Amazon Parrots

 

 

The day was typically hot and humid. It was 1979 and I had been invited to visit Ramon Noegel and Greg Moss, the former the doyen of Amazon parrot breeding in the US. Noegel achieved what at the time was seen as the impossible—producing young from multiple pairs of Amazon parrots year after year. He was especially successful with the Cuban Amazon Amazona leucocephala, which he bred for many generations, but he understood parrots like few others and this earned him multiple first breedings awards in the US; for Amazons these include the Grand Cayman Amazona leucocephala caymanensis, Cayman Brac Amazona leucocephala hesterna, Red-browed Amazona rhodocorytha, Black-billed Amazona agilis, Yellow-shouldered Amazona barbadensis and Diademed Amazons Amazona autumnalis diadema. Noegel was enamored with this genus and spent time studying them in the field in the Caribbean and Central America and then applying his findings to captivity. He was the first aviculturist to realize that careful observation in the wild could be applied to captive birds. I was not yet 20 years old at the time of my visit, but I was eager to learn from a master.

 

Noegel maintained his birds in suspended aviaries typically surrounded by trees and shrubs. The cages were scattered over a large property, giving many privacy. Noegel felt that the standard walk-in aviaries that were the staple in aviculture breached the security parameter established by the birds, as the enclosures had to be entered for servicing. The elevated cages, he argued, could be cleaned without having to enter the enclosure and this, along with the barrier created by the shrubbery, reduced stress and mate aggression, which was a problem with the bellicose races of Amazona leucocephala.  Noegel felt that a male Amazon unable to defend his enclosure from a human would vent his anger on his mate, injuring or killing her. This had to be avoided at all cost and if everything could be done from outside the cage—feeding, watering and nest inspection—the probably of inciting aggression could be diminished.

 

In 1979 the elevated cages used by Noegel seamed foreign. Parrots had traditionally been kept and bred in walk in aviaries and everyone felt that the birds would never adapt. They did and today the suspended aviary concept is so widely used that it is difficult to find a breeder in a temperate climate that employs the traditional walk in flight cages.

 

The diet Noegel fed his birds was simple and by today´s standard would be chided by many. He fed seeds (primarily sunflower), fruits, occasionally vegetables or greens and a gruel. I remember having carrot juice for breakfast one morning with him. The carrot pulp that remained was placed in a bowl to which thoroughly cooked scrambled eggs, wheat germ and melted Velveta brand cheese were added. The ingredients were mixed into a crumbly consistency and then fed a spoonful to each bird. The birds devoured the warm mix almost instantly. Two days later a different mash was fed and on another day wheat bread, ground carrot and apple and wheat germ, all mixed into a crumbly matter to which boiled, crushed egg with the shell was added. He varied the mash often and employed whatever was within reach.

 

Ramon Noegel´s name is unknown to many modern aviculturists. His achievements like those of Velma Hart, Ralph Small, Ken Wyatt and many others have faded into the annals of aviculture. I was fortunate to have spent time with Noegel and to have known some of the others.

 

When I first visited Noegel, it was difficult to understand a foreign thinking that contravened all established aviculturist norm, but seeing the boxes full of babies—from Golden Conures Guaruba guarouba to Brazilian Hawk-headed Parrots Deroptyus accipitrinus fiscifrons to Cuban Amazons– in his home was proof that he understood his parrot´s needs. That week taught me that in aviculture one has to find answers outside the norm; to ask questions constantly; and to apply field work to captivity.

 

Amazon parrot breeding is now a common event. In my collection I have multiple generations of Yellow-winged Amazona aestiva xanthopteryx, Yellow-shouldered Amazona barbadensis and Cuban Amazons. I bred their parents, grand parents and great grand-parents. That success was possible because Noegel broke the mental barrier that was widespread in the 1970s: Amazons did not breed well and could not be produced beyond the wild imports. They were not worth trying to establish in captivity.

 

Today Amazon parrots are commercially produced in Brazil, Asia, the US and South Africa. More than one aviculturist who I know makes a living from rearing just these birds.

 

The most successful Amazon parrot commercial breeding operations attach the nest to the outside of the enclosure to facilitate inspection in a family well known for being very aggressive when nesting. The birds are fed a seed and pellet or a pelleted diet supplemented with some sprouted seeds, fruits and vegetables. The birds are allowed to see each other outside the breeding season. This allows a ´flocking´ mentality to develop and emulates the wild where Amazon parrots flock after nesting; pairs and their young join others, which then forage widely as a group. The large numbers increase safety for the inexperienced young, allows survival skills to be learned and permits pairing. Bonding can occur as early as the commencement of the next breeding season, even though the birds are still immature.

 

As the breeding season approaches, a visual barrier is erected; the birds can then hear but not see each other. The calling and displaying that occurs just prior to breeding seems to bring about an increased breeding urge. This stimulus increases fertility. Unless treated this way, egg production often remains constant but fertility drops dramatically.

 

In my collection, I flocks pairs or in the case of the Double Yellow-headed Amazona oratrix and Yellow-naped Amazons Amazona auropalliata same sex groups, so that they can act as a flock. Often pairs in the first group switch mates. This so-called ´divorce´ also occurs in the wild, often as a result of a failed nesting attempt, and has been recorded in species ranging from cockatoos to Amazons.

 

The opposite is also true. Some birds have such a strong pair bond that they will stay together irrespective of their environment. About a year ago I decided that I had to reduce my collection because my work required longer travel stints and for the birds to be managed as I like, the work load had to be reduced. I parted with many birds, including pairs of the more common species. One such pair comprised of two Orange-winged Amazons Amazona amazonica that had paired as nestlings in the nursery. They were inseparable from before feathering out. When they weaned, they remained strongly bonded. The birds were allowed to mature and then given a cage and nest. They bred when 3 years old for the first time. The buyer assured me that he would keep them together. In early June I happened to be visiting a store and saw the two birds, in separate cages, being sold for pets; they both talked and could be handled if kept separate. I purchased them immediately and brought them home, chiding myself for having parted with them. On being introduced to each other, they immediately started calling and preening. They were placed in a cage with a nest and nested within weeks.

 

In order to recreate the habit of flock movement in the wild, my suspended cages, which sit on stands cemented into the ground, can be picked up and moved. I move them around my farm several times during winter, this to emulate the migratory behavior seen in many species, which follow particular food resources as they become available over a broad territory.  My birds are also kept in far lengthier flights, as I enjoy seeing them fly. The larger aviaries also means that I need not monitor the amount of food given with extreme scrutiny, as the energy spent will prevent obesity which leads to infertility. Allowing natural pairing is thus important to maximize success.

 

I, like every aviculturist, suffer from impatience. I want to buy a single adult pair and have them breed immediately. Historical data amassed during my 40 year career as an aviculturist, however, has taught me that the the likelihood of success will be greater if I acquire a group of young birds and let them pair off naturally. This will require feeding, cleaning and attending to them for some years, but in the end success will be almost assured. The birds will adapt to my husbandry and be extremely comfortable in their surroundings—both keys to success.

 

Amazons are seasonal nesters and will produce one clutch if they are allowed to incubate and/or rear their young. By removing the first three or four eggs as they are laid, the hens typically continue to produce and can generally be induced to lay about twice what they would normally produce. By following this protocol, production can be doubled. The first eggs will need to either be artificially incubated or fostered under other birds. I find that there is benefit in allowing young to be parent reared even for a few weeks and forego production over young that are reared by the parents at least a few weeks, if not independence.

 

The smaller Amazon parrots are the easiest to breed. I have produced young from hen Yellow-lored Amazona xantholora, White-fronted Amazona albifrons and Cuban Amazons that were two years old. The medium sized species also tend not to be difficult, though there are exceptions. Three year old Amazona ochrocephala ochrocephala, Amazona aestiva, Amazona finschii and Amazona vinacea have produced for me. In the case of Amazona festiva bodini, Amazona oratrix and Amazona auropalliata I have never produced young from hens less than 4 years of age, though they have laid eggs as early as 3 years of age. In all cases the males, which mature slower, were at least a year older.

 

The larger species can be a challenge to breed. As an example, when one considers the numbers of Amazona farinosa that reached aviculture, very few have been bred. They can be regarded as difficult to breed. I, for one, have never been able to get nominate Amazona farinosa farinosa to nest.

 

Males of many species can become inordinately aggressive with their mates when breeding, turning on the hen in their excitement especially when they are being attended to. With Amazona leucocephala, Amazona ventralis and some others in which the males can maim or kill their mates, I clip the flight feathers on one wing; the females remain fully flighted and can generally escape an aggressive male. Close attention during the breeding season is also important. Hens which are observed on their enclosure floor, which have scratches to the orbital ring or which avoid their mates are suspected of being abused and placed under close scrutiny to insure that the observation did not involve an isolated incidence. If the same observations are made on other occasions, then the males will be removed and one wing clipped. Never is a risk taken; indeed I tend to err on the side of being overly cautious. I would rather miss a breeding season than lose a hen.

 

Incidences of mate aggression tend increase if close visual contact during the breeding season is possible; visual contact when not nesting is, as previously stated, an important stimulus. In the wild I have only ever encountered Alipiopsitta (until recently Amazona) xanthops and Amazona vinacea nesting closely; indeed, I have observed more than one pair of the latter utilizing the same tree (though different cavities) and this may explain why trios can breed successfully. The other species are highly territorial. I have seen serious fights involving nesting Amazona autumnalis diadema, Amazona ochrocephala ochrocephala and Amazona festiva festiva in the wild. This can explain why they should never see each other when nesting.

 

Young Amazons are easily hand-reared. If they are intended to become pets, they will need to be handled frequently. Youngsters that will become future breeders should be placed in groups (even of mixed species) that can contain non-breeding adults. They may also joint their parents once the breeding season is finished.

 

Some young Amazons can become ´nippy´. This so-called teething stage can be annoying and painful.  Yellow-napes are the worst, but I have seen this behavior in an array of species. The best response is to drop the bird on the ground (if it is padded) and walk away without making a comment—a behavior that in a flocking arboreal species incites stress. With repeated incidences, the biting can be controlled.

 

Amazons maintained as pets can become hormonal as they reach sexual maturity. They will begin calling, displaying and lunging.  Many will also attack a hand with brio. The objective should be to deter the breeding urge. Remove any object that the bird can hide in, including suspended tents. Prevent the bird from hiding in dark areas. Keep the room that the bird is housed in bright. Reduce wet foods that can induce the breeding urge. The combined effects of these measures should stop the breeding process. Understanding behavior is also important. A hand should never be inserted in the cage of an Amazon that is excitedly calling.

 

Breeding Amazon parrots was once deemed an avicultural accomplishment. Today the event is common. The typically garrulous, aggressive and active behavior of nesting Amazons makes them charming avicultural subjects. I highly recommend keeping and breeding this group