Keeping the Bengalese or Society Finch – the World’s Only “Manmade” Finch

Society FinchesThe pert, attractive Society Finch (Lonchura striata domestica) has never existed as a wild, “natural” species.  Rather, it was produced in captivity, by breeders who crossed Sharp-Tailed and Striated Munias (Lonchura acuticauda and L. striata, please see photo). Interestingly, while the Society Finch is a very popular cage and lab bird, its parent species are rarely seen in private collections or zoos.  It is an ideal choice for those who desire a hearty, easy-to-breed bird with an “exotic” history.


The species that gave rise to the Society Finch, members of the family Estrildidae, are native to southern Asia and closely related to Indian Silverbills, Tri-Colored Nuns and many others popular in the pet trade.  The Society Finch most likely arose as a distinct species (or subspecies) in Japan, but there is also evidence that Chinese breeders had a hand in its development.  The details are unclear.   Read More »

The Cape Parrot – Africa’s Rarest Psittacine Threatened by Disease

The problems afflicting the African Gray Parrot have been very much in the news recently (please see video below), and some important conservation efforts have been initiated. Less well-known, however, is the desperate situation facing the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus. With a wild population hovering at approximately 800 individuals, this relative of the Senegal and Meyer’s Parrot is Africa’s rarest Psittacine, and the most threatened bird in South Africa.

650 Years of Habitat Destruction

Temperate forest in Western Cape South AfricaThe Cape Parrot is limited in range to mountainous forests in South Africa (please see photo), a habitat that has been heavily logged for over 650 years. In addition to actual habitat loss, deforestation also limits the availability of the tree hollows. Rare even in intact forests, hollows are essential to Cape Parrot nesting success…the bird cannot adapt and utilize alternative nest sites. Cape Parrots have also been hunted as crop pests and illegally collected for the pet trade.

Disease Complicates Conservation Efforts

But it is disease that may finally finish-off this beautiful, little-studied bird. Just as an unprecedented fungal epidemic is now causing amphibian extinctions worldwide, Cape Parrots are being decimated by a disease that seems not to have been a major threat in the past.

Over the past 5 years, increasing numbers of Cape Parrots have been succumbing to Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). Long known in both wild and captive populations of many species, PBFD has never affected so many individuals, and to such a degree, as now. In one study along the southern edge of their range, 100% of the Cape Parrots sampled tested positive. Ornithologists fear that some environmental factor is worsening the disease’s effects or increasing its ability to spread.

Food May Hold Survival Key

Aided by funding from the National Geographic Society, The Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology has launched the Cape Parrot Project. The effort is distinguished by its broad scope and, I believe, should be used as a template for others.

Researchers noticed that birds undergoing treatment for PBFD quickly began to put on weight and recover when they were fed Yellowwood Tree fruit. Subsequent lab tests confirmed that Yellowwood Tree fruit contains compounds that kill a variety of microbes. Yellowwood Trees are now scarce in the Cape Parrot’s range; a lack of this formerly common food may, to some degree, account for the species’ new susceptibility to PBFD. DNA sequencing of the PBFD virus was also commenced, in order to determine if a recent mutation might be involved.

Other work is in progress. Twenty-five thousand native trees have been planted in Cape Parrot habitat, and 600 nest boxes have been erected. Local communities are paid to care for and monitor the new trees. Potentially toxic plants, introduced from the USA, Japan, Mexico and India, are being studied, and supplementary food sources have been planted. The rehabilitation of PBFD-infected parrots continues. It is hoped that a new population of disease-free Cape Parrots can be established in an area from which they disappeared over 150 years ago.


Further Reading

The Cape Parrot Project on Facebook

Understanding Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease

Video: African Gray Parrot Conservation (Nat Geo)

Rare Finches of the Impenetrable Forest

Keeping Senegal and other Poicephalus Parrots



The WorldBirds Data Base – an Exciting Conservation Tool Open to all Birders

Red Shining ParrotEstablished in 2003 by Birdlife International, the WorldBirds Birdwatcher’s Data Base now has 16,000 regular users and over 3 million recorded observations.  Unlike many professionally-organized efforts, WorldBirds is open to ornithologists and casual and serious birders alike. It is an excellent, enjoyable way to contribute to worldwide conservation projects and communicate with others who share your passion.

Your Observations Count

Research fund availability and the sheer scope of what needs to be done places severe limits on conservationists…paid professionals can not handle everything. Even when I worked for the Bronx Zoo and other well-funded organizations, I relied heavily upon volunteers.  Much of the data that later found its way into professional publications was generated by them, not I.  Read More »

Unique Bird Behavior – Ravens Use Beaks to “Show” Objects to Mates

RavenThe act of holding up or pointing to an object, in order to draw another’s attention, has been observed only among ourselves and Great Apes.  Known as deictic gesturing, this behavior is considered critical to the development of language, and a sign of great intelligence (you parents will likely recall the first time your toddler did something similar!).  Along with parrots, crows, and magpies, Common Ravens, Corvus corax, have proven themselves among the brightest of the world’s birds.  Recently, they have been observed to utilize deictic gestures, and are the only birds known to do so.

“Hey…look at this if you care about me”!

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Vienna have reported that Ravens pick up objects such as stones, branches and moss and show them to other Ravens.  In most cases, the bird being solicited is the other’s mate.  Once his or her attention is drawn, the pair usually jointly manipulates the object for a time.  Read More »

Holiday Season Treats and Cautions for Parrot and Finch Owners

Yellow Naped AmazonHoliday visits and celebrations, pleasurable as they are, can also bring some nasty surprises to both people and pets.  A bit of planning now can help make the upcoming season safe and enjoyable for you and your birds.

Stress, Noise and Late Nights

Responsible bird owners know that certain holiday treats and, of course, alcohol, are bad for birds.  But many overlook the important role that sleep plays in bird health (please see article below). If you entertain late, or will be out often during the holidays, keep in mind that most birds need 10-12 hours of sleep in a dark, quiet environment. If necessary, move your pet’s cage to an area that is off-limits to guests, and shut the room lights via a timer if the rest of your house will be lit after the usual “lights-out” time.  Maintaining a stable day/night cycle is good for your birds mental and physical health.

Holiday parties can mean a house stocked with loud, tipsy guests, excited children and unfamiliar dogs. Each of these “creatures” (especially, those influenced by alcohol!) may take liberties with your pets that they otherwise would not. If it will be difficult for you to monitor all that is going on, consider keeping your birds in a locked room while parties are in progress (or “raging”, as the case may be!). Read More »

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