THE VET’S ADVICE
My Bird Laid An Egg… What Do I Do?
It is usually quite the surprise to parrot owners when their pet lays an egg, especially if they thought it was a male, or if it lives without a mate. Just like with production chickens laying eggs for consumption, any single bird will become reproductively active and can lay an unfertilized egg during its life in captivity. This article will focus on some key points to help explain the answers to the most frequently asked questions our clients have regarding this behavior including: why it happens, possible harmful complications, what to do when it happens, and how to prevent it from happening over and over again. Since reproductive disorders are common in pet birds, prevention and self-education are better than treatment, especially since some of these conditions can be life-threatening.
Why did my bird lay an egg when there is no mate present?
Egg laying can start whenever the species becomes sexually mature and can continue throughout the bird’s lifetime. Some birds will lay only once or twice in their lives, others will lay several times a year depending on the home environment and stimuli. In the wild many natural factors influence egg-laying and female parrots will generally not lay eggs unless they have a mate, a suitable nesting site, and the right environmental conditions and food availability. Their reproductive behaviors are often guided by food abundance and seasonal changes such as daylight hours. In captivity however, this behavior is often stimulated by other factors we may not even be aware we are providing. Some companion birds are more prolific and much more likely to lay eggs than other species based on genetic predisposition, such as budgies/parakeets, cockatiels, and Aratinga conures. Others can randomly lay due to the stimulants we provide in captivity.
Increased daylight hours: when birds think it is springtime, they are more likely to reproduce. When we wake them up early and keep them up with us at night, they don’t understand that our artificial light is not the sun and they can become reproductively active.
Constant sources of rich foods: when birds have ample foods high in fat and protein, their bodies become prepared to reproduce. In the wild, they reproduce when these kinds of natural resources are available based on the season. In captivity, when they are given these rich foods every day, their bodies are constantly ready and amped up for reproduction!
Inappropriate pair bonding with humans or inanimate objects: when birds perceive that there is a mate present, their bodies will think it’s time to make babies. An inappropriate mate is most often a chosen person in the home- often someone who allows the bird to physically be with them more than others, allows regurgitation behaviors, and is very affectionate. Occasionally this perceived mate could also be a mirror, a stuffed animal, or a favorite toy that the bird cuddles with, regurgitates on, or spends many hours a day with.
Excessive allopreeing: it is very rewarding to have a bird that enjoys being scratched, rubbed, and will reciprocate with straightening our hair or giving sweet nibbles. However, this behavior directly mimics what parrots and their mates do in the wild. Scratching under the wings, over the back, under the chin, and around the face/beak are all behaviors of bonded pairs of parrots in the wild. Doing this can encourage reproductive behavior such as egg laying.
Having access to a nesting sites: of course purchasing a nest for a bird is an obvious nesting site, but often people don’t realize that allowing a bird to forage/play in a cardboard box, offering the fuzzy tents sold in pet stores, allowing them to explore the kitchen cabinets, or burrowing in our clothes/bed linens are all nesting sites as well! In the wild, birds seek out small, dark spaces to make a nest such as a tree hollow or rock crevice. There are many of these “sites” in our homes and allowing birds to find them can induce them to lay eggs sometimes in these sites.
What are the potential complications?
1. Eggbinding: When birds lay eggs, they need to be in optimal condition in order to be able to produce the protein required, the calcium to shell the egg, and the energy to lay it properly. A poor quality diet for a bird that is not exposed to natural sunlight (to aid in calcium absorption) and that does not fly or have exercise may be deficient in many nutrients and vitamins and be in poor body conditon that is required for healthy egg laying. If the eggs are not shelled properly, they could be soft or lump or, they could have difficulty or even get stuck moving through the oviduct. If the bird does not have good muscle development or calcium stores, passing the egg may be difficult or impossible. These conditions can cause dystocia, or “egg binding” in birds. Birds that are having difficulty laying eggs may have the following symptoms:
Sitting on the bottom of the cage.
Difficulty breathing, which can appear like a tail bob, open beak panting, or a wide-legged stance with increased respiratory effort.
Blood coming from the vent (the opening where they poop from and where the egg passes).
Straining or pushing excessively with no egg produced
Pathologic bone fractures: When birds produce eggs, their bodies mobilize calcium from their bones, leaving them weak. Over time it is common to see fractured wings and/or leg bones occurring with no trauma, especially if they are not getting enough calcium and vitamin D3.
2. Egg yolk peritonitis: If there is reproductive disease, either from chronic egg laying or pathology in the oviduct, ovarian follicles can develop and instead of passing into the oviduct to be shelled normally, they fall into the body cavity. This can cause a serious inflammatory process that causes the coelom (abdomen) to fill with fluid. This can be very uncomfortable for birds, causing them to not be able to breathe well, become lethargic, and have a decreased appetite.
3. Hyperlipidemia: When birds are constantly laying eggs, there is often a high amount of circulating fats and proteins in the blood to facilitate egg production. This can cause dangerous thickening of the blood, with the potential to cause a bird to have a stroke (sometimes referred to as “yolk stroke”). These changes in the blood are often impossible to change with diet and exercise, and in many cases only hormone therapy or spaying will stop the condition.
4. Behavior problems: When birds are in a state of reproduction, they often have hormonal changes that make them irritable and uncomfortable. They can turn from a human-friendly buddy, to a vicious cage protective demon! Birds will often aggressively protect their eggs and/or nest area by lunging, hissing, biting, and screaming. They also will sometimes pull feathers from their body to make a nest (called a “brood patch”) in order to keep the eggs warm with their skin contact on them. But this behavior can preclude chronic feather picking behavior.
What do I do now that my bird laid an egg?
These recommendations are based on the assumption that you are not trying to breed your bird. The staff at the Center strongly discourages breeding of pet parrots, especially by non-experienced pet owners. If you are trying to breed, please consider discussing this with your avian veterinarian prior to breeding to learn about the potential for health problems, financial expense, and ethical reasons why we do not recommend breeding parrots.
A few species of parrots are sexually dimorphic (you can tell the gender based on the physical appearance) and others are not, so many owners don’t know if they have a male or a female. (We strongly recommend bringing birds in for testing BEFORE a crisis occurs- we can easily determine the gender with a single drop of blood.) If you have a male and female, or are not sure, it is possible that the egg could be fertile, so as soon as you see an egg, you should remove it and replace it with a fake egg. Alternatively, you could boil or freeze the egg, but then return it to the nest. It is important to return some sort of egg to the nest because some birds will continue to lay eggs, trying to replace the lost ones. Once the eggs of a clutch are all laid and exchanged for fake or sterilized eggs, leave them with the birds, regardless if they are nesting them or not, for approximately 3 weeks. Then, remove them one at a time every other day until they are gone. This will hopefully give the female the time she needs to understand that those eggs are not viable and will not hatch. In most cases the birds will abandon the eggs after a period of time.
While she is laying/nesting on the eggs, be sure to communicate with your avian veterinarian regarding diet and possible nutritional supplementations. Each situation may be different based on history, species, diet, and other variables. Your pet’s doctor may recommend extra calcium, full spectrum light, protein, or other supplements during this time.
If you see any symptoms as described above, please give your avian veterinarian a call right away to schedule an appointment, or potentially bring your bird in for an emergency visit. These situations can be very dangerous and life threatening so you should not wait.
Tips to prevent pet parrots from laying eggs
1. Move the bird’s cage to a different area of your home. Sometimes making birds feel a little uncomfortable will make their bodies recognize that it is not an ideal time to lay eggs.
2. Rearrange any perches, bowls, and toys in the cage. Again, making them feel just a bit like things are different or strange, less comfortable, they may not be as likely to lay eggs.
3. Remove any objects that your bird associates with “nesting”. These are usually cardboard boxes or fabric toys that your bird can “hide” in. Food bowls are also often used as make-shift nests and changing sizes and location may limit this behavior.
4. Remove any objects that your bird considers a “mate” such as mirrors, stuffed toys, special favorite perches, or even other birds. Sometimes birds may need a time-out from a mate or a perceived mate in order to prevent chronic egg laying.
5. Limit time with the bird’s human “mate”. Avoid bonding behaviors like grooming, kissing, and sharing food.
6. If your bird spends a lot of time out of its cage, discourage all nesting behavior. You may need to keep the bird caged for a while to prevent them from laying eggs in closets, behind/under furniture, or in cabinets.
7. Alter your bird’s light/dark schedule by covering the cage for at least 12 hours a night. Keeping them quiet and dark during these hours will create a sense that it is not springtime and not the time for making babies.
8. Keep your bird away from direct, bright sunlight during the day. It also may help to keep them away from windows and in a normally lit room.
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Programming Chronic Egg Laying
By Steve Hartman / The Parrot University
Why do cockatiels and some of the other smaller species of pet birds produce eggs when there is no male present?
Over the last few years, female cockatiels and other small pet bird species have accidentally been selectively bred for their ability to lay eggs without a mate present. We need to look back a few generations to find the source of the problem. Veterinarians, breeders and hobbyists have, in error, advised owners that a mate should be provided for these egg-laying pets. This is, in fact, the last thing that you want to do. Laying too many eggs can be a health hazard for a hen. Breeding her will increase the number of birds with this problem in the future.
The poultry industry has used this selective breeding technique in a positive way to significantly increase egg production in chickens. The original chicken was a small bird that laid an average of seven eggs each year. Today, with selective breeding and proper nutrition, the average chicken produces 252 eggs per year.
The hen that lays the most eggs and the most clutches of eggs in her life, produces the most babies. Super-producing hens are showing up at an increasing rate and developing into a major health problem for small companion birds. Professional and hobby breeders alike, utilize these abnormal hens to produce as many babies as possible for the pet trade.
Some of the female babies produced by these prolific hens will also have the ability to produce many eggs. If these females end up in a breeding situation, they will also produce a lot of babies and end up passing this trait on to more female babies. Over the last 20 years, some of these very prolific hens have caused these super-ovulating genes to be fixed into a significant percentage of the cockatiel and other small bird populations.
This situation is not limited to small birds. Because of the older age at which many of the larger parrots start to produce, they have not had as many generations of production. Smaller birds can begin reproducing at one year old while many of the larger parrots take five to ten years. This problem has developed in about 15 generations for the smaller birds. In about another 25 years, it will likely be as common in the larger parrots.
Problems that can arise A few of the birds that develop this problem will not suffer any undesirable effects. Unfortunately, this is not the situation for most of these birds. Many undesirable problems and situations can develop when a bird becomes a chronic egg layer. These problems include but are not limited to:
Aggression - the pet may become territorial and aggressively defend her territory.
Egg binding - the bird's system may not be able to provide the significant amount of resources necessary to produce so may eggs. Insufficient calcium reserves result in the oviduct not being able to provide the calcium lubricant for the egg to pass. The egg can become stuck and the bird will die without veterinary intervention.
Lack of pet appeal - because the birds is always sitting on eggs, she may not be an interactive companion.
Lack of exercise - a broody bird wants only to sit on eggs. This lack of exercise is OK for a normal period of incubation, but a chronic egg layer can experience several inactive months each year.
Calcium depletion and many resulting health problems - Egg production requires significant amounts of calcium, protein and fat. Inactivity, loss of appetite, and a significant loss of calcium can result in too many short and long-term health problems to list here.
What starts the egg laying process? All birds have the same list of environmental requirements for beginning the egg laying process. They include, among other things, a mate, a nest, plenty of food and the right amount of daylight. In a wild situation, these requirements are similar in all birds of the same species. The natural selection process (survival of the fittest) keeps the breeding requirements similar in all individuals.
In captivity, most babies are kept alive regardless of their ability to survive in the wild. Some of these captive birds have slightly unusual requirements from the signals they would go by in the wild. If, for instance, a wild bird had the genes that allowed her to begin laying eggs before the days were long enough, the babies would die because it would be too cold or there would not be enough food. In captivity, these same birds would do just fine.
Over several generations, captive birds that have the least rigid breeding requirements produce the most babies. Eventually, a species develops such a wide range of acceptable breeding requirements, that they will lay eggs anytime, even without a male.
Solution: Do not breed your pet if she lays eggs without a male present - you will be part of the problem for future generations. Careful attention will help to eliminate the problem or at least limit it to one clutch of eggs per year.
Even though some hens are very adaptable when it comes to breeding environment requirements, we can usually stop the process by changing the environment. When changing the environment does not work, there are additional medical interventions that can be utilized. Below are listed several factors to consider. Once the egg-laying behavior is recognized, you may be able to tell she is getting ready to lay about a month in advance. Awareness of the time of the year when the behavior starts will help in avoidance the next year if there is a yearly cycle to your pet's behavior.
Avoid sexual stimulation by owner. During breeding season, a male will be more attentive to the hen. He will spend more time defending and preening her.
Petting and touching by the owner can be sexually stimulating, especially when touching the cheeks, lower back or abdomen. Once she starts to respond to this physical stimulation, you may notice her lifting her tail in preparation for the male to mount her. When she displays this behavior, put her back in her cage for a few minutes until the behavior changes. Continued stimulation could turn this behavior into a habitual behavior. When this happens, the owner can end up being the stimulus that keeps starting the cycle.
By the time you notice this behavior, it may be too late. Once the ovulation cycle has started, you will not likely stop it. Careful observation of subtle body changes leading up to this behavior will help you with early warning signals the next time.
Do not unknowingly provide a nest site. I often suggest that pet bird owners supply small boxes for birds to play in and tear up. Normally, this is great entertainment and will not cause a bird to start ovulating. Sometimes owners go a step further and provide a real nest box for their pet to play in. This is never a good idea even with a normal hen.
In abnormal circumstances, small boxes (potential nest sites) may be a significant contributing factor initiating egg laying. Once you become aware of your pets abnormal tendencies to lay without a mate, you will want to be careful to avoid providing this stimulus in the future.
“Do not pull the eggs. Most birds are 'determinate layers'. They lay a set number of eggs for each clutch. This number will vary slightly, about five to eight for cockatiels, but will stop when she gets to her limit. When you pull the eggs, an abnormal hen may keep laying. Since the hen is not getting the correct tactile feedback to her abdomen from touching eggs, she may keep laying until her system is totally drained of calcium and other nutrients. If the eggs are removed within the hormonal period that allows for producing a second clutch she will produce even more eggs. This situation can escalate into a chronic egg laying problem.”
Supply a nest to hold the eggs. Though you never want to provide a nest before a bird starts laying, once egg laying begins, you will want to supply something to hold the eggs. A dish with a small amount of wood shavings or tissue paper in the bottom will work. Place any eggs she has already laid in the dish and she will likely begin to set on them and lay the rest of the clutch.
Do not make her too comfortable. Nest sites usually have a lot of requirements for a normal bird. We do not want to provide a nice nest box that meets all of the criteria of a great home and encourages her to continue laying.
Some abnormal hens will have a tendency to lay many eggs, but lack the desire to brood (incubate) the eggs. This is a double problem because the hen may not be able to stop producing eggs until she becomes sick, or worse. In this case, it may become necessary to provide an appropriate nest site so all of the nest site cues are present to try to turn on her brooding desires.
Provide lots of high quality food. One normal clutch of eggs under normal circumstances will not harm a bird. Laying too many eggs in a row or too many clutches each year, can completely deplete all of the birds nutrient reserves. During normal or abnormal egg laying periods, it is advised to provide high quality food sources. If your bird is on a seed diet, this will be very difficult. Birds on pelleted diets will easily switch to a breeding pellet that will supply all of the necessary nutrients.
Change environment. Many different possible breeding stimulus make it difficult to determine just which ones are turning on the switches for ovulation in your pet's brain. One of the easiest ways to change many of these stimuli at the same time is to move the cage to a different location, and preferably, a different room. Each location will have among other stimuli, a different amount and intensity of daylight, slightly different temperature, and a different amount of activity and privacy.
Induce molt. Molting hens will rarely produce eggs. Molting in a breeding bird normally occurs after the eggs are laid and the babies are weaned. Inducing a molt about a week after a hen lays the last egg of a clutch will hormonally interrupt the next ovulation cycle and stop the process for the season.
Both chemical and environmental methods are available to induce a molt. A veterinarian can introduce drugs that will cause a bird to start molting. A less invasive method involves making a few changes to the environment.
Two significant changes occur at about the time a bird would be weaning its young. The parents are losing a little weight because they have been spending so much time feeding and caring for their babies, and at the same time, the days are getting shorter.
The poultry industry recognized this long ago. Chickens that have produced eggs for about eight months begin to produce irregularly and become unprofitable. If the farmer wants to restart the ovulation process, he must first stop it altogether. This is accomplished by shortening the day length to eight hours and removing 10% of the feed and water for three or four weeks. The bird's brain thinks it is fall, stops production and begins molting.
Chemical birth control. Birth control pills for birds will likely become available for parrots in the near future. Currently, there are drugs available that any avian veterinarian can administer. Unfortunately, we do not have enough experience in this area and still find inconsistent results in different individuals. Dr. Branson Ritchie, at the University of Georgia, has been working on this solution for several years.
Hysterectomy. Removal of the uterus and the oviduct will stop egg production.
Hysterectomy involves a significant degree of risk for several reasons. This procedure is difficult and invasive and most veterinarians do not have much experience with this procedure. In addition, the risk of death under anesthesia on a debilitated bird is very high. Additionally, the bird may continue to exhibit all of the other breeding behaviors associated with egg laying. Only the most serious cases should consider this procedure.
Future possibilities. There has been some research done on surgically sterilizing baby parrots. This process is similar to the methods used with dogs and cats. However, even on young birds with undeveloped gonads, it is still a difficult and dangerous process. Chemical sterilization of young parrots may be available at some time in the future. This process has not yet been developed for birds, but should work the same as in mammals.
Conclusion: When this problem presents itself, it is important to allow it to run its course. Pay attention to as many of the environmental factors and your birds behavior as you can. Good observation is the best way to manage the problem in the future.