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The Extraordinary Eclectus Parrots of the Cape York Rainforest

November 30, 2019 Leave a comment

Note: This is an article of mine that was previously published in “Parrots” magazine.

I recently traveled to the Cape York Peninsula of Australia to view its fascinating landscapes and wildlife. I chose to include this location on my itinerary because it is home to several bird species I have long wanted to see in the wild, including the Black Palm Cockatoo (which I wrote about in a previous issue) and the Eclectus Parrot.

Eclectus parrots have a very limited range on mainland Australia and only occur in rainforests in the Iron Range National Park on the east part of the Cape York peninsula. The subspecies that occurs there is called Eclectus roratus macgillivrayi, and it is the largest of all of the Eclectus subspecies, of which there are nine. Eclectus parrots also occur on the island of New Guinea and its surrounding islands, the Solomon Islands, Sumba, and the Moluccas Islands.

I find Eclectus parrots fascinating because their breeding behaviour and color patterns are very different from those of most other parrots. Unlike most other parrot species, male and female Eclecus are completely different colours. The males are a vibrant emerald green while the females are a dark ruby red, usually with a vest of violet or cobalt feathers. The two sexes are so different that it wasn’t immediately apparent to western biologists that the males and females belonged to the same species.

There are other parrot species that have males and females that look different, (are sexually dimorphic) but none show such extreme colour differences between the sexes. For instance, mature male Ringneck Parakeets (Psittacula krameri) have a black ring around their necks while the females do not. Both, however, are green (at least in wild populations – different colours exist in captive birds). And, in most sexually dimorphic parrot species, males do not develop their adult plumage until they have molted a few times. For example, male ringnecks do not develop their rings until they are at least 18 months old. Eclectus are different in that the chicks are very easy to sex as soon as their feathers start appearing: boys are green and girls are red.

The form of sexual dimorphism seen in Eclectus Parrots is strange even when they are considered against all other bird species. It is not unusual for male birds to be much more extravagant looking than females – peacocks are the perfect example of this – but in the Eclectus, neither sex is really more colorful than the other, although it’s the female who would stand out more in nature due to her red colouring. Males would blend in well against green, leafy tree tops.

I went to the Cape York Peninsula with a birding group, and all of us wanted to see both male and female Eclectus parrots. The photographers in the group were very keen to get pictures of them as well. We frequently observed males flying high over the rainforest canopies, but finding females took more effort. Our guide did know the location of an Eclectus nest hole, which was at least 25 m up a large tree. Due to the distance, we needed to use a powerful spotting scope to see the nest hole’s owner. After a period of searching with binoculars and the spotting scope, we located a female perched close by. It wasn’t the right time of year for Eclectus to be breeding, but that doesn’t matter, as breeding female Eclectus will stick around a claimed nest hole for all or most of a year.

Eclectus Nest Tree

Eclectus Parrot Nest Cavity

Eclectus Parrot 2

Female Eclectus

When we came back to the nest hole another day, we found more Eclectus. We initially found a female and waited with the hopes of seeing males. Our patience was rewarded, as more than one male eventually came to visit the female. We also eventually saw another female show up nearby as well. What a great sighting! I managed to get a few photos but it was tricky as the birds were very high in the trees and numerous branches were in the way. Thus, my pictures aren’t the highest quality, but I’m just happy that I was able to view these birds. The females were easier to see and photograph than the males, who moved around a lot more.

Eclectus Pair

Female and Male Eclectus

Seeing more than one male attend to a female is not unusual for Eclectus parrots on the Cape York Peninsula. Most parrot species are monogamous, but Cape York Eclectus are polygynandrous, which means that a female may mate with multiple males and a male may mate with multiple females. Studies have shown that female Eclectus parrots on Cape York may be courted and fed by up to seven males at once. Males are not monogamous either and will sometimes court and feed more than one female. In one instance, a male had young with two females situated 7.5 km apart. Given that the male must provide food for the female and young, he must have been very busy. That males do most of the foraging explains why all the Eclectus I saw commuting over rainforest canopies were male.

Eclectus Parrot

Female Eclectus Parrot

There are other bird species where females will mate with more than one male, although the behaviour of Eclectus is very different from the behaviour of these other polyandrous birds. In most polyandrous birds (such as phalaropes and some sandpipers), the male will care for the young while the female finds another mate. In such species, it is often the female that is the more colorful sex, so the sex roles are essentially reversed. However, this is not so in the Eclectus, because the female will guard the nest hole and her young while multiple males will feed her. She will then feed any nestlings present, and the male(s) will feed the young once they have fledged. The female does not abandon the eggs after they are laid as do the females of many other polyandrous bird species.

Why are Cape York Eclectus parrots polygynandrous? On Cape York, the sex ratio of adult Eclectus parrots is biased towards males, so there simply aren’t enough females for each male to have a mate. However, in many bird species, if a male cannot find a mate, he may simply go without one and live as a bachelor. In other birds, young birds who cannot find a mate may stay around and help their relatives – usually their parents – raise young. This is because natural selection shapes animals to act in ways that help them pass their genes on to a new generation. Of course, an animal can do this by bearing young, and its genes will be passed along through them. However, an animal can also propagate its genes by helping its parents raise more of its siblings. This is because identical copies of half of any animals’ genes are also present in their siblings because they share the same parents. The theory that animals can pass their genes on by helping close relatives produce more young is called “kin selection.”  In many bird species, young birds who cannot find a territory or mate will often stay with their parents and help them care for young.  The presence of these helpers often increases the number of young a pair can raise, and the helpers also benefit by gaining valuable experience in caring for young.

However, genetic studies on Eclectus parrots conducted on the Cape York Peninsula have shown that males are generally not closely related to the females they court. So, kin selection does not explain why more than one male may court and feed a single female. There must be another reason for this odd behaviour.

The Eclectus’ unusual breeding behaviour is the result of a sex ratio that is biased towards males, along with a shortage of suitable nest holes. Young females have a higher mortality rate than males, so there are simply more males out there than females. There are also females that may not be able to breed because they cannot find good nest holes. Good nest holes are rare, because it is not simply enough for an Eclectus to find a tree with a hole in it. It must be one that either does not flood during rainstorms or one that dries out quickly because Eclectus chicks can easily drown if their nest hole becomes flooded. Eclectus usually nest in holes that have entrances that face sideways, rather than straight up. The nesting hole that I saw on Cape York was ideal for Eclectus to raise young in because it faced sideways. The lack of quality nesting holes means that there can not be enough females with nest holes for every male, so each female ends up with more than one partner.

The fact that multiple males may mate with any one female means that, in any given season, there is a good chance that a given male Eclectus will be helping to raise young that he did not father. However, a male Eclectus needs to court a female, even though she may have other suitors, if he is to have any offspring. As time goes on, he will become more likely to actually father young. This can take years because some males are far more successful than others in fathering young, but a male that doesn’t try to court a female will never have offspring. Some male Eclectus will also mate with more than one female to increase their chances of fathering young.

The different roles that male and female Eclectus have in raising young actually appears to explain why they are coloured so differently. Australian biologists have studied the colors in male and female Eclectus Parrots by taking optical measurements of the birds and their surroundings using a spectroradiometer. This instrument measures various properties of the light reflected or emitted off of objects. It was important to make objective measurements using such an instrument because parrots do not see the world the way humans do. Parrots can see light into the ultraviolet spectrum, which is invisible to people. This means that an object which blends in with its environment to a person may actually be very conspicuous to a parrot.

The optical measurements indicated that male Eclectus, with their largely green plumage, blend in well with the leafy treetops they forage amongst. This makes them inconspicuous to the raptors that prey on them. Males spend several hours each day foraging because they need to feed not only themselves, but a female or two, and possibly some newly fledged young. Females do not have as large a need to be camouflaged, since they spend most of their time in or near a nest hole they can hide in should a predator show up. Additionally, the females actually do need to be quite conspicuous at times. They must compete for nests with other Eclectus and with Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, who often take over Eclectus nests.  Female Eclectus will display outside their nests by calling and drawing attention to themselves, and their colour makes them stand out very well against a leafy canopy. By being very conspicuous, a female can let other parrots know that her nest hole is taken and that they should stay back. This often works to prevent conflicts, but even so, females still sometimes have to fight off intruders, primarily other parrots. Fights between Eclectus can be very intense; and even fatal. This makes me wonder if one of the female Eclectus I saw outside of the nest hole was a youngster, because a female is unlikely to tolerate the presence of another adult female outside her nest hole.

The spectroradiometer measurements revealed another aspect of Eclectus biology that would have remained a secret had not such an instrument been used.  While male Eclectus are difficult for predators to see against green leaves, they are quite conspicuous when seen by other parrots outside of a nest hollow. Green does show up well against a brown tree trunk, but the measurements from the spectroradiometer showed that an Eclectus’ feathers also reflect ultraviolet light that other parrots can see but that humans and many of the Eclectus’ predators cannot. So, while Eclectus look brilliant to people, they look even more brilliant to each other.

Eclectus parrots are truly extraordinary birds. Their unusual form of sexual dimorphism and non-monogamous breeding system appears to be the result of their having evolved in an environment where they have to compete with other birds for suitable nesting holes. Seeing them in the wild was a thrill I will never forget.

References

Heinsohn, R., Murphy, S., and Legge, S. 2003. Overlap and competition for nest holes among eclectus parrots, palm cockatoos and sulphur-crested cockatoos.  Australian Journal of Zoology, 51, 81-94.

Heinsohn R., Legge S., and Endler J.A. 2005. Extreme reversed sexual dichromatism in a bird without sex role reversal. Science309, 617–619.

Heinsohn R, and Legge, S.  2003.  Breeding biology of the reverse-dichromatic, co-operative parrot, Eclectus roratus. Journal of the Zoological Society of London, 259,197-208.

Heinsohn R., Ebert, D., Legge, S., and Peakall R.  2007.  Genetic evidence for cooperative polyandry in reverse dichromatic Eclectus parrots.  Animal Behaviour, 74, 1047-1054.

Heinsohn R.  2008.  The ecological basis of unusual sex roles in reverse-dichromatic eclectus parrots.  Animal Behaviour, 76, 97-103.

Legge, S., Heinsohn R., and Garnett, S.  2004. Availability of nest hollows and breeding population size of eclectus parrots, Eclectus roratus, on Cape York Peninsula, Australia. Wildlife Research31, 149-161.

Marshall, R, and Ward. I. 2004.  A Guide to Eclectus Parrots as Pet and Aviary Birds, (revised edition). ABK Publications.  South Tweed Heads, NSW, Australia.

The Black Palm Cockatoos of the Cape York Peninsula

November 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Note: This is an article I wrote about Black Palm Cockatoos for “Parrots” magazine.

The Black Palm Cockatoos of the Cape York Peninsula

By: Jessie Zgurski

The Black Palm Cockatoo, with its striking appearance and regal demeanour, is a bird guaranteed to turn the heads of parrot-lovers. Black palms are the largest of the cockatoos, and their long, loose, crests and bright red facial patches give them a very dramatic look. Their behaviour is dramatic as well, as they use branches as drumsticks in their territorial displays. They are rare in captivity, especially in North America, and to view them in the wild, one must venture to the island of New Guinea or Australia’s Cape York Peninsula.

I recently traveled to Australia to view its wildlife and explore its more remote and wild landscapes. I chose to include the Cape York Peninsula in my itinerary, as it is home to parrots and other birds that I have long wanted to view in the wild. The Peninsula is also a wonderful place for people like myself who appreciate unspoiled wilderness, as it is sparsely populated and covered in rainforests, woodland savannahs, wetlands, and heathlands. It also has miles of pristine beaches, coastal mangrove forests, and river systems, all filled with fascinating wildlife.

The Cape York Peninsula is in the far northwest of Australia, with its tip being the northernmost point of the continent. Black Palm Cockatoos can be found there north of the Archer River, and they are the only black cockatoo whose range extends outside of Australia, as they also occur in the lowlands and foothills of New Guinea, the Aru Islands, and other off-shore islands of New Guinea. The Cape York Peninsula was once connected to New Guinea, and the two places therefore share many aspects of their flora and fauna.

I saw Black Palm Cockatoos in the Iron Range (Kutini-Payamu) National Park, which is on the east side of the Cape York Peninsula. Iron Range is an excellent place for birders, as it is the only place in Australia where many gorgeous species, including Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots, can be found. Getting there can require some planning, as it is in a remote location that can be unreachable by car during the wet season due to flooding. I went there with a birding tour group during the dry season, when all roads were open. A large proportion of the other people we encountered in the park were also birders, and we exchanged birding tips and sightings with many of them.

In Australia, Black Palm Cockatoos prefer to live in landscapes characterized by a mosaic of closed, dense rain forests, and open, dry woodlands. Iron Range has both, making it an ideal place to view these cockatoos. The rainforests grow where soils are moist, and they are lush and dense, with little sunlight reaching the ground. The trees in Cape York rainforests can grow up to 35 meters high and many are draped in thick vines and have other plants growing on their bark. Walking through the rainforest isn’t always easy, as the ground can be covered in vines, thick tree roots, and decaying vegetation. The dense canopy of the Cape York rainforest makes spotting birds a challenge, but the rewards are worth it, as the birds are spectacular, and include two species of Birds of Paradise, Eclectus Parrots, and colorful forest kingfishers. There are also species that can be found near the ground as well, such as Australian Brush Turkeys.

Forest

Australian Rainforest

Woodlands are found where the soil is drier, and they typically have open canopies, making them much sunnier places than the rainforests. As a result, the understory is usually covered in thick grass. Lizards are common in the woodlands and can usually be seen basking in the sun in open areas. Birds can be easier to spot in this environment as well, and I saw numerous Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in the woodlands, although they venture into the rainforests as well.

Woodland

Woodland habitat in Iron Range National Park

Black Palm Cockatoos in Australia prefer to nest in woodlands that are close to rainforests, although in New Guinea they often live and nest in large tracts of pure rainforest. Like other cockatoos, Black Palm Cockatoos nest in tree cavities, which they fill with sticks to a depth of about 2 m. The sticks help with drainage.

Breeding season for Black Palm Cockatoos in Australia occurs from August to February. It gets very rainy on Cape York at this time, so upward-facing nests in tree snags must have good drainage or chicks can drown. Finding a suitable nest hole is a challenge for Black Palm Cockatoos. They must compete with other birds of their own species for nest sites, as well as with Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Eclectus Parrots also need large tree cavities to nest in, but on Cape York, they typically nest in rainforests and tend to nest in different tree species than do the palm cockatoos

In Australia, Black Palm Cockatoo males will advertise their presence around nest holes with an impressive display that includes calling, whistling, bowing, wing spreading, and drumming. Males will take a branch, strip of bark, or hard seed pod, and use it as a drumstick. They will also sometimes drum on their perches with their bare feet. These drum displays may be territorial displays, but they also seem to have a courtship function, as they are often directed at females, who pay close attention to them. Different males often produce different beat patterns, and individual males can have favored beats. The duration of a display can range from two to 100 beats.

I was very lucky in Cape York, as I saw a male Black Palm Cockatoo perform a drumming display. He was not on a nesting tree and was accompanied by two other adult cockatoos, so he was likely a young male practicing his drumming. I watched him as he stripped a hard piece of bark from a eucalyptus tree, held it in his foot, and then banged on the tree branch he was standing on with it. All the while he called, whistled, and swayed his shaggy crest. I was absolutely mesmerized by this wonderful bird and his display.

Palm Cockatoo

Black Palm Cockatoo

Palm Cockatoo 2

Black Palm Cockatoo, drumming and calling.

At the start of breeding season, male palms in Cape York may perform their displays around multiple nest holes, although in the end they will use only one. Males sometimes fight each other for access to nest holes, and these fights can involve growling and feather pulling. Palms may also get into similar conflicts with Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Sometimes, birds of both species will claim the same nest. Biologists have observed Sulphur-crested Cockatoos removing sticks from a nest hole that a Black Palm Cockatoo had placed there. Once the two birds meet, the palm will usually chase off the sulphur. It is rare (but not unheard of) for a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo to take over a Black Palm Cockatoo nest site.

Sulphur crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Black Palm Cockatoos are monogamous and have very low reproductive rates. Pairs usually produce one egg per clutch, with males and females sharing incubation, and they do not breed every year. In one study done on the Cape York Peninsula, biologists monitored 28 active nests, and found that each pair’s chance of successfully fledging their young was only about 25%. This low reproductive success rate was due to egg infertility (17.2% of eggs affected), predation of eggs (24% of eggs affected), and predation of nestlings (37.9% of nestlings affected). The major nest predators included monitor lizards, Giant White-tailed Rats, Amethystine Pythons, and butcherbirds.

Palm Cockatoos

A pair of Black Palm Cockatoos

Despite this, Black Palm Cockatoos are not currently considered endangered on a global scale, which indicates that they must have lifespans of several decades. Without such long lifespans, most pairs wouldn’t be able to replace themselves and the species would eventually decline into extinction. This hasn’t happened, and Black Palm Cockatoos are currently listed as “Least Concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. However, chicks are hunted for meat or poached for the pet trade in some parts of New Guinea, and in Australia, dry-season woodland fires can reduce the abundance of suitable nesting trees. A slow-breeding species such as this cannot rebound easily after disasters have decimated populations, which means that major land-use changes that affect their habitat could easily push them towards a vulnerable status.

Although Black Palm Cockatoos are famous for their unique drumming displays, they also have a complex and sometimes unusual vocal repertoire. Their vocalizations include the typical loud parrot squawks, along with whistles and a greeting call that sounds like they are saying the word “hello.” Their vocalizations include contact calls, flight calls (including a call used only during landing), nestling begging calls, and a distress call. Nestlings also produce a unique vocalization while they are being fed, and fledged juveniles have a unique call that sometimes causes an adult to feed them. Pairs will also duet with each other, where they vocalize simultaneously or alternately with each other.

Palm cockatoos also produce a “crack” call during fights and some non-aggressive interactions. Consecutive “crack” calls appear to function as an alarm that warns other cockatoos of a potential predator. Palm cockatoos also produce a variety of other complex vocalizations that may function in territorial defence.

Their loud whistle calls and various squawks can help birders locate palm cockatoos. To find them, the birding group I was with drove slowly along the roads running through the woodlands in Iron Range. It didn’t take long to find a group of three birds this way. We also ran into more groups while searching for other birds. Black Palm Cockatoos tend to occur in pairs or trios (a pair and their offspring), and sometimes in small groups. However, they do not form huge flocks of 100 or more birds the way some cockatoos (like Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, or Bare-eyed Cockatoos) can. Black Palm Cockatoos are usually located in trees, but we did find a small group near a beach feeding on the ground on fallen palm fruits.

I was absolutely thrilled to be able to see these intriguing and unique cockatoos in the wild. Not only that, but I was able to see a male perform his drum display. Black Palm Cockatoos are the only animal known to use a tool to produce sounds, as birds that use tools typically use them for foraging purposes. The Cape York Peninsula is also home to another unusual parrot species, the Eclectus Parrot. Eclectus parrots were more challenging to see. However, I managed, with a lot of looking upwards, to view a group of males and females. I will write more about these fascinating parrots in an upcoming article.

REFERENCES

BirdLife International. 2016. Probosciger aterrimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22684723A93043662. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22684723A93043662.en. Downloaded on 01 January 2018.

Forshaw, J. M. 2002. Australian Parrots, Third (Revised) Edition. Avi-Trader Publishing, Robina, Queensland, Australia.

Heinsohn, R., Murphy, S., and Legge, S. 2003. Overlap and Competition for Nest Holes among Eclectus Parrots, Palm Cockatoos, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Australian Journal of Zoology 51: 81-94.

Heinsohn, R., Zeriga, T., Murphy, S., Igag, P, Legge, S., and Mack, A. L. 2009. Do Palm Cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) have long enough lifespans to support their low reproductive success? Emu 109: 183-191.

Heinsohn, R., Zdenek, C. N., Cunningham, R. B., Ender, J. A., and Langmore, N. E. 2017. Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music. Science Advances 3:e1602399.

Zdenek, C.N, Heinsohn, R., and Langmore, N. E. 2015. Vocal complexity in the palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus). Bioacoustics 24: 253-267.

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.

PHOTO3

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.

feathers2

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.

feather thing

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.

unnamed

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.

Mitriperch

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.

mitridip

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 12 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

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