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!
First, a link to an interesting article about the problem-solving abilities of cockatoos:
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:
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:
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 (www.parrotmag.com), which is based out of the UK, and a new one called In Your Flock (https://www.inyourflock.com/), 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 (http://www.birdkeeper.com.au/), 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 http://www.hagen.com/hari/welcome.html . 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. www.iucnredlist.org
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
Rothschild also lists a species of “purple macaw” (Anodorhynchus purpurascens) that is proposed to have existed on 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. http://www.iucnredlist.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
(this article seems aimed at parrot owners, but sprouts for finches can be prepared the same way. Just use small seeds).
The Personable Pyrrhura Conures: at Home and in the Wild
The description of Chiku on the rescue group’s website said he needed “someone with experience because he is definitely dynamite in a small package.” Chiku is a hybrid Pyrrhura conure I had offered to foster for a rescue until he could be adopted. However, I later decided to adopt him. He’s a firecracker, but he endeared himself to me anyway. Of course, that’s not difficult for a Pyrrhura conure to do, as these long-tailed, little green birds are among my favourite parrots. They can make engaging companions and display some very intriguing behaviour in the wild.
I wasn’t sure what Chiku would look like when I agreed to take him in. He’s apparently a mix of Green-cheeked Conure, Maroon-bellied Conure, and Crimson-bellied Conure. He turned out to look just like a Green-cheeked Conure, albeit with a few patches of crimson under his wings and some olive shading on his tail. Chiku loves to say his name over and over again in a very excited voice. I was warned that Chiku dislikes men and had even stalked one victim by trying to squeeze under a door. True to form, Chiku flew at my husband and bit his ear upon first seeing him.
I cannot say why Chiku dislikes men so. Perhaps he’s more used to women and sees men as rivals that need to be driven away. However, as a result of patience and many offerings of sunflower seeds, my husband can now hold Chiku without ending up with a bird as an earring. Chiku turned out to be a great companion to me, especially when I got a temporary sessional teaching job at a university an hour and a half away from where I live. Chiku was allowed to stay with me in the room I rented there during weekdays so I brought him along. He seemed to enjoy the weekly car trips, especially going through drive thrus. He likes to receive small pieces of American biscuits as a treat, along with drinks of juice. During car trips, I kept him in a small travel cage secured to the passenger seat for his safety.
Chiku’s personality is very different from that of my thirteen-year-old Maroon-bellied Conure, Lucy. Lucy is mellow and a bit shy at times. Before getting Lucy, I had decided to look for a Pyrrhura conure in need of a home, because they are typically quiet, small, smart, and easy-to-handle. However, as Chiku shows, some individuals are little firecrackers and need careful handling.
Pyrrhura Conure Species
“Conures” are actually a large group of small or medium long-tailed parrots from Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Note that some bird guides will refer to conures as “parakeets.” There are dozens of conure species in several genera, although the genera Aratinga and Pyrrhura are the two largest. There are 30 species in the genus Pyrrhura (see sidebar), and they are generally smaller and quieter than the larger conure species in the genus Aratinga, which include Sun, Jenday, Blue-crowned and Cherry-headed conures. Pyrrhura conures are primarily green, and range from 21-30 cm long, which makes them about cockatiel sized or smaller. The majority of species have a scaly pattern on their chest feathers and some maroon on their tails, with many species having completely maroon-coloured tails. Most also have white eye rings that contrast strongly with their dark faces and deep blue fight feathers.
The vast majority of Pyrrhura conures occur in the northern half of South America. However, the Sulphur-winged Conure (Pyrrhura hoffmanni) occurs in southern Costa Rica and western Panama and the Azuero Conure (P. eisenmanni) occurs on the Azuero Peninsula, in southern Panama. Maroon-bellied (P. frontalis) and Green-cheeked Conures (P. molinae) occur the farthest south, into northern Argentina.
The two most common species of Pyrrhura in captivity are the Green-cheeked and Maroon-bellied Conures. These two species are similar in appearance, although green cheeks have darker feathers on the tops of their heads and solid maroon-coloured tails, while maroon bellies have green feathers on the tops of their heads and olive and maroon-coloured tails. Chiku, having ancestors of both species, has the dark “cap” of a Green-cheeked Conure and the maroon and olive tail of the Maroon-bellied Conure.
Black-capped (P. rupicola), Fiery-shouldered (P. egregia), and Crimson-bellied Conures (P. perlata) are also frequently bred in captivity and their names give useful clues in identifying them. Black-capped Conures do indeed have black caps (along with dark upper chest feathers edged with white) and Fiery-shouldered Conures have orange on the bends of their wings. Adult Crimson-bellied Conures are hard to mistake for any other species, as they have bright, crimson-red bellies. However, juvenile crimson bellies will only have a few crimson feathers on their bellies. Pearly Conures (P. lepida) are also common in avicultural collections and have some blue suffusion on their chests (and sometimes throats) and lack the red on the belly that green cheeks and maroon bellies possess. They also have red on the bend of their wings. Blaze-winged Conures (P. devillei, not to be confused with Fiery-shouldered Conures) are also sometimes seen in captivity and they look very much like maroon-bellies but have red on the bend of their wings. In fact, some ornithological references treat the Fiery-shouldered Conure as a subspecies of the Maroon-bellied Conure.
Blue-throated (P. cruentata), Rose-crowned (P. rhodocephala), Painted (P. picta), Maroon-tailed (P. melanura), Sulphur-winged (P. hoffmanni), Grey-breasted (P. griseipectus), Emma’s (P. emma) and White-eared Conures (P. leucotis) are rare in captivity but have been bred by some aviculturalists. The remaining Pyrrhura species are either extremely rare or non-existent in captivity.
Most Pyrrhura species can likely be bred together to produce hybrids, although this is not commonly done and is a very controversial practice. I personally would not breed hybrid parrots, although I think that ones like Chiku who are already here certainly deserve good homes as pets.
Most Pyrrhura conures are forest-dwelling birds that live in small or medium flocks, with up to about forty birds. Flock sizes for most species will vary during the year, with large flocks breaking into smaller ones during the dry season (when food is scarcer) or during the breeding season.
Pyrrhura conures can sometimes be difficult to view in the wild. This is because they blend in with foliage quite well, may forage in trees tens of meters high, and are usually quiet while foraging. However, they often vocalize right before taking flight and thus are often seen while flying away. When I saw Green-cheeked Conures in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, it was usually a view of their backs and tails as they flew through the trees. They were amazingly fast and agile in flight, due to their long and streamlined shapes. One bird did stand on a tree branch out in the open eating a fruit just long enough for me to take her picture. She and her flock mates appeared to be waiting their chance to grab a meal at a bird feeder that some very noisy Peach-fronted Conures (Aratinga aurea) had monopolized.
Compared with other parrot species, few formal studies have been done on wild Pyrrhura conures, although based on what we know, they display many intriguing behaviours that are actually quite odd for parrots. For example, in an article in Bird Talk, biologist Donald Brightsmith reported on some very interesting behaviour in a group of four Painted Conures. First, all four conures – at least one of which was a juvenile – were tending to the same nest. This is unusual, because in most parrot species, only two birds will tend to a nest. However, many other bird species, such as Florida scrub jays, will breed cooperatively. In such species, juveniles may stay with their parents or another pair for a time and help them raise young. Perhaps the group of four painted conures included two parents and two young “helpers”.
The Painted Conures also did something clever when a group of potential nest predators (brown capuchin monkeys, Cebus apella) started to approach their nesting hole. When one of the monkeys started to climb down a vine that would lead it close to the nest, one of the conures flew to a spot above the nest, hung upside down and started to call loudly, perhaps to lead the monkeys away from the nest. One monkey then tried to grab the conure, who flew off just in time. The conure was then joined by its other three flockmates, who flew off through the trees, followed by the monkeys.
El Oro Conures (P. orcesi) may also breed cooperatively, as more than two birds of this species have been seen tending to single nests. The El Oro Conure, which is from Ecuador, is considered endangered because it is found only within an area about 100 km long and 5-10 km wide and deforestation is further reducing the amount of available habitat for it. Conservationists have set up artificial nest boxes for P. orcesi to help boost the population. Like most other parrot species, Pyrrhura conures nest in tree cavities, which means that extensive deforestation can leave them with few suitable nesting spots.
In Colombia, conservationists with the group ProAves (with funding from the Loro Parque Fundación) have also set up artificial nest boxes for Perijá Conures (P. caeruleiceps) and Santa Marta Conures (P. viridicata). The provisioning of artificial nest boxes is a common strategy to increase the populations of endangered parrots and has also been used to increase numbers of wild Blue-throated Macaws (Ara glaucogularis) and Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthicus).
Continuous conservation efforts are going to be necessary to preserve the diversity of Pyrrhura conures. Out of twenty Pyrrhura species evaluated, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists one as critically endangered, three as endangered, three as vulnerable, three as near threatened, and ten as least concern (see sidebar for details). Habitat destruction remains the biggest threat to the persistence of endangered Pyrrhura species, with illegal capture for the pet trade also representing a threat to some populations. Many captured conures are sold in local markets, as parrots are often kept as pets in South and Central America.
Fortunately, some Pyrrhura species are still abundant in the wild and actually appear to be quite tolerant of human disturbance. For example, Maroon-bellied Conures can be found in parks and gardens in the sprawling cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Wild Pyrrhura conures are flexible in their dietary habits and will eat a variety of seeds, fruit pulps, sprouts, grains, nectar, and flowers. In regions where figs are available, conures may consume large numbers of them. For instance, in western Brazil, biologists found that figs made up 70% of the diet of a population of Green-cheeked Conures. Some Pyrrhura conures will also eat insect larvae and will dig them out of plant galls. A plant gall is a large outgrowth in a plant produced in response to insect activity or bacterial, viral or fungal infections. Many galls have insect larvae growing in them.
Maroon-bellied Conures have been reported to eat leaves, which is unusual since leaves can be difficult to digest and parrots generally do not eat them. However, the birds may have been eating larvae from leaf galls. Pyrrhura conures have also been seen at clay licks and will consume some clay, possibly for the minerals it contains.
Foraging flocks of Maroon-bellied Conures may contain one or two birds acting as sentinels. These birds will perch on branches above the rest of the flock and will vocalize if a threat (such as a predator) is seen. No one individual will act as the sentinel at all times; rather, birds appear to take turns being on watch duty.
Like wild Pyrrhura conures, captive ones will generally eat a variety of food. I feed Lucy and Chiku! a diet of pellets, supplemented with cooked whole grains and beans, seeds, sprouts, nuts, vegetables and fruit. Both birds also like to sample my herbal teas and they love fruit juice. They will eat most things I offer them.
One of the frequently cited advantages of keeping Pyrrhura conures is that they are quiet. This is, of course, relative to other popular parrot types, such as cockatoos, Amazons and some larger Aratinga conures. Any Pyrrhura conure will make some noise, including a bit of squawking. Additionally, the noise a Pyrrhura makes may not include talking, as Pyrrhura conures are not known for exceptional talking ability. Lucy does not talk at all, and Chiku! can say his name and does whistle a bit. However, some individuals may learn to say a dozen or so words.
Pyrrhura conures can be quite active and playful, and should be given large cages relative to their sizes, plenty of out-of-cage time and a variety of safe items to chew on. Pyrrhura personalities seem to be all over the map, ranging from shy and gentle to fiery and possessive. Most are fun, agreeable birds, and I recommend that people interested in a conure spend time with any bird they are considering taking in to be sure that its personality will be compatible with theirs.
I have found that Pyrrhura conures are easy to train and will enjoy training sessions that are kept fun and positive. I have done some clicker training with Lucy and Chiku and both picked up target training very rapidly. Target training involves teaching a bird to touch the end of a stick on cue. Lucy actually learned to target, turn around, lift a foot and ring a bell in about a week with short daily training sessions.
I often call Pyrrhura conures “macaws compressed down into a handful of bird,” since they are small but have big personalities. In fact, genetic studies suggest that they actually are more closely related to macaws than any other bird type! Pyrrhura conures can also be very interesting to watch in the wild, and for those able to give one the time and attention he needs (which is a lot!), a conure can make a terrific companion.