CAPTIVE BREEDING OF THE CAPE PARROT
William Horsfield, Amazona Parrot Breeding facility, KwaZulu-Natal
History of Captive Breeding
Until fairly recently, all the Cape Parrots bred in captivity in South Africa have been progeny of wild-caught birds. These founder stock, wild-caught breeding birds had either been deliberately trapped or poached, removed as nestlings from the wild, survived either gunshot wounds for raiding pecan-nut and other orchards, been shot using catapults by prankish youngsters or survived vehicle collisions and other injuries. They had thus ended up either as singly kept pet birds in ordinary households, in the hands of bird breeders, occasionally even at wildlife rehabilitation centers or absurdly even on the dinner table.
Due to the stress of being captured and their extremely sensitive natures, most of these wild-caught individuals died while the survivors took many years to calm down in captivity. It was thought at the time, that the birds that had died during this acclimatization process, had perished simply as a result of failing to adapt to captivity.
Since the discovery of PBFDV in certain of the Cape Parrots in my private collection in 1998 and the subsequent controversy regarding the euthanasia of all these PBFDV positive individuals, the virus has received much attention and a better understanding of its workings has resulted. It has also been discovered that an unknown but seemingly very high percentage of the surviving wild population is also infected with PBFDV.
It is therefore a theory that some of the birds that perished in the early days may well have been PBFDV pos and that capture stress further aggravated their already compromised immune systems, with fatal consequences.
In any event some of these birds did finally settle down and breed and there were a handful of breeders including Jack Ruff, John Connon, Frank Hylton, Pat Hart and more recently Louis Bothma that had success with them. Most of these early progeny disappeared in the avicultural alley-ways and few of them survive today. With research findings indicating the rarity of the species, renewed avicultural interest has resulted in the few remaining captive pairs and odd birds being located and hauled into breeding programmes. For this reason the Cape is now in high demand and fetching ever increasing prices.
A Mr. Reabow in Stutterheim bred from 3 pairs simultaneously in a communal aviary in 1988 after having housed them in single pairs with no success. 4 of these chicks were sent to Mulhouse Zoo in France in 1998.
The earliest records of captive breeding are that of a pair that were sent from Stellenbosch to Basle Zoo in Switzerland in 1955. They bred prolifically and progeny were sent to San Diego, West Berlin, Jersey, & Tampa Zoos and two private collections in the UK and Switzerland. It sadly appears that most of these birds have disappeared although there could possibly be a few still sitting around somewhere.
Basle Zoo lost all but two of their birds and these were sent to Mulhouse Zoo in France which has had success with the species. The director, Dr Jean-Marc Lernould now has the difficult task of trying to build up the numbers once again with the last 5 known remaining birds in Europe! Hopefully I will be able to send him some of my youngsters in the near future.
This demand by the avicultural trade has resulted in added pressure on the few remaining wild populations and freshly wild-caught birds have been appearing in birding circles. It must be noted that not only are these birds illegally trapped but that many of them are likely to be carriers of PBFDV and moving them around will only pose a further threat to uninfected captive birds. Just as one poisonous mushroom contaminates a basketful of edible ones, so can one infected Cape pass the highly infectious PBFDV onto others.
While it may be tempting for breeders to purchase some of these birds, not only is this an exceptionally foolish move due to the high risk to their own collections but it is also a traitorous act against our natural heritage and one of the most severely threatened species of parrot in the World. Anyone with any information, no-matter how seemingly insignificant, regarding illegal or suspicious trafficking in the Cape Parrot, is asked to contact Prof. Mike Perrin of the World Parrot Trust-Africa at Natal University in PMB.
Handraising vs parent-raising
Because the species is under such threat in terms of low numbers it is imperative that captive numbers are bolstered and that every effort is made to breed from established pairs. Cooperation between individuals holding odd birds must be encouraged to get as many potentially productive pairs set-up for breeding as possible.
In my experience with this species, I have found the hand-raised birds to become exceptionally tame unless the handling of the chicks and general interaction with the keeper is kept to the absolute minimum. I only handle them when I feed them and weigh them. I don’t talk to them and don’t allow them excessive visual access to humans. In this way the handraised birds while still being well settled and unafraid of humans, are not disadvantaged when it comes to breeding.
Parent-raised chicks of wild-caught parents tend to freeze motionless at human approach for the first few days after leaving the nest. After that they tend to fly at full speed into the wire and crash all over the place, screeching in panic at human approach. This skittish behaviour soon abates within a month or so. Mixing hand-raised and parent raised birds works well as the tamer birds calm the more nervous ones quickly.
The early socialization in small groups of similar aged juveniles in close view of adult breeding birds, I believe to be crucial to the future breeding success of this species. I have noticed that youngsters kept in this manner, mature faster and breed earlier than those kept singly or in pairs away from adult birds. While it will not always be possible to achieve this practice it believe it makes the world of difference.
Incompatibility & Dominant birds
There have been a number of observations of excessive aggression amongst certain male Capes. This is usually seen with more settled birds and I believe will also be seen with hand-raised birds that are too tame when they reach breeding age. I have personally seen cases where incompatible pairs have bred immediately upon being given new partners. There are even cases where one bird has injured or even killed its mate. This has been seen in both sexes. Generally however the cocks are more inclined to be dominant. Often these birds develop the habit of slowly raising their head up in a high stretch and then bringing it down very fast cracking the top of the beak on the perch. This seems to be not only a dominatory type of display towards the hen but often also towards the intruding keeper. Aggressive birds may suddenly lunge at their mate which has approached too closely either grabbing a beak-full of feathers or knocking the mate off the perch.
Aviary size and breeding
Although shy by nature, I have had few problems in persuading the adult birds to breed. The aviaries used were our suspended design 3.6m long x 1.2m x 1.2m as well as some which were only 2.4m long x 1.2m x 1.2m. The smaller aviaries were used for rescue cases which could not fly for various reasons: some had survived being shot, some were vehicle casualties and others had permanent wing injuries. They are not particularly destructive to wire and the 2mm welded mesh I used has never been damaged.
All aviaries have a heavily planted shrubbery in the 600mm separation between them on the outdoor section. Flowering Tecomaria and Hibiscus as well as berry-prolific Pyracantha and Nandina sp are preferred. The indoor section has no visual barrier between adjacent pairs except that which is created by the nesting boxes. Birds are fed on the same end of the aviary as the nests i.e. indoors. In 3 round, flat bottomed, stainless steel bowls (230mm wide x 30mm deep) An aviary inspection door on the bottom of each aviary is also situated in the indoor section and allows access into the cage. The birds perch above human eye level on hardwood fruit-tree and softer eucalyptus perches.
While wild-caught birds take many years to acclimatize, the well socialized captive-bred Capes show none of these problems and mature quickly to breed from as early as 3 years of age. Certainly by 4 years breeding success can be expected.
A variety of wooden nests are readily used including natural hollowed Syringa logs, (approx. 250-350mm ID) vertical boot-shaped untreated pine boxes (approx. 400mm high x 300mm deep x 250mmwide) and ordinary vertical boxes (approx. 400mm high x 250mm x 250mm).Chipped eucalyptus and pine are used as substrate which the birds chew into small splinters.
Courtship involves loud vocalization with birds flying rapidly and repeatedly up and down the flights. The cock bird droops his wings and feeds the soliciting hen a number of times while both birds intermittently bob their heads in a vertical plane and raise their wings in an archangel-type display. The cock stands on the hen’s back while mating, copulating vigorously and rhythmically from alternating sides and all the time balancing with drooped wings. I have only ever observed mating in the early morning and late afternoon, when the birds are particularly active. Cock birds pinioned on one wing do not seem to have any problems with mating. Wing-clipping or even pinioning of dangerously aggressive cocks is advisable to reduce the chances of mate mutilation in these cases.
Incubation & handraising
3-4 pure white and usually very rounded eggs are laid during Autumn-Winter (April-May-June) or during early Summer (October-November) at 2-3 day intervals, although pairs may go down in any month. Pairs will double and even treble clutch if 1st and 2nd clutches are removed for artificial incubation or fostering. Eggs are artificially incubated at 37.5ºC at sea level with an average % RH of 50-55%. The round shape of the egg causes them to be mostly positioned with airspace facing upwards in incubators with automatic turning and this is likely to negatively affect embryonic development. Additional hand-turning at least once daily alleviates this growth retardation of the embryo. The faster the blood vessels wrap around the yolk and develop throughout the egg, the stronger the embryo is likely to be in my experience and for this the moving-carpet turning is preferable to rollers in this species. A typical egg measures approx. 23.5mm wide x 28mm long. Internal pip to hatch is 48-72 hrs. Pairs left to raise their own young will usually breed twice per year. Unless the 1st clutch of youngsters is removed the 2nd clutch of eggs is likely to be damaged by the youngsters who still join the parents in the nest. The breeding birds however often start to chase and harass their same-sex chicks if they want to recycle. Incubation is by the hen alone and chicks weigh typically between 9.5g and 11g at hatch. The cock will spend a lot of time with the hen in the nest. Originally wild-caught cocks will spend most of the time with the hens in the nest during breeding, although aviary bred cocks tend to stand guard outside the nest entrance. Although I have observed females sitting on or close to the their 1st egg, it does appear from these incubation periods that most hens do not incubate tightly until after the 2nd egg is laid. Often the first two chicks hatch on consecutive days in spite of the 2-3 day lay interval.
Originally wild caught birds usually remain shy and disappear into the nests at the first sign of human approach. Although described as quiet, I have found them to be quite noisy in the early evenings, when they are most active and vocal. The recognition call is a short, shrill and very high pitched whistle which is in my opinion quite loud. The defense and distress vocalization is a gargled growl and is similar to Greys and Jardines and is observed during nest inspection or handling of birds. As with shy Greys, if disturbed on the nest, they will often try to hide close together, in a corner of the box, with heads lowered and may even burrow into the nesting substrate. Chicks are straightforward to hand-raise and they thrive on Kaytee Exact® from the egg. I have used both the Exact and Macaw formulas with equal success. Like other smaller Poicephalus they are fed on their backs by their parents and although I personally feed them upright, they are always allowed to lie on their backs to swallow until they roll themselves over.
I have successfully used nominate Jardine’s and Grey Headed Parrots to foster Capes. The Cape eggs are added to the foster parents clutch and they raise the Capes as their own, either with or without their own chicks. One exceptional pair of my Jardine’s raised their own 3 chicks and 3 fostered Capes onto the perch!
Capes are covered in short, slightly off-white down at hatching. This is replaced by a very dense covering of pure white down until they are feathered. If pulled at 3-4 weeks they do equally well fed on Avi-Plus® Premium Parrot Handrearing formula with a tablespoon of olive oil added per cup of feed. Fledged chicks compete with each other for feeding by the adults and flap one of both wings to fend off their nest-mates while soliciting.
Leg-band size is 9mm ID. Only seamless stainless-steel rings must be used as Capes are inclined to play with their leg-bands and will crush softer aluminium or brass rings onto their legs within 2-4 years. They easily erode the engraving on the softer metal rings until it is no longer legible or visible. Suitable rings are obtainable from E & L Enterprises in Empangeni. Tel. 083 324 9469 or 035-792 3746. Chicks are banded when small pin feathers appear on the wings i.e. approx 3 weeks of age. I have no record of adults objecting to bands on chicks legs and mutilating them as a result thereof. Split aluminium sexing-rings should not be used on Capes as they will remove the obliquely cut ring-pin and in so doing may injure themselves.
Nest behaviour and ambient temperature danger
Adults continue to dig and reshuffle the nesting substrate during the rearing process. This results in the clutch being shifted around the nesting chamber. I replace the substrate 2-3 times before the chicks fledge as it becomes soiled and moist and is therefore an ideal medium for fungal growth. In our warm climate Aspergillosis is always a concern with dirty shavings and I certainly don’t want the birds chewing on this material. It appears as if the adults are trying to clean the nest with this digging and scratching behaviour. This same behaviour occurs prior to laying when the nest is being prepared for breeding. It ceases during incubation and commences again once the chicks have hatched.
On very hot days ( over 28 degrees C ) the inspection hatches on the nests of chicks older than 4 weeks are opened to prevent overheating and death of chicks from heat exhaustion. A welded mesh grid is used to prevent escape. Parent birds do not object to this but appear to sometimes attempt to seal up this opening by scratching the substrate shavings towards the hole.
Mist sprayer systems are provided above the outdoor flight section of the aviaries and the birds are sprayed regularly during warmer weather.
Birds which do not feed their chicks may be encouraged to do so by continuously removing, feeding by hand and replacing chicks for the first week. By this stage the stronger soliciting noises and begging movements of the hungry chicks around the beaks of the parents, usually stimulate the adults to feed them.
In many ways the birds are behaviourally quite different from the now separately classified Grey-headed Parrot Poicephalus fuscicollis fuscicollis (formerly subspecies Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis) and the subspecies P.f.suahelicus.. They are far more active and the calls are noticeably different. Grey headed parrot hens, are noticeably steadier.
Adult Cape hens often have coral pink colour behind the cere. This may vary from none to quite noticeable. This is absent in adult cocks. Immature head plumage colouration resembles the adult hen although juvenile males have broader heads and heavier beaks. The beak tip as with the Grey Headed Parrots, is very pointed and sharp and should not be mistaken as being overgrown. It is used as an extraordinary leverage tool, has a strong vascular supply and will bleed excessively if clipped.
Diet & environmental stimulation
Diet for Capes at my breeding facility is much the same as for other African parrots. In the wild the Cape is a habitat feeder and they are almost totally dependent on the Podocarpus (yellowwood) trees in the forests. They breed in dead snags of these trees and eat the oily berries. If these seeds are mashed into a pulp they resemble a thick peanut-butter type consistency. A large variety of fresh fruit and vegetables with an Avi-Plus® softfood and pelleted mixture is fed in the morning. Raw beetroot, corn on the cob and all nuts are favourites. Nuts are given liberally daily. Where possible these are cut in half using garden secateurs to check that the inside is not mouldy. A variety of soaked and boiled whole yellow maize and legumes (as found in most commercial racing -pigeon rations) including the small, green, mung beans as well as soaked sunflower, wheat, oats and barley are offered for the lunch time feed and cooked rice, pasta and cheddar cheese are offered as treats in the late afternoon when birds are inspected for the last time. Pumpkin seeds are also enjoyed.
Coconut shells, pine-cones and marble sized stones are provided for environmental stimulation and are played with for hours. Sprays of berries like Pyracantha and flowers like bottlebrush are relished and offered when available.
It is imperative that all available Cape Parrots are made available for breeding. There are still a number of them sitting singly or as pets in this country and the onus is surely to send the birds to a recognized facility. While the Cape certainly has specific requirements I don’t believe that it is a difficult species to breed . Once more of the captive-bred birds are producing their own progeny, I hope a situation is reached where the species will become fairly readily available to serious aviculturists around the globe.
It is no secret that the captive breeding of this species may well be the last hope of saving them from total extinction. The captive numbers are low, but they are still sufficient if properly managed, to solidly establish the species. All keepers and breeders of the species need to fully participate in this preservation plan and every bird must be registered on the National Cape Parrot Studbook. Those birds without stainless steel rings must have microchip implants for permanent identification purposes.
Pairing up of birds must be undertaken in such a fashion as to keep the genetic reservoir as diverse as possible and pairing of closely related birds causing inbreeding must be discouraged. Hybridization with the Grey Headed Parrots should be made illegal and anyone found doing this should forfeit their birds to another facility. Every bird must be tested for PBFDV and the future of PBFDV positive birds determined through collaboration with the CPWG and their associated veterinarians.
Finally, with so many species being pressured on our continent including our beautiful little Cape Parrot, one of the WWF slogans springs to my mind.
” Let us not give the children an empty Planet, for it is they who shall inherit the Earth”
Captive Breeding of the Cape Parrot
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