BEFORE YOU BEGIN
The most important thing to consider when deciding to breed lovebirds is how much time and energy you have. Breeding birds need to be in top condition; they cannot be on seed-only diets or be forced to live in dirty cages. They must be supplied a healthy diet with lots of variety. A good pellet mix like Dr. D’s or Mazuri and a high-quality seed mix like Volkman are only supplements really. It’s the fresh vegetables and grains that will make your birds healthy enough to lay fertile eggs and raise strong babies.
For information on how to get good, healthy breeding stock, read How to Buy a Bird.
GETTING A TRUE PAIR OF LOVEBIRDS
Lovebirds are not sexually dimorphic. This means, you generally cannot tell if a lovebird is a male or a female just by looking at it. There are some subtle differences between males (cocks) and females (hens), but for every characteristic I give you will find someone who will tell you they’ve seen that characteristic in the opposite sex on occasion. The best method of determining sex in lovebirds is through DNA. This entails ordering a kit from one of the many laboratories then taking a sample of blood from your bird. The easiest way to do this is to clip a toenail a little higher than you normally would. Be sure to have styptic powder or flour on hand (they will stop the flow of blood when you are done). This self-testing generally costs between $15 and $22. Many bird shops will take the sample for you squeamish types, and they will send it to the lab and get you the results. This usually doubles your cost, although a few shops charge only the postage and a $5.00 sample-taking fee. Granted, if your lovebirds are the biting type, this might be your best bet. Of course, avian veterinarians will take a sample, but the cost can be prohibitive if you’re testing a lot of birds.
Some visual differences between the sexes are: hens tend to have a wider stance on the perch, hens tend to be a bit larger, hens have wider pelvic bones that can be felt (gently!!) with an index finger. The pelvic bones of the hen also tend to move a bit when felt, which makes it easier for eggs to pass.
Also, when you put nesting material in a cage, both hens and cocks will shred the material, but hens will tuck the material under their wings to take them to the nesting box. Males will try to do this, usually unsuccessfully.
Once again, there will always be exceptions to these general characteristics.
CAGE CONSIDERATIONS AND NESTING BOXES:
There are two ways to breed lovebirds: in large aviary groups or by individual pairs in separate breeding cages. Because I want to carefully control the color mutations in my lovebirds I use the latter method. Besides, it is much easier to “keep the peace” among lovebirds when they have separate cages. You can remove pairs from flight cages at breeding time and place them in smaller cages more suitable for breeding. Obviously, the bigger the cage the better. The birds should be able to “beat their wings” without hitting something every time. They should be able to climb and play for exercise. If you don’t have enough room for this, you’re probably not in a position to breed birds at this time.
Many people think that supplying toys and the like will distract birds from mating. I don’t find this to be true, and birds with a varied environment are happier and hence more likely to make good parents. Don’t forget: lovebirds are very playful, clownish creatures and they need an appropriate “stage” for their antics.
The nestbox is your next consideration. While many people use a large parakeet or cockatiel box, I have found that I get the best results with English budgie nesting boxes. These open on the side via sliding, two-part door. They have a little raised platform at the entrance, then a lower area for the hen to nest. These are nice because the hen can have company while nesting (the cock will sit on the perch over the raised platform or will sleep directly on the raised platform) without being crowded. I think it also makes it less likely for eggs to be cracked if there’s ever a panicked rush into the nestbox because they dive on the raised platform first, then move down to the nesting area.
Make sure you nesting box doesn’t have sliding doors that are “swollen” as this makes it very difficult to inspect the eggs. If the doors are very tight in the grooves, I remove them, file or sand down the edges a bit, then put them back in and test for easy sliding. It will be less agitating to your hens if you don’t have to wiggle and force the door every time you want to peek in. It’s your choice if you want to leave in the concave wood piece that is traditionally included with budgie nesting boxes. Lovebirds make quite elaborate nests, so you don’t generally need them. However, if you have a lovebird who’s a lazy nestmaker, you may want to keep this wooden piece so eggs don’t roll around in the nestbox.
I hang the nestbox on the outside of the cage, then use wire clippers to cut a hole in the cage wall. Make sure you file down any sharp points on the cut wire. Make sure the nestbox will not get wet in the rain. I use plexiglass to cover my outdoor cages year-round. It keeps out harsh sunlight in mid-summer and keeps them dry during the rainy season.
Humidity is very important for the successful hatching of lovebird eggs. In Southern California, where it can be extremely dry, many lovebird breeders supply wetted palm fronds as nesting material. Lovebirds adore this! They will shred the long fronds and stuff them under their wings until they look like little pin cushions. They then take them into the nestbox and proceed to build their nests. I also use shredded, unscented, plain white paper towels, eucalyptus occasionally, and dried grasses. Lovebirds will use their own lost feathers for the nest too. I continue to supply nesting material even after the eggs are laid, as this keeps the nest fresher and keeps up the appropriate humidity level (the wetted fronds do this). You can also get nesting material at pet supply stores, but you really don’t need to spend money on these. Just remember: don’t give leaves of any poisonous plants or plants that have been treated with insecticides! I control this by only using palm trees in my yard. If you don’t live in a southern clime this could be difficult, but you can investigate an appropriate, nonpoisonous substitute in your geographical area.
You’ve probably already noticed that I am referring to outdoor breeding. Not everyone has this option, as weather is not so temperate in other places as it is in Southern California. If you plan to breed indoors there are some special considerations, namely, the amount of “sunlight” the birds will be exposed to during the day. It is a good idea to purchase special lights for this purpose, lights that mimic the sun much better than ordinary incandescent bulbs. These are readily available at bird supply stores or via catalogue. Check out BIRD TALK magazine for advertisements, or even one of the online avian suppliers.
CONTACT BETWEEN DIFFERENT BREEDING PAIRS
Lovebirds are busy-bodies. They will stick their noses in every other bird’s business without hesitation. I find it best if lovebirds can hear each other but not see each other. I put opaque barriers between cages. Of course, they are quite persistent about “visiting” with neighbors and some pairs have become quite proficient at moving these partitions like sliding doors. I then use clips to keep them in place.
NUTRITION FOR BREEDING BIRDS AND THEIR YOUNG
Nutrition determines the quality and health of your lovebird breeding pairs and young. It is what ultimately determines the quality of your babies once you have chosen healthy, genetically diverse stock for breeding pairs. Diet must be largely fresh, whole foods. The simplest way to give lovebirds excellent greens nutrition is by feeding wheatgrass. Please read our page on wheatgrass to find out more about it. It will save you time and money. Most lovebirds will take to it quickly. It is easy to feed, leaves no mess (just some “grass” to scoop up), and guarantees a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals. We suggest you purchase the inexpensive book by Ann Wigmore that will teach you how to grow it yourself.
We also feed Roudybush pellets, Volkman’s Hookbill Super, Crazy Corn (lovebirds particularly go for Kung Fu Yum and Rainforest Rice Pudding), corn on the cob, sprouted beans and seeds (sunflower sprouts are relished by lovebirds), brown rice, and other veggies and grains. The fresher the veggies the more “stimulating” they are in terms of precipitating mating. Fresh foods indicate “Spring” to birds, much in the same way longer sunlight hours do.
LOOSE PERCHES CAN LEAD TO INFERTILE EGGS
I don’t think this topic requires much explanation, other than to state the obvious: if the perch is loose the male can’t get good “contact” with the female. They might do the dance, but it will be to no avail. You get the picture.
WHY EGGS DON’T HATCH
Infertility, poor nutrition, hen doesn’t sit on eggs (cold eggs), bacterial infections, etc. It is not always easy to determine why some eggs just don’t hatch. In my experience, usually one or two eggs simply don’t hatch. It’s usually the last eggs laid. Consider the obvious: a hen lays six eggs. The first few are going to get the “best stuff”. This might sound simplistic, but in nature, the smallest baby often does not thrive; hence, the term “runt.” I have had a few runts who did quite well in the long run; they simply required a longer weaning time and more care. Some of my best and sweetest babies have been the runt of the clutch. Nature knows best. Not all eggs are meant to hatch. Obviously if none of your eggs are ever hatching, you should be concerned. But I would not be overly concerned about one or two not hatching in a clutch; I think many people overreact to this. Believe me, in nature all the eggs do not hatch every time.
AVOIDING SPLAY-LEGGED BABIES
You know it when you see it: a poor chick’s legs are spread straight out from the body and the chick is unable to get a grip and sit up with its legs properly underneath its body. Splay legs can be very traumatic for the novice breeder. The best way to deal with this is to PREVENT it. Even the best nest-builders should be given a basic substrate for the nest box. I recommend Care Fresh. It is nontoxic and easy to get. Put about 2-3 inches into the nest box. Then give the hen nest-building materials. She will build her next on top of the substrate. This prevents the chicks from ending up on the bottom of a nestbox on a slippery wooden floor where they can’t get a proper grip. It also cushions them if they have an overzealous mother who sits very tightly on them. If you’ve already got chicks in the nest and realize they are hitting the wooden floor, remove chicks, remove the nest built by the mother (try to keep it basically intact), add 2-3 inches of Care Fresh, replace mother’s nest on top of the substrate, replace chicks. Problem solved. If you’ve got some babies with splay legs, the best way to treat it is to double band the legs, use dental floss to tie the legs together in the proper position under the body, place the baby in a cushioned cup to help hold it in the proper position. Obviously this entails pulling the baby from the nest and handfeeding it separately from other chicks, as the string between the legs can strangle other chicks in the nest. If you are having difficulty, take the baby to the vet. You do not want to let this go, as these birds are often severely crippled and will need special caging and extra help all their lives.
HAND-RAISING LOVEBIRDS: A HOBBY TO LOVE, BUT DON’T EXPECT TO GET RICH!
I hand-raise all my lovebird babies so they will make tame, loving pets. Sometimes people buy these sweet babies and let them “go wild” so they can breed them since I have some beautiful color mutations. Unlike some other parrot species, it is very easy to breed lovebirds that are hand-raised. For more information on this next phase of lovebird breeding, please continue on to our page, Raising Baby Lovebirds.
Read Part II: Hand-Feeding Baby Lovebirds
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