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Here Come the Redpolls!

January 1, 2014 1 comment

Where I live (Alberta), the bird diversity decreases quite dramatically during the winter. Warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, shorebirds, and most waterfowl head south for the winter. However, the birds that do stay behind include chickadees, creepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, waxwings, ravens, grouse, most owls, jays, and magpies, so the birding is still good. Some finches, merlins, juncos and kinglets stick around too. Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Canada Geese will also tough out the winter in areas where there is open water, such as where treated sewage effluent keeps areas of rivers and lakes warmer than normal. A few Bald Eagles will stick around and hunt the waterfowl, and eagles hunting ducks and geese can sometimes be seen right in Lethbridge, Calgary, or Edmonton.


A Hairy Woodpecker, photographed in December 2012 in Waterton Lakes National Park

There are also some species that show up in Alberta only in the winter and they make winter birdwatching quite interesting. These northern birds nest in the Arctic and often head south in winter in search of food. Such birds include Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and redpolls. Redpolls are members of the finch family and there are two species: the Common Redpoll and the Hoary Redpoll. The two species look alike, although hoaries are paler overall and have white rumps. Common Redpolls have streaked rumps.


Snowy Owl, photographed near Vulcan Alberta in Decmber 2012.

Redpolls are birds of the north. Common Redpolls breed in Alaska, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In Nunavut, they breed on the mainland and southern Baffin Island. Hoary (AKA Arctic) Redpolls nest even further north, in northern Alaska, Greenland, and the northern parts of Canada’s three territories, including northern Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island (the northernmost of the Arctic islands). Common and Hoary Redpolls also occur in northern Europe and Asia.


A Common Redpoll, photographed in Edmonton in December 2012. This is a male. Females lack the red on the chest.

Many redpolls do head south in winter, not necessarily to escape the cold but to search for food. Many spend the winter in central and southern Canada. However, some still overwinter as far north as central Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In years where redpoll numbers are high and there is a lack of small tree seeds (such as birch seeds) up north, they may start to show up as far south as the central United States in search of food. These influxes of redpolls into the central USA are referred to as “irruptions.”

When and where the redpolls show up varies from year to year. Unlike many birds that breed and overwinter in the same area each year, redpolls are wanderers. A redpoll that overwintered in the north one year may head thousands of kilometers south the next year and some will fly thousands of kilometers in one year. For example, a Common Redpoll banded in Belgium was later captured in China, 8350 km away. Another Common Redpoll banded in Fairbanks, Alaska during one winter was recaptured 5000 km away in Montreal, Quebec the next winter – a very impressive journey for such a small bird!

Redpolls will happily visit feeders and they particularly like black Nyger (or “Niger”) seeds. So, if you live in Canada or the northern US and want to see redpolls, try putting out a feeder stocked with Nyger seeds in winter. If there aren’t any redpolls in the area, you may still attract other finches, such as Pine Siskins. Like redpolls, Pine Siskins are finches that wander North America and migrate in response to varying food supplies.


Pine Siskins at a feeder, photographed in Waterton Lakes National Park, Dec. 2012

Redpolls are very tough birds and can tolerate extremely low temperatures. After all, temperatures can dip to -45 C even in their ‘southern’ winter ranges. This is particularly impressive since these birds are small – without the feathers, they’re about the size of a human thumb. They also have to go twelve or more hours without eating during long northern nights. Most small birds need to eat frequently because of their high metabolic rates. So, how do redpolls withstand northern winters?

First, to help them make it through long nights, redpolls have an extra pouch in their throats (besides the crop) to store seeds in. The seeds can then be used as a fuel source throughout the nights. A redpoll can store up to 2 g of seeds in its pouch, and considering that redpolls are only 10-12 g, that is a lot of food! Besides Nyger seeds from feeders, they often feed on birch, alder, or aspen seeds.

Redpolls and other northern finches have another way of reducing the amount of energy they use at night – they undergo  ‘controlled hypothermia.’ That is, during the night, they allow their body temperatures to drop by about 10 C. Chickadees and House Sparrows do this as well. The reason they drop their temperatures is to conserve energy. The birds will use less energy to maintain a body temperature of ~ 30 C than a body temperature of ~ 40 C. The disadvantage is that they cannot move around well with such a low body temperature, but that doesn’t matter too much when they are sleeping.

Redpolls and many other small northern birds will also ‘clump’ together in tree cavities – or snow tunnels – to conserve heat. Redpolls in particular often tunnel into the snow to stay warm. On very cold days and nights, the ‘subnivean space’ (area under the snow) may be many degrees warmer than the area above the snow. Ptarmigan and grouse will also rest underneath the snow to stay warm. At rest, redpolls will also fluff up their feathers to trap air between them. The extra air trapped between the feathers does add some extra insulation. Additionally, redpolls will grow very thick coats of down before the winter season.

For me, redpolls mark the coming and going of winter. They tend to show up where I live in December, and head out by March or early April. I usually manage to see some every year and some years they absolutely inundate my backyard feeders. They definitely make winter birdwatching much more interesting as they can only be seen in the winter in many areas.

(Jan. 12 2014 edit: This year does not seem to be an irruption year. Very few redpolls showed up on bird counts in Alberta and some regions had none at all!).


Groth, J. 2001. “Finches and Allies.” In: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” Elphick, C., Dunning, J. B. Jr., and Sibley, D. A., Eds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Newton I. 2006. Advances in the study of irruption. Ardea. 94: 433-460.

Reinertsen R. E. 1983. Nocturnal hypothermia and its energetic significance for small birds living in the arctic and subarctic regions. A review. Polar Research 1 n. s. 269-284.

Living with a Blue and Gold Macaw

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Back to blogging! I do want to write more about native North American birds here, but first I want to write about the most common and popular of the macaw species: the Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna).

Of all the large macaw species that are available as pets in North America, the Blue and Gold Macaw is the most common. This is likely because they breed well in captivity (if set up and cared for properly), they can often talk quite well, and they are beautiful. They are not globally endangered and many were imported into North America until the early 90s.


Wild Macaws

The Blue and Gold Macaw is the quintessential parrot – big, bold, colourful, and talkative. In the wild, they can be found in the northern half of South America and southern Panama in a variety of lowland habitats, including city parks. They feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds and their powerful beaks can crack open very tough shells.

Wild blue and golds are often seen in small flocks, and outside of the breeding season, they will often sleep in groups. However, even within a group, it can be very evident which birds constitute breeding pairs, as pairs will typically fly and feed close together, even outside of the breeding season. When I was in Brazil, I noticed most of the macaws I saw seemed to be paired off. Even within flocks, it wasn’t hard to tell who the couples were.

Macaws as Pets

As far as their suitability as pets goes, Blue and Gold Macaws can be either phenomenal companions or a pet owner’s worst nightmare. It all depends on the owner’s expectations. Due to their size, loud voices, and powerful beaks, macaws are generally considered to be high maintenance pets.

First, because of their strong beaks and curiosity, macaws cannot typically be allowed to freely roam in a house without supervision. Thus, a cage is needed and a suitable macaw cage will often cost $1000 or more. However, a macaw should never be confined to a cage for its whole life, and thus macaw keepers often must invest in a large parrot stand (or two) for the bird to perch on when outside of the cage. Even with access to interesting bird stands, many macaws will roam around a house. An outdoor cage or aviary is also a nice thing for a macaw to have.

I recently (a year and a half ago) got a twenty-three year old Blue and Gold Macaw named Pteri. She is the bird in all of the pictures accompanying this article. Her cage is in the living room of the house, but she is generally out of her cage if someone is home to watch her. She has a big parrot stand downstairs to perch on and a few places to perch upstairs. Her parrot stand also has chew toys hanging on it. However, she still likes to walk around the house and climb on the bannisters. She sometimes climbs up the bannisters and slides down them. She’s quite good about not destroying things she shouldn’t but will sometimes try to chew furniture and walls. If she does that, she is given something more suitable to chew on. If she’s really bored, she’ll climb on the curtains.

                                           Pteri climbs on the curtains

Speaking of chewing, macaws do need things to chew on. Pteri does like to chew on wood, baskets, pine cones and other similar items and her cage is generally stocked with safe chew toys. She has some store bought toys, but macaw toys are generally quite expensive (especially considering their purpose is to be destroyed). A lot of her chew toys are natural items from outside. Note that it is important to be sure that natural plants given to parrots are nontoxic and have not been sprayed with pesticides.

One question that nearly all parrot owners are asked is “does s/he talk?” Blue and Gold Macaws are often very good talkers. Pteri can say hi, good morning, water, what, apple, popcorn, corn, pasta, cat, hot, and parrot, and she can laugh and bark like a dog. She also uses a few words appropriately. For example, she greets people who come in the house with an enthusiastic “Hi!” and she says “water” when ever I change her water or give her a spray bath. She also says “Good morning!” in the morning. She uses other words at random and doesn’t appear to know what they mean.

Although many macaws I know can talk, not all macaws speak well and even macaws that can talk will often make a lot of loud screeches and squawks. Pteri often talks to herself when no one is around and she will also screech periodically. Her screeches are high pitched and extremely loud. Such vocalizations can often be minimized using behavioural modification techniques, but it takes patience and it’s unreasonable to expect a macaw to be a quiet animal. I also tend to tell people who want a parrot primarily because a talking animal appeals to them to rethink their decision. Not all parrots talk, and some who can talk only learn a few phrases. And as I always say, the novelty of having a talking bird will wear off!

The Mess Factor

Macaws (along with cockatoos) are among the messiest birds one can keep. They of course poop a lot, but they can also make a mess with their food and toys. Pteri loves nuts so her diet does include some walnuts, pecans, hazel nuts, and almonds in the shell. She sometimes receives Brazil nuts as well. She always somehow manages to get the shells outside of her cage, so I have to clean that up. The woody debris from her chew toys also ends up outside of her cage as well. Still, she isn’t as bad as Mitri, my Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, who actually kicks food bits, wood, and paper outside of his cage.

That Huge Beak…

A lot of people find macaws to be very intimidating. That’s not completely unreasonable, as macaws do have large, strong beaks. A large macaw can slice through a walnut or hazelnut shell like it’s butter. Macaw bites are painful.

However, there are steps one can take to minimize the likelihood of being bitten. Macaws are not subtle in their body language and will often give warnings before they bite. An agitated macaw will likely lower her head, pin her pupils and erect her head feathers. Don’t ever try to touch or pick up a macaw who is giving such warning signals. Some macaws will also lunge and shriek before biting. Pteri does that, but she only rarely actually bites.

Training a macaw from a young age to step up on an arm or a hand-held perch can also make her easier to handle. Parrots trained with positive techniques are less likely to become biters than parrots trained with force. A macaw is also less likely to become a “one-person bird” if handled by multiple people. I’ve met many macaws – primarily blue and golds and greenwings – who have remained quite friendly to even strangers into adulthood.

It’s quite important that a potential macaw owner not be intimidated by the bird. Macaws often become very difficult when their owners become afraid of them. What can happen is that the bird will lunge or bite once, and the owner then becomes afraid of the bird. As the bird is handled less frequently, she will become more unsure of people and will become more likely to nip. That results in less handling, and the frustrated macaw may become more bitey and noisy. Macaw owners must be comfortable around large birds so that doesn’t happen.

Macaws are very social birds and they can be quite demanding of attention. A macaw is not the type of bird that can be left in a cage all day. Most will want to be with their people. Pteri seems happy as long as she’s perched near me or my husband. She talks back to people who talk to her (although her responses don’t always make sense) and she will yell to be let out of her cage if she feels she’s been in there too long. Macaws are also quite capable of learning tricks. In short, they are very interactive, high energy and demanding pets.



Most macaws will do well on a good pelleted diet supplemented with nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and other healthful ‘people’ foods.

Useful Resources

I noted a few times above that macaws respond well to training using positive reinforcement. A few books about parrot training are available and include The Parrot Problem Solver by Barbara Heidenreich and Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson.

The best book written about macaws is, alas, out of print. It’s called The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding, and Conservation and it’s by Joanne Abramson (author), Brain L. Speer (author), Jorgen B. Thomsen (editor), and Marsha Mello (illustrator). Used copies are not cheap, but if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a book, try finding a copy at a library. I had to use an inter-library loan to get a copy to look at.

There are a couple of basic macaw care guides available from Avian Publications as well.

The Little Dipper

July 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Part of my job this summer as an interpreter in a national park involves doing “point duties.” This means I set up information displays about specific topics at popular spots in the park and answer people’s questions.

This week, I was set up in front of a popular waterfall. Standing on the rocks in the creek the waterfall flowed into were two small, noisy grey birds. They were bopping up and down while making very loud beeping noises. Another grey bird would would eventually arrive and feed them.

These birds were hard not to notice and of course people wanted to know what type of birds they were. What puzzled people is that these weren’t the typical sorts of birds that are usually seen by water. They weren’t ducks or herons but looked more like songbirds.

They were dippers! More precisely, American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus). Dippers are in the order that contains the songbirds (Passeriformes) but unlike other songbirds they are largely aquatic and inhabit fast-moving streams. Dippers are in the family Cinclidae, which contains five species. Only one species is found in North America, and the rest occur in South America, Europe, Asia, and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In Europe, they are called “Water Ouzels.”

Dippers are the only type of songbird that dive and walk underwater. Despite being aquatic birds, they do not have webbed feet and instead have typical songbird feet, which have three toes pointing forward and one (the “hallux”) pointing backward. The term for that configuration is “anisodactyl.”

Despite the lack of webbed feet, dippers do have several adaptations that make them well suited for an aquatic lifestyle. Their preen glands (“uropygial glands”), which are situated above their tails, are extremely large for their size. In fact, they are about ten times as large as the glands seen in other similar-sized songbirds. Preen glands secrete an oily substance that contains a complex mixture of waxes and other fats. When a dipper preens, it will rub its beak on the preen gland and will proceed to rub the oil on its feathers. The oil helps waterproof the feathers and prevents the barbules from breaking.

Dippers also have flaps in their nostrils that prevent water from entering their noses. While foraging, dippers often repeatedly dip their heads into streams. This bobbing or dipping motion gives them their name.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of dipper biology is the fact that they often stay by mountain streams all year, even in areas where winter temperatures drop well below zero. I’ve seen dippers out foraging in -20 C weather. All they need is open water, and mountain streams in Canada may contain unfrozen parts in winter if they flow fast enough. Many dippers overwinter in northwest Canada and even Alaska, although they will move if their streams freeze over. Their highly waterproof feathers and ultra-thick coats of down contribute to their ability to tolerate some very harsh conditions.

Dippers need to be able to go long periods of time without breathing while they forage underwater. They can indeed go longer without oxygen (30 seconds) than other song bird species can. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like long but it is for such a small bird. Dippers have higher concentrations of hemoglobin in their blood than do other songbirds. Hemoglobin is the pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen and delivers it to tissues. Since dippers can carry a great deal of oxygen in their blood, they can spend a lot of time underwater. They feed primarily on aquatic invertebrates and must often submerge themselves to find them.

To forage underwater, dippers must be able to see underwater. Their irises actually have better developed sphincter muscles associated with them than do the irises of related songbirds. When a dipper goes underwater, the muscle will contract and allow the bird to focus its eyes while underwater. The iridial sphincter muscle is actually strong enough to alter the shape of the lens.

Many aquatic birds (such as ducks and geese) go through a molt at the end of summer that leaves them temporarily flightless. This is because they replace their flight feathers all at once. Although dippers are very distantly related to the Anseridae (family that contains ducks and geese) they do this as well. In late summer, dippers molt out their flight and tail feathers and become incapable of flight at this time. They can fly during the rest of the year, although I rarely see them flying far from streams. Their wings are quite short and stubby, and therefore function well as flippers.


So, if you’re ever hiking by a mountain stream in western North America, keep your eye out for dippers. They may look plain, but are quite tough and fascinating birds!

Crafty Cockatoos; Photo Album

July 11, 2013 Leave a comment

First, a link to an interesting article about the problem-solving abilities of cockatoos:

Cockatoo cracks lock with no prior training.

Goffin’s Cockatoos living at the University of Vienna were able to manipulate a complex lock to retrieve a nut. What’s extraordinary about this is that they were not trained to do that.

The fact that the cockatoos often explore their environment using their sense of touch seemed to help them solve the task. They would feel the nuts and bolts of the lock and learn how they worked by manipulating them with their tongues and feet.

My own Lesser Sulphur-crested cockatoo, Mitri, likes to play with nuts and bolts. He actually started to take his cage apart by removing nuts from bolts.



My husband had to replace the regular nuts with lock nuts (that Mitri cannot unscrew). Mitri is also good at escaping from cages.

The same research group at the University of Vienna also found that the Goffin’s Cockatoos could make their own tools to retrieve a nut out of their reach. Click the below link to find out more:

Cockatoo can make its own tools.

Mitri also uses tools, but not to retrieve nuts. He uses popsicle sticks to scratch himself.


One species of cockatoo, the Black Palm Cockatoo, uses tools as part of a courtship display.

Cockatoos are amazing birds.

On another note, I noted in my last post that I’m working in Waterton Lakes National Park this summer. I’ve been posting some of the photos I’ve taken there on flickr. Click the below link to see the album:

Flickr Photostream

Parrot Magazines

May 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Back to blogging! I have been too busy to do much writing during this last semester because I was teaching three classes and two labs at two different university campuses in two different cities. I barely had time to breathe. However, one of the classes was a fourth-year ornithology class I particularly enjoy teaching and had done before (the other two were new ones). I took Peggy to the first lecture and Ripley to the last lecture and they were quite popular.

I am going to continue to blog about parrots, but am going to start to write about the native birds of North America as well, since I really enjoy bird watching and photographing the wild birds of Alberta (where I live).

On the subject of parrots, my Green-cheek Conure mix, Chiku, was featured on the cover of Parrots magazine. I wrote an article for that issue on Pyrrhura conures.


I lifted the above image from the magazine publisher’s website. I plan to write a few more articles for Parrots this summer.

Unfortunately, a lot of specialty magazines for bird owners have quit publishing recently. Bird Talk stopped publishing a few months ago, and Good Bird stopped publishing this month. Good Bird had been an ‘online only’ magazine for a couple of years, but Bird Talk was always a printed magazine. I had been noticing that Bird Talk was progressively shrinking during its last few years of publication (which I didn’t like) but I’m still disappointed that it went under.

So, what’s left for parrot magazines? There’s Parrots magazine (, which is based out of the UK, and a new one called In Your Flock (, which is based out of the US. I subscribed to the online version of In Your Flock since the publisher hadn’t specified a price for shipping to Canada. However, I recently received a paper copy of the latest issue, so that was a nice surprise.

There’s also Australian Bird Keeper (, which is based out of Australia. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive for people outside of Australia due to shipping charges.

There are a few free online bird publications too. Copies of Parrot Life magazine can be downloaded at . There’s also the Winged Things newsletter – click HERE  to download April’s issue. There are instructions in the .pdf on how to subscribe and access past issues.

I’m sure I’ve missed things, so if anyone would like to add a link to a parrot-related publication, use the comments section (click the comments link at the top of the post) to let me know. Please do note that I have sporadic internet access this summer, which means it can take me time to approve comments.

Edit: Oh yeah, there’s also “Companion Parrot Online” (www.companionparrotonline) published by Sally Blanchard. It’s online now, but if you like paper magazines, you can order back issues.

To end this post, I am going to share a nice photo of a Mountain Bluebird I took last week. I’m working as an interpreter at Waterton Lakes National Park this summer and have been doing a lot of birding and hiking during my ‘off time.’

Mountain Bluebird

Living with a Jenday Conure

January 13, 2013 1 comment

Hey, that Jenday Conure on the cover of the December 2012 “Parrots” magazine looks very familiar!


That’s Peggy, my Jenday Conure. She’s the subject of a feature article I wrote about Jenday Conures. I also outlined how she has adapted to living with only one foot.

She lost one foot in a mishap with a plush bird tent. She had chewed it up and gotten her leg caught in the loose threads and unfortunately, it couldn’t be saved. She’s not the first bird I’ve heard of who has lost an appendage that way, so be cautious with giving birds plush items or ropes.

She has adapted well to her handicap. She can perch just fine, although I do have to provide her with wide, textured perches so she doesn’t slip and fall. Her food also has to be chopped up into bite-sized pieces since she cannot hold food with her feet. Otherwise, she doesn’t need much in the way of special accomodations.

Jendays have a reputations for being extremely loud and screechy. Indeed, I usually warn prospective Jenday owners that these birds are shrill, loud, and are rarely good talkers. Peggy cannot talk at all. I must admit, however, that her other vocalizations don’t bother me much. She’s really not excessively noisy and doesn’t scream much. She will screech if startled or to answer another bird’s call, but she’s not nearly as loud as my cockatoo or macaw. Even so, a lot of Jendays (and the related Sun Conures) do lose their homes due to their voices. They are more likely to be noisy if neglected or if kept in a very noisy household.

Jendays are often mistaken for Sun Conures, but Sun Conures have yellow on the wings (that Jendays lack). Jendays are also similar in appearance to Gold-capped Conures, but the latter are largely green, with a bit of red on the belly and head.


The above illustration (by Frank Knight, from “Parrots of the World” by Joseph Forshaw) shows the difference between Sun and Jenday Conures. Note that the Sun Conure has yellow on the top of the wings, while the Jenday does not. Both species are brighter-coloured as adults than they are as juveniles.

Jendays occur in southeast Brazil (see range map below) and they are not considered endangered, although ultimately very little is known about population trends.


Range of the Jenday Conure. From

Sun Conures occur further north and west (see range map below), and they are considered endangered. Trapping for the pet trade and habitat destruction contintue to pose a threat to its continued existence in the wild.

Range of the Sun Conure. From

Range of the Sun Conure. From

There is one population of Sun Conure that some ornithologists have proposed is a separate species. It occurs in the southern part of the Sun Conure’s range and has some green shading on the upper part of the wings and less orange on the chest. It has been named Aratinga pintoi.


Aratinga pintoi. Painting by Eduardo Parentoni Brettas.

Sun Conures and Jenday Conures are likely the most popular of the Aratinga conures. While they can rarely talk, they can make interesting, interactive pets, due to their bold and curious personalities. They are also among the most beautifully-coloured of birds. They usually do well on a diet of parrot pellets, supplemented with fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and nuts. They can be quite demanding of attention, and require a good variety of chew toys.  Many conures are also acrobatic and enjoy swings and ropes (although I keep all my birds’ rope toys outside their cages so I can be sure they don’t unravel them).

Conures have a reputation for being nippy, although Peggy is actually quite gentle. She will grab onto people’s fingers with her beak before she will step up on someone’s hand, but that’s only so she can steady herself. Conures who are nippy often benefit from training with positive reinforcement (such as clicker training). Regular, gentle handling starting from the time of fledging can also help with preventing a bird from becoming nippy.

I’ll end with this photo I took of Peggy a few months ago. She’s incredibly photogenic!



Forshaw JM, Knight F (illustrator). 2010. Parrots of the World (Princeton Field Guides). Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, USA

Silveira LF, de Lima FCD, Høfling E. 2005. A new species of Aratinga parakeet (Psittaciformes: Psittacidae) from Brazil, with taxonomic remarks on the Aratinga solstitialis complex. The Auk 122: 292-305.

What’s in my birds’ ‘chop.’

December 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Back to blogging! I’ve been extremely busy at work so I haven’t been able to post much during the past three months. However, I should be able to write a few new posts during the winter break.

For this post, I am going to outline what I put in the home-made bird food mix I feed to my birds. My birds do eat a base diet of either pellets (for the parrots), seeds (for the finches and grass parakeets), or game bird mix (quail) but I do feed them all a mix of cooked grain and fresh vegetables a few times per week. I usually make a large batch and freeze little batches in zip-lock baggies. That way, I only have to prepare the mix every few weeks.

Bird blogger Patricia Sund has popularized and written a lot about this method of preparing bird-food mix (“chop”). It does make feeding a large group of birds easier and quicker.

The ‘chop’ I tend to make usually contains a base of grains and pseudograins. ‘Pseudograins’ include amaranth and quinoa. I call them pseudograins, since they are technically not grains (they are not from plants in the grass family), but they are prepared in a similar way. Amaranth was used as a staple food by the Aztecs, and it is still grown in limited quantities in Mexico. It is also grown in India. Quinoa was domesticated in the Andes and today, most quinoa is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Quinoa is starting to become easier to find and most large grocery stores carry it, in their bulk sections or with the rice. Amaranth can be trickier to find but many health-food stores carry it.

I use amaranth and/or quinoa because they contain all of the essential amino acids that birds need. Amaranth in particular contains a good amount of lysine and methionine, which are the two amino acids that are likely to be lacking in a seed diet. Methionine is needed for proper feather formation. Birds can convert it to the amino acid cysteine, which is a large component of the proteins found in feathers. I have found that finches and grass parakeets will eat quinoa or amaranth.

The grains I use vary with each batch but can include quick-cook barley, brown rice, millet, whole wheat couscous, or bulgur. I don’t use white rice, as it doesn’t have much in the way of vitamins, minerals or protein. I cook all grains and pseudograins.

I also add finely-chopped, raw leafy greens to the mix. Other than the society finches, my birds in general won’t eat greens on their own. If I grind them up and add them to a mix containing other foods, they will consume them. The two greens I use most are dandelion greens and kale. Both are very high in vitamin A and calcium. Kale in particular is not only high in calcium, but the calcium it contains can be absorbed by the body quite easily. I don’t use spinach, since the calcium in spinach is not well-absorbed (by humans or animals).

I usually include hulled sesame seeds in the mix, because they contain calcium, and chia and flax seeds, because they are a good source of essential fatty acids. The birds also seem to like them.

Other items I may add include peas, shredded carrot, green beans, cooked lentils, corn, and chopped pepper. Birds will eat hot peppers, so I often use jalapeno peppers.

The mix will vary a bit each time I make it, so the birds do eat a good variety of food. All of my birds do eat this mix, including the finches. I used to leave the larger bits, like corn, peas, green beans and carrot pieces out of the version I made for the finches, but when I gave the finches some mix that had those items, they would eat them by placing them under their feet and pecking at them.

This mix does not comprise the entire diet for my birds. The parrots eat pellets and the finches eat seeds. However, I do give them some of this mix a few times per week and they seem to enjoy it. There are other foods I feed them as well, including nuts, bananas, sprouted seeds, plain seeds, mango, muffins, cooked beans, and berries. The macaw in particular (I have a Blue and Gold Macaw now) receives more nuts than the other birds. I will also feed laying finches or molting birds cooked egg white.

I’ll end this post with a picture of my Maroon-bellied Conure, Lucy, eating. Birds are very messy eaters.


Extinct Parrots of the Eastern Hemisphere

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

In my last post, I introduced the extinct parrots of the Western Hemisphere. In this post, I will introduce the extinct parrots of the Eastern Hemisphere. All but one of these extinct species occurred on small islands. Parrot species restricted to small islands are particularly prone to extinction for several reasons. First, since island species occur on very small areas, populations will naturally be small, so any amount of habitat destruction or hunting will have a negative effect on them. Additionally, isolated islands often lack mammals, which are not as effective as dispersing to islands as the more mobile birds are. As a result, species on isolated islands often lose their instinctive fear of mammals and thus suffer greatly when humans and their pets and livestock arrive.

Extinct Parrots of the Mascarene Islands

The Mascarene Islands are in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. They include Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues, along with several smaller islands. They are volcanic in origin, which means they were never attached to any mainland. This implies that all flora and fauna there would have had to disperse there from other islands or the continents. Thus, there are many birds on the islands, but few mammals. No humans inhabited the islands until Europeans arrived there in the 1600s, an event that was catastrophic for the birds.

Above: map showing location of the Mascarene Islands.

Much of the bird fauna of the Mascarene Islands is now extinct and this includes a few parrot species. The Broad-billed Parrot (Lophopsittacus mauritianus) was found on the island of Mauritius. It was a very curious-looking animal and what is known about its appearance is based on subfossils, three drawings, and two written descriptions. It was quite large, grey (possibly with a blue head), and had a small crest of feathers on the head. It was evidently a very slow, poor flier. Given the lack of ground-based mammalian predators on Mauritius, several species (such as the infamous dodo) evolved flightlessness or poor flight ability. Flight, and the development of the large muscles needed for flight, is a very energetically expensive process, so when bird species have no need for flight to escape predators or forage, they often lose their flying abilities. The Broad-billed Parrot appeared to eat large seeds that could be found on the ground, so it did not need flight to forage.


Broad-billed Parrot illustration by Henrik Gronvold (1907).

Due to its evolutionary history spent on an island with no mammalian predators, Broad-billed Parrots had very little natural fear of man or other mammals, and they were hunted extensively by European travellers and settlers. Introduced rats, cats, mongooses and monkeys also likely preyed on the birds’ eggs and young. The Broad-billed Parrot did not last long after the arrival of mammals to Mauritius, and they disappeared in the late 1600s.

Another parrot existed on the island of Mauritius. It has been placed in the genus Lophopsittacus, but was recently moved to Psittacula, which is the genus that contains the Indian Ring-neck Parakeet. This species, the Mauritius Grey Parrot, or Thirioux’s Grey Parrot, is known from archaeological specimens and traveller’s accounts. It was hunted to extinction because it was extremely easy to catch. Sketches made by Dutch travellers in the 1600s show hunters catching the birds by hand.

Mauritius Grey Parrots were also very attracted to the distress calls of their flockmates; thus, when one bird was caught, it would call and attract other birds. These other birds could then be easily caught by hunters. Grey parrots were also found on the island of Réunion, and they may have been a subspecies of the Mauritius Grey Parrots. They, too, were very easy to catch. They were extinct by the 1750s.

The Mascarene Parrot (Mascarinus mascarinus) occurred on the island of Réunion, and possibly Mauritius (based on vague traveller’s descriptions). It is known from subfossils, descriptions and specimens. Two specimens of this bird still exist in museums.

If Mascarene Parrots occurred on Mauritius, they likely went extinct there very shortly after the arrival of humans. A few specimens were brought to Europe, but most died by 1800, although one hung on until 1834. They were likely gone from the wild by 1800.


Mascarene Parrot, illustration by J. G. Keulemans

Small amounts of DNA have been extracted from a museum specimen of the Mascarene Parrot. Phylogenetic analyses have shown that this species is most closely related to the Lesser Vasa Parrot (Coracopsis nigra, also known as the Black Parrot). Lesser Vasa Parrots occur on Madagascar, Comoros, Mayotte and Seychelles.

The Rodrigues Parrot (Necropsittacus rodericanus) occurred on the island of Rodrigues. It is known from traveller’s descriptions and subfossils. They were green, with large heads and long tails. The last report of the species being seen alive was in 1761.


Rodrigues Parrot, illustration by J. G. Keulemans. As decriptions of this bird were rather vague, the accuracy of this reproduction is unknown.

Another now extinct parrot also occurred on Rodrigues – the Newton’s Parakeet (or Rodrigues Parakeet). This bird was smaller than the Rodrigues Parrot and was about the size of an Indian Ringneck. Unlike wild Indian Ringneck Parakeets, these birds were a slate-grey colour. They looked much like the grey variants of the Indian Ringneck which occurs in some avicultural collections. There are two skins of this bird in existence, and both are at the Cambridge University Museum. The Newton’s Parakeet was last seen alive in 1875.


Newton’s Parakeet, illustration by J. G. Keulemans

The Seychelles

The Seychelles are an island chain located in the Indian Ocean, north of the Mascarene Islands and east of Kenya and Tanzania. Like the Mascarene Islands, the Seychelles lost much of its fauna shortly after the arrival of humans. However, the losses weren’t quite as severe as they were on the Mascarene Islands. However, one parrot species was lost from the island chain: the Seychelles Parakeet (Psittacula wardi).

Ten specimens of the Seychelle’s Parakeet exist today. The bird resembled the Alexandrine Parakeet, but lacked the rosy-coloured collar on the nape and instead had some blue suffusion there and on the cheeks.

The Seychelle’s Parakeet disappeared during the early 1900s. It was apparently a crop pest and was hunted extensively by farmers.


Seychelle’s Parakeet, illustration by J. G. Keulemans

Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is located between New Zealand and New Caledonia. It was inhabited by Polynesians for several generations during the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries, although it was uninhabited when James Cook visited it in 1774. The bird fauna of this island suffered greatly as humans started settling it, and several species were driven to extinction due to predation by rats and cats. Some bird species were also persecuted by humans for being agricultural pests. One of the extinct species was a parrot, the Norfolk Island Kaka (Nestor productus).

The Norfolk Island Kaka was closely related to the Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) of New Zealand. They resembled New Zealand Kaka but had more orange colouring on the breast and cheeks. Several specimens of this species still exist in zoological museums. The Norfolk Island Kaka appears to have disappeared from the wild by the 1830s, and the last captive one died in 1851.


Norfolk Island Kaka (top), New Zealand Kaka (bottom). Illustration by J. G. Keulemans

French Polynesia

There are two extinct parrot species that occurred in French Polynesia, and both are closely related to the Kakarikis of New Zealand.

The Society Parakeet (Cyanoramphus ulietanus) occurred on the island of Raiatea in the Society Islands and it went extinct shortly after its discovery in the late 1700s. Two museum species of this species exist. Unlike the New Zealand Kakarikis, this bird had largely earth-toned feathers. Predation by invasive species (such as rats) likely contributed to its demise.


Society Parakeet

The Black-fronted Parakeet (or Tahiti Parakeet, Cyanoramphus zealandicus) was endemic to Tahiti, and it lasted somewhat longer than the Society Parakeet, as it went extinct in the 1800s. Black-fronted Parakeets looked much like the New Zealand Kakarikis, but they had black lores, red cheeks and red rumps. There are a few specimens of this bird in zoological museums. As is the case with many other species from isolated islands, predation by introduced mammals contributed greatly to demise of the Black-fronted Parakeet.


Black-fronted Parakeet, illustration from Iconographie Orthinologique, by Marc Athanase Parfait Œillet Des Murs.


The last bird discussed here is the only one that did not occur on a small island. The Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus) occurred in northeastern Australia and the last confirmed observation of it was in 1928, although some claimed to see it later than that. Factors that lead to its extinction include habitat destruction, drought, overgrazing, and predation of nests by introduced and native predators.

As its name suggests, the Paradise Parrot was a very colourful and beautiful bird. It was a vivid green-blue, with scarlet feathers on the rump, abdomen, chest and head, and black feathers on the top of the head, wings and back. A few black and white photos of the bird exist, along with museum specimens. They were largely ground feeders and were quite approachable.

The Paradise Parrot is a close relative of the Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus), the Mulga Parrot (Psephotus varius), the Blue Bonnet (Psephotus haematogaster) and Golden-shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius).


Paradise Parrot, illustration by W. T Greene


Forshaw, J. M., and Cooper, W. T. (Illustrator). 1977. Parrots of the World. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ, USA.

Hume, J. P. 2007. Reappraisal of the parrots (Aves: Psittacidae) from the Mascarene Islands, with comments on their ecology, morphology, and affinities. Zootaxa, 1513, 1-76.

IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1.

Kundu, S. Jones, C. G., Prys-Jones, R. P., and Groombridge, J. J. 2012. The evolution of the Indian Ocean Parrots (Psittaciformes): Extinction, adaptive radiation, and eustacy. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 62, 296-305.

Extinct Parrots Part I: The Western Hemisphere

August 31, 2012 Leave a comment

While a few parrot species are quite abundant, many are endangered due to habitat destruction or capture for the pet trade. Additionally, several island species (like the Ultramarine Lorikeet or Kakapo) are endangered because they have been preyed upon extensively by introduced predators, such as cats or rats. Many parrot species exist in the wild today only because of intense efforts by conservationists to protect them.

Unfortunately, it is too late to save some parrot species. This series of articles will introduce the extinct species, starting with those from the Western Hemisphere. The majority of extinct parrots from that area are species that occurred in the Caribbean. Unless otherwise noted, the paintings with this article were done by the Dutch bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans. They appeared in the book Extinct Birds by Walter Rothschild. The below chart lists the extinct parrot species from the Caribbean, and North and South America.

Two of the extinct parrots of the Caribbean were Amazons. The Martinique Amazon occurred on the island of Martinique, and it disappeared in 1722. The likely cause of extinction was deforestation, and possibly hunting.

Martinique Amazon.

The Martinique Amazon was a  green bird, with some red on the wings, throat and tail. The head was apparently slate coloured.

The Guadeloupe Amazon occurred on the island of Guadeloupe, and the last records of it are from 1779, although it is unclear exactly when it went extinct. A combination of hunting and deforestation likely lead to its demise.

Guadeloupe Amazon

The Guadeloupe Amazon was, like most Amazons, a primarily green bird. However, the neck, head and belly were violet mixed with black, and they had yellow and red on the wings. These birds looked much like Imperial Amazons, which still occur on the island of Dominica.

There are no specimens left of either of the Martinique or the Guadeloupe Amazon, and they are known only from traveler’s accounts.

There are six possible extinct macaws from the Western Hemisphere and five of these are from the Caribbean. I say six “possible” macaws, as some of the species listed below may be subspecies of each other.

The Dominican Green-and-Yellow Macaw occurred on Dominica and was described in 1791. It is known from the writings of only one person, and there are no archaeological remains of it. It was apparently green and yellow with some red on the head. It is unclear when it went extinct, but it was likely during the late 18th or early 19th century. The birds were hunted as a source of food and were sometimes kept as pets.

The Jamaican Green-and-Yellow Macaw, much like the other extinct parrots described thus far, is known only from written descriptions. It was described in 1847, and likely disappeared in the 19th century.

The written description of this bird, by a Mr. Gosse, is as follows:

“:—” Head red; neck, shoulders, and underparts of a light and lively green; the greater wing coverts and quills, blue; and the tail scarlet and blue on the upper surface, with the under plumage, both of wings and tail, a mass of intense orange yellow. The specimen here described was procured in the mountains of Trelawny and St. Anne’s by Mr. White, proprietor of the Oxford estate.”

Jamaican Green and Yellow Macaw. The “yellow” on this bird was under the wings and tail.

Mr. Gosse also noted that a Reverend had seen two of the birds flying at the foot of the mountains.

The extinct Jamaican Red Macaw appears to have resembled the extinct Cuban Macaw, and the two may have been of the same species. Unlike the Cuban Macaw, of which there are specimens left, the Jamaican Red Macaw is known only from descriptions. The last known specimen was taken in 1765.

Mr. Gosse described it as follows:

Basal half of upper mandible black ; apical half, ash coloured ; lower mandible, black, tip only ash coloured ; forehead, crown, and back of neck, bright yellow ; sides of face, around eyes, anterior and lateral parts of the neck, and back, a fine scarlet ; wing coverts and breast deep sanguine red ; winglet and primaries an elegant light blue. The legs and feet are said to have been black ; the tail, red and yellow intermixed (Rob.)

Jamaican Red Macaw

The Lesser Antillean Macaw is another primarily red, Caribbean Macaw that is known only from descriptions. This bird was described by multiple authors and appeared to be rare by 1760. It occurred on Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The Cuban Macaw occurred on Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines), which is just off the coast of western Cuba. It is much better known that the other extinct Caribbean Parrots, as several skins exist in museums.

Cuban Macaws were widely hunted for meat and for the pet trade, and they also experienced a major loss of habitat due to deforestation. The last documented specimen was shot in 1864, though the species may have held on until 1885.

Cuban Macaws were primarily red, with blue on the wings and tail. They were a little smaller than other members of the genus Ara, at about 40-50 cm long.

Cuban Macaw

There was one conure species that occurred on Guadeloupe, the Guadeloupe Parakeet. These were green conures with pale beaks. They also had a bit of red on the head. Apparently, they were kept as pets and could be taught to speak easily. The species may have occurred on Martinique and Barbados as well, although due to a lack of clear descriptions of the conures that occurred on those islands, they have not been given taxonomic names. The conures on those islands may have been imports from the mainland. Guadeloupe Parakeets appeared to have gone extinct in the second half of the 18th century.

Guadeloupe Conure

Rothschild also lists a species of “purple macaw” (Anodorhynchus purpurascens) that is proposed to have existed on Guadeloupe.

Purple Macaw of Guadeloupe?

The above illustration shows a Purple Macaw. It does look suspiciously like a Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthicus) and the Purple Macaws may have simply been hyacinths (or perhaps Lear’s Macaws) from the mainland. However, hyacinths are more of a cobalt blue than violet, and some travelers did report seeing violet parrots on Guadeloupe. However, those may have been Guadeloupe Amazons.  Since the descriptions of the various Caribbean parrots from the 1600-1800s were so vague, very little is known about the ones that went extinct.

There are other paintings of extinct macaw species in Rothschild’s book and they are interesting to say the least. The paintings are based on collections of vague descriptions of macaws and since these birds look so much like hybrids of hyacinths and scarlet or blue and gold macaws, I wonder if they were based on separate descriptions of completely different macaws brought from the mainland. The bird labelled “Ara erythrura” looks like it has a hyacinth head on a blue and gold’s body (with a scarlet macaw tail) and the bird labelled “Ara martinicus” looks like a hyacinth mixed with a blue and gold.

Macaw (“Ara erythrura”)

Macaw (“Ara martinicus“)

Speaking of Hyacinth Macaws, there is one potentially extinct blue macaw from mainland South America that most certainly did exist. I am referring to the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus), formerly of northern Argentina, southern Paraguay, northeastern Uruguay and adjacent parts of Brazil. It probably went extinct during the 1960s. However, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the species as “critically endangered,” since there is a small possibility that a few birds exist in very isolated areas.

Glaucous Macaw painting by Bourjot Saint-Hilaire

The most recent parrot extinction in the Western Hemisphere involved the Carolina Parakeet. This bird – a close relative of the Aratinga conures – occurred in woodlands in the eastern United States. This is the only parrot species that occurred in the eastern US in historic times. The last documented wild specimen was killed in 1908 and the last captive individual died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

Several factors contributed to the demise of the Carolina Parakeet. Much of their habitat was destroyed by European settlers, and introduced honeybees competed with the birds for nesting holes. The birds were also shot for their plumage, which was used to decorate women’s hats, and  for being agricultural pests. Unfortunately, the birds’ habit of gathering around fallen flock members made them an easy target for hunters.

DNA obtained from museum specimens of Carolina Parakeets has been compared to that of several extant South and Central American species. The Carolina Parakeet’s closest living relatives include Aratinga auricapillus (Gold-capped Conure), Aratinga solstitialis (Sun Conure), and Nandayus nenday (Nanday Conure). The Jenday Conure (Aratinga jandaya) is also likely a close relative but was not included in the study.

Carolina Parakeets. Painting by John James Audubon.

The next post in this series will describe the recently extinct parrot species of the Eastern Hemisphere. As is the case with the Western Hemisphere, most of these species were from islands.

Major References

Kirchman, J. J., Schirtzinger , E. E., and Wright, T. F. 2012. Phylogenetic relationships of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) inferred from DNA sequence data. Auk, 129, 197-294.

IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1.

Rothschild, LW. 1907. Extinct birds : an attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times : that is, within the last six or seven hundred years: to which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction. Hutchinson and Co., London. Online Version.

Feeding Finches, Budgies and other Seed-eating Birds

July 26, 2012 5 comments

I’ve written a bit about feeding parrots in the post “The Benefits of Fresh Food for your Companion Parrot.” Generally, most parrots will do just fine on a diet of pellets and healthful fresh foods. A few, like lories, do have more specialized needs, although there are commercial nectar mixes for them. Finches, on the other hand, can be very difficult to convert to pellets, and I’ve noticed that few finch keepers actually feed pellets. Budgies and Australian grass parakeets can also be extremely difficult to convince to eat pellets. Therefore, my finches, budgie. and Bourke’s Parakeet all receive a base diet of seeds. However, seeds do not provide them with all the nutrients and minerals they need. Luckily, there are some non-seed items that they will eat, and I think I’ve been successful in getting them to eat a healthful diet.

Bourke’s Parakleet

The seed mixes my finches eat are generally lacking in vitamin A. However, the majority of my finches will eat broccoli, which contains a great deal of vitamin A and some calcium, so I place some broccoli in their cages several times a week. The Society Finches in particular really snap it up.

The seed mixes also don’t contain sufficient protein or all the amino acids the birds need. There are a few ways I remedy this. I’ve found that most birds are willing to consume cooked quinoa, and that includes my finches and Australian parakeets. I frequently offer them cooked, cooled quinoa. Since the budgie and Bourke’s Parakeet don’t eat broccoli, I do get them to consume some green matter by grinding some greens very finely in a food processor and mixing it with the quinoa. They will generally eat that. Sometimes I use bulgur or millet instead of quinoa. I frequently feed a mix of chopped greens and grain and/or quinoa to my parrots as well, but I will add peas, beans and chopped vegetables to it.

Cooked egg is also a wonderful source of protein, and I also offer it to the seed eaters a couple times per week.  I offer “egg food” daily to finches who are laying eggs or feeding youngsters. Gouldians who are molting also receive it daily. The egg food mix can vary slightly but it will contain ground, cooked egg (with shell if I am feeding laying females), very finely ground greens (often dandelion greens), ground flax seed and ground commercial egg mix. I more often than not leave out the egg yolk for non-breeding birds and will add more greens, so they don’t become overweight. Button Quail also seem to like this food. All of my seed-eating birds will gladly eat egg.

Society Finches

Society Finches

Another way I get extra nutrition into the seed eaters is by sprouting the seeds. That does change their nutritional content for the better. Sprouting could be another topic on its own, but I’ve provided a about it at the end of this post. I offer sprouted seeds to my large parrots as well.

Finally, I do give the finches, budgies and Bourke’s a vitamin supplement every week and they all have a cuttlebone in their cage. The supplement I use is called “Prime,” and it is designed for birds on a seed diet. I do not put it in the water but rather place it in their peanut- or almond butter. This is a trick I learned from the breeder of my Gouldians. The Gouldians I got were all used to eating peanut butter and I offered some to my Society, Zebra and Spice Finches. They loved it! Since they all eat it, I use it as a way to give them vitamin supplements.


Sprouting for Healthier Birds

(this article seems aimed at parrot owners, but sprouts for finches can be prepared the same way. Just use small seeds).

Categories: Birds, Finches, Pet Parrots, Quail

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