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Working with Penguins – a Highlight of this Zookeeper’s Experiences

Frank Indiviglio with penguin

Penguins Win Me Over

I first became enamored of penguins at the Bronx Zoo’s old “Penguin House”. Twice a day, a door would open and a pail of fish would be tossed into the exhibit.  Fashioned like a giant aquarium, the exhibit allowed visitors to watch the penguins dive and grab their meals underwater.  Living near the zoo, I had long haunted its grounds and had racked up some great sightings of both captive and wild birds by an early age (nearly 300 native species have been recorded there) – but these creatures were something else indeed!  They were birds, to be sure, but departed so radically from the typical bird body-plan that I was driven to learn all I could.

Today, of course, penguins are well known, but for us bird fanciers they still retain a sense of mystery…more so as new facts about their amazing lifestyles come to light!  Read More »

Blue-Crowned Conures in the Wild – the Natural History of a Popular Pet

Blue Crowned ConureThe Blue-Crowned Conure (a/k/a Blue-Crowned Parakeet, Sharp-Tailed Conure, Aratinga acuticaudata) has always had fans among parrot enthusiasts, but its popularity exploded in 1998 with the release of Paulie, a movie that featured one as the main “actor”.  More recently, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a documentary, also highlighted this species. Unfortunately, this type of publicity is not always ideal, as pets are often purchased for the wrong reasons (owl sales soared in some places after Harry Potter was released!).  Blue-Crowned Conures are little studied in the wild.  I’ve had the good fortune of observing both free-living and captive individuals, and today will focus on their natural history, and summarize their care needs.


At 14.5 inches in length, the Blue-Crowned Conure is one of the largest species in the genus Aratinga.  In common with other conures, it sports a heavy bill and long, tapered tail, but the sky to dark blue coloration on the crown and cheeks is unique.  Various shades of green color the body plumage, while the undersides of the tail feathers are reddish-brown and tipped with yellow.  All-in-all, it is a very attractive parrot.


The range extends from northern Venezuela and eastern Columbia south through Paraguay and Uruguay to northern Argentina.

Five subspecies, differing somewhat in coloration and size, have been described.  While working in Venezuela, I had a chance to observe A. a. neoxina in riverside thickets and even well out into the llanos.  On nearby Margarita Island, I caught a glimpse of several of the few individuals that manage to survive there.

Feral populations are established in Florida and southern California, USA.


The Blue-Crowned Conure is adapted to arid habitats, and may travel extensively when pressured by the lack of food and water.  It is most often associated with deciduous forests, but also frequents riverside scrub, wooded grasslands, farms and city outskirts. In Bolivia, desert fringes are occupied (a relative, the Cactus Conure, A. cactorum, is a true desert bird; please see article below).


The Margarita Island population, threatened by rat predation, habitat loss and collection, is believed to number less than 200 individuals.  Other populations have not been well-studied.

In some regions, Blue-Crowned Conures are considered to be crop pests, while elsewhere they are valued for consuming weed seeds.  The species is listed on Appendix II of Cites.


Adaptability has likely assisted the Blue-Crowned Conure in surviving where related parrots have disappeared.  It forages on the ground or in trees, taking a wide variety of seeds, tree and cactus fruits, berries, and some insects.  Where roosting trees are scarce, Blue-Crowns pass the night in shallow caves.

Outside of the breeding season, flocks of up to 200 individuals form, sometimes in association with White-Eyed, Mitred and other Conures.


The breeding season extends from September to February. The 2-3 eggs are deposited in a tree hollow and incubated for 22-25 days.  The chicks fledge in approximately 8 weeks, and are fed by the male alone for some time thereafter.  Two (rarely three) clutches are produced annually.


Blue Crowned ConureField studies (please see article below) have revealed that this species utilizes 8 distinct vocalizations, and variations of each, to communicate with others.

The two alarm calls provide flock members with information concerning predators’ location and distance, and may also identify the type of threat (i.e. hawk vs. snake).  Other vocalizations call the group together, with variations being utilized when flock-mates are in or out of view.  Coordination of flight direction and mate-contact are also accomplished via unique calls.  I’m sure that further research will reveal an even more sophisticated communication system.

Blue-Crowned Conures as Pets

Most conures have great pet potential, and the Blue Crowned is no exception; please see this article for a description of popular species.  Many conure specialists consider the Blue Crown to be the friendliest and most intelligent of all.  It is also a better mimic than its relatives, but cannot be considered especially “gifted” in this regard.  Hybrids with other species, such as the Golden-Crowned Conure, have been produced.

Prospective owners should bear in mind that, despite their small size, Blue-Crowned Conures have very loud voices, are extremely active, and can reduce furniture to wood chips in no time flat.  Like all parrots, conures need a mate or near-constant association with a favored person if they are to thrive.  Please see the articles below and write in for specific care information.


Further Reading

Video: wild Blue-Crowned Conures

Field Study: Conure Vocalizations

The Cactus Conure

The Green Cheeked Conure

The International Conure Association 


Blue Crowned Conure image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hakan Sandin
Blue Crowned Conure image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Bram Cymet


Keeping the Tawny Frogmouth with Notes on its Natural History

Tawny FrogmouthPhotos of the Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), with its huge yellow eyes, gaping mouth, “expressive face” (an impression given by the feathery “eyebrows”) and owl-like plumage, have captivated me since childhood.  For years, I stalked Whip-poor-wills, Nighthawks and other of its relatives that dwelled in the USA.  Actual contact with a Frogmouth was delayed, however, until I began working at the Bronx Zoo.  But it was worth the wait, and I soon came to spend many days and nights cramming food into the capricious maws of hungry Frogmouth chicks…as much to my delight as theirs!


Although superficially resembling an owl in plumage, silent flight mode and nocturnal ways, the Tawny Frogmouth is classified in the order Caprimulgiformes. Numbered among this group’s 118 members is the cave-dwelling Oilbird, the only bird known to navigate via echo-location.

Tawny Frogmouths are placed in the family Podargidae, along with 14 relatives.  Three Tawny Frogmouth subspecies – the largest being 3x the size of the smallest – have been described.  Other species include the Papuan Frogmouth, of the Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea, and the Marbled Frogmouth, a rainforest dweller found in northern Queensland and New Guinea. Read More »

The Bananaquit or Sugar Bird – Natural History and Captive Care

Bananaquit on FlowerA bold, “trusting” demeanor and strikingly-beautiful plumage has rendered the Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) a popular bird both in and out of captivity.  Throughout its range, hotels and restaurants attract these little dynamos with bowls of sugar water, much to the delight of their patrons.  Bananaquits provided me with an excellent introduction to softbill-keeping when I began working for bird importers and zoos, and they remain a hardy favorite of aviculturists worldwide.


Forty-one Bananaquit subspecies (an avian record?) have been described.  Most are gray to black above and sport brilliant yellow under-parts (somewhat paler in most females) and a striking white eye streak. The down-curving bill, specialized for harvesting nectar, is long and sharp. Read More »

Birds, Feral Cats and Coyotes – Updating a Serious Conservation Issue

Bird owners are usually concerned with the welfare of wild species, so today I’d like to focus on an underappreciated conservation concern, feral cat predation upon birds.  Recent studies have shown that “trap-neuter-release” programs, collars with bells, and other popular control methods are failing to protect wildlife.

Feral Cats: Scope of the Problem

Although estimates of cat numbers vary widely, it is certain that feral and free-roaming house cats in the USA kill millions of native birds, reptiles and amphibians and billions of mammals yearly.  Only 35% of the country’s 77,000,000+ pet cats are kept exclusively indoors, while 60-100 million feral individuals live exclusively outdoors.  The effects of cats and other invasive species are second only to habitat loss as a cause of extinctions worldwide.

Rare and threatened species that have been killed by free-roaming cats include Florida Scrub Jays, Piping Plovers, Star-Nosed Moles, Pacific Pocket Mice and many others.  On Oahu, Hawaii, cats and mongooses killed significant numbers of Laysan Albatross and Wedge-Tailed Shearwater chicks until the USA’s first predator-proof fence was installed around key nesting areas (please see article below). Read More »

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