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Breeding birds in captivity can be a fascinating, though time consuming hobby. After all, if not for the efforts of captive breeders, many bird species, as well as beautiful color mutations that we like to keep in our homes wouldn’t be available to us. Many hookbilled birds, especially parakeets, cockatiels, and lovebirds, breed very easily in captivity and are commonly found in pet stores across the country. Certain species of finches, such as zebras and societies, are also very prolific in captivity and exist in a variety of color mutations from white to fawn to grey. But what happens when the birds we have at home, housed either in pairs or alone, decide it is time to breed? It must be stressed that this is not always the case, but due to years of selective breeding, many female birds of the above-mentioned species are compelled to breed in captivity whether it is wanted or not. Sometimes a pet owner will end up with clutch after clutch of babies, not knowing where to put the new birds that now need their own separate housing. Other times the owner of a lone female bird, most often a cockatiel, will be at a loss as to what can be done about his pet - she will lay egg after egg without a mate present, which often compromises her behavior and her health.
The Comforts of Home
The genetics of a bird and what it has been selectively bred for are factors completely out of our control. After all, birds have been selectively bred to breed well by default - those that did not breed well in captivity never got a chance to pass that trait along. But pet owners are not completely constrained by this problem. Birds rely on a variety of environmental factors that stimulate them to breed. Artificially controlling some of those factors can assist in keeping bird reproduction under our control. None of these methods are completely, 100% foolproof, however, because every bird is different and will respond differently to its environment.
The first thing that should never be done is to provide the bird with an area to nest in. This should be obvious, but some birds are willing to be flexible about their nest site and use a variety of locations to deposit their eggs. For finches, this means not providing them with any kind of basket nest or nest box. It may also be prudent to place their food and water dishes on the floor of the cage. Some finches will add a few feathers or bits of fluff to a bowl of seeds and decide that it is a nesting site! If they try to nest in bowls on the floor of the cage, trying a food hopper may be the next step. An effort should be made to show the birds that their cage is not an adequate area to nest.
With hookbills the same idea applies - don’t give them an area that could possibly resemble a nest. Most hookbills are cavity nesters that deposit their eggs inside the excavated hollow of a tree or on the side of a cliff. Anywhere that is dark and large enough for their body to enter can be considered a nest. This can include Happy Huts, cardboard tubes or boxes given as play items, tents of folded newspaper or even (for those birds who are allowed outside of their cages) the dark crevice between your couch and end table. All access to these areas must be prevented to stop your bird from getting the idea that it’s time to raise a family.
The Indoor Environment
But what gives birds these ideas? Birds just don’t wake up one day and decide to lay eggs in the food cup. In the wild, the breeding season is dependent on a variety of factors. For some birds, it’s the availability of food or water. For others, it’s the amount of daylight they receive. Every species is different, so it is important to carefully research the breeding habits of a particular bird to find out what may trigger it.
The first culprit is most basic and essential of environmental factors, light. In the tropics, there is typically 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Some captive birds come from sub-tropical areas that have longer or shorter daylight cycles during different periods of the year. Even though most pet birds have only known the climate of the area where they were raised and not their natural habitat, their hormones can still be triggered by a fluctuation in light cycles that is similar to seasons they would naturally experience. This is most pronounced with finch species such as Society finches and Canaries, but it can also apply to hookbills (especially parakeets and cockatiels).
Typically, once all nest areas have been removed, the next order of business (if the bird has not stopped laying eggs) is to reduce the amount of daylight hours she receives. Many households are lighted from sunrise (or earlier) until long past sunset, giving the bird 15 or 16 hours of light each day. Start cutting down the hours of light that the bird receives gradually, either until she stops laying eggs or until you reach 10 hours of light per day. It’s best not to keep your bird in the dark like that for too long - after a month or so, you should gradually increase the hours of daylight so that your bird is living on 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. This often helps to curb egg-laying without compromising your bird’s daily activities.
Sometimes, lighting by itself can be a solution - but it isn’t always enough. For example, birds like Zebra finches and Cockatiels are also triggered by the availability of food and water in their environment. They live in the harsh Australian Outback where they have to travel for long distances to find water. The quality of their food is not always good, either - during the dry season they live on little except for seeds. So in captivity, with ample water and plentiful food, not to mention fresh fruits and vegetables (along with daily baths that simulate the rainy season), it’s no wonder they won’t stop laying eggs. Everything in their genes is programmed to take advantage of these wonderful conditions, because who knows how long they will last!
Our pet birds can’t be deprived of food and water, but a few important measures can be taken to discourage breeding. First, only provide one or two baths or bathing opportunities each week. Since most birds take a bath in their food bowl, you may want to train them to use a gravity waterer or a water bottle to limit the amount of baths they receive. Second, diminish the amount of fresh produce or sprouted seeds you give them to once or twice a week, if at all. For many people, this can create a concern - how are my birds suppose to get good nutrition without fruits and vegetables?
The answer is pellets. Birds on all-seed diets are usually supplemented with vitamins and minerals, as well as fresh produce, to fill all of their nutritional needs. But a steady diet based on seed does more harm than good - not only is it deficient in many important nutrients, but raw seeds actually contain chemicals that encourage birds to carry on their normal hormonal breeding behavior. By converting birds to a pellet diet, or by decreasing the amount of seeds a bird on a pellet diet receives, the urge to lay eggs may diminish. It can be very difficult to encourage finches to accept a pellet diet. In their case, advice from a veterinarian may be necessary to obtain a vitamin/mineral supplement that can be administered safely in the water. Such a supplement could eliminate the need for fresh produce, but it is not as good of a solution as a diet with more pellets than seeds.
The Perfect Touch
After having explained a few ways that birds can be stimulated to breed, there is still an important component of the breeding process that is missing, a mate. With a pair of birds, a mate has already been provided, so it is up to the owner to try and convince the birds that the environment is not suitable for breeding. However, when it comes to a single bird, the instinct to find a mate within that individual is still very strong. The bird may fall in love with a mirror or a toy, but for a hand-raised bird that is imprinted on humans, their choice is often their owner or a member of his or her immediate family.
Many people feel that this mate-bond with their bird is what having a parrot is all about, but it can actually cause more problems with the bird’s behavior. If a bird is trying to mate with a toy or rub up against a mirror, that object can be removed from the cage to discourage these behaviors. Other toys can be substituted in its place to keep the bird busy, but it’s not so easy to do that when the object of a bird’s affection is a human. Yes, it can create a bond of trust and affection between owner and bird, but it can also cause unwanted breeding behaviors. The bird doesn’t understand that it won’t have the opportunity in the near future to make a nest and have chicks with its mate. It’s receiving all the right signals!
How do you show your female bird that you want to be its mate? One important trigger for female birds is to be petted on the back or under the wings. Even long periods of head scratching or preening can be perceived by your bird as stimulation to mate. Everybody has seen a pair of lovebirds sitting side by side, preening each other and snuggling together. This behavior is a constant affirmation of their pair bond which facilitates easy breeding as soon as conditions are favorable. They don’t want to waste time courting a new mate each year when their time can be better spent raising chicks! Likewise, even immature parrots will regurgitate on their owners, exhibit mating behaviors or become territorial of their cage, treating it like a nest. They are trying to make sure they have a mate so that when they are old enough, they will be ready for the breeding season! Unwitting owners affirm that behavior, not realizing what health problems it can cause.
Female birds not only become more territorial during breeding season (or whatever time period they perceive breeding season to be), but constant egg laying can cause a considerable strain on their health. They consume more minerals (especially calcium) in the weeks prior to breeding to make sure that the eggshells are strong enough to withstand being incubated. The hollow parts of their legs actually accumulate deposits of calcium, and if there are no deposits available when egg-laying begins, the minerals come directly out of her bones. Also, calcium is necessary in the proper functioning of muscles (for humans and birds), so if a female bird is lacking in calcium, she may not be able to push the egg out of her cloaca. It can get stuck or break on the way out. Egg-binding, as it is usually called, is a fatal condition for female birds and requires immediate veterinary assistance for the bird to survive.
So how does a responsible owner interact with a lovesick bird? Try to discourage the behaviors, but do not punish the bird. If your bird regurgitates for you, or attempts to mate with your hand or arm (or whatever the case may be), put the bird back in her cage or on a playstand. Ignore the behavior until the bird becomes distracted and pays attention to something else, like food or toys. Then, give your bird praise and attention and offer to pick her up again (but don’t insist). And don’t stroke your female bird (or if you aren’t sure of the gender, any bird) on the back or under the wings, especially if she starts to demonstrate a typical breeding posture. (A typical parrot breeding posture is crouched down, wings pushed out slightly, vent area raised and tail fanned up or to one side. There is also usually a particular vocalization that goes with this display, but it varies from species to species.) Immediately stop the contact and put her somewhere else for a few minutes until she calms down. The idea is to let your bird know that you are a close friend and family member, but not a mate.
The suggestions presented here are things that any bird owner can try to keep their bird from laying too many eggs. Many times these suggestions (one or a combination of them) will help to regulate the bird’s breeding behavior. After all, it is only natural that a healthy bird wants to procreate. But if these suggestions do not help, here are a few more thoughts to consider to try and slow down the production of eggs.
Let her nest: Sometimes, no matter how hard an owner tries, a single female bird won’t stop laying those eggs. In a case where the bird has laid multiple clutches of eggs and, after being given shorter daylight hours and a more basic diet, still won’t stop, you may have to let her have her own way. Increase her food and daylight hours and provide a small box (maybe a small tissue box) where she can chew out a nest to her satisfaction. Allow her to lay a clutch of eggs. Leave the nest and the eggs in the cage and let the female incubate them. Usually, after a period of time, she comes to realize that the eggs are not going to hatch and will abandon them. This strategy does not always work, as she may try to lay more eggs once she realizes the first clutch isn’t going to hatch. However, it gives her a short period of time when her body can build up some more minerals so that if she does lay more eggs, it will be somewhat less stressful on her body. This suggestion should be combined with others (such as diminishing the daylight hours after she gets off of her clutch) to try and let her know breeding season is over.
Talk to the vet: Avian veterinarians do run in to this problem quite frequently, so if none of the advice presented works for a certain bird, it’s always best to ask a vet. An experienced veterinarian will not only have more ideas to share, but there are hormone treatments that can be given to female birds to stop egg laying. These treatments may stop the bird from laying eggs for one season - which might be long enough to change her environment into one that does not promote breeding. Also, if you decide to consider this treatment, ask your veterinarian about any potential risks to your bird (especially one that is emaciated or severely depleted of nutrients). Hormone injections should be considered a last resort because they are very stressful and may not work on every bird.