Co-parenting and Other Things
I have Learned about Breeding Caiques.
John C. McMichael, Ph.D.
ASA Avicultural Bulletin, (2009) 78: 12-17.
For my online caique manual , I read nearly every thing ever published about caique breeding and I was still unhappy with the results of my breeding program. I had no problem setting up pairs and getting them to breed. The problems I faced were the loss of eggs and chicks once they did go to nest. Sure, I produced plenty of wonderful pet chicks, but many chicks died or they turned out less than pet friendly. After decades of breeding caiques, in the last few years I have realized how to produce tame chicks by co-parenting while at the same time drastically reducing parental egg breakage and chick killing. As a by product, I no longer face the stress of feeding day-one chicks, and their dying when I feed them too clumsily and they aspirate the hand-feeding formula. The methods I now use are still not perfect, but they are far better than those I used at the beginning of my breeding efforts.
I learned a great deal from earlier caique breeders particularly George Smith (6) and Tom Ireland (3) . The knowledge they provided me about caiques was extremely helpful and gave me confidence when I began breeding caiques. They taught me to keep pairs in separate cages within sight of each other. They also taught me that when one pair starts to breed, it stimulates the other pairs to go to nest, so one usually has more success if one has multiple pairs. I also learned how to feed them a good diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, a reduced amount of fatty seeds, and to make pellets the dominate food in their diet. I still use most of the husbandry methods earlier aviculturalists pioneered, but they did not prepare me for the frequency of things going awry once my pairs laid eggs and reared chicks.
In this paper, I discuss my personal discoveries about rearing caique chicks once a pair begins to lay, incubate their eggs, and rear their chicks. I have found these aspects of hobby breeding to be the most challenging aspect of caique breeding, and here I present how I learned to cope with them. Most people who breed caiques as a hobby encounter these problems, but they are not limited to caiques.
Egg breaking. It seems everyone I talk to about caique breeding has encountered this problem. The hen lays its first egg and shortly afterwards, there is a great commotion in the nest box resulting in a broken egg. Some refer to this as egg-football or egg-soccer. When I first encountered this problem, I thought that the male was purposely breaking the egg. Then I realized that the paternal instinct for incubating an egg is as strong as the maternal one. This results in the male and female battling over which gets to sit on the first egg laid and the egg sometimes does not survive. At first, I considered simply removing the male and allowing the hen sole possession, but the problem is that if you do this, any eggs the hen lays afterwards are unlikely to be fertile. This is because the male has to fertilize eggs within 48 hours of the hen laying them. I solved this problem by adding an ersatz egg or two to the nest just after the hen lays her first egg. At first, I saved infertile eggs from previous clutches, blew out their contents, and injected them with plaster of Paris. I still use some of these, but I have since found that wooden eggs of about the same size as a caique egg available at craft stores work just as well. Further, you do not even have to paint them white. They only have to be about the same size. Now, when I know a pair is about to lay the first egg of a new clutch, I keep close watch and as soon as the hen lays it, I add two ersatz eggs. This provides each of the parents with at least one egg of its own to sit on. Since I have started this practice, I have not lost any eggs to egg-soccer.
Dead in shell (DIS) chicks.
I experienced some years when chicks failed to hatch due to DIS. I also noticed
that during those years the ambient temperature of their cage area was lower.
When I first bred caiques in
Parent killing of first chick to hatch. Fortunately, I have rarely had a problem with the parents killing the first chick, but I had one pair that did this repeatedly. The problem is if you do nothing, they will kill the next chick when it hatches. Once again, I suspect an overly paternal male is the cause. If you have a male parent doing this, the answer is to remove the male as soon as possible after the eggs begin to hatch. The hen can rear the chicks by herself. I place the male parent in a small cage right next to the breeding cage so he can keep watch. Once the chicks are larger and their eyes have opened, I return the male to the cage. Surprisingly, he readily takes to the task of feeding the chicks.
Death of later hatching chicks. One of the most common problems I have encountered in breeding caiques was losing the third and fourth chicks. This is also a common problem for other parrot species. Because parrots hatch their eggs asychonously, i.e., they hatch a few days apart in the same order in which they were laid, the oldest chick is quite large before the last egg even hatches. Because of this, the older chicks are better able to compete for their parents’ attention, resulting in the parents neglecting their younger chicks. My first approach to this problem was to keep a close watch on the nest box and pull the youngest hatchling before it died of neglect. If I did not, the parents would often chew on its feet, beak or out right kill it. Thus, I ended up hand-feeding chicks that were only a day or two old and often already suffering from not receiving enough food or hydration. Anyone who has ever hand-fed day-one caiques knows this is a great challenge, and doing this with a chick that the parents have neglected for up to 24 hours is even more challenging. Sadly, I lost many of these chicks.
My break through came when I realized that caiques, even those in the wild, do not seem capable of rearing more than two chicks at a time. This seems to be true for most other parrots in the wild as well. Now I allow the first two chicks to hatch as usual, but after the third chick hatches, I wait 12 to 24 hours and pull the oldest chick. You do not have to pull the chick immediately because a newly hatched chick relies on residual food from the yolk to survive the first few hours of its life. Since the chicks hatch about 3 days apart, by the time the third chick hatches, the oldest chick is about a week old and far easier to hand-feed than a day-one chick. Usually there are three to four eggs in a clutch and I repeat the pulling of the oldest chick in the nest when the next egg hatches, taking care to leave only two chicks with the parents at any one time. Once all the chicks hatch, I allow the parents to rear the last two to the point when their eyes open. I have not lost a late hatching chick since I started this practice.
Co-parenting that produces chicks as tame as hand-reared ones.
Learning how to co-parenting chicks has been my greatest challenge and has brought me my greatest satisfaction. As many know, I am an advocate of co-parenting parrots (5) . My first co-parenting experience happened by chance. I had a wild-caught pair and, in my first decade of breeding caiques, my practice was to leave one chick with the parents to rear each season. All the rest I pulled for hand-rearing just after their eyes opened. I had just moved into a new house and I was a bit neglectful of checking on the progress of one chick I had left with the parents. As it turned out, it developed spraddle-leg and I did not respond as quickly as I should have. Once I realized its condition, it received much more of my attention even though I still left it with its parents. I began a regime of checking it more than once a day and in the process handled it more than I had ever handled any previous parent-reared chick. I named him Ernie after I had him DNA-sexed. I left Ernie with his parents for three years, but allowed him out with me when I serviced the other cages. He greatly enjoyed his time out with me and was gentler than many of my completely hand-reared birds.
In the meantime, reports began to appear of other breeders’ attempts to co-parent parrots. At the University of California at Davis, they experimented with handling their parent-reared Amazon chicks 20 minutes a day and were finding them much more people friendly (1) . At about the same time, Csaky (2) was achieving similar results with macaws. From my experience with Ernie, I already knew this was possible with caiques.
Knowing all this, I began a program of purposely co-parenting the chicks of some of my caique breeders (4) . My initial approach was to leave a single chick with its parents and, after its eyes had opened, handle it as much as I could twice a day. In the morning, I would give it a small feeding of hand-formula while the parents were out of their cage in a different room as was their routine since they were also pets. In the evening, I would again handle the chick while the parents were away from the nest box. This time I handled it for a longer time and with much fuss, giving it a half grape or other treat to induce it to seek my company. Unfortunately, the over all success of this approach was disappointing since it only produced tame chicks about half the time. While some of these chicks were very eager to seek human company, others preferred the company of their parents.
My break though in co-parenting came after I changed my whole approach. The key was to increase the amount of time they spent with me. The result is that now, instead of co-parenting only one chick at a time, I co-parent the whole clutch. Here is how I do it. First, I allow the parents to rear their youngest two chicks as I described above until just after they open their eyes. Then, I begin a program of rotating the chicks with the parents. I pull the two youngest that I had left with the parents and replace them with the oldest chick that I had been hand-rearing away from the parents. Then every day, I replace the chick in the nest box with the next oldest chick, rotating through all the chicks in order of hatch until I have to begin with the oldest one again. The idea is to provide each chick with the same amount of exposure to its parents. This method works best if there are three or more chicks in the clutch.
For some reason, this approach does not work as well when there are only two chicks in the clutch. I am currently experimenting with doing a three-day rotation in which I place the oldest chick with the parents for one day, followed by the second chick for one day, but on the third day I do not give them a chick.. Once again, I began doing this when one of the chicks in a clutch of three developed a mild case of spraddle-leg and I had to hobble it to correct the problem. Because I could not return this chick to the rotation, I just continued as usual, just leaving it out of the rotation. I have only used this approach once, but it seems to be working.
The biggest problem is when the parents hatch only one chick. Then, if I have excess chicks of nearly the same age from one of my other pairs, I place them in the rotation. If there are no others, I pull the chick and hand-rear as was my standard before I started co-parenting since this is the only way to be sure the chick will be hand tame.
When the chicks in the rotation begin to wean, I start placing more than one chick with their parents and when I feel they are ready, I place all of the chicks back in the cage with their parents. All the chicks and the parents seem to accept this situation without any approbation. An advantage of returning the chicks to the parents is that they wean much more quickly than if I had completely hand-reared them. This is because they learn what and how to eat from their parents. I continue to hand-feed them during this period, but in short order, they start taking less and less formula. There is one caution; you should not leave the chicks with the parents too long after they wean. If you do, they will develop a stronger relationship with their parents than with you. Thus, you need to separate them from their parents within a short time of their weaning to keep their strong relationship with people.
Parent black-headed caiques with their co-parented chicks. The male parent is in the middle, and his mate is just to his right.
Note the darker eyes of the chicks.
Applying these approaches to my breeding has resulted in the loss of fewer chicks and provided me the great pleasure of enjoying the interaction of the co-parented chicks with their parents. When they are learning to fly, my co-parented chicks take great joy in flying back and forth between me and their parents. It is a unique feeling that they are as comfortable being with me as with other caiques. Since my breeding pairs are also pets, I sometimes end up with both the chick and their parents clamoring over me. Co-parenting may not be for everyone, but if you are a hobby breeder, it is an experience well worth the effort, and for me, it has been the fulfillment of one of my great ambitions in breeding caiques.
1. Collette, J. C., J. R. Millam, K. C. Klasing, and P. S. Wakenell. 2000. Neonatal handling of Amazon parrots alters the stress response and immune function. Applied Animal Behavior Science 66:335-349.
2. Csaky, K. 2000. Presented at the Conference Proceedings. 26th Annual Convention, Los Angeles, CA.
3. Ireland, T. 1988. Caiques (Audio recording), Convention of the American Federation of Aviculture.
4. McMichael, J. 2007. Notes of a fanatic hobby caique breeder, p. 57-62, 33rd Annual Conference Proceedings of The American Federation of Aviculture, Los Angeles, CA.
5. McMichael, J. 2008. Two of a kind. BirdTalk 26:38-41.
6. Smith, G. A. 1971. Black-headed caiques. Avicultural Magazine 77:202-218.
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