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Parrots in European Collections
by Rosemary Low
Europe has a longer and stronger tradition of animal collections than any other continent. At the present time there are more than 230 zoos in western Europe. In North America there are about 130, according to the International Zoo Year Book. England and Germany have always been at the forefront of animal collections, zoos and private, and each of these countries has more than 50 zoos.
Most zoos do not have strong parrot sections. In the 1970's San Diego Zoo, under the curatorship of K.C. Lint, had the world's most comprehensive parrot collection and had breeding successes with many species. When K.C. retired, it was greatly reduced and soon Vogelpark Walsrode, in Germany, had the foremost zoo collection of parrots. It was not at the forefront for long. During the past two decades Loro Parque in the Canary Islands has assembled the most comprehensive parrot collection which has ever existed. Just over 300 species and sub-species of parrots can be seen there. Wolfgang Kiessling, the founder, is with us at this meeting, so I will leave it to him to tell you more about this unique collection.
Parrot enthusiasts have good reason to be pleased that this park exists. In this age of zoo "collection planning" the trend is for mainstream European and American zoos to concentrate on certain threatened and endangered species of birds and animals. Ultimately, the collections in most zoos will be very similar. In the case of parrots, as opposed to mammals for example, there are as many or more endangered species breeding in private collections as there are in zoos.
Worldwide, the days of large private collections are almost over. Over-production of parrots in the main producing countries, Europe, North America and South Africa, and the fact that wild-caught parrots are still imported into most of these countries, has resulted in falling prices. This means that producing many species in large numbers is no longer economically viable. In England, only Grey Parrots, for which there seems to be an insatiable demand, to a lesser degree large macaws, and mutation Ringneck Parrakeets, create a good market. Worldwide, the total of large parrot collections has declined greatly during the past five years or so; the number of breeders has also declined but the keeping of parrots as pets has increased substantially. In the Netherlands, one commercial breeder has now converted many of his parrot aviaries to ponds for breeding Koi carp.
I sometimes receive enquiries from overseas parrot enthusiasts asking which large parrot collections they can visit in the UK. The fact is that there are almost none left. There is one large-scale breeder of macaws—but he does not allow visitors to his aviaries. It is encouraging that he has one huge aviary in which his young birds and certain other macaws can fly.
These days visitors to zoos expect a greatly improved standard of accommodation for parrots and other birds. In this talk I would like to show you a few collections which I think you would enjoy visiting.
One of the most exciting bird parks is Paradise Park in Cornwall, at the southern tip of the UK. This is also the home of the World Parrot Trust. The emphasis here is on the rarer species, most of which breed on a regular basis. These include Hyacinthine and Buffon's Macaws, Golden Conures, Keas, Leadbeater's Cockatoos and Hawk-headed Parrots. The St Vincent Parrot has been bred here and currently two male St Lucia Parrots are on display. They came from Jersey Zoo which for many years has held the only captive group of this handsome endangered parrot.
One of the highlights of this park is the aviary, 150ft (45m) long in which young macaws and cockatoos fly, also other parrots bred in the park. In the beautiful grounds a wide range of birds are exhibited. The bird of prey show has raised large sums for parrot conservation, including a long-term commitment by the World Parrot Trust to save the Echo Parrakeet of Mauritius. In situ captive breeding and intense management of the wild Echoes has increased the population from only 13 birds to 130. It is fitting then that three hand-reared males from Mauritius, which cannot be used in the breeding programme or for release, can now be seen at Paradise Park. These three, and three others at Jersey Zoo, are the first ever to be seen in a zoo worldwide.
One aspect of Paradise Park which might be noted by other zoos is the varied diet provided for the parrots. The extras differ according to the day of the week and the species. Some of the items fed include peanut butter and bread, boiled rice, peas and corn and palm nuts and coconuts for Hyacinthine Macaws.
One of the most popular exhibits is the lory aviary. Many zoos now have aviaries where members of the public can offer nectar to these birds. The lories are so friendly and colourful that this is one aviary visitors are unlikely to forget.
Paignton Zoo in Devon, England's well-known resort area, opened in 1923. It has been re-designed in recent years and is well worth a visit. I consider that its parrot aviaries, although quite old, are among the best I have seen in a zoo. They are large, high and very well planted. Red-tailed and other Amazons are housed here, also Hyacinthine and Red-fronted Macaws.
The desert glasshouse is very interesting. Here you can observe birds which are usually housed in small aviaries flying in a very large area. They include Hooded and Splendid Parrakeets which nest in artificial termite mounds. These nest mounds were constructed because the parrakeets were trying to nest in the mealworm mounds provided for environmental enrichment. Mealworms emerge at intervals from holes in the mound.
A much smaller collection in a historic setting is The Aviary at Leeds Castle in Kent. Leeds has been described as one of the most beautiful castles in the world. It is encircled by a moat and set in green and rolling wooded countryside. The Aviary opened in 1988 with 48 enclosures. This bird garden is quite small but very attractive. Its compactness makes it easy to walk around the aviaries several times. The aviaries are unique in design. The roof of each one is hexagonal, capped by a stainless steel shield and ball.
Most of the aviaries, except those for parrots, are heavily planted. Clematis climbs over the outside of some of them, adding a touch of pale pink magic. Several species of hornbills breed here, as well as Toco Toucans. There is an information point where visitors can watch what is going on, via a monitor, in the nests of Golden Conures, hornbills, toucans and Bali Starlings.
About one quarter of the collection consists of parrots, such as the Yellow-naped Amazons which are breeding here. The Palm Cockatoos, Keas and Hyacinthine Macaws are notable for parrot enthusiasts. The colony of Patagonian Conures are housed in an aviary whose rear part consists of a simulated river bank—the nesting location of wild Patagonians.
One advantage of this compact lay-out is that the birds are more easily protected from thieves. Also in the south of England, Paulton's Park in Hampshire, where the aviaries are located over quite a large area, now exhibits very few parrots. Again and again parrots were the targets for thieves. The same happened at England's oldest bird garden, Rode in Somerset. Hyacinthine Macaws, also an Umbrella Cockatoo which had been in the park for nearly 30 years, were among those stolen. Among the endangered species which rear young every year is the Red-tailed Amazon. Sadly, this park is now facing closure. It seems that in this age of many competing attractions, it is almost impossible for a bird park to survive in the UK, unless it has the advantage of being combined with a historic building or with family attractions.
In Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor has what may be the only occupied Renaissance aviaries in the UK. They were restored about 30 years ago and must look almost exactly as they did in the days of Lord Rothschild, the great ornithologist whose family owned the manor. Some parrots are reared off-exhibit but the aviaries display mainly softbills, doves and pheasants.
Undoubtedly the best known bird collection in Germany is Vogelpark Walsrode which is located between Hamburg and Hannover. Opened in 1958, it is famous not only for the wonderful bird collection but for its floral displays. A fascinating museum shows antique cages and other bird related items. Today, Walsrode has one of the best collections of park birds and soft-billed birds in the world. Its collection numbers about 5,000 birds of 850 species.
In the early 1980s, in its heyday where parrots were concerned, it exhibited some of the rarest parrots, all now critically endangered, ever seen in zoos. These included Imperial Amazons, a single Yellow-eared Parrot (or conure, as it was called then) and a Spix's Macaw.
Today the parrot collection is greatly reduced but still large by most standards. The parrots are exhibited in the parrot house, in a long range of aviaries and in the Lori Atrium. The latter building is mainly devoted to lories, fig parrots and hanging parrots. One of the rarest species there is the Red-cheeked Parrot (Geoffroyus g. rhodops). This species was represented by two males when I was there, last year. In these birds the head coloration is so subtle and beautiful. In females it is brown. Members of this genus have seldom been exhibited in zoos.
In the parrot house most birds do not have access to outside aviaries. In the central aviaries several species are exhibited in one enclosure . Even the rare Pesquet's Parrots shared their aviary with two species of Tanygnathus parrots. Nevertheless, there are many interesting parrots here. Among those which have reared young in recent years are the Timor Crimson-wing, which is rare in aviculture, the Hispaniolan Amazon, Josephine's Lorikeets and Black-winged Lories. The Buru form of the Great-billed Parrot (Tanygnathus megalorhynchus affinis) reared young for the second successive year. This bird park is closed from November to March every year.
Germany is still the most important country on the avicultural scene in Europe, with several successful avicultural magazines. These include Gefiederte Welt which is in its 124th year of publication. I would rate the magazine Papageien (Parrots) as the most important commercial parrot magazine available worldwide.
There are a number of very committed breeders in Germany. I visited one of these last year. I feel that we could all learn from Hans Jurgen Geil's philosophy of keeping fewer birds but under better conditions. In 1995 Mr Geil pulled down all his aviaries, sold many of his birds, and replaced his 63 aviaries with 25 large ones. For the concerned and truly dedicated bird keeper, quality of life means being able to give more time, attention and space to a smaller number of birds.
An interesting type of welded mesh is used in the construction of his aviaries, with an appearance between chain link and welded mesh. The enclosures contain ropes, logs and large branches, and each one has substantial indoor quarters. The layout of the aviaries is unique. They are on two levels, behind his house. At the top level, the path is at the same height as the roof of the aviaries of the lower deck. It is interesting to come out of the house and to view many of the birds down below.
Mr Geil is known for his successes in rearing Palm Cockatoos and Hyacinthine Macaws. He has bred the latter to the second generation. His emphasis is on parent-reared young—always the mark of a skillful aviculturist.
The Palm Cockatoos were in outstanding condition with very red cheeks. Each of the two pairs has a spacious glass-fronted indoor aviary with a large outdoor aviary about 25ft (8m) long. Pomegranates, corn and rose hips play a large part in the diet of his birds and large quantities of these are kept in freezers. Many European parrot keepers feed rose hips. In his garden he grows the tuber of topinambur (Helianthis tuberosus) and sprays of white millet. In the autumn he gathers large amounts of hawthorn berries. The Palm Cockatoos also receive minced beef and small cubes of cheese. The sunflower seed is usually fed after it has been sprouted.
Amazons, cockatoos and macaws are the species on which he concentrates, also the yellow mutation of the King Parrakeet. This mutation originated in his aviaries 28 years ago and he is still breeding it. Two of the yellow Kings are in their mid twenties.
In contrast to this long established aviculturist is a bird park which opened in 1998. It is very rare for a major new bird park to open in Europe but already it seems that the future for this one is uncertain. NiederRheinPark Plantaria, in the central part of western Germany, is situated near to the town of Kevelaer. Plants are an integral part of the park and of many of the aviaries, and they occupy two enormous buildings constructed mainly from glass. Before the park opened 28,000 shrubs, 73,000 tulips and other bulbs and 23,000 spring flowers were planted.
The design of the aviaries is outstanding, with meticulous attention to detail, and a very neat appearance. The lay-out is geographical with different areas of the park being consigned to different continents. The first aviaries which greet the visitor are those for African birds. Two ranges contained various Poicephalus parrots and Vasas and a walk-through aviary contained a flock of lovebirds and Grey Parrots.
South America is superb. Here the concept is different because most neotropical parrots are too aggressive to keep together. Instead, the aviaries for the smaller species, conures, caiques, Brotogeris and Pionus, are within a large tropical house with a glass-panelled roof. Birds, plants and fish combine to create a jungle atmosphere. Plants climb over the tops of the aviaries and banana palms, ginger plants and heliconias give a hint of the tropics.
The aviaries are located around the outside of the hall. There is a profusion of plants in the centre with seats next to a long pool with colourful fish. A good collection of Pyrrhura conures merits attention. They include the rarer species such as Crimson-bellied, the beautiful red-crowned sub-species of the Painted, roseifrons, Hoffmann's, Blue-throated and Emma's. The latter sub-species of the White-eared has only recently been established in aviculture.
The outside aviaries contain Amazons, including rarer species such as the Yellow-lored and the Hispaniolan. Smaller macaws include the Blue-headed or Coulon's. The aviaries for the larger macaws are a model for all that is good in housing these birds: spacious, well separated and containing plenty of branches and logs.
Next comes Australia. The very large walk-through aviary contains a flock of Swainson's Lorikeets. A video camera inside the nest of one pair reveals their secrets via a monitor at the entrance. There is a flock of green Budgerigars and the director, Werner Neumann, was not too pleased when they produced a yellow youngster! Mutations are not welcome here! The aviaries in this section contain such parrakeets as Hooded and Golden-shouldered, Brown's and all the commonly kept Rosellas.
Australian and Indonesian cockatoos are exhibited in this section, including the Western Slender-bill (Cacatua pastinator) which is not common in Europe. In this area there are also parrots from New Zealand, Keas and Kakarikis. In a grassy area full of wild flowers Black Swans were rearing their young and wild Skylarks were nesting.
The Asian section is notable for its exceptionally fine collection of pheasants. Parrakeets include various Psittacula species, including the Long-tailed. This park sets a very high standard. It certainly deserves to succeed.
After Germany, the Netherlands is probably the most important European country where parrot breeding is concerned. There are countless small breeders and a number of good zoos. One of the most interesting is Emmen Zoo, which might be described as a zoo and museum combined, with many of the exhibits in buildings for rainy days. There are some unusual displays showing feathers. In South America members of the Krokrokti tribe use macaw and egret feathers in a headdress during special naming ceremonies. The Akkati Indians use Amazon feathers on a special frame. Unfortunately, such traditions must cost many parrots their lives.
Emmen Zoo has a huge indoor tropical house where many species of birds and reptiles can be observed under natural conditions. It is an excellent example of the modern zoo concept to show a type of environment rather than rows of aviaries or animal enclosures. Parrot enthusiasts might be disappointed because psittacines are represented in this zoo by one pair of macaws only—but I found this zoo a very stimulating experience.
There are so many parrot breeders that it seems unfair to mention one only—but I will single out Laurens van Gorp who is now nearly 80 and has bred parrots for many decades. He is a successful breeder of a difficult species—the Horned Parrakeet from New Caledonia. This beautiful bird is rare in aviculture and endangered by loss of habitat and removal of chicks from the nest. It has been bred consistently in very few collections. Mr van Gorp's pairs have been rearing their own young for several years. He also specialises in the blue Barnard's Parrakeet and has probably the finest birds of this mutation in Europe. Likewise his Golden-mantled Rosellas are outstanding. He showed me three chicks in one nest—a blue, a yellow and a normal.
Parc Paradisio is situated south of Brussels (Route Nationale 56, between Mons and Ath). This bird park is set in the picturesque grounds of a 12th century Cistercian abbey. Approximately 2,500 birds of 300 species are on show here. The accent is on park birds such as cranes and storks. Although the parrot collection is not large, the parrots are very well housed in spacious aviaries. They include Keas and Hyacinthine Macaws.
In Belgium resides Ivan Vaes, one of Europe's largest lory breeders. A chef by profession, he makes his own lory nectar from an incredibly complex mixture. The ingredients include fresh pollen imported from Spain. He keeps a wide range of species, including the endangered Red and Blue Lory, in very small aviaries. Sprinklers operate above the aviaries. He is one of the few breeders of the Rajah Lory (Chalcopsitta atra insignis). He must have excellent contacts to be able to sell so many young lories throughout Europe. Unlike the situation in North America, lories are rarely kept as pets in Europe and the demand for them is now small.
A lot of lory breeders in the UK have sold their pairs to dealers, because they are no longer able to sell the young. Most have been exported to countries such as Portugal and Brazil where generally speaking avicultural expertise is not high. Most of these lories had a short life, although the situation has improved now that commercial lory foods are being imported.
A lory breeder with a picture-book garden and aviary complex is Luis Fernandes. The entrance to his aviaries is decorated with hand-painted tiles which, in ornate style, depict an Edwardian lady with her pet birds. The aisle between the two rows of aviaries is covered with a domed roof. Plants line the side of the passage and climbers grow over the top of the aviaries. Where enclosures are small and growing plants inside is impractical, plants in close proximity to the birds is surely beneficial. The lories here were in good condition and breeding well on a mixture of baby cereal, glucose, pollen and a little honey.
In Switzerland there are no bird parks and the zoos exhibit few parrots. The days of large collections, such as that of Dr Burkard, are gone. There are some excellent small private collections where a wider range of species is kept than would be found in North America. One of the larger collections is that of Dolf Bishofsburger who used to look after the birds in Dr Burkard's aviaries. He breeds Red-tailed Black Cockatoos which are among his favourites. He is also successful with Keas. Other notable parrots are Hyacinthine and Blue-throated Macaws. A rarely seen sub-species of the Amboina King Parrot, sulaensis, is another species which he breeds.
Europe in general
Generally speaking, in Europe there was always more emphasis on keeping aviary birds, such as parrakeets, rather than on breeding for the pet trade, as has been the case in North America over the past couple of decades. However, this emphasis is changing, quite slowly in some countries and very rapidly in the UK. Already the result is that some parrots which were breeding well or were readily available in the UK ten or twenty years ago, are now very hard to find. These include such species as the Orange-flanked or Grey-headed Parrakeet and other members of the Brotogeris genus, a number of lories and lorikeets, Vasa Parrots, and formerly common Aratinga conures, such as the Brown-throated and Golden-crowned.
In contrast, numbers and species of Pyrrhura conures have increased dramatically and prices have fallen. Those which were rare a decade ago, such as the Blue-throated and White-eared, or unknown, such as the Fiery-shouldered, Rose-crowned (rhodocephala) and the roseifrons sub-species of the Painted Conure, are now easy or easier to obtain. Due to the popularity of colour breeding, Lineolated Parrakeets are now reared in large numbers, as are Pacific (Celestial) Parrotlets.
There has been a great increase in the breeding of Black-headed Caiques which have become popular pet birds. On the other hand, the popularity of Amazons has declined because most people seem to want Greys as pets. This is regrettable as I believe that Amazons, being less complicated emotionally, are easier for the first time parrot owner to cope with—and most purchasers of first parrots choose a Grey.
As has already happened in the USA the number of parrot species available in Europe is destined to decline even further, along with the numbers of breeders. During the past three decades we witnessed a massive increase in the popularity of parrots as aviary birds—and now the decline is well under way. I can only hope that it leads to a better quality of life and less mass production than is often the case at the present time.
Rosemary Low (UK)
One of the world's best-known aviculturists, Ms. Lowe has traveled extensively to observe parrots in the wild and has worked with some of the world's largest collections. She is an authority on all aspects of parrot care and breeding, the author of numerous books and articles, and an international lecturer of renown. She is currently the editor of Psittascene, the publication of the World Parrot Trust.