Title - Breeding For Longevity
Budgerigar Longevity: The Challenge
Practical Aviary/Breeder Pages

Second of three aviary/ breeder longevity articlesNew 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.

  My theory as to how longer lived birds can be bred is quite simple.

  In short, a youngster has the best chance of a long life if it has good genes, good food, good rearing, and clean, low-stress housing.

  Let us look at the many practical considerations which the theory prompts by focusing on the needs of one imaginary chick.

  I shall call this chick 'Max' because his breeder is absolutely determined that he will posses maximum life expectancy!

The 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 life expectancy.

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
The parents must be robust and full of energy.
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.

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.

What happens internally when the exterior is expanded and redesigned?
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!

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 Good
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.

One More Very Important Consideration
Max needs unrelated parents, so that he will have plenty of vigour.
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.

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.

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Before The Egg

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After Hatching

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After Fledging

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Growing Up

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 generation.

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 overdue.

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.

   Appendix 2   

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 longevity.

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 Disease
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.

Chicks peeping from within the nest hole 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 nesting budgies.

Vitamin D
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.

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Before The Egg

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After Hatching

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Growing Up

In The Breeding Cage Or Aviary
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 Aviary
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 not!

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.

Babies on home-made hoop

Fledging 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.

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Before The Egg

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After Hatching

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After Fledging

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 mischief.

The Power Of Play
Dipping once more into the Research Digest published by The Budgerigar Society asterisk 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
Tree - page decorationSo 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 !!

asterisk The Budgerigar Society Research Digest 1979 - 1981, published by The Budgerigar Society

Before The Egg

After Hatching

After Fledging

Growing Up

- Helen Day

Appendix 1
Factors Likely To Reduce Life Expectancy Of Young

1) parents related
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

Appendix 2
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.

The 'Prolapse Factor'
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?

Feather Dusters
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.

Feather Cysts
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.

Fatty Tumours
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.

A Cobber Budgies Article by Helen Day.

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© Helen Day, first published October 2000; revised May 2003.