BREEDING THE ECLECTUS
by Carolyn Swicegood
"What's crimson and clover and sweet all over?" Red and green Eclectus parrot babies is the answer, of course! Of the many parrot species, Eclectus babies are without a doubt the cutest and cuddliest of them all. They are well known by breeders for their sweetness. Those new to the species might not consider Eclectus babies "beautiful" before they are fully feathered, but only because they have not had the privilege of their company.
It has been said that Eclectus parrots are the "easiest to breed and the hardest to feed," and there is some truth in that old adage. Once a pair starts producing fertile eggs and hatching their babies, the biggest problem is forcing them to take a break. The description of "hardest to feed" refers to the limited feeding response of the babies. Parrot breeders who are accustomed to feeding Macaw babies that pump so hard that they could swallow the syringe, usually are shocked to discover that Eclectus babies sometimes just sit there like a lump, with very little if any pumping action. If the baby is hungry, it will swallow the food and if not, the formula will simply drool down its chest. Feeding can be a messy proposition that takes longer than the feeding of almost any other baby parrot.
Although Eclectus parrots truly are easy to breed once they start producing, it can be difficult getting them to that point. Breeding any parrot species is a venture not to be taken lightly. One must first consider whether or not they have the time, energy, and resources necessary for the commitment to this project. It can take time and effort to obtain healthy, non-hybridized specimens of one's favorite Eclectus subspecies. It sounds easy if you believe that the adult birds will lay fertile eggs the first clutch, incubate them until they hatch, feed the babies from day one through fledging, and that you will immediately find a good family to adopt the babies. It sounds easy if you believe that when you want your birds to take a break from production, you simply will remove the nestbox and have them switch gears and become pets again with no desire to raise more babies.
The reality is that there can be many clear eggs before a pair learns to fertilize them, and first-time parents do not always incubate their eggs properly, nor feed their first few clutches of babies. Although the majority of Eclectus parrots usually become wonderful parents and sometimes do everything just right the first time, this is not always the case. Some birds take longer than others to become good breeders and successful parents. If you are the owner of an Eclectus pair that has laid infertile eggs for a year or two, breeding these parrots does not sound easy to you!
Once the birds figure out the logistics of breeding, incubation, and raising chicks, many Eclectus females are so determined to lay eggs that having the nestbox taken away is only a minor inconvenience to them. They will lay in the food dishes or in any other suitable place they can find. The responsible owner will restore the nestbox when it becomes obvious that egg laying is imminent. Some of the tell-tale signs that a hen is about to lay are a bulge in the vent area and loose droppings.
If one does not plan to allow Eclectus companion birds to breed, they should not encourage nesting behavior by providing boxes or dark corners that the birds might consider a suitable nesting site. When interacting with adult Eclectus pets, care should be taken not to inadvertently stimulate their breeding instincts. Petting sexually mature birds on the back or under the tail can be misinterpreted by them as sexual behavior, in which case the male might decide that your hand or arm is a suitable body part for breeding, or you might find your red hen scratching around in dark corners intent on making a nest--and guarding the chosen site with the ferocity of a red-feathered Pit Bulldog!
There is a serious problem in aviculture regarding the hybridization of Eclectus parrots. One single factor that has caused a large part of this problem is that the subspecies of the male Eclectus is almost impossible for the novice to determine. In fact, subspecies identification of the male can be a challenge even for the experienced breeder. The differences between the males of the nine different subspecies are subtle, and one must observe a good number of birds before starting to recognize the subtle differences in color, size, and shape. Birds often are paired on the basis of which subspecies the male "appears" to be. By the time the pair matures and produces a female offspring by which subspecies purity can be determined with at least some degree of accuracy, the pair is likely to have been together for several years. If a mismatch becomes obvious, the owner might be reluctant to break the pair bond, obtain a new mate of the appropriate subspecies, and start the bonding process all over again.
Eclectus parrots become mature enough to breed at two to five years of age. The smaller Solomon Island subspecies can reproduce as early as two years of age, and some of the larger subspecies such as the Vosmaeris and Macgillivrays mature sexually as late as five or six years of age, although this is more the exception than the rule. If a mature pair is healthy and bonded, as indicated by mutual feeding, and if the owner is prepared to make the commitment necessary to raise babies, the birds are ready for a nestbox. If a male and female have only recently been introduced, it is best not to provide them a nestbox until mutual feeding has been observed. This is one of the few indications of bonding in Eclectus pairs since mutual preening is not as prevalent as in other parrot species. If one provides a nestbox too soon, the hen might well disappear into the nestbox for up to 23 hours a day, giving the male no chance to continue the bonding process. The hen needs time to train the male to feed her at the nestbox opening so that she can incubate the eggs and feed her young while he delivers the necessary food via regurgitation.
After establishing that one's Eclectus pairs are pure specimens of their subspecies and that they are in robust health, the provision of a suitable nestbox is the next step toward allowing the birds to heed Mother Nature's call to propagate the species. I have not found Eclectus to be fussy about where they nest. There are pairs that raise babies in Z-shaped boxes, boot-shaped boxes, horizontal boxes, hollow logs, both upright and on their sides, and my birds prefer grandfather style boxes--upright rectangular boxes with a 4-5 inch diameter opening in the upper third of the front of the box and an inspection door in the lower third of the back of the box. A ladder must be provided from the opening to the floor of the nest. Some breeders prefer the boot style (or L-shape box) which is the same configuration as a grandfather box except for an additional area (the horizontal part of the L) for the nest. The advantage of this style is that the birds cannot jump directly onto the eggs when entering the nest. My aviaries are located in the sub-tropical climate of South Florida, so even though I would prefer the L-shape or boot box, due to the high temperature here during much of the year, the low ceiling of the nest area in the boot shape box does not allow enough heat to escape for the comfort of the hen and chicks.
Some Eclectus pairs mate inside the nestbox so it is necessary to provide enough space for both birds, without providing so much excess space that young chicks easily get "lost" along the sides of the nest. After trying nearly all the configurations of nestboxes, the favorite of my small flock of Vosmaeri Eclectus is a 24" tall grandfather style box with 12" x 12" nest area.
Many breeders provide large, clean pine shavings for nestbox material. It can be difficult to locate a source of large shavings rather than small pieces and sawdust. It is important to provide pieces of wood large enough for the hen to shred to make her nest. With a planer and a clean, untreated 1" x 6" pine board, one can make large "curls" of shavings. Otherwise, small pieces of the board can be cut for the hen to chew inside the nestbox. Both birds will enjoy shredding clean branches from safe trees. In the wild, the pair works together to excavate a nest in the hollow of a tree. Chewing wood in the deep, dark hollow is thought to be an important part of the simulation required by the female for ovulation. Working together on the nest site is a natural part of the bonding process leading up to mating.
Eclectus pairs usually lay two eggs per clutch. Hens of the smaller Solomon Island subspecies sometimes lay three eggs. Usually, there are two days between the laying of the first and the second egg--or one could say that the eggs are laid on day one and day four. However, the eggs usually hatch with only one day between eggs--that is, they hatch on day one and day three. The hens do not seriously start to incubate the eggs until the last egg is laid. It is thought that Eclectus hens turn their eggs once an hour and that the temperature of the eggs during incubation is 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The eggs have a much better chance of hatching if the hen incubates them and the babies get a much better start if fed and brooded by the hen, especially in the first critical days. Three or four weeks is the minimum time that the baby should spend with the hen in order to get the best start in life
By the time an egg is five days old, one can see evidence of fertility with the aid of a candler or mag lite. Small red spidery veins radiating outward from a small, dark spot in the egg let the breeder know that the egg is fertile. Since the hen turns the egg only once per hour, I think it is best not to handle the eggs. The embryo is undergoing important developmental changes at any given time during incubation, and we do not know what effect an extra turn or two might have on the embryo. I suspect that many dead in shell babies are the result of rough handling and contamination of the egg. Bacteria from our hands can be transported to the developing embryo through the porous shell with disastrous results. One should be able to candle eggs without handling them.
Infertile eggs should be left with the hen for the full 28 days required for incubation. Otherwise, a hen can be "trained" to abandon her future nests at the same time that her first few nests of eggs are pulled. Allowing the hen to incubate her eggs for the full cycle also helps to prevent the depletion of calcium from her system that laying clutch after clutch can cause. I believe that after three clutches of infertile eggs, the nestbox should be closed for a few months in order to give the hen time to rest and replenish her calcium stores, as well as to allow time for increased pair bonding.
One of the characteristics that I appreciate most about Eclectus parrots is the strong bond with the owner that continues during nesting. Most parrots of all species will not allow human interference with their eggs and chicks. However, as I can personally attest, if you have a close and loving relationship with an Eclectus pair, they will allow you to candle the eggs and handle the babies without becoming upset. The only exception, from my experience, is that they do not appreciate interaction with their caregiver during the days of actual mating. My males who are not biters will nip me if I go near their mates during this time. Once mating is over, I am "allowed" to resume interacting with them.
If one does not have a close relationship with an Eclectus pair, the birds must be removed from the nesting area before checking eggs or chicks in order to avoid personal injury, broken eggs and/or injured chicks. An untamed female Eclectus can be quite ferocious in her attempt to protect her eggs and her chicks. Even so, I have never heard of an Eclectus hen that would "fly at" the human intruder as an Amazon might do. However, being the devoted parents that they are, they certainly will defend their nest with fervor if they feel threatened.
Fertile Eclectus eggs generally hatch in 28 days. The chicks hatch blind and naked, but are pink and hearty looking. Some hens do not feed the newly-hatched chick for the first twelve to twenty-four hours as the chick absorbs the yolk sac; others feed shortly after hatching. If an owner checks after twenty-four hours to be sure that a first-time parent is feeding her new chick(s), it is important to know what to expect. A one or two-day old chick that has been fed has a tiny bulge in the crop area (in front of the neck) about the size of "half an English pea". Often, a new owner will mistakenly pull chicks for handfeeding because of the small size of the full crop at this stage.
I believe that it is important to allow first-time Eclectus parents to raise their new chick(s) for as long as the parents will feed them. If one pulls the chicks after a few days or weeks, the parents will come to expect the babies to leave the nest prematurely and might never feed their chicks to the fledging stage.
Here are a few tips for those interested in breeding Eclectus parrots.
1--If possible, the male and female should be raised together. If they are paired at a later time, allowing them to select their mate increases the likelihood of successful breeding.
2--A plus when breeding Eclectus parrots is the keeping of only Eclectus parrots in the immediate vicinity. Although they will breed with other parrot species around, better production is obtained by providing privacy from louder parrots. The presence of other Eclectus pairs within hearing range can strengthen pair bonding, but a visual barrier is necessary for high strung birds. By specializing in one particular subspecies, babies can be fostered safely and mates can be switched when pairs prove to be incompatible or one bird of a pair is lost.
3--Nestboxes should not be given to a pair before evidence of bonding is seen. If the hen starts living in the nestbox before she has trained the male to feed her, successful breeding is less likely. Hens spend up to 23 hours a day in the nestbox. A pair might produce clear eggs for the first year if the nestbox is given too soon.
4--Nestbox location is not as critical once a pair has started producing, but initially it is important to position it in the highest part of the aviary with the greatest possible degree of privacy. The location should be protected from sources of stress such as predators (hawks, cats, rodents, reptiles, raccoons, and opossums) as well as loud noises, auto traffic, and other pets and children.
5--Wood should be provided to both the male and female Eclectus for chewing. It is an important part of their pre-mating ritual. In the wild, they would work together to excavate a nest high in a tree. Safe, clean tree branches in the aviary are a good substitute.
6--Food must be provided in abundance every day to reassure the pair that enough food will be available to raise chicks, simulating a time of plenty in the wild. Soft foods such as a cooked brown rice, beans, corn, and sweet potato mix are a favorite of Eclectus pairs. Sprouts should be included for a live food source of enzymes, and hard boiled eggs with shells should be provided for protein and calcium. Supplemental vitamins and minerals should not be added if an adequate diet is provided and the birds are outside with access to sunshine which helps in the production of vitamin D, which affects calcium absorption. If raised indoors with artificial lighting, an avian vet might prescribe a calcium supplement for hens that are laying eggs. Hyperactivity caused by the oversupplementation of vitamins can lead to mate aggression and physical injury.
7--When attempting to breed Eclectus parrots indoors, an increase in daylight hours can stimulate the production of reproductive hormones and breeding behavior. The use of timers to gradually increase daylight hours is the most efficient way of achieving a gradual increase.
8--There is no information available about the effect of bathing on Eclectus breeder pairs, but when my birds are mating, they are eager for any type of bath. Rain water baths are their favorite of course, but they enjoy spritz baths from spray bottles as well as bathing in a shallow "pool" of water.
9--When all else fails to get a newly-mature Eclectus pair started breeding, a change of scenery can have a positive effect. From being taken on a long car ride together to being moved to a completely different aviary with a new nestbox, the stress of change can sometimes stimulate a pair to breed.
10--There are a few nutritional "tricks" that are considered helpful to stimulate breeding. Since every living creature has its own unique chemical makeup, no one "remedy" fits all. Here are a few substances that are reputed to be effective in some instances. For high-strung and easily-stressed birds, herbal remedies such as chamomile tea, kava, passion flower, valerian root and other relaxing herbs can have a calming effect and help them to settle down and start breeding. Hemp seeds have been reported to have a stimulating effect on breeders. Fresh, raw wheat germ is used by some breeders to give a boost to vitamin E levels, thought to be important to successful breeding. Moderation is important and straight vitamin E should be avoided. Food sources are safest for most nutritional substances, but the addition of these substances, used sparingly, have been known to get previously reluctant birds into production. In summary, if given the proper diet in an appropriate setting, Eclectus parrots are relatively easy to breed. Their babies are a joy to raise and they bring much happiness to the families who adopt them as companion birds. Those who have the time and resources, as well as healthy and pure pairs of the different subspecies, are likely to be successful in their endeavor to breed the exquisitely beautiful Eclectus parrot.