Breeding parakeets, aka American parakeets or budgies, isn't very difficult, but there are some things you should know about before setting up a pair. This includes understanding their special dietary needs, choosing the right cage and nest box, and caring for the chicks through weaning. It's a rewarding experience, but it does require your dedication to meeting your pets' needs.
Pairing Your Parakeets
There are several basic steps to pairing parakeets for breeding.
1. Determining You Have a True Pair
Almost any two parakeets will bond together if they have no alternative, so what may appear to be a breeding pair may just be two females or two males. Luckily, these birds are sexually dimorphic, which means you can determine the sex of each bird by its appearance.
Males: Males typically have a blue cere, which is the fleshy area just above the beak where the nostrils are. The nostril holes are completely blue. In some of the fancier varieties like lutinos, albinos, and some pastel-colored birds, the cere may be pinkish-lavender rather than blue, and the nostrils will be completely lavender as well.
Females: Young females may have a lighter blue on their ceres, but there's a light ring directly around each nostril hole that you won't see on a male. As they mature, the cere turns tannish brown and becomes rough in texture. Albino and lutino hens may also start out with lavender-colored ceres, but they will also turn brown and rough at maturity.
Bonding must take place before a true pair will breed. Sometimes the birds will pair up on their own out of a larger flock, but if you want to breed selectively to produce specific colors and patterns, you can select the male and female you want to pair. Ideally, you'll pair up juvenile birds and let them grow up together, but it's still possible to pair adult birds.
Set up your intended pair together in a roomy cage, and give them time to get used to living together. Once they bond, you'll see them sit next to each other on the same perch and follow each other around. Eventually, the male will begin feeding the female. When you see that, they are truly bonded.
3. Waiting for the Pair to Reach Maturity and Breeding Condition
Parakeets are usually mature enough to breed about one year of age. When the hen develops a brown, crusty-looking cere, that's the best time to set up the nest box.
Colony Breeding Versus Breeding Single Pairs
According to South Coast Pet Hospital, there are two main practices for breeding parakeets: colony breeding and breeding individual pairs.
Colony breeding involves setting up several pairs in a large flight. The flight should be about 6' L x 3' W x 4' H, with wire spacing of no more than one-half inch. You should provide a nest box for each pair, plus one extra nest box to prevent fighting, and all the nest boxes should be hung at the same height near the top of the enclosure.
While colony breeding may provide some convenience, such as having one area to clean and ensuring your pairs get enough exercise, it also has some drawbacks.
- You can't ensure your pairs won't switch partners, or that an especially dominant male won't breed more than one female.
- There may still be fighting, even though having a balanced number of males and females usually keeps things peaceful.
- There's a small chance that some parents will attack babies that aren't their own, and eggs are sometimes damaged as well.
- You may not be able to keep track of which chicks belong to which pair if you allow the parents to raise them through weaning.
Breeding Individual Pairs
It's much easier to control the situation if you give a single pair of parakeets their own space for breeding.
- You'll never have doubts about any chick's parentage.
- There's far less chance of fighting between the adults.
- Eggs are rarely damaged.
Breeding Set Up
According to the Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society (HDBS). the cage you select for a single pair should measure approximately 24" L x 12" W x 16" H, and it should have a separate door where you will attach the nest box to the outside of the cage so the birds can enter it from the inside of their cage. The cage should have several perches, and one should be placed close to the nest box opening so the chicks can reach it easily when they are old enough to leave the box.
You'll need to hang a mineral block and cuttlebone from the side of the cage to provide the female with extra calcium for making egg shells. There should be dishes for food and water, as well as an extra dish for fresh and soft foods.
Nest boxes come in many sizes and designs, and they're usually designated for specific breeds so you should select one marked for parakeets. HDBS recommends a nest box with 1 1/2-inch hole for the birds to use as a doorway. If possible, choose a rectangular box with the opening at one end, and a circular recess in the floor on the other side for the eggs. The box will either have a lid on top or on one of the sides so you can check for eggs or hatchlings.
There are different types of nesting material available, so you may have to try a few before you find the type your pair likes best. Safe choices include aspen shavings and recycled newspaper. Even shredded newspaper is acceptable, but do not use cedar shavings because their fumes are toxic to birds.
Don't be surprised if your pair pushes all of the nesting material out of the box.. Parakeets are notorious for liking a bare box.
According to Doctors Foster and Smith, parakeets need about 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness and rest under normal conditions. They tend to come into breeding condition when the days are longer, so it can be beneficial to extend their daylight by a couple of hours using full spectrum lighting. The light is also necessary to help females synthesize vitamin D so they can produce strong egg shells and bones.
The two keys to a breeder diet are variety and abundance. If your pair has an abundance of healthy food, they are more likely to go to nest. Soft foods are especially helpful for bringing a pair into breeding condition, and the pair needs soft food to feed the chicks as well. Feeding these foods before breeding helps ensure your pair will eat them readily once the chicks hatch.
This diet should include:
- High quality parakeet pellet mix: Pellets offer rounded nutrition with every bite. Keep them available constantly.
- Fresh, organic leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits: Especially good choices include kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, carrots, peas, corn, apples, bananas, cooked sweet potatoes, and bell peppers. Sprout mixes also offer a lot of nutrition. Wash and chop these foods before serving.
- Cooked, chopped eggs or commercial egg food: Eggs provide extra protein, plus they are a soft food that digests quickly so the male can feed the female, and she can feed the chicks.
- High quality parakeet seed mix: Parakeets do need seed, but not as the staple of their diet because they tend to just pick out what they like. Choose a mix that has a variety of seeds and grains, or go with a hulled product like Lafeber Nutri-Berries which provides omega-3 as well.
- Abundant clean water: Soiled water is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Change the water at least three to four times a day, or any time it gets dirty.
Throw away old soft and fresh foods after two to three hours and replace it with fresh so the birds don't eat anything that's spoiled.
Fertilization and Egg Production
When the female is ready to be bred, she will lean forward on the perch and raise her tail slightly. The male will position himself over the female and begin rubbing his vent against hers in order to deposit his sperm. He may breed her several times a day, and the female will begin laying an egg every other day. The average clutch is usually about four to five eggs. The video below shows courtship behavior prior to an actual breeding.
Incubation begins once the female begins sitting tightly on the eggs. She may not sit on them until she has laid two or three eggs, but this isn't a problem. Each egg will hatch in approximately 18 days, If the female begins sitting immediately after she lays the first egg, one egg will hatch about every other day.
Checking for Fertility
Eggs aren't always fertile, but you can attempt to check them by "candling" them about a week after the female begins sitting. Gently pick up each egg and hold it in front of a strong flashlight. If you can see a yellow glow with red squiggly lines inside, the egg is fertile. If you only see the yellow glow, the egg is most likely infertile. You may see faint outlines as the chicks develop, but the eggs will become rather opaque with a clear air space on one end as the chicks get closer to hatching.
Note that even though you can check for fertility, it's usually best not to disturb the expectant mom too much or she might abandon the nest.
Caring for the Chicks
You have two choices for rearing the chicks after they hatch. Either let the parents raise them, or hand feed them yourself.
Parakeet chicks are quite small and can be difficult for anyone but the most experienced breeder to hand feed. Many breeders opt to let the parents raise the chicks through weaning and just handle them daily once they are 14 days old in order to hand tame them.
The male usually feeds the female because she will only come out of the nest to relieve herself and get a drink. She will then feed the chicks, although some males will also help with feeding.
Hand feeding involves pulling the chicks from the nest box at 21 days old. They'll need to be placed in either a commercial incubator or a homemade one in order to keep the chicks warm until they have a complete set of feathers.
At 21 days old, the chicks will need to be fed special formula via a pipette or small syringe approximately every three to four hours as their crops empty. Commercial formulas like Zupreem Embrace or Kaytee exact have complete directions for mixing their formulas, as well as how often to feed the chicks as they grow. The food is typically fed at a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature ensures you won't burn the chicks' crops, but it's still warm enough for proper digestion.
To hand feed:
- It's easiest if you face the chick toward you.
- Gently insert the tip of the feeder into the right side of the beak, aiming it toward the back left of the chick's mouth. If the chick is especially wiggly, just let it take the formula from the tip of the syringe in whichever position it seems most comfortable.
- Slowly squeeze the pipette or syringe to begin delivering the formula. The chick will begin to bob its head up and down as it swallows the formula. There's a rhythm to the procedure that you'll quickly pick up on. Just take care not to flood the chick's mouth with formula or it could choke to death.
- When the chick is finished eating, gently wipe away any formula from its face and chest with a warm, damp paper towel. Repeat for each chick.
- Throw away any leftover formula, clean the feeding utensils thoroughly, and put them away until the next feeding.
As the chicks grow, they will eventually go longer between feedings and require few feedings per day, especially when they begin eating on their own.
Weaning the Chicks
Weaning typically begins around five to six weeks of age while the chicks are either still being fed by the parents or you're still hand feeding them. You'll need to begin offering a variety of foods so the chicks learn to accept a healthy diet instead of just becoming seed eaters.
- Begin by offering millet sprays so the babies can learn to crack seed.
- Add a dish of pellet crumbles which are small enough for the chicks to nibble on.
- Once the chicks eat millet and pellet crumbles, begin offering small amounts of finely diced/processed greens, vegetables, and fruits from the list above. Later on, you can try similar foods that are not on the list, but this beginning list will give them a very good start.
- Weaning is complete when the chicks eat well on their own, and the parents no longer feed the chicks or the chicks refuse hand feedings from you. Even after weaning, watch them carefully to make sure they continue eating. Sometimes a chick will revert a bit and need an occasional hand feeding until it's eating on its own again.
Once the chicks are completely weaned, it's time to take them to an avian veterinarian for a well bird checkup before they go to new homes.
Be a Responsible Breeder
Breeding parakeets can be a wonderful hobby, but keep in mind that you're working with live animals. First, ask yourself if you're prepared to keep the chicks you produce if you can't find good homes for them. If your answer is yes, you can try breeding one or two pairs to see if this is really the hobby for you. If your answer is no, just enjoy the parakeets you have, and give them the very best care you can.