Neophema Parakeets — Australia's Feathered Beauties

© Anne-Marie Harter

Neophemas are some of the World's most perfect birds. They are the size of a budgerigar, with pleasant-sounding voices and few vices. They come in a rainbow of brilliant colors, and their versatility in the wild makes them adaptable aviary birds. Also known as Australian Grass Parakeets, they include the popular Bourke (N. bourkii), Scarlet-chested (N. splendida), Turquoisine (N. pulchella) and Elegant (N. elegans) parakeets, and lesser know Rock and Orange-bellied Parakeets.

Origin

Neophema parakeets hail from Australia, where different species can be found in all types of habitats. The Bourke lives in the Mulga woodland, the Elegant can be found in open grassland or near coastal sand dunes, and the Turquoisine lives in forest areas near mountain slopes. Australians rarely see the Scarlet-chested parakeet, possibly because of its nomadic nature.

In the wild, Australian grass parakeets spend much of their day feeding on the ground. Since they live in mostly warm and arid climates, the captive-bred species do well in similar conditions.

Characteristics

Neophema parakeets are popular aviary birds because of their beauty and peaceful temperament. Aviculturists around the world appreciate them. The birds nondestructive nature and pleasant chirping make them easy to keep in all kinds of situations. Grass parakeets have been successfully bred in captivity for many years, making them hardy and good reproducers. And, for those who have mastered breeding various species, there is always the challenge of a wide variety of intriguing mutations.

The birds are small, which allows for the housing of many individual pairs. This appeals to aviculturists who are interested in keeping diverse bloodlines and collecting their mutations. Birdkeepers who house an assortment of birds in planted flights can add one pair of grass parakeets and appreciate these colorful gems in their entire splendor.

It is tempting to keep these birds as pets, since their colors outshine the comparatively plain budgerigar. These birds, however, have quiet, introverted personalities; they are not as outgoing or charismatic as budgies. Grass parakeets are best enjoyed in aviaries or flight cages.

Housing

Except for the more sedentary Bourke, Neophemas are busybodies. They spend their day running around the cage bottom and eating or flying around their flights. To accommodate these energetic creatures, they are best housed in aviaries or large flight cages.

I keep my grasskeets in off-the ground flight cages, approximately 3'W X 2'6"H X 3'D. Cages are mounted high, so the nest boxes, suspended at the top of the flight, are only accessible with a ladder. This makes nest box inspections more difficult, but adds to the sense of security the birds feel, resulting in better breeding. This size cage works well for me.

For the hobbyist with a mixed aviary, grass parakeets are certainly worth considering. Bourkes and Scarlet-chesteds get along well with Cockatiels, finches and doves. Turquoisines and Elegants can also be kept in community flights, although they can be quarrelsome during breeding season.

Buying Stock

Whether you keep Neophemas for enjoyment or for breeding, it is important to start out with healthy stock. Always learn about the members of a particular bird species before purchasing a pair or a pet. Reading about the species and speaking with breeders who specialize in the Genus will help you prepare for new stock. Not all grasskeets do well in all situations. Scarlet-chesteds, for example, are more sensitive to cold weather than Bourke parakeets, and Blue Wings need larger flights than Elegants. Researching the needs of different species will help avoid disappointments.

To be assured of quality birds and assistance with problems, establish a good relationship with a reputable breeder. Breeders should be willing to help with breeding programs and reserve special birds in upcoming breeding seasons. Through networking with breeders, you can get recommendations on reputable aviculturists. Remember that reputable breeders will stand by their birds. Quality birds might cost more, but in the long run they are worth every penny.

Diet

In the wild, Grass Parakeets spend most of their day foraging for their regular staple of grass seeds. In the aviary, they also spend a good part of their day eating. You need to accommodate their habits by feeding them a variety of foods that are not only nutritious, but will also keep them busy. A quality parakeet seed mixture with an occasional spray millet as a treat, cuttlebone and fresh water daily will serve their basic needs. They relish fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, kale, broccoli, carrots, corn and wheat grass. All fresh produce should be washed thoroughly; these birds are very sensitive to even small amounts of pesticides. I go so far as to feed my birds only organically grown fruits and vegetables purchased from a health-food store.

During breeding season, my birds receive honey-wheat bread and a custom-blend of dry egg-food mix. This is prepared by mixing commercial egg food, hemp seed, some small black oily sunflower seed, calcium powder and spirulina.

Neophemas, especially those kept in outdoor aviaries in warmer climates, are susceptible to Candida infections. Therefore, keep their food and water dishes scrupulously clean and remove any uneaten fruits and vegetables from the aviary within one hour after feeding. I do not add vitamins to their drinking water; the mixture can grow bacteria in warm weather and cause fungal or bacterial problems. I also never medicate my birds via their drinking water, because they are desert birds and drink very little. Not only will they not receive enough medication this way, but a sick bird will dehydrate from not drinking. It may be more time-consuming, but I medicate my ill parakeets orally. This way I am sure they are receiving an accurate dose.

Breeding

Come springtime, my breeding pairs are set up with nest boxes. To signal the onset of breeding season, I feed them extra green food, sprouts and wheat grass. The birds are then visibly excited, busily flying around their aviary inspecting nest boxes and tending to their mates.

A contented grass parakeet, housed and fed properly, should breed readily. Young mature birds that were paired with their mates early on get right down to business come spring. Like all breeding birds they like privacy and need to be kept in a quiet area.

One way of providing them with an added sense of security is to keep them in flights with the top perch and nest box above the keeper's eye level.

Once a grass parakeet decides to breed, it isn't particular about the nest box. Parakeet- or lovebird-sized nest boxes lined with a fine layer of pine shavings will work well. The male carries out his inspections before the hen enters the nest box and does her rearrangements, which entail several days of moving around the substrate.

If the birds fail to show interest in the nest box, remove the box and re-evaluate the situation. Either the birds are not in breeding condition or the setup is wrong. Neophema pairs are rarely incompatible.

The hen needs to spend a certain amount of time in the darkness of the nest box before she can lay her first egg. Keep a close eye on young, first time laying hens to watch for egg-binding. Recognizing the symptoms and taking speedy action will save the hen before it is too late.

The hen will lay every other day until she has laid four to six eggs. The eggs are incubated for 18 days. The male feeds his mate from the nest box perch for the first 10 days, after which he is allowed to enter and feed the chicks directly.

Babies can be close-banded at 10 to 11 days. I also band them with open colored plastic bands on the other leg to mark family lines or certain birds split for a color mutation. Since I have many bloodlines of different species, it is easy to identify unrelated birds from a community flight just by looking at the color of their leg bands.

Neophemas grow quickly and fledge as early as four to five weeks of age. They are unstable fliers and are prone to bruising their ceres from crashing into cage wire. This will pass after a few days.

The male takes over the feeding of the fledglings as the hen prepares for her second clutch. Once babies are eating on their own (7 to 8 weeks old), youngsters can be moved to a larger baby flight where they can exercise and strengthen their flight muscles. The father bird sometimes gets aggressive with his male offspring. I recommend separating them at this age. Depending on the species, grass parakeets color up at about 5 months and are sexually mature at one year old. Ideally, mates should be paired up within the first six months of their life, so they will be more compatible once mature.

Bourke Parakeets

Bourkes are the easiest to care for of all the grasskeets. They are adaptable, willing breeders and not too particular about small details.

In fact, many aviculturists keep them in their aviaries to use as foster parents. Others find they make good candidates for mixed flights. Some people consider Bourkes dull, because of their sedentary nature; however, they do perk up at dawn and dusk at which time they fly actively around the aviary, making endearing, twittering sounds. This species is the only member of the Neophema family that lacks green feathering. They also have a slightly different body and tail shape, indicating that they might not be as closely related to the other birds of this Genus as we think. Although Bourkes make superb foster parents, they will not inbreed with the other grass parakeets.

The Bourke's has several color mutations that are more popular than the normal color phase. One of these is the Rosy Bourke. Rosies are relatively inexpensive and readily available. This sex-linked mutation ranges in color from pale pink to the more desirable dark pink. Cinnamon mutations, which look like a paler variation of the normal coloring, are also beautiful. The cream or yellow Bourke has a pale pink chest and a creamy beige back. This mutation has been gaining in popularity. By combining it with the rosy, breeders get the Pink Bourke, also called a red-eyed rosy; but this takes two generations to achieve.

The newer mutations are the Lutino and Rubino, and an all blue Bourke is in the works.

Elegant Parakeet

The mostly green Elegant parakeets are hardy and easy to care for. Males have wider blue brows and occasional red thumbnail splashes on their abdomens. Elegants are not as popular as their more brilliantly colored relatives, which is unfortunate since these graceful birds are appealing aviary subjects. The male's courtship displays, during which he raises himself to his full height and bows to the hen, are fun to watch. Although I have kept them in community flights without problems, a friend reports that his Elegants routinely dive bomb the Bourkes. As with most psittacines, best breeding results are obtained from single-kept pairs.

The Lutino Elegant is recessive. Although never bred in large numbers, cinnamon and pied elegants have been around for a number of years.

Blue-Winged Parakeets

Often confused with the Elegant, the Blue Wing is rare in American aviculture. While both birds have the blue brow band, the Blue Wing has a wider band of blue on the wings and an olive body color compared to the Elegant's yellow-green. Blue wings are somewhat of a rarity, and they can be difficult to breed. Some aviculturists have reported better breeding such with long flight cages, measure 6' to 8' in length. The birds also seem to be heat sensitive and, therefore, should be supplied with larger-than-average nest boxes, especially when housed in warmer climates.

Scarlet-Chested Parakeets

With its bright scarlet chest and ultramarine-blue face, everyone falls in love with the male Scarlet-chested parakeet. Unfortunately, this species is also the weakest of all the grass parakeets. Scarlet chests hate moisture and dampness and are sensitive to temperature extremes. They are also very susceptible to Candida infections. Carefully consider how they can be protected from the weather before obtaining any Scarlets. Once established in an aviary, however, these birds are delightful. They readily eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables. They have a trusting nature, appearing almost tame. A bonded pair will act quite enamored, and the male is very attentive to his mate.

Scarlet-chested parakeets have more mutations than any other Neophema, but they are not recommended for inexperienced aviculturists. Mutations are difficult to breed and are not long lived. Some breeders complain that the expensive blue mutations do not live long enough to reproduce. Of the three blue mutations - the seagreen, the par blue, and the white-breasted blue, the latter is the most popular. The bird's green colors are replaced by dark blue, and the red chest patch of the male is white.

The cinnamon Scarlet can be larger than normal, but is not as spectacularly colored. By combining cinnamons with white-breasted blues, breeders have developed silver Scarlets, which are even duller than the cinnamon.

Some of the newer mutations available to American aviculturists are the Lutino and Pied Scarlet-chested.

Turquoisine Parakeets

Turquoisine parakeets are another popular member of the Neophema family. Their blue faces and red wing bars characterize males. They are hardier than Scarlet-chesteds, but still need to be protected from moisture and extreme cold. They can be quarrelsome; hens are feisty with the males. All my pairs of Turquoisines bicker a great deal, but they somehow manage to produce large clutches. Males need to be watched for aggressive behavior toward their fledged sons.

One of the most popular of all Neophema mutations is the yellow Turquoisine. It has a buttercup-yellow body and aquamarine face. Poorer specimens of the mutation are chartreuse colored. Full red-fronted mutations can be combined with the yellows to produce full red-fronted yellow Turquoisines. Pied mutations are controversial, because they are not a true pied, like a pied cockatiel. Pied Turquoisines are characterized by a yellow wash across their backs. Another aviculturist suggested that we should call these birds opalines, to distinguish them from true pieds, which are bound to appear sooner or later. Some birds will have hints of red on their bellies; they are referred to as red-bellied.

Orange-Bellied and Rock Parakeets

According to Warwick Remington, an Australian aviculturist, fewer than 200 orange bellies live in the wild. Private Australian aviculturists keep none. Recently, captive-breeding programs achieved some success, so their future seems bright.

Rock parakeets may resemble Elegants, but otherwise differ from grass parakeets. They live in coastal areas and, as their name implies, build their nests among low-lying rocks. To my knowledge, none exist in the United States.

Grass Parakeets offer something for everyone. Most everyone can achieve good breeding results with these little gems, and if you desire you can enjoy the challenge of color mutations.

Breeders will find that their Neophema offspring are in demand. Whether you breed the peaceful Bourke's, the graceful elegant, the flashy turquoisine or the spectacular scarlet chest, you should consider a pair of Neophemas for your aviary. I promise you won't be disappointed.