Champions of Charm

© Howard Voren

Looking for a clever charmer that's not too imposing in size? Considering a choice that's a cut above the common "beginner" birds? Try the charismatic clowns of the parrot family. They're cute, they're cuddly, they're colorful and cunning. They also offer the widest variety of choices of all the commonly available companion birds. They are, of course, the conures.

The large group of parrots that we call the conures are very similar in physical appearance to the macaws. It is almost as if, after creating macaws, God decided to try it all over again. Only this time in miniature. Just as macaws, conures come in four different size groupings with a few varieties being intermediate to the four groups. Unlike the macaws they would be considered, in the eyes of evolutionary theorists, to be a much more successful group. This is illustrated by the fact that the conures have evolved into a group consisting of well over 100 different species and subspecies with an extremely wide range of varied habitats. In contrast the macaws are represented by only twenty-four living varieties that have a comparably limited range and habitat.

The "Green" Conures

In order to keep this article from becoming a book, we'll discuss the most commonly available members of this large group. First lets look at what I personally like to call the "green conure" group. These are the largest in size of the readily available conures and have an overall green body coloration. The major differences between members of this group are size variance and the amount of red coloration they have at adulthood.

The largest of this group is the mitred conure. Their range is the west central part of South America. They can be found in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. These birds are very popular because of their impressive size. They're chunky birds that are one size smaller than a yellow collar macaw, yet are only about half the price. Mitreds are a real bargain only because they have the word conure not macaw after their name. Their coloration is highly variable. The forehead and lores (area between the eye and the beak) are red and that's where the similarity between specimens ends. Some are heavily marked with red under the eye and down through the cheeks while others only have a few flecks of coloration. They will also have scattered red feathers on the breast and sometimes on the back which can be very numerous or almost nonexistent. Males tend to be more colorful than females and immatures take about two years to develop most of their red coloration. Mitreds are the best talker of the group, but are also the noisiest.

Next on the list is the Cherry-headed conure (red-masked). Their range is western Ecuador and northwestern Peru. They are one size smaller than the Mitred and their coloration is also variable. In this case however the variability is due more to the age of the bird than individuality. Cherry-heads can take up to ten years to develop their full red-headed coloration, hence the drastic difference between individuals. There is however variance in just how much red they wind up with when full adult color is reached. Some old specimens will have the red of the head extending down to the throat. At this point it visually picks up the red that begins at the bend of the wing (shoulders) and extends down the carpal edge (front edge) of the wing. Birds in this advanced state of mature plumage are real show stoppers. The Cherry-headed is definitely the most beautiful of the group. It's a good talker and, like the mitred, can at times get a bit noisy.

From here we move down in size, quite a bit, to the white-eyed conure. They are not much smaller in length than the cherry-head, but they lack the body and head bulk of their larger cousins. These birds are basically all green with a very few scattered red feathers that can be absolutely anywhere on the bird's body. They get their name from the predominant "bright white" ring of skin around the eye (periopthalmic ring). Their range is very large They occupy the majority of the northern coast of South America and extend down to northern Argentina. This range includes the entire Brazilian rain forest. The white-eyed is relatively inexpensive due to its free breeding habits in captivity. Although it will learn to talk, most pets lack the talking talent of the other members of the group. In keeping with this, they are also the quietest. They make sweet, engaging pets that seldom wear out their welcome.

While overseeing a large shipment of birds in Bolivia, I was brought to the local zoo by the exporter. He had some business to discuss with the director and he felt that I would enjoy looking at their bird collection while he was negotiating. Toward the end of the tour, my guide brought me to a large flight cage with a flock of white-eyed conures. As I approached the cage, my eyes got bigger and bigger. There was one bird that stood out like a sore thumb. Its entire throat leading down to its upper breast was red instead of green. This was a real show stopper. I turned to my guide and, not only expressed my delight over having the opportunity to see such a specimen, I added that it would be marvelous if the zoo would let the bird be exported to me so I could include it in my breeding program in the U.S.

When we returned to the directors office my guide entered the inner chamber. A few moments later when the exporter and director emerged, the director came forward, shook my hand and said, "No problem, the bird with the red throat is yours."

I thanked him profusely and then finally came to my senses long enough to ask, "How much do I owe you?"

He broke into a smile that was far too big. "Nooo problem. Any friend of this man is a friend of mine. I give it to you out of my friendship for him," he exclaimed as he pointed to the exporter.

I left the zoo with a smile from ear to ear. As the exporter and I jumped into our car I noticed that he was a little pale.

"Is there anything wrong?" I asked.

He looked at me straight in the eye and said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but the conure is staying where it is."

"Why?" I asked. "He's willing to give it to me for free!"

He became even more serious and said, "Yes, free for you means a five thousand dollar lose to me!"

He went on to explain that, if I accepted the bird, the director would expect the large animal shipment that they had just negotiated to be handled for free. Favor for favor. Needless to say I left Bolivia without the conure. I never regretted this because almost the exact same bird exists in Central America — an all green conure with an extensive red throat. When I went into Honduras, I had the opportunity to obtain all I wanted for my breeding program. This was one time in life that I got to "have my cake and eat it too."

This brings us to the last bird in the group that I will discuss and it is one of my personal favorites. The red-throated conure. Unlike the previous representatives this bird is from Central America. It comes from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. These are one of the smallest of the group and are not much bigger than a cockatiel. As they mature they develop an extensive patch of red-orange that extends down to the upper breast. What they lack in size, they more than make up for with personality and talking ability. They are considered a bit rare and were never imported in large numbers. This brings it up a bit in price but they are well worth it. They are also highly coveted as pets by the indigenous people in their range.

A conure not usually considered as part of the above group, but very closely aligned to them, is the blue-crowned conure. As their name implies, they have their entire head blue. Immatures have only a hint of this coloration and the blue brightens and becomes more extensive as they reach adulthood. They are very similar to the mitred conure in pet quality. Good talking ability, good personality and a bit noisy. They are also similar to the mitred in length but lack the body bulk. This gives them a long slender appearance that many find quite impressive. They have a range that is similar to the white-eyed in that they extend from northern South America down the entire continent into Argentina. The very major exception being their absence from the majority of the Brazilian rainforest.

Nandays

At this point the nanday conure must be mentioned. The nanday is from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. They are a long slender bird like the blue-crown and are one size smaller. Their head instead of being blue, is black. They also sport red lower legs and a heavy blue wash to the upper breast. They are similar to the smaller green conures in talking ability but are a bit noisier. Nandays are very inexpensive for their size. In fact pound for pound the are the best bargain around. This is due to the fact that they were imported in very large quantities. Most of these imports were adult birds that became free breeders. The nanday is intermediate to the green conures and those that we will discuss next.

Medium Sized Conures

The next major group of conures includes the sun, jenday, gold-capped and dusky. They all are considered medium sized conures and have excellent pet potential. Although they do not measure up in talking ability to the more talented members of the green conure group, they are still rated as good talkers. Along with this talent goes their propensity to get a bit noisy on occasion. The most beautiful of the group is the sun conure. In fact the sun conure is considered by many to be the most beautiful conure of all. Immatures are usually heavily mottled in green but lose most of this by the time they are two years of age. At that point the bird's entire body and the majority of its wings are bright yellow with a varying suffusion of red-orange. Its sunset coloration is where it gets its name. It comes from the north-eastern coast of South America. This includes the Guyanas, adjoining Venezuela and north-eastern Brazil. Importers voluntarily stopped importing suns quite a few years ago due to disease problems in the countries of origin. All supplies of this bird to the pet trade have been captive bred here in the states for many years. Although they are free breeders they remain the highest priced conure of those commonly available. Their price has remained stable for many years.

The jenday conure has not been imported for at least ten years and, even when they were coming into the U.S., they were only brought in very limited numbers. Despite their limited numbers they have maintained a foothold in the pet trade due to the fact that they are "easy" breeders. The jendays wings and mantle are green. Their entire head, including the nape, lower cheeks and throat, is yellow. Extending from the throat down through the birds breast to its vent is a beautiful orange-red coloration. Similar to the sun in its great pet potential, it carries a price tag that's a bit more modest. This is due to its "less than sun conure" coloration. Their natural range is north-eastern Brazil as is the sun's but their ranges do not overlap. The jenday inhabits an area that is south-east of the Amazon, whereas, the sun's range ends north of the Amazon river.

The gold-capped conure comes from an area of south-eastern Brazil; that is south of the point where the range of the jenday ends. It is considered by many to have a better personality than its two preceding cousins also is a bit bigger in size due to its marginally chunkier head and body. In this particular group however, color means everything and with less color than the jenday it brings a marginally lower price. Their forehead is red-orange that fades to yellow-orange as it moves back to the crown. Many specimens will have the red-orange of the forehead extend down below the eye when they develop their mature plumage. Their lower breast and belly is red-orange with the rest of the bird being green. As with the jenday and the sun, importation of the gold-capped stopped over ten years ago. For many years all birds available to the pet trade have been domestically bred.

The dusky conure, from western Brazil and adjoining Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, has all the wonderful pet qualities of the other members of this group. They are similar to them in every way, which is why I have included them in the group. Similar in every way, that is, except for their lack of red, yellow or orange feathers and a slightly smaller body size. This makes them the most affordable of the four. They are green with a slate-blue head. Very pretty birds in their own right, they are a pleasure to have as a member of your household.

A conure that is intermediate to this group and the one that follows is the peach-fronted conure. This pretty bird hails from Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. They are smaller than the dusky and have a wide orange patch on the front of their head. They are look alike cousins to one of the members of the next group, the half-moon conure. The most obvious way to tell them apart is by the color of their beak. The peach-fronted has a black upper mandible and the half-moon's is horn colored. The peach-fronted as well as all the remaining birds we will discuss are much quieter than all the preceding choices. They have a sweet personality and a reasonably good talking ability.

The third major group are the least encountered of those that are readily available in the pet shops. This is due to them being only marginally productive in captivity. They all make excellent pets and share a much better than average talking ability. Because of their wonderful personalities they are all kept regularly as pets in the countries that they are indigenous to. These I call the brown throated group. They consist of the half-moon, the Aztec and several subspecies of the brown throats.

The half-moon as well as the other members of this group are, like the peach-fronted, one size smaller than the dusky conure. They have an orange patch on the front of their forehead that is less extensive than that of the peach-fronted. They also have a horn colored upper mandible. They come from the southern coast of Central America. Most of those in the United States are either from Mexico or Honduras.

The Aztec is only sporadically available, but, when it is, they usually do not last long in the shops. Their super personality with their better than average ability at mimicry make them one of the preferred pets in Honduras. Unlike the half-moon, the Aztecs occupy the northern coast of Central America. They are a plain green colored bird with a very unexciting brown covering the front of their bodies. Their upper mandible is horn colored with some light gray vertical stripes.

The last member of this family is the brown throated conure. They come in fourteen recognized varieties but the one most often encountered is from Guyana and Surinam, South America. These differ from the Aztecs in that they have a dark upper mandible and some orange feathers splashed somewhere on the body. How much and where will depend on the subspecies. The one from Guyana will have some orange around the eye as well as a few flecks on the lower belly. All of the birds that have been imported were wild caught, as opposed to the half-moon and Aztecs which were all taken from the wild nests and hand raised. This is why the brown throats lack the excellent pet reputation of their cousins. Hand raised babies, however, have the same great potential as the other two members of this triad.

Pyrrhuras

Last but not least is the group known as the Pyrrhuras. This is usually pronounced "Pie-hurrah." These are the smallest of all the conures. They are an extremely large group but only two are commonly available. They are the maroon-bellied and the green-cheek conures. A third member is also beginning to show up on the scene due to several highly successful breeding programs. That is the black-capped conure. As luck would have it, these are the three that have the best pet potential of the entire group. These birds are personality plus with the talking ability of a cockatiel. Being the smallest they are not only among the most reasonably priced, they are also the quietest of all the conures. This quiet nature makes them a companion that is never an imposition. In fact everyone should own at least one.

Fifteen years ago the only available member of this group was the maroon-bellied conure.These were imported in large numbers from Argentina and Paraguay. They gained popularity rapidly as soon as captive bred handraised babies became available to the pet trade. They are basically a green bird . They have a reddish-brown frontal band, an upper breast that is barred with dull yellows and dark browns, and a maroon colored belly.

Over ten years ago when Paraguay closed down the exportation of birds, the trappers moved over to Bolivia. It was due to this migration of unemployed bird trappers that we began to see what was previously considered a rare bird come into the U.S. in large quantities. That is the green-cheeked conure. They differ from the maroon-bellies coloration in the following ways. The barred area of the upper breast has a much lighter background. The entire top of their head is dark brown. The maroon coloration on the belly is not quite as extensive as in the maroon-bellied. And the entire tail is a beautiful maroon-red color as opposed to the maroon bellies tail that is by majority green and only tipped in red brown. The green-cheeked conure also proved to be a free breeder and is now readily available at very reasonable prices.

The third member of this trio is the black-capped conure. The migration of skilled trappers from Paraguay to Bolivia was also responsible for this gems availability to aviculture. This bird was so rare that no American aviculturist had ever seen them. When the word got out that the super rare "rock parakeet" from Bolivia was going to be imported, quite a few aviculturists were hoping to get a chance to work with them. Unfortunately only about twelve birds were imported and of those only four were females. Fortunately those who were lucky enough to get them had excellent production. They are now being produced in sufficient numbers to allow some of these marvelous birds to enter the pet trade. Their coloration is very striking. The entire top of their head is black. The scalloping of the upper breast is of high contrast, being black and white. The scalloping also has finer definition than in either of its two cousins. This is all set off by the bright red line of feathers that runs down the front edge (carpal edge) of the wing. The maroon-red coloration of the lower belly that is so common to members of this family is very limited and in some it is absent. Although they are a hair more pricey than the maroon-bellied and the green-cheek, they are more than worth it. Every shop that has had the opportunity to handle this "newest" entry to the pet parade is very excited indeed!

Health

Overall, conures are very hardy birds. In fact they are so disease resistant that in the past they were often times accused of being disease carriers. In the days of commercial importation it was not uncommon for illness to strike all the amazons and pionus that were in the quarantine facility and leave the conures relatively unscathed. In most cases, however, this was due to the conures' relative resistance to the disease, not their carrying of it. Now that commercial importation has ended and the demand is being supplied by domestic production, there is little need for worry. One can usually assume that weaned, closed banded birds that are in good weight and eating well will pass a vet check. Unweaned babies can be a bit more tricky but they can also be purchased without fear if you are dealing with a reputable shop.

The way to keep your conure in top health is the same as for any other parrot.

  1. Keep the water clean.
  2. Feed plenty of low fat fresh foods along with whatever pelleted or seed diet you choose.
  3. Keep the water clean.
  4. The bird should be housed in a cage that has a wire grate floor elevated above the cage bottom so as to permit its droppings and discarded food to fall through to an unreachable lower level.
  5. Keep the water clean.

It is a long understood fact in the bird trade that contaminated water is the greatest sole causative factor in the creation of illness. Contaminated water has the ability to cause a fatal bacterial infection if the wrong microbes happen to be hanging around in the wrong place at the wrong time. Waters should be changed twice a day or whenever it has "a bunch of stuff" in it. In short, if you wouldn't allow your child to drink it, it shouldn't be allowed in your bird's cage. If your bird continually soils the water with food or droppings, find somewhere else in the cage to hang a water dish.

Caging

Of course there is no such thing as a cage that is too big. The question most asked is how small can the cage be without making the bird unhappy. The minimum sizes that I recommend are 20"W X 20"D X 30"H for the larger green conures such as the mitred and the cherry-head, 20"W X 18"D X 20"H for the medium sized birds like the white-eyed and the suns; and 14"W X 18"D X 18"H for the little guys like the maroon-bellies and the black-caps. Of course if the bird is only going to be closed up in the cage at night, you can get away with smaller caging.

As mentioned before, it is of the utmost importance to purchase a cage that has a wire grate floor suspended over the cage bottom. This separates the bird from its soiled food and droppings. This is a must if you are to maintain the long term health of your bird. Another thing that is worthwhile paying attention to when purchasing a cage is the number of horizontal bars used in the construction of the cage. Your bird will spend a great deal of time hanging and climbing on the sides of the cage. Horizontal bars create easy foot holds that can be hung from with a minimum of effort. Vertical bars have to be held on to tightly enough so the bird doesn't slide down them. This is not very comfortable. Unfortunately most cage manufacturers are eliminating as many of the horizontal bars as possible in their cages. This is because the fewer horizontal bars a cage has, the more visually pleasing it is to the human eye. Since humans make the decisions as to what cage to buy, they are often manufactured with the human, not the bird, in mind.