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Budgerigar World Fancier Profile - Brian Sweeting

Interview by Terry Tuxford

Background

1. Tell us about your background in the hobby. When and how you started, what your first set-up was like. Take us from those early days through the various stages through to today and then describe your current birdroom and birds. Do you have any special gadgets?

I was first interested in birds when I was a young boy as my father was one of the West Country's leading pigeon fanciers and at the same time kept canaries and British birds. At that time I had a few budgies, given to me by a friend, which were colony-bred from exhibition birds of the day. I enjoyed owning and caring for creatures that were completely dependent on me for their well-being. At this time I knew nothing of the Budgerigar Society and the huge interest that there was in exhibition birds. It was the late fifties when the hobby was booming and most homes had a pet budgie. Later, when girls came into my life, the interest waned and died. However, I always had a desire to keep birds sometime later in my life when circumstances allowed.

As a teenager, my interests were sport and fishing which lead me to keeping tropical fish and Japanese Koi carp in particular. After keeping fish for many years I was in great demand for advice and information on the secrets to keeping fish healthy and the technicalities of water filtration systems. Surprisingly, this was how I became re-introduced to bird keeping. After moving into a new house, Ken Spraggs (a work colleague) visited me to see how my Koi pond had been constructed and in particular the design of the pond filtration system. During the visit I mentioned that my next project would be to build an aviary as part of the landscaping in my new and barren garden. I had it in mind to construct a flight, which would be just visible through trees and shrubs I had already planted. Ken planned to build a pond in his garden and I offered to help him. On my first visit to Ken's, in the spring of 1986, I saw in his garden some wonderful budgies, the like of which I had never seen before.

The following day I started to make a bird room similar to Ken's and which bore no resemblance to my original concept. This was to contain fourteen breeding cages with an inside and outside flight, the shed measured four meters by three meters, with the outside flight being two meters square. As I was living on what was little more than a building site, I had a great opportunity to scrounge materials from the builders in return for cups of tea. That bird room was constructed for just 29-00.

During the shed construction period, I adapted a section of my greenhouse temporarily to take a few breeding pairs, by removing some of the glass and making up a block of six cages. I bought three pairs from Ken and bred with them, using plastic rings to identify the chicks. During the following year I joined the BS and used the official rings. I also moved from the greenhouse into my new bird room.

I purchased more birds from Ken every time I visited him, which was often as I was helping him to construct his pond. From my initial fourteen pairs I produced one hundred and eight chicks by May 1987. The bloodline of the birds I acquired from Ken was Lane, Spraggs and Piper. I didn't realise until I started to exhibit that these three were amongst the best breeders in the country at that time - what luck!!!. Ken lent me a few show cages for my first show season and, needless to say, I did a lot of winning finishing up as top beginner in the Western Counties area at my first attempt.

In the Autumn of 1987 I managed to buy a pied cock from Ken bred from Eric Lane's best dominant pied which had won many Best in Shows all over the country. I checked my stock purchased the previous year and found a related hen to pair it with. This pair produced many good young birds, the best of which was a sky-blue pied cock, which won many Best Beginner Young Bird awards and CCs. It was never beaten by another pied at any show over two show seasons culminating in Best Pied in Show at Doncaster in 1988, my first success at the BS Club show. This was one of many good birds that I bred and exhibited that year, resulting in me being top beginner in the whole country in 1988/89.

The unfortunate result of my early success was that many doors were then closed to me; I was unable to buy an outcross of any consequence for several years. Luckily I meet Pat Suter and Ken Burt who both live within an hour's drive of me. We became, and still are, very good friends. Neither of them exhibit their birds very often nowadays but they owned excellent stock. (Pat has unfortunately just sold his entire stud, as his other hobbies have taken precedence). They both let me have the type of birds I needed to improve my stud at very reasonable prices. I continued to succeed through all statuses in style, winning many major awards at local, area and national level. My first year as champion, in 1996, was marvellous. The first championship show was at Worcester. My idol, Eric Lane, exhibited and was congratulated by many fanciers for the excellent young pied that had won Best Young Bird in Show. They were, however, sadly mistaken, as the bird was not Eric's, it was mine. This was a great compliment to me as I had always aimed to produce pieds like Eric's from the day I first saw his birds. Eric paid me the finest tribute I could personally receive saying that he wished he had as much Lane blood in his current stock as I had. I went on to become the top first year champion at the Club Show that year.

Nowadays I have two bird rooms. The main room is seven meters by seven meters. It contains forty-two breeding cages and four inside flights of various sizes which are used to develop young birds before they enter the large flight. One inside flight is connected to an outside flight and I plan to add another outside flight later this year. I have also built a second birdroom on the foundations of my first Aviary described above. It is exactly the same but with just nine breeding cages. This shed has been constructed with two things in mind, firstly as an overspill area to allow me to do some work on my main birdroom, and secondly to allow me to increase the number of red eyes I can keep. Eventually I see this as a Red eye breeding area. Last year I was fortunate enough to take early retirement. In my working life I was an engineer and one of my many responsibilities was to look after the environmental requirements of the factory where I worked. As a consequence I learnt many good practices to improve working conditions in line with new legislation. I have adapted some of these ideas and introduced them into my birdroom. The most significant improvement was the installation of a homemade vacuum system (my own design) which is piped around the birdroom to give full accessibility. I never sweep up as this alone causes dust in suspension. The system has reduced the dust to approximately half of what I believe to be normal for the number of birds I keep and means less cleaning of working surfaces is necessary.

2. How do you think the hobby has changed in those years - good and bad, and what fanciers have had the greatest influence on you through the years?

The main difference in the hobby is the decrease in the number of fanciers. However, there are signs that some are returning to the hobby. I have been approached for birds several times during the last year by breeders who left the fancy some years ago and now find they have the time and money available to return. These tend to be people approaching retirement and as the long-standing fanciers are also getting older (myself included) the average age of fanciers seems to be quite high. However, down here in Somerset the hobby seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival. Last year we had three junior members in the club as well as several new beginners who seem very serious about the hobby having exhibited in their first season. Another change for the worse is the increasing numbers of 'political' arguments which I deplore. They seem to originate from the same few people who I feel have lost their way in the hobby. The BS are doing a great job despite the constant attacks they sustain. Some of them must have thick skins to combat the criticism hurled at them. On the positive side, the club show has improved significantly, mostly brought about the need to encourage more people to exhibit. The team who organise and run this event deserve a medal; they are all on my new years honours list. Without doubt my mentor from the beginning has been Ken Spraggs as I have copied his set up and bird room procedures. When I have problems I telephone Tom Williams who is very knowledgeable about budgerigar diseases having spent a lot of time helping Dr Baker when he was at Liverpool University. Tom is always happy to listen and help when he can. In recent years Gerald Binks has been a very useful friend also giving me valuable advice when needed. In the early days Harry Bryan became a good friend and I often find myself quoting the snippets of advice he gave me.

Management

1. Please describe your daily routine outside of the breeding season. What is your non-breeding diet? Tell us about any supplements you may use.

I use George Buckton Champion Blend to which I add tonic seed. In addition to this basic diet, I add a treat each day. I don't like to think that the birds have to suffer a boring diet of seed alone. I provide dishes of groats, niger, sunflower, soft food, egg, apple, carrot and chickweed. They get one of these treats every day according to availability. The soft food I use is Quiko which is fed daily to all breeding pairs and to the show team whilst they are caged. Another extra soft food I use is Thrivon Plus. This is produced as a supplement for pedigree farm animals and contains high protein with added cod liver oil. This is the only form of oil I feed. The birds can take it or leave it but I find that the breeding pairs that produce successfully all eat about two finger drawers-full each day. I add Calcivet (from Bird Care Company) to water weekly during breeding and occasionally during the year. I also add Antec to the water twice a week when breeding and occasionally during the year. This is a multi vitamin supplement normally fed to animals and poultry to relieve stress and as a pick me up. I also provide cuttlefish and iodised mineral blocks. I consider it important to buy grit from as many sources as possible to give the maximum chance of providing the minerals the birds require. The grit is changed in all cages and flights every week. Kilpatricks minerals are also available to all breeding pairs. I fill the finger drawers up as soon as they are emptied. Incidentally I feel that feeding this prevents feather plucking. On one occasion I have found a pair whose finger drawer was empty started to feather pluck their chicks. This stopped when the supply was restored.

2. How are your birds flighted - mixed sexes or separate and what ratio of cocks and hens do you keep?

I generally fly cocks and hens together. However, when pairing for breeding I choose approximately five cocks and ten hens all of which I would be happy to breed with each other. Then as far as possible I let them choose their own partner. This usually provides me with successful breeding pair.

This year I have increased the number of pairs I breed with from thirty two to forty five. I kept back fifty mature cocks as well as ten or so young late bred cocks which will be old enough to breed with in February, if they are needed. I keep as many hens as possible (approximately eighty) of the required standard to make good progress with. Quite often well-bred hens are retained even if they do not have the desired visual attributes. I only use them if desperate, and then only paired very closely to related cocks such as half brothers or cousins. I also keep back any late bred young hens that are particularly good.

3. How important do you think outside flights are?

I have an outside flight and as I said previously I intend to erect a second one in the autumn. Outside flights can bring problems from cats or wild birds. To help prevent this I always construct the roof so that it overhangs at least nine inches. The payback is seeing the birds when in the garden which my wife and I appreciate. I believe that young birds come to maturity quicker in outside flights. They always seem to be charging around thus getting better exercise which builds muscle and stamina. They also appear to enjoy being outside; it must be more interesting for them than being stuck in the same surroundings all the time.

The Breeding Season

1. Describe your breeding cages and nest boxes. Have you ever tried other types of box or cage?

All my breeding cages are identical throughout both birdrooms. Each cage is twenty four inches wide, twenty one inches deep and eighteen inches high. All cages are constructed from white faced furniture board with the backs tiled for easy cleaning and no maintenance. The nest boxes are all the same except the top cages in my new birdroom which need to be box within a box to remove the necessity to stand on a stool to see inside them. The boxes are made of far eastern ply and measure 10" x 9" x 7"and have a removable top lid which is weighted to prevent them being knocked off. I have tried most designs of nest boxes and cages over the years and have settled for quite small cages and large nest boxes.

2. Please describe your daily routine through the breeding season? What is your breeding season diet? Provide full details of any supplements you feed.

Every morning my first job is to inspect all nest boxes as at that time my hands are warm which minimises shock to young birds requiring ringing or inspection. My feeding diet is the same as during the year except I use a little more of the extras I described earlier. The finger drawers are filled with Quiko, Thrivon plus and Kilpatrick's. All the seed dispensers are checked and refilled as necessary and all flomatics are rinsed out (the shed is fitted with running water) and filled either with clean water, Antec every other day or Calcivet weekly (see earlier details). This procedure is repeated in the evening. Now that I am home most of the time, cleaning, as necessary, is carried out daily. Keeping on top of it makes it less of a chore. 3. What influences the atmosphere of a birdroom the most and what have you done about it? How do you know the birds are in breeding condition?

The atmosphere is generally kept very good and very fresh by using a twelve inch vent axia fan which runs on a timer which also operates the radio. The timer set to run from 07-00am until 10-00pm every day of the year. The air in the birdroom is always very fresh. Using my vacuum cleaning system allows the aviary to be relatively dust-free. This I feel gives them vitality and plenty of vigour, using the radio also seems to act as a stimulant which creates lots of chatter.

The breeding fitness of my hens is determined by their body weight I don't worry about feather condition provided the bird is coming through a moult and has got to the point where she starting to regain her full weight. This, I feel, is paramount to successful breeding, the colour of the cere of birds in this part of their cycle is usually very pale straw, having said that I do not give to much importance to this it is just an observation. At this stage I pick out hens and cocks in a similar stage of their cycle and put them together in a small flight as described earlier. The cocks have to be very alert and chasing everything in sight. I don't care if they are blood all over due to feather quills being split. Another small check on the cock is that the cere should be very pale in colour, never dark, as I believe this indicates the non fertile time in their cycle which usually only lasts for a few days. 4. How much does pedigree and visual attributes influence your pairing decisions? How do you actually pair up?

Pairing as far as possible is by visual attributes firstly, then check if necessary the family connection. My entire stud is line bred by necessity as I was not always able to obtain good outcrosses over the years. However, this year, I have obtained several good birds that were bred from Lane stock. I am quite excited at the prospect of introducing these into my line (at this moment it is looking promising). I never pair birds for the sake of filling cages. I also never pair birds with similar faults. Wherever possible I pair birds with opposite characteristics.

5. Do you handle or mark eggs or use fosters, and if a complete clutch of clear eggs is laid what do you do?

I handle the first four eggs in each box and mark them 1 to 4 using a non-toxic pen (water based is best). I am always moving eggs around for various reasons. Firstly, I use very young hens (from six months) which are usually very fertile but sometimes do not know what to do with the eggs once have laid them. I move the eggs as soon as I suspect that the hens are not sitting properly and give them infertile eggs from elsewhere so as not to upset them. Secondly, I move eggs when there are only one or two fertile in a box. This maximises my chance of taking another round quickly. A completely clear clutch of eggs is disposed of as soon as possible. For example, if a hen lays six eggs, by day sixteen the last egg should have started to turn. If it hasn't they are removed on day seventeen or eighteen. I usually split the pair at this time as I have seldom found that a good second round follows a clear one. Bear in mind that I only pair up if the birds are fully fit and ready to breed and have generally selected their own partner.

6. Do you handle the chicks in the nest very much, if so how? Also, do you grade your chicks while they are still in the nest and how do you spot a promising youngster? How do you wean your chicks? Do you make any diet changes?

I handle my chicks every day from the time they are rung, their feet, rings and beak is checked each day. The ones that look particularly good are handled much more than the others. I have been known to have some of my best young birds become finger tamed before leaving the nest box. Quality is assessed from around three weeks when the head can easily be identified. The bone structure needs to be full and completely rounded with a small beak. The width of the back can be assessed once they start to feather up properly. I like to see chicks with big feet standing upright in the box; these will generally be the "typey" ones on the perch. I help the chicks wean by put pieces of millet sprays in the nest boxes. When they leave the box I give millet sprays morning and night. I also make sure that soft food is always available. Quite often I pick chicks from the floor of the cage and get them to have a drink. I find this helps the weaning process and prevents dehydration. The diet is much the same for youngsters removed from their parents who also get the daily treat.

7. Tell us about your record keeping.

My records are kept firstly on the nest box card (my own design) which is pinned to each box and updated as required. Each egg is recorded as it is laid and later marked fertile or infertile. A record is made of any eggs which are moved. A note is made of chicks as they hatch below the egg record in question. Each ring number is noted on the card and then in my stock records book. The record book details description/variety, sex, rating, box, foster box if (applicable), date hatched and comments if required. All books and nest box cards are retained indefinitely I can find a record of every bird I have bred.

Exhibiting

1. Give details of show successes. How many birds would you typically show?

To date I have won approximately 200 CCs and numerous Best Young Bird & Best in Shows awards which is quite a good success rate as I only show at seven or eight shows each year. Last year was one of my best show seasons ever when I won around 30 CCs with fifteen different birds. I only exhibit at Championship shows as the timing of the smaller shows, generally held in the autumn, interferes with my breeding plans. The only exception is the Club Show at Doncaster, which is where every serious exhibitor should go to assess his stock. I have had success at the club show frequently over the years winning CCs in 1988, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000. All of these birds appeared in their respective line-ups, except the baby Lutino hen in 2000 who did, however, finish best Lutino in show. In the West Country the exhibitors support each other's club events very well. We have to to maintain our championship show status. For this reason I usually exhibit between 15 & 20 birds. At our own show it could be as many as 32.

2. What preparation would your team have? Do you use any specific training methods?

I select birds for my show team from the time the young birds that have feathered up, still in the nest box on occassions. They are handled often and put into stock cages with a show cage fitted at the end containing a millet spray (fresh every day). When they go into the larger flights to develop I keep an eye on the promising youngsters and remove any damaged flights as they occur. The team is caught up and checked early in June. If they have completed their first moult they are checked again for broken feathers. If the baby tail has not come out naturally I remove the feathers one at a time about two weeks apart. At this stage I give them a few minutes in my training cages as I carry out my evening chores.

The pieds and redeyes are washed with Johnson's baby shampoo as soon as they settle in the show team stock cage. Stock cages and perches are cleaned regularly to avoid too much handling nearer the show time. Spraying with boiled rainwater to which plume spray has been added commences about three weeks before the first show. I have several stock cages in use at one time and the birds are prepared in batches so that I can change the teams. The ones being shown need less treatment than those coming into condition so they sorted in that manner. My show team is mostly young birds. Adults are only exhibited when they are in good natural condition and are removed from the flights about two weeks before they are taken to a show.

Heads are washed two days before the show and checked the evening before. Spots are cut as well as plucked, the cutting starts from the time I start spraying or washing. I like to do it little and often. Finally they are checked as they put into the show cage.

Feeding is increased to put weight on the team and a few dry groats are added to the basic diet. The addition of tonic seed to their normal mixture is stopped as I believe too much tonic will cause premature softness in feather condition and, at worse, those that eat a lot will moult quickly. Quiko is also given daily along with millet sprays. I add a little Spark (Bird Care Co) to the water a few days before the show and also for a couple of days after, to reduce stress.

3. What do you do when you return from a show?

As soon as I get home the birds are fed and watered, before my wife and I. Each stock cage is left clean and fresh Spark drink is given with a few new millet sprays. Once they are back in their cage I disappear and give them time to settle and eat and drink in peace. All cages are roughly cleaned and put away that evening. The birds all get two days rest from spraying etc, then the routine starts once more. Spraying is carried out daily if the weather is hot, every other day if not.

General

1. How and when do you choose what to keep and what to sell?

This is one of the most difficult tasks but one enjoy very much. I receive many requests to purchase my birds. Generally, I allow a few of my breeding team to go as long as I am happy with their youngsters. As I am not very keen on opaline cocks so they pick themselves although they are few and far between because the way I pair does not give many chances of producing them. Young birds are never selected for sale until they are fully moulted out. I shall retain approximately fifty mature cocks for breeding in November and eighty or so hens, most of which will be current year bred birds. I do not like breeding with too many used hens at that time of the year. Those that I do keep come to the fore after the first round is completed or if any hens have to be replaced.

2. What is the best tip that you have ever been given?

There are so many that spring to mind that it is difficult to pick the best one. Therefore, the best three are "Never sell your best birds", "Chuck your youngsters in flight and forget about them until June" and "If you liked them in the nest box you will like when they grow up".