Breeding the BIG BIRDS

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The big birds are worth the “big bucks,” but watch out for the big headaches. Along with the extra money that the larger birds bring come a variety of extra problems, problems that are surmountable with proper planning.

When large parrots are considered for breeding, the macaws and cockatoos are the most obvious choices. Understanding and meeting the basic requirements for these birds is essential to your eventual success. Without this basic knowledge, you might well bite off more than you can chew. In fact, while we are on the subject of chewing, it should be kept foremost in your mind that these birds are some of the world’s champion chewers! This “talent” translates into the need for expensive, heavy-duty feed bowls, nest boxes and caging.

Setting Up the “Big Guys”

Heavy-duty food and water dishes or bowls that are made of crockery or heavygauge stainless steel are a must if you don’t plan on buying new dishes periodically. These birds can pierce holes in standard aluminum feed cups. At one point in time, many of us in South Florida began using concrete food dishes. We purchased them from a concrete lawn ornament company. These were not only heavy enough to keep the birds from moving them, they also were believed to be indestructible. Most of us found out that due to the high percentage of sand used in the lawn ornament concrete, the macaws and large cockatoos were able to whittle them down to nothing, as if they were calcium blocks.

The crocks or stainless-steel dishes will also have to be held stationary in some fashion. Big birds take great pleasure in tossing their food and water dishes to the far end of the cage. Trying to move a water dish up to the front of the flight for servicing while a territorial macaw tries to nibble off your fingers can add extra “excitement” to your morning feeding chores. This problem is usually solved by containing the dish or bowl within some type of wire basket so it can be removed only by you via a small outside access door, not by the bird within the cage. There are also many metal dishes or bowls that can be fastened to the cage in some way.

Nesting boxes, as well, cannot just be your standard bill of fare. Manufactured sheet metal nest boxes, customized metal trash cans or barrels and plywood boxes lined with wire mesh or metal are the choices most commonly used for destructive species. Macaws and cockatoos will chew through an unprotected plywood floor with little thought to the fact that their eggs will tumble to the ground below.

When choosing cage material, never consider anything thinner than 12.5 gauge. This is available in a 1/2- by 3-inch mesh size. I prefer 10-gauge, 1- by 3-inch mesh; however, some of the more determined greenwinged macaws have been known to damage even 10-gauge wire. Also, much smaller umbrella cockatoos have, on occasion, caused quite a few battle scars to appear on 12.5-gauge wire. Aviculture is full of stories about how large macaws and cockatoos have “chewed” their way through all types of “indestructible” wire cage material. The truth is that chewing has little or nothing to do with this problem. There will always be the exception to the rule, but most large macaws and the majority of cockatoos will learn that they can bend the wire. They will also eventually learn that if you bend the wires back and forth enough times, the wire will snap off at the spots where they are welded. The use of standard 14- or 16-gauge wire mesh will lead to the time-consuming task of having to patch repair the flight as frequently as once or twice a week. Since the relative “bendability” of the wire in the cage material is what makes it more or less breakable, the tensile strength of the wire is almost as important as the gauge used. Unfortunately, there is no reference on labeling as to the tensile strength of the wire that you are buying. The only thing that you can do is feel how difficult it is to bend in a hands-on situation. Most of the wire mesh I have seen that is imported from Great Britain is of a much lower tensile strength than American-made mesh. It also appears to have a much thinner coating of galvanization. It also has the tendency to separate from the steel and crackle off when the material is bent at greater than a 90-degree angle. I have cages made from galvanizedafter-welding English wire that show rust on all exposed areas after only four years. On the other hand, I have galvanizedbefore-welding (a cheaper process), American-made wire cages that show no rust after 12 years of exposure to the elements. Although the English wire mesh is cheaper, the cages made from it do not hold up as well as those made from American-manufactured wire mesh. This is a definite case of “you get what you pay for.” This is especially true in the 16- and 14-gauge ranges.

Remember that even though most large parrots have the ability to adjust and enjoy a happy life while confined to a large cage or flight, they enjoy escaping from their flight cages simply for the pleasure of escaping. Once they learn that breaking wire will allow them the freedom to sit on top of the cage rather than in it, “chewing” apart their cages will become an impassioned and permanent pastime-especially for a bird that is used to the life and freedom of a pet. That’s another thing that must be considered. The vast majority of these birds will not produce successfully if they are permitted to double as pets.

Pet or Breeder?

Treating parrots that you have decided to use for breeding as pets will usually lead to social problems between them and the mates that you intend to breed them with. This can result in fights between the mates that will many times lead to injury to one or both of them. Pairs of large birds that breed and successfully raise babies in someone’s living room are the exception to the rule. Unless, of course, there is very little activity in the room.

Another factor concerning the use of pet birds as breeders is the fact that the tamer a bird is, the more territorially vicious it becomes toward humans when it does happen to go into breeding mode. A wild bird will always have some innate fear of you, even after it becomes accustomed to and semi-tame around humans. Tame birds, especially those that are hand-raised, have no fear of you, and it is common for them to attack you in a fearless manner when they feel you are intruding. Worse than this, in many cases, if they cannot get to you, they will turn this aggressive behavior toward their mate. My wife and I each had a pet macaw. As it turned out, my pet was a male, and hers was a female. We decided to put them together for breeding. We quickly learned that if I walked past the flight cage and interacted with the male in any way, the female would attack him in a jealous rage. The reverse was also true; if my wife walked past the cage and so much as looked at her “buddy,” feathers would fly as the male attacked the female.

This is some of the basic information that is not readily available to novices who are trying to make decisions concerning whether or not it is feasible for them to produce large birds. It also explains some of the reasons why big birds command higher prices.