Food For Thought
Is offering the same seed blend yearly enough?
Diet is an important part of breeding any bird, and Gouldians are no exception. Too often, new bird owners do not consider diet until it is too late (e.g., "My birds have laid 5 eggs that should be hatching any day now, are there any special dietary needs I should be aware of??").
The real answer is this: Whether breeding or not, Gouldians (and all birds, actually) require a diverse diet their entire lives. This is especially true if you intend on breeding. Birds are no different from people in that they require sufficient vitamins and mineral intake, as well as a wide variety of food choices in order to remain healthy.
Seasonal or cyclical feeding is the practice of tailoring the diet of your birds to that of which they would encounter in the wild. Gouldians require a different diet when they are breeding than when they are resting. A Gouldian fed the same diet year round will likely not be very successful at breeding and may also have difficulty molting properly. There are very specific environmental and food triggers in the bird's natural habit which signal its body to begin preparing for breeding, molting, etc. Insufficient dietary preparation could be a factor in why so many individuals suffer from abandoned eggs, tossed babies, and other breeding problems.
It is my belief that structuring the foods that are fed throughout the year is the most important aspect of adequately conditioning Gouldians to be successful parents. The three seasons a Gouldian encounters in the wild; Breeding, Molting and Resting, that otherwise would be ignored with a program that feeds the same food year round, are addressed in the seasonal feeding schedule developed by the Save the Gouldian Fund (STGF) Research Facility in Australia.
The Maintenance/Resting Season (Approximately 3 months)
When transitioning your birds over to a cyclical diet, the easiest place to begin is immediately following breeding by starting with the Maintenance period. I feel one of the biggest mistakes first-time Gouldian owners make is purchasing a new pair of Gouldians, and immediately expecting the birds to be ready to breed and produce babies for them. Unless you are specifically purchasing birds you know for a fact were bred in the year you bought them, it is best to get your birds on a schedule and wait until they are absolutely ready before attempting to breed.
When not breeding, it is also extremely important to keep Gouldians separated by sex to keep the males from driving the hens into breeding condition, which prevents the "resting" phase.
The resting period is designed to exercise and thin down from the rich diet of the breeding and molting seasons. Providing as large a space as possible to allow the birds to fly will also help them regain their body condition. During the resting period, the diet should consist of the the "Basic" Blend offered continuously. This is a low-protein, low-fat mixture of high quality millets.
A supplemental eggfood is offered during the resting phase as well. This eggfood is made by combining Morning Bird's "Miracle Meal" with fresh hard boiled eggs at a ratio of 1 heaping tablespoon Miracle Meal per egg.
In lieu of eggfood, you could also provide Sprouted Seed 2-3 times weekly. Typically, we alternate between egg food and sprouted seed.
During Maintenance, a calcium grit such as Twin Beaks Aviary's "Hatched!" Eggshell is offered, along with charcoal and Abba Blue Mineral Grit, which is a non-calcium grit for when the birds desire grit without ingesting calcium.
So ultimately, the goal of the resting period is to slim down and regain body strength after the rigors of breeding, while at the same time receiving balanced nutrition. This diet simulates as closely as possible the waning nutritional period in the wild which triggers Gouldians to stop breeding.
The Austere Diet (4 weeks)
Immediately following the resting season, the Austerity season is designed to prepare a Gouldian’s body for the upcoming breeding season. This is accomplished through simulating the scarce nutritional resources in the wild that occurs just prior to the breeding season. During the austerity period, hormone flow ceases, allowing the gonads and ovaries to shrink and rest. Additionally, excess body fat is lost, which can frequently result in infertility or the inability to come into breeding condition at all. You can check your Gouldians for body fat by blowing back the breast and/or belly feathers and looking at skin of the bird. Fat can easily be identified through the skin as bright yellow strips along the belly and also sometimes on the breast. The presence of body fat is an easy indicator that a bird is not in peak condition for breeding.
Another benefit of the austerity period being used just prior to breeding is that it helps males and females come into breeding condition simultaneously when placed on the breeding diet. Birds who comes into breeding condition asynchronously often do not form as strong of a bond which can result in reduced fertility, abandonment, and tossing.
The austerity period prior to breeding should last 4 weeks in captivity, consisting of a mixture of White and Yellow millet; or a similar low fat mix such as Rye Grass and Japanese Millet, and fresh water. During austerity, no other foods or supplements should be made available: No soft food, sprouted seed, grit (soluble or insoluble), vitamins, fruits, vegetables, or greens. While it may seem as though you are starving your birds - if they are otherwise healthy, placing them on Austerity should not cause noticeable negative effects. It is important, however, to stress that a bird that is not healthy to begin with will likely not thrive when placed on Austerity - much like how a compromised bird in the wild would not survive the dry season.
Beginning the Breeding Diet (4 weeks)
Following the four weeks of the austerity diet, the Gouldians are placed on a protein rich diet - the Seasonal Blend. Additionally, our egg food and/or sprouted seed is offered daily, along with a grit and charcoal, and fresh water. The rapid influx of nutrition simulates the results of the wet season, where Gouldians can be found eating protein packed green seeding grasses fresh off the stalk. This increase in available nutrition following the austerity period triggers the Gouldian’s body to begin hormone flow in preparation for breeding. During this four week introduction to the breeding diet, the birds should remain separated by sex to allow the sexes to come into breeding condition simultaneously without the presence of the opposite sex.
Pairing Your Birds
After keeping your birds on the breeding diet for four weeks, it is time to introduce your pairs together. I prefer to breed in individual breeding cages, and I keep my sexes separate in a bi-level 6' flight to where they cannot see each other. This prevents birds from forming bonds before being paired up - which can, and does, happen.
A nest box is prepared for each breeding cage with a small amount of nesting material pressed into a cup shape. I use custom, home-made nest boxes which are larger and deeper than what is commercially available, as the birds prefer to nest in dark, deep tree hollows in the wild. For nesting materials, I prefer to use Orchard Grass which can be purchased at PetCo and PetSmart, and Abba Nesting Material, which consists of soft fibers and hairs. I will also provide the pairs with cut pieces of coco-fiber/sisal (no more than 3-4" pieces otherwise I have seen birds get tangled!) along with additional nesting material to allow the birds to complete the nest themselves, which plays an important role in pair bonding.
The Breeding Season (approximately 4 months)
Within two to four weeks of introducing your pairs, you should begin to see pairs forming and eggs in the nest boxes. Typically, when I introduce a pair, I start to see eggs laid within 7-10 days. This is an excellent sign of two birds being properly conditioned for breeding and receptive to their mates.
The following video depicts a pair courting who had been introduced minutes before - a good indication of a female who is extremely ready to breed and receptive to her mate is reciprocal head shaking, and a fluttering of her tail which is an invitation to the male to breed her. A hen which does not display this behavior to her mate is telling you something - either she is not ready to breed, or she is not receptive to her mate! This hen in particular is actually initiating the courtship display. (The hen is on the right, the male is on the left)
The breeding diet should continue throughout the entire process of laying, incubating, and raising chicks - for the entirety of the four month breeding season.
The Molting Season (approximately 8 weeks)
The average breeding season for a Gouldian yields three-four clutches. After the third or fourth clutch, it is time to cease breeding. Nest boxes should be removed immediately when the last clutch fledges. When the babies are weaned and removed, the pairs should be placed into flights separated by sex, completely out of sight of their partner. These cages or flights should be as large as possible to allow for exercise, with perches at opposite ends to encourage flying.
When the pairs are reintroduced into their same sex flights, they should be placed back on the austerity diet for approximately 2 weeks. This combination of being separated from babies and partner, the loss of the nest boxes, and the radical change in diet should quickly induce the annual molt. Once the birds begin to molt, they are placed back on the breeding/molting diet until they have completed their molt.
After the adults have completed their molt, they should be returned to the resting diet which restarts the cycle.
A Word About About the Juvenile Molt
Juvenile birds produced during the current year’s breeding season are handled differently than the parent birds. You should not use the austerity diet to try to induce a molt in juvenile birds. Juvenile birds will molt naturally and should remain on the breeding/molting diet after weaning until they have come fully into their adult plumage. This generally takes about 4-6 months, but sometimes can take as much as 8 months to a year. Temperature plays an important role, so if you can keep your room warm, or schedule your annual cycle to where the juveniles would be molting during the warmest months for your location, you will generally see faster molts. Juveniles that are weaned during winter months with unregulated temperatures will often molt slower and sometimes become "stuck" until warmer weather hits.
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