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As with all parrots one should consider their right to flight; this natural function is so important to the general well being and mental stability. The Blue-headed Pionus menstruus was the first to arrive in our collection in the late 1960s and started a 25-year way of life for me.
Our first Pionus breeding was a single Bronze-winged Pionus chalcopterus raised in 1973. Unfortunately its nest mate was found dead in the nest box, mutilated by its parents. It was a first breeding and was the start of well over 500 pionus chicks raised at the sanctuary.
The lesson learned from the loss of the mutilated youngster was that each pair needed a territory secure from other parrots and parakeets. In a bank of flights double wire between pairs will give the security needed, preventing physical contact which will lesson aggression between neighbors and reduce wife beating.
We also learned that the nest box should be positioned away from other parrots, which means it should not be hung up on the partition since the movement made by neighboring birds climbing on the wire will unsettle the hen. She may even be reluctant to use the nest box; however if she is bold and does lay the distractions will bring her off her eggs to confront the offender, the eggs being chilled and warmed so many times that a poor hatch is inevitable.
The nest box should be large enough to accommodate in addition to the hen bird, four or sometimes six chicks, who by the time they fledge the nest, will be almost the size of the parent birds. In the confines of a small nest box the male when feeding the young can feel threatened by the vibrant chicks and may attack both hen and chicks.
Since observing these two points we have never lost another pionus chick in the nest box from parental attack.
Three to six eggs generally make up a clutch; a good diet is essential in order to raise strong chicks whereas poor diet will lead to failure and disappointment.
If one wishes to market youngsters they should be close wrung with coded letters or numbers, which means proper records need to be kept; it is important to be responsible.
Chicks of top quality must be our aim; too many offered for sale have been stunted, and have poor bone structure. Parent raised stock must be encouraged if we are to preserve this enchanting genus true to type as nature intended.
When we first started to breed Pionus parrots the diet for most captive parrots was sunflower seed, peanuts, and the occasional piece of fruit. No wonder eggs were few and what were laid were infertile or dead embryos resulted. Only when we became inventive and completely moved away from conventional diet did fertility improve and the number of live chicks increase.
Each genus of parrots kept was carefully studied, its diet compared to that of its wild counterpart. We found that most of the parrots we were working with enjoyed meat, taking beef and rabbit raw; this we fed for some years as part of their diet, but as the collection became larger it had to be discontinued for hygiene reasons.
Our aim was to formulate a feed that all our parrots would find interesting and enjoyable; it must contain all the nutrients necessary for good health and high fertility, yet would allow them to eat their fill without becoming obese. At that time the only commercial feeds available to us were chicken feeds and game bird pellets, both of which were too high in carbohydrates for parrots. Those that were given a choice would leave the pellets in preference to almost anything else in the feed pots.
We formalized a diet for our birds and over the 20 years have more or less adhered to it, our breeding success being a clear indication of its value.
When we first introduced our formula the pulses were heated, and put through the mill together with other ingredients; in later years the pulses have been just sprouted, and fed uncooked in their whole state.
Within the Pionus genus of seven species and several subspecies there is some variation in food preferences.
The Tumultuosus - The plum-crowned
A bird of high altitude has an enormous appetite for green plant food. Anyone fortunate enough to keep these little gems in an outdoor aviary will know they will eat every edible growing shoot.
When kept in a sterile flight, generous supplies of twigs and greens such as watercress, land cress, mustard and cress, and green onions will be essential for condition required to induce breeding. These delightful parrots will be a test of avian management, susceptible as they are to aspergillus.
When raising young their nesting material must be changed frequently, to prevent fungal infection of adults and young. The thick down covering newly hatched youngsters indicates that they come from altitude.
Some years ago I was privileged to meet the co-author of a wonderful book, Birds of the High Andes, Jon Fjldsa, who had seen the Plum-crowned parrot at heights of 3300m along the Andean slopes.
Also an inhabitant of the heights is Pionus sordidus the Coral-billed parrot, recorded up to 2400m. Their young also carry a heavy down. Within a few days of hatching their mandible takes on a coral pink hue, hence their nickname Coral-bill. This parrot is not as difficult to maintain as the Plum-crown, but it cannot tolerate second rate accommodation. Pionus Parrots are fairly well known in captivity; aviculturists enjoy these inquisitive small parrots. During the period of my interest in the bird, which is about twenty five years, there have been many thousands imported both into Europe and the U S A; of these birds there is only a fraction still alive in captivity. Their expected life span exceeds twenty years, so what has become of these captured birds? They leave behind very few descendants to justify the taking of them from their natural habitat.
The sad fact in many cases is that husbandry is just not good enough. Our own birds are kept free of ascarids, but on their going to an establishment where floors are contaminated their chances of survival are slim. Spillage of stale food, unclean perches and foul water containers all add up to problems. Wild caught birds and those from clean aviaries just cannot survive.
The young we breed at the sanctuary go whenever possible into breeding
situations, the surplus into the pet market. Perhaps a handful of people
will breed from them successfully; by success I mean a good nest of parent
reared youngsters each season. Of the other birds I feel the interest
wanes, and the birds are not given the care these delightful parrots deserve.
Winter seals the fate of so many tender tropical birds. One would not
consider buying a tropical plant and keeping it outside during a severe
cold winter, yet all too often parrots are left with little protection
from the elements.
Birds to be put up for breeding should have their gender determined before occupying a breeding unit.
The endoscope and other non-invasive methods of establishing gender have been a godsend, thus avoiding non-producing attachments being formed. During our early years we had six senilis males put up as three pairs; fortunately following surgical sexing females were introduced, making six White-crowned males happy fathers. Senilis are very prolific breeders and wonderful parents.
In nature they enjoy a large range right down to sea level, and are often observed in small flocks; these hardy parrots are ideal for beginners. During the breeding season I find them fearless, defending their nest with great courage. The pleasure gained from these parrots well rewarded us for the great effort we had to make to get these bachelor boys to realize that family life could be fun.
The Menstruus or the Blue headed
Has the largest range of the group and many people start with this hardy beautiful parrot. We have been fortunate to have several colour variations; care must be taken not to exaggerate and try to create sub species, as birds vary somewhat like humans. The young Menstruus often develop red forecrowns when they first feather, however this molts out before one year is out.
Pionus Maximiliani also has an enormous range; this somewhat plain coloured parrot needs to be seen in good light to appreciate its beauty. I find them to be the quiet bird of the group; their young often show more blue than the parent birds; this however molts during the first year.
Pionus chalcopterus The Bronze-winged parrot
Their territory overlaps with the seiloides; the Bronze-winged carries so many colours and shades, viewed in differing lights its magnificence fills the eye; it is a ready breeder; in breeding condition the eye rings are deep red.
Pionus seniloides, another Pionus of the Andes: its habitat is north of the Plum-crowned; I feel this dull coloured parrot is close to the Plum-crown.
I cannot help feeling it may be a sub-species; geographical distribution makes them neighbors, lending substance to my theory.
Pionus fuscus the Dusky parrot
Their distribution includes Southern Venezuela, Guiana, North-West Brazil. Small distribution in North-Eastern Colombia.
The somewhat hawklike appearance and its varied colour makes it a great favorite of mine. Many specimens have a beautiful colour variation on the breast and lower abdomen. Also the white or cream colour about the head varies a great deal.
The bonding of Pionus parrots appears strong, but I have had a Plum- crown male take a second wife in the same season following the death of his long time partner.
Our parrots go to nest fairly early in the year, sometimes during February. Since they are housed in buildings with heat and light control, outside weather conditions are of little consequence.
Those that are kept in outside aviaries can frustrate their owners; at the merest suggestion of extended day light females tend to lay, whereas males can be up to a month behind their hens in condition.
To eliminate wasted eggs the nest box entrance can be sealed up for the winter; when the male is in peak condition and displaying to his mate the nest box can be opened up.
Courtship is much the same as with other South American parrots; the male becomes aggressive; if he can attack his neighbors he will. This is where the double wire partitions between pairs eliminates the possibility of birds losing mandibles and toes.
In a high density situation the male can set about the hen, driving her from pillar to post in his attempt to keep her away from other nearby males. She may hide in the nest box to keep out of harm's way, and although mating has not taken place she may well lay eggs. With or without eggs a bullied hen can sit the summer in the nest box.
If the flight is large then clipping one of the male's wings will slow him down, giving the female an advantage; but in the smaller modern day aviaries where birds hop from perch to perch there is little to be gained; rather if flights are screened it will give the privacy needed, and the isolation usually takes the heat out of the situation.
The dedicated aviculturist will keep records of when each egg is laid; this is especially important where there are several birds setting their eggs. We all learn by our mistakes and if the eggs are not candled the hen could be sitting on clear eggs or dead embryos weeks beyond the normal 25 to 26 days incubation period, which is not only frustrating but wasteful.
During the time the hen is setting her eggs and later caring for her brood she will for go her daily shower, but as soon as the chicks are feathered she will once again enjoy a mist spray. No Pionus parrot should be denied the delights of water spray; not only will it keep feathers in excellent condition but birds and owner will derive great pleasure from the occasion. To me it is as pleasing as watching a group of small children splashing in a pool.
Food consumption will rocket once eggs hatch. Food fresh and clean should be available to the parent birds from first light till dark. The babies will want breakfast before 5 am in England during our long summer days. If this is beyond the services of the establishment then dry seed or some fruit should be given before dusk, to take care of early morning demand. Lack of food can cause abandonment of the young or an attack on them. Once the young have fledged they seldom go back into the nest box to roost. They need to be fed by the parent birds for a few days or perhaps a week or two depending on progress.
In a large aviary the male bird may tolerate the close presence of the fledglings and continue to feed them when they beg for food. If the birds have only a small aviary the young can be put into a cage hung against the aviary so the parents can continue to feed the youngsters through the bars, but be sure the youngsters have a food supply of their own, to encourage them to self feed. In this method one feels that some degree of safety can be accomplished.
Leaving the young with the parent birds from egg until they are flighted will cover a period of about twelve weeks plus the weaning time after the young leave the nest.
Few pairs will come into breeding condition again after such a long stint; they usually go into a moult and try again next year. If however the eggs or very young chicks are taken from the nest to be raised away from the parents, they sometimes can be persuade to nest again.
At the sanctuary we are very careful to see that all our breeding birds have the opportunity to raise one nest of chicks each season. No bird is used as an egg machine. Our Pionus are now three or four generations captive bred, and while the operative word is 'captive' our aim is to keep our birds in a stress free environment.
I have been privileged to work with this wonderful genus for over twenty five years, and hopefully in years to come there will be others just as committed to this enchanting genus, who will be allowed to give sanctuary and safeguard to this most interesting type of parrot.