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Contains articles constructed around real-world observation of birds in wild or captive conditions.

Light and Color Vision in Birds – Improving our Pets Quality of Life

Recent research on avian vision at Sweden’s Lund University has revealed that birds lose their ability to see color at twilight.  These findings have inspired me to consider how we might use lighting in order to improve the health and breeding potential of captive parrots, finches, doves and other birds.

The Findings

The article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, points out that birds need 5-20 times the amount of light as do humans in order to see color.  By day, birds have extremely sharp color vision, and see both UVB light and a far greater range of colors than do people.  However, their color vision disappears at twilight – far earlier in the day than does that of any other animal studied thus far.

Light’s Effect on Captive Birds

I believe it is important that we consider the type of light we provide to our birds…the zoos in which I have worked are now experimenting with full spectrum lighting in their bird exhibits.

Poor light quality and intensity may explain the difficulties experienced in breeding otherwise hardy bird species in captivity.  Light can have some unexpected implications for reproduction.  Captive female desert iguanas (lizards native to Southwestern North America), for example, rarely reproduce unless given full-spectrum lighting…without UVB light, they cannot see the pheromone trails laid down by males.

Similar scenarios are likely at work where birds are concerned.  Indeed, there are indications that proper levels of UVA and UVB light encourage natural behaviors, reproduction and strong immune systems in captive birds.

Providing Birds with Appropriate Light

Fortunately, a number of options are open to bird owners.  Exposure to natural sunlight (bearing in mind that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays) is the best of these, but when this is not possible a high quality Full Spectrum Bird Lamp should be utilized.

Further Reading

The new findings on light intensity should be valuable in explaining certain aspects of bird evolution and behavior.  For example, the chicks of Gouldian, firetail and zebra finches, all of which nest in dark tree hollows, sport light-reflecting nodules near their mouths.  To read more about this survival strategy, please see my article Flashy Finch Chicks.


A Most Unusual Psittacine – the Pesquet’s or Vulturine Parrot

You’re not likely to run into a Pesquet’s Parrot ( Psittrichas fulgidas) at your local pet store, as they are quite rarely kept even in zoos.  Also known as the Vulturine or Vulture-headed Parrot, this bird is so unique that I just had to introduce it here.

Shockingly Odd!

Pesquet's ParrotHaving worked for a bird wholesaler during the heyday of parrot imports, I was well-acquainted with many unusual species by the time I first laid eyes on a Pesquet’s.  I had even seen some of the relatively few photos of it that existed at the time.  However, I was awestruck upon coming face to face with a group on my first day as bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo…photos did not do justice to this parrot oddity.

The head and throat are largely bare of feathers, and the beak thin and hooked – making the head look quite small for the 18-inch body.  This imparts, as its alternative names suggest, the appearance of a somewhat offbeat vulture.  But no vulture is clad in the jet black and brilliant red feathers of the Pesquet’s parrot.  I also noticed that, rather than climbing about in typical parrot fashion, these characters hopped, flitting their wings as they went.  I was left “aviculturaly disoriented”!

Diet-Driven Evolution

Diet seems to have guided the loss of head feathers in the true vultures and the Vulturine Parrots.  Both feed on foods that could easily gum up and otherwise foul feathers – carrion in the case of vultures and figs in the case of their parrot namesakes.

Flower blossoms and nectar comprise the remainder of the diet of these highly specialized fig-eaters.

Range and Status

Pesquet’s Parrots are limited in range to mountainous rainforests in an area spanning the length of central New Guinea.  Unlike most other resident parrots, they do not occur on any of the offshore islands.

Their feathers are sought after by certain indigenous peoples, and illegally collected chicks command astronomical prices.  This, along with logging in some areas, has led to their inclusion on Cites Appendix II and a designation of “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Please try to visit a zoo that exhibits this amazing bird – you’ll certainly leave with a better appreciation of the great diversity that exists among the world’s parrots.

Further Reading

You can read about the captive breeding of Pesquet’s Parrots here.


Pesquet’s Parrot image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Lohachata

Wild and Pet Conures – Natural History and Captive Care – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for general information and a discussion of the very unique Patagonian Conure or Burrowing Parrot (Cyanoliseus patagonus).

General Considerations

Aratinga Jandaya Conures in the genus Aratinga are often suggested as birds to purchase for those who wish to keep macaws but lack experience (Aratinga means “little macaw”).  Brilliantly colored but quite loud and with an indomitable spirit, conures do indeed resemble their larger cousins in many ways.  Most do best in outdoor aviaries, although they can be acclimated to large indoor cages as well.

The 17 species classified genus Pyrrhura are, in general, quieter and easier to manage than the Aratinga conures.

Green Cheeked Conure, Pyrrhura molinae

An affectionate personality, quiet voice and small size (10 inches) render this one of the most favored of the conures.  Hailing from western Brazil, northwestern Argentina and Paraguay, green cheeks enjoy being held and will even “wrestle” on their backs with those they trust.

Fresh fruit is, as with all conures, an important part of their diet, and should always be available.  A number of stunning color strains, including pineapple and turquoise, have been produced.

White Eared or Maroon Fronted Conure, P. leucotis

The White-ear is, at 8.5 inches, one of the smaller conures, and also among the quietest and most confiding.  It tames readily and is known for its trick-learning abilities, but like all related birds requires a great deal of attention if kept singly.

White-eared Conures are limited in range to eastern Brazil, and generally stay high in the forest canopy.

Blue Crowned Conure, Aratinga acuticaudata

This first of the larger conures that we will cover is also one of the most popular, and with good reason.  Although as rambunctious as its relatives, the Blue Crown has a very affectionate side as well, and is particularly quick to bond its owner.  Those I cared for at a nature center years age were crowd favorites – always in motion and eager for attention.  Two of the birds picked up several words on their own.

Jenday Conure, A. jandaya

Gorgeous golden yellow and deep red plumage keeps this bird on the “most wanted” list of parrot fanciers worldwide, but the jenday is best reserved for experienced aviculturists.  While many become wonderful companions, these natives of northeastern Brazil tend to be high strung, especially when kept alone.

Red Masked Conure, A. erythrogenys

A striking red head and face set this 13 inch beauty apart from other conures. Ranging from western Ecuador to northwestern Peru, where it is sometimes kept as a free-ranging pet, the red masked conure frequents arid habitats.

Free-ranging may be the ideal (but illegal outside of its native habitat) situation for this robust bird – extremely noisy and active, it is suited only for large, outdoor enclosures.

White Eyed Conure, A. leucopthalmus

Often described as “watchful”, this large, thick-billed conure is not a bird for the inexperienced aviculturist.  Nesting pairs are known for their habit of attacking anyone, even well-liked individuals, who approaches their aviary during the breeding season.

Further Reading

Two of the world’s most beautiful parrots are conures, and both are regularly bred in captivity.  For further information, please see The Golden Conure and The Sun Conure.


Parrot Conservation in Australia, New Zealand and the Southwest Pacific

Most aviculturists are aware that most parrot species face threats to their continued survival in the wild.  However, I sometimes feel that the successes that we have had both in and out of captivity blinds us to the fact that a great many, including several that are well-established in the pet trade, are still declining in the wild.

Parrot Central

KakapoThe region extending from New Zealand northwest through Australia to New Guinea and the islands of Indonesia is home to the world’s greatest diversity of parrots, with over one half of the known genera represented.  Conservation efforts are most effective in Australia and New Zealand, but less in evidence in New Guinea and islands in the Southwest Pacific.

Threatened Species

Of the many parrot species in need of attention in the area, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) considers 20 to be threatened with.  Particularly troublesome is the fact that almost half of these are listed as either “Endangered” or Critically Endangered”, including the New Caledonian, Kuhl’s and Ultramarine Lorikeets, the Night, Orange-bellied and Golden-shouldered Parrots, the Forbes’ and Orange-fronted Parakeets and the Kakapo.


Habitat Loss

CockatooHabitat loss and alteration is the gravest threats facing Australia’s parrots.  The felling of old trees bearing suitable hollows for nesting is particularly serious, as many parrots have specific requirements as to the size, height and location of nesting hollows, and will not utilize alternatives.  Especially hard hit have been Baudin’s, Carnaby’s and Mitchell’s Cockatoos, but most others are affected as well.

The loss of unique feeding habitats, especially lightly wooded grasslands, has severely impacted superb and swift parrot numbers.  These fertile areas are scarce in Australia, and most have long been converted to agricultural use.

The spread of agriculture and the introduction of exotic plants has benefitted those parrots that have been able to adapt to new diets.  Included among these are Galahs, Long-billed Corellas and Turquoise Parakeets.  However, these species are thriving at the expense of others, and their unnaturally high numbers radically upset the normal species compositions of their habitats.

Livestock and Kangaroos

Centuries of intensive grazing by introduced domestic and feral animals such as rabbits, cattle, sheep, goats and camels has rendered natural plant and tree re-growth impossible in many regions.  Populations of native kangaroos have skyrocketed in those places where permanent water holes have been established for livestock, adding to the overgrazing problem.


Certain parrots rely upon fire to spur the reproduction of food plants, while others inhabit stable environments that rarely experience natural fires.  Human engineered fire use – burning off brush in some habitats while suppressing natural fires in others, threatens parrots in both categories.  Night, Princess, Golden-shouldered and Orange-bellied Parrots have declined radically due to changes in fire frequency.

Islands of the Southwest Pacific

While logging is a grave concern on the Solomon Islands and elsewhere, introduced predators account for the greatest losses in this region.  Five parrot species on New Zealand alone owe their threatened status to non-native predators such as Brush-tailed Possums, cats, black and Norway Rats, ferrets and stoats.

It often surprises those unfamiliar with the region that hunting is still a concern in New Guinea.  The highly endangered palm cockatoo is a much valued food item in some areas, and Pesquet’s Parrots are frequently killed for their plumage.

Further Reading

You can learn what the IUCN is doing to help conserve parrots in the Southwest Pacific here.


Kakapo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mnolf
Cockatoo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Snowmanradio

Smoking, Nicotine and Pet Birds – Expected and Unexpected Health Concerns

The hazards of second-hand cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke to non-smokers have been well-accepted for years.  As many have expected, these health concerns extend to the lungs and hearts of pets exposed to smoke as well.  New evidence, however, indicates that nicotine may be harmful not only to bird respiratory systems, but also to their skin.

Respiratory Disease

Birds are especially sensitive to airborne toxins…so much so that canaries and other species long played a vital role in warning workers of the presence of poisonous gases in underground mines (the birds weakened and died long before the fumes affected the miners).  It is, therefore, not surprising that veterinarians have documented a high frequency of respiratory disorders and eye irritations among birds kept by owners who smoke indoors.

However, it has also become apparent that problems of a different nature are also affecting birds owned by smokers, even when the birds are never exposed to second-hand smoke.

Nicotine on the Skin and Feathers

Nicotine is readily absorbed through the skin of some animals and clings to hair, fur and feathers.  In the course of working with amphibians in zoos, I’ve been made aware of many frog and salamander deaths that occurred, often instantaneously, after the animals were handled by someone who had smoked and not washed well afterwards.  It now seems clear that nicotine lingering on fingers also causes dermatitis and other skin afflictions in pet birds, and may lead to their deaths.

Birds with nicotine-stained skin often pick at their feathers, nibble on their feet and otherwise exhibit signs of discomfort.  Dermatitis often follows, with small sores or areas of eroded skin developing.  Birds so afflicted will pick at these areas and the scabs that form, opening an avenue of attack for opportunistic bacteria and fungi.  These micro-organisms (which are always present in the environment) can cause severe and potentially fatal infections.

Further Reading

To read more about the dangers posed to birds by nicotine and other common toxins, please see this article.


Photo by jdurham from Morguefile

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