Enrichment for Breeders vs Pets

What is enrichment? 

Enrichment is an animal welfare principle that aims to increase a captive animal’s quality of life by going above and beyond the bare necessities (food, water, shelter). In particular, it strives to address the mental health of the animal as much as the physical.

Some common methods of enrichment:

  • providing toys/manipulatives
  • changing how food is offered
  • providing a more natural enclosure
  • training
  • opportunities to socialize
tiger-tug-of-war

A tiger plays tug of war with guests.

Techniques are going to vary depending on what species you are working with, and why the animal is being kept. You would not enrich a parrot’s life the same way you would an elephant or a snake. Some methods of enrichment can satisfy multiple drives for an animal, such as this vinyl ball for a giraffe. It encourages the giraffe to stretch its neck and simulates wild foraging behavior. It also provides something novel to explore.

In pet birds, enrichment often takes the form of toys.

Foraging has gained popularity in recent years, and not just with birds. The concept of foraging is that it makes the animal work to get its food, as it would have to do in nature. One of my veterinarian professors fed his dogs out of a tool box filled with rocks. They had to shift rocks around and to get every bit of kibble, rather than wolfing everything down in seconds.

Many foraging toys are available on the market. The options below are designed for repeated use, but it’s important to have destructible toys as this better mimics how parrots forage in nature.

Most psittacines have a desire to chew. Their beaks are specially designed to eat fruit/seeds in their green state. This gives them a competitive edge against other species that have to wait for food to ripen. Offering destructible items, be they wood or paper or food, can fulfill this need to chew.

With the wide variety of toys available to pet owners, it can be easy to associate enrichment with toys alone. This narrow view of enrichment has resulted in many laypeople criticizing breeding enclosures based on their distinct lack of toys. There are several problems with this.

Toys are dangerous. 

Safety is a huge problem with toys. Although things have gotten much better in recent years, the fact remains that birds, like children, are great at finding ways to injure themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen birds hung up on toys, either by their band or a toe or a foot. Yes, they can get hung up without a band. Leave the band alone and check the cage and toys for hazards instead.

toe caught in toy

This is especially dangerous for breeder birds, who are generally not tame and may panic if approached, injuring themselves further.

As fun as toys may be for pet birds, they are still an unnatural element designed by humans and there are risks of injury, toxicity, and death. I’m not saying toys are bad, I’m saying breeders often employ safer enrichment options.

Nesting birds often ignore toys. 

Pairs that are actively nesting are generally too preoccupied with the business of raising the next generation to be bothered with toys. An incubating hen isn’t going to be playing with toys, but what about the male? Males will usually sit on guard duty outside the nestbox when they are not feeding. Play is not a concern for them at that time- safety and security of the nest site is. As soon as chicks are pulled for handfeeding, pairs will go back to playing with toys.

Safer, Alternative Methods of Enrichment

Tony Silva gives several ideas here. I’m a big fan of food enrichment. Psittacines are naturally destructive and offering whole food items is a great substitute for manufactured toys.

brussel

This is a Brussels sprout stalk. I tie a rope around it and hang it in the cage. The right image is what it looks like after my ringnecks have been at it for a week. They LOVE edible toys.

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Here Loki is destroying half a pumpkin.

For smaller species, leafy greens work well. Skewers are also a favorite. I can throw several whole carrots in with my ringnecks and they will have great fun destroying them. It’s safer and gets birds to try a wide variety of foods. Chop is nice, but my birds have much more fun with whole items.

Planted aviaries are very difficult to do with psittacines. I tried putting a ficus tree with my kakarikis once and it didn’t go well for the tree. Tree clippings are a more realistic option. We have numerous citrus trees around our property and they give us plenty of fresh branches for play. Just make sure your clippings are from nontoxic species and haven’t been sprayed or collected next to a road (exhaust builds up on the plants).

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Social Interaction

Flocking is another method of enrichment. Pet birds are often kept isolated in small cages. Their owner may be their only source of social interaction. If the species is naturally very gregarious, this can lead to stress if, like most humans, their owner has a job away from home. This is why I recommend having at least two birds.

Many parrot species live together in large groups and break off into pairs for breeding. This can be mimicked by housing birds in smaller cages for breeding and then flocking them together during the off season. It gives them a chance to socialize, but also exercise.

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Which brings me to another source of enrichment…

Aviaries

My first batch of show cockatiels came from a breeder whose husband developed Bird Keeper’s Lung. She already sold most of her stock by the time I got to her, and was considering taking the leftovers to a bird mart. But then she lamented that pet owners might buy them and keep them in tiny cages. After living the good life in an aviary, fully flighted with an actual flock, being stuck indoors in a pet cage seems a cruel fate.

I want to be clear–there’s nothing wrong with keeping birds indoors, in pet cages, or clipping wings. My own personal pets are kept that way. BUT, nothing beats an aviary for enrichment. Nothing. They can fly–not in a house, where there are lots of hidden dangers–but in a space designed for birds. They can feel the sunshine and fresh air. They can feel the seasons change (yes, even winter). It’s a whole different level of care, and if you have the ability to build an aviary, even just for nice summer days, I highly recommend it.

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Green Cheek Colors

These are some of the colors we produce. All of these are babies from previous seasons. We do not get all of these colors every year. Normal, yellow-sided, and yellow-sided dilutes are our most common colors. Please check here for availability.

32c

normal

48Fb

yellow-sided

50F

dilute

49F

cinnamon

42a

pineapple (cinnamon yellow-sided)

27d

yellow-sided dilute

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From left to right: yellow-sided, yellow-sided turquoise, yellow-sided dilute

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normal (left) and turquoise (right)

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turquoise

36a

cinnamon turquoise

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yellow-sided turquoise

51a

pineapple turquoise (cinnamon yellow-sided turquoise)

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. 

Indian Ringneck Colors

These are some of the colors we produce. All of these are babies from previous seasons. Ringnecks are seasonal breeders, so we have a limited quantity each year. In 2020 we should be able to get cinnamon, green, lutino, and albino as well. Please check here for availability.

blue and violet

Blue (left) and violet (right)

blue pallid

blue pallid (white head with sky blue wash)

grey turquoise

grey turquoise

grey

grey

turquoise2

turquoise

violet pallid

violet pallid (white head with faint lavender wash)

violet

violet

© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

How (Not to) Sex Cockatiels

Cockatiels are dimorphic, which means males and females look different. They’re pretty easy to sex IF you know what to look for. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of misinformation online. When it comes to sexing cockatiels, mutations matter, and most people simply don’t have the expertise to do it accurately. This is because certain rules of sexing are conditional, and if you don’t know the conditions under which the rule applies, you’re going to be wrong.

Let me give you an example. Pretend you’re an alien studying life on Earth, and one of your fellow aliens tells you that humans are easy to sex. All you have to do is follow two simple rules: Males are tall and have short hair. Females are short and have long hair.

The problem with this blanket statement should be obvious, but in case it’s not:

kit harrington

Likewise, there are a lot of incorrect generalities when it comes to sexing cockatiels. This has led to a lot of well-intentioned people repeating things they’ve heard without any concept of why they’re applying the information incorrectly:

bad advicebad advice2bad advice3

Cheek Patch Intensity/Color

Cheek patch color/intensity is one I see commonly, so we’ll tackle that first. Cockatiels have been bred in captivity for a long time, and while this rule might apply to wild cockatiels, it’s useless for sexing pets, which are likely to carry a number of color mutations and are very far removed from their wild counterparts.

All the examples I give here are adult birds. Scroll slowly if you’d like to test yourself.

sexing2 normals

I’d like to point that while both birds are normal, each carries the gene for pied. Again, captive birds are not wild-type!

Above we have two normal colored birds. Male on the left, female on the right. The rule seems to apply, right?

sexing7 cheekOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a very nice orange patch, just like the male above. The bird on the right doesn’t even have a cheek patch.

The problem here is that these birds have obvious mutations. The right is a pearl; left is whiteface. Whiteface birds can’t produce any yellow/orange color, so they don’t have a cheek patch. To someone inexperienced, it might even look like the bird on the left has a facial mask. There’s yellow there, right? Nope.

sexing8 cheek

This is why knowing the mutation matters. Females keep their pearls into adulthood. Males don’t (unless they’re pied–another rule broken!).

pearl progression

Progression of a pearl male. Baby, 6 months, a year. You can see how he gains a facial mask and loses many of the pearl markings. He will continue to lose more.

sexing3 cheek colorOkay now what about these two? The bird on the left has a much brighter cheek patch than the bird on the right.

I hate to break it to you, but that nice orange patch belongs to a lutino pearl hen. The male on the right has the yellow cheek mutation. There are several mutations that alter the cheek patch color like this. Pastelface is another one.

sexing4 cheek color“No problem,” someone says. “I can just look for the facial mask!”

Facial Mask

Go ahead and try sexing the birds below.

sexing5 facial maskOn the left we’re missing the distinct facial mask and the cheek patch is dull. The bird on the right is lutino, so it’s difficult to see if there’s a mask there, but the cheek patch is bright. Which one is male and which one is female?

sexing6 facial mask

Lutinos are really difficult to sex visually, because a lot of their identifying characteristics, like the mask and tail barring, are hard to see. It’s even more difficult if they’re pied lutino, which you may not even know from looking at them.

I cannot tell you how often I see people claim that a pied bird must be male because it has yellow/white on its head. Mutations matter! 

Petrie, the male on the left, is what’s called a dirty-faced pied–he has melanin on his face. Pied males do not get a facial mask, and pied females can have yellow heads. They cannot be sexed visually. Pearl pied males may lose their pearls, but they can also keep them. Pieds should really be sexed by behavior or DNA. Just to give you an idea:

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Pearl Pied Female

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Pearl Pied Male

So, how do you sex your cockatiel?

There are a few methods. If you’re impatient and want to know now, or if you have a pied or lutino, I recommend DNA sexing. It’s important to note that lutino is a sex-linked gene, and it is statistically far more likely to be female.

The other method is to wait until the bird is at least nine months old and has gone through a molt. Males will have begun to show their standard characteristics by then (except for pieds!). At this point you can use my guide to sexing or ask an expert. If you post in a general Facebook forum, you’re going to get a lot of inexperienced people giving you their incorrect opinions about head/cheek color, which is why I’m recommending a professional forum.

For more about how sex-linked genes work, see my article on Genetics.

© 2019 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Visual Growth Guide: Budgie

The purpose of this guide is to give beginning breeders and general idea of where their chicks should be at a certain age. It is important to notice stunting early so that it can be rectified before the chick falls too far behind.

All images are © 2004 by Karen Trinkaus unless otherwise noted and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Beginner Guide to Genes, Mutations and Hybrids: Part 1

Disclaimer: This guide is meant to be a very basic overview of these topics. Terms are kept as generic as possible, and some things are vastly oversimplified.

genetics

Photo by Jeff Coffman

Part 1: Genetics

Physical characteristics are controlled by genes. We get two sets of genes from our parents. If our parents both have brown eyes, we will likely have brown eyes too. But what happens when one of our parents has blue eyes and the other has brown? What color will our eyes be? Both genes will not be displayed at the same time. Our body controls which genes show up through gene expression. There are several kinds of gene expression, but dominant, recessive, and sex-linked are the three we’ll worry about.

Dominant and Recessive Genes

A dominant gene is expressed no matter what. If your body contains a single copy it will show up visually. A recessive gene can only be displayed if BOTH the genes received from the parents are the same recessive gene. Think of it this way: a dominant gene is like the sun and recessive genes are like the stars. If the sun is in the sky, the stars cannot be seen even though they are there. Likewise, when a dominant gene is present the recessive genes are all hidden. But if there are no dominant genes around we can see recessive genes.

In humans, the gene for brown eyes is dominant and the gene for blue eyes is recessive. So if we received one brown gene from dad and one blue gene from mom only the brown gene would be expressed. Our eyes would be brown.

genes1

The only way to get blue eyes is if you get TWO copies of the gene for blue eyes.

genes3

So far all of our examples have carried two copies of the same gene. Not all parents are like this. When a brown-eyed person and a blue-eyed person have a child, even though that child has brown eyes they still carry the gene for blue. What if that child decides to have children? Which gene will they inherit? Luckily, there is an easy method to find out.

A Punnett square (below) is a quick way to find out the chances of a child inheriting a certain gene. The father’s genes are each entered at the top and the mother’s genes are entered on the side. The four boxes in the center are the possible combinations of those genes. Let’s try one together.

First, draw a square like the one below.

punnett

Our father here will be a man with brown eyes who carries the gene for blue. Mom will have blue eyes.

genes4

Enter the information on the parents. We use capital letters to symbolize dominant genes (in this case a capital “B” for brown), and lower case letters to symbolize recessive genes (in this case a little “b” for blue).

punnett2

Now we combine the parents’ genetic information in the boxes to find out how the children will look.

punnett3

The results out of four children:

  • two are Bb (brown eyes, carrying gene for blue)
  • two are bb (blue eyes)

Let’s try some more. What if both parents have brown eyes, but carry the gene for blue? You’d get the following:

punnett4

Results:

  • one BB (brown eyes)
  • two Bb (brown eyes, carry blue)
  • one bb (blue eyes)

Now let’s see if you can do some on your own:

genes5

Click here for answer.

genes6

Click here for answer.

Give yourself a big pat on the back if you got them right. Now we can move on to the third form of gene expression…

Sex-linked Genes

Sex-linked genes act just like recessive, except they also bow to the will of the sex of the child. To understand sex-linked genes, it helps to know what they look like. Genes are just sections of DNA code that tell the body to do something. DNA itself is coiled tightly and contained in a structure called a chromosome.

dna

Most people already know that in humans the man has an X and Y chromosome and the female has two X chromosomes. This is the reason that the only the man can determine the sex of the child. Women can only provide X chromosomes while a man can provide either. The X chromosome is physically bigger and can carry more genetic information on it than the Y chromosome. This is where sex-linked traits come in. Because the X is bigger it means that some genes carried on it are not carried on the Y chromosome. These genes can be expressed even without a corresponding partner on an X chromosome. They also cannot be blocked out unless there is another X chromosome carrying a dominant partner.

chromosomes

One human sex-linked gene is hemophilia. Hemophilia is a disease that keeps a person’s blood from clotting when they are cut. Because hemophilia is a sex-linked disease, most of the people who have it are men. Women can carry the gene for hemophilia but will not be affected by it because their second X chromosome will block it out with a healthy gene. Women must have two copies of the defective gene to be affected by the disease. Inheriting two copies is highly unlikely. Since a man only has one X chromosome (from his mother), if he gets a copy of the gene he will have the disease. Mothers carrying one gene for hemophilia have a 50% chance of sons being born with the disease. Here’s how it works:

sexlinked1

As you can see, at least half of her children (boxes 1 and 2) will inherit the gene. One, a daughter, will only carry the gene. The other, a son, will have the disease hemophilia. The last two children (boxes 3 and 4) will carry healthy genes. Of course these are only the possibilities of what her children could end up with. She could very well end up giving it to all her children or none at all. It’s just a matter of chance. Now let’s take a look at what will happen if this woman’s hemophiliac son has children with a healthy woman:

sexlinked2

ALL the man’s daughters will be carriers and all of his sons will be safe. The daughters could end up passing it on to their children. It is in this way that sex-linked genes can disappear and reappear from generation to generation.

Not all sex-linked traits are bad. Many of the colors you see in birds like lutino, pearl, and cinnamon are controlled by sex-linked genes. But before we can get into bird sex-linked traits there’s something you need to know: BIRDS DO NOT HAVE X AND Y CHROMOSOMES. Birds carry different sex chromosomes than humans. Instead of X and Y, they have Z and W. That’s not really important and we’ll stick to X and Y for our examples here. What IS important is that in birds the male carries two of the same chromosome (like XX) and the female carries two different (XY). This means that it is hens who determine the sex of the chicks in birds and that they are more likely to show up with sex-linked traits. The punnett squares and such all work the same way, you just have to remember to reverse the X and Y’s from that of humans:

sexlinked3

Let’s try another punnet square, this time for birds. I have a lutino male and I want to see what I’ll get if I breed him to a normal hen. In order for a male to display lutino he has to be carrying it on both X chromosomes. We’ll color the lutino X’s with yellow to tell them apart.

sexlinked4

All of the babies will be carrying a gene for lutino. The cocks, however, will only be “split” (carry the gene) and will not show up lutino. The hens will all be visually lutino because they have no second X chromosomes to block out the gene.

The results:

  • 50% normal males split for lutino
  • 50% lutino hens

Let’s try one more. This time I want to mate a cinnamon hen to a cock split to cinnamon (carrying but not displaying). She will only need the one gene to show the color.

sexlinked5

Half of the babies will be cinnamon (both sexes), one will be split (a male) and one will be normal (female).

The results:

  • 25% normal males split to cinnamon
  • 25% cinnamon males
  • 25% cinnamon females
  • 25% normal females.

One of the great things about sex-linked traits is that they may allow you to sex birds very young without having to DNA test. A male that is carrying lutino, when mated with a hen that is not lutino, will always have lutino daughters. If he is lutino himself then ALL his daughters will be lutino. If he is not visibly lutino then any lutino you find in the nest will be a hen for certain.

Sex-linked genes allow you to get visual colors much faster, as you only need a male to be carrying a single copy. This is why Pineapple green cheek conures are more common than colors like turquoise. Pineapple is a combination of two sex-linked colors, while turquoise is recessive. However, it also drives up the price of males who show sex-linked traits. Hens are far easier to come by. To get a visual male you need two copies of the gene.

Well that’s it for now. Congratulations, you survived part one!

All articles and images contained on this site are ©2017 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Breeding: It’s Not Easy

A friend of mine was just lamenting all the posts she sees online that make breeding out to be a simple affair. Things like “there is nothing hard about breeding birds as long as you know you have a male and female” and “breeders are just looking for easy money.” Make no mistake, it is incredibly difficult to make a living at this.
 
For many of us, this is not our day job. I bought my pet Goffin from a breeder friend of mine. Her day job was a custodian. Most of the breeding I’ve done was while going to school and working as a bank teller. I’ve always operated on the level of “my birds pay for themselves, and I have a little bit leftover to reinvest/upgrade.” My breeders pay for their own upkeep. They pay for the birds that don’t quite fit in as either a pet or a breeder, but still need a decent home. They pay for the retired birds and the special needs birds. They pay for the species that no one has ever heard of- sometimes endangered, sometimes not. Aviculture is a passion, not an easy way to make money. There is nothing easy about this.
 
This year in particular I’ve had so many chicks reach pipping and then become trapped. Some I’ve managed to assist and they’ve gone on to develop into beautiful, happy, healthy babies. Others have died trapped inside their eggshell prison. It’s heartbreaking to see them that close to the end and find them dead. You think, “if only I’d intervened sooner maybe it would have been okay.”
 
People say it would be wonderful if everyone stopped breeding. It would be a catastrophic loss, both in the level of expertise and the captive gene pool. I’ve been retired for 12 years. In just that short time span, all my own cockatiels have become too old to breed. I’ve seen species that were quite common in aviculture slowly drop off the map. Kakarikis- the species in my logo, the feisty little New Zealand birds that gave my aviary its name- have become even rarer than they were back when I began working with them. I can’t even find yellow fronted kakarikis that haven’t been hybridized with their red fronted cousins. I cringe when I see very rare species kept back from breeding programs by well-meaning rescues. I feel like Indiana Jones crying out “It belongs in a museum!” These birds need qualified people working with them.
 
When you see a bird for sale, think of how much work went in to get to that point- pairs that may not have worked out, years of waiting for birds to mature, infertile clutches, dead chicks, disease testing, all the costs associated with keeping live animals (housing, feeding, veterinary care), the learning curve (both for the breeder and the birds- chicks, like human babies, don’t come with instruction manuals!), and TIME. Are you willing to feed a chick every 2 hours around the clock? Because I am. It takes a toll you.
 
Aviculture needs us all working together- pet owners, breeders, veterinarians, rescues, behaviorists. We each bring something to the table. When one group doesn’t take the time to understand or listen to the others, the birds are the ones who lose.

Handfeeding Crash Course

For the accidental breeder or the person who got suckered in to doing the breeder’s job for them.

This is intended to be an emergency guide. It is not comprehensive! If you plan on handfeeding routinely you need to get a copy of Parrots: Hand Feeding & Nursery Management by Howard Voren and Rick Jordan. In Australia they prefer Incubation & Handraising Parrots by Phil Digney.

What does your baby look like?

  1. Naked
  2. Down feathers (fluffy feathers, but no proper feathers)
  3. Pinfeathers
  4. Mostly feathered

chick development

Feather development varies from species to species. Some, like Indian ringnecks, move from naked alien babies to pinfeathers with no real down stage. LOOK at your baby and see what level it is at. #1-3 NEED SUPPLEMENTAL HEAT.

Temperature for baby

  1. Naked- 93-97.5°F. Exact temperature depends on the age and size of the chick.
  2. Down- 85°F
  3. Pinfeathers- 78-82°F
  4. Feathered- Room temperature, so long as it’s not too chilly

You MUST have a way to accurately measure temperature! Make sure your thermometer (or the probe reading the temperature) is placed in the same location as the chicks, otherwise your reading will be off.

WATCH your baby

  • Shivering = too cold
  • Panting = too hot
  • Adjust accordingly!

How to Keep Baby Warm

Ideally you would have a proper brooder like this:

brooders

You can also make low budget versions with fish tanks/critter keepers and a heating pad or lamp:

brooder

Here are some links on how to make a brooder:

Feeding

Supplies needed:

  • thermometer
  • handfeeding formula
  • syringe or spoon with sides bent up
  • kleenex or other item for wiping off baby

How to Feed

  1. Heat water separately.
  2. Add hot water to formula until desired consistency is achieved.
    • Very young chicks take thinner formula
    • Consistency should be similar to applesauce- thick, but drips easily from spoon
  3. Stir well to eliminate lumps and hot spots
  4. CHECK TEMPERATURE with a candy thermometer or digital kind.
  5. The safe window is 100-110°F. Any hotter and the crop will be burned, which can lead to death. Any cooler and the chick will refuse the formula. Ideally you want to be around 106°F.
  6. Do NOT heat formula in the microwave. This causes hot spots.
  7. Add hot water to formula, check temp, add cool water if necessary, or wait until formula cools. It may take some trial and error until you get the hang of it.
  8. Hold the chick steady.
  9. If using a syringe, aim it from the bird’s left to the bird’s right. The esophagus is on the right. If you shoot toward the left you may unintentionally aspirate the bird. Aim toward the right.
  10. Chicks, especially older chicks, may pump vigorously and make a huge mess.
  11. Do not overfeed. Doing so can stretch out the crop, preventing it from emptying properly. Crop should be a nice bulge but not sag.
  12. Chicks may cry for a brief period after feeding, as it can take time to register that they are full. Crying all day is a sign that something is wrong.

Feeding Schedule:

The table below is not mine, and it is made with cockatiels in mind. Larger species will eat more and develop at a different rate. Adjust accordingly!

handfeeding chart

This is for COCKATIELS.

I personally listen to the chicks. If they’re crying a lot and the crop is empty then they need to be fed. If they’re refusing food (and it’s at the right temperature) it may be time to bump back the feeding time. Listen to your chicks!

Please visit my YouTube channel for videos on brooding and handfeeding, or watch the playlist below:

Fledging & Weaning

Once the chick is fully feathered it begins the fledging and weaning process. Chicks may start to refuse feeds and drop a bit of weight prior to fledging. This is normal, as slimmer birds have an easier time flying. At this point you can move them to a cage and start offering foods. I begin with soft, warm foods or things that are easy to manipulate. You want to offer a large variety of foods and textures- vegetables, pellets, and seed. Initially food will get picked at and stepped on but eventually the chicks will learn to eat it.

It is important that all birds learn to fly properly. If you plan to clip your bird’s wings, give it time to learn to fly well before clipping. It should be able to take off, land, and fly with purpose and accuracy. Once it can do this for some time you can clip.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Sexing

If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.

eclectus_roratus-20030511

Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.

If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.

DNA

DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.

img_9728

A blood card for Avian Biotech.

All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.

Surgical

This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.

Behavior

Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.