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Species Selection - Part I

An excerpt from Tony Silva’s recent release; Psittaculture - fully revised

Text by Tony Silva, photos by Simon Degenhard

"Parrots are a diverse group and there is a species for everyone—the shy, the introverted, the extroverted, the garrulous, the quiet, the meek, the aggressive.

Wolfgang Kiessling, 1992, Speech, International Parrot Convention, Tenerife, Canary Islands."

The order Psittaciformes (or parrots) currently comprises of 386 species if the most liberal interpretation of taxonomy is taken. If a more conservative approach is followed, this number will decrease to 352 species (Juniper and Parr, 1998). Whatever position one takes, the number will never be static but will wax and wane with increasing research and fieldwork or the stance taken by any given writer. This number can also drop if the Glaucous Macaw Anodorhynchus glaucus is indeed extinct as many believe and if the Intermediate Parakeet Psittacula “intermedia” proves to be a natural occurring hybrid as many suspect (Silva, 1989; Juniper and Parr, 1998). Within all of these species, one finds tremendous variation in colour, size and behaviour. Their suitability as aviary subjects ranges from the easy to the nigh impossible to keep alive for any length of time. Their pet potential also varies significantly.

Parrots fall under three behavioural categories, these having little bearing on taxonomy but proving important for the person intent on keeping these birds in captivity.

A few species belong to the non-bonded category, in which contact between the sexes is limited usually to the breeding season. In Psittacula parakeets’ British aviculturist George Smith (1979) succinctly described this behaviour thus:

“The circumspect courtship, with the noticeable avoidance of close contact, perfectly demonstrates [the lack of bonding].

“The first physical contact a male makes with his partner is to preen her nape and the ‘butts’ of her wings: he seems not to preen other areas. This always is a most perfunctory nibbling and cannot groom her feathers. Whenever a courting male approaches his hen he first wipes his beak; almost as if he was taking no chances with her uncertain temper by ‘touching wood’. In preening he stands some little distance and only by stretching his neck to the maximum of his reach can he touch the hen.”

This same behaviour extends to petting. If a bird does not allow its mate to preen it, it will not enjoy being touched; the most that one can obtain from such a bird is getting it to stand on the hand and to talk. Most individuals that purchase a pet bird, however, want to cuddle and bestow considerable affection towards it. A Psittacula parakeet or an Eclectus Parrot Eclectus roratus would not be a good pet for such a person, as they would be stressed being subjected to a contact that evolutionarily they have eschewed.

At the other extreme are the bonded parrots, in which considerable affection is shown towards each other. In Silva (1991) I described this group as follows:

…[The pair bond is] so strong that two birds, irrespective of gender, will spend hours sitting side by side, usually their bodies touching, preening, sometimes feeding each other and mating. These birds make ideal pets; craving affection, they find joy in their owner’s speech and touch. Most of the species available in aviculture belong to this second category. They include cockatoos, macaws, conures (except as indicated below), amazons and African parrots, except for a species of Psittacula parakeet found on the Dark Continent. For a tame individual of these birds, there are not enough hours in a day that their owner can devote to petting, playing and holding them.

The third group falls somewhere in between, though is more inclined towards the bonded category and will tolerate petting. This group includes the Enicognathus conures and Pionus parrots. These birds prove affectionate and seek attention on their own terms and can make perfect pets for the independent person.

For a person seeking a pet bird, the first choice should be the bonded category; the last choice should be from the non-bonded grouping. The latter would be ideal for an individual who is content with watching a bird in a cage or on a stand and who leads a busy schedule; the attention that the bird will need, during which it should be played and petted, will be minimal.

Within each of the three categories, some species are a better choice for a given environment than the others. African Greys Psittacus erithacus do best in a very steady environment; constant changes in their surroundings, new roommates and a continuous flow of visitors tend to make these naturally shy birds even shier, if not nervous and introverted. As aviary birds, Greys like a more secluded location, an amazon, on the other hand, would thrive in an active environment, enjoying the visitors, attention and changes. They can be housed in an aviary with garrulous birds.

Because there is so much diversity within the Psittaciformes, I have tried to describe general attributes particular to each group in Part II of this book. I urge a person not to rely solely on this information but to seek owners of the species that interests them and to ask that they be allowed to observe the birds and if they are tame to be allowed to participate in play sessions. Hands on experience can never be replaced and would confirm whether the right choice is being made.

Some species are also easier to care for than others. The diet of a macaw, for example, is less involved to prepare than that for a lory. The latter group has evolved with a tongue covered in fine papillae or brushes, which are used to gather nectar and pollen. In captivity lories are usually fed a nectar preparation, which results in copious amounts of liquid droppings. This diet must be carefully prepared to eliminate excess iron, which can result in hemochromatosis. In warm weather the nectar must be provided several times daily to insure freshness. Insects are attracted to the sweet nectar and can be a problem. The fluid droppings pose a constant cleaning chore. Other groups that share some of the husbandry problems of lories are hanging parrots and fig parrots. These two groups do not feed on nectar per se but consume large amounts of fruit, whose juices and pulp will be flicked about. Fig parrots are suspected of having a need for certain vitamins and minerals, but this need is not yet fully understood. Consequently a plethora of medical problems can arise. Fortunately for parrot owners, the vast majority of the parrots have rather simple dietary requirements.

Other considerations when selecting a species include activity and noise level. As with humans, parrots show incredible individuality in levels of activity, but overall one does see trends. The lories are far more active that the Eclectus Parrots Eclectus roratus (Silva, 1995). The former are energy packed. If kept in a family room, the noise they generate as they toss their toys about, play with a chain and bell, or jump from cage side to cage side may prove distracting. An Eclectus Parrot Eclectus roratus, on the other hand, would probably not even be noticed. I once kept a crippled youngster in my library and unless the bird moved or called (which it rarely did), no one realised that there was a live bird in the room. Noise can be another factor, especially if one has close neighbours that may not be particularly thrilled at the cacophony of a parrot greeting the rising or setting sun. Exasperation was the word used to describe feelings by a friend who kept a Bare-eyed Cockatoo Cacatua sanguinea in an apartment. The noise had never bothered her but her neighbours found it totally offensive. She was torn between getting rid of the bird or moving, the ultimatum given by her landlord. Noise can be controlled to a degree but it can never be completely eliminated; vocalization is a normal parrot behaviour. It is used to communicate, in display and, just like in humans, to express feelings. In close quarters the harsh call of a Moluccan Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis or Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus can make body hairs stand on end. An African Grey Psittacus erithacus, on the other hand, is relatively quiet in close quarters, even when it vocalizes. Very few find their natural whistle-based vocalizations offensive.

Parrots are great mimics. They can learn sounds ranging from the ringing of a telephone to the beep of a microwave, or the bark of a dog — all elements that are not part of their normal repertoire. Training can be used to limit those sounds that prove unnerving.

The talking ability of parrots is very individualistic, though there are groups that clearly excel. Certain amazons and the African Grey Psittacus erithacus are unquestionably the best talkers, but I have seen Quaker Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus and many Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus that have stood out in my mind for their incessant chatter. If talking is what you are buying a parrot for, acquire a young bird. Be prepared to spend time teaching it, but be careful what you say around the bird, or it may pick up words that will leave you red faced with shame when repeated in front of strangers. The same applies to the sounds that you expose the bird to. Also know that you will pose the limitations of its vocabulary: the bird will continue to learn new words as long as you persist. Long vocabularies are typical of birds that are the pets of someone that is home for much of the day and which maintain continuous contact with the bird.

Personality is yet another factor that must be weighed when deciding which species is going to be obtained. Some generalisations can be made, but like in humans there is much individualism. Amazons have strong personalities; they can be forceful, strong-headed and even aggressive.

I once kept a Salvin’s Amazon Amazona autumnalis salvini that would let me do with it as I pleased; I have never had such a gentle member of the genus Amazona. I could swing, grab and toss it into the air, touch it anywhere and get it to talk on command. A woman, any woman, was detested and the bird would not hesitate to attack, giggling with glee as it pursued the unsuspecting victim with pupils contracted, tail fanned, and wings partly extended to appear even more menacing. Positive reinforcement training was not able to stop this behaviour. The delight the bird gave me insured its place in my home. Others would have sold the bird or placed it in a breeding program.

Years after this bird was no longer under my care, I acquired another Amazona autumnalis salvini. This bird was shy, intolerant of much handling and tended to talk when no one was around.

The above-mentioned examples are not isolated but evince the type of individualism that is commonly reported in all species of parrot.

In my opinion, amazons and most macaws tend to be more one-person birds than say a Pionus parrot. They can be possessive and tend to prefer one individual above all others; should someone approach while the bird is perched on the shoulders of the favoured person, an attack of the intruder is likely to ensue. Amazons make incredible pets but in my view should not be kept in a home with small children, who may be tempted to insert a finger into the cage, or by someone who has no previous experience with parrots; a track record will allow the owner to handle most situations as they arise. Cockatoos and most lories, on the other hand, usually allow anyone to handle and play with them; even a perfect stranger prepared to bestow them with attention will quickly become a friend. So outgoing are they that eventually they may start screaming to become noticed, bored with lulls in play and attention. Some can be acceptable pets in the hands of a beginner. For homes with children, there is no better pet than a Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus. These birds are exceedingly gentle and affectionate when hand-reared and are inclined to bite only under the most unusual circumstances - such as when they are being hurt. Everyone will be approached and children who are old enough to understand proper handling could find no better companion. A Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus is another recommended choice, though in my experience they tend to be more independent than a Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus and may nip when not in the mood for play or if teased; the nip, by the way, is so weak that it can be considered more of a pinch and is capable of breaking only the most tender skin (such as that on an elderly person or of a very young child). Even those wanting a ‘talking’ bird will be pleased with the capabilities of the Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus.

For the beginner pet seeker, I would recommend a Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus, a Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus or even a lovebird (Agapornis sp.). The latter also show some independence, though a hand-reared bird (compared to a young parent-reared individual that has been tamed) can make a charming pet for the older child, especially if the buyer is careful in selecting the right individual; the orange-faced mutation of the Peach-faced Lovebird Agapornis roseicollis is known for its mild temper. In the alternate, a Pionus or Poicephalus that has been hand-reared can be considered. They possess all of the character of the larger parrots but carry with them fewer of the typical problems.

Check out the second half of this excerpt from Tony Silva’s recently published offering, the new and fully revised Psittaculture!

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