Dead or Alive ?
As time passes, we see more and more people getting interested in buying lovebirds and breeding them. The reason seems to stem from the fact that the target potential is twofold: the pet trade and exhibition birds. The pet trade obviously has tremendous importance to all breeders because of the ready market it provides for excess stock. The exhibition area, however, is something quite different. In this particular arena there is a tremendous interest in displaying birds with outstanding characteristics, mutations or varieties. The more birds that are present in a show, the greater the interest and the more valuable the champion bird. The exhibition bird is the bird that attracts people to the shows and it is the varieties and mutations that are talked about and reported on the world wide web, bird magazines or journals. It is these birds that keep the enthusiasm for the fancy high and the market from becoming saturated.
Exhibition birds are not a new phenomena. Birds in general have been selected by people for 100s of years, whether to provide food, carry information, hunt and provide entertainment or pose a breeding challenge. The avian selection process has been taken to tremendous heights with the chicken, canary, pigeon, finch and budgerigar fancy.
Many of the basic breeding processes and goals that evolved over time, appear to have been developed as a consequence of flocks being isolated for years before new stock could be made available. During the intervening years these birds may have been selected by the environment or escaped and mated with wild birds. It would make sense that the hungry farmer, rancher or homesteader would have taken the largest fowl for supper or for special occasions or sale, which naturally resulted in a steady deterioration or downward pressure on the size and perhaps other attributes within the flock. In a sense this was unintentional selective breeding impacting the flock's phenotype and genotype. With pigeons and doves it would seem that the largest pigeons may have been eaten for squab and that perhaps this "delicacy" led to the raising of pigeons for food. Similarly, the creation of dovecotes may have been generated for those who enjoyed the sound of doves on their premises. Whatever the early selective pressure, the pigeon fancy certainly seemed to take off when pigeons began acting as messenger birds. Today the pigeon world is a racing world, where inbred lines of descent and hybridization seem equally important in maintaining a winning "family".
Pigeons, canaries and chickens.... research them for a little while. Open up a specialty book and look at the variety, the complexity, the stunning appearance of so many different strains and breeds. Everything is different: the turn of feather, the body structure, the different heads and lines, the beaks, the feet, the wings, the size, eyes, spurs and comb. If you can think of it, it has probably been altered. The same may soon be true of the budgerigar, as the focus appears to be moving more and more towards feathering and the effect of selective pressure on those traits. We do not often voice these potentials in association with the lovebird world because.... well I guess people think it would change things too much.
The lovebird fancy obviously began in earnest with the raising of peachfaced lovebirds because they were relatively inexpensive and easier to breed and care for than many other psittacine species. The fear of psittacosis in the thirties did not help and the current moratorium / prohibition on imports also makes it a challenge to keep the few birds that were available then, free from inbreeding. The Fischer was a prolific little breeder, as was the black masked and black cheeked. It seems fairly difficult to find a Fischer today that is as prolific as they were years ago. In a similar vein, it is difficult to locate a black cheek that has not been hybridized in some fashion (black-cheeked by black masked).
Some aviculturalists are now working diligently to maintain "pure" black-cheeked stock or "clean up" stock that may have been hybridized in the past. Is hybridization so bad ? No, I do not think so. In fact, I believe hybridization and selective breeding are very important to a fancy.
Should people be trying to clean up hybridized stock ? Absolutely
!! Few people are interested in the origins of their birds, they
want to know that they have a nice looking bird, that there are not a lot
of them around and that they are relatively easy to care for. I do
not believe for a moment that people want something that is less than brilliantly
colored, interesting and active in their home environment. Few indeed
are the people who will breed or raise starlings, cowbirds, crows or blackbirds
for pets. Even the ubiquitous house sparrow is more alluring and
desirable than that "drab" list, unless you include the Mynah bird.
Is selective breeding alive today
This is a very interesting question, and one that needs to be looked at from a critical perspective. In the lovebird community, there have been a few occasions of note in the last 50 or more years. The majority of these changes came about as a result of mutant color genes, and the challenges inherent in establishing weaker mutations and identifying their inheritance mechanism. We have seen the development of a varietal strain within the the Fischer lovebird, where the orange coloration on the head has been selectively bred for striking depth and coverage. An altogether beautiful looking bird and the result of some excellent selection. There is a greater focus and awareness for the "rares" and maintaining or improving what is available Some wonderful examples of hybridizing have occurred in the U.S.A. and Belgium / Holland with regard to transference of mutant color genes and cleaning up of the progeny.
A very interesting development is the "creation" of the longfeather or standard type roseicollis. This bird is most different and most fascinating at the same time. Here we have a bird that is bigger than the normal peachfaced lovebird, more intense in color, a lot heavier and purportedly selected from the normal roseicollis. This bird is said to have been derived from the far end of the normal binomial distribution or curve for peachfaced size. Is size selection of this type possible ? Possibly, but we will discuss this on another page.
What does all of this tell us ? A very small percentage of the lovebird community has undertaken to clean up or improve stock in the past and as a consequence has generated some wonderful new additions to the avian community. Some might say: "They are not wonderful additions to the lovebird community, they are nothing but "hybrids" and as such, have irrevocably polluted the pure lovebird gene pool or have tremendous potential for doing so. I would never buy a bird of such mixed ancestry and would not accept one if someone gave it to me. It is an abomination, and a destructive force in the fancy. They are good for nothing but putting down, unless you save them from that fate and segregate them totally from your stock". Okay, that is one position, but let's dissect this thinking about hybrids with examples in other species and their importance:
1) Hybrids are bad for the species and the gene pool:
Selective breeding enables us to select for very specific and desirable traits. Traits or characteristics may be identified and agreed upon for a certain species (STANDARD) in a local, regional, national or international forum or they may originate from one individual's preference for a certain look or conformation in an animal. It may turn out that the individual's selection process produces an animal that turns out to be aesthetically appealing to many, and leads to demands from others for the same "type" of animal. At this point a new variety has surpassed its seminal stages of development and a greater emphasis is placed on setting traits, such that the variety or type breeds true and more birds can be produced to meet the new demand.
With the chicken, a fair volume of research and heated discussion seems to have led to those that believe in a monphyletic (one species) origin for the domestic fowl, and those who advocate a polyphyletic (many species) origin, but it seems it is almost impossible to prove one way or the other. However, pigeon breeders seem to have reached consensus on a monophyletic origin for the pigeon (Rock Dove - Columba livia). Whatever the origin of these species, the same interest in origin is exhibited by many fanciers. There are few lovebird enthusiasts who believe in a monophyletic origin of the lovebird. However, there seem to be many in the fancy today advocating a polyphyletic origin because of the difference in species behaviors, coloration and their proximal geographic locations. With the chicken, there is ample evidence of the ability to interbreed between fowl species around the world. The F2 hybrids of a varietal or "species" cross result in fertile offspring. One of the debates that continues to come to the surface, every few years, in the lovebird community is whether the hybrid offspring between a peachface and an eye-ring are fertile inter se.
Most if not all " species" of chickens (fowl) have been proven "fertile" with each other, where the success or extent of fertilization is measured by the similarities between the varied genotypes. The F1 are also fertile inter-se, but it appears, in a cursory review, that many of the new varieties came about from backcrossing into the parental populations or through other crosses. The F1 hybrid transferred hybrid vigor, and improved characteristics to the parental strain. These birds are subsequently selected and slowly formed into a variety.
The development of different varieties and strains led to a great opportunity for improving attributes, size, production and other types of traits in chicken, canaries and pigeons. The higher the "pedigree" or inbred value of the variety, the greater the potential for generating a new variety or for substantively "improving" a much desired trait in another variety. Today we know the pigeon fancy continues to discuss: whether there is any value in "lines" or "families" (pedigrees); whether inbred lines had or have outcross blood in them, and whether the winning breeder (over many years) does or does not outcross, and if so why ? These are all the questions one tries to have answered when they are looking for the "formula" or the "secret" behind selecting / breeding winners. In a sense, many breeders (sometimes very successful, but many "one shot wonders" as well) in many fancies have tried to answer that question and consequently a number of statements have been generated and taken to heart:
A good question. This is an unanswered question that still seems problematic for some breeders, while those simply reproducing birds or offspring for sale could care less. The interesting thing is that a lot of information exists which explains or details reliable selective breeding processes in other species. Let's look at the statements above and try to dissect them as best we can, and determine where and how they make sense:
The apple never falls far from the tree
When breeder's apply this term to their birds, they are expressing an expectation for the offspring to closely resemble the parental generation, or exhibit many / some of the desirable qualities of one or both parents. Consequently the phrases: if you want the best, cross best to best; Select the best discard the rest.
While this may work on rare occasion, there are some practical realities that a breeder needs to take into account. If the cock is prepotent (homozygous for dominant traits), it is more likely than not that he has come from a highly inbred line, and is thus fully able to pass on his good characteristics to his offspring, and his genes may well hold sway into the next generation as well. The chances of improving the potential for passing these genes onto his offspring if he is heterozygous (dominant or recessive) will depend if he is mated to an excellent hen in the same line, whether he is mated to a normal heterogeneous hen, and whether the cock is a nick or chance (sport) bird, where modifier genes may be impacting the gene expression and which may prevent or interfere in the genotype and phenotype appearing again.
Choose the big cock, the hen is immaterial.
Stock growers will try to improve their flocks quickly by purchasing a good or mediocre cock (s) from a highly inbred strain and put them in with their "heterozygous flock"... a flock where no selection has been in effect and the inbreeding coefficient in the flock is minimal. The overall value, conformation and size of the flock should increase in a fairly short time frame through backcrossing of the F1 poulets to the introduced cocks (only using those introduced cocks for fertilizing the flock). As this proceeds for three or more generations, the stock grower should see a significant increase in the size of the stock, improved conformation and a number of other traits exhibited by the mediocre or good cock. In this case the homozygous genes (select genes of the cock) have been concentrated within the once heterozygous stock, to the point where the stock has little resemblance to the initial flock. Thus the statements about rapid improvement, in a mass selection scenario, are true.
If you are dealing with a fairly homozygous inbred line of birds slated for exhibition purposes and one of your pairs throws a champion cock, the benefits of the bird are not always as dependable or as obvious as in the previous example. Some would suggest that the improvements should be greater than in a heterozygous flock, because the cock has two X (ZZ) chromosomes on which to pass on his traits. This is true, but we saw how it worked in the mass selection scenario. In the exhibition case, many of the birds should already exhibit many of the features of the cock, and advancement at some point really slows down as the "molding" becomes more precise and small changes can have significant influence in the final appearance of your line.
If the cock is prepotent, or homozygous dominant for certain traits, and the "new" traits manifest themselves in a physically desirable way, the breeder may well see considerable improvement in the flock very rapidly, depending on the breeding system employed. However, the Champion cock may be heterozygous for dominant traits or homozygous for the recessive traits desired by the breeder. In this case we run into the problem of finding the right hen to pair the cock too. She will need to balance the cock's genome in that she has the potential to have homozygous offspring "for the desired traits" with him, or the offspring may well be disappointing.
In a number of instances we find that an excellent cock doesn't produce anything but ordinary offspring with a number of hens. This cock is usually quickly discarded because he fails to produce winners (a champion cock that fails to pass on his best traits !) in his own aviary. A novice or another breeder will shell out a substantive amount of money for this winning bird. What do you think happens when they get him home ? Do you keep the champion and work with him... probably if you are raising for exhibition and he displays all the positive traits, but if he produces mediocre or poor offspring with hens of his same "line", he may harbor a number of undesirable genes in his genetic make-up. Some breeders would throw him away, depending where they were in their breeding program
Some breeders, if they have the time and the cock is valuable enough will try and mate him with several hens in their aviary in the hope that the cock will "click" with one of them and that the pair will produce tremendous progeny. The hen might be a full sister or a half sister depending on the breeders methods. In some instances progeny testing will reveal that the full or half - brother or - sister may have greater prepotency for several winning traits than the champion bird itself, so somewhere in the "champion's family" there may be more desirable genes, and less deleterious ones. It becomes a question of finding them and blending them, not whether they exist. The full brother or sister of the champion cock may not look as good as the champion, but they may house a number of good traits that they are dominant for and can transfer and consequently improve the flock more than the champion. It is important to remember that while we talk about birds that are prepotent for good genes, there are also birds that could be prepotent for bad genes or have, through selection, received a number of modifier genes that mask certain traits.. though not necessarily the traits that you are targeting in your breeding program.
Big Is Better
As a breeder, this is a frustrating thing to here or read about as often as one does. Most breeders would state unequivocally and categorically that big is not necessarily better. It may be a desirable trait, but it is of little value if balance, intensity, vigor and conformation are not associated with it. I think the issues and questions associated with the big cock, big hen syndrome and the lack of dependability on a pedigree have been addressed in the previous paragraphs. In this case, the hen is equally as important as the cock and depending on the traits being sought, could be more important.
It is quite true that hens can have a greater impact on the offspring than the the cock, when the cock is mediocre. It is similarly true that the cock can have a greater impact on the progeny if: the hen is poor, the cock is prepotent or the trait being sought is impacted more by the cock than the hen. If one ignores "prepotency" for a moment, the hen becomes a very important factor. Her parenting skills, if you don't handfeed but rely on parental stock, can have a tremendous impact on the number of eggs, fertility, and the way the eggs are cared for in the nest. Her feeding of the young can also be critical if you are looking for the best in the nest. Those seeking the exhibition Champion rarely worry about the fertility or parental care offered by the bird, because the exhibition bird is selected for and chosen for a variety of clearly defined characteristics. This may entail adding and subtracting form as necessary to win in shows and as the standard fluctuates over time. In this case the first goal of many breeders is to continue winning. If that means fostering or feeder birds, that is what one must do. If the bird is unable to mate because of down or feather density, the feathers around the vent are cut to enable greater contact. If there is a need for artificial insemination, that to is taken into consideration and applied as necessary. Is there another way ? Yes, but it takes much longer, but leaves you with a line of winning birds of the right genotype and phenotype, versus getting into a position where you have one champion and he may show no interest in the other sex, be over-weight, subject to tremors or have other physiological problems that may not be so evident on the show stand
Size is a relatively straightforward trait to develop, unfortunately, it is more difficult to keep the vitality, form and conformation one is seeking when breeding in this direction. The colors tend fade or appear dull versus the vibrant color usually seen in the species, the feathers and down can comprise a significant component of the perceived "size" increase and the birds tend towards fat as they are not as vigorous as one would like. The bones of the body can increase in size through selection, but even within "breeds", bone length and size can vary significantly (usually measured in ash content after death). Larger birds tend towards narrowness in the pelvic area and consequently are more susceptible to egg binding. The shape of the head, if significantly beyond the standard in size or shape, may lead to reduction in fertility or fecundity, vertigo, shakes, head twirling and sudden death in larger birds. Excessive size can also impact the show standard, with coarse, long feathers blurring the outline of the bird or making it appear overly stocky or blocky. The intensity of color, the racy lines and tightness of feathers desired when getting a bird into condition tend are more difficult to effect on coarse feathers and dense down. Over-spraying, to try and improve the bird's color intensity, may also remove the shine if excess applications are made. The large head that often is selected along with the body seems to be impacted by a number of genes and is not a trait that you can improve quickly unless you know what you are doing and have the right stock. Gradual selection is required for head improvement, unless one is lucky enough to have a large headed offspring or parents with good heads. However, it is very difficult to keep a large bird in exhibition shape and to develop one with the conformation and brightness of a small bird. If conformation, intensity and vigor are the standard, why is the fancy so accepting of larger birds ?
The question of over-sizing the head or altering the form of the head, so that a cock has a more feminine, rounded head is an interesting philosophical and exhibition discussion point, but has anyone done any work to determine if the alteration of the head shape has impacted the fertility of the male ? Does anyone remember if wild Fischer cocks had flatter heads like the peachface cock (non exhibition) or whether they were rounded ?
The environment is more important than the breeding
There is no doubt in my mind that the environment and husbandry are both very important factors in acquiring the optimum size and balance in your stock. The hen, when all of the minerals and nutrient requirements are met in her system, will obviously produce healthy offspring and have the energy to be able to feed them well and develop the egg and embryo to their optimum potential. The offspring, if well fed by the parent birds can see some amazing increase over the parent birds, if the parent birds lacked nutrition and variety in their diet when they were growing. The growing stage can be considered from hatch date onwards, as prior to that the hen's health is the determining factor. The young bird, in my opinion is better served by parental feeding if there are few offspring in the nest. The parents spend most of their time flying around and consuming food that they can regurgitate to their offspring. The fewer offspring, the less effort and strain on the parents and the greater opportunity afforded to feed the singleton or pair of offspring. Does hand feeding compare with its nutritionally balanced diet ? My preference is parental feeding. I just do not see how intermittent feeding from a person can deliver the same requirements as a dedicated pair of parent birds, if we are talking about optimizing growth and success and building a line of winning birds and not seeking a chance champion (although champion birds are always looked favorably upon !)
Good diet and care of the chicks will quickly be repaid with good gains in weight and obvious improvement in size before the chick exists the nest. As soon as it begins foraging on its own or rather learning how to forage, the breeder makes sure that the diet reflects the need of the bird and its ability to eat. you do not want it to lose much if any weight during this weaning period, as you want it eating well until it is past its first molt, when much of the growth will have been attained. Further feeding is based on earlier diets that kept the parents in good shape. it could be several more months and sometimes a year or two before final growth is attained, but the breeder should know this from his stock charts and slow growing stock can be treated differently. I prefer faster growing stock and early production, but it, like everything in breeding, depends on the goal of the breeder.
Genetics / Breeding
The need for food is all consuming so if we take for granted that: a healthy diet is available for the birds: that temperatures are controlled: there are no drafts; birds are not overcrowded; pairs are reasonably happy with each other; breeder and birds get along well; natural light is available in abundance; cold weather is mitigated by heat when necessary, and pests and predators are addressed, there is only breeding and genetics left.
The breeder can "move the bird" towards a "standard" required for exhibition, but can really do very little to actually improve upon a wild bird that has survived for 100's of years. Given that the goal or intent is development of a line of winning birds, it is not unusual to find a star among regular stock. People can rarely afford the fancy from the top end, and so must spend many years working their way up, usually falling into many traps as they move forward. In this case we are talking about genetics. We have already discussed and identified that a champion may not pass on his good genes to his offspring in the way that a breeder expects or wants. In effect this means that the pedigree is questionable unless you can determine how many offspring the parental birds produced and how many of those were actually champions. This will separate the good breeders from the lucky breeder or the inefficient breeders who base success on quantity (don't confuse this with having to have enough birds to add or subtract characteristics from the offspring- flexibility is required) and not quality.
Birds, like most creatures are born with a certain genome and that genome impacts how they appear to us. If nutrition is withdrawn from the hen during the laying cycle or food is abundant but not nutritional, the chick / fledgling stands a good chance of not being able to attain its optimal growth. If food is made available after the first molt, there is little that can be done to recover that lost intake and its impact in the first few months. The bird that might have become a champion is less than it might have been. The normal breeder will look through his stock and see a small bird that is not worth the effort and identifies it as a discard, little knowing that it was the 6th chick in a nest of 6, and its 5 siblings have been retained for later assessment. This bird, with the potential to be as good as its siblings has fought for its food, avoided suffocation by its elder siblings, survived the activity in the nest and upon exiting the nest is seen as a runt and a discard, not "potential". The bird is sold to the pet mart, and despite being "small", has great conformation and intensity of color. The bird is picked up by a customer and taken home. The bird is kept on its own for a while and then a new mate is found for it and the two are placed in a cage. The "small" bird is actually a little larger than its cage mate, which turns out to be a hen ( lovebird hens are generally larger than males). The pet shop owner, who said he had over "twenty years" of experience with lovebirds, had checked the smaller bird before selling it and stated that it was a male. The customer who had already purchased what she considered a male, buys the bird, in the expectation that no offspring will be generated. Lo and behold, several months later the "male" bird is laying eggs in an empty food container. The customer is upset, but does what she can to ensure nothing disturbs the birds. The chicks hatch and the attentive pet owner provides them a variety of greens, fruits, seed and grasses. Before she knows it the young are much bigger than the parents and show no signs of slowing down. These chicks look very good indeed and the pet owner has no problems selling them.
How is this possible, a runt from a breeding operation and a tiny hen,
producing much larger offspring ?? The cock or the runt, was obviously
imbued with the genes for size, but the size was never attained because
of early interference in food intake and being last in the nest.
The hen may or may not have had genes for size, but with all five of the
cock's siblings being much larger and kept for later assessment, one might
conclude that he was homozygous for good traits and size. In the
end, it shows that there are "environmental reasons", why some birds do
not achieve the anticipated size, and it is the conscientious breeder who
records and rings his birds that will see that a small bird, the youngest
bird in a large nest, may not get all of the food it requires and will
not achieve the body size of earlier hatched siblings, although it may
well harbor the genetic potential. In good breeding establishments,
you will sometimes find small hens mated to big cocks and vice versa, when
the breeder knows the genetic potential and the reason for possible size
discrepancies. The genetics and a good record of the families genetics,
gives the knowledgeable breeder a foot up over those just seeing size.
It is also why winners can sometimes be found in pet shops: although this
is rare and highly dependent on the proximity to local breeding establishments.
It is also why some breeders try to reduce the offspring per nest by using
feeders or foster parents when driving towards the exhibition goal.