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Dear Parrots magazine,

Cockatiel nest boxes

With reference to the comments you have received about the cockatiel article, mainly on my nest-box size being too small and bread and milk and soya milk being a poor source of nourishment for nestling cockatiels. Hope the below will be sufficient in answer without offending the two lady cockatiel breeders, who are of course more than welcome to put their own points of view and describe their own methods and experiences.

Nest-box Size
For psittacine birds, my own preference is always for a snug nest-box with a small floor area, even though some of the species I have bred over the last 60 or so years do prefer a 3-4ft high ‘grand-father clock’ type of nest with the bed of the nest at floor level. My hanging type of nest boxes have often been fixed at an angle of 45 degrees, which does increase the floor area a little, as well as helping prevent a scatty hen from diving straight down onto eggs and breaking them.

The main reason for a smaller nest is to make sure that sitting and brooding hens keep the eggs or nestlings up together well underneath them, and that eggs cannot then roll off into a corner, or young wander away from the warmth of the hen’s body. That’s always been my choice, which I think is most important with birds breeding both very early or very late in the season, and I have had reasonable success over the years. If birds are sitting or brooding during hot weather, the top lid or side door can be jammed open a little, so as to allow added ventilation during the heat of the day.

I know others prefer nests that, to me, seem much too large, but if they find that successful for them, so well and good. For example I know that the parakeet and cockatiel breeders, Dulcie and Freddie Cooke, used boxes for cockatiels that were nine inches square, while the Australian parrot expert, Stan Sindel, (when breeding cockatiels in his boyhood) gave them boxes measuring as large as 12 inches square and 12 inches high.

As well as cockatiels, I have bred quite a variety of species in seven/eight inch square boxes (internal measurements), a few examples include: several species of Lories and Lorikeets, Asiatics like Plum-heads, Indian Ringnecks, Moustacheds, various species of the Rosellas (Eastern, Pennants, Yellows, Mealies and Stanleys), Barrabands, Rock-pebblers, Princess-of-Wales, Crimsonwings, Sun Conures, Maroon-bellied Conures, Quakers, and so on.

For larger species like Amboina Kings, Derbyans, Patagonian and Queen of Bavaria’s Conures, Shining and Eclectus Parrots and Roseate Cockatoos, I have used nests measuring nine and ten inches square inside.

Every breeder can have experiences with their birds that defy a species normal expectation of behaviour, but I never found cock and hen cockatiels to sit in the nest together in order to incubate eggs or brood young, they would take their duties in turn. If the clutch should be extra large I think it fair to remove some of the last eggs laid. Four to five young in a nest is plenty of work for a breeding pair, and when the cock is lazy with both his share of incubation and feeding duties, (as I did have happen on occasions), an excessively large clutch is just too much for the hen. It wears her down and affects her health and strength. Also, with things as they are at present, it may be sensible not to go in for maximum production and become over stocked.

Nutritious Food for Youngsters
Bread and milk has been used for a great many years by cage and aviary bird breeders, usually with a sprinkle of maw seed on top to encourage the birds’ interest. Born well before the First World War, my own mother was a canary and budgerigar breeder from her childhood, on through the war years at times when bird seed became difficult to obtain, other basic foods were tried. Bread and milk being staples of any home diet, this came into use, as well as seeding heads of numerous plants from garden, hedgerow and field. Even unto her death at 85, she still had her precious birds, by now her favourites were Violet budgerigars, Goldfinches and Red-factor canaries – their young still being given the addition of bread and milk to their seed diet.

I did not learn until late in my twenties that, in his youth, my paternal grandfather operated Hayward’s Bird Shop in Chelsea along with his father and grandfather. He showed me a picture of the shop with them all standing out front, and said that besides selling birds (domestic species as well as wild caught birds, trapped in the London parks with clap nets) they also sold their own concoctions of fresh bird foods, some of which included the ingredients of, you guessed it, bread and milk. Not surprising then that I too used these simple ingredients as a regular part of my own birds’ food requirements from the nineteen-fifties onwards when, like my mother, I bred canaries, finches and budgerigars, later adding lovebirds and parakeets.

We have learnt that even humans could not digest
cow’s milk originally when the animals began to be domesticated, but in some way a mutation appeared in
our ancestors that aided them in the digestion of milk, and this ability increased in later generations, though some of us still do retain an intolerance of this rich and nutritious food. In far more recent years, we bird breeders have been told that our birds cannot digest cow’s milk – what a surprise, after all the years of raising healthy birds on an indigestible ingredient! Nonetheless, I took the experts advice and replaced the small amounts of cow’s milk with a new product, Soya Milk, made from the Soya bean.

However, in a recent Magazine of the Parrot Society, its chairman and most knowledgeable veterinarian, Alan Jones, extends his views on a previous article on the possible harmful effects of phytoestrogens contained in Soya beans and their products – first brought to attention in an article by Allan Manning in 1997. Alan Jones recounts the information that these elements in various foods and drinks can cause characteristics of feminisation in men and, if used to excess in bird food, could result in a certain amount of infertility in our psittacine birds.

With species such as those which have evolved to gain maximum nutrition from what seems a sparse and poor diet of seeding grasses and other plants of the Australian outback, a diet too rich in protein is known to cause kidney damage. So, lastly I return to Stan Sindel’s childhood breeding of cockatiels. He found them to be most prolific on a simple diet of mostly white millet, to this basic seed was added a daily ration of sprouted sunflower, green peas, apple and silverbeet, but even these simple extra supplements to the white millet were withheld when not breeding, so as to avoid obesity and ill health.

Jim Hayward, Carterton




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