There's A(nother) Bird in My Future

Image: Brent Ward; Sedgwick County Zoo.

Thanks to a friend, who shall remain unnamed, it looks like I will be adding a bird to my flock, a species that I bred for many years before I left Seattle for NYC (a species that I gave up when I moved to pursue a career that seems to have gone nowhere, unless you think of the Coriolis Effect, as it applies to a swirling toilet, as "going somewhere").

To say the least, I have missed my birds so terribly, so deeply, so desperately at times, that this one little guy (girl?) will add a little something to the stillness that my vanished flock of parrots left behind, that nothing has been able to fill. Not ever. Especially since my career was supposed to add to this passion, but instead, it turned out that my career is forever lost, a dream irreparably broken.

Perhaps as an added bonus, this parrot is famous. He has an online family (like me) but, unlike me, they have watched him grow up since he was a day or two old. Even though the above image is not one of him, I will be receiving plenty of images of him in the coming days, and I plan to share them with you here, along with his story. His nickname is "munchkin" although I will likely give him another name.

Or is he a she? And I am sure you all are curious to know more about this parrot.

The red-fan or hawk-headed parrot Deroptyus accipitrinus is a colorful yet little-known member of the New World parrot family, Psittacidae. In this essay, I will refer to these birds interchangeably by both common names; I personally favor "red-fan parrot" although "hawk-headed parrot" is the more common usage in the United States.

The genus, Deroptyus, comprises only one species that is represented by two subspecies, D. a. accipitrinus, also known as the "northern" or "buff-crowned" hawk-headed parrot, and D. a. fuscifrons, which is also known as the "Southern" race. While both subspecies are decidedly rare in the wild, the buff-crowned hawk-headed parrot is much more common in American aviculture, due primarily to the greater numbers that were imported into this country from South America.

The hawk-headed parrot is native to the Amazon River region of northern South America; particularly Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and regions of Brazil. While it has been reported to occur in Columbia as well, these sightings have never been adequately substantiated. Red-fan parrots are rarely seen in savannah, but instead, they live in dense rainforest near large rivers and in mountain foothills, where they remain throughout the year. Even though red-fan parrots have a patchy distribution that is seasonally variable, they are considered to be one of the rarest Psittacidae throughout its range. They are usually seen in small family groups during the breeding season and they occasionally gather in larger flocks outside of the breeding season for the purpose of feeding. These feeding flocks are still very small however; reports have shown that they don't exceed 20 members. Sightings of lone red-fan parrots are very rare.

There are several physical characteristics that make the Deroptyus unique among parrots. They have a unique ruff of feathers on the nape of the neck that can be raised at will. This ruff consists of long, blunt-ended, and brilliant red-colored feathers tipped in bright blue that, when raised, frames the bird's dark face, making it appear larger. This ruff is usually raised when the bird is excited or fearful. Additionally, the bone structure and musculature of the hawk-headed parrot's beak and neck are typical of the largest genera of parrots, and result in a more powerful feeding apparatus than that seen in the similarly-sized Amazona (i.e.; they bite really damned hard). The structure of the beak and neck suggest that hawk-headed parrots are uniquely adapted to feed on very large fruits that are usually untouched by the Amazona: they are capable of detaching these large and heavy fruits from the tree and carrying them to another location in order to feed.

The red-fan parrot is a very beautiful bird as is obvious from the photograph (above). The wings, back, rump, undertail coverts, and central tail feathers are a lovely emerald green color. The chocolate-brown feathers on the head and neck are slender and pointed with a cream-colored streak in the center. The bird's forehead and crown are a rich cream or white color in the buff-crowned subspecies and is comprised of tiny, rounded feathers while, in the southern subspecies, this area is dark. The nape of the neck has long, blunt-ended, erectile feathers that are a brilliant scarlet red tipped with an irridescent medium blue. The flight feathers are a dark blackish color with green and irridescent blue on the outer webs. The blunt-ended breast and abdomen feathers are a bright scarlet red with an irridescent blue edge, similar to the nape. The tail feathers are fairly long and wide, with dark blue on the outer edge, fading into a dark green, with a blackish color on the inner web. Some individuals have a pale red spot at underneath the base of the tail, but this is not correlated with the gender of the bird as some aviculturists have claimed. The beak and feet are black. The eyes are black with a yellow or red-orange ring in adults, and is uniformly dark in young birds. These birds are not sexually dimorphic.

Red-fan parrots are primarily fruit-eating birds, although they eat a fair amount of vegetable matter as well. In the wild, they prefer to eat the pulp from ripe and unripe fruits, dropping the uneaten seeds in the process. They also eat new terminal buds and shoots from specific tree species.

In captivity, hawk-headed parrots remain healthiest when provided with a diet that is composed primarily of fresh fruits and vegetables. When I had them, my flock's morning feeding consists of cooked beans and rice, along with fresh fruits and vegetables (fresh fruits alone represent about 40% of the bird's total daily food intake). Although hawk-headed parrots will readily eat almost any fruits, their favorite fruits include apples, pomegrantes, oranges, banana, papaya, underripe mango, grapes, melons with seeds, and cactus fruits. Red-fan parrots are not as fond of greens and vegetables but they do have a few favorites, such as corn-on-the-cob, peppers of all varieties, raw squash with seeds, broccoli, and cooked yams. Vegetables comprise about 20% of my flock's daily intake.

Even though hawk-headed parrots will also eat standard seed mixes, parrot pellets, and dog kibble, these foods should not represent more than 20% of the bird's total daily food intake. I have found that my hawk-headed parrots prefer smaller seeds such as millet, and they particularly enjoy millet sprays. I have also found that sunflower seeds are not necessary except during the cold winter months if the birds are housed out-of-doors. Nuts are a favorite of most red-fan parrots, especially macadamia nuts, pine nuts, and pistachios. I provided 5-10 nuts to each of my birds on a daily basis.

Since hawk-headed parrots are very active, they must be housed in a larger cage than is typical for a comparably-sized amazon or macaw. I recommend that hawk-headed parrots be kept in a large cage, suitable for the large macaw species. However, if such a large cage is purchased from a commercial supply house, be sure to measure the width between the bars of the cage before placing the bird inside. If the spacing between the bars is too wide, the hawk-headed parrot can put its head between the bars and may choke itself. Therefore, to avoid potential distaster, one should make sure that the bar width is not greater than one-and-one-quarter inches.

Hawk-headed parrots produce many different sounds, ranging from a piercing and raucous "KEEya KEEya" made by both sexes, usually when they are waiting to be fed, to a soft and musical "yeeEEo" that is typically made by courting hens. They can growl, and usually do so when a stranger enters the room, and they can produce a loud hiss when they want to intimidate a stranger or another bird. They will also produce a loud, grating "shack shack shack," usually in the afternoons and evenings. These birds can be extremely loud on occasion and, if not trained properly, they will become very persistent screamers.

While hawk-headed parrots are not considered to be very good talkers, there have been a few talented individuals that are able to imitate the human voice well. Hawk-headed parrots are better known as good sound mimics and can imitate irritating noises such a the yelp of a dog, sirens, or human laughter.

Hawk-headed parrots are known to be very intelligent and playful. They will roll onto their backs and play with toys, pounce on a companion from an overhead perch, and hang upside down from the roof of their cages, screaming with delight, when sprayed with a water mister. These birds also enjoy a trip into the shower with their owners. These birds' antics can get rough at times, so it is important to prevent the bird from getting overexcited during play to reduce the risk of being bitten. Hawk-headed parrots can be very adept escape artists, also. While it is true that they cannot destroy large padlocks, they will immediately take advantage of feeding station doors that are carelessly left open, and they can quickly open cage doors that have not been adequately secured. Once these birds have escaped, they find great joy in terrorizing other birds in neighboring cages, and destroying various items in the house, such as furniture or electrical wiring.

In spite of these mischievous and endearing qualities, hawk-headed parrots are also very aggressive and unpredictable, especially after they have reached adulthood. This can pose problems for the pet owner because these birds are especially aggressive when defending their territories from intruders; intruders that can include the pet owner. Another problem encountered with hawk-headed parrots is they generally do not tolerate changes in their environment very well. The smallest changes in a pet red fan parrot's environment may precipitate an episode of feather-plucking, which might either stop as suddenly as it started, or may escalate until the bird has denuded its body of feathers. This extreme reaction is not usually seen in young birds of the species, but is not uncommon in adult pet birds, and can occur even after they have been placed into a breeding situation. Another problem encountered by pet owners is the increasing unpredictability that the bird exhibits as it approaches sexual maturity. These birds can be very engaging and outgoing at one moment and then, within minutes, they can become hostile and aggressive. Even the tamest hand-fed pet may deliver a sudden, painful bite at these times.

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Wow... those are indeed gorgeous birds, and sound like fun buddies. It does seem like you're taking on a serious challenge (is this one already mature, or will you have some chance to "imprint" it?) but hey, it's smack in your area of expertise. I look forward to hearing the settling-in stories!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 09 Oct 2007 #permalink

Very cool. Glad you are getting a new friend. That always helps. I'm a cat person myself. I lost my cat when my wife dumped me. He was a mixed American Domestic and was a total lap cat. I really miss him. My fiancé has a Main Coon cat - a beautiful breed, soft and furry with long hair and beautiful coloring - but he is not much of a lap cat.

I hope you have many happy days and years with your new bird. The exemplar image indicates a beautiful breed.

He has an online family (like me) but, unlike me, they have watched him grow up since he was a day or two old.

Heh... I've recently been coming to terms with the point that there are folks buying cigs and beer who weren't even born when I graduated high school. Similarly, I'm sure there are (human) netizens out there who really have been "on the net" in some form since birth.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 10 Oct 2007 #permalink

You've been without parrots since you left Seattle? I am so sorry for you! Parrots are made out of love. I greatly enjoy my six member flock.

Enjoy your new roommate!

Another problem encountered by pet owners is the increasing unpredictability that the bird exhibits as it approaches sexual maturity. These birds can be very engaging and outgoing at one moment and then, within minutes, they can become hostile and aggressive.

Sounds like being the parent of a teenager. ;-)

Best of luck with your new companion. I've been considering adopting a parrot for a few years now, but I have some concerns that our dog will cause problems.

dave: this bird is a baby. only four months old. i will in fact, be posting some images here, along with whatever information i can get about his early life.

jeff: i also love cats (and all animals, really, except spiders). that's one of the main reasons that i take care of cats for people here in NYC; i am actually paid to play with other people's cats! haha!

Tziporah: i actually do live with some parrots now -- four, to be exact, but only one is a companion pet to me and the other three are meant to be breeding birds, as soon as i can find a situation that is appropriate for them to start raising chicks.

richard: as far as a dog causing problems for a parrot, well, that is always possible, but it is also equally possible that the parrot will cause problems for the dog! and, as far as the bird's personality, i am sure it will be fine. i mean, all my birds can be unpredictable and aggressive, although never hostile (and this bird, will probably be aggressive at times, but i doubt he'll be hostile since he'll be handled gently).

Parrots, schmarrots...I want a couple of these!

...except I've got 3 cats already and leave town for extended periods too often...

(Just kidding about the parrots -- I love psittaciforms, too! I just have an affinity for coliiforms and their peculiar behaviors and adaptations!)

jerry: i have long admired and loved mousebirds (they make superb and fascinating pets), along with the other touracos, all of whom are just so interesting and such unusual creatures. but in fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any species of bird that i didn't like and want to keep and raise, especially since my motto is "there's not enough birds on the planet."

but if i was breeding mousebirds, i'd give one to you just so you'd have the pleasure of learning how that bird perceives and thinks about the world. besides, i am sure your students would be thrilled to have a wee mousebird peek out of your shirt pocket while you lecture, too (i know i would never ever miss class, just so i could see your bird!).

hrm. maybe a physics or calculus prof or two should keep a mousebird in his (her??) shirt pocket?

Congratulations. Shall I start saving up old newspapers for the bottom on the cage?

Heh. My Pionus bites pretty hard, too. Congratulations on your new 'baby'.

Now, mousebirds...that is a new one! What an odd little bird!

Hey, I hope things look up regarding your career. It may not be in the academic way you expected, but you do a lovely blog and actually communicate with a number of non-scientists (that would be me, but I am sure there are others). You write clearly and attractively and you recognize a good photo when you see one. And you still love your subject, in fact several of them. And you are good at giving and receiving passionate affection, pscittaciforms not being chopped liver (you may be fond of particular anthropoids, too).

And I hope you enjoy your new parrot, too.

Congrats on your new family member! From everyone I know that has hawk-heads, they're quite the species (as it sounds like you know already). I'm trying to resist putting them on my already crazy long wishlist...perhaps somewhat unsuccessfully.