by Heike Ewing Ott
Raising cute little baby parrots sounds like fun. And it’s an easy way to make some extra money, right? The truth is that there’s a lot more that goes into being a breeder than handfeeding and selling chicks. This article is an honest look of what being a breeder is really like — both the good aspects of it and the bad.
I’ve seen several questions on the list lately that seem to inquire if getting a mate is a solution for plucking, or bad behavior, and/or inquiring about getting “a few birds and having some cute babies.”
I’m here to tell you, folks, it ain’t that easy – or simple!
First of all, regards the plucking – any of you who didn’t see my -long- post about Andy and Jade, I’ll recap: Andy was a plucker when I bought him. I got him a mate and he breeds very well. Not only did this NOT cure his plucking, but he “taught” his mate to pluck also!! In their case, I am extremely lucky in that they do not pluck their babies and their babies do not grow up to be pluckers. In many cases, plucking breeders DO pluck their babies, which requires you to “pull” them early and hand-feed them, and often plucked babies grow up to be pluckers, or pluck their own babies. NOT a good solution!
And for those of you who are thinking about going into breeding, let me tell you a little of what it’s like:
Just before I sat down to write this note, I had to kill a cockatiel. He was terminal, and suffering. There was no way to fix him, or make him comfortable. I’d had him for several years and he raised some fine babies for me. Fortunately, he agreed and was ready to go – he died quietly in my hands.
Two nights ago we unexpectely found my best breeder hen parrotlet dead. She was one of the first three breeding pairs of birds I ever bought. There was no warning. She died of egg yolk peritonitis. Her mate is depressed and not eating well. Will I be able to find another hen in time to save him? I don’t know. I’m looking, but there aren’t many around here. I may lose him, too.
Four days ago a pair of cockatiels suddenly abandoned their nestbox full of chicks and eggs. It happened while we were at work – by the time we found them, all were severely chilled. Only one chick has survived under foster parents, and probably none of the eggs will.
In the wild, the survival rate of chicks is about 50%. The birds plan it that way. They lay extra eggs as “backup” in case some of the first to hatch don’t make it. In captive breeding, I get on average an 80 – 90% survival rate. That sounds good, but think about it – one or two of every ten chicks that I see hatch and have hopes for will die. After setting up 3 pairs of English budgies, we only got four chicks. Two died in the nestbox, 1 died while hand-feeding. Only one chick survived to wean. It was their first clutch; they’ll probably do better next time, but it’s heartbreaking.
It’s constant work, too. Every day the birds and nestboxes must be checked, fresh food and water given, and the cages must be cleaned frequently, especially when hens are on eggs and have those big, wet, smelly poops. Babies must be pulled and hand-fed if you expect them to be able to get good homes as pets, and when they are hand-feeding it’s three or four times a day, every single day, without fail, no matter how you feel or what else is going on. You can’t go anywhere for more than a few hours unless you can take them with you, and your schedule must be planned around theirs.
Once some babies have survived, been hand-fed for weeks, and are weaned and socialized, what do you do with them? As much as you might like to on the first batch or so, you can’t keep them all. Probably you’d like to get a little money for them, even if it’s a hobby. After all, you’ve had expenses: nestbox, cage, food, hand-feeding formula, supplies, baby toys, etc., not to mention your hard work.
There are several ways of trying to sell baby birds. You can advertise in the paper, you can go to bird fair(s), you can sell them to a pet store, or you can get a booth at the flea market.
Let’s try an ad in the paper first – that seems the easiest and cheapest. Now, you will have people calling you whenever they feel like it – dinnertime, long after bedtime, 7am on Sunday morning, just any old time. And of course they want to come over RIGHT NOW, or they’re going to call somebody else. So you let them come…. First, although they try to hide it, they’re NOT pleased at the conditions they find. Somehow, even though birds naturally lose feathers, sling food everywhere, and squirt poop out the sides of their cage, YOUR house should be spotless. Or they’ll say “My goodness, I had no idea birds were so MESSY.” During their little visit, they’ll want to pet every bird you own, for sale or not. They’ll have hurt feelings if you say no, and be offended if you ask them to wash their hands. They’ll spend hours picking your brain, manhandle your babies, try to chew you down on price even though you’re already charging half what the pet store does, and THEN they’ll promise to think about it and leave. You’ll never hear from them again. (Mary, Donna, Jody, etc. – I am NOT talking about YOU so don’t even go there!)
But hey, it could be worse. Like the lady who bought a sweet, hand-fed young cockatiel from me. I probably spent three hours with her making the sale. Two days later she called me, then called me several choice names, and told me I had sold her a vicious, untouchable bird. ???? More concerned about my baby than my money, I immediately offered a full refund. I will never know WHAT she did to my sweet baby in 48 hours, but the bird I got back was a totally changed bird. He was absolutely terrified of hands. After two weeks of watching him bash himself up on the cage when I approached, and having him tear me up each time I tried to work with him, I gave up. I still have him, and he breeds for me, but it is still sad – he is one of the very few breeders I have that is -afraid- of me.
Well, so much for the newspaper ads. Shall we try the flea market? Sure. Just remember, people will walk up to you, money in hand, and take away your precious babies. You will never know how they care for them, if they keep them, or even if they survive unless the buyer calls back to complain. And if you refuse to sell – hoo boy, will they cause a scene! Bird fairs are a lot like flea markets, except the table costs more and there is lots and lots of competition and haggling over prices, plus the chance that your babies could get a disease from somebody else’s….
Forget it, let’s just wholesale them to the pet store and let THEM take the hassles. Sure. Let me forward you a few posts from the Avian Rescue list – horror stories about birds in pet stores. The pet store will feed your babies as cheaply as possible, not handle them, not keep them clean, and will probably let them die if they get sick. Even if they DO survive the store, they haven’t been handled for days or weeks, and the new owner is likely to give up on them in frustration. Then they become a ping-pong bird, one that gets bounced around to various owners year after year until it dies or, if it’s lucky, ends up in a sanctuary or refuge, or with a good breeder.
Are we having fun yet? Are we making money yet? NOT!
And there are countless more things I should tell you – How, in spite of all precautions and quarantine measures, a cockatiel carrying dormant psittacosis decimated my breeding flock and killed ALL of my babies. Then, because psittacosis is transmissible to humans, I faced having the health department confiscate and destroy ALL of my birds – even my pets. There was intervention and it didn’t happen to me, but it could have.
Oh, and then there’s noise – breeding pairs are noisier than pets. Some can screech so loud you think your eardrums are burst. Quakers don’t have quite that volume, but the quantity makes up for it. Several years ago I got a “wild” pair and set them up in the “back bedroom.” I re-sold them after two months because I couldn’t stand the noise. I had cockatoos at the time that periodically rattled the windows and could be heard in the next block, but the almost constant noise from the Quakers (and some conures I tried) drove me nuts.
Breeding is a big job, and a major commitment. It can break your heart, take up ALL your spare time, and spend all your money. So, why do *I* do it? Two reasons:
One, I’m somehow “hooked” – I almost can’t NOT do it. Once I got started, I couldn’t – and can’t – stop. And I can’t tell you exactly why. I just know I feel incomplete and unfulfilled when I’m not doing it.
Two, I think that there need to be some breeders like me. Many breeders still keep their birds in small cages with no toys on the theory that if they have nothing else to do, they’ll breed. By example I’m here to disprove that. My birds breed great with lots of toys in big roomy cages. Plus, I try to screen buyers, educate, help other breeders, and produce healthy, well-socialized babies that can bring joy to others. Still, it’s painful sometimes, and hard work, and frustrating, and not half as financially rewarding as people think.
So, do you still want to get a pair or two of breeders and have some cute babies?
Judging from the replies I’ve gotten, I did my job TOO well.
I get very frustrated with people who think that breeding parrots is just fun and games – and easy money. Many people, when they find out what breeding is REALLY like, just can’t do it. I don’t blame them – it takes a certain kind of person to do it. However, the process can be rather hard on the birds. Like the lady who bought most of my breeders – where would they be today if I hadn’t been ready to buy them back when she decided to sell them all again? That’s why I try to paint a harsh picture, hoping that some of those who really shouldn’t do it, don’t – without getting any birds that have to be relocated when they find out they shouldn’t be doing it.
There are many things that keep me going, here are some of them:
-The delight on a child’s face when a young cockatiel steps onto his finger and “bows” its head to be petted.
-The people who call me, even years after the sale, to tell me about “my baby’s” latest exploits and adventures.
– The elderly gentleman who sheepishly admitted that he bought a new Jeep so that his cockatiel wouldn’t get too hot on the way to the lake cabin. (The a/c wasn’t working well in the old one.)
– Laughing so hard I cry when an unsuspecting guest stands in front of the baby cage while I open the door – and instantly becomes a human playgym.
– That inevitable moment when a chick first realizes that I am a source of food, and a friend, and comes towards me instead of trying to get away.
– The Mother’s Day call I got “from Joey” – Joey is the Hahn’s macaw who lives with (and supposedly works for as a toy tester – what a life!) the president of Fellner’s Fine Feathered Friends, a bird toy manufacturer in Chicago. ( Buy XTC toys! Help my Joey keep his job! 😛 )
-The countless times that a buyer has called me and said, “I never knew a bird could be like this!”
-Trying to keep from laughing at a just-pulled baby parrotlet, no larger than the end of my thumb, who is threatening to kill me. (It isn’t nice to laugh – THEY are quite serious about it!)
I truly love breeding and it brings much joy and laughter as well as sorrow into my life – but it can also bring great heartache, guilt, and pain to those who aren’t “cut out for it.”