The Cuban Amazon

 

I watched the bird in amazement. It would walk across a clothes line in an enclosed porch, chattering, lunging and moving, its tail open. I was probably 7 years old. The bird was the first Cuban Amazon Amazona leucocephala I had seen. It was a precious gem that had been brought to the US by my father’s friend, who immigrated in 1965. The bird was the only personal belonging he was allowed to take from Cuba on his departure. At every opportunity I would go watch the bird, who survived on table food—rice, black beans, pieces of chicken or pork, and scant vegetables, except for the occasional salad containing lettuce, tomato, cucumber and radishes. For as long as I can remember I saw that bird. It was still alive when I entered college.

At the time of my first encounter (1967) the Cuban Amazon was an extreme rarity. The next time I saw the species was in the collection of the late Ramon Noegel, who amassed many of the birds kept as pets in Ybor City, a Tampa (Florida) neighborhood where Cubans had long amassed. It was a like a small version of Havana long before Miami became the exiled Cuban community’s capital. The birds Noegel gathered were ancient, often plucked and had acquired many idiosyncratic behaviors but to his testament as an aviculturist he was able to breed from them. This was the start of the establishment of this species in aviculture.

There are seven recognized subspecies of the Cuban Amazon. These include two subspecies each inhabiting Cuba (including the off-lying Isle of Youth, formerly the Isle of Pines) and the Cayman Islands and three inhabiting the Bahamas archipelago. The Bahamas has one extinct form. The parrots are named Cuban Amazon Amazona leucocephala leucocephala, the Isle of Pines Amazon Amazona leucocephala palmarum, Grand Cayman Amazon Amazona leucocephala caymanensis, Cayman Brac Amazon Amazona leucocephal hesterna, Bahamas Amazon Amazona leucocephala bahamensis [extinct], Abaco Amazon Amazona leucocehala abacoensis, and Inagua Amazon Amazona leucocephala inaguensis. Most of the published information recognizes only one form for the Bahamas—Amazona leucocephala bahamensis—but in fact there are two, with the third having been extirpated as recently as the 1940s.

As far back as 1989 I remarked in my book A Monograph of Endangered Parrots that the Bahamian type from Great Inagua resembles a Cuban and not the endemic form. I wrote: “Parrots from the islands of Abaco and Great Inagua have traditionally been classified as [Amazona leucocephala] bahamensis, but recent personal observations in the field on Abaco and [the examination] of several captives on Nassau known for certain to have come from Great Inagua go in discord: birds from Great Inagua are very close to nominate [Amazona leucocephala] leucocephala, which occurs not too distant from this island, while those from Abaco are very distinct, a) possessing the conspicuous (even in the field) white cheek patched, b) lacking the vinaceous abdominal patch, and c) having a different shaped bill.”

The differences were not evident only to me and in 2009 Reynolds and Hayes split the Bahamian forms into three.

Abaconian parrots nest in subterranean limestone solution holes. Until the late 1978s when I discovered that the Yellow-faced Parrot Alipiositta xanthops (then called Amazona xanthops) nested in terrestrial termitaria, the Abaco subspecies was the only ground nesting neo-tropical parrot. I have since seen Blue-fronted and Orange-winged Amazons and the aforementioned Alipiositta xanthops nest on the ground.

The type from the Isle of Pines (palmarum) has been considered invalid by some, with the diagnostic darker green, greater and more intense rose-red throat area and larger vinous abdominal patch being considered too variable to justify subspecific designation. I agree that birds from Cuba can display tremendous variation; the best individuals are stunning and the worst are simply another island Amazon parrot. When a large series of known provenance is examined, it becomes evident that palmarum is indeed valid.

Island Amazon parrots always teeter on the edge. The most numerous form is found on Cuba, the largest island in the Greater and Lesser Antilles. There are parrots occupying most undisturbed wooded area (though there is a feral population living in Havana). The rarest form is found on Cayman Brac, a small speck of an island only 13 miles long and less than 2.5 miles wide. All populations have seemed to have recovered from the downward spiral seen during the 1980s, but except for mainland Cuba all occupy small islands whose forests could be erased by a hurricane. On all of the islands Amazona leucocephala faces growing tourism, introduced predators (primarily cats) and habitat loss.

All of the forms except the extinct bahamensis have been bred in aviculture. Of these, only the Cuban is currently held outside their range countries. In the US, the “Cuban” Amazon population contains genetic material from caymanensis and palmarum. In the rest of the world, the “Cuban” has genetic material from palmarum. The presence of hybrid birds in the US (along with many purebred individuals) is due to the original scarcity of individuals and the importation of a handful of Grand Cayman birds, which were bred to those from Cuba. It is a shame that the Grand Cayman type was never established, but the extremely aggressive nature of males caused disappearance of this form in US aviares. This was the reason I parted with mine, after having reared a few young and more than once experiencing the anguish of finding a female near death from a male attack. The worst case involved a female of a proven pair, which was found sitting on the cage floor with her back badly chewed, a nasty bite mark above the eye and a broken foot. She recovered and was then kept as a pet for many years.

The Cuban Amazon is also aggressive, with many males each season injuring or killing their hens, even in long established and producing pairs. I had thought that this type of aggression was an anomaly of captivity but the late Luis S. Varona told me that in Cienaga de Zapata he more than once found badly injured females showing classic marks attributable to male attacks.

Managing aggression is the key to keeping this species in aviculture. Whenever possible I allow natural pairing, as this reduces the likelihood of injuries arising from a male. In my notes over 30 years, I have seen 53% less injuries in pairs that were allowed to bond from a group compared to those that were forced paired or even reared together as chicks. At the approach of each breeding season, we catch our males and clip one wing, to reduce his flight abilities. Females are allowed to fly. The pairs are kept in lengthy aviaries that are at least 12 feet long; this would be the minimum enclosure size I would recommend. We also offer our pairs a nest with a double entrance, the type being smaller versions of the “Y” or “T”-shaped nests commonly used for cockatoos.

The Cuban Amazon is prone to obesity and controlling their intake is important. The worst subspecies is the Grand Cayman. When I kept them, my late grandfather and I would often laugh that they would gain weight just by looking at their food. The Cuban is not so gluttonous, but we closely monitor their diet. We shy away from fatty seeds and provide considerable amounts of vegetables, pellets and a finch seed mix, amongst other foods. The key is excluding excess fat from the diet.

The Cuban Amazon is typical of the genus: they will nest once in spring. If the eggs or less likely the small young are removed, the pair will often produce a second clutch. The average clutch contains 4 eggs which hatch after 26 days on average. Sexual maturity is reached incredibly early. I know of many pairs (including mine) that have produced fertile eggs at 2 years of age. The late George Smith told me that he had hens lay as early as 1 year. I thought this to be an incredible exception, but last year two hens kept in a flight cage laid from the perch. They had just celebrated their first birthday.

The first breeding in captivity occurred in 1952 when Jose Molina bred this species in Cuba. He never documented the breeding. Because of this the first recognized result dates to 1956, when the late Edward Boosey fledged a chick from birds acquired as immatures in 1953. The late Dave West was successful in the US from young acquired from Boosey. The most successful breeder in the US from the mid-1970s thru the 1990s was Ramon Noegel. The influx of many birds into aviculture starting in the 1990s resulted in the Cuban Amazon becoming established.

As pets, the Cuban is very popular with the exile community in the United States. They can be talkers, though there are other Amazons that are far more proficient with words. Most learn to whistle quite well. They can be loud and sometimes aggressive, though their small size and beauty makes them in my mind a great pet species. I am building an aviary to keep one this year as a pet—a tribute to my late grandmother who had one as a pet.

The Cuban Amazon is a lively, garrulous and easily excitable aviary bird. They are a favorite and invariably make me pause when I walk past their aviaries. To me their beauty, early maturity and willingness to nest, along with their availability, makes it a highly recommended species.

They are an Amazon species that I recommend to beginners, though I always stress four husbandry elements be kept in mind: give them a long flight, watch over them like they were toddlers to detect any early signs of aggression, provide a nest with a double entrance to prevent a male from trapping and then attacking the hen inside, and avoid fatty foods. If you follow these simple principals, you will breed this beautiful species.