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Parrot news! (Night Parrot, Swift Parrot, Orange-bellied Parrot)

September 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Back to posting! This post is about news related to three very rare and unique parrot species.

The first story is about the Night Parrot of Australia, which I wrote about HERE.  Night parrots are very elusive, nocturnal parrots from Australia. Sightings are very sporadic and therefore very little is known about them.  For a long time, it was even unclear whether or not the species still existed

However, some photos and videos of a night parrot were obtained recently, and you can see some here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-10/night-parrot-nature-reserve-created-queensland-endangered-bird/6680392

Since so little is known about these birds, and because they are likely very rare, a new reserve was created to protect them. The location of it is a secret, which is likely for the best so that poachers don’t go after the birds or so that large numbers of birders don’t overwhelm them.  One Night Parrot was caught and radio tagged so biologists could monitor its movements.

I am a birdwatcher and biologist and am always thrilled to come across a rare species. I can’t imagine how exciting it would be to find such an incredibly rare and elusive species!

Night Parrots look a bit like miniature Kakapos (another nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot) with more yellow, but Night Parrots and Kakapos are actually only distantly related.

One of the methods being used to protect the night parrots involves setting traps for non-native, feral predators (such as cats) that could kill the parrots. There’s more about this here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/feral-cat-grooming-traps-to-secure-site-for-rare-night-parrots/story-e6frg8y6-1227503351863?sv=f3ace50e5213b8684e9bc91145763cab

Eliminating feral cats is always controversial, but in this case, doing so may end up saving an endangered species.

For another critically endangered Australian parrot, preserving mature forest may be the key to saving it. Swift Parrots are one of two parrots species that undergo routine migrations. The other is the Orange-bellied Parrot.  Both of these species breed in Tasmania and spend the non-breeding season in southeast Australia. To travel between mainland Australia and Tasmania, they have to fly across approximately 150 miles of water.

Both species are threatened by habitat loss. However, recent research suggests that preserving mature forests from logging could help conserve the swift parrot. Find out more here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-10/forestry-tasmania-urged-to-save-endangered-swift-parrot/6763332

Many parrot species rely on mature forests, as old trees are more likely to contain cavities that parrots use as nests.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is also in serious trouble, in part due to habitat loss.  However, disease is now threatening the species, as one adult and several nestlings have tested positive to a virus called psittacine beak and feather disease. The disease can cause deformed feathers and overgrown beaks and can be fatal, especially in wild birds.

Captive-bred Orange-bellied Parrots have been released into the wild and initially it was thought they could have been the source of the virus. However, the virus has not been found in any of the captive-bred birds released, and viruses from wild orange bellies are similar to those that have been found in wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Sulphurs are rare where orange-bellies breed so the virus may have spread to orange bellies from another species.

More information can be found here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-14/questions-over-disease-threatening-orange-bellied-parrots/6771828 .

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The Parrots of the Rio Grande Valley

November 17, 2014 3 comments

I recently traveled to Harlingen in south Texas to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. One of the highlights of the festival (for me) was getting to see wild parrots, both with one of the festival tours and on my own.

The red marker shows the location of Harlingen.

The red marker shows the location of Harlingen.

People attending the festival could sign up for a ‘parrot tour’ of Harlingen. There are Mexican Red-headed Amazons (AKA Red-crowned Parrots, Amazona viridigenalis) and Green Conures (AKA Green Parakeets, Aratinga holochlora) living right in the city. During the parrot tours, three vans would head out in search of the parrots and the first van to find the parrots would let the other two know where they were.  The festival occurs outside of the parrot breeding season, which means the roosting flocks would be quite large.  When parrots are breeding, they will roost in or around their nests; thus they won’t form these huge flocks.

The tours started at 4 pm, which is when the parrots begin forming large roosting flocks. The parrots often forage and rest in smaller groups during the day but before nightfall they congregate in large groups. This is a very noisy process – the parrots will start calling noisily, and once a flock is assembled, they would all fly around, calling, until it was dark and they had found a suitable spot to sleep for the night. The parrot flocks would roost in slightly different locations each night so a bit of searching was needed to find them. The searching was done with the windows of the vans open, as conures and Amazons are very noisy, which makes them easier to find. The conures and the Amazons stayed in separate flocks.

The groups first went out in search of the Green Conures. The tour group I was with located a flock of them quite quickly. Most of the conures were perched on power lines, although a few were up in palm trees. Most were calling to each other and a few pairs were busy preening each other.  Even though it was outside of the breeding season, mated pairs would stay close to each other.

A pair of Green Conures preening each other. The other bird in the picture is a European Starling.

A pair of Green Conures preening each other. The other bird in the picture is a European Starling.

Green conures 2

Green Conures perched on power lines.

green conures 3

Green Conures

A few of the Green Conures had some red feathers on their heads, but that is normal for the species. Green Conures do breed in the Rio Grande Valley so the population is self sustaining. They begin breeding in March. It is unclear whether the population was established from birds who dispersed in naturally from Mexico or from pet birds who escaped or were released (or both).  As Green Conures do occur in northern Mexico, it is certainly plausible that they occur naturally in the Rio Grande Valley.  The same is true for the Mexican Red-headed Amazons.

After locating the Green Conures, the groups went in search of the Amazons.  When I did the tour, the group of Amazons was located along power lines and in trees in a residential neighbourhood.  Their loud calls helped us find them.  Tour leaders brought out spotting scopes so we could get better looks at the birds, and many people took photos, including me (although mine did not turn out very well).  At one point, the entire flock of birds (about eighty or so) flew away as though something had startled them.  We did later find the flock perched on power lines next to a church.

I later headed out to the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (about a 20 minute drive west of Harlingen), as I read that parrots can be found in that area.  I looked through the nature center and took a walk on the trails. I asked one of the staff if parrots frequent the area and she told me to stick around the park by the nature center at 5:00 pm or so because a large flock of Amazons generally roosts in the area.  At about 5, I drove around the area (with the car windows open) and found a very large flock of Amazons about a block away from the nature center.  This flock was composed primarily of Mexican Red-headed Amazons, but I did count about five Red-lored Amazons in the bunch.  There was also a Double Yellow-headed Amazon with them.

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Red-lored Amazon

Red-lored Amazon

Double Yellow-headed Amazon

Double Yellow-headed Amazon

The flock was incredibly noisy and more and more birds kept arriving from all directions.  The birds would call, preen themselves, preen their partners, or squabble over positions in trees or on the wires. They were very amusing to watch.

At one point they got up and flew to another location about a block away.  They settled there for a bit and then the entire flock circled around the neighbourhood before settling to roost in some large trees in someone’s front yard.

I enjoyed watching them so much that I returned to Weslaco a second time to seek out the flock.  Again, I had no trouble finding them – I just drove around the neighbourhood until I heard the flock.  I also stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center and did some birdwatching on their trails. Several turkey vultures were circling above the trails and I managed to get the below picture of one:

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I also got a few more pictures of the Amazons:

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Amazons on a Wire

Amazons on a Wire

Stay tuned for more blog posts about my birding trip to south Texas. I got to see some extremely rare birds and I will be sharing pictures of them!

Blue -thoated Macaw news! (..and horse news)

September 21, 2014 3 comments

Back to blogging again! I haven’t been blogging too much lately as I’ve been busy with a new job (I’m a wildlife biologist for an environmental consulting firm now) and I’ve been spending a lot of time working with this guy (the white/grey one):

HorsesYes, I bought a horse. His name is Amigo and he’s an Arabian/Andalusian cross. He’s about 12-13 years old.

Onto parrots: here’s a news article about Blue-throated Macaws out of Canada. Blue-throated Macaws look similar to the much more common Blue and Gold Macaws, but they are smaller, lack the green on the head, and have ‘blue’ beards instead of black ones. The feathers on the face are also blue on a Blue-throated Macaw (they are black on a blue and gold).  Blue-throated Macaws are critically endangered and have a restricted range in the wild, as they are found only in north-central Bolivia.

I hope this release works out well. I admit I’d be very hesitant to release a bird that’s been living in captivity for 14 years into the wild. Perhaps they’ll wait and see which birds seem most suitable for release before letting them go? This is certainly a very generous move on the part of the breeder of these birds.

New life for endangered macaws from Cowichan

http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/news/new-life-for-endangered-macaws-from-cowichan-1.1324494

Blue-throated Macaw

Blue-throated Macaw

According to the World Parrot Trust, for every blue-throated macaw in the wild, there are 3,750 African elephants, 200 rhinos, 12 giant pandas, and six mountain gorillas.

That’s about to change, however slightly, with the release of 17 birds raised in Shawnigan Lake.

Those birds are among 27 who are leaving April Sanderson’s Shawnigan Lake aviary this week. Five breeding pairs will remain in Toronto, where African Lion Safari will take over Sanderson’s breeding program, while the majority will eventually head to Bolivia to be gradually released into their natural habitat.

It is the result of a lifetime with parrots.

“I’ve had parrots since I was a child,” said Sanderson, who will still have three blue-throated macaws – her pets – when all is said and done. “I got my first one when I was nine, and I’ve worked with them all my life.”

Sanderson started breeding parrots for the pet trade, but soon discovered that wasn’t a business she wanted to be part of, particularly since many pet parrots end up in unfortunate circumstances.

“A lot of people don’t know how to care for parrots,” she noted.

Not wanting to give up working with the birds altogether, Sanderson decided to breed them for the World Parrot Trust’s conservation program.

That has involved an extreme amount of permits and contracts, and the birds have all been quarantined at her aviary for the last five years, with no contact with other parrots or even other parrot owners.

It has also required at least three hours of labour a day, seven days a week, limiting family holidays, and cost hundreds of dollars a month to keep them fed and sheltered.

“It has been hard for my family to understand,” Sanderson admitted.

Sanderson’s five breeding pairs represent nine different bloodlines, probably one of the most diverse breeding groups in North America, which will help prevent inbreeding in the wild.

Parrot release programs are controversial, which Sanderson readily acknowledges.

“There are two teams,” she explained.

“One wants to protect the existing population, and the other wants to release more birds.”

The wild population of blue-throated macaws is estimated at around 125, within an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island. Breeding pairs usually have just one chick per year. The survival rates of those few chicks are low, and Sanderson believes releases are necessary.

“With numbers so low, I don’t believe they can recover without human intervention,” she said.

The efforts in Bolivia are modeled after the successful Ara Project, which has helped reintroduce two species of macaw in Costa Rica.

The birds are closely watched, and will begin their time in South America in huge aviaries, where they will be able to build their flight wings, transition to the wild diet, and get accustomed to the climate.

Despite all her hard work, and that of everyone involved in Toronto and Bolivia, Sanderson has accepted that there won’t be a 100 per cent survival rate once the birds are released, but still feels it’s worth it.

“They’re not all going to make it,” she said.

“I’m not being naive about it. I know some of them are going to die, but what are the species’ chances? Our generation could be the last one to see them.”

© Cowichan Valley Citizen – See more at: http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/news/new-life-for-endangered-macaws-from-cowichan-1.1324494#sthash.DMPaZCoB.dpuf

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Australia

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).

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Paradise Parrot, illustration by W. T Greene

References

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.

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. 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.

Pyrrhura Conures

April 22, 2012 5 comments

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.

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Chiku

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.

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Lucy, a Maroon-bellied Conure

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.

Popular Pyrrhuras

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.

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A Firey-shouldered 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.

Cryptic Conures

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.

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Wild Green-cheeked Conure

 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.

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Wild Peach-fronted Conures

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.

Pet Pyrrhuras

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.

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Chiku drinking herbal tea.

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.

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Lucy and Chiku

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.

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