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.