Bird Breeder ?For the Aviculturist
Note:Hand-rearing birds is not for the novice bird owner. If you don’t do it correctly, you can injure or even kill the baby bird. Only professional bird breeders and hand-feeders should hand-rear. These professionals continually educate themselves, work with avian vets and mentor under other experienced bird breeders to breed the happiest, healthiest birds possible.
In the March 2008 issue of BIRD TALK magazine, you learned about keeping caiques in pairs. Find out more about breeding caiques and tips on hand-raising baby birds.
The breeding season for caiques in North America usually begins in the autumn with the hen laying her first egg between late November and the end of December. Their mating, however, necessarily begins much earlier. This is when you must keep close watch since the male will force himself on the hen, and in rare instances, the male may kill its mate at this time. If the male is too aggressive, you may have to separate them. You cannot separate them though if you want the egg to be fertile, an egg must be fertilized within 48 hours of laying. Fortunately, once the full clutch has been laid, and the hen goes to nest, the male usually becomes far less aggressive. The clutch is usually comprised of 3 to 4 eggs, which hen normally lays 2 to 3 days apart. The hen does not start incubating the eggs seriously until after she has laid the second or third egg. The incubation period is usually 26 days, but it can be longer depending on how tightly the hen sits, with each egg hatching a few days apart in the same order in which the hen laid them.
Caique Cage & Diet
If you keep a pair of caiques as pets or as breeders, I recommend a somewhat larger cage that is needed for a single bird. I use a cage that is 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet, with the longer dimension being horizontal.
The nest box can be any shape, as long as there is at least an 8 inches by 8 inches square area where the hen can lay her eggs. I use a pine or aspen chips as the nesting substrate in the box, which the pair usually chews into a finer texture. Because the pair chews the substrate so fine there is little danger of a chick developing a blockage from ingesting it.
The pair will work the nest up to the time it lays the first egg. Often they will push much of the substrate out of the box, and you will need to add more substrate. I do not alter the pair’s diet during the breeding season very much from the off-season. I just make sure they receive somewhat greater ration of food and that they have a good source of protein and calcium. I aim for a diet of about 40-percent formulated food (pellets), 20 percent of a fortified safflower seed based seed mix, and 40-percent fresh fruits and vegetables. The additional protein and calcium source that I take care to provide during the breeding season is an extra ration of a mild yellow cheddar cheese. I also use regular tap water and avoid distilled or softened water. Distilled and softened water lack the calcium and magnesium needed by the hen to make eggshell. (Be aware that tap water can vary depending on the city you live in – ED.)
Handling Baby Caiques
The difficult time begins when the chicks hatch. I check the nest box in the morning at least once a day, after the parents have had a chance to feed them. If you look first thing in the morning before the parents have had a chance to eat themselves, the chicks’ crops will be empty. A convenient time to do this is when the pair is outside of their cage sitting on their stand eating since they do not like the intrusion into their nest box. The things I look for at this time are whether the chicks are huddled together or with the remaining eggs, are chicks warm to the touch and whether the parents are chewing on the chicks’ feet or wings. If a chick is cool to the touch, not in the huddle or the parents have chewed it, I pull it immediately. However, it is best if you can leave them with the parents as long as possible. Most caiques only feed the first one or two chicks that hatch and neglect the chicks that hatch later. Thus, my practice is to pull the first hatched chick a day after the third hatches. I pull the next oldest chick if a fourth chick hatches. This leaves them with only two chicks to care for at any one time. The chicks you pull will often only be 5 to 6 days old, but they are much easier to hand-feed than a Day 1 chick. (If your schedule does not permit you to hand-feed these few chicks, I have found the specialty bird shops are usually willing to buy these chicks and do the hand-feeding. Alternatively, if you belong to a bird club, there is usually a member who is willing to take on this task.) The parents usually care for the one or two left with them without any problem and these are the chicks I co-parent.
The first two to three weeks after the chick hatches, you only need to check the nest to see that it is doing well. Most caique parents get the chicks by the initial difficult phase of feeding them without any problems. Once a chick opens its eyes at about 3 weeks of age, however, it is time to begin the handling because this is when natural imprinting begins.
You must begin handling the chicks at least once a day and preferably twice a day. One of the major positives of this approach is that the chick imprints on its parents as well as on you. Still, my practice is to handle the chick on the sly. I have found that if you are not stealthy about this, the parents will sometimes pluck the chick when it gets close to fledging time. This was also the experience of the Millam’s group at the Psittacine Research Center at UC Davis with the Amazon parrots. Because my pairs are hand tame, I simply move the pair to another room, well away from where I handle the chicks. I give the parent a treat and time on their play stand while I am handling their chicks. I make this part of the parents’ routine even outside the breeding season, and while anxious about their chicks, they are usually very accepting of this practice.
During the early morning handling I take the opportunity to give the chick a supplemental feeding with a commercial hand-feeding formula. I do this to be sure the chick is receiving adequate nutrition. However, I take care not to completely fill the chick’s crop, because you want the parents to finish the feeding once they have returned to the cage. I think this feeding helps strengthen the bond with you, but I cannot say this with certainty.
I repeat the handling of the chick in the evening, again out of sight of the parents. I do not give it any formula this time because the parents usually keep it full during the day. At the evening handling, I take more time with the chick than during the early morning one. I cup the chick in my hand to keep it warm and make clucking sounds to calm it. As it gets older, I start introducing it to other foods. I find that they usually take a liking to table grapes cut in half and held so they can scrape out the grape’s flesh with their lower mandible. I also make sure that the chick has a chance to look into my face. A sign that the co-parenting is going well is if the chick stares back at you in a long gaze. All the while, I keep talking to it. You only need to handle the chick for about five minutes at this time, but it is better if you can stretch it to 15 or 20. Missing an occasional handling is all right as long as it is infrequent.
Once its feathers grow in, the chick will start to peak out of the nest entrance. In a week or so, it usually leaves the box for the first time. This is what I define as fledging for a co-parented chick. In the days after it leaves the box for the first time, it will still prefer staying in the box than out on a perch with its parents. Soon though, it will be spending most of its time out with its parents, returning to the box for security and to sleep with its parents at night. After fledging, the chick is less inclined to spend time with you, but it will still be tame. Surprisingly the chick learns all it needs to survive without its parents, including how to eat on its own, within that first week of fledging. I have never had a problem with weaning a co-parented chick. Once you see the chick fending for itself, you can safely remove it to a cage of its own at that time. However, I like to leave it with the parents as long as possible and only remove it about a week before it is to go to its new home.
One of the joys of co-parenting is experiencing the growth and development of the chick. Because I handle them for so long, I feel I get to know the co-parented chicks in a more intimate way than I do my hand-fed ones. There is nothing quite like when you hold the chick up to your face and it gazes back into your eyes. You also learn that caiques pass through a development stage of shyness just before they fledge. Each time I co-parent, I learn something new about their development.
Some pairs insist on mating and producing a clutch of eggs. These pairs may even resort to laying and incubating their eggs on the floor of their cage. Many owners will allow this to run its course and remove the eggs from the birds before they hatch. Others let the chicks hatch. This is the point at which things get dicey. Most pet bird owners have no idea about rearing chicks, especially altricial chicks (when they are helpless, naked and blind). When this happens, professional breeders get many calls about what to do.
One option I recommend is to co-parent one or two the chicks. Surprisingly, you can do this even if you work a 9-to 5-job and still produce a wonderfully tame chick. This is because when you co-parent; there is no need to hand-feed formula every few hours like commercial breeders do. You make the co-parenting fit your schedule. The concept of co-parenting, however, is relatively new. In this approach, one leaves the chick with its parents and you share in its rearing.
I do not know if others are applying this approach to rearing caiques, but there are people applying co-parenting to other parrot species. They have been studying a form of co-parenting at the University of California at Davis where Millam and his coworkers discovered that by simply handling the chicks for 20 minutes everyday, they suffered less stress and became quite friendly. Others have found that the longer one leaves an African grey chick with its parents, the less stressed it is later in life. Thus, there are reasons other than convenience to practice co-parenting.
Co-parenting has become one of my general practices. One of the reasons I can do this is that I am a hobby breeder and can devote a lot of time to the chick. If I were trying to rear more than one or two chicks at a time, co-parenting would be nearly impossible. This is because devoting 15 to 20 minutes to each chick would be impractical. Thus, this practice would not be suitable for a large breeding operation. If you only have a pair or two of caiques and you do not want to be tied down by mid-day chick feeding, co-parenting may be the answer.