Some Do’s and Don’ts of Budgerigar Breeding

Now the budgerigar breeding season is on us once again it is an opportune time to list some do’s and don’ts which may assist in getting more eggs and, in particular, more chicks from the eggs which are laid.

Budgerigars, as kept by fanciers, produce far fewer chicks for the number of eggs laid than any other bird kept for exhibition and recent work undertaken at the University of Liverpool, sponsored by the Lancashire and Cheshire Budgerigar Society has attempted to shed some light on this. This article sets out some of the points which have emerged from this research together with a few results from other peoples’ work.

Do’s

  1. Use clean nest boxes, preferably washed out and disinfected at the end of the previous breeding season. Dirty boxes can carry germs which can live for years and these germs can infect eggs and chicks with disastrous results. Preferably use cardboard nest boxes which can be disposed of after use.
  2. The effect of using a clean nest box is nullified if the box, concave and bedding are allowed to become soiled. Dirty bedding should be replaced as required, once the full round has been laid most hens will not be too disturbed by this. If no bedding is used the concave should be washed regularly, particularly once the chicks start hatching otherwise dirt which accumulates on it can cause illness and death. The box should be thoroughly washed and disinfected between rounds if there is gap between the chicks leaving the nest and the beginning of the next round. If sawdust or shavings are used, these should be exposed to the air for a few days before being put in the nestbox.
  3. If, in spite of the fancier’s best efforts, some eggs become soiled, attempts should be made to clean them, otherwise germs can get into the eggs from this dirt. Eggs can be cleaned by putting in water at 40 to 42C (the temperature is critical, use a thermometer) then gently wash them with a sponge while using disposable plastic gloves to hold them.
  4. Having got the hygiene of the breeding environment right what should be done about the prospective parents? Make sure that the birds are in breeding condition, there is little point in pairing birds not in the peak of condition. This is not as easy as it sounds in that one can usually tell if the hens are fit, more difficulty can be experienced with the cocks. Well-fed healthy cocks are only fertile for approximately 6 months each year for a few weeks at a time. Telling when these fertile periods are is not easy even with the experienced eye. If required, cocks can be checked by a veterinary surgeon to see if they are in one of their fertile periods.
  5. Both cocks and hens should, if at all buff, have the large body contour feathers cut off, as during mating these feathers can slide over the vent and stop proper pairing. The feathers should not be plucked because this is painful and they will also re-grow over the breeding period. There is no truth in the old wives’ tale of the guide feathers which are supposed to assist the cock in locating the hen’s vent.
  6. Allow the parent birds as much exercise as possible which means using the biggest breeding cages that your bird room will allow. Some recent work from the USA has demnonstrated that, all other things being equal, the more exercise the birds have, the greater will be the number of eggs which hatch. In the American paper, the author got the best results with birds he forced to fly by chasing them about – I’m not sure if I would recommend this however!
  7. Budgerigars are birds which form quite strong pair-bonds and if these are “ignored” or not broken, the number of eggs produced can be low. Ideally hens and cocks should be kept separate when not being used for breeding and preferably out of earshot as the pair-bond can be maintained by the birds’ calls.

Provided that a balanced diet is fed – preferably a commercial one such as Trill, there is no need for many of the fancy diets fed. If you want to make up your own food use a good quality mixed canary and millet with a protein supplement and a proprietary vitamin and mineral mix. There can be problems in hard water areas, in as much as birds given this to drink can produce eggs with thick shells and sometimes chicks have difficulty hatching from these, so that bottled or boiled water is preferable during the breeding season.

Finally do keep records, not only of the number of chicks which hatch but also if a particular pair does not produce chicks or if failure to hatch is due to clear eggs or dead-in-shells. This will help not only in identifying infertile birds but also indicate where problems may be so that if advice is sought (as it should be if the breeding season does not come up to expectations), these records will be available to help amend the situation.

Don’ts

Many don’ts are the opposite of do’s but there are a few specific things which should be avoided.

  1. Budgerigars will breed over a wide range of temperatures, in fact apart from the comfort of the fancier and to stop the water in the drinkers freezing, there is probably no need to provide heat in the winter. What the birds will not tolerate is wide temperature fluctuations; birds kept in greenhouse type buildings which get very hot by day and very cold at night will not breed satisfactorily
  2. Do not handle eggs. Many fanciers handle eggs frequently and when asked why, few are able to give good reasons. The main reason why they should not be handled is that germs, which all fanciers have on skin, however much it is washed, can get into the egg and cause dead-in-shell. If you feel you must handle the eggs or if you need to keep the nest box clean, use cheap disposable plastic gloves or the special egg handling forceps. To see if eggs are clear they can be examined in the nest with one of the torches produced for the purpose.
  3. Fanciers often mark eggs (which also involves handling the eggs) to make sure that the eggs hatch when they are due. Personally, I believe that a note on the cage record card will do as well. The problem with many markers is that their base is spirit which can get into the egg and may kill the developing chick. If you feel you must mark eggs use soft pencils grade 2B or 3B, which does as well and poses no hazard to the chicks.
  4. Handling and marking eggs does disturb some hens which may lead to chilling of eggs, and if done frequently can lead to eggs drying out which can result in chicks dying or not being able to hatch, or the hatching of weak chicks.
  5. Some fanciers like to increase the humidity in nest boxes but in most circumstances there is no need to do this. However if it is done, one should use moistened peat or sponges under the bedding or concave. The bedding itself should not be moistened (except possibly just before the eggs hatch) as it can stop eggs hatching by stopping or slowing the evaporation of water through the shell. This has to take place as eggs have to lose a fixed amount of water during incubation, if too little or too much is lost, problems result.

Sticking to these do’s and don’ts will not solve all the breeding difficulties with budgerigars, but will help in many cases. Experience indicates that if they are followed breeding results generally improve. The major difficulty they will not solve, is where abnormal eggs are laid, shell abnormalities at the microscopic level, not seen with the naked eye, are a problem awaiting a solution. It will also not improve the quality of the chicks, as this is largely genetically determined. Female budgerigars have the potential to produce several hundred eggs during their lifetime and all of these can, potentially, produce chicks – if they all did, that would pose a problem of what to do with all the chicks. We are a long way from this yet but a few limited steps in that direction would only be of advantage to the fancier.

Original text Copyright 1994, Dr John R Baker.

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