Analysing his results, TONY EDWARDS can compare the effectiveness of in-breeding, close-breeding and outcrossing in his annual pairing strategy

AFTER 25 YEARS of breeding Bengalese, I consider my best birds in each of my main colours (chocolate & whites, fawn & whites, dilute fawn & whites and pink-eyed whites) to be of a high standard, but there’s still room for improvement.

Very occasionally, when I have had an exceptional exhibition pair that are closely related, such as brother and sister, I have tried pairing them together. My aim is always to breed chicks of equal quality or (very hopefully) one or two that are marginally better than their parents. In each instance, I have been disappointed and at the end of the breeding season I have been left wondering whether, if I had selected different quality partners, would I have done much better with them. Each year, I am looking to at least maintain the quality level and with luck to make some minor improvements and produce birds that are able to win major awards when exhibited. I say “luck”, as it is near impossible with variegated birds to control precisely the amount and distribution of white feathers: important distinguishing factors on the show bench.

Accent on type

A favourite pairing for me is two birds, both in good condition, that have produced my best chicks in previous breeding attempts; not just a single chick but several where the type is excellent. In a normal year this will be about three pairs and they can be of any colour. Occasionally, I have an outcross that falls into this category, and if a previously successful partner for the outcross is no longer available, then I will look to replace it with a close relative such as a sister or brother. Other favourite pairings are well- matched show pairs that are close to the National Bengalese Fanciers Association (NBFA) show standard. Typically, three pairs will also fall into this category. I currently exclude show pairs of pink-eyed whites (albinos) as I rarely pair two of this colour together.

With several pairs already identified, as above, I then approach selection of further pairs by deciding how many of a particular colour or colour group I want to use among my initial pairings. I rarely use any other colour when trying to breed quality chocolate & whites, but for my chestnut & whites I usually pair them with fawn & whites. If, for example, I decide that I need to find another five pairs of chocolate & whites, I will select my cock birds and rank the best 10 for further consideration, regardless of age. I use type and condition as the main considerations, but colour, markings and size are also taken into account. I also select and rank a similar number of hens.

Show potential

Another factor, especially with cocks, is how the bird presents itself in a show cage. A bird that shows itself well is a great asset to any show team and there is always the hope it will pass on its personality to its descendants. Outcrosses are considered with my own-bred birds and should they not be ranked among the top birds they will be used later in the year.

Pairing large and small

I then find the best partner for the cock, starting with the most highly rated cock, trying to avoid doubling up on any obvious faults and complementing any features where the cock could be improved by using a hen that excels in that feature. I often have some good-type, attractively marked cocks that are relatively small in size, so I try to find large hens to put with them. If I have several options, priority is given to the hens according to their rank. If I have very similar options for a pairing, I like to use an older experienced bird with a young bird, rather than two young birds together.

Following this visual selection process, I check my breeding records to determine the pedigree of the chosen pair. I normally have some idea if birds are too closely related, but I check anyway to ensure that they are not sibling, parent to child or grandparent to grandchild pairings.

Holding birds back

If a pair fail my checks, then the pairs are adjusted. If a bird is too young (less than 10 months for hens and eight months for cocks), it is held in reserve for later and the date when it becomes old enough to breed is noted. I will put the chosen pairs together in show cages for final visual checks and confirm the number of pairs to set initially. On occasions, I will promote a lower-ranked cock because I think that he and his partner look a better option and defer a higher-ranked cock to later.

Normally, I will give a hen three weeks to lay after pairing, after which time she is replaced. If a clutch of four or more eggs proves to be infertile, I will let the pair sit for the full incubation time (about 18 days from the laying of the first egg) and then, usually, I will give them a second chance. Failure to produce fertile eggs at the second attempt will result in either a new cock or a new pair being used, fitness being a key decision factor at all times.

This year I plan to halve the number of breeding pairs that I initially set. It will be interesting to see if the selection process is any easier.

• Tony Edwards is vice chairman of the National Bengalese Fanciers’ Association.