2 April 1999

TIME TO

DIVERSIFY

INTO THE

EXOTIC?

Farmers with time, patience and a suitable building could

build up a useful alternative enterprise breeding

parrots. Fraser White, who has bred them

commercially for 18 years, explains how

NEVER have farmers looked as keenly for alternative sources of income as they are today. Angora goats, llamas, crayfish, ostriches – all have been tried, but tend to have one thing in common. It costs a lot of time and money to learn about them, and just when youve learned enough, you run out of money.

But if you want people to look at you really quizzically, tell them youre planning to start breeding parrots. Yet some breeders breed more than 100 chicks a season and earn £50,000 a year.

History

The first parrots seen in Europe were brought back by Alexander the Great in 300BC; and their intelligence and rarity has meant they have been in great demand as pets ever since.

Back in the early 1980s few people were breeding parrots on any scale; it was considered too difficult. At the same time governments were beginning to clamp down on the import of parrots from the wild. As import licences became harder to obtain, interest in home-bred, hand-reared parrots increased and opportunities for new breeders to enter the market grew.

Methods and costs

When I converted a cattle shippon into a breeding shed, the original conversion costs were about £5000. This included sliding patio doors at one end.

The shippon covered 170sq m (1800sq ft) and housed 20 inside cages of 0.9 x 0.9 x 3.6m (3 x 3 x 12ft). The wire cages were suspended from the ceiling, allowing faeces and discarded food to fall through to the floor and be hosed out every day. Each cage cost £40.

While this gives a guide to the basic dimensions needed, a couple of separate buildings or rooms would be useful. One can act as a hospital or isolation room, doubling as a quarantine area for new arrivals. The other would be an incubation and hand-rearing room. Knowledge of incubation procedures is a desirable skill for parrot breeders; hand-rearing can produce double the number of live chicks as leaving the parents to do the job themselves.

Outside aviaries can be much more spacious and interesting than inside cages. Parrots are intelligent birds and are happier and more psychologically stimulated out in the elements. The happier they are, the more productive and resistant to illness they become. However outside aviaries can be expensive and you need to consider their security.

Stock

Recently-imported birds are the cheapest but riskiest stock. Prices can be as little as £150 for an unsexed African Grey.

Buying ex-pets is not a bad option as the owners have in effect double-quarantined them for you. Expect to pay up to £300 a bird.

If you want to be in total control of your stock and know the ages and history of each bird, buy English-bred birds. Expect to pay up to £450 for 1-2 year olds.

Running costs.

Day-to-day running costs are relatively low, if you remove your own time from the equation. A years feed for 50 pairs of parrots would cost about £3000. Electricity, veterinary costs etc might come to another £3000.

The market

There are an estimated 500,000 parrot owners in the UK. People buying a parrot will insist that it is captive-bred, hand-reared and closed-rung (a sealed ring placed around one leg at three weeks old).

It isnt unusual for buyers to wait six months to a year for a particular chick. Top breeders will usually have sold all their stock before the chicks are actually ready to go at around 14-weeks- old.

Downsides

There are many, as you would expect with any venture that offers a substantial cash income.

&#8226 Inexperience. Reading about parrot-breeding wont make you as knowledgeable as someone who has worked with them for 20 years.

&#8226 Disease. According to one leading avian vet, levels of disease among parrots are increasing at an alarming rate.

&#8226 Buying the right stock from the right place is crucial. Dont be tempted by low prices.

&#8226 Losing livestock is never good, but losing an egg-laying Yellow-Fronted Amazon you have nurtured for four years is worse, not only because of the financial loss, but also because of the difficulty in finding another hen that the cock bird will accept.

&#8226 Waiting for breeding results can be frustrating. A hen bird is probably capable of breeding at three years old, whilst a cock needs to be five to six. Knowing the ages of birds is important.

&#8226 Security. Police forces throughout the UK concede that stealing parrots can yield big money. To the criminal it appears low risk. I had 17 crime-free years, only to be targeted five times over a summer.

&#8226 The relentlessness of parrot breeding. Hand-rearing a 14g chick and constantly monitoring incubators and brooders over a season can be exhausting.

&#8226 Competition. There are others out there who do the job well. However there will always be room for someone else who can do it better.

Income

My breeding record was seven chicks from one pair in one year, which I sold for £4200. The pair were bought separately for £200 each. They bred for me for seven years. Imagine having 20 pairs doing the same and its not difficult to see the attraction of parrot breeding. However, go to any parrot breeder with £100,000-worth of stock and he will insist theres no money in it.

An unringed imported wild African grey in good condition may fetch £200. A 14-week-old hand-reared closed-rung African grey can easily sell for £500-£600.

Assume you have 50 pairs with only 20 pairs ever breeding and reckon on three chicks as an average. That means a shippon running at less than half capacity could still gross you £36,000/year.

You could achieve these figures. Equally, you could achieve zero income and escalating costs. I have met breeders who lost a great deal of money; they had the ability but didnt do enough research, planning or listening.

Conclusion

Farmers do have a number of advantages over other individuals who attempt to earn money from breeding parrots.

&#8226 They are already tied to the farm.

&#8226 They have existing buildings.

&#8226 They have adequate space.

&#8226 They do not have very close neighbours (parrots are noisy!)

&#8226 They are used to livestock and the relentlessness of farming.

To earn a living from breeding parrots is quite possible, but its not easy to buy experience. Parrot breeding is a long-term venture and very risky.

Further information? Fraser White: 01829-260625. The Parrot Society: 01234-358922.

The World Parrot Trust: 01736-753365.