Our Parrots’ Wild Habits

October 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m on a research kick.  This is nothing new, but a few thought-provoking posts and comments I’ve read lately have gotten me really interested in the wild habits of our parrots.  It started with diet, but then I just found out a lot of fascinating things.  As usual, as I found more answers, they led to even more questions.  Although my research pertained to Cape Parrots and Budgerigars in particular, I think what I found might be quite interesting to all parrot owners.

First, I’ve often wondered if Lola was just a little bit chubby and clumsy and therefore not the greatest flyer.  I’ve noticed that in comparison to my budgies (Charles in particular, who was a spectacularly graceful flyer) as well as my mom’s Hahn’s Macaw, who is another beautiful flyer, Lola is … well, she’s a little slow and labored.  She likes to fly, but unlike my mom’s Hahn’s who takes joy in doing laps around the open floor plan of her home, Lola likes to go shorter distances and sometimes opts to waddle over when she can.  Obviously I think part of this is influenced by the fact that as an apartment dweller she simply doesn’t have as much space to fly and therefore gets less practice, but I also read recently that Capes in comparison to other birds actually have shorter wings, evolved for maneuvering in the forest canopy while feeding, rather than for long distance flight.  In fact, I read that it can take Cape Parrots twenty-five times as much energy to fly than other birds!  This was really astounding and fascinating to me and explained a lot about Lola’s flying efforts.

On the other hand, budgies seem to be wonderful, graceful, and rapid flyers.  Sabrina is an exception because she had a lot of trouble with breaking her wing feathers as a baby and as a result is a bit of a shaky flyer, but Charles was magnificent in flight.  Which makes sense, because in the wild, budgerigars can travel dozens and even hundreds of miles in a single day looking for food.  So although they are often described as ground feeders and foragers, their long tails reflect that they are also spectacular flyers.  (Lola’s short little tail, on the other hand, gives her away as a ground feeder who is not meant for long distance flight.)

I also started thinking about what Lola would eat in the wild.  Cape Parrots feed almost exclusively off of the fruit of the yellowwood tree.  Nowadays, due to the destruction of the yellowwood forests in South Africa and other regions of the African continent, they have turned to other sources of food, including plums, pecans, cherries, acorns, and others.  However, this has also coincided with a widespread outbreak of PBFD (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease), which has been rapidly decreasing wild populations.  Many researchers believe that the PBFD outbreaks are linked to the Cape Parrots’ inability to find adequate food sources.  (The Cape Parrot Project is dedicated to saving the wild Cape Parrot.  They are an excellent organization and I highly recommend giving their site a visit, and donating to their cause if you are so inclined.)

Anyway, all that aside, these simple facts got me thinking: why do we think variety is so crucial to a healthy diet?  Don’t get me wrong– I’m by no means saying it isn’t– in fact, I am fairly certain I have said in this blog that variety is key, and I still believe that.  Let me be clear that I think there are often two arguments for variety: first, for health purposes (e.g. to get a variety of vitamin/minerals/nutrients), and second, for boredom/enrichment purposes.  I still believe in the first reason, that variety is necessary for health purposes.  Obviously we do not have access to these yellowwood fruits, and thus  we cannot replicate the wild diet– so, we should do our best to give a variety of nutrients that will mimic a complete diet or attempt to do so, at least.  I still do this and think it’s important to do.

But, I think that maybe we obsess over the second argument for variety too much: the boredom/enrichment argument.  Again, of course I believe enrichment is important!  (In fact, this has been another research kick of mine, and I am working on a large write up on it.)  But why do we assume that parrots get bored eating the same thing everyday, when that’s exactly what some of them do (and is healthiest for them to do) in the wild?  And although Capes are somewhat unique in that regard, they aren’t the only ones.  The vast majority of the diet of wild Hyacinth Macaws, for example, is made up of palm nuts.  Just thinking of the way that I feed Lola, however, I often obsess over giving her a variety of foods from sprouts to fresh veggies (from chopped to sliced to steamed to whole to stuffed) to dry mixes to fruits to breads to mashes to endless variations upon variations.  I’m wondering if these things really matter to her at all, being that she’d be perfectly happy and healthy eating yellowwood fruits all day everyday for the rest of her life.  (One important distinction: the question of dietary enrichment in terms of presentation or foraging, I think, is a separate one. I absolutely believe in variety of presentation and encouragement of foraging.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to make food presentation less “boring” by hiding food or creating foraging opportunities– I think that’s super important!  I’m talking about boredom, referring to the make up of the food itself.)

Maybe this is all just very obscure and doesn’t make sense.  I mean, I’m still confused about it.  And I’m not sure I will necessarily be doing anything differently.  I think maybe I will not obsess so much over giving Lola a different fresh fruit/veggie mix every morning, so long as she’s getting a good mix in there.  (I used to be afraid that she’d get bored of eating the same meal three days in a row.  Now I feel silly thinking that.)  But again, as usual, my research leaves me with more questions than answers.  Just something to ponder!

Oh: and Happy Halloween! 🙂

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On Capes and Conservation

May 1, 2011 § 6 Comments

I’ve been learning a lot of fascinating information about Cape Parrots lately.  When I first set out looking for Lola, I had no preference when it came to the two subspecies of Capes that are available in the U.S.: the Grey-Headed [Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus], or the Brown-Necked [Poicephalus fuscicollis fuscicollis].  In fact, I didn’t even really know what the differences were at all– I couldn’t tell them apart visually nor did I know that anybody could.  I just wanted a sweet, adorable, big-beaked Cape.  I ended up with my beautiful Lola, who turned out to be a Brown-Necked Parrot [P.f.f.].

A friend of mine in Canada, who writes the blog Just Poifect, is also finally getting her dreamy little female Cape!  We got into a conversation about the different subspecies available and apparently, in Canada, the Grey-Headed is much more common.  It is also, apparently, much larger!  I was speaking to Scott Lewis of Old World Aviaries, one of the leading Cape Parrot breeders, who also takes a great interest in Cape Parrot conservation and wildlife status.  He is a wealth of knowledge!  He breeds both subspecies of Capes, and told me that there are two visual differences: size and coloration.  Whereas a Grey-Headed male (the larger of the two sexes) has an average adult weight of 400-425 grams, the average Brown-Necked male will weigh anywhere from 75-100 grams less.  The Brown-Necked females, however, tend to have much more vivid and widespread coral coloring on their heads and especially their faces.  A Grey-Headed female will have the coral on top of the head, but the cheeks and rest of the head will be more grey, as per their name.  It is not uncommon, however, for a Brown-Necked female to have coral spread along the face and not just the top of the head.

A particularly striking Brown-Necked female (image borrowed from: http://www.wingscentral.org/aps/faqcapes.aspx)

I found all this information fascinating, but also a bit puzzling.  Although Lola definitely has beautiful, coral-colored cheeks (as the Brown-Necked should), she is also quite a hefty little girl!  Her average weights are anywhere among the 350-365 gram range (and she is only a year old), whereas a Brown-Necked male is supposed to average between 300-350 grams.  Scott Lewis agreed that she is quite unusual in terms of size for a female Brown-Necked– she weighs as much as a female Grey-Headed should– but that judging by her coloration on her face, she is definitely a Brown-Necked Parrot.

Funnily enough, had I known about the differences between these two subspecies, I would have been very torn between the Grey-Headed and the Brown-Necked.  Whereas I prefer a parrot larger in size over a smaller, I definitely prefer the beautiful coral cheeks and faces of the smaller Brown-Necked Parrots.  Lola is my perfect little mix: the best of both worlds!

I really do love my Lola, and I take joy in caring for her as best I can: making sure she is healthy, safe, happy, and well-loved.  Thinking about how loved Lola is here makes me feel awful for the wild nominate Capes [Poicephalus robustus] in South Africa.  Right now, wild Capes are facing a horrible Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) outbreak.  The Cape Parrot Project, which works on Cape Parrot conservation, posted this excellent article (a PDF download) on their Facebook page today, basically outlining the current status of the Cape Parrot in the wild. Although they are endangered in the first place, since the disease has broken out, it has been estimated that there are only about 800 left, and as many as 60% may be infected with PBFD.  Wildlife conservations and ornithologists are not 100% sure of the cause, but one of the leading theories is that it is due to stress and malnutrition.  The natural diet of the Cape is the yellowwood tree, but due to habitat destruction (from logging), Capes have had to resort to other food sources like pecans, plums, cherries, etcetera, which could very well have dietary implications.

Reading this article as well as viewing photos of some of the PBFD-infected wild Capes made me very sad but also inspired me to help out and take action.  Although I follow the World Parrot Trust, the Cape Parrot Project, and the wonderful efforts of Dr. Steve Boyes (one of the leading Cape conservationists), I had yet to do anything myself in order to show my support.  This morning, I made a donation to the Cape Parrot Project through the World Parrot Trust here.  I am proud to say that I have done the little I can to support Cape Parrot conservation and strongly encourage anybody else that would like to help keep these beautiful parrots alive to do the same– no donation is too small!  You can donate here (many donation amounts are available).

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