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Notes of a Fanatic Hobby Caique Breeder

John McMichael

Abstract

Smitten by a recently weaned black-headed caique (Pionites melanocephalus) burrowing under a newspaper in its cage, I began a more than 20-year quest to understand them. The quest is not over, and so far, it has led me to keeping them as pets, breeding them, digging for information about them in libraries, and traveling to their native turf. As a hobby breeder, I have discovered that caiques are quite flexible in their dietary demands, like to sleep in cavities, and are social breeders. Along the way, I have explored feeding them “nectars” and insects as well as co-parenting their chicks. This is a summary of my experiences and breeding practices.

 

On October 26, 1985, I purchased my first caique, a black-headed hen, and that led to an unexpected infatuation. A few years later, the late Tom Ireland gave a talk on breeding them at the 1988 A.F.A. Convention in Tampa and I took a morning off from work to hear him. From him I learned that it was best to have multiple pairs in order to achieve reliable breeding. I purchased a pair based on the surgical sexing done by the seller, but when I had the birds rechecked for sex, I found I had two males. It took me a couple years longer, and a remarkable run of purchasing four females in a row, originally surgically sexed by the sellers as males, for me finally to have two opposite sex pairs.  It was only later while reading one of Dr. George Smith’s many papers, that I learned that surgical sexing of caiques is not as reliable as it is for other parrots. Still, with that bumpy start I am still infatuated.

My infatuation however had to fit within certain limits. I was a farm boy who realized that farming was mostly physical work and one of my goals was to be a “city slicker.” This meant that my breeding operation had to fit into my home. In Florida, I kept my pairs in my screened porch. When I moved to New York, I accommodated them by providing artificial lighting in my basement. Fortunately, it is possible to breed caiques in both situations.

What follows is a essentially a condensed version of my methods and experiences. Hopefully, I will soon be publishing more expansive version that includes a review of the practices of many earlier caique breeders.

Caging, Nest boxes, and other accomodations.

The first order of business after you secure a pair is to provide them with a cage. One of the reasons I chose to breed caiques is that they do not require very large cage. Indeed, as Dr. Smith noted, caiques seem to breed better in smaller cages. I purchased mine from Corners, Inc. because they were of good size and came with a galvanized under tray. I use two different sizes. One is 2 ft deep, 4 ft high and 4 foot long. The other is 2 ft deep, 2 ft high and 4 foot long. In general, the lateral dimension is more important than the height. Fortunately, caiques not fussy about this and some people breed them in anything from very small cages and to nine-foot long flights.

Caiques are not fussy about nest boxes either. Any shape will do as long as it is roomy enough for them to fit both members of the pair comfortably. I use elongated boxes of about 10 inches deep, 10 inches tall, and 24 inches long. These are what I started with, but if I were to install new ones, I would go with either an inverted boot box or an internal shelf type box. The reason I would change is that when the birds really work their nest before laying eggs they shove most of the bedding out of the entrance hole. With my horizontal boxes, I continually have to add more bedding as the birds toss it out. This is more difficult with the inverted boot and internal shelf boxes since the bedding keeps settling into the lowest part of the box. As to bedding, I use either pine shavings or aspen chips depending on what is available.

If like me you cannot set up cages outdoors, you need to have a bird room or other facility in which to put your cages. I have a very large basement that receives some exterior light, but most of the light is artificial. I need to use artificial lighting anyway because of the short winter days in Rochester, NY. Fluorescent light is the most practical for this. You should take care, however, to choose fixtures with an electronic ballast to avoid flicker. (If wave your finger in front of the light and see multiple images of it, you have flicker.) Birds see at about 160 frames per second, which is more than twice that of people. I use full spectrum lights that I purchase at my local home center. I place these within a foot of the top of the cage. These are on timers that allow 13 hours of light per day. If you illuminate them longer, caiques will breed all year long.

Because they like a sense of security, I do not set my breeder cages in the center of the room, but position them so the longest dimension is against a wall. This seems make them more comfortable.  Having a wall on one side, means they have little to fear from that direction.

Food and Water.

When I feed my caiques, I aim for about 45% pellets (formulated diet), 35% fruits and vegetables, and 20% seed. The way I select pellets is by tasting them myself. Caiques have a definite preference for sweet foods, so I pick the sweetest tasting pellets. I provide these ad libitum.

I feed the fresh fruits and vegetables in a separate bowl and select them according to the season. I provide more fruit than vegetables because of their preference for sweeter foods. They are very partial to things like dried figs, pomegranate, cranberries, papaya, apple, orange, grapes, etc. The vegetables I provide include corn, broccoli, carrots, snap peas, green beans, etc. that I have on hand. Of the vegetables, they most prefer corn, snap peas and the small salad carrots. I cut their fresh food into pieces they can pick up with their foot. I place the bowls in their cages and remove them in the late afternoon.

I try to limit their seed. I feed a safflower seed based mix. (If you feed too much of a sunflower seed based mix, they will focus on eating them and develop high lipid levels in their blood and may develop aberrantly colored feathers.) They get about a tablespoon in the evening after I remove their fresh food bowls. I spread the seed in a large pan so they can pick over it. Because they tend to over indulge on seed, I place the seed pan on the floor of the cage where they are less comfortable about eating than at perch level. Sometimes they completely avoid the seed, but other times they eat it all.

Caiques need a source of essential amino acids. These are only readily available from animal origin foods. Manufacturers formulate their pellets to contain these, but I still like to provide mine with a small half-inch of yellow cheese every day. Occasionally, I give them a chicken bone some meat from my dinner plate. They also like soft-bodied insect larvae, but I seldom provide these. Providing additional protein is especially important when the breeding season begins.

Most of my breeders are also pets and I like to give them treats. I give them an occasional sunflower seed, but mostly I give them a piece of nut. They are especially fond of pecans. They also like chicken bones or even part of your steak.

Another treat is nectar. In the wild, caiques have a mutualistic relationship with the bacuri tree. The bacuri tree produces a cup-shaped flower containing nectar. When a caique drinks the nectar, the flower’s anthers deposit pollen on its head. Then when it moves to the next flower and repeats the process, it pollinates that flower. I give them ginger ale when they are out with me, but you may use any sugar-sweetened beverage as your nectar. (I avoid diet and caffeinated beverages.)

All breeding birds require minerals, in particular calcium, to synthesize eggshell. Before a caique hen begins to lay, she usually becomes compulsive about chewing on anything mineral in nature. I provide mine with a fresh cuttlebone at this time. They usually avoid the mineral blocks sold by pet stores, but you had better watch your plaster walls and brick work. If your hen can reach them, she will chew on them. When I see they are ignoring the cuttlebone, I give them oyster shell and sometimes the calcium supplement tablets meant for people. (Be sure to wash off the sugar coating.)

Setting up pairs.

Before you start, make sure you have a true opposite sex pair. Surgical sexing is not very reliable for caiques, so DNA sexing is the preferred method.  You should confirm their sexes yourself. Iso-sexual pairs can be very content with each other, and one may even mount the other. While DNA sexing is very accurate, people make reporting mistakes. The cost is minimal and you may save yourself a year or two of frustration in your breeding effort.

Caiques usually reach sexual maturity between 2 and 3 years of age, and it is at in that time range it is easiest to set up pairs. It is much more challenging to set up older birds, especially ones that were formerly pets. You should avoid introducing the birds to each other during the breeding season itself, because the birds are more inclined to be more aggressive and defend their territory. You begin the process by placing the two birds in separate cages within a few inches of each other. Then you watch. If they happen to be tame, you may let them out their cages to see how they interact, but only under close supervision. Once they accept each other, you can introduce them to the breeding cage. It is best if the cage is new to both, and, therefore, neutral territory. If you do not have a spare cage, it is better to place the hen in the intended breeding cage before introducing the male. Once they are together, keep a close eye on them for the first week or two. They should sit and preen each other and sleep together in the nest box. They will have their spats, but this is normal caique behavior.

The breeding season.

In the northern hemisphere, the breeding season usually begins in late November and ends about June. Even with the little natural sunlight my birds see, they have still set themselves to this schedule. I find this odd since there is little variation in day length in Amazonia, but apparently, caiques are very sensitive to what there is. There is a noticeable change in their behavior when the breeding season begins. The males become more aggressive and you need to watch that they do not harm the hen. The hen starts working the nest and starts craving minerals. They are not shy about their mating. Like all Neotropical parrots, the male puts one foot on the hen’s back and retains a hold on the perch with the other. As the time for laying eggs draws closer, the male becomes even more frantic about mating, often chasing the hen about the cage. In rare instances, the male may become so aggressive it will kill its mate. Therefore, you need to watch them closely at this time. Part of the reason they are so insistent is that in order for the eggs to be fertile, the male has to mate with the hen within the 48 hours prior to the egg being laid in order for it to be fertile.

In contrast to some parrots, the presence of other caique pairs stimulates breeding activity. There is no need to shield their view from another pair. Usually the same pair leads off the season every year and the other pairs soon follow. You can tell when they are going to lay because the hen’s abdomen becomes very large, sometimes weeks before she lays her first egg. I always get very nervous at this time worrying the hen may be egg bound, but I have never had such an emergency.

Eggs and hen incubation.

Caiques usually lay 3 to 4 eggs per clutch.  As for all parrots their eggs are white and relatively large for a bird their size. The first egg is usually the largest and the decrease in size as the hen lays them.  The hen usually lays her eggs two to three days apart, but some of mine have laid them as much as a week apart. Only the hen incubates the eggs, but the male takes great interest. A caique’s egg usually hatches at about 26 days after the hen lays it, but this will vary with how tightly the hen sits. Usually the hen does not start sitting in earnest until after she lays the second or third egg. I candle them occasionally using an ordinary flashlight to determine fertility. I number the eggs with a soft lead pencil as the hen lays them so I know when to expect them to hatch. Because caiques sometime do not sit very tight on their eggs, and more importantly are often lax about brooding their chicks, I place an electric heater beneath the nest box taking care that temperature inside is at least 75°F. (This has been more of a problem with black-headed caiques. I suspect they are poor brooders because being at the Equator the temperature in a nest cavity would be sufficient with out the need for the parents to brood.)

The eggs hatch asynchronisticly in the order in which the hen laid them. I check the next box at least once a day a bit after the parents have had a chance to feed them. If you look first thing in the morning, their crops will be empty. The things I look for are whether the chicks are huddled together or with the remaining the eggs, are they warm to the touch, and whether the parents are chewing on their feet or wings. If a chick is cool to the touch, not in the huddle or the parents have chewed it, I pull it immediately. It is best if you can leave them with the parents. However, if left alone they usually only feed the first one or two chicks and neglect the chicks that hatch later. Thus, my practice is to pull the first hatched chick a day after the third hatches. I pull the next oldest chick if a fourth chick hatches. This leaves them with only two chicks to care for at any one time. The chicks you pull will often only be three or four days old, but they are much easier to hand-feed than a day-one chick. The parents usually care for the two left with them without any problem.

My current practice is to co-parent one of chick of each clutch. Recent reports suggest that these parrot chicks are better adjusted and develop fewer behavior problems later in their life. Co-parenting involves leaving the chick with its parents, but handling it at least once a day. You do not need to start handling until after its eyes open. The trick is to handle the chick on the sly. If you are not stealthy about when you handle it, the parents will sometimes pluck the chick. Since my pairs are hand tame, my practice is to take them to another room for a treat on a play stand. Then while they are out of sight of their cage, I take the chick from the nest box and handle it, give a treat such as a half grape, and talk to it in a pleasant voice. Once the chick fledges, the handling is not quite as important, but once you remove it from its parents it will have a great desire to be with you. Surprisingly, although the chick will not have full capacity to manipulate its food with its foot, it will be eating on its own within a week of leaving the nest.

[Since I made this presentation at the 2007 AFA convention, I must emphasize that co-parenting is not for every breeder. The surest route to a tame chick is still hand-feeding. You should only consider co-parenting if you have enough time to spend with the chick during the day. It is best if you do the handling twice a day—morning and evening. Never remove the chick for the box at night when it is with its parents in the box. You also need to separate the chick from its parents within the two weeks of its fledging.]

Since I only co-parent one chick, I still have to hand-rear the others.  I keep the chicks that are only a few days old in an incubator set at about 95°F and drop the temperature to around 92°F in the first week or so. It is critically important that the temperature not be much greater. The goal is to keep them just warm enough that they are able to digest a crop full of formula within a few hours. If they are cool to the touch or not taking food every few hours, you need to provide more warmth. It the chicks seem too warm or too red, you need to lower the temperature. When they are about half feathered, I move them into plastic bins that I cover with a dark towel to emulate a nest cavity in the wild. When they are able to climb out of the bin, I move them into a cage with a small cardboard box on its floor for them to hide in and feel secure. Once they are able to climb the cage bars, and move about well, I chuck the box.

Hand-feeding parrot chicks is simple compared to when I began hand-feeding them. There are several commercial hand-feeding formulae and they are all acceptable. Some breeders mix lory hand-feeding with the regular formula, but I have not adopted this practice. You should follow the manufacturer’s instructions to prepare them. The chicks I hand-feed invariably gain weight more rapidly that the chick I leave with their parents. If you are new to hand feeding, you should weigh them every day just before the first feeding of the day. They usually gain weight every day, although you will notice at just about the time their feather start to appear they may lose a bit of weight before they start growing again. I watch the chick’s crop to determine the feeding schedule. I feed chicks that are only a few days old every 2 to 3 hours and stretch out the time as they mature. I do not feed my chicks in the middle night. For the youngest chicks, I provide their first feeding at 6 AM and their last at 11 PM. This allows me to get a good night’s sleep myself.

I use three different feeding methods—syringes, a baby spoon with its sides bent up, and plastic cups that can be bent to form a sort of chute. I use a 1 ml tuberculin syringe to feed the youngest chicks since this gives better delivery control that any other method. For the youngest chicks, I just place a drop of thin formula to the side of their beak and let them take it in by themselves. I never force them. As they get older, I inject it directly into their beaks. As caiques become older, the two soft pads in the commisure area of the beak become more prominent, and touching them induces the chick to pump for food. You can then feed them with the baby spoon or the flexible plastic cup. The plastic cup does the best job of contacting the fleshy pads and they seem to pump just a bit better when fed this way.

The temperature of the formula is extremely critical when feeding the very young chicks. The optimum temperature is between 100 and 105°F. Any higher and you risk burning the chick’s crop. Any lower and the chick will not accept the food. You can feed somewhat warmer formula to older chicks.

Weaning is usually not much of a problem for caiques. Their curiosity is usually enough to get them interested in regular foods. I start the weaning process by dropping a few Cherrios and sliced grapes into their bin when I first notice they are picking at things. Later I add a small sprig of spray millet and some safflower seed mix. Once they try to eat these, I add more and more adult foods being sure to add pellets among them. At first, I just place them free in the bin or on the bottom of the cage, only placing them in a bowl once they are adept at climbing. It usually takes longer for a chick reared alone to wean than those reared in groups, and both lag behind how quickly a co-parented chick weans.

Developmental problems.

Occasionally a parrot has a developmental problem. Some of them you can easily remedy if caught early. Breeders usually encounter four main types: spraddled-leg, misdirected toes, constricted toes, and misaligned beaks. I have experienced the first three with my caique chicks, but never a misaligned beak.

Spraddled leg, or alternatively splayed leg is the most common problem. To prevent this I keep very young chicks in small bowls to constrain their legs underneath their bodies better. I also avoid placing them on smooth surfaces where they cannot get enough purchase to stand upright. I always feed them while they are standing on a paper towel so they have some traction. Mild cases respond well to this. If the condition is more severe, you have to use a hobble that brings the splayed leg into conformity with the normal leg. I use veterinary adhesive tape and secure the splayed leg close to the normal leg at about the distance it would be if the chick were normal. Alternatively, you can make a hobble out of ¼ inch thick piece of foam rubber by punching two holes through it at the appropriate distance and then inserting the chick’s legs through them.

A misdirected toe is one that does not rotate into it normal aft position. All parrots have zygodactyl feet in which two toes point front and two point back. When first hatched, however, a parrot has three pointing front and one pointing back. Within the first few days of life, however, one of the three toes front pointing toes migrates to point backwards. Sometimes this fails to happen properly, and then you need to remedy the situation and this is very easy to correct. Simply tape the misdirected toe to the normal backward facing toe for a week so or until it stays that way by itself. The reason you can do this for both spraddle leg and misdirected toes is that when the chick is very young bone calcification is not complete.

I have had only one case of constricted toe on caique chick. A constricted toe results when the skin at one point along the toe is so tight it forms a sort of tourniquet preventing proper blood circulation. If you do not correct this condition, it can result in the loss of the toe. For this, I recommend a trip to your veterinarian. The operation to correct this condition is simple, but it is not one I feel comfortable doing myself.

Expectations.

I have provided only a rough outline of my caique breeding practices. However, when you get into the thick of breeding, you will find that not everything is as I say. Individual caiques, as with all living beings, cannot be cast in the same pattern from bird to bird. What I hope to achieve by sharing my breeding practices is a less traumatic learning experience for new breeders, especially new hobby breeders. Eggs will not hatch and chick will die. This even happens to people with great breeding expertise. Sometimes chicks die from innate causes such as lethal mutations, other times from poor husbandry. Whatever the cause, you need to learn form your experiences and pass that knowledge on. We are only beginning to understand parrot husbandry and I hope I have made a small contribution.