Breeding Cockatiels - Getting Started
By Judy McElveen
If you are thinking of becoming a cockatiel breeder, whether it’s your male and female pets in a cage in the den or several pairs that you plan to buy and set up for breeding, there are some things that are important to know. Although these birds are so prolific and have such a strong urge to breed that you’d probably be able to produce some young even if you were totally ignorant of the needs of breeding cockatiels, the experience will be much happier and the birds much more productive if you learn some elementary facts about how to select and care for your breeding stock.
First of all, do some thinking about your goals. Do you want to breed your pet pair and have your family share the experience, then give away or sell the babies to family members and friends? If so, your approach will be totally different from that of someone who wants to breed several pairs of cockatiels to sell as handfed pets. The person who wants to raise some birds for showing and sell excess babies as pets will have still a different approach. Whether you identify with one of the descriptions above or your situation is totally different, learning some simple facts before starting will help you to avoid or manage some typical problems that could result in the loss of babies or, even worse, your beloved pets or prized breeding stock.
If your goal goes beyond breeding your pet pair, buy the best breeding stock you can afford and buy young birds that have their whole reproductive life ahead of them. While a “proven” or “producing” pair is a good investment if breeding birds that take many years to mature (such as macaws, African greys, amazons, etc.), it just plain doesn’t make sense with cockatiels, for several reasons. The first reason is that these birds mature at an early age and, if they are healthy and at least six months old when you buy them, you can expect to have babies within a year of setting them up for breeding. Although it is better to wait until a hen is 18 months old to breed her, cock birds are able (and eager!) to fertilize eggs before the age of one year. ( Like many young fathers, though, they don’t always settle down to their parenting duties at this early age.) As many breeders will hold their young stock until about the age of one year (so that they can be accurately sexed by behavior or appearance), this is probably about the age you’d be able to purchase your young breeding pairs. Since they will need to become accustomed to your facility, the diet you provide, the caging you provide and each other, as well as overcoming the stress of the move, you would normally not hang a nestbox for about 3 months after you receive the birds, so that means you could have chicks from your breeders approximately six months after buying them and can expect them to continue to breed for 8 to 10 years or even longer. Another reason for buying young, untried, birds is that established breeders who are continuing to breed cockatiels will very seldom sell producing stock unless there are problems with the pairs. An honest breeder will tell you what the problems are and, if you are prepared to deal with the problems, then go ahead and buy, taking into consideration how many breeding years they might have left to them. Otherwise, or if neither you nor anyone in your bird circle can vouch for the honesty of the seller, BUY YOUNG BIRDS!
Please, don’t make the mistake I did and start with less than top-quality birds. Do not gather your future breeding stock from this yard sale, that flea market or yonder pet store! You will become attached to the birds you initially buy and their offspring and it will take you years to produce good quality birds. Look for, and buy, your nine to twelve month old breeding stock from a breeder who shows cockatiels. While there are plenty of people who produce good quality birds, the cockatiel exhibitors are the ones, for the most part, who are actively working to maintain high standards and improve the breed. It is they who first pay outlandish prices for new color mutations so that, eventually, you are able to buy a whiteface, for example, at a reasonable price. People who exhibit their cockatiels do so at considerable expense and are, therefore, more likely to monitor and protect the health of their flock. After all, the competition at shows is fierce and any bird must be in tip-top condition and health to have any chance of doing well.
If you are buying good quality birds from an exhibitor, plan to pay at least $200 for a pair, more if the birds are rares or good quality pieds. The price will go up if you specify show quality birds. If you want to get a “jumpstart” as a cockatiel exhibitor and hope to place a bird on the top bench within three years, tell the exhibitor/breeder whose birds you want to buy. Expect to pay substantially more for birds of this caliber. Exhibitors who own only a few Champions or Grand Champions, or who have just started placing birds on the top bench, will sometimes be willing to sell you the offspring of very good parents for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to $400. Exhibitors whose names you see over and over on the top bench winners and whose birds are consistently producing Champion and Grand Champion offspring will, quite logically, charge more–to MUCH more – for the birds they sell.
Let’s do a little math together and I’ll prove to you that buying good birds is the best way to go. (We’ll ignore, for the moment, the real cost of the $75.00 pair you saw at the bird fair.) Let’s assume good quality birds, a pair costing you $500. You buy them and put them in a cage together and feed them an excellent diet for about three months. Suddenly, you notice that the cuttlebone that was whole day before yesterday has been reduced to dust and skin. This means your female is ready to lay eggs - put the nestbox up quickly! At this point, you can usually expect eggs within a matter of days. Your hen lays a clutch of four eggs (often, the first clutch is smaller than the following ones will be). Within a year of buying them, your pair has produced three clutches of 3, 4 and 5 chicks - a total of twelve babies. If you retail the handfed babies at an average (very reasonable) price of $75.00 each, your return on investment is $900, a gross profit of over 100%. If you deduct for cage, nestbox, food, etc., your profit is still around 100%, within the first year of acquiring the birds. Do you know anywhere else you can make this sort of return and still have your original assets, ready to go again next year?
Now, let’s consider the real cost of the $75.00 pair from the bird fair or flea market. Let me say first that it’s entirely possible, at times, to receive a real bargain on high quality birds; that is, fairly young birds of good size and conformation that have been fed a good diet and are not diseased. If you can buy such birds from a breeder you know you can trust, you can’t go wrong. Most often, though, the cheap birds come from breeders who start with mediocre stock, keep their birds under substandard conditions and feed a marginal to inadequate diet. Such birds have no reserves to help them withstand stress and just the stress of being sold and moved to a new home can cause them to get sick from bacteria, viruses and fungi present in the air everywhere. Of course, the birds could be diseased already, but let’s be optimistic. Still, the cock bird develops a runny nose within a week or so of your bringing him home with you. You don’t know if this is just a passing thing or what but, if you’ve done your reading and research, you know this could also be a symptom of that dreaded disease “psittacosis”, also known as “parrot fever” (people can catch this one and the correct name for it at this time is chlamydia). Since you have no way to tell, the bird has to go to the vet. With the test for chlamydia, the total cost will be at least $100.00. Although the cost of the pair is now up to $175, you’re lucky. The bird did not have chlamydia and it recovers. A couple of months goes by, the nest box is being investigated and suddenly your hen acts like she’s in distress. Her feathers are fluffed, she’s sitting in the nestbox or on the bottom of the cage but no eggs are produced - or, she lays a soft shelled egg. She’s in trouble. Egg binding (being unable to successfully expel an egg) can be fatal and soft shelled eggs are very hard to expel. You do first aid (which I’ll explain in detail later) but wind up taking the bird to the vet who first injects calcium (to assist in muscular contractions) and a hormone to help the bird pass the egg. If this doesn’t work, the egg must either be broken inside the bird’s body so she can pass it or the contents removed with a hypodermic needle and the shell broken. Either way, infection can result, so the bird must receive antibiotics for ten days. Egg binding can sometimes cause a “prolapsed” uterus, in which case you will be advised not to breed this bird again. Let’s again be optimistic and assume you recognized the symptoms and got the bird to the vet on time and she recovers. Your cost for the pair is now $275.00 or more, depending on whether the female had to be hospitalized. You now have to prevent the hen from laying again for at least a month while supplementing her diet heavily with calcium to prevent this happening again. After a month, you hang the nestbox and, this time, you get four fertile eggs. Hooray, we’re on our way (aren’t we?)! Sadly, the embryos die in the shell a few days before hatching. Dead-in-shell eggs this late in the development period are usually from nutritional deficiencies. In this case, I’d suspect that this hen’s calcium reserves were still inadequate and the calcium layer on the shell not dense enough. The growing embryos draw calcium from the shell of the egg as they develop and I’d suspect these died after exhausting their calcium supply. You have now lost four chicks at $50.00 each, so your real cost for the pair, four to five months into the process is now just $25.00 less than that of the good quality pair - but you don’t have any babies at all and now you have to wait at least two months before letting the hen lay again!
Okay, okay!! I am revealing my own bias here, I admit it. You’ve been presented with the best case scenario for the birds purchased from an exhibitor and the worst case for the inexpensive pair. It is also possible that you could incur veterinary bills and/or lose the good quality birds and have no problems whatsoever with the cheap pair (in my opinion, this is unlikely - I’m being generous here). When the babies are sold, however, you will easily get your asking price of $75.00 for the chicks from the good quality pair and will sell those ahead of the people asking $50.00 for the handfed offspring from their bargain birds. Yes, even the uneducated public can tell the difference!