Morro Bay, California
Spring of 2000 brought about an unforgettable chain of events in my Eclectus rearing career. I fostered one fertile Vos Eclectus egg under four different hens, had an Eclectus hen hatch out an Umbrella Cockatoo and her own baby on the same day and the third was a badly dented egg hatching perfectly, with no human intervention. Any one of the three, to me is amazing on their own!
I have a diligent pair of Vos Eclectus who lay fertile eggs, but somewhere along the line the eggs either get eaten or destroyed by one of them. After a few go-rounds of this, I began waiting for the second egg to be laid and pulling the eggs to place under another Eclectus hen with no brutal tendencies. Although all my girls get the same three month rest period once a year, they seem to get out of sync in their setting times as the year wears on. This means they are all on a different schedule in their setting cycle.
Thieving the eggs from Ruby's nest shortly after she laid them, I put them under Betty Lou, who had probably laid her own eggs at least two weeks previous to Ruby. I knew I would get a good two weeks out of this foster hen number one. But would she set any longer than that? She is an excellent setter but would she go the extra distance this time? Forty-one days is a long time to ask a hen to sit, when her cycle is twenty-eight days to hatch an egg.
Betty Lou sat on those eggs of which only one was fertile, right up until about 5 days from hatching. Always being thankful for small favors, I watched her come off the eggs for good, right in front of me, as I was doing their morning feeding. She stretched, yawned tiredly and gave me the old I can't do this any longer look. I watched her for a good fifteen minutes and her body language let me know for sure she had enough. She had sat on the eggs over forty days already!
The fertile egg was still warm and I knew by the beautiful black-cherry Jello glow, it was near hatching. Having no electric incubator, I put the egg under Grandma, a 30 year-old Eclectus, who had one fertile egg and was about two weeks into her setting cycle. Here I had put an egg under her that was due to hatch in a few days and her own egg would hatch weeks later. What a dilemma! But she had a nice warm willing body to slip an egg under temporarily.
To complicate matters worse, two days later I was given two Umbrella Cockatoo eggs, by a breeder, whose hen deserted them. These eggs rode all the way to Morro Bay on the seat of a car at car/room temperature. The trip took over five hours. When they arrived I candled them and only one showed signs of the red lines of early fertility….maybe around ten days along.
What to do now? Grandma was the only hen that had an egg under her even close to what the same hatch date would be, but she also had the fostered egg under her. I put the Too egg in a brooder overnight and the temperature and humidity went wildly up and down for twelve hours. Come morning it was decision time and Grandma was the candidate for the bazooka-sized egg. The egg she had under her that was due to hatch in a couple of days was removed and the huge Too egg was put under her. This monster egg was half again as big as her own egg. Grandma accepted the thing like a pro, rolling it right under her tummy.
What to do with the soon to hatch egg though? Another pair of Vos Eclectus were about half way thru their setting cycle but I had never fostered an egg under them before. He is a very old wild caught male and she a 12-year old ex-pet. She has laid only infertile eggs for several years. I was counting on the old male to be the strong one here. Of course she accepted the egg. She is an Eclectus!
The horror here was this nest box is right up against the neighbor's driveway and this particular weekend they worked on their car for two days, racing the engine. Fumes and smoke billowed, not to speak of the noise aggravation. They also vacuumed their car and yard off and on all morning long too. If it had been any other seasoned pair of Eclectus who sat tight or had fostered before, it wouldn't have worried me as much. But this pair had never hatched a chick together.
Fortunately Gypsy is a tame bird and I was able to check on her several times a day. The egg started to pip on Sunday and was out by Monday evening, robust and healthy. It looked like a tiny deflated blob of pink bubble-gum lying in the dark depths of the nest box. It seemed so fragile and vulnerable. Gypsy was craning her neck up as far as she could, looking for her usual treat of a walnut piece when I opened the door to check. The baby had made it this far so I had to trust she would also take good care of it.
The next morning I noticed the male was making a lot of trips into the nest box after gorging himself with food. He stayed in the nest box most of the time for the first few days, no doubt feeding the baby and showing his novice hen a few parenthood skills. Because it had been at least seven years since he had a chance to take care of a baby, he seemed delighted with his tiny hatchling and made lots of new sounds I had never heard him utter before.
Being a new hen with no history of having babies taken at two weeks and because she was doing so well in her baby-care, I left the little guy until he was four weeks old before pulling him. She took A-#1 good care of him and earned her gold star as still another Eclectus foster parent for me to slip eggs under next time. That musical-egg had started out for a several days under the mother Ruby, went to Betty Lou for twenty-two days, Grandma for two days and Gypsy for the remainder.
Back to Grandma and the white blimp she had sitting under her. In the meantime I ordered an incubator. It came within days and I had it all set up and calibrated perfectly. My plan was to let Grandma sit on the egg right up until days before the expected hatch date, pull it and place it in the incubator to hatch. I doubted she would feed the thing if it hatched under her and was afraid she might do it harm, as cockatoo babies look so different than Eclectus chicks, even in a darkened nest box. A wise mother always, or usually always knows her own.
I candled the eggs every few days and I knew the time was drawing near to hatch…maybe two days away. Being basically lazy I left the Umbrella egg under her until the last minute.
Did I ever have the biggest surprise of my life when I went out in the morning to feed the birds. That morning I figured it might be time to check and pull the Too egg. My first clue that something was different came from the very loud, odd squeaking emitting from Grandma's nest box. It didn't sound like any Eclectus baby I had ever heard. Puzzled, I went to have a look at what was making all the racket. When I opened the inspection door I about fainted at what I saw. Here were two little babies cuddled up side by side under Mom. One was a typical tiny bald, ruddy pink Eclectus and the other was really an alien being, like something that might have dropped in from a far off planet. Covered in looooong yellow hairy down with its light pink skin, it was the oddest "Eclectus" I had ever laid eyes on. I muttered an unprintable expletive to myself, closed the nest box door and tried to regain my composure slightly. I haven't done drugs since I was a hippie, thirty years ago, so I didn't think I was hallucinating or having a flashback of some kind! Grandma obviously seemed to love the little ugly duckling as she had its crop filled. Only a face and body a mother could love, applied to this one.
The first thing I did was come in the house and pull the plug on the incubator, then I reached for the telephone. Of course several geographically close bird breeder friends were both gone at the time. I then called a long distance breeder friend and asked what I should do. I was practically screaming on the phone. This person has raised birds for over fifty years and he does not hand feed. I knew I wanted his answer! I also knew I really didn't want to deal with a day one Too. He said to leave the cockatoo under the Eclectus by all means. He also told me a few stories of "creative fostering" he had done over the years and they were all successful.
I shook from adrenalin all morning and well into the afternoon. I went out several times during the day and looked in the nest to again make sure I wasn't seeing things. I also took a lot of photos of this odd couple with Grandma in the nest, because I figured no one was going to believe this far fetched occurrence….like the big-one-that-got-away fish story.
Sure enough Grandma fed both babies very well and kept their crops stuffed faithfully. Every day the Umbrella made a louder and louder noise to be fed. I could even hear it all the way across the yard after a few days passed. I never hear an Eclectus chick through the walls of the nest box for at least two weeks. The cockatoo was about twice the size of its nest mate Eclectus chick and I was afraid in time the monster thing would start getting the smaller baby's share of the food. On the seventh day I pulled the Umbrella baby to hand feed and left the Eclectus baby with its own mother for three more weeks.
When they all came in the house to live, the Umbrella Cockatoo was a nest mate in the same Tupperware tub with the two Eclectus boys. The green boys loved the soft feather bed, a luxury afforded to them by living with the Too. They used her for a pillow, cuddled under her, (hence the name "Umbrella" Cockatoo) leaned on her, ate leftovers off her face and helped her take the sheaths off her pin-feathers. Large, placid, loveable white lump that she was, she loved anything that looked like attention from any source. Surrounded by little green Eclectus men who loved her, she was the star of the show.
Number three adventure was the dented egg. About a third of the way into the incubation of her eggs, I noticed one of Harriet, Vos Eclectus eggs had a dent in it, slightly smaller than a dime. She had the normal two eggs and as Murphy's Law would have it, the egg with the dent was the fertile one!! I could do nothing but worry for the remainder of the time, although it was progressing correctly in appearance toward the hatch day, just dented.
I had fears the shell being cracked as it was, perhaps the inner membrane would be dried out and the chick couldn't get through it. Or, because the dent naturally bad luck, was in the large end of the egg, maybe it had become so tough that the chick wouldn't be able to get out, having to struggle right through the path the egg tooth would take in pipping.
Two days before scheduled hatch I could see a tiny shadow moving around inside the egg. I got a short distance away from the nest box and shouted hooooray! The next day the chick had started pipping and went right up to the dent and stopped. My heart stopped right there with it too! I closed the door and mumbled one of my more commonly used Eclectus-prayers. After one more long days nervous wait, here was the chick under mom, healthy as a horse and no problem from being inside a cracked container for most of its life while it waited to breathe air. Of course I had been told about things I could do to repair cracked eggs, but because this was a dent I figured I'd leave it in the hands of the mother that knows what she is doing, not this bumbling human pseudo-mother.
Three Eclectus miracle stories that I wouldn't have believed unless I saw them with my own amazed eyes. I am in awe and admiration of the mothering skills of these beautiful, special Vos Eclectus girls. I never want for entertainment, amusement, and the opportunity to participate in miracles, Eclectus-style!
Photography by Susie Christian?
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