Parrots can be split into two categories according to their breeding method: sociable species, which can breed either as a colony or as lose groups over a broad area, and solitary species, which come together only to breed, the female attending solely to her needs and those of the growing young. The former category can further be divided into three groups:
1) Those that utilize helpers to rear their young. These include Golden Conures Guaruba guarouba, Red-bellied Macaws Orthopsittaca manilatus and Pyrrhura conures. Their chicks, typically from a previous clutch, take an active role in rearing their siblings. I first observed this behavior in Brazil, where a trapper showed me that each nest of Golden Conures was attended by a number of individuals. He felt that more than one hen would lay in the cavity and that the family would rear the young. Subsequent field work has proven this portrayal of events to be fairly accurate.
Most other parrots nest loosely over a broad area. The males typically come together to feed, socialize or mock battle, while the females incubate. I have seen this type of behavior in Amazons, Indonesia cockatoos and macaws. In these parrots, the nest is fiercely defended but once away from the nest their demeanor changes. As an example, in Argentina I watched more than once as males whose nest I was monitoring and fought intruders feed with the same individuals some distance from the nest. (Their distinctive head and wing colors allowed identification.) The third group consists of the Eclectus Eclectus roratus and Vasa Parrots Coracopsis in which the females are attended to my multiple males, which in exchange for food are allowed to mate.
Group 2) contains one unique species: the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus in which males compete to attract females, mate with them and then go on their own—the hens are responsible for rearing their young to independence alone. This is why the young are so thickly downed, so that they can withstand hours of being alone while the female forages. This is also the reason why the females lay only during years in which food is particularly plentiful.
Understanding what category the birds you keep fall under can improve the likelihood of success—or it can contribute to disaster. To understand this statement it is important to give examples.
Many years ago, Ed Bish, who was the Curator of Birds at Tampa’s Busch Gardens, showed me a group of caiques, the birds breeding successfully as a group, all housed in the same cage. The birds were actively breeding. My pairs had never even produced an egg. I kept each pair outside hearing distance from the other pairs. I did this as a response to a single incidence: once a tame male got out, flew on top of the adjacent cage and started displaying; before I could react, it bit the tongue of the male in the cage, causing it to bleed to death. This observation and a fight I had witnessed north of the Amazonian town of Manaus—two pairs fought over a dead, standing Euterpe palm, with one bird being found dead at the base of the same tree when I returned that afternoon, its skull showing a beak puncture wound, and the other pair victoriously celebrating their success—led me to believe that they were territorial; that they could not hear or see each other when breeding.
At the time I was too naïve and inexperienced as an aviculturist to understand that all parrots are highly territorial around their nest and this was not a true gauge of their general behavior. Caiques are highly sociable and need the stimulus of each other to be most prolific. When I returned from Tampa I placed the caiques in adjacent cages. They then started breeding prolifically. Field work eventually showed that even when nesting, pairs will feed and socialize with others of their kind away from their nest.
Amazon parrots are highly territorial when nesting, but the agitation of seeing a rival male can enhance fertility. They will lunge, call and display for one another. This rush of blood engorges the gonads and increases egg fertility. The key for the aviculturist is knowing when to block this visual contact, so that the males do not become frustrated and take their anger out against their mate. In my experience it is best to allow full contact from the time the breeding season is over to about the time the pair begins to show aggression around the nest. When my pairs lunge and try and attack a hand visibly placed on the nest I know the time has come to block visual contact with their neighbor.
At the other end of the spectrum one finds Coracopsis, a unique genera found on Madagascar, the Comores and surrounding islands. The genus contains two species—the Greater Vasa Coracopsis vasa and the smaller Black Parrot or Lesser Vasa Coranopsis nigra.
When Greater Vasa Parrots first became available, I purchased two pairs. I can still recall the great excitement I felt when I opened the box. The birds were an aviculturists dream. They were steady, ate everything offered and they displayed a metamorphosis when breeding that was seen in no other parrot species: the female’s head feathers fell off, the skin turning yellow and the male’s vent prolapsed. The pairs started visiting the nest. I expected to be able to breed the species, but in aviculture successes are sometimes a battle to obtain. I walked to the cage one morning expecting to find eggs. Instead I noticed the male was missing; the female was chewing on something. I looked and ran to the nest. She had destroyed him. The item she was chewing was his tongue. We now know that the demands for food are so great in this species that females will pursue a male until he either feeds her or she kills him. To have success with this species requires that a hen have at least two males with her, so that they can satisfy her hunger.
Breeding parrots is not simply putting a pair together in a cage with a nest and feeding them a good diet. It entails having an understanding of the species’ biology, especially if one expects to have long term success. This require research and if possible studying the species in its environment.
author: Tony Silva
Title photo: Lubomir Tomiska