by Dr Bob Donely BVSc FACVSc CMAVA

Although it is early winter as I write this article, it will be late winter when you read it-and time to start thinking about the next breeding season. Even though the days are short and cold, now is the time to start getting things ready to ensure a good outcome for the season, regardless of your breeding objectives for this year. Below is a checklist of factors that you should be thinking about. Some of them may not be applicable to your birds; others you may have already done. But you must at least think about them!

The Birds

Which birds do I want to breed this year?

It is a sad fact that, for some species, the market is flooded with surplus birds and prices have dropped as supply exceeds demand. In some cases this could mean that you may not be able to readily sell all the birds you breed, forcing you to hang on to them for many months-costing you food and labour while you do so. So, before you commit yourself to the time and expense of breeding birds and housing and feeding the offspring, research the market and ask yourself whether you can sell your production. If the answer is ‘no', or ‘with great difficulty', then you may need to decide which pairs should breed this season.

Do you have true pairs?

Unless you are certain that you have a true pair (and not just two birds), now is the time to find out. If you have a sexually monomorphic species (ie both sexes are physically identical), how do you know if you have a true pair? Either through previous breeding success or through surgical/DNA sexing. If you have just bought a pair with a supposed breeding history, you need to ask yourself why this pair was up for sale. If you are uncertain, having them resexed may be a good idea before the season is too advanced. DNA sexing offers you the opportunity to have birds sexed without seeing a veterinarian, but it is not as accurate as the laboratories would have you believe. Surgical sexing, while it has some accuracy problems as well, offers an immediate confirmation of sex-and an assessment of reproductive maturity and status as well.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Chick

A juvenile Red-tailed Black Cockatoo chick with a rotated leg. This problem can be due to nutritional, genetic and nestbox factors. If this problem occured in your chicks last year, you need to review these factors before the next breeding season




Are they old enough to breed?

It is sometimes surprising to find that some breeders have little idea about when a particular species reaches sexual maturity and expect immature birds to breed successfully. Occasionally someone will fluke it and get an immature pair to breed. It must be remembered that this is often good luck and not likely to be repeated consistently. If you haven't bred this species before, do your homework. The various A Guide to ... titles and articles published by ABK Publications are a good starting point to research the breeding characteristics of your birds.

Are they compatible?

Just because you have a hen and a cock doesn't mean that they will like each other! You need to watch your pair to check whether they sit beside each other, whether the cock feeds the hen, and whether they are mutually preening, etc. Do not expect a pair that fights constantly to change when spring starts and pair up to breed. They might-but they probably won't! If you have a new pair that seems incompatible, now is the time to split them up if possible and repair them with other birds.

Another compatibility issue involves cockatoo and Amazon pairs who have to be observed carefully for aggression during the breeding season. These species might appear to be very compatible, until the cock's hormones kick in and he tries to kill his hen because she is not quite ready to breed. Watch these birds carefully and, at the first sign of trouble, separate them temporarily.

Are they healthy?

Overweight, unhealthy, disease-ridden birds rarely breed successfully. If you haven't checked your birds for body condition, external parasites, lumps and swellings and discharges, etc and crop drenched them if necessary, now is the time. You don't want to disturb nesting birds in order to worm them, nor do you want to find dead or dying birds in the aviary halfway through the season with a condition that could, and should, have been detected and treated before the season began. If you have your doubts about a bird's health, take it to an avian veterinarian now. Do not wait until it is really sick and then have to kick yourself for missing the breeding season.

The Aviary Is it suitable for breeding birds?

Some aviaries are unsuitable for breeding. They may be overcrowded, in close proximity to noise and other disturbances, too close to other birds, too small, too run-down, and so on. Now is the time to evaluate the aviary for its purpose and, if unsuitable, think about relocating the birds to a more suitable aviary.
Does it need cleaning or repairing?

If the aviary is suitable, now is the time to evaluate it to see whether repairs, refurnishing (eg new perches) or cleaning is required. The last thing you want to do at the height of the breeding season is get in there and start welding, wiring, steam cleaning, hosing and scrubbing.

Does it offer shelter and privacy?

Most birds need to feel secure before they will go to nest. Whether it involves birds in neighbouring aviaries, kids and pets running around, the odd bird of prey, or even sunlight shining directly into a nestbox entrance, these factors will make your birds nervous and less likely to nest. By providing a privacy area-sometimes just a sheet of metal or timber in front of the nestbox-where the birds can court, work their nestbox or seek shelter if a potential threat appears, the year's breeding success can be greatly improved. Again, now is the time to erect such a shelter if you don't already have one.

Can you provide a sprinkler system to simulate rainfall if needed?

One of the most powerful stimuli for triggering reproductive drive in birds is rainfall. Rain brings on a surge of plant growth, with seeds, new shoots and fruits emerging as food for the offspring-no wonder birds are so responsive to it. If you live in an area of irregular rainfall, using a garden sprinkler system to simulate rainfall can greatly increase your success during the breeding season. Obviously, local council restrictions on the use of water have to be followed but, if you can do it, your birds will appreciate the ‘rainfall'.

The Nestbox

Do you have enough nestboxes to offer the birds some choice if needed?

Established pairs are usually more than happy with the same nestbox year after year. However, new pairs, or pairs with a poor breeding performance record, will often benefit from having a choice of nestboxes. We do not fully understand all the factors involved in a bird's decision to select a nestbox and, by providing nestboxes of various sizes and shapes in different positions in the aviary, we can try to cater for most tastes. Once the pair have selected a nestbox and are starting to work it, surplus boxes can be removed and utilised elsewhere.

Have you cleaned and aired the nestbox out?

Nestboxes are, by definition, warm, poorly ventilated and often humid environments. Not only is this an ideal situation for rearing chicks, it is also an ideal growth medium for growing bacteria and fungi, especially Aspergillosis. Every breeding season sees aviculturists lose whole clutches-or even adults-to fungal and bacterial pneumonias. On investigation, it is often found that the aviculturists neglected to clean out the nestboxes, air them out and replace the nesting material. The result is often disastrous. Don't let this happen to you. Take your nestboxes down, throw out the old nesting material, hose out the nestboxes and leave them for 1-2 weeks opened up out in the sun to dry and air out. (Don't wash them and then leave lids and doors on or closed). Once they are cleaned, dried and well aired, spray them with a residual pyrethrin-based insecticide (eg Vetafarm's Avian Insect Liquidator®) and add fresh, clean nesting material before hanging them up again. This process is going to take 2-3 weeks, so now is the time to do it!

Did you have any dead-in-shell or dead-in-nest last year?

All too often I hear aviculturists blaming the weather for a poor outcome during the last breeding season, eg 'It was too hot!', 'That cold spell killed all the chicks in the nest', 'It rained too much', or 'It rained too little'. Nearly 100% of the time there has been no investigation into neonatal losses and eggs that fail to hatch - it was obviously the weather! Unfortunately, those aviculturists who blame the weather without an investigation often miss viral infections in their birds, such as Polyomvirus. Year after year they blame the weather, but never themselves. If you had heavy losses in the nest last year, burn your nestboxes and start again. If there is a viral disease present, this may be enough to nip it in the bud this year. It is impossible to disinfect a wooden nestbox (except with fire or radiation). Do not take the risk - destroy potentiallly contaminated nestboxes and start afresh.

Where are the nestboxes positioned?

Sometimes nestboxes are located in an aviary where it is convenient for the aviculturist to inspect them, rather than where the birds would be most comfortable having them. Now, if the two things coincide, that is great. But if the birds are reluctant to enter a nestbox, think about re-positioning it in a secluded area in the aviary to make the birds feel more secure. (See the comments above about offereing choice.) Again, now is the time to sort these things out - not in the middle of the breeding season when you realise things aren't going to plan.

The Diet

Is the diet nutritionally adequate?

A diet's adequacy is not determined by a bird's willingness to lay eggs while consuming this diet. Rather, it is determined by the number of eggs laid, the fertility and hatchability of those eggs, the viability of the chicks - and the hen's ability to breed successfully, year after year. On an almost daily basis I am told, 'The breeder told me to just feed seed'. It is a sad fact that, in 2008, there are still aviculturists who believe that the provision of seed and water is a sound diet for breeding birds. You might not think that they exist - but they do! Any losses are attributed to the weather, the cock, the lunar cycle or a hawk - but never the diet. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Seed is not a natural or complete diet for any bird. Seed can be a part of the diet, but not the sole diet. Every year I am reminded of this when I see very successful aviculturists putting in a huge effort preparing and feeding a varied and balanced diet to their birds. To steal a phrase from the computer industry: Garbage in, garbage out. Stop blaming the weather and start evaluating your diet critically.

Have you made provision for 'flushing'?

Hopefully, over winter, you have reduced the fat content of your birds' diet by feeding pellets or lower-fat seeds, both given with lots of vegetables. (If feeding seed, you have hopefully been supplementing your birds with vitamins and minerals.) If you have done this, you are in the position to take advantage of a natural phenomenon known as 'flushing'. The onset of spring, with a surge in plant growth, sees the diet of wild birds increase in both quantity and quality. In particular, the fat content of their diet is markedly elevated. This is Nature's way of saying, 'If you breed now, the chances of your offspring's survival are markedly increased'. And so this 'flushing' stimulates birds to breed. In the aviary we can do this by adding more sunflower seed to the diet to increase its fat content. This won't work if the birds have been on a high-fat diet all through winter. However, if you have kept them lean and healthy, you will see great results within a few weeks of increasing the fat content of the diet.

The Offspring

Do you have somewhere to put the chicks you breed this year once they have been weaned?

It never fails to amaze me when I see aviculturists, who have put in a great effort to get a successful breeding season, turn around and realise that htey have no spare aviaries in which to keep the newly weaned chicks. Plan ahead, folks. If you think you will have a good season, make sure that you have somewhere to put those birds until you can move them on. An aviary that gives them roon to develop their flying and social skills with other chicks is the ideal - and one that all serious aviculturists should strive for.

Have you got the correct sized leg bands?

How are you going to identify different clutches or individuals this year? If you are going to use leg bands, are you going to use closed rings or split rings? Do you have enough? Are they the right size? Do you know how to put them on? Think about these questions and ensure that you know the answers and are ready for the season.

How are you going to monitor the health and quality of the chicks you breed?

Every year I see stunted chicks, chicks with leg deformities, chicks that are poorly nourished and/or diseased. Unfortunately, most of the time these chicks are being presented by the new owner, not the aviculturist who bred them. Poor quality chicks are a reflection of their parents - their health, their diet and sometimes their genetic make-up. If you are not monitoring the quality of the chicks, you are not doing your job properly. If you are seeing problems, seek veterinary advice. Sometimes it is a simple matter of adjusting the diet; other times it can be quite complex. Like many other avian veterinarians, I strongly believe that aviculturists should be responsible for the quality of the birds that they breed and should be prepared to not only guarantee their product', but should also be prepared to investigate and remedy any problems that are identified.

Last Year's Season

What problems did you have last year?

Winter is the time for reflection on the highs and lows of last year's season. What went well? What didn't go so well? Again - don't blame the weather! Work out what went wrong, identify the likely causes and then take action to correct them. think about making some changes in the things discussed above. (However, if you had a great season, do not make any radical changes unless you have to). Make sure that you allow enough time for these changes to take effect!

Some aviculturists will read this article and be mentally 'ticking' off these things as they read them. Others will find things that they haven't thought of, while others will think of things I have missed or overlooked. However, what I am hoping is that everyone who reads these things will at least think about them. And stop blaming the weather for a poor breeding season!

If you have any bird health aspects you would like to see answered in this column, email your interest to Please note that this is not a forum for urgent advice. If you have a sick bird you need to contact an avian veterinarian as listed in our back pages as soon as possible.

For more information visit the Australian Birdkeeper Publications listing.