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A Beginner's Guide To Breeding Best-In-Show

From the day most budgerigar breeders attend their first show thoughts and efforts usually focus on the million dollar question “How do I breed a bird worthy of winning the coveted Best-In-Show Award?”.

It’s no different for someone like me, returning to the hobby after an 8 year break for business and family commitments. The challenge is there… especially when you know you start again and immediately compete against the best Champions around.

It is back to the drawing board and a chance to use the guidelines that worked in the past to get back in the winning circle.

Years ago, when I was a teenager in Australia, a top breeder named Frank Gardiner outlined a plan that helped me enormously. He said there were two types of people who showed budgies. There were those who had deep pockets lined with cash. These folks could go out every couple of years, buy top quality stock and breed them together in the hope of producing a winner or two… a cycle they would repeat year after year until they got burned out and left the hobby.

The other type was those with limited budgets, who studied the birds, became true breeders, and built a stud of top quality birds. This Frank said, took longer, but was the real key to long term success.

It is obvious that the same holds true today.

Back in Australia I had limited financial resources so had no real option on which plan to follow. I followed Frank’s plan to the letter and it worked for me… and soon my birds were winning awards at local shows.

Several years later I moved to New Zealand and put the plan into effect again working with Eric Monks from Lower Hutt.

Eric Monks

Eric Monks keeps a watchful eye on his birds.

In 1977 I was transferred to USA and had to start all over again. This time it was Harold Trethaway and Joe Lastella who helped me with initial stock… and the great Don Langell who made a real impact in getting my birds to top competitive level.

So…. What I have learned is… While there is no simple answer to this question of how to breed “Best In Show”, there are some guidelines for the newcomer to the hobby which will increase your chances and help put you on the road to success.

The first requirement for success with Budgerigars is knowledge. And, as with any profession or hobby, the knowledge and experience necessary for success is not gained overnight or indeed in a few years. There are several excellent books written on the subject which will help you gain knowledge. “The Cult Of The Budgerigar” and “Best In Show” are fine examples, while “Budgerigar World” magazine and your society bulletins will expose you to ideas and practices of leading breeders.

While books and articles are great to pick up the basics there is no substitute for knowledge gained from years of experience. Whenever possible attend shows and visit aviaries. “Pick the brains” of successful breeders. Visit as many aviaries of top line breeder/exhibitors as possible. They all have something to offer and you will be surprised how helpful most will be.

When it comes time to purchase your initial breeding stock be patient.. and do the homework necessary to make a wise, well informed decision. The investment you are about to make can bring years of enjoyment and success, but beware, it can also bring frustration and despair.

Avoid the temptation to buy every “nice” bird you see from a variety of sources. Buying birds from too many sources increases the possibility of them being genetically incompatible.

Search out a breeder who specializes in varieties you prefer, one whose birds look similar, one who is winning on the show bench, and very importantly one who has a personality that works for you..

When I first got started in the U.S., back in the late 70s, one of the first shows I attended was an All American in Connecticut. This provided an opportunity to see some of the best birds of that era and meet top exhibitors from around the country.

Hugh Wilson from California won the show and with Don Langell from Massachussetts shared most of the top ten placings. I immediately loved what I saw in the Langell birds and decided that was who I wanted to work with.

Don Langell

Don Langell in his birdroom in Boxford Massachusetts.

Having selected your mentor, visit the breeder’s aviary if possible. Tell him in advance that you would like to get started with a few pairs. That can be tough if his birds are in big demand as Don’s were, but the more I visited and spent time in his birdroom, the more I learned and in the process we also became close friends.

Be realistic with your budget. Only you know what you can afford. But most importantly, don’t make the mistake of substituting quality of quantity. It’s far better to start with two or three pair of quality stock than six pair of inferior quality.

Keep in mind that your success in breeding winners with the birds you select is almost as important to the seller as it is to you. If you are successful on the show bench you will sell your excess stock… but your success will ensure he does too, assuming you tell others about the foundation of your birds. Don often joked that I was his best advertisement around as everyone knew our winning birds were from Langell bloodlines.

Assuming the fancier you have selected has a reputation for success and honesty, allow him to make some suggestions on suitable pairings. The fancier knows how his birds breed and will pair them up as he would to have the best chance of success.

While it is often possible to purchase an outstanding cock, a quality breeding hen is “gold”. There is a saying that you have to breed your own good hens. Be prepared to take a well bred hen from the same bloodline which may not be as visually .pleasing as the cock.

The cocks you select should have good size, desirable head qualities and depth of mask while the hens should have good length and mask. Avoid small spotted hens as they tend to pass this characteristic to their offspring.

While it is quite acceptable to purchase a two or three year old cock which is a proven breeder, one is advised to buy current year hens whenever possible. The cocks you bring in will usually have a longer “breeding life” than the hens which tend to be more temperamental. The fact that a hen has bred successfully in one aviary does not necessarily mean she will go to nest in another. The virgin hens should give you at least two productive seasons and is more likely to accept her new surroundings.

One exception to this rule is the outstanding hen a breeder has used successfully for a couple of seasons and has then discarded from the breeding team. This usually means she has produced young hens superior to herself. Such hens are often purchased for a nominal sum because the owner feels she has served her purpose – and if the price is right there’s always a chance she’ll produce an outstanding youngster or two for you. Keep in mind there was a specific reason the bird was retained in the breeding team for multiple seasons.

The pairing together of your new arrivals, especially temperamental hens, is not always easy. I usually segregate the new birds in a separate room within earshot of my other birds. Then I pair up the new birds quickly, as soon as they come into condition. This practice seems to help them acclimatize to their new surroundings faster and eliminates some of the stress factors involved in settling in to a new aviary of strange birds, finding their place in the pecking order, and adjusting to new procedures and feeding.

The old adage “feed, breed and weed” now comes into play. A well balanced diet of seed, greens, grit, minerals, and a high protein supplement or soft food should be fed throughout the year.

Your goal during your first year is to produce a satisfactory number of young birds that are “keepers” to form the nucleus of a “stud” of budgerigars… with emphasis on the number of hens.

Do not expect to breed winners your first year. If you do it’s a bonus…. Keep in mind you are working with someone’s sale birds, not their best… and stay focused on the goal of breeding enough keepers to work with next season.

In order to achieve these goals avoid the temptation to overwork your birds, especially the hens. They are not merely egg laying machines and after a couple of nests should be rested for several months before they are put up to work again.

At the end of the first year “keep the best… and cull the rest”. Discard all the young cocks which have obvious faults, or who, after their second molt, are not up to the quality of the cocks you originally purchased.

Be ruthless in culling your cocks retaining only the very best. Many exhibitors inhibit their progress for years by breeding with mediocre or “middle of the road” birds. While hens appear to be able to “mask” or “carry” hidden desirable qualities I have rarely seen outstanding birds bred from a poor quality cock.

After your first breeding season you should also cull all hens with obvious faults eg crossed wings, poor backline, hinged tail, small spots, but retain the balance to breed back to your best cocks during the next breeding season.

You may wish to ask the advice of your mentor when it comes time to determine which birds to keep and which to sell, especially if you have not yet “developed an eye” or feel the young are all of equal quality.

Before the second breeding season you should return to your original source and buy one or two additional birds. These birds, preferably cocks so they can be mated to multiple hens, should be superior in quality to your original purchases.

After the third and fourth breeding season purchases should only be made to bring in specific features lacking in your stock ie feather texture, depth of mask, size of spots, head qualities, or directional feathering.

To increase the genetic compatibility you should continue to purchase from your original source whenever possible, or from aviaries where the birds come from similar bloodlines. When I first got started here I began with birds from Harold Trethaway, Joe Lastella and Don Langell who all had birds with Ormerod (UK) backgrounds. In later years, after I had established my families I brought in birds from Don every couple of seasons to enhance or bring in specific features. Birds from these four aviaries successfully blended together because in effect they all go back to the same gene pool.

Alf Ormerod

Alf Ormerod talks budgies with Eric Peake during our visit in 1984.

Outstanding birds from new bloodlines are not always compatible when introduced… and may fail to blend in and produce the desired features. Over the years I tried introducing several into the “Langell” families, but the only one that worked came from Clare & Terry Pilkington in England which many generations ago had Ormerod in the background.

Pilkingtons

Clare & Terry Pilkington certainly had some super birds.

This procedure has worked for me several times in the past. First as a teenager in Australia, again after college, during my short stay in New Zealand, and a couple of times since I arrived in the U.S.. Now I’m back in the hobby and testing it once again.

The one thing I do know from past experience is.. If you have the patience, and want to really learn the hobby… just follow this plan year after year and the overall quality of your birds will steadily improve. It won’t be long before you are winning classes, sections, divisions, and even Best In Show.

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