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The Natural History and Captive Care of the Blue Gray Tanager

Thraupis episcopusBlue is an uncommon color in the avian world, and even more so among those birds that are kept in captivity.  When blue does occur, it is usually quite startling – Blue Jays, for example, rarely fail to draw attention; in fact, a co-worker reported that a pair had long been the star attraction of the Moscow Zoo’s Bird House.  Today I’d like to introduce one of the few “all blue” birds available to hobbyists in the USA, the Blue Gray Tanager, Thraupis episcopus. 


Blue Gray Tanagers are classified in the family Thraupidae, members of which range throughout North, Central and South America.  Many, such as the Scarlet Tanager (please see photo), are brilliantly colored.  US hobbyists may not keep native species, but the Blue Gray is legal, and captive-bred specimens are often easy to find. Read More »

Feeding Finches – Tips and Special Considerations – Part 2

Fringilla coelebs chaffinch MalePlease see Part 1 of this article for a discussion of the importance of offering your finches more than a simple “seed-only” diet.  Today I’d like to suggest some foods that will help to keep your birds in good health and brilliant color, and which may encourage breeding.

Live Insects and other Invertebrates

Insects and other invertebrates are essential for most finches, and critical during the breeding season. I’ve always maintained insect traps, such as the Zoo Med Bug Napper, to help meet the needs of my finches. 

Try collecting small grasshoppers, crickets, sow bugs, beetles, flies, termites, grubs and moths.  Please see my articles on Collecting Feeder Insects to learn more about increasing dietary variety.  Consider raising mealworms as well, so that you’ll always have a supply of nutritious pupae and newly-molted grubs on hand. Read More »

Feeding Finches – Tips and Special Considerations – Part 1

Gold Finch

Many popular finches will live for years on relatively simple diets composed of a few types of seed.  However, studies of wild finches have revealed that most consume a wide range of other foods.  The following suggestions will help you to maintain your finches in peak health, color and breeding condition… a bit more work than simply filling a feed cup with seeds each day, but well-worthwhile. Read More »

The Kookaburra – Both a “Zoo Bird” and Surprisingly Common Pet

Laughing KookaburraIn years past the maniacal call of the Laughing Kookaburra, Dacelo novaeguineae, was often used as a backdrop for movies set in “the African jungle”…despite the fact that the bird dwells in dry, open woodlands, and even cities, in Australia.  I had always been fascinated by our own Belted Kingfisher, and longed to meet this largest member of the Kingfisher Family (Alcedinidae) in person.  I was surprised when my chance came well before I began working in zoos – on a visit to a private bird-keeper near NYC!

Not So Wild After All

It seems that Laughing Kookaburras are well-established in private aviculture in the USA, and not that hard to come by.  This makes sense – they are impressive, interesting birds that tame easily – but it first came as a surprise to me as they seem so “wild”.

But it turns out that they are not all that “wild” after all…in their native Australia, suburban Kookaburras often swipe sizzling-hot meat from barbeque grills!  A few albinos have even turned up, and a relative, the gorgeous Blue-Winged Kookaburra, Dacelo leachi, is also occasionally offered for sale.

Keeping Kookaburras

I cared for a pair of Laughing Kookaburras for some years, and found them to be most delightful and interesting.  They became quite docile, were eager to feed from the hand, and always greeted me with a scaled-down laugh – a “chuckle”, if you will – when I arrived.

While usually reserved for announcing their territory, Kookaburras also give their trademark call when excited.  When I wanted the Kookaburras to perform for visitors, I had merely to show them a treat and then make a show of walking away with it…or, worse yet, offering to their neighbor, a cantankerous Cassowary (they did indeed seem jealous!).

Both would cock their heads at me in that most beguiling way they have, and then let loose with a barrage of hysterical calls.  Kookaburras perch very upright and with chests “puffed out”, as do all kingfishers, but my pair seemed to sit even “prouder” when they had “forced” me to part with a few mice (their favorite).


Blue-winged Kookaburra

My Kookaburras lived well into their 20’s on a diet comprised of mice, earthworms, locusts, chicks, hard-boiled eggs, fish and crayfishes.  Wild Kookaburras also take snakes, lizards and frogs.  Many keepers provide raw meat or commercial Bird-of-Prey Diet, but whole animals are preferable foods by far.


I feel that Laughing Kookaburras are well-worth your time if you can properly provide for them.  Despite their fine points, however, Kookaburras are not for everyone.  They stand almost 20 inches high and have a broad wingspan…no indoor parrot cages for these brutes!

Height – 15 feet or more – is especially important in their aviary…like all kingfishers, Kookaburras hunt by plunging down on their prey from above.  And their calls, which carry very far, are a force to be reckoned with.

Some Natural History

The 4 Kookaburra species (the taxonomy of a 5th is in question) are classified as “Forest Kingfishers”, and placed within the subfamily Daceloninae.  The common name is derived from the Wiradjuri People’s term for their unique call.

Unlike their relatives, most Kookaburras frequent dry habitats.  The Laughing Kookaburra is much loved in its native eastern Australia, and has been introduced to southwestern Australia, Tasmania and Kawau Island (New Zealand).

Further Reading

Kookaburra Natural History (National Zoological Park).

Video: tame Kookaburra laughing it up  


Laughing Kookaburra image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Richard Taylor

Bird-Keeping Adventures – Caring for a Pel’s Fishing Owl

Pel’s Fishing OwlToday I’d like to my shift focus from pet trade birds and introduce you to a species I’ve worked with for many years, the Pel’s Fishing Owl, Scotopelia peli.  One individual under my care at the Bronx Zoo lived into his 50’s, and provided me with insights into the owl-world’s most uniquely adapted predator.

Owl Diversity: Bug Hunters to Deer-Slayers

It seems that the various species of owls are viewed by most folks as “variations on a theme” – mysterious, nocturnal birds that feed upon rodents and vanish by day.  But within the owl family (Strigiformes) we find an incredible diversity of lifestyles – sparrow-sized Elf Owls that nest in cacti and hunt insects, Great Horned Owls that stalk cats in NYC and parrots in Costa Rica, massive Eagle Owls capable of taking deer fawns, day-flying Hawk Owls…the list goes on.  Among the most unique are those that specialize in hunting fishes, known collectively as Fish or Fishing Owls. Read More »

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