Living with a Maroon-bellied Conure
On to conures now! Here’s an article I wrote for the December 2006 issue of Parrots magazine. Since I wrote it, I’ve done more clicker training with Lucy. She’s a very fast and eager learner. I often refer to Pyrrhura conures as macaws scrunched down into a handful of bird. They have a lot of personality, but are a nice size and aren’t too loud.
Living with a Maroon-bellied Conure
As often happens with new parrot owners, a few months after getting my first bird, (Garnet the Lineolated Parakeet), I decided that one parrot wasn’t enough and that I wanted to add another one to the family. After all, I had the room, and had become captivated with these clever, charismatic animals. However, deciding on the species to adopt was difficult, given the wonderful diversity of parrot species available as pets. I did want to limit my search to a medium-sized species, but many such parrots exist. For example, Green-cheeked and Maroon-bellied Conures are gorgeous, a nice size and very clever, but Quaker Parakeets are too, and they are often talented talkers. On the other hand, Senegal Parrots also have that “big parrot in a small body” quality I was looking for and they can also make pleasant companions.
So, I started to keep my eyes open for a parrot of one these species that seemed to like me and needed a home. I eventually came across the website of a local parrot breeder who had two adult Maroon-bellied Conures available, and I decided to have a look at them. They were a breeding pair that was separated because they began to fight with each other. They were about six years old, and since both were friendly to people, they were being adopted out as pets. One of them – a bold female named Callie – was immediately up on my shoulder and would gladly step up onto my hand. It didn’t take me very long to decide to adopt her, and my husband, Quentin, and I re-named her “Lucy.”
Maroon-Bellied vs. Green Cheek Conure
The Maroon-bellied Conure belongs to the Pyrrhura genus of conures, which are a group of small, long-tailed parrots from South America. The Lexicon of Parrots lists sixteen different species in the genus, although not all of them are common in aviculture. The Maroon-bellied Conure (Pyrrhura frontalis) and the Green-cheeked Conure (Pyrrhura molinae), are the most common members of the genus in captivity and they are very similar to each other. They are both about cockatiel-sized, and are dark green with light brown chests, blue flight feathers, long, wedge-shaped tails and white eye rings. The names of these two conures do not give away their differences, since both species have maroon-coloured bellies. However, a look at the birds’ tails and heads can allow one to see the difference. A Green-cheeked Conure’s tail will be solid maroon, whereas a Maroon-bellied Conure’s will be maroon on the bottom and light olive-green tipped with brownish red on the top. The top of a Green-cheek Conure’s head will be a dark greyish colour, while the top of a Maroon-bellied Conure’s head will be green.
Other Pyrrhura Species
Several other Pyrrhura species can also be found in the pet trade and like the Maroon-bellied and Green-cheeked Conures, they are small birds that have dark green wings and backs and red or maroon tails. This trait gives this group of birds their name – the genus name Pyrrhura comes from the Greek terms “pyrros” and “auro,” which mean “fire” and “tail,” respectively. Other Pyrrhura conures seen as pets include the Black-capped Conure (P. rupicola), the Pearly Conure (P. perlata lepida), the Crimson-belled Conure (P. perlata perlata), the Painted Conure (P. picta), the White-eared Conure (P. leucotis) and the Fiery-shouldered Conure (P. egregia). Most of the information I provide below on Maroon-bellies will be applicable to these and other Pyrrhura species.
The “Quiet” Conures
As a whole, conures have a reputation for being very noisy birds. Certainly, many of the large conures in the Aratinga genus, such as the Sun Conure, can produce very loud shrieks that may leave their owners wanting some earplugs. The small Pyrrhura conures can also produce shrill calls, but they are not as loud as the calls produced by their bigger, brighter cousins. This makes Pyrrhura conures a suitable choice of parrot for most living situations, including apartments. Lucy is generally quiet during the day aside from a few low-volume squawks, and she will give a few contact calls in the morning if I’m late getting up, but her calls are no where near as loud as the ones produced by Ripley, my Red-lored Amazon, or by Randy, a Quaker Parakeet I am currently fostering for a local parrot rescue. She is, however, a little bit louder than my Lineolated Parakeets, Garnet and Emerald, but “Linnies” are among the quietest of all parrot species.
Pyrrhura conures are not exceptional talkers and most that learn to use human speech only say up to 10 to 20 words, although a few exceptionally gifted individuals certainly exist. Lucy has a low, robotic speaking voice that’s hard to understand and she does not talk much, although she does a convincing (not to mention irritating) imitation of a squeaky rodent wheel. However, I’ve met some Maroon bellies at pet stores and parrot club meetings that chat non-stop in a quiet, raspy voice, so whether or not a Pyrrhura conure says much seems to depend on the individual bird’s personality.
Feeding a Pyrrhura Conure
Wild Maroon-bellied Conures eat foods from at least two dozen plant species, which can include domesticated crop species and introduced exotic ones. Seeds and grains make up a large portion of their diet, as do leaves. This makes the diet of this species a bit different from the diet most other wild parrot species, which do not eat mature leaves. Many wild parrots will, however, eat leaf buds. Since wild Maroon-bellies eat leaves, I would think that pet ones would benefit from having green, leafy foods like dandelion leaves, turnip greens, kale, or mustard greens provided to them. I often clip such foods up in Lucy’s cage. Wild Maroon-bellies also eat sprouts, stems, fruit pulp, insect galls and parts of conifer cones.
Much like their wild counterparts, pet Maroon-bellied Conures appreciate and thrive on a varied diet. Conures that were weaned onto a varied diet, as Lucy was, are very likely to accept a wide variety of foods. Lucy eats a diet composed of about 50% pellets (RoudyBush and Harrison’s brand), with the rest composed of “human food” including whole grains such as quinoa, fruit, vegetables, nuts (including pine nuts), seeds, and lentils. The fruit and vegetable portion of her diet leans heavily towards dark green, red or orange ones like bell peppers (Lucy’s favorite!), mango, sweet potato, carrot, broccoli, and dandelion leaves because of their high vitamin A content. She also adores fresh raspberries (straight from the backyard), corn, snap peas, prickly pear fruits, grapes (seeds included), and bits of apple. Feeding her a balanced diet is no problem, as she will eat nearly anything. In fact, she is as bad as our dogs when it comes to begging for food, since she bobs her head rapidly (a begging gesture) at anyone she sees eating. She is generally given her fresh “people food” during dinner time, so she doesn’t feel left out. She’s quite a messy eater and tosses a lot of food to the floor, so of course our smaller dog, Pharaoh, loves to hang out under her play stand.
Housing a Conure
Don’t let their small size fool you: the Pyrrhura conures are very active birds with a lot of energy! As a result, they need relatively large-sized cages for their size. Pyrrhura conures are about the size of a cockatiel, but I have noticed that most cockatiel cages are a bit small for them. A cage intended for a slightly larger bird is best, as long as the bar spacing is appropriate. Of course, the cage must be outfitted with a variety of perches and toys. For example, Lucy’s cage contains wood perches, a rope perch, and a cement perch. Her toys include a large bundle of twigs and some branches for her to chew on, some peacock feathers for her to preen and destroy, and a ladder. She also has a box of various store-bought toys I rotate in and out of her cage for variety. Most conures seem to enjoy chewing twigs and taking the bark off of larger branches, so I generally recommend clean, non-toxic, unsprayed branches as an enrichment item for them.
A play stand is also an excellent item for a conure owner to purchase or build, as having one will give the owner a place to put the conure when she is out of the cage but not perching on the owner. Being out on the play stand also gives the parrot a change of scenery from the usual cage she is in. I bought Lucy’s play stand at a pet shop, but one can also be made out of natural branches. Lucy’s play stand has a spot for food and water bowls, and hooks that toys can be hanged from. Beside the spot her play stand is usually located hangs a very large, coiled rope she loves to climb and swing on. Conures are very acrobatic parrots, so they often appreciate the opportunity to play on ropes or swings. Many of them also love to play on their backs, but Lucy does not.
Bath and Sleep Time
Most Pyrrhura conures enjoy bathing, and Lucy seems to have a bath in her rather large water dish almost daily, as evidenced by the fact that she, and the papers on her cage’s bottom, are often soaked when I go to check them upon arriving home from work. I also frequently offer her a large, shallow container of water for her to bathe in while she is out of her cage.
A bathing container for a conure should be big enough for the bird to get right into, and the water should be relatively shallow – about an inch or so deep will do; maybe a bit less for a bird that has never tried a bath before. The conure will likely splash the water around with her head so she gets wet all over. Most conures prefer to bathe in a tub of water over receiving a shower. Lucy seems to hate being sprayed, so I do not shower her as I do the Garnet, Emerald, and Ripley. Randy seems to like showers or a bath.
While they love to play and socialize, Pyrrhura conures also need plenty of quiet time to sleep. About 10 hours each night is needed, and most will also appreciate the chance to have an afternoon nap. Many of them also enjoy sleeping in cloth huts, which is fine as long as the bird doesn’t start treating it as a nest area. I offered one of these to Lucy after seeing another conure sleeping in one, but I eventually took it away since she ignored it for many months.
The Pyrrhura Persona
Among the most gregarious parrots I have ever met are several Pyrrhura conures. These little parrots, if treated gently and with affection, are typically very sociable. When handled frequently from a young age by a number of people, most will not become “one-person birds” that attack all but the favored person. Of course, every parrot is an individual, and a few conure owners do struggle with this problem. Luckily, I do not; as Lucy will step up nicely for almost anyone she meets. She is also quite affectionate and allows me to preen the feathers on her head, and she enjoys sitting on my shoulder while I type or read. However, when she gets bored of that, she climbs down and often starts to peck at the computer mouse or keyboard or shred papers. When she does this I put her on her play stand where she can play with something more appropriate. Most Pyrrhura conures love to chew and shred paper, and get into things they shouldn’t. For their safety, supervision is needed when a Pyrrhura conure is out of her cage. These little birds are very curious and may go exploring and create mischief or hurt themselves when not being watched.
Above: Lucy decides to have a bath at a bird show. She’s very outgoing and likes outings.
The most common problem faced by owners of these little parrots is likely nippiness. It is certainly not an unsolvable problem by any means and most conures that are taught commands like “step up”” using kind, positive techniques are easily to handle. Pyrrhura conures in general are not overly aggressive, but potential owners should be willing to work around any nippiness that could occur. Luckily, Lucy rarely nips, and has never broken my skin. Her body language generally lets me know if she’s likely to nip which helps me avoid being bitten. If she’s standing upright with her nape feathers erect, I wait for her to relax before picking her up. When on her cage or play stand, she also sometimes does what I call the “conure strut,” where she slowly struts back and forth while striking at the air with her beak. This little display basically means, “Back off!” Once she stops strutting, she’s again safe to pick up. She was quite cage territorial when I got her, so I had to wait for her to come out on her own before asking her to step up, although she now allows me to place my hand in her cage with no problems.
Feather-picking in Conures
Another potential problem a conure owner may have to deal with is feather-plucking. It’s not common in these birds, but does occasionally occur. About three months after we brought her home, Lucy began shredding her chest feathers. This puzzled and alarmed me, as she was eating a balanced diet, had lots of toys to chew on, got plenty of exercise (she was unclipped) and bathed often. What was I doing wrong?
So, it was off to the veterinarian to make sure she was completely healthy. She was, and the vet recommended that we make sure she had lots of toys to shred and play with to distract her from chewing her feathers. I had been giving her branches and other toys to chew on. However, I did catch her playing with a feather she shed which gave me the idea of giving her some peacock feathers to play with. I ordered some natural feathers, washed them, and clipped several in her cage. She did indeed begin shredding those, in addition to the extra twigs and paper I gave her.
She stopped destroying her chest feathers after a couple of weeks, and they all eventually molted and grew back. Again, almost exactly one year later, she began over preening her feathers again, but this episode was brief and the destruction wasn’t nearly as bad. Her feather condition has since improved. My theory is now that the over preening was a displacement behavior that occurred when she went into breeding mode and did not have a mate. Since she couldn’t mate and lay eggs she put her energies into preening herself, which got so excessive that she wrecked some of her feathers. Giving her extra toys and objects to shred seemed to give her an alternative activity to ruining her own feathers.
Good “Starter” Birds
Many general books and websites on parrots note that Pyrrhura conures can make excellent pets for first-time parrot owners. They do have many characteristics that make this true – they fit into almost any living situation because of their small size and relatively quiet voices, they are easy to train, and they are generally friendly. However, do not let their “starter bird” status fool you into thinking that these are low-maintenance pets, as they are not. I like to think of them as tiny macaws, which isn’t too far off, as the conures and macaws are closely related. A Pyrrhura conure kept as a pet will need as much attention and care as many of the larger birds.
I would recommend a Pyrrhura conure, such as a Maroon-bellied Conure, as a pet to anyone who is interested in having an active, friendly bird with a lot of personality and who doesn’t mind keeping a high maintenance pet. These beautiful, bold little birds have all of the personality and intelligence of a larger parrot without so much noise and expense. Although she’s caused me a bit of worry and can be a lot of work, Lucy has made a fantastic addition to the family because of her friendly, inquisitive personality.
Arndt, T. 1996. The Lexicon of Parrots. Arndt-Verlag, Germany. Also available online at: http://www.arndt-verlag.com/
Forshaw, J. M. and Cooper, W. T. (Illustrator). 1978. Parrots of the World. TFH Publications, Neptune, New Jersey, USA.
Kristosch, G. C., and Marcondes-Machado, L. O. 2001. Diet and Feeding Behavior of the Reddish-Bellied Parakeet (Pyrrhura frontalis) in an Araucaria Forest in Southeastern Brazil.. Orthinologica Neotropical. 12: 215-223.