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Fascinating Feathers – Structure, Function and Care

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment
(NOTE: Here is an article about feathers that I wrote for ‘Parrots’ magazine).

Feathers are the defining feature of birds. Today, all birds and only birds have feathers. Feathers are versatile structures that allow birds to fly, provide them with lightweight insulation and protection, and can be used for communication. Feathers also give birds their color and much of their beauty and grace. Let’s examine these fascinating and unique structures in detail.

Feather Construction

Feathers are composed primarily of a protein called beta (β) keratin. Keratin proteins are found in the skin, scales, and hair of many animals. However, there are structural variations among different types of keratin. The β keratin molecules found in bird feathers are shaped like pleated sheets while the alpha (α) keratin molecules found in mammal skin and hair are helix (spiral) shaped. However, bird β keratin is quite similar to the β keratin found in reptile skin. β keratin is also found in bird claws, scales, and beaks, but the β keratin found in feathers is more elastic than other types of β keratin.

Mature feathers lack a blood supply and are therefore ‘dead’ structures that cannot be naturally repaired if damaged. Newly-growing feathers, however, are living structures with a blood supply, and as such are sometimes referred to as “blood feathers.” However, as a growing feather matures, the blood supply in it will start to recede. In large, shed parrot feathers, it is frequently possible to see remnants of the blood vessels that supplied the feather with blood as it was growing. These remnants (called ‘pulp caps’) will be present as thin bands that stretch across the inside of the hollow shaft of the feather.

New, growing feathers are coated in a waxy sheath that will flake off as the feather matures. Birds remove these sheaths by preening, but because birds cannot preen their own heads, single birds that do not have a partner to preen them may retain the sheaths on their head feathers a little longer than normal. Many parrot owners will preen pin feathers on their birds’ heads, but only do this when the sheaths are dry and flake off easily.

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The bands seen in the quill of this Blue and Gold Macaw feather are called “pulp caps.” They are the remnants of the blood vessels that supplied the feather with nutrients while it was growing.

As feathers can become worn through daily wear and tear, they are molted and regrown at periodic intervals. As parrots kept in captivity will experience different patterns of light and dark and may be fed different diets, the timing of the molt can vary among captive parrots. A parrot that has not undergone a molt for a long time (i.e. over a year) may have quite a bit of damage on the tips of its feathers. There may also be some black or brownish marks on the feathers, especially at the tips.

As feathers are made primarily of protein, parrots need sufficient protein in their diets to grow strong, healthy feathers. Pelleted diets generally contain sufficient protein (and amino acids), as can mixtures of grains, cooked beans, peas, quinoa and corn.

Feather Types

There are several types of feathers on a parrot, which include contour feathers, down feathers, semiplumes, bristles, and filoplumes. Within some of these major categories are different subtypes which have distinctive structures and functions.

Contour Feathers

Most of the feathers that are visible on an adult parrot are contour feathers. These include the tail feathers (also called “remiges”), the flight feathers (also called “retrices”), and the outer (visible and usually coloured) feathers on the head and body. The contour feathers have several functions. The flight feathers allow the bird to fly and the tail feathers help the bird control its flight path. Contour feathers also provide some insulation and waterproofing, protect the body from dust and debris, and can play an important role in communication. For example, cockatoos have erectile crests on their heads that they can raise and lower in order to express anger, surprise, or excitement. Hawk-headed parrots also have a ‘headdress’ of feathers on their heads they can erect. Even parrots without such specialized feathers can erect the contour feathers on their heads and napes if agitated or alarmed. Additionally, many parrots will fan out their tail feathers if alarmed or excited.

Contour feathers are the most structurally complex feathers on a parrot. They are composed of a long, central shaft that has a flat ‘vane’ on either side, except at the base. The base of the central shaft is hollow and will lack a vane. This part of the shaft is called the ‘calamus.’ The upper part of the central shaft, which has a vane on both sides, is called the rachis.

If you take a shed feather and pull the vane apart, you will see that there are many thin, hair-like structures branching off of the rachis. These are called barbs. Many contour feathers have two types of barbs, which are called plumulaceous barbs and pennaceous barbs. Plumulaceous barbs are located near the base of the feather and are white, loose, and soft. Some flight feathers have few or no plumulaceous barbs. Pennaceous barbs are located above the plumulaceous barbs and are firmer. In the pictures of blue and gold macaw feathers accompanying this article, the pennaceous bars are blue.

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Blue and Gold Macaw body contour feathers. The fluffy barbs at the base are called plumulaceous barbs and the stiffer blue ones are called pennaceous barbs.

The structure of pennaceous barbs is quite complex. Each barb will have a central shaft called a ramus. Each ramus will then have two rows of structures branching off of them called barbules. These will appear as ‘fuzz’ on the ramus to the naked eye. The ends of the barbules on one side may be covered in little hooks called barbicels. The barbicels can neatly wrap around the barbules on the barbs above. When all of these little hooks are wrapped around the barbules above them, the feather will have a very smooth and neat appearance. However, when a bird goes about its daily activities, the hooks can become dislodged from the barbules.

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Above: The ramus of a Red-lored Amazon flight feather, as seen under a light microscope. It has numerous barbules branching off of it, the tips of which are covered in barbicels (the hook-like structures)

Birds can restore the structure of their feathers by preening. When preening, a bird will run his feathers through his beak and this will rehook the barbs on the feathers back together. You can try this with a shed contour feather – pull the barbs apart and see if you can “zip” them back together with your fingers.

Remiges and Retrices

The remiges (tail feathers) and retrices (flight feathers) are the largest and stiffest feathers on a parrot and they provide little insulation but are critical for flight. They differ from other feathers in that they are generally attached to bones, instead of being anchored in the skin.

The primary flight feathers (the flight feathers at the end of the wing) provide forward thrust when a bird flaps its wings downward. These feathers are attached to a bird’s manus (‘hand’) bones and the bones of its second digit. Parrots have ten primary feathers. The secondary flight feathers are also critical for flight and they help provide a great deal of lift. These feathers attach to the ulna (“arm bone”) of the wing. Most parrots will have ten secondary feathers but this number varies from 8-14.

The primary and secondary flight feathers differ from contour feathers on the body in being asymmetrical, as the leading vane will be narrower than the trailing vane. Both primaries and secondaries are asymmetrical, but the primary flight feathers are typically longer and more pointed than the secondary flight feathers.

Parrots have twelve retrices (tail flight feathers), which also have asymmetrical vanes. The central retrices are attached to the tail bone (pygostyle). Tail feathers play an important role in steering and braking.

Down Feathers

Underneath the contour feathers are down feathers. They provide lightweight and effective insulation and they are white and have a simpler structure than contour feathers. They either lack a central rachis, or have a very short one. If there is a rachis, the barbs will be much longer than it. The barbs can have small projections on them, but they do not hook together the way pennaceous barbs on a contour feather can.

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A down feather from a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, as seen under a microscope.

Cockatoos, African gray parrots, and Mealy Amazons also produce large numbers of specialized down feathers called powder down feathers. A few other groups of birds, including herons, also produce powder down feathers. The barbs of powder down feathers slowly disintegrate over time and produce a white talcum-like powder that will coat the bird’s feathers. Unlike other types of feather, powder down feathers grow continuously and are not molted.

Semiplumes

There are feathers that appear to be intermediate between a down and a contour feather. These are called semiplumes. Unlike down feathers, they have a central rachis, but the barbs are white and fluffy, like the barbs on down feathers. They are usually hidden underneath the surface contour feathers and likely help with insulation.

Filoplumes and Bristles

Filoplumes are inconspicuous feathers that are hard to see and are somewhat hair-like in appearance. They are composed of a central shaft with a few short barbs at the top. They are associated with contour feathers, especially those on the wings and tail. They have a sensory function and monitor the movements of the contour feathers. When feathers associated with filoplumes move, the filoplumes move too. Because filoplumes have many sensory cells at their bases, their movement allows the bird to sense movement in his feathers.

Bristles are also simple in structure. They are short and have a central shaft with a few barbs at the base. On parrots, they are often located around the eye and nostrils where they presumably have a protective function and keep debris out.

Preening and the Preen Gland

Parrots spend a lot of time preening their feathers in order to keep them smooth and clean. A small gland just above the base of the tail also plays an important role in preening. This gland (the uropygial, or “preen” gland) secretes a mixture of chemicals, including waxes, fatty acids, fat, and water. When parrots preen, they often nibble at the preen gland (to get preen gland oil on the beak) and then rub their beaks along their feathers. That applies the preen gland oil to the feathers. They may also rub their heads against the gland and then rub their heads on the feathers.

It is not completely clear what the function of preen gland oil is (particularly in parrots), although it generally appears to help with waterproofing feathers and maintaining their elasticity. In addition, the preen gland oil of chickens contains vitamin D precursors, and many books and articles on birds state that when ultraviolet light hits these precursors after they are spread on feathers, they are converted to vitamin D, which the bird can then ingest as it preens. Thus, preen gland oil may provide a vitamin D supplement. However, some parrots, including Amazons and Hyacinth Macaws, lack preen glands but do not generally suffer from vitamin D deficiencies.

Parrots preen themselves to maintain the integrity of their feathers, and they also need baths or showers to keep their feathers clean and healthy. Some birds prefer showers, and such birds should be sprayed with water a few times per week. Others may prefer to bath, and such birds should be offered bowls of water for bathing purposes. If a parrot really enjoys water, it’s fine to bath or shower him or her every day if desired.

Conclusion

Feathers are beautiful and complex structures. They provide our parrots with warmth, help them to communicate, protect them from debris, and allow them to fly. Because feathers are so important, they are molted and regrown as they become worn. They also require maintenance, which parrots provide through preening and bathing. You can help your parrot have healthy feathers by providing him or her with a healthful diet and periodic baths or showers.
Categories: Birds Tags: , ,

World Parrot Refuge Closes

August 12, 2016 Leave a comment

The World Parrot Refuge was a parrot shelter located on Vancouver Island, which is off of Canada’s west coast. It was always intended as the final ‘home for life’ for parrots taken there, as no parrots were ever adopted out of the facility. Approximately 900 parrots of all sizes lived at the refuge at one point.

This way of running a parrot refuge was quite controversial. I’d never been there, but some people I know who had been there felt bad for the parrots who seemed to crave human attention. Leaving mixed species together in a flock (as was done at the refuge) can also result in some birds being picked on or attacked by others. Personally, I don’t doubt the good intentions of the Refuge founder, but the whole enterprise seemed unsustainable to me.

The founder of the facility unfortunately passed away in February, 2016 and the refuge ran into serious financial problems. Shortly after that, the landlord of the facility gave them a date of August 1 to find a new place.

A recent article in the Parksville-Qualicum News (click the link to go to the article) notes that there are no longer any birds at the World Parrot Refuge and that they are at various facilities in British Columbia.  The Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary played a large role in rescuing the parrots and finding them somewhere to go.

If you would like to help with this rescue effort, please check out ways you can help by going to the Greyhaven Website. They are caring for almost 600 of the World Parrot Refuge birds and it is a very expensive undertaking! I’m sure any amount of money you could donate would be appreciated.

LINKS TO MORE INFORMATION:

Huge Public Response to BC ‘parrot disaster.’

Greyhaven Bird Sanctuary Struggles to Care for over 500 Relocated Parrots

Hundreds of Parrots and Cockatoos Ready for Adoption in British Columbia

 

Categories: Pet Parrots Tags: ,

Fleeing the Flames

June 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Back to blogging again! My life has been very crazy during the past couple of months. I was offered a new job working as a biologist specializing in birds that required me to move to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The job started in May and my husband and I decided that I would move up first with five of the parrots and Micro the Maltese, while he stayed behind with the rest of the pets to prepare our house for sale.

The five parrots to come with me were Pteri (Blue and Gold Macaw), Mitri (Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo), Ripley (Red-lored Amazon), Chiku (Green-cheeked Conure mix), and Dip (Rose-crowned Conure). Sadly, Peggy, my Jenday Conure (who I named this blog after), had passed away in November, 2015. Otherwise, she would have come with me as well. Dip is a new bird I got in December 2015.

I moved up April 30 and during the evening of May 1, I noticed a huge cloud of smoke coming up from the south of the city. I later found out that a forest fire had started there, and that it had started to spread very quickly.

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Picture of smoke taken May 1 2016. Fort McMurray.

Most of the city was extremely smoky on May 2 and a few communities in the southern part of the city were ordered to evacuate but I wasn’t affected. On the morning of May 3, everything looked quite clear but the city fire chief noted that this was deceptive, as the smoke from the fire was staying near the ground due to the weather conditions. He warned people that the fire was not under control.

By the afternoon, I could see heavy smoke coming from two different directions, and bits of burned debris (including conifer needles) were falling from the sky. More parts of the city were ordered to evacuate, and I was starting to think that I would have to evacuate as well.

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This did not look good. Picture taken May 3 2016, Fort McMurray.

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Ash falling on the windshield of my car.

Unfortunately, my car was very low on gas, and by the time I was able to try to fill it up, gas stations in the area of the city I lived in had run out of gas. Luckily, I was able to get out of town with a co-worker and we were able to take a work truck.

Once the part of town I lived in was ordered to evacuate, I had to gather up my parrots and dog, and decide what to bring with us. I had no idea how long this evacuation would go on or where we would end up. I did have five carriers handy – one for each bird – but Micro would have to leave with just his harness and leash. When packing supplies, the first thing I thought of were the parrots, and I packed bags of parrot pellets, small bowls, several towels, newspaper, and several bottles of water. I also prepared a big Ziploc bag of dog food, which I ended up forgetting. This meant that Micro got to eat a lot of people food during his adventure. For me, I brought some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, etc), socks, underwear, my laptop, and a book. My co-worker picked us up in a truck and we headed out.

Getting out of town took a long time as there are only two roads out of the city – Highway 63 going north or Highway 63 going south. We were in the northern part of the city so we went north.  All of the radio stations in Fort McMurray had stopped broadcasting so we listened to CBC (the national radio station) for updates.

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Gridlock in Fort McMurray

There is only one hamlet north of Fort McMurray that can be reached by road, which is the First Nations community of Fort MacKay. The town did generously house many evacuees but there was no way it could handle the tens of thousands of people who had to flee north. This left various work lodges as potential evacuee destinations. There are many oil extraction operations north of Fort McMurray and there are a lot of lodges there that house workers at these operations. Some of them are huge and can house a few thousand people.

Numerous work lodges opened their doors to evacuees and a lot of the larger oil operations sent workers home to make room for evacuees. After several hours of driving north, we saw a person holding a sign saying that the Shell Albian Sands camp was open and had room for evacuees so we headed there.

It took us about eight hours to arrive at the camp. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 45 minutes to make the same drive. Because of the fuel shortage, some people had to abandon their vehicles at the side of the road. However, the police were patrolling the roads to help people who had run out of fuel. I also saw people heading north riding on ATVs.

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Vehicles heading north on Highway 63.

Once we got to the Shell camp, we had to park the truck in a lot and wait in a line outside for a bus to shuttle us to the camp. The parrots were surprisingly calm given the circumstances and they attracted a lot of attention. Pteri in particular generated a lot of interest as she would say “Hi!” to people. I did have to warn people not to put their hands in the bird cages, as all the birds were tired and probably cranky. Micro, however, was happy to have attention and a lot of kids petted him. There were also a lot of other dogs waiting in the line, and even a few cats. As far as I know, all of the lodges taking evacuees were allowing pets of all types.

The shuttle bus arrived and luckily I had a lot of help getting the five birds onto the bus. They had never really ridden on buses before but they were very quiet. Once we arrived, we had to stay in a common area as the camp was saving rooms for people with small children or health problems. We were given a bunch of blankets and pillows by the staff.

I stacked the parrots by a wall and made sure they all had food and water. It was about 2 am by the time I got everyone settled. I also covered Pteri’s cage with a towel as she would screech when she saw people get too close to her cage. Having the towel over her cage seem to calm her down.

I tried sleeping on the floor. Admittedly I did not get much sleep as my dog was, understandably, rather agitated so he whined a lot. He was in a room with other dogs, a few cats, and many stressed and upset people. Many of these people had lost their homes and those who hadn’t were worried that they would. I had to take Micro outside a few times for bathroom breaks. At one point, I tied him to my heavy bag and tried to rest, but he backed out of his harness and wandered around the lodge. Someone found him and called my cell number (which was on Micro’s collar tags).

The next day, we were able to get a little room, which relieved me as I think the parrots were getting a stressed at this point. I was able to give each bird some time out of their cages to stretch their wings. We had a luggage cart they were able to perch on as well. They all seemed quite content once we got into a room. They were fairly quiet, and spent their time napping, preening, or eating.

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Mitri perches and preens on a luggage cart

The birds had enough pellets to eat, but I was able to get them some vegetables and fruit from the cafeteria. Evacuees were able to eat for free at the large cafeteria that is normally used by the workers who stay at the lodge.

We stayed at the lodge for a few days, but then they started to fly people out to either the Calgary or Edmonton airports. People and animals were being flown out at no cost from the oil sands aerodromes. A few of the oil sands mines have their own private aerodromes that they use to fly workers in and out and Shell is one of them. I signed up to fly back to Edmonton. All of my birds except Chiku (whose carrier would fit under the plane set) would have to fly in the cargo part of the plane but I was assured that they would  be safe. I have to admit I was worried about them. I wrote each birds’ name, my name, and my cell phone number somewhere on each carrier.

To get onto a flight, I had to wait in a long line with the birds’ (in their carriers) on a luggage cart. Of course, they attracted a huge amount of attention. Pteri even delighted a group of people by saying “Good Morning” to them. Most of the time, though, I kept her cage covered with a towel, which seemed to reduce her stress levels. The other parrots were surprisingly calm.

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The parrots waiting in line for their flight.

We had to take another bus ride to get to the aerodrome but that went smoothly. Micro and Chiku rode in the passenger section of the plane and the other birds went to cargo.

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Mitri and Dip ride the bus.

All of the birds and Micro were fine after the flight and they got to ride in a taxi to get back to my place in Edmonton. I had a few spare cages there that my husband and I had intended to sell but hadn’t done so yet. The birds had to stay in these cages.

For a little while, I wasn’t really sure if all the things I had moved to Fort McMurray survived the fire. I saw on the news that several homes a couple blocks from my place had burned to the ground. However, I saw on a later report that my place was okay.

I wasn’t able to go back to Fort McMurray until June 3. There was no major damage to my place and I was able to move the five parrots back up there to their bigger cages. I was also able to retain my job up there. Sadly, many other people were not so lucky, as about 2500 homes were destroyed.

I had a place to keep my parrots while I was in Edmonton but not all evacuees had a place for their pets. One local parrot supply store, Meika’s Birdhouse, generously offered to look after parrots belonging to evacuees. There is a news story about this here:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/parrots-unperched-from-fort-mcmurray-find-refuge-in-sherwood-park-1.3581323

I never really thought I would have to evacuate during an emergency. I’m glad I had enough carriers for my birds and that I was able to get them out safely.

Living with a Blue and Gold Macaw

December 26, 2013 10 comments

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

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

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Wild Macaws

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

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

Macaws as Pets

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

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

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

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                                           Pteri climbs on the curtains

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

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

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

The Mess Factor

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

That Huge Beak…

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

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

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

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

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

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Diet

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

Useful Resources

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

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

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

Parrot Magazines

May 20, 2013 4 comments

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.

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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.’

Mountain Bluebird

What’s in my birds’ ‘chop.’

December 24, 2012 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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