The Black-capped Lory
By Simon Degenhard
Black-caps (and for the benefit of our Kiwi readers, no I am not talking about the New Zealand Cricket Team!) are a truly magnificent bird and as with lories in general, in particular the larger foreign species, they are an absolute delight to watch. Their playful and cheeky antics could easily keep an observer captivated for hours on end and their boisterous and inquisitive nature just commands attention. In fact, they are such active birds you would be hard pressed to see one sitting still for more than a few seconds as “activity” is practically their middle name!
As well as having a wonderful personality, Black-capped Lories are also spectacularly coloured and both of these qualities have made them rather popular among lory enthusiasts in Australia, though I believe that they are not nearly as popular as they should be.
Black-capped Lories inhabit primary lowland forests in New Guinea, the Western Papuan Islands and various other islands through Geelvink Bay and Irian Jaya. Birds differ quite markedly throughout the different parts of their range.
The lowland forests in which they are found extend up to around 1000m above sea level. It is here that they will spend most of their time in the treetops, playing, resting or feeding on nectar, pollen, fruit and insects.
As the accompanying photos illustrate, Black-caps are a spectacular bird, their vibrant plumage is eye catching to say the least and all the subspecies are equally as attractive. For the purpose of this article I will only describe the two most known subspecies that are found in Australian collections, namely the Blue-breasted Lorius lory lory and the Red-breasted L.l. erythrothorax Black-capped Lories. There are 7 subspecies in total and to my knowledge, besides the two previously mentioned, the only other subspecies known to have existed in Australian collections is the Salvadori Lory L.l. salvadorii.
Black-caps are a medium-large sized lory that measure approximately 28-31cm in length, with the Blue-breasted being generally slightly larger than the Red-breasted. They are a fairly stocky bird and they have a broad, squarish tail.
Blue-breasted Black-caps have a blue nape, mantle and belly which merge and cover most of the front of the bird’s body. They have a solid black cap, red cheeks, under eye, neck, upper breast, underwing coverts, back and rump and green wings. The top of the tail is blue and the under tail is yellow-black. Their beak is orange-horn coloured, and their feet and legs are dark grey with black toenails. Whilst pure examples of this subspecies did exist in Australian aviculture, of which I have previously seen examples that fit the bill (pun intended) in years gone by, I am not confident that too many true specimens are still present today, as many have unfortunately been hybridised with the Red-breasted over the past 2-3 decades.
Red-breasted are similar only the blue on the nape and neck does not merge on the front of the bird and the blue on the front only extends up as far as the upper belly. The breast is solid red and everything else is as for the Blue-breasted. The story of this subspecies in Australian aviculture is far more positive than that of the Blue-breasted; there has been a concerted effort by a small number of lory breeders to keep a viable pure population of this subspecies going, with particular credit for this attributed to NSW aviculturist, Craig McFawn, who I consider to be Australia’s most dedicated and longstanding lory specialist. Without Craig’s work with this subspecies over the past 20-30 years, I have no doubt that we would now be in a similar position as we are with regards to the Blue-breasted.
Hens are almost identical to the cocks and surgical or DNA sexing are the only sure methods of determining the sex of a bird. Sometimes cocks are slightly larger and have a more pronounced black cap than the hen, but these differences are by no means reliable methods for sexing Black-caps.
Immature birds are similar in appearance to the adults, but they are duller and slightly smaller. The blue on the front extends higher than in mature birds and they have a black-brown beak. Immature Blue-breasted and Red-breasted Black-caps look very similar and can quite easily be mistaken for each other. So, and especially in the case of the Red-breasted, it is wise to exercise caution when purchasing young birds so as to make sure that you are purchasing pure stock (where possible).
Black-caps are considered to be relatively common in the wild, though fluctuations do exist within the populations of the various subspecies. They are usually only seen in pairs, though they will occasionally be observed in small groups whilst congregating at the source of a favoured item of food. They tend to be quiet when feeding and are surprisingly difficult to spot, they are more often observed whilst in flight when they are generally quite noisy and stand out due to their spectacular colouration. They generally fly at around tree top level and are most active in the late afternoon and early evening.
Black-caps are easily catered for when it comes to housing and I have seen them successfully housed in many different styles of aviary, including both conventional and suspended. Though, I believe that suspended aviaries are by far the best method of housing them as they are easier to clean and maintain and in turn more hygienic; the birds also seem to feel more secure as you can service each aviary from the outside and therefore you are not entering their personal space all the time.
The minimum size for a conventional aviary would be around 2.5-3m long x 0.9m wide x 2m high and for a suspended it would be around 2-2.5m long x 0.6-0.9m wide x 0.9-1.2m high.
As is the case with other lory species, they are not noted for chewing wire and therefore a medium gauge weldmesh is more than sufficient. Suspendeds can be constructed using a frame or as a frameless all wire aviary, if framework is desired 20-25mm galvanised steel or aluminium square tubing are suitable products that are easy to use and readily available. On the other hand frameless all wire suspendeds can be constructed using medium-heavy gauge weldmesh rolls or heavy gauge weldmesh sheets, that once cut to the desired size are clipped together using stainless steel “J” clips.
About 1/3-1/2 of the aviary should be sheltered from the elements and they should have a safety flight at the front or in my opinion, preferably back onto a covered and escape proof walkway. This will allow for easy servicing of the aviaries in all weather conditions as well as also acting as a safety flight to prevent birds from escaping as lories are experts at finding potential escape routes, such as a door left ajar or a revolving feeder not locked into place properly.
Black-caps are hardy birds and they can tolerate most weather conditions without a problem, though during extended periods of hot weather it is vitally important that they have adequate shelter and access to a plentiful supply of fresh water for both drinking and bathing purposes. A sprinkler system is also a handy addition to any aviary setup and particularly one housing lories, as they all really love to bath.
Black-caps should always only be housed on their own as a single pair per aviary and double wiring between adjoining aviaries is highly recommended to prevent any injuries being sustained due to fighting between neighbouring pairs of birds.
Lory diets are many and varied and I know of a number of people using different variations with good success. So, if I was to say that there was a hard and fast rule when it comes to feeding Black-caps I would be lying. Though there is no doubt that a varied diet consisting of good quality dry and wet formulas, along with fresh fruit and vegies is necessary if you wish to not only have good breeding success, but also see longevity in your birds. It should be noted that Black-caps are big eaters, easily eating more than other lories of comparable size.
For the purpose of this article I will outline a successful diet that is being used with good success on Black-caps.
It consists of a dry mix - generally commercially available mixes are best (a 50:50 mix of Passwell Complete Lorikeet and Shep’s Lory Dry works well), though some breeders do use homemade mixes - that is fed every day at a rate of around one x full 100ml coop cup per pair per day. Feeding the dry mix rationed this way helps to prevent wastage, as if they are fed more than they will consume on a daily basis they will waste a lot by kicking it out of the cup/bowl and/or putting large amounts into their water. When the birds are not breeding a wet mix is fed a minimum of three times per week, this is made up using a commercial wet mix to which, if desired, puréed fruit and vegetables can be added, and then blended together to form a thick sloppy consistency. By doing it this way a larger variety of fruit and vegetables can be fed and the following have proved successful: apple, pear, orange, banana, kiwi fruit, rockmelon, honeydew melon, watermelon, mandarin, grapes, raisins, dried apricots, beetroot, capsicum, carrot, peas, corn etc. On the days that they don’t get wet mix they are fed fresh fruit, for example one pair would receive ¼ - ½ an apple, 1/8 of an orange, a small 2cm x 2cm piece of rock melon and a small slice of corn. The varieties of fruit and vegetables are changed regularly, but apple and corn are generally fed all year round. They also receive fresh water every day. When pairs are feeding young in the nest they receive the wet mix every day in the morning and late afternoon and the quantity of dry mix fed is increased accordingly, as is the amount of fresh fruit and veg that is fed.
In terms of offering the dry mix, using empty medium sized jars (chutney or smaller pickle jars are a good size) works well. To set up the jars for using them as a feeding receptacle, once cleaned wrap a length of heavy gauge wire around the neck of the jar and twist it tight, then cut the wire off at the desired length and bend the end over to form a hook so that it can be hung from the side or the roof of the aviary. This method of feeding dry mix makes it harder for the birds to waste it.
Regardless of the fact that lories do not tend to spend time on the aviary floor when housed in conventional aviaries, it is still a good idea to worm your birds at least twice a year. This is also good practice for birds housed in suspendeds. This can be done either by syringe, with or without a crop needle, in the water or in the wet mix. Though, if you are adding it to the wet mix, the dosage should be the same as if it were being administered direct by syringe, and not the same as dosing via their water, as the birds will be consuming the whole dose and not just a small percentage as is the case if it is added to the drinking water.
When setting up a pair of Black-caps for breeding it is always a good idea to start with good quality unrelated young stock, so that firstly, the birds have plenty of time to bond before they reach sexual maturity and secondly, so you don’t end up acquiring someone else’s problem bird/birds. Its is also very important to do your utmost to maintain pairs as true to subspecies as possible, as there is really no excuse for cross breeding of subspecies, particularly in the case of Red-breasted Black-caps.
There is no set breeding season and Black-caps can potentially breed at any time of the year, though the majority of breeding generally seems to occur in the warmer months from early spring onwards. There can be wide variance when it comes to the breeding patterns of individual pairs and whilst some pairs will only breed once or twice a year once established, other pairs will breed almost year-round, particularly if the young are taken for handrearing at around 3-4 weeks of age or less. If you live in a colder area it is a good idea not to encourage your birds to breed during winter as this can cause a number of problems including egg binding in hens and young dying from the cold if the hen does not brood properly or for long enough.
When pairs are coming into breeding condition behavioural changes will be noticed and these can include any or all of the following: birds will become more vocal around and protective of the nest box, some birds will become somewhat aggressive towards keepers and/or other birds and courtship displays will commence. Courtship displays will include the cock hoping around on the suspended floor with wings outstretched, as well as standing on the perch whilst stretching up as far as he can with his tail fanned etc.
Either vertical nest boxes measuring a maximum of 20cm square and 40-50cm deep with a 75-80mm entrance hole or L-shaped nest boxes measuring roughly 40cm long x 40cm high with a maximum 20cm square nesting chamber and entrance chamber and again a 75-80mm entrance hole can be used and both types have proved equally successful. Untreated pine shavings make for good nesting material, eucalyptus mulch/leaves can also be added to this. Nest boxes should be filled to a depth of around 40-50mm and should be cleaned out and the nesting material refreshed as needed whenever they become soiled.
Once courtship and mating has occurred egg laying will commence and 2, or very occasionally 3, white eggs will be laid. It should be noted that disturbance should be kept to an absolute minimum after the first egg is laid, as nest inspections at this time can often lead to the eggs being broken or less often, abandoned. Incubation lasts around 25 days and once the young hatch, and again providing that nest inspections are kept to a minimum (i.e. only look in the box if you feel it is absolutely necessary and when doing so, make it snappy), Black-caps generally prove to be good parents and will rear the young right through to independence without a problem. Of course, as with all birds, this is not always the case, so careful observation from afar is recommended, particularly in the case of inexperienced pairs, but these young pairs do overwhelmingly learn pretty fast and soon become very competent parents as well. In reference to changing the nesting material; this is usually tolerated without issue once the chicks are over 2 weeks of age but should still only be done when necessary. If you chose to hand rear the chicks, 3-4 weeks seems to be a good age to take them and this will also encourage the parents to go back to nest sooner and therefore potentially increase the number of chicks produced. I am not a fan of artificial incubation unless it is absolutely necessary, as I feel that parent started chicks generally do better in the long run.
Fledging occurs at between 50-60 days of age and as with other lory species independence is reached quickly at around 2-2 ½ weeks after this. If the young are parent reared, they should be removed from the aviary as soon as they are independent to prevent any aggression being shown towards them by the parents due to overcrowding and/or the parents wanting to go back to nest.
Sexual maturity is reached at around 2 ½-3 years of age and breeding can commence anytime after this, though 3-3 ½ years seems to be more the norm for pairs to start breeding.
Black-caps make excellent aviary subjects, with their spectacular bright plumage and their always active, outgoing and almost clown like behaviour, they never cease to command attention. Add to this their penchant for mimicry, which although not always all that clear, is still a plus all the same and demonstrates that they really are born entertainers.
They are hardy and once a compatible pair has been established, will more often than not prove to be reliable breeders. With all these good attributes it is easy to see why they are such an enjoyable bird to keep and I believe they will only get more popular as time goes on. So, whether you are a dedicated lory enthusiast or not, do yourselves a favour and add a pair to your collection, I’m sure that you will not be disappointed.
I would like to thank Craig McFawn in particular, along with a number of other breeders, for their assistance in compiling this article, both with regards to providing information and/or allowing me to photograph their birds. The other breeders have requested that they remain anonymous.
A pair of Red-breasted Black-capped Lories L.l. erythrothorax
Red-breasted Black-cap pair - male feeding female
Red-breasted Black-cap chick
Immature Red-breasted Black-cap
Blue-breasted Black-cap L.l. lory
Black-cap chicks being hand reared
Black-cap chicks being hand reared