Musings about Parrots

Aviculture has evolved fairly rapidly in the past decades. This is evident everywhere I travel and across every facet of the hobby, but especially when it concerns breeding.  As I write these words I am returning from a visit with Miguel Angel Gómez Garza of Mexico, an aviculturist who was the first in the world to breed the Blue-headed Macaw Propyrrhura couloni, the Maroon-fronted Parrot Rhynchopsitta terrisi and the distinctive Socorro Island Conure Psittacara brevipes. That three first breedings would be earned by an aviculturists outside the US or Europe would have been considered an impossibility decades erst, as these were the centers of evolution for the hobby. Not only is Miguel Angel a superior aviculturists, but he is also of the new breed: the serious breeder who studies his subjects in the wild and then applies the findings to captivity, often applying principals that would have previously been considered the road to doom. He bred the Maroon-fronted Parrots in groups after studying the species in the wild and noticing that pairs bred colonially. He showed this to me during the visit, as we looked at a sheer cliff used by many Maroon-fronted Parrots for nesting. The birds were preparing to start breeding and could be heard calling continuously to each other.

Miguel Angel also bred Military Macaws Ara militaris and Half-moon Conures Eupsittula canicularis in colonies. Had someone told me in the 1980s or 1990s that both species, which can become can display aggressive personalities, would breed in groups I would have shook my head and stated that they paving the way were to a complete disaster. That point of view is much changed today, when we find that many parrots breed best when kept in groups and that the young are often utilized as helpers by their parents the following breeding season.

My first visit to New Zealand was in 1988. The focus in the country at the time was Australian parrots, with very few foreign species. Hand-rearing was seen as some foreign practice and aviculturists focused on the local market. Earlier this year I was invited to lecture at the Parrot Society of New Zealand’s 25th anniversary convention. What I found was a completely changed scenario. I spent time during my visit seeing the collections of Mary-Lee Sloan, Mark Davies and Davey Jones.

The best known aviculturist in New Zealand is Mary-Lee, whose specialties are lories (particularly mutations of the Swainson´s Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus moluccanus), and Major Mitchell´s Cacatua leadbeateri, lutino Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus banksii. She is so successful that she exports the young of these species worldwide. I have seen her birds in Brazil and elsewhere. In her home I watched as she hand-fed a Citron-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea citrinocristata. She, like many breeders, found that hand-reared birds can become suitable breeders if they are properly socialized when young. She understands that artificial incubation and hand-rearing can be an important tool to rapidly increase numbers when working with a rare species.

Hand-reared macaws were seen in the collection of Mark Davies. While there, I fed his macaws the seeds of the Jelly Palm that were growing in the yard. Mark understood the importance of enrichment and provided these amongst other items to his macaws.

Breeding parrots is no longer seen as having a sexed pair, giving them a good diet and a suitable nest. The true aviculturist understands that the psychological well being of the birds is integral to success and as important as a balanced diet. Breeders across the world now commonly provide their birds with fresh branches, pine cones, palm seeds, whole green coconuts, pods and many other items locally available to keep the birds occupied long term and mentally challenged. These items do no detract the birds from breeding as was once believed but stimulate them even more. In my home, we recently planted a number of Foxtail Palms Wodyetia bifurcata, whose drupes the macaws relish, and also Moringa trees whose seed pods seem to be especially appreciated by the amazons. These will supplement the many items that we collect each week.

In Miguel Angel´s home, two pet Amazons have a mattress spring in their cage. This is suspended from a wire that can rotate in every direction. The spring is clamped at one end. Inside Miguel Angel places celery, whole hot peppers and carrot. The birds must work to remove the pieces from between the tiny gaps, this while the spring moves. I spent one afternoon watching as one bird spent 2 hours 13 minutes working at trying to retrieve pieces of celery from the spring. Had these items been placed in a bowl, the bird would have fed on them in 10 minutes. The spring required the same effort as when feeding in the wild, where the parrots have to work to feed themselves.

The concept of social stimulation was like enrichment not considered important some decades ago. The sames applies to behavior modification.

During my tenure as curator at Loro Parque, we had an especially aggressive Yellow-faced Amazon Alipiopsitta xanthops female. She hated the male and would attack him incessantly. More than once he was brought to the clinic to have injured wing tips examined. He was the only male in the collection at the time, so he was my only hope for breeding the species, this at a time where it was a great rarity.

One day, while observing a community flight full of parrots I devised a plan. I placed the male in a long flight cage and once he had become comfortable in the surroundings added young Blue and Gold Macaws Ara ararauna. The macaws behaved as any juveniles of their kind: they were curious, assertive, sometimes pushy and always clumsy. The Yellow-faced male, which was always submissive, slowly became more dominant, challenging the macaws for a favorite perch or piece of food, as the macaws were introduced into his cage and by consequence his territory.

Once the male started displaying his assertiveness, the female was added to the cage. As expected she flew right at the male, calling and displaying. He did not have to back away, as a macaw intervened; he was not protecting the amazon but was curious about the new bird. Eventually the female bonded with the male because, as the last arrival, she was at the bottom of the hierarchy: she was the last to feed and was forced to roost in the least desirable perch available—an exposed branch inserted into a holder on the side of the cage. The social structure of the flock was set. She could only change it by directly challenging the other aviary occupants or by bonding with the male. She did the later. The following year the pair nested and we reared a young.

In New Zealand, Davey Jones has what I consider to be the best Yellow-headed Amazons Amazona oratyrix magna I have seen. The birds display fantastic color. He keeps the pairs collaterally because the noise induces nesting. When I first started breeding Amazon parrots in the 1970s, pairs were kept away from sight and sound of each other as this was deemed a deterrent to breeding.

Márcia Weinzettl of Brazil, a biologist who provides consulting services to aviculture, also uses the concept applied by Davey Jones. During one warm afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, Márcia explained how the Blue-fronted Amazons Amazona aestiva she managed in one collection are allowed to see each other outside the breeding season, this to create a flock mentality much as would occur in the wild. As the breeding season approaches, the visual contact is blocked to prevent a male challenging a neighbor from attacking his mate out of frustration.

When one reviews avicultural journals or books of only two decades ago and juxtaposes the data with current thinking, it becomes apparent that change has come to bird breeding. Many areas still require more research and more innovation. This includes solutions to mate aggression in cockatoos, understanding the bottleneck effect in populations with few founders and which are inbred, and applying more research from the field to our captive birds.

What I have seen and describe above shows that aviculture is receptive to change and is willing to challenge the established dogma to pursue success. I always stimulate new breeders to think outside the box and to observe their birds, stressing that the definitive word has never been written when it comes to parrot breeding.