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Choosing the Best Cage for Canaries, Finches and other Small Birds

While working as a bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo, I cared for a number of finches that are commonly kept as pets.  Early on, I was struck by the amazing differences in the behavior of the same species when kept in large exhibits as opposed to small cages.  Along with increased activity and interesting behaviors came good health and excellent breeding results.  While few pet owners can keep their birds in zoo-exhibit sized cages, many do not give enough thought to just how much space their finches and canaries need.  Perhaps because these birds “get by” in small cages, and rarely exhibit the problems that afflict space-deprived parrots, they are often denied spacious living quarters.  But, because of their physical make-up and lifestyle, finches are poorly suited for life in cramped quarters…even less so, in some ways, than are many parrots. Choosing the best cage for these small birds is essential for their well-being and it allows you to enjoy more natural behaviors.

Painted Firetail

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jim Bendon

Finch and Canary Lifestyles

It’s important to bear in mind that canaries and other finches do not climb about on perches and cage bars as do parrots.  Flight space is a critical point in cage selection.  Also, finches are only rarely let out of their cages for exercise and interaction with owners.  The vast majority spend their lives in a cage…in many cases able to only hop a few inches from perch to perch, day in and day out. Read More »

Parakeets, Cockatiels, Parrots and Cockatoos – Feather Plucking

Feather plucking (and other forms of self-mutation) is one of the most common concerns raised by parrot owners.  I’ve encountered the problem among zoo birds as well.  Despite being well-studied, feather plucking remains difficult to both prevent and cure.  Our understanding is complicated by the fact that feather plucking can be caused by widely-differing physical or emotional ailments.  But some general rules and patterns have emerged.  I’ll review these below…please be sure to post your own observations, as we still have much to learn.

Golden Conures

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Benny Mazur

Different yet Related Causes

Feather-plucking may be a reaction to a physical or emotional problem.  Sometimes, the reason is clearly physical…as when a bird plagued by mites picks at its feathers and skin.  Or the reason may be purely environmental…as when a bored parrot kept in a tiny cage adopts self-destructive behaviors.

But there are many areas of overlap.  In the example above, when the mites are eliminated, the bird will usually cease feather-picking. However, just like human infants, parrots quickly learn how to get our attention.  Let’s suppose the bird in question is housed alone and with minimal human contact.  It may very well make an association between feather plucking and attention – when it pulled at its feathers, people came; in some cases, solitary birds may even seek negative attention (i.e. yelling) if none other is provided. Read More »

Penguin Facts – African Penguins in Captivity and the Wild

Penguins are beloved by bird enthusiasts and “regular” people alike.  While they are not typically thought of as “pets”, in the course of my zoo career I have run into several people who have managed to keep penguins in their personal collections.  One such instance involved a well-known entertainer who donated his flock of flamingoes – which he housed in a climate-controlled building in the desert just outside Las Vegas – to the Bronx Zoo in order to make room for penguins!  I’ve had the good fortune to work with several species in zoos and today would like to cover the care and natural history of a great favorite, the African Penguin, aka the Black-Footed or Jackass Penguin, Spheniscus demersus.

African Penguins

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jurriaan Schulman

Captive Care

Penguins are demanding captives…I found this to be true even though I had the Bronx Zoo’s resources, and the expertise of experienced co-workers, at my disposal.  Most species lack defenses to local fungi, bacteria and parasites …in NYC, West Nile proved to be especially dangerous.  The range of preventative medications and vitamin supplements they require necessitated that I hand feed each daily – an enjoyable but tedious task.  They learn to “line up” for food right away, but squabble continually…and the numerous wing tags attached to each bird complicated individual identification (the opposite of a wing tag’s intended purpose!). Read More »

Audubon’s Bird Conservation Report – Many Common Birds in Trouble

The National Audubon Society has released the 2012 State of North American Birds Report, an impressive annual study that highlights species and habitats at risk.  Because many birds respond quickly to changes in their environments, the report’s findings are also useful to organizations studying pesticide use, air quality, pollution, climate change and similar concerns.  Compiled in conjunction with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the report also relies heavily upon the input of “citizen scientists” participating in the Christmas Bird Count and similar projects (please see the articles linked below to learn how to become involved…help is needed and appreciated!).  Today I’ll summarize some of the report’s key points, including the disturbing finding that populations of many common birds, including typical garden and feeder visitors, are in steep decline.

Baltimore Oriole

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mdf

Common Birds in Decline

I was especially troubled to read about the population crashes being experienced by quite a few species that were so common that we might have been tempted to “take them for granted”.  But as with so many other animals around the world, large populations are proving no match for rapidly changing environmental conditions.  All of the common species on Audubon’s watch list have declined by at least 50%, while the 10 mentioned below have lost 70-82 % of their populations.  Bobwhite Quails (one of my all-time favorites to observe and care for), for example, have decreased from approximately 31 million to 5.5 million individuals! 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.

Description

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.

Range

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.

Habitat

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).

Conservation

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.

Ecology

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.

Breeding

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.

Vocalizations

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

 

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