed formula that is under or over this. Formula that is too cold can cause crop stasis, too hot can result in crop burn. Use a thermometer to gauge temperature, and never trust your finger. Make a fresh batch of food each feeding time, and discard the unused portion to eliminate bacterial growth. Keep the unused dry handfeeding formula in the refrigerator. We use syringes that are manufactured specifically for handfeeding baby birds, and can be found at various bird supply outlets. Handfeeding babies with a syringe is a bit more complicated than spoonfeeding, which is safer but slower and messier. When spoonfeeding, a baby Quaker’s lower beak acts as a little scoop, which I think makes them a little easier to feed than other species. When using the gavage method you must be especially careful to ensure that the formula is being guided into the crop and not the lungs, which will cause the baby to aspirate. For very young birds, the use of tubing attached to the syringe is beneficial in helping to prevent aspiration, as it guides the formula directly to the crop. Again, I cannot stress enough that these methods should be learned under the direct supervision of an experienced handfeeder!

After feeding, check the baby’s lower beak to make sure there is no formula left in it. If there is, dampen a cotton swab to remove it. Formula left in the lower beak can harden and cause beak deformities, and is difficult to remove later. Use caution while doing this as the area is very delicate. Also clean off any formula that is on the chick’s body. Use a warm wet paper towel or a baby wipe to gently wipe off the down or feathers. Pay close attention to the area under the beak.

Always be sure to wash your hands before and after handling each clutch to discourage the spread of germs. Clean and sterilize the feeding instruments for each clutch of babies and do not use the feeding instruments to dip back into the food container after you have used it to mix with. Never leave a baby alone on a table top or counter—always confine them in a container, or basket. You can turn your back for one second, and the baby will be on the floor. You will be surprised at how mobile they are even at a young age.

Monitor the babies to see when they next need to be fed. Depending on age and size, this could be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. The crop should be empty (or close to empty) before another feeding is given. Set a routine and stick to it. Feedings that are given too infrequently can cause stunted growth, poor feathering and compromised immune systems.

When pulled at the age of 2 weeks, we handfeed the baby Quakers a minimum of four times per day, with each feeding consisting of an average of 10-13 ml. of formula. At this age, most of them will sleep through the night without needing a feeding, although this is not always the case. (Please bear in mind that these amounts are not exact, and will vary according to the size and growth rate of each baby.) By the time the babies reach 4 weeks of age, the feedings are reduced to 3 times per day, consisting of approximately 15-20 ml. of formula at each feeding. Keep babies away from other birds to protect them from viruses and bacteria that other birds may be carrying, and never keep babies from different sources together. Siblings (“clutches”) of babies may be housed together. A healthy chick on a good diet will appear bright, alert and responsive. Daily weighing is strongly recommended, first thing in the morning before any feeding is done. Records should be kept in regards to weight gain/loss, general appearance, amount of formula taken, appearance of droppings, etc. The feet and toes are also good indicators of healthy babies. They should be plump and round, not long, slender and/or dried out. Feathers should be clean, shiny, and in neat order, although several babies housed together can cause some tail feathers to look “ratty” from being chewed occasionally by siblings!

The best time to introduce weaning foods is when the baby birds start investigating, picking up items and “gumming” them with their beaks. At around the age of 3 1/2 to 4 weeks of age, we begin to offer mixed vegetables and small pelleted food in bowls in the aquarium along with water, while still maintaining handfeeding. When they reach approximately 6-8 weeks of age, we then offer the larger pelleted food and millet spray. As the babies begin to eat some of the pelleted food on their own, they will accept less of the handfeeding formula, so don’t be alarmed if your babies only eat half as much as they did before. Usually it is the “lunchtime” feeding that they drop first, followed by the morning feeding. It may take a little while before they will drop the “last meal before I go to bed” feeding. I personally think it gives them a feeling of security to hang onto that last feeding!

You may also notice a change in their attitudes when they begin to eat vegetables, millet and pelleted food. They may not be quite so excited to see you approach, as if they know (and they probably do) that they are no longer entirely dependent on you to provide their food by handfeeding. We have also noticed that a number of babies will spend almost all day sitting in their food bowl once they realize what the pellets are, as if to guard them from predators! Handfeeding baby Quakers can be a relatively easy and enjoyable task even for a novice breeder, as long as you have armed yourself with extensive knowledge and have the opportunity to learn from a successful breeder.

Three to five clutches per year consisting of anywhere from four to eight babies per clutch is common for Quakers after their second year, and they can usually be depended on to continue to produce this number of babies quite regularly. On an average they make excellent parents, as if they had been in training for it all their lives! A word of caution, however; some Quakers do not “take” to parenting with their very first clutch. With some their first clutch may seem to be merely a “practice” run. They may not sit on their eggs properly, if at all, or the eggs may not be fertile. One of our pairs laid 3 eggs in their first clutch, only to roll them into the corner of their nest box and completely ignore them, prompting us to invest in an incubator and attempt to hatch them artificially rather than lose them. If the eggs do hatch, the parents may very well ignore the babies and refuse to feed them, requiring human intervention if they are to survive. Fortunately, these birds seem to learn from experience, and by the time they lay their second or third clutch, they manage them like professionals, and human intervention is usually not necessary after this point. If you do run into some problems, do not give up too soon. We have been breeding Quakers for several years now and still lose a few babies now and then. Practice makes perfect, and it definitely takes practice to become truly adept at handfeeding baby birds.

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