Title - Maximizing Life Span By Management
Budgerigar Longevity: The Challenge
Practical Aviary/Breeder Pages

Third of three aviary/ breeder longevity articlesI believe that if you add the principles low stress, low density bird keeping to ordinary, sound husbandry, you have the key to maximizing life span by management. In this article I will explain the relatively novel ideas for improving life span, and also run through those basics which save lives.

What Is Low Density Bird-Keeping?
Low density bird keeping means keeping considerably less birds in a given amount of space than you normally see when you visit budgerigar aviaries or birdrooms. The 1 foot of perch per bird guideline is useful for reckoning how many birds can share an aviary shelter without detriment to health, but it may be too dense for a flight. Where a large amount of space and expenditure cannot be devoted to the budgerigars, low density bird keeping means being content with a smaller number of birds. The compensation is that you can enjoy each one more!

You see, it's really a matter of allowing space for their natural behaviour patterns, even in an aviary shelter, because there will be periods during the day when they all choose to be in there together. Budgerigars like to be on the move a lot, not just as individuals but in pairs or small 'gangs', and they do this excitedly. They need to be able to alight socially wherever they wish, without having to get into a confrontation with an innocent bystander. If out of doors, they also need to be able to head for cover in a split second - all at once - if danger threatens. If a large gull flies over, for instance, or a blackbird gives an alarm, they must all get a perch in that shelter or indoor flight in an instant. Any that fail will suffer intense stress.

Aviary hatch A hatch or bob hole of this design will allow the whole flock to reach 'safety' immediately, whenever they are scared - providing there is plenty of perching inside. Sometimes the cause of the scare may be more serious than usual - - a Sparrowhawk for example!!!

This hatch can be securely bolted open during the day, and shut tight by top and bottom bolts on winter nights. (The top bolt is inside, where it is easily reached thanks to the higher floor.)

The definition of overcrowding is that there are enough birds in an enclosure to interfere with each others' long-term well-being. Therefore, if your birds are not achieving long-term well-being, you need to double-check whether in fact they might be overcrowded, even if this seems improbable, and even if you are offended by my suggestion! A rule of thumb, is that if you can't potter around in your flight in your best clothes, then the birds are overcrowded.

Low density bird keeping has the added benefits of low dust and low odour, so bringing additional health benefits to the birds, as well as being much better for the owner.

Stress-Reducing Ideas
Research carried out on behalf of The Budgerigar Society some years ago concluded that "stress-related disorders are responsible for the greatest part of budgerigar mortality". asterisk Therefore, a great reduction in the birds' death rate can be achieved by dealing effectively with causes of stress, the first of which - overcrowding - I have already discussed. I would now like to share ideas for dealing with a number of other management issues.

Firstly, the food needs to be sufficiently widely distributed to allow most of the birds to feed at once. This is because they are social feeders. In practice they are happy to feed in relays - BUT only over a short time span. If those at the bottom end of the pecking order can't join in fairly quickly, they will not bother to eat adequately and will soon be at risk of death. It is advisable to do a fly-on-the-wall observation of a whole feeding session regularly, so that any problems are picked up.

Secondly, the type of perching is important. Natural branches (with twigs) provide climbing and bouncing opportunities, as well as encouraging hours of gnawing. In contrast, birds can do nothing with those wretched perch racks except sit around or shove other birds along. While substantial branches make ideal perching, twigs such as hedge prunings can be offered simply as material for gnawing, and will keep the budgies happily occupied and exercised for ages. The benefits of branches were discussed towards the end of the previous article "Breeding For Longevity' because of their value to young budgies, so please bear with me if the next few sentences seem very familiar!

Natural branches in use, indoors.

Tree branches encourage hours of gnawing, climbing and bouncing.

Privet and hawthorn will do just fine, and are available everywhere.

Branches in use, indoors

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. In Australia, gum branches are a favourite for stripping and gnawing, but I have no information on which species of gum. 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. (Beech has a lovely, non-slip bark). It is useful to stock up with twigs before winter sets in, then you can easily keep your budgies entertained on those gloomy days.

Individual or small group perches are also good stress-stoppers. Budgerigars need to get away from others for a quiet doze or a good sing, and individual perches help them find a bit of peace: try home-made cane hoops and swings, and little 2½" (6.5cm) long dowels set 10" (25cm) apart along battens. Hoops can be hung from just about anything, including discarded paint tin handles which give them a nice bounce! Hoops are ideal additions in breeding cages too, - if space permits, which it should. Click Hoop to see the photograph of one in 'Breeding For Longevity' which is the previous article in this series. Return using your Back button.

Thirdly, if your birds trust you and are relaxed around you, this will save them a lot of stress during their care. Spend time with them, and avoid unnecessary chasing. When you breed, take the trouble to get the babies as tame and trusting as possible, then continue to build your relationship with them.

Understanding Your Birds' Behaviour - More Stress-Reduction Ideas
You need to know what is going on amongst your birds: what are the personalities? what are the relationships? what is the mood of the flock? The best way to find out is to consistently invest time in observing your birds, again, fly-on-the-wall-style, without interacting with them at these times. Unfortunately, none of the above stress-reducing provisions will absolutely prevent aggressive individuals from behaving aggressively. All antagonists must be separated. What might look entertaining to an observer of only a few years experience may in fact be an all-out persecution of one bird by another - probably with a gang of hangers-on joining in excitedly. It may even be continuing at night unobserved! This is quite literally deadly even if no blood is shed.

I believe that high excitement is only advantageous at the start of the breeding season. Non-breeding birds are better for being reasonably calm. If you ever hear birds giving a screech like an inverted cuckoo sound only very loud and harsh, or if you hear the 3-note version of this - the triple screech - - then urgent action is needed to calm things down. Remove the screechers to somewhere where they can 'cool off' then sort out what over-stimulated them.

  Sum-Up Snippets 1: observe; understand behaviour; separate antagonists; distribute food widely; keep less birds on more perches; use natural branches and individual perches; quell excessive excitement

Cold Reality!
Obese hens seem to produce messy droppings in the winter cold, so they do better with a bit of warmth. All budgies over about 6 years old, and any with the slightest weakness also need some warmth. In fact, budgies seem not to live up to their reputation for hardiness in the British winter. Sure, some people keep them all year in aviaries without a fully enclosed shelter and believe they are doing the right thing by them, but you're not likely to find any older birds in these aviaries. Bear in mind that many budgie breeders accept a high mortality rate, and in any case don't want older birds taking up perch space. One breeder even admitted in print that, when he was younger and less sensible, he had deliberately used exposure to the cold as a means of killing off any weak stock. - Actually, he probably killed a disproportionate number of hens by this means.

Some people will argue that budgerigars "shouldn't be mollycoddled", or that a good blast of winter cold is the best way of toughening them up. However it should be borne in mind that they are Australian, not British. There is no logical reason why they should benefit from our damp cold, nor our bitter, 17-hour nights - neither of which were experienced by their ancestors. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that fanciers who keep British birds in Britain tend to bring them in from their aviaries to the protection of a birdroom for the winter!

.. she said, her birds "were dropping like flies"
In 'The Long And The Short Of It' I mentioned my hen called Ivy, who came from a breeder in Accrington, and lived to be 13. This breeder believed in using some heat in the winter. There was a healthy, thirteen year old hen in her modest aviary when I bought Ivy. This caring breeder began using heat after a winter when, she said, her birds "were dropping like flies". A little heat solved the problem, and I've always used a bit of heat myself in aviary shelter or birdroom. (Of course, the heat must come from a safe, electric source, properly installed.)

The aviary shelter should be a bright and comfortable place.
An all-year aviary needs a well-built shelter with insulation; and the bob hole / hatch to the flight should close tight to keep out draughts. (The hatch also needs to be big enough to let all the birds fly in, very fast, in an emergency, as already mentioned. See illustration above.) Good ventilation is essential in summer, (excessive heat will ruin health), and closeable, low level vents are handy throughout the year. Some people insist that their birds prefer to roost out in the flight, and that they don't like going into the shelter of an evening. However, the cause of this problem is undoubtably that the shelter is dark inside, overcrowded, or in some way unpleasant or frightening. The aviary shelter should be a bright and comfortable place. However, even the best garden aviary is essentially a home for your fittest birds, and some of these will be either victims of aggression, or aggressors themselves, and will need to be housed elsewhere - for example, in a second aviary. If you plan to breed, it will be important to at least keep closely related, opposite sex birds apart.

Young budgie in my outside flight

A young budgie in the flight of my old aviary.

A roomy garden aviary displays the birds to best advantage, and it is wonderful to see them all flying in the sunlight. However, even the strongest need proper protection from the extremes of heat and cold - and from antagonists!

For the above reasons, it unfortunately isn't feasible to keep all of your budgies in a single garden aviary all of their lives. This is a very inconvenient fact, and it took me a long time to accept it. A garden aviary is wonderful for providing exercise, fresh air and stimulation for well, youngish birds, but it doesn't answer every need. When I last had one, I seemed to be for ever rescuing birds from it. There were quite a lot of one-off cases of ill health in the aviary, many provoked by combinations of social stress - (love triangles etc.!), - cold, night panic or obesity. That large aviary had taken two years to build and cost £600 in raw materials, but in the end it was a bit of a white elephant! - - although I wish I had it now for my younger birds. Incidentally, some love triangles can be sorted out - or even prevented in the first place - by cage pairing. This is the use of a cage as a means to pair bonding, without actually breeding. You pick suitable partners - who may be only youngsters - and keep them together until a bond develops, then let them out in the flight. If you are lucky, they will stick together and keep out of trouble!

  Sum Up Snippets 2: prevent excessive heat; shut out the cold; insulate; ensure shelter/birdroom is bright & comfortable; provide a little heat when needed; don't expect to keep all your birds permanently in one aviary

They Are What They Eat
Seed is another relevant subject. Some of the birdseed sold in Britain is so dirty and stale that it can kill, and this is what I term 'killer seed'! Learn how to ensure that your seed is of high quality by reading my article 'Birdseed: Easy Quality Checks', also on Cobber Budgies.

Budgies obviously need a complete diet to remain well. Much information can be found elsewhere about feeding: in books, bird enthusiasts' magazines and on the Internet, and I recommend you read widely. There is more than one good diet, so choose a diet that works for you and your birds, then stick to it. Below is a brief diet checklist:

  • High quality seed
  • Clean water
  • Greens most days - the old-fashioned way of providing vitamins and minerals, and more natural and enjoyable for the birds than a supplement out of a bottle. Vegetables help prevent cancer in humans, so may possibly do the same for budgies - a species with a very high cancer rate. If you decide not to use greens, an alternative will be vital.
  • Extra protein when breeding or moulting, or as a treat at any time. Older birds definitely need a protein boost when moulting, and their longevity will depend on this as much as any other factor. Many options today including mashed, hard-boiled egg; ready made egg foods - (many brands); addition of soya flour / meal to seed; addition of soya milk - or real milk, (preferably skimmed or virtually fat free) - to drinking water -1 part to 3 of water or 50/50 if accepted. I have read of one breeder using virtually fat free milk without any dilution. Some breeders use unusual foods such as cooked meats or mealworms. Also, some liquid supplements for birds contain amino acids.
  • Oyster shell grit: - a good source of calcium, and my birds definitely eat it. There is controversy about grit today, but the fact that they have the instinct to seek it out and eat it is good enough for me. I also provide mineral grit (based more on tiny pebbles) but still don't know if they use it!
  • Cuttle bone or mineral nibble: - additional calcium source; vital when breeding, and important at any time. Good for the beak.
  • Supplements when necessary: - e.g. if breeding indoors, a dietary source of vitamin D3 is essential. Vitamin D is vital for egg shell production. Sunlight must be direct - not through glass - for the hens to be able to utilize it to make the vitamin for themselves. If you decide not to feed greens, a general supplement, formulated for birds, will be a necessary constituent of the regular diet.

Reducing The Wear And Tear Of Breeding
As mentioned above, some extra nourishment is advisable for breeding budgies. Apart from the benefit to the youngsters, this prevents maternal deaths from deficiencies, and generally helps protect the parents from becoming run-down. Breeding should be stopped after two rounds by removal of the nest boxes - or even after one round if you have no use for more chicks. After breeding, devoted pairs should not be separated unnecessarily.

Colony breeding risks not only actual physical injury to hens through fighting, but also loss of strength from long weeks of defending the nest. All a hen's youthful vigour may be spent if there is an ongoing dispute. Cage breeding, too, can bring about loss of condition when standard, 2 foot (60cm) cages are used, but I have been pleased with the condition of most of my parent birds after breeding activities in their 4 foot x 2 foot deep x 2 foot 6" cages (120 x 60 x 75cm).

Clean Is Healthy
Finally, lack of hygiene claims lives, so cleanliness is essential. In any case, a dirty aviary or birdroom is a threat to your own health. Once again, it is worth stopping to consider the conditions in which the wild bird lives: except in the nest, it is not exposed to any accumulation of its own droppings, nor to the stale air of an uncleaned birdroom. However, it does have contact with the earth, and it will be found that our budgies love to eat particles from fresh, uncontaminated soil, on the roots of home-grown veg for example, or from the earth floor of a garden flight. Some contact with micro-organisms is needed for a healthy immune system, and hygiene is not the same as sterility.

I have covered the need for clean seed and clean water - (which of course implies clean utensils as well) - so that leaves clean flooring, clean air, and clean perching! Outdoor earth floors, as mentioned above, are only suitable away from perching where few droppings fall, and need a regular digging over. Please avoid the traditional 'deep litter'! 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 for months on end. Because droppings contain moisture, and drinking water gets splashed around, the litter is prone to dampness and mould. Damp litter has been implicated in two serious diseases: coccidiosis, and fatty liver syndrome, and is obviously very unhealthy. Trichomoniasis, too, is associated with lack of hygiene.

If the accumulation of stale droppings is avoided, and ventilation is adequate, the air will be sweet and clean, and clean air is a great health-promoter. Where many birds are kept, in the familiar overcrowded manner, an extractor fan is usually required, and ventilation must be kept up even on the worst winter nights despite the cold that this inflicts on the birds. However, when budgies are kept at low density over a clean floor, I find that there is no harm in closing all ventilation for the night, to keep out the bitter cold. My flooring choice is newspaper, changed every two or three days, and weighted down with sections of heavy wire fence panels and beach pebbles. I use sand sheets for feeding areas.

For washing perches and branches, I use a pan scourer and hot water - with or without soap flakes added. It is important to be aware that budgies use their feet to groom the delicate areas around their eyes and ears, and also tend to rub their heads on objects. Therefore, dirty perches can be expected to lead to eye and ear disease.

Any disinfectants used should be safe with birds, and generally they should be applied AFTER the worst of the soiling has been removed. Most do not kill germs in the presence of dirt.

  Sum-Up Snippets 3: quality foods; good nutrition; feed breeding pairs really well; extra protein for moulting oldies; limit breeding; keep water, food, utensils, perches, floor and air clean

  Sum-Up Snippets 2: prevent excessive heat; shut out the cold; insulate; ensure shelter/birdroom is bright & comfortable; provide a little heat when needed; don't expect to keep all your birds permanently in one aviary.

  Sum-Up Snippets 1: observe; understand behaviour; separate antagonists; distribute food widely; keep less birds on more perches; use natural branches and individual perches; quell excessive excitement

This brings me to the conclusion of my articles under the heading: 'Budgerigar Longevity: The Challenge'. If you have read all three, I think you will agree that achieving an excellent life span with all your birds is indeed quite a challenge. It is also very interesting, as it takes you into the realms of bird behaviour, advanced observational skills, and what is fashionably called behavioural enrichment, as well as genetics of a fundamental kind - and even aviary / birdroom design. I hope that you have enjoyed your reading, and that you will not shrink from the challenge!

Reference: asterisk The Budgerigar Society Research Digest 1979 - 1981, page 34, published by The Budgerigar Society

A Cobber Budgies Article by Helen Day.

Back To Top

Choose Another Budgerigar Life Expectancy Article

Practical Aviary/Breeder Pages

Cobber Budgies Home

© Copyright Helen Day, first published in October 2000.