Clad in green plumage, with blue and orange crescents topping the head, the 9-inch-long half moon conure brings to mind a small, feisty Amazon parrot. These boisterous little birds breed well in captivity and, when acquired young, make delightful pets. Combined with a relatively low price, these qualities have rendered the half moon one of the most commonly-kept of the conures. Its breeding biology in the wild, however, is anything but common.
An Unusual Limit on Range
The range of the half moon conure extends in a narrow band along the west coast of Mexico and Central America, from Sinaloa to Costa Rica. The oddly-shaped area it occupies coincides precisely with the northern range of the arboreal black-headed termite. The conure sometimes forages in areas where the termite does not occur, but it only nests within the termite’s range.
It seems that the half moon builds its nest exclusively within the nests, or termitaria, of this particular species of termite (rarely, conures appropriate abandoned woodpecker nests).
Constructing the Unique Nest
The entrance holes to half moon conure nests are always situated at the base of the mound-like termitaria. A tunnel is excavated through the hard outer layer of the mound, after which it turns sharply downward into termiterium’s the soft core. There a small chamber is constructed to house the female conure and her young.
Digging with their bills, the conure pair takes approximately one week to complete their unusual nest. Both sexes participate in the process, with the male doing most of the “grunt work” during the initial tunnel construction phase.
The Benefits of Nesting with Termites
Interestingly, conures desert the nest for a period of 7-10 days immediately following its construction. During this time, the resident termites seal off the area, leaving the birds with an insect-free retreat that offers the heat and humidity control for which termite nests are so well-known.
Upon the pair’s return, 3-5 eggs are laid and brooded solely by the female for a period of 30-35 days. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge at 6 weeks of age.
An Unhappy Ending for the Termite Colony
It seems that the conures are the only beneficiaries of this arrangement. Field research indicates that, perhaps due to a loss of structural stability, conure-occupied termitaria usually disintegrate after the birds depart. The termites seem unable to effectively seal the cracks that eventually appear, and the nest is nearly always overrun by predatory ants.
A Surprisingly Adaptable Parrot
Birds with strict nesting requirements are generally very sensitive to human intrusion and habitat change. Surprisingly, however, the half moon conure remains fairly common throughout much of its range.
The termites upon which it depends adjust readily to disturbed habitats, so reproduction can continue if the birds are not harassed. Studies in western Mexico show that termites in agricultural areas tend to build their nests at lower elevations in trees than do termites in pristine habitats, but it is not known if this affects conure nesting success.
Also contributing to the conure’s continued survival is its adaptability. Half moons seem equally at home in swamps, forests, overgrown fields, arid scrub or montane woodlands, and often frequent plantations and town parks.
I’ll cover conure care in the future…until then, if you wish to read about general parrot husbandry, please see Avian Nutrition: Pellet– Based Diets and related articles on this blog.
A popular pet finch, the cordon bleu, also nests in association with social insects (wasps). Please see my article Nesting Associations of the Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu
An interesting World Parrot Trust article on the natural history of half moon and other conures, which features a photo of a conure-occupied termitarium,
Image referenced from Wikipedia Commons and originally posted by snowmanradio.