Feeding Insects to Pet Birds – useful products designed for reptiles

Almost all pet birds known collectively as “soft bills” (those which are not parrots) consume live insects as part of their natural diets. Insects are especially important during the breeding season – in fact, the sudden availability of insects, either in captivity or the wild, is an important trigger in bringing many species into breeding condition. Insects also form the bulk of the diet of most nestling soft bills. I have long fed insects to a variety of birds commonly found in the pet trade, including canaries, many finches and waxbills, mynas, Peking robins, red-crested cardinals, red bishops and various weavers.

It is standard practice at many zoos to use light traps to collect wild insects for the bird collection. The explosion of interest in keeping reptile pets has resulted in the marketing of a number of products that are of great value to bird keepers as well. I have used Zoo Med’s Bug Napper to trap moths, gnats, beetles and other tasty treats for my birds (be sure you can identify dangerous insects, and those, such as fireflies, which may be toxic). I do not know of any cases of secondary pesticide poisoning, even after decades of trapping at the Bronx Zoo, but urge caution in areas being sprayed to control West Nile Virus.

A number of reptile-oriented companies produce whole, (pre-killed) canned insects and invertebrates, offering bird keepers a very convenient method of adding valuable variety and nutrients to their pets’ diets. I strongly recommend experimentation with the following:

Exo Terra Mealworms, Grasshoppers, Silkworms, Snails

Zoo Med Can O’ Grasshoppers, Caterpillars, Snails

Repto Treat Delica Bloodworms

Of course, live mealworms and crickets, the old stand-bys, are very useful. I’ll address the best ways of keeping and using them in the future. You should also investigate other commercially-bred insects, also generally used for reptiles, such as silkworms, tobacco hornworms, roaches, waxworms, locusts and house flies.

An article examining the nutritional value of commonly used feeder insects is posted at:


Parrots, Parakeets, Macaws, Cockatoos, Lories & Lorikeets – Interesting Facts and Figures – Part One

Parrots and their relatives have such a long history as pets (the first written record of a parrot in captivity is that of a plum-headed parakeet in Greece in 400 BC) that it is easy to forget how spectacularly adapted they are for life in the wild. Today I would like to pass along some information concerning the natural history of these fascinating birds, with the hope that it will help you to develop a better understanding and deeper appreciation of your pet’s unique qualities.

All 360 species of “parrot-like birds” (of the world’s nearly 10,000 bird species) are classified within the order Psittaciformes. They are divided into approximately 80 genera but belong to a single family, Psittacidae.

The hyacinth macaw, which reaches 3.4 feet in length and sports a wingspan of nearly 5 feet, is the world’s largest parrot. Papua New Guinea’s buff-faced pygmy parrot, fully grown at 3 inches, is the smallest. The flightless kakapo of New Zealand, at 9 pounds in weight, is the heaviest parrot.

Parrot bills are distinguished from those of other birds by the fact that the upper bill is hinged where it joins the skull, allowing for great flexibility and rendering it very useful as a tool. The thick tongue also helps give parrots their extraordinary ability to manipulate objects.

Parrot tails may be long, as in the macaws (2/3 birds total length) or nearly absent, as in the blue-crowned hanging parrots. The central tail feathers of the racket-tailed parrots of Indonesia and the Philippines are elongated and bare, and capped with flat, rounded tips. The function of their odd shape is not unknown. The New Guinea pygmy parrot’s stiff, bare tail feathers support the bird as it forages on tree trunks.

Parrots feet are termed “zygodactyl” – 2 toes point forward and 2 point backwards. This arrangement confers strength and dexterity. Parrots are distinctly “left-footed” or “right-footed” when it comes to handling objects with their feet.

Range and Habitat
The ring-necked parakeet, found from North Africa to China, is the widest ranging parrot. A group that escaped at Kennedy Airport in NYC still survives in the area surrounding the Bronx Zoo (an injured one that I came upon had lost some toes due to frostbite, but was otherwise in fine shape). Stephen’s lorry, the species most limited in distribution, survives only within a 13.5 square mile area on Henderson Island in the South Pacific.

The now extinct Carolina parakeet ranged to North America’s Great Lake region, making it the most northerly of parrots in distribution. Today that title is held by the slaty-headed parrot of Afghanistan. Tierra del Fuego’s austral conure ranges the furthest south.

Most parrots are associated with forested areas and even grassland species, such as the budgerigar (common parakeet) and Fischer’s lovebird, rarely stray far from thickets. There are however, a number of exceptions:
The kea lives at elevations of 2-6,000 feet in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and is often seen rolling about in the snow. Other mountain dwelling parrots include the derbyan parakeet of the Himalayas and the Sierra parakeet of the Andes.
Australia’s ground parrot inhabits coastal sand dunes while the night parrot, also of Australia, is found only in desert grasslands.

While the vast majority of the world’s parrots feed upon nuts, seeds and fruit, several species take quite unique food items:
Black cockatoo – the larvae of wood-boring beetles
Kakapo – juice obtained by chewing leaves
Pygmy parrot – fungus
Lories and lorikeets – pollen and nectar

Perhaps the oddest parrot diet of all is that of New Zealand’s kea, which favors bot fly larvae. The kea hunts fly larvae by perching upon the backs of sheep and pecking at the skin – much to the dismay of both sheep and shepherds! This habit, and the bird’s inordinate fondness for carrion, has resulted in their being unjustly labeled as sheep-killers.

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, Can Determine When People are Watching – and React Accordingly

European Starling
Researchers at the University of Bristol determined this month (May, 2008) that starlings and other birds moved away from feeders if watched by people, but continued feeding if the observers remained just as close to the feeders, but turned their eyes away.

Interesting….but I think bird keepers have known this to be true for quite some time. Most of us learned early on that parrots focus on our eyes when watching us, and that the best way to sneak up on a bird that is reluctant to return to its cage is to observe it by quick, side-wise glances. This is a good point to keep in mind when watching newly acquired finches and other shy pets.

In fact, a key to being able to get a good look at the birds I worked with in large zoo exhibits was to avoid a direct stare. Birds feeding calmly not far from me would immediately fly off if I shifted my glance, even if the rest of my body remained immobile. I had first learned this lesson in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder, by Alfred G. Martin (Bond Wheelwright Co., 1963), and was subsequently able to induce a variety of birds to feed from my hand.

I have a bit of eviBarn Owldence that birds “know” the meaning of other human facial features as well. I once helped to raise a barn owl, Tyto alba, that had been found on a Bronx street (yes, a surprising number of birds do live there!). The bird imprinted on people (came to view us as its “parents”), which suited it well for us in educational programs. As hand-raised birds will do, this male owl sought a human “mate” when it matured. In typical barn owl fashion, it would bring any nearby keeper a mouse – perching on our shoulders and trying to stuff its lovely nuptial gift into our mouths! Never once did the owl try an ear or eye – it seemed to be able to make, in its brain, the quite large transition from bird beak to human mouth.


The Ringdove (Barbary Dove, Ringed Turtle Dove, Java Dove), Streptopelia risoria – a common pet helps to save the endangered Pink Pigeon

Few birds actually live up to the reputations we assign them – owls, for example, have been shown to be less “wise” than most other species when it comes to learning from their mistakes. The ringdove, however, does indeed seem to possess the calm, peaceful demeanor that we have come to associate with doves (although those I kept as a boy begun their admittedly “soft” cooing at 4 AM, rendering my otherwise patient mother far from “calm”!). Kept in a mixed species aviary, even breeding pairs of ringdoves are quite tolerant of smaller birds.

When I began work at the Bronx Zoo, a primary focus of the Ornithology Department was the conservation of the pink pigeon, Nesoenas mayeri. Limited in distribution to the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, this spectacularly colored bird is highly endangered. It is here that the ringdove’s “accepting nature” came into play. Pigeons and doves feed their young with “crop milk”, a food partially formed from the lining of the mother bird’s crop. Commercial substitutes exist, but none approach the real thing.

In order to obtain as many eggs as possible from the small captive population, we pulled eggs from incubating female pink pigeons and placed them beneath brooding ringdoves (egg removal, within a specific time period, stimulates the female to lay another clutch). The female ringdoves were wonderful foster parents. They produced amazing quantities of crop milk to feed their unusual nestlings, which grew to almost twice the size of their foster moms before fledging. I shall not soon forget the sight of a female ringdove literally perched on the back of a huge nestling pink pigeon while feeding it! Birds raised by foster parents of other species often have problems in breeding with their own species when they mature – fortunately, the fostered pigeons went on to reproduce normally.

The ringdove makes a fine pet and is available in a wide variety of colors, including apricot, white and pied. It has an unusual captive history, and may actually be a mere variant of the wild African collared dove, S.roseogrisea, which was domesticated 2-3,000 years ago. Its actual status is unclear, however, as captives have likely hybridized with related species, such as the Eurasian collared dove and the red-eyed dove. Feral populations of ringdoves live in the USA (Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco), Italy, Taiwan and England, usually to the delight of local residents.

An interesting perspective on the origins of the ringdove is provided at: http://www.internationaldovesociety.com/Articles/ringneck%20history.htm

Did Parrots Help Columbus Find His Way to America?

Amazon Parrot

The beauty, intelligence and talking abilities of parrots have long endeared them to us as pets. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all kept parrots, and seemed to hold them in high regard.

An oft-repeated story suggests that parrots, most likely one of the Amazons, may have figured prominently in the history of the New World as well. Legend has it that, after over 2 months of sailing through featureless seas, the crew of Columbus’ ship Pinta was ready to mutiny. The ship’s captain, Mr. Pinzon, advised Columbus to continue westward, as he had observed “forest birds” flying in that direction. Upon landing on San Salvador, Columbus observed the green birds seen by Mr. Pinzon in the huts of the people living there.

Some time later, tame parrots roosting near villages on several Caribbean islands were also said to have warned the residents of the approach of the Spanish conquistadors. The journals of generals Hojida and Nicuso show that in at least one case (Yuibaco, 1509) the villagers, relying upon their pets’ warning calls, were able to escape into the forest.


An account of Columbus’ observations of parrots in the West Indies, drawn from his journals, is posted at:

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