New life always seems full of promise, and
the sight of a nest full of healthy chicks is enough to put a smile
on any budgie breeder's face. The feeling of expectancy is
deepened if it can be confidently anticipated that those tiny,
new beings are going to endure for a full ten years or so. We
cannot control fate. We cannot absolutely control genes. Yet we
can, I believe, do much to equip our chicks for a long and
healthy life. Those which are sold on as pets will thereby bring
much more joy and satisfaction to their owners, and will
contribute to the good reputation of their species.
Role Of Genes
The egg which will become Max will have his unique
characteristics stamped within it thanks to genes. Genes not only
dictate the characteristics which breeders get excited about -
like colour and size - but also the really important things that
determine the bird's constitution. Max's genes will include the
precise blueprint for his internal organs, and the information
that decides how strong or weakly he will be, what diseases he
will be prone to, and the length or shortness of his potential
Basically, with the best
husbandry in the world, Max won't have much of a chance if he is
dealt dud genes! So how can the determined breeder help nature to
deal him a good hand?
Selecting A Pair
Well, what Max requires first of all is strong parents who are
free from genetic diseases and disease predispositions. Because
there has never been any centralized record keeping by budgerigar
breeders, choice of parents boils down to looking for indications
such as whether the birds seem robust and full of energy - (the
obvious one!), - and whether their parents, grandparents and
other relatives are alive and well. This is currently all that
can be done to dodge deleterious (harmful) genes, which seem to
be very common.
|The parents must be robust and full of energy.|
While one-year-old might be an ideal age for
breeding, a bird as young as this has not yet proved that it is
equipped to live beyond its youth. Use of a cock aged, say, 3 to
6 years, and a hen aged 2 or 3, should increase the likelihood of
Max getting the desired genes for longevity - though this is
merely a matter of improving the odds, and it should be
understood that the birds' genes don't improve with age. Of
course, older birds will only be able to do a god job of rearing
Max if they are still fighting fit.
Vital organs are most likely to function well if
they are the size and shape intended by nature. This is more
likely to be the case if the budgie is a natural size and shape
on the outside! If he or she has the extreme contours of an
exhibition bird, the vital organs may have been remodelled to fit!
- No one seems to have studied what happens internally when the
exterior is expanded and redesigned!
|What happens internally when the exterior is expanded and redesigned?|
One more inheritable factor comes to mind as
being helpful to Max in his bid for longevity, namely an easy-going
temperament. This might seem insignificant, but from what I have
seen, easy-going birds tend to out last their more highly strung
companions. I reckon that the importance of good temperament
should not be underestimated.
Summary - So Far, So
One More Very
So, Max needs robust, energetic parents of a reasonably natural
size and shape and easy-going temperament, and healthy
grandparents and other relatives who show no signs of inherited
disease. As was mentioned in 'The Long And The Short Of It', the
breeder will only have family health information at his or her
disposal if numerous budgies are kept into old age. Without older
generations in the aviary, one is making health decisions almost
in a vacuum.
Let us imagine, then, that the pair of budgies who are going to
be Max's parents meet the above criteria. So far as can be known,
Max is going to get good genes from each of two thoroughly sound
parents. Max is now half way to getting the genes that will give
him the best possible chance of longevity, but there is one more
very important consideration. This is the need for his parents to
be unrelated - and preferably completely unrelated going back for
a number of generations. This will ensure that the genes he gets
from his mother will be substantially different from the ones
from his father, giving him a nice mixed bag. It is the mixed bag
effect that imparts vigour.
|Max needs unrelated parents, so that he will have plenty of vigour.|
Conversely, if his healthy parents are closely
related, he will probably turn out weaker and less vigorous than
they are, even though they have each given him good genes. If
they are less closely related - say first cousins - there is
still a risk that he will be less robust and vigorous than his
parents. The pairing of related birds who have many of the same
genes as each other would deprive Max of the benefits of a mixed
bag. Creatures (or plants) which are short of vigour, as a result
of having been bred from related stock, are said to suffer from
Inbreeding Depression, and this is a well recognized phenomenon.
It is a matter of importance to all plant, livestock and
companion animal breeders.
Explaining My Opinion
I shall now leave Max's egg to incubate while I indulge in
digression. I know that in touching upon inbreeding (the pairing
of related birds) I have hit a highly controversial subject, and
that I must substantiate the opinion I have expressed.
The starting point is to consider the wild budgerigar.
There is probably no detailed information on pairing
preferences in the wild, yet we do know quite a bit about the
general habits of the species. It is known that budgerigars
are gregarious, living and breeding in flocks of various
sizes. They are highly nomadic, moving on to distant pastures
when seed becomes scarce, and roaming over the vast interior
of Australia. Many flocks may converge to form one, immense
flock during migration. Because of these habits, it is
unlikely that inbreeding would be the norm, and even more
unlikely that the budgerigar would be one of those species
specially equipped by nature to withstand inbreeding.
Next, if we look at the domestic budgie in
Britain today, we see that many birds are already inbred to
the point of marked loss of vigour. Inbreeding has been used
both deliberately - as exhibition breeders have worked to fix
unnatural characteristics - and accidentally - as aviary
owners have allowed related birds to mate, generation after
In some instances, inbreeding damage can be
detected as early as the first or second week of life. Early
growth lacks the amazing, disbelief-provoking speed with
which it ought to progress. Later, the various stages of
maturity tend to be delayed in these birds: they don't manage
to begin their 3-month moult at 10 weeks and complete it
before 5 months; their eyes don't acquire conspicuous, light
iris rings at an early age; puberty may occur much later than
the normal age of 4 months; and the colour of the cere may be
poor much of the time. Inbreeding damage can cause early death
from all manner of ailments, and the highly strung temperaments
that are encountered are another consequence of inbreeding.
Even if inbreeding were generally a
good thing for the budgie, this is certainly not the time to
be embarking upon it. The poor bird is suffering the ill
effects of a century of inbreeding, and damage reversal is
Finally, it is not inappropriate to make a
comparison with human health. Human societies generally have
laws to prevent the marriage of close relatives, and it is
widely understood that these are necessary for public health,
as well as for religious and social reasons. The marriage of
first cousins is allowed, but where cousin marriages are
frequent, there can be a significantly higher occurrence of
genetic disease. Most other creatures, including the
budgerigar, have genetic needs not unlike our own.
See Appendix 2 at bottom of page for a list
of some identifiable genetic diseases of budgerigars.
Let us rejoin the story of Max, who, in our
imaginary nest, has now hatched. From this point on, everything
in his upbringing and environment will help or hinder his goal of
Infection Not Wanted!
Max is utterly dependant on the crop milk provided by his parents,
and on their ability to keep waiting on him week after week. For
this tender task, his parents need to be free from weakening
infections, and not worn out from rearing earlier rounds. A clean
environment will do much to prevent them from succumbing to
infection; for instance, a frequently cleaned breeding cage with,
say, a newspaper flooring, will mean that the family are not
bombarded with disease organisms. Breeding pairs happily accept
cage cleaning if they are accustomed to it! Any one of the
probiotics on the market will strengthen the immune systems of
the parents and chicks.
Deep Litter And
On the other hand, a traditional deep litter floor will increase
the risk of many diseases including serious ones such as
coccidiosis, and fatty liver syndrome. For the uninitiated, let
me explain that 'deep litter' is a system of using a thick layer
of something like wood shavings, and making it last the whole
five months or so that it takes to raise two rounds, though the
worst of the droppings may be removed from directly under the
perches. This is obviously unhealthy, all the more so because
every cage in the room will be equally filthy, and they will all
be pumping out germs, spores and odour! Max has the best chance
of growing up safely and without infection in a clean cage within
a clean, fresh-smelling, well ventilated birdroom, or in a clean
aviary - again, without deep litter.
The health of Max's parents will ensure that they stuff him with
food, and turn him rapidly into something that resembles a tiny,
oven-ready chicken! (Oh! how I love them at this stage!) The
breeder's part, of course, is to provide plenty of good
nourishment. There is more than one good diet for breeding
budgies, but generally, some sort of soft food containing
complete protein is needed in addition to quality seed, green
food, cuttle-bone, oyster shell grit, and any other nourishing
additions - for example, soaked or sprouted oats or other seeds.
The soft food may be as simple as mashed, hard boiled egg or one
of the packeted rearing diets, or you may wish to invent your own
recipe. What matters, at the end of the day, is that you choose a
protein food / soft food which your birds enjoy eating, so that
the benefit reaches every chick in the nests. The magazines of
the bird fancy abound with advice and ideas on the feeding of
If Max's parents are indoors, and the sunlight reaching them has
passed through glass (or plastic glazing), a dietary source of
vitamin D3 will be required. Packeted soft food will probably
include this vitamin, but if you are using a soft food that doesn't
have it added, you will need to obtain a bird supplement that
includes D3, or else add cod liver oil to the seed. Without
vitamin D, hen birds can die from laying soft-shelled eggs, and
chicks can develop rickets. If you want to use cod liver oil,
carefully follow the instructions of a reputable breeder who
already uses it.
In The Breeding Cage
When Max leaves the nest, one of his needs will be for enough
space and perching to avoid the aggression of other birds. If
this need is not met - if he finds himself in an overcrowded
enclosure where pressure from other budgies causes him stress -
all his good genes, and his parents' and breeder's care up to
this point, may be wasted. Budgies of all ages can easily die
from stress. Babies will often bully each other if bored or
crowded, and can be seriously attacked by their own parents or
other adults if in a confined space.
Fledging In A Garden
In a roomy aviary, strong fledglings like Max seem to be safe if
the birds are not overcrowded. I haven't had any problems myself.
However, most aviaries ARE overcrowded!!! For a full discussion
of this subject, read 'Maximizing Life Span By Management', which
is the next and final article in this series. The particular
needs of the very young budgie in the garden aviary are for the
breeder to ensure that they are safely inside the shelter each
night, and that they don't go to roost soaked from an over
enthusiastic bath in the rain late in the day! Older birds know
how to take care of themselves, but youngsters do
Babies playing in a
home-made cane hoop in their roomy breeding cage.
Hoops are very easily made from 6's cane
or plastic cane, plus two figure-of-eight hooks per hoop.
The hoop shown is the 'family-size' version! Toys like
this assist rapid development.
Toys of all kinds are
surprisingly effective at stopping bullying amongst
youngsters, and can even prevent stress related deaths.
In A Breeding Cage
If breeding cages are employed, they should be large enough for
the babies to use the perches without aggression from their
parents, and without getting in each others' way. In my opinion,
a standard, 60cm (2ft) cage is certainly not going to meet this
need, although the experience of many breeders proves that the
young can be protected from attacks by parents by the provision
of a low platform under which they can hide. However, it is a
shame if they are reduced to having to hide, as they are quite
capable of developing their balancing, flying and landing skills
to a high degree in the first week out of the nest.
If cages are deeper than normal - say 60cm (2ft)
deep - this will make 120cm (4ft) of perch available to the
family. If swings or hoops are added, the total perching
available reaches an acceptable level, allowing all the young
freedom to play around. A higher than normal cage may be required
in order to keep the hoops away from the perches and so prevent
tail-pulling. Provision of this amount of space is expensive, but
it will help Max - not only by protecting him from stress during
the most important weeks of his life - but also by limiting
population density in the whole birdroom, which means a more
relaxed and less dusty environment.
Nursery Cages And
Separate Flights For Youngsters
At the point when the young no longer need their dads to feed
them, exhibition breeders move them into a nursery cage, then,
later, into a flight reserved for young birds. Max, with his
robust constitution, should not need this pampering - so
long as the flight or aviary he is moved to is not crowded.
Personally, I have never used nursery cages or separate flights
for juveniles. I suspect that the need to provide them is caused
by the combined effects of overcrowding and slow development. The
natural way to bring up young budgies is to encourage plenty of
exercise and play, so that coordination and muscle strength
develop as quickly as possible. The minds of young birds need
exercise too - they need outlets for their inquisitiveness and
The Power Of Play
Dipping once more into the Research Digest published by The
Budgerigar Society there is a very important observation to be
found on the benefits of play. A breeder housed a number of young
budgies in a stock cage to await sale. The cage was furnished
with perching and food, but nothing else - a familiar sight. The
birds were viewed by a string of visitors and some were caught up
and sold and their places taken by fresh youngsters. Some birds
were reduced to sitting quietly because of the hierarchical
behaviour and bullying that was going on, and gnawed tail and
wing feathers were further evidence of aggression. Worse, there
were a few deaths from stress induced heart failure.
Pet toys were then introduced experimentally, to
see if they could reduce the stress and bullying. The toys were a
success: the hierarchical behaviour and bullying ceased, the
birds looked more content, and there were no more deaths. This
highly significant piece of science means that young
budgies should never be caged without play things, for if they
are, their very lives will be at risk. It also means
that breeders should stop despising silly-looking little toys -
after all, we don't have to play with them ourselves, do we?
Twigs Are Natural Toys
to conclude, Max will benefit from anything that will encourage
play, as he grows up in his uncrowded, clean home. Twigs and
branches are natural play things, beneficial to budgies of all
ages. As well as the fruit tree and willow options that have
found wide acceptance, lime, hazel, elm and hawthorn are
recommended by the Waltham Research Centre (connected with
Pedigree Masterfoods). I have also used blackcurrant and fuchsia
prunings, ash, beech, birch, elder, sycamore, maple, various
poplars, climbing hydrangea and privet - (the "greatest
delight" of cockatiels is "to eat privet leaves"
according to A. Rutgers in 'The Handbook Of Foreign Birds',
Blandford Press), - Note: the berries of hawthorn and privet are
not proven safe to my knowledge. Beech and ash are the least
appetizing to the birds, so they are advantageous as long-term
perching, but are not so good as gnawing material.
Wishing you every
success in your efforts to breed long-lived budgies !!
- Helen Day
Factors Likely To Reduce Life Expectancy Of Young
2) inbred parents
3) genetic disease, or predisposition to disease in the ancestry
4) parents tired, diseased, or poor feeders
5) parents' diet deficient
6) highly strung temperament
7) filthy birdroom with stale, smelly air; deep litter
8) excessively unnatural body size and shape
9) stressful, high density housing after fledging
10) youngsters bullying one another out of boredom
11) lack of exercise and play because of cramped housing
Identifiable Genetic Diseases Of Budgerigars
Your contributions to this section would be
greatly appreciated. Please email any information on these or other hereditary diseases to Helen at Cobber Budgies.
One of my budgie families was a right off because of a factor
that caused severe prolapse or internal problems. Hens were
affected, but not cocks. The birds in this family were beautiful,
and possessed some excellent traits - including longevity which
the cocks have been able to show me - but in the face of such a
horrendous weakness their reproduction had to cease. For those
who may be interested, this 'prolapse factor' was either dominant
or sex-linked in inheritance. The Wiltshire vet, who administered
euthanasia to one of the victims, regarded the problem as common,
and said it was the second most frequent reason for ending the
life of a budgie - this despite the fact that I have never seen
any mention of it in any book or magazine. Is it common only in
the Wiltshire area?
These are complete freaks, totally swamped in long, curly
feathers and unable to eat enough to sustain life because the
metabolism is so abnormal. The mutation is probably confined to
coarse-feathered, exhibition stock. It is believed that the
feather duster factor is recessive, so that actual dusters occur
only when both parents have the mutation.
These plagued the Norwich canary when it was bred up to a
large, coarse-feathered bird, and in the budgerigar the cause is
probably similar. Possibly all budgies with coarse, bulky feather
may be at risk, or alternatively cysts may appear only in certain
lines of birds.
I am fortunate in having just one family of birds affected by this generally common problem. All three birds bred from a particular pair are now affected, along with their father, (only the mother has no fatty tumour). They were examined by a vet, who confirmed the presence and fatty nature of the growths and the likelihood that it was running in the family. One son got the all clear at the time of examination, but has since gone on to develop the same ailment as the others. The daughter became ill with an infection at just 16 months, because of a huge internal growth. All these birds are surviving, but their flight is adversely affected because they are too heavy. Both parents suffer from a degree of inbreeding depression, and the mother did not reach puberty until 11 months of age. I previously had another cock bird from the same breeder as the father of this family, and he too developed a lump at a fairly early age.
"Birds which sound more like frogs than Budgerigars
and puff their crops" was Dan T. Ouzt's description in
Budgerigar World magazine, (issue 186, page 21}. I have read that
croakers rarely come into breeding condition and may be sterile
even if they do. If they breed, they can cause a problem by
filling their chicks' crops with air. This disorder is believed -
but not yet proven - to be genetic in nature.
Cobber Budgies Article by Helen Day.
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© Helen Day, first published
October 2000; revised May 2003.