Brotogeris Parakeets: The Masters of Adaptation
© Howard Voren
First published in "Birds USA, 1996-1997"
If any New World parrots could be called the "masters of adaptation," it would be those of the genus Brotogeris. Whenever you travel through Central or South America, the representatives of the parrot family that you are almost guaranteed to experience are those from this unique group. Their high visibility stems from the fact that they enjoy flying in large flocks and soar as a group through any areas that have stands of large trees.
"Not so unusual," you say. Well, it is if the stands of large trees are in parks in large cities. These are the only parrots that seem to pay no attention as to whether the trees in which they play and feed are in the city or in the jungle.
As long as there is still a supply of seeds, fruits, berries or blossoms, they will continue to return to their favorite feeding sites, day after day. The general rule that "if people move in, the parrots move out" has been largely ignored by these little wonders.
Although individually they are small enough that they could never attain the description of being noisy. As a group of 100 or 200 they can more than attract your attention with their excited chattering.
I will never forget that during one of my trips to Central America I spent 10 minutes staring incessantly upward into the foliage of a 100-foot-tall ficus tree. I could hear the chatter two blocks away, but I couldn't see them. All of a sudden, like a huge green cloud, they burst out of the canopy all at once and flew off to another large tree a few blocks away. They chattered as rapidly as they flew. They were oblivious to the fact that they were in a major metropolitan area. After all, at the 100-foot level, there was little concern regarding us humans.
Where They Live
Brotogeris have found a niche and held on successfully in almost every Central and South American country. A group of escapees have even "colonized" in and around a metropolitan area of South Florida, called Coconut Grove. As well as they get along in the presence of humans, they do as well or better in uninhabited areas. All seven species of this small green parrot are common throughout most of their range.
Brotogeris have also shown their talent for versatility in the fact that they are one of the only members of the parrot family that has adapted to more than one type of nesting habitat. They not only test in tree hollows, as do most all other psittacines, but they will also create their own nests as an alternative when other hollows are not available. The most common place for this alternative nest is an arboreal termitarium (a termite's nest in a tree).
In Central and South America, there are termites that will build nests in trees. These appear as large brown mounds of paper mâché, sitting in the crook of a tree limb. The birds will excavate tunnels and make nesting chambers in the center of the termite mounds. They will lay their eggs in their "custom-built" nesting chambers. The Brotogeris are also the only parrot-type birds I know of that have been rummored to, on rare occasions, have females sharing their nests with one another.
Size, Color And Availability
Brotogeris are all quite similar in body size. Although their length ranges from 6 1/2 to 9 inches, the bulk of the differences are in the length of the tail.
The longest species, the plain parakeet (Brotogeris tirica), has the longest tail; it measures one half of the bird's body length. As far as I know, this bird is either quite rare or nonexistent in American aviculture.
Unlike all of its cousins, it lacks a highly colored area on its body. This highly colored area is what has lead to most of the common names given to members of this group. Because of this the bird is called the plain parakeet. It is very common is eastern Brazil where, in true Brotogeris fashion, it not only populates the open country but also the large parks and botanical gardens in the big cities.
The species that has the most northerly range is called the orange-chinned parakeet (B. jugularis). The small bright-orange patch of feathers on its upper mandible is what has given this member its name. Orange chins also have a stronger yellowish tinge to the green feathers of the breast than other members of the group. Their range extends from southern Mexico, south through Central America into the South American countries of Colombia and Venezuela.
Although they have a very long range, the majority of those that were imported into the United States were from Honduras. They were never imported in large quantities. Those that were imported were taken from their nests as babies and hand-fed until independence. Because of this, they made such wonderful pets that most of them never resurfaced into the breeder trade. The few that were set up for breeding are producing well, but their production falls very short of the large demand. They are an old favorite that has now become quite difficult to obtain.
The one member of this group that was hand-raised in the greatest quantity for export to the U.S. was the grey-cheeked parakeet (B. pyrrhopterus) from Ecuador and Peru. A large area of light gray on the cheeks is set off by a beautiful blue-green coloration on its head.
Literally tens of thousands of these birds were imported from Peru. In fact, during the "heyday" of their importation, they were commonly called Peruvian grey cheeks. It was not uncommon for shipments of up to 1,000 birds to land in Miami, Florida, from Lima, Peru, to be quarantined in USDA-run facilities. As with all legally imported birds, they were quarantined for 30 days before they were released to the pet trade.
Because they were hand-raised before they were exported from Peru, they made excellent pets. At one point in time, they were, by far, the most popular pet bird in America next to the budgie and the cockatiel.
For a few years before their importation was ended, waiting for the Peruvian grey cheek season became a yearly tradition for pet-bird retailers. Unfortunately, this species has failed to maintain itself in captive-breeding programs. As the importation era slips further and further into the past, they are becoming more and more difficult to find.
The bird most commonly thought of when one thinks of this group is called the canary-winged parakeet (B. versicolurus chiriri). The scientific name of this subspecies, chiri, comes from the name that the indigenous Amazonians gave to the bird. "Chi-ri-ri, chi ri, chi-ri-ri" is a very accurate rendition of their chattering call as they fly through the jungles. Having a range that involves the majority of South America, they were by far one of the most commonly imported birds into the U.S.
Its outstanding color characteristic is the canary-yellow patch of color that it sports on its wings. This bird carried several different popular names in the U.S. pet trade. Among them were "bee bee" and "pocket parrot."
Although it was imported in the largest numbers, most of these numbers were brought in before there was an interest in captive propagation. In short, when they were available, no one cared to set them up for breeding. Because they were wild-caught rather than taken from the nest and hand-raised, they never developed the reputation for pet quality that the grey cheek and the orange chin maintained. Now that the entire group is more fully appreciated, there is a new demand for them as pets. Until recently, it was very difficuilt to obtain good specimens for breeding purposes. Almost no one was breeding them, and those who were still around were too old to be used in a breeding program. In a unique turn of events, the birds that are now being used to populate American breeding farms so hand-raised babies can be had for the pet trade are captured from wild flocks that have established themselves in Florida. This is also true of the well-known but relatively rare white-winged parakeet.
Very similar to the canary wing, the white wing subspecies (B. v. versicolurus) differs in having the majority of the large colored area of its wing white instead of yellow. They are duller green in body coloration than chiriri and still show yellow as their patch of wing color when their wings are closed. When they open their wings for flight, however, a large impressive area of white is displayed. This was a bird that was always very rare in American aviculture until recently. There is now an established wild flock of these in South Florida. Thanks to this, American aviculturists are getting a second chance at establishing this unusually colored bird.
This one member of the family that is the most commonly misidentified is the cobalt-winged parakeet (B. cyanoptera). Although it is named for the extensive area of blue coloration on its wings, it also has the orange "chin" coloration of the orange-chinned parakeet.
Although its range extends from southern Colombia and Venezuela, south to northern Bolivia, those that were imported into the U.S. were from Bolivia. This bird was never imported in large numbers. The greatest percentage of those that came into the U.S. were sold to those who wished to breed them; however, some did go to the pet trade. Those who are lucky enough to have them in their homes as pets are usually under the misconception that they have orange chins, not cobalt wings. One easy method for determining the difference is the coloration on the head. Only cobalt wings will have yellow feathers around the nostils.
The rarest from the standpoint of numbers imported, is the golden-winged parakeet (B. chrysopterus). Although they are commonly from the area of Brazil, in and around the Amazon River, the ones that are here in the U.S. were imported from Surinam.
Their name stems from the bright, golden orange patch of feathers on their wings. This brilliant color is highly visible when they are in flight. Their overall body coloration is a very unusual shade of dark green. This shade of green is never seen on any other Central or South American parrots. At the Voren Research Institute, we have made a concerted effort to establish this uniquely colored bird. We now have 20 pairs that include the offspring of our original group of 15 unrelated birds.
By far, the most highly sought after by connoisseurs of the group is the tui parakeet (B. sanctithomae sanctithomae). These delightful, little birds look like miniature yellow-fronted Amazon parrots. They are a beautiful bright green in body coloration and have a large patch of yellow that covers the forehead. The tui is distributed along the entire length of the Amazon River as well as its tributaries. This bird is the favorite childhood pet of the tribal peoples that live along the Amazon. In the late '60s and early '70s, before there was the requirement of quarantine in the U.S., these birds were imported in fair numbers. Unfortunately, this was a time in history, when there was no interest in breeding Brotogeris in captivity. Shortly after this, the countries that were permitting their export banned all exportation of birds. At present, the bird is almost nonexistent in the U.S.
Master aviculturist Robbie Harris from California has been lucky enough to obtain a few birds and is making a valiant effort to re-establish them in captivity.
The entire family does well on a seed-based diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. We feed sprouted beans along with a "cockatiel" seed mixture. They also get diced carrots, apple and corn. We dust these items with wheat grass powder (green food supplement) and an all-inclusive vitamin and mineral supplement. This diet has kept them strong, healthy and productive for many years.
Pellets can also be considered if you don't have the time to feed them a varied diet. They are not only very hardy birds, they also have the ability to be quite long-lived for their size. I was personally acquainted with one that lived to the ripe old age of 35 years.
Whether you would like to have them as a lifetime companion or as a breeding investment, sharing your home with members of the Brotogeris family is a rewarding experience.