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Selling Parakeets by the Hundreds

SELLING BIRDS has become a profitable enterprise for Bob and Ellen Proud of Midland, Michigan. The Prouds are proud of their beautiful flock of 250 parakeets, and the 1,000 birds they have sold in the last four years of spare time work. They look forward to selling another 300 or so this year.

Officially known as budgerigars, "budgies" for short, or lovebirds, these birds are big business today. It is estimated that Americans buy 10,000 of them each week. Bob and Ellen Proud have found raising parakeets to be an ideal hobby for a man and wife team. It offers attractions also as a small business for retirement years.

People like parakeets because they are so colorful and because the males can be taught to talk quite distinctly. "Give me a kiss," and "When do we eat?" come through with startling clarity. Females can be taught to whistle. Males, Bob Proud says with a grin, can whistle only the wolf call. In an era of urban apartment bans on cats, dogs, and children, parakeets fill the need for something to love. They are clean, and ideal pets for older persons, shut-ins, children—anyone who loves a pet. They should have a cage for their home, but they can be allowed to fly freely through the house. Their droppings are dry and inoffensive.

Proof of parakeet popularity is the New York City television station program for the one million parakeets loved by hard-boiled New Yorkers. Newspapers report border patrols chasing down a new breed of smugglers—those who bring parakeets in illegally from Mexico. All these angles suggest future market possibilities of these birds to be unlimited. "The only thing that will give parakeets a black eye," says Bob Proud, "is if too many persons enter the business and fail to keep up standards. Then the public will get disgusted with the birds, and the whole business will blow up."

BOB AND Ellen Proud maintain for their 250 birds the standards set by the American Budgerigar Society, which has headquarters at 2619 East Twelfth Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. Their basement quarters for these birds are kept whitewashed and spotless. Mercury vapor lamps purify the air, removing bacteria and odor—there is no zoo smell. A ventilating fan pulls the air from this room through filters, and recirculates it. Summer and winter the temperature is kept close to sixty degrees, the ideal temperature for breeding. "So far we've been able to keep out disease," Bob says. "And that is important."

He feels that their high standards of operation, and customer service are responsible for the fact that their sales expense has been low. At holiday times they usually run a classified advertisement in the local newspaper. And they have advertised in pet magazines. But word-of-mouth advertising by satisfied customers to their friends has been the biggest sales factor, Bob says. Their first Christmas in the parakeet business Bob and Ellen had ten birds for sale. They happened to sell the first one to a popular man-about-town. He was so captivated by his bird that his enthusiasm infected friends who quickly bought out the whole lot. Ellen often finds that when they advertise, she gets so many orders ahead her customers have no selections of colors. Bob and Ellen are not trying to expand their flock because they find the 250 birds an ideal number for their quarters and the amount of time they can give to this hobby. Christmas tops the year's sales, but Easter, birthdays and special occasions keep sales going. There is a steady demand, except for perhaps two summer months. Profits in the parakeet business come from several sources. Bob and Ellen sell their male parakeets for $10 each, including in the package one pound of bird seed (enough to last the bird two to four months), one pound of specially prepared gravel for birds, a cuttlebone, a bell, and a sheet of instructions they prepared themselves. They sell their females for $7, or wholesale them for the going rate. People like to get the complete outfit for a bird at one place. So Bob and Ellen clear a modest profit on the sale of cages, swings, play apparatus and feed cups for the birds, as well as bird seed and gravel. They make enough on the sale of bird seed, which they buy by the hundred pounds, to feed all their flock. During vacation time they board birds for their customers: Twenty-five cents a day, or $1.25 a week. Owners bring the birds in their own cages.

Bob and Ellen sell their birds at five or six weeks old, if possible, and never, for pets, after fourteen weeks. When the bird learns human companionship before it gets too lost in the friendship of the flock, it makes a better pet. In learning to talk, parakeets are like children. Some learn early, by nine weeks; some take four to six months, and some, a year. The owner needs to take the bird on his finger and talk to it, slowly and distinctly, saying a phrase over and over. The parakeet boom has reached such proportions that one can now buy phonograph records designed to increase a bird's vocabulary. There is no melody on these records, though the birds do like music. The voice on the record repeats over and over again some phrase, such as "Good morning, everybody," or "Jiminy Crickets." On the other side, owners get training tips and historical bits about these birds. Some birds have been taught 100 words. Birds do take on the voice of the person who teaches them to talk, so it is advisable to work with them yourself as much as possible.

THE PROUDS had enjoyed a gift parakeet for two years before they thought of breeding and raising them. Always attracted to pet counters, they once happened onto some sorry looking specimens. It was a challenge to Bob. "You know," he said to Ellen, "I would like to see if we couldn't raise some real birds." Ellen's enthusiasm backed him up, but they decided to read and study the subject before plunging. They studied over a six months' period. They found that no two writers give exactly the same instructions. So they settled on one, Cessa Feyerbend Kluver. Those of her books they found most helpful are: "Modern Feeding of Budgerigars," "The Budgerigar or Shell Parakeet as a Talker," and "Diseases of Budgerigars." They also used H. C. Humphries' "Budgerigars for Beginners."

Their first spring the Prouds started with two pairs of parakeets. One pair was given them by a friend. When they sold their first birds they paid her back. Now they have their own breeding stock. But when they were building their flock, they bought only quality banded birds, paying $15 to $25 a pair. Following the standards set by the American Budgerigar Society, Bob and Ellen do not breed them until they are one year old. Parakeets raise two clutches of birds in a year, laying from four to fourteen eggs each time. But following A.B.S. standards, Bob and Ellen raise not more than five birds each time.

Bob and Ellen Proud keep their flock of 250 mature birds in a large screened cage, the males separated from the females. They keep card files, listing each bird by the number on its, band—supplied by the American Budgerigar Society. They put the band on the bird's leg at ten to fourteen days old. Thus, they can always tell the customer exactly how old the bird is. If the bird gets lost, the owner can always claim it by its band number. Bob lists also on the bird's card, the number of the mate which it had, so it can be put with the same mate again the following year.

The incubation period is seventeen to eighteen days. The female lays an egg every other day, and hatches one every other day. Males stay in the nest with the females. As soon as there are young birds in the nest, Ellen puts soaked seed in the feeders—seed soaked in water for twenty-four hours. This is easier to regurgitate. The young birds are fed in this way: The male feeds the female, and she regurgitates and feeds the babies. The Prouds once had a mother bird die on the nest, and the father bird raised the babies. But the female cannot raise the, birds if the father dies. Either the babies die, or become stunted. At five weeks the young birds are taken off the nest and are available for sale. They are kept in separate cages, males in one, females in another.

BOB WITH his handy-man abilities made all the cages and nesting boxes. Screening is of half-inch hardware cloth. Occasionally the wood supports for the large cage, housing his mature birds, have to be renewed. The birds, especially the females, peck at wood as woodpeckers do, and wear it down. Bob supplied his birds with chick-feeding equipment for water and grain.

Bob's first group of nesting cages he built as eighteen-inch cubes in two banks of six each. Made handsomely with half-inch hardware cloth, wood supports, and twenty-gauge galvanized iron pull-out trays, these cages cost $120 for material alone. Bob's labor was extra. So, for the rest of his nesting cages, he used apple boxes, not so large or good looking, but much less expensive.

Each nesting cage has attached to it a small nesting box. These nesting boxes Bob made five by eight inches, using quarter-inch plywood, with three-eighth-inch plywood for the side joining the cage, and one-inch dressed cedar plywood for the bottom. The box fits on the side of the cage, where there is an opening just large enough for the bird to enter the nesting box. Bob drilled small ventilation holes in each end of the nesting box and keeps the record of the nesting birds on a card thumbtacked to one end. He used cedar plywood for the bottom of the nests because it is resistant to mites and lice. Also, he keeps aromatic cedar shavings in the nest boxes to keep the nests sweeter. Some persons use pine sawdust for this purpose, Bob reports. Ellen checks each nesting box daily while it is in use. Each one has a weight on top so the birds cannot bounce the cover off.

Bob and Ellen bent the nesting cage pull-out trays out of twenty-gauge galvanized iron themselves, using a special form Bob made. He cleans it with a paint scraper and paint brush. Final touch is given with the vacuum cleaner. Later he developed an improved clean-out tray featuring a sliding cage floor of quarter-inch hardware cloth. This construction permits use of newspapers in pull-out trays to catch droppings. Fresh newspapers are exchanged for soiled ones frequently. With this second type clean-out tray, cleanliness can be assured by scrubbing with Roman Cleanser solution once a month. The first type tray has to be scrubbed in this way every other week.

In building the nesting cages, Bob used pig rings for hinges and women's hair clips for fasteners for the cage doors. Another clever bit of construction by Bob is the dollies on which he moves the bird seed and gravel around. He put casters on octagonal wood platforms, just the size to hold the covered galvanized cans in which he stores heavy quantities of feed and gravel.

RAISING PARAKEETS, Bob and Ellen find, is a somewhat confining business. Even with self-feed hoppers, two days is about all that one should leave the birds untended. Parakeets need baby sitters for longer absences. Usually a neighbor can be trained to care for the birds if necessary. Ellen arranges to be home all day every day but Sundays and holidays, or have someone there to take orders, answer inquiries, and care for the birds.

With 250 birds on hand, and twenty-five nests going all the time, Bob and Ellen find that it takes about two hours daily, three hours every other day, and most of Saturday to care for the birds. Ellen gives the daily care, and they both pitch in on Saturday. Saturday chores include filling the self-feed hoppers to last one week, and doing extra cleaning.

Bob and Ellen's flock consumes about sixty pounds of bird seed a week, costing them wholesale, including transportation, between twelve and thirteen cents a pound. In addition, they feed alfalfa leaf meal, powdered skim milk, powdered egg shell, and brewer's yeast. They give the birds greens twice a week. Greens may be celery and parsley. The birds are crazy about parsley, Ellen says. They flock around her as soon as they see it. In the summer, Bob and Ellen dig up chunks of sod and leave it in the cages. They try to include dandelions and plantain plants, which are favorite foods of the birds. There seems to be some tonic in the soil which birds like and need. The cages always contain gravel specially prepared to include the minerals birds need. This is obtained from bird specialty houses. Drinking water is always available to the birds. And once a week Ellen puts a shallow pan of lukewarm water in the cages, and the birds take a bath.

Last year someone told the Prouds it was good to feed parakeets dog food as a source of protein. This experiment proved disastrous, and Bob does not recommend it. A good many of the nesting females died, apparently as a result of eating the dog food. The flock had produced 350 birds for sale the year before, and the number was cut to less than 200 by the dog food fiasco.

BECAUSE BOB and Ellen keep the quarters for their birds spotless, and take care with the feeding, their birds are practically free from disease. Occasionally one develops a cold and has loose droppings. This, they clear up with Sal Hepatica. The A.B.S. puts out medicine to treat birds. Books in this field say that these birds cannot assimilate antibiotics. They get kidney trouble from them. Birds may live twenty years.

In the 1920's an outbreak of psittacosis, parrot fever, gave these birds a black eye, and caused many states to regulate their sale and transportation. Now, many of these regulations have been repealed. The disease is less common now, and it has been found that parakeets are no more susceptible than other birds, so it is unfair to discriminate against them by legislation. But there is still enough ted tape so that it does not pay the small grower to try to ship these birds across many state lines. For example, by law birds can be shipped out of Michigan, but not into the state.

Handling the birds safely requires some technique. When Bob wants to catch one of his birds in the large cage, he uses a butterfly net to avoid injuring the bird. He has to hold the heads of the females just so, because they are vicious biters. The males do not bite.

Before sale, Bob clips the bird's wing feathers so it cannot soar and fly away. It can fly on the level, and down, but not up high. He leaves the first two primary wing feathers, and clips the next eight.

BOB AND Ellen Proud's experiences are helpful, not only to those who may wish to enter the parakeet business, but also to those who may wish to buy one for a pet. Ellen suggests, "In selecting a bird, most people are looking for a bargain. But, as in many other cases, bargain birds do not always give the pleasure that the customer expects. Some retail outlets want to pay the grower only $1 a bird. It is impossible to raise a good bird to wholesale for that. You are fortunate if you can go where the bird is grown and look over the quarters. Quarters should be scrupulously clean." (Ellen is ready to let customers see her birds' quarters at all times. ) "If birds are banded, that is another assurance that they are quality."

Another tip from Ellen about raising your pet parakeet: "Birds love to look at themselves in a mirror. But this is bad for teaching them to talk. They get used to talking to the bird in the mirror in a low tone, and don't learn so readily to speak up in a way that people can understand and enjoy."

Besides producing income, parakeets may have a therapeutic value both for you and your customer. Doctors sometimes prescribe a parakeet as therapeutic medicine for a patient. Once a girl almost lost her sanity when she lost her sweetheart in a sudden, tragic accident. A friend gave her a parakeet. She paid little attention to the bird until one day, after the friend had secretly trained him, he hopped on her shoulder and said, "Give me a kiss. I love you." From that moment she took a new interest in life, and her recovery was sure.

Originating in Australia, parakeets once cost $1,000 a pair. These birds now come in sixty-six different shades, all tones of blue, green, yellow and white.

All of the Prouds are fond of their parakeets, including the two married daughters, the son, fifteen, and the little daughter, four. One look at the perches full of these birds, with their beautiful plumage and winning personalities, and you can see why Bob and Ellen Proud can be proud of this profitable hobby of theirs. If you like pets, you may find that you, too, could be proud and happy adopting a parakeet hobby.

Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.