It’s good to fine-tune your technique to give you an edge in breeding showbirds – but, says NIGEL HEWSTON, let’s not forget the central tenets of husbandry amid all the details
FOR anyone starting out with birds, this magazine often features articles by experienced fanciers, offering sound advice on husbandry and housing for particular species or varieties. While some of this advice is specific to those types of birds, a lot of it is transferable, so an article on canaries might contain an idea that will help with your parakeets or vice versa. My own experience, with a range of birds and with farm livestock, leads me to the conclusion that the basic principles of good husbandry are universal and, once understood, can be applied to just about anything you’d like to keep – applied, of course, in combination with knowledge and understanding of your particular subjects.
Doing your homework before acquiring a new species or variety will help you avoid unwelcome surprises. I believe that there are three principal elements involved in successful husbandry: routine, observation and intervention. I’d say that successful stock management is usually about 90 per cent routine, 9 per cent observation and 1 per cent intervention, and that each depends on the other two.
Routine is the bedrock. Observation is most useful within the context of routine, and only observation can provide the basis for intervention. However, the interaction is not all one way; routine is vital but should never be set in stone, and will be changed by interventions based on observation. Routine for me means not only a regular timetable for day-to-day management, but also aspects that will change seasonally, such as feeding, pairing and provision of nesting facilities.
If you have the right routine, things should go well 90 per cent of the time, even if you don’t understand why! That’s why you can leave your birds in the care of a non-birdkeeper while you go on holiday, and nine times out of 10 there’ll be no significant problems, as long as they have the right instructions and follow them. Observation is a key factor in achieving the right routine and fine-tuning it, and absolutely the key to surviving that 10 per cent of the time when routine alone isn’t enough. The interventions that you decide to make (or not) on the basis of your observations are often the difference between success and failure, which at times means life or death.
Looking at each element in turn:
A bird’s life doesn’t have to be entirely routine; in fact, there’s a good case for seeing some variation as valuable environmental enrichment. However, you are unlikely to meet the needs of your collection well if you don’t have a good routine for their care. Having said that, feeding, cleaning and other tasks may need to be carried out differently in response to whether birds are pairing, nesting, feeding chicks, moulting or overwintering, and in response to changes in the environment, particularly the weather, but also human activities – fireworks, for instance. Conscious changes of this sort are necessary, whereas random changes will generally do you and your birds no favours.
It’s difficult to consider this and routine separately – all of the necessary changes in routine mentioned above will hopefully be based on observation. On a day-to-day basis, your routine should give you the opportunity to observe your birds, because this is how you will know when changes are necessary. If observation isn’t part of your routine, you won’t spot the changes in behaviour that are the clues that your birds are moving on in their cycle and that your management needs to move with them. Observation is valuable at any time, but especially as part of your regular routine, since birds will behave in particular ways at different times of day, and differently before feeding and after feeding. Routine allows you to recognise what is normal. Unless you can do this, you can’t recognise changes and abnormalities which need intervention.
Apart from interest and enjoyment, the point of observation is that it should alert you to changes in your birds. These may indicate that your routine needs to alter in response to these changes, or that urgent intervention is required to deal with a problem: a sick bird that needs to be caught for treatment, aggression towards a mate or other birds, evidence that vermin have gained access, etc. In cases such as this, timely intervention is vital. Hopefully, this sort of intervention won’t be needed often, but if you don’t act quickly when it is, your routine and observation have been wasted.
There is an important fourth element to success, namely experience. Experience will improve all aspects of your stock management: your routine as you find out what works and what doesn’t, your observation as you learn what to look for, and your intervention as your skills and judgement improve with practice. The difference between a resting bird and a sick bird, between a chick that just needs time to hatch and one that actually needs help to hatch, or between over-enthusiastic display and potentially deadly aggression – all will be easier to determine as you gain experience. Your own experience is probably the best teacher, but making use of other people’s experience can save you a lot of time and mistakes.
This is where Cage & Aviary Birds comes in. Its pages are packed with advice and experience being shared by other birdkeepers. The same is true of club magazines and newsletters, books, websites and social media groups. Club meetings, likewise, are usually based around a speaker sharing their experience, and of course meetings and shows provide ideal opportunities to learn more informally from other breeders.
Aviary and birdroom visits are even better. Here you can not only see what others are doing in practice, but also ask why and how, and make your own judgements about how well it’s working and what you can usefully take home and apply. Having visitors yourself can be just as useful. Another pair of eyes looking over your own setup can be valuable and suggest useful improvements you might not have thought of yourself.
Learning from your own mistakes is important, but there will be very little that you’re trying to do that someone else hasn’t tried before, and learning from their mistakes is less painful. So: routine, observation, intervention, experience. The other key to success is of course… luck!
• Nigel Hewston served as chairman of the Avicultural Society for ten years up to 2022.