The Wonderful World of Amazons
© Howard Voren
Amazon parrots are by far the best at fitting the bill. For those who want all the benefits of sharing their lives with a companion bird, yet do not want to be burdened with the demands of a cockatoo, the size of a macaw or the sometimes unforgiving nature of an African grey, an Amazon is the best choice.
The name Amazon comes from the area that is the center of their range, the Amazonian rainforest. The family was given this name because they epitomized all that was wonderful and exotic in this newly discovered area of the New World. These were the “talking parrots” the indigenous indians of the area kept as household companions. Over the centuries they have continued to capture the hearts of every cultural society to which they were introduced. The decision that no home should be without one is easy. The problem is deciding which of the many types of Amazons is right for your home.
The Amazons of the Yellow-crowned group are some of the most commonly sought after companions. This very large family ranges from Mexico, through Central America to north-central South America. Different species of this family have varying amounts of yellow somewhere on their head. All of them have the same high intelligence and talking ability, but there are major differences in their personalities. The more northerly the race, the more outgoing they are. In some cases this translates into aggressive behavior or temper tantrums. The more southerly races, have on the average, a much mellower personality. Along with their more even temper, they also tend to be quieter.
The most northerly representative of the family is the double-yellow headed Amazon (A. oratrix). Ranging throughout Mexico, these Amazons were very popular when Mexico was open to export. Since Mexico has closed its borders, the birds’ availability has become very sparse. This is due to the fact that they have not proved to be reliable breeders in captivity. Most Amazon breeders produce a few each year, but no one has been able to produce them in commercial quantities. Although mature pet birds, especially males, have the reputation of becoming quite nasty every year, during what would normally be the breeding season, their popularity has remained high. This is due to their beautiful coloration. It is the only Amazon kept as a pet whose entire head turns a bright yellow upon reaching full adult coloration. Its beak is light horn in coloration.
As we move south to Southern Mexico, the range of the Yellow-naped Amazon (A. auropalliata) begins. Their territory ranges south through Central America to Costa Rica. The massive importation of hand-raised yellow-naped babies from Honduras during the 1980’s, made them the most popular pet Amazon in the U.S.
Their coloration differs from the double-yellow in that they have no or only minor yellow coloration on the forehead, their area of extensive yellow plumage is, as their name implies, on the nape of neck. Just like the double-yellow, they develop their yellow coloration, slowly as they mature. Their beak can range from almost black to light grey depending from where in their range they are from. If any bird was responsible for marking the turning point of demand from wild caught to hand-raised, it was the yellow-naped. Although most made marvelous pets, their personalities upon maturity are only a bit less problematical than the double-yellow head. Many enthusiasts feel that the yellow-napes talking ability exceeds that of the double-yellow head. Although I believe this to be true, both types have enough talking ability to satisfy any owner. These are the birds for those who feel that talking ability is of extreme importance.
South of Costa Rica is Panama. It is there that the famous Panama Amazon (A. panamensis) begins and ends its range. Rare in the pet trade at the present time, the Panama has never failed to live up to its reputation as one of the finest pet birds available. The least colorful, with only a small patch of yellow on the front of their forehead, they are also the smallest in body size. Their beak coloration can range from an overall pure horn color to horn with black streaks. Although only a bit smaller than the other members of its race, it seems to have lost most of the negative personality traits with its minimal decrease in body size. It is one of the most desirable Amazons to have as a member of your family.
Moving south over the border, into the mainland of South America, are the jungles of Colombia. It is here that the color of the Panama Amazon’s beak darkens and its overall body size increases. This variant is known as the yellow-fronted Amazon (A. ochrocephala) and is the South American representative of the group. It is considered the nominate race by the scientific community; and therefore it is the bird from which the rest of the family derives its scientific name. It is assumed that all of the above subspecies of yellow-crowned Amazons have evolved from this South American example. These birds are, along with the Panamanian subspecies, the most even tempered and docile members of the group. They have all of the intelligence and talking ability of the double-yellow and yellow-naped varieties without the rough edges to their personality. Another advantage to the yellow-fronted is that since the bird is not as commercially known as the other members of its’ group it is usually available at a more reasonable price than the others.
In central South America, the yellow-crown group is replaced by the Blue-fronted Amazons. They range south, throughout the rest of the continent to Argentina. There are three major types of Blue-fronts. The type that inhabits Brazil (Amazona a. aestiva) is very rarely seen in the U.S. It is usually more darkly pigmented than the other subspecies and shows only a small amount of red at the bend of the wing. It has varying amounts of yellow on the top and upper sides of its head as well as a patch of blue on the front of the forehead. This patch of color is what gives the bird its name. Moving south out of Brazil into Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, the birds’ green body coloration lightens and we begin to see yellow intermixed in the red coloration at the bend of the wing. This is the second type and is probably the most common in the United States. This bird of highly variable coloration is intermediate to the Brazilian subspecies and a more southerly representative of the family. Even though it was the most widely represented in the pet trade during the years of importation, it has no separate scientific classification.
In a vast area of low scrub vegetation and cabbage palms called the Chaco, the third type appears. This huge, largely uninhabited area is shared by three countries, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. It is from here that the famous Chaco blue-fronted Amazon was taken from the nest to be hand-raised for the pet trade. Some older texts refer to this bird as the yellow-winged Amazon.
This subspecies has a light green body coloration with varying amounts of usually extensive yellow coloration on the head and the bend of the wing. Some examples will have the entire head with the exception of the nape and the blue on the front edge of the forehead, yellow. Many examples exhibit extensive amounts of yellow on the wing. I have known specimens that have the yellow at their shoulder extend down, almost half the length of their wings. Unlike the yellow-crown group, the blue-fronts show about 90% of their adult coloration with their juvenile plumage.
All of the blue-front types make excellent pets and although they are usually not as physically animated as the yellow-crowns they are close in their talents at talking. Overall they tend to be a bit quieter than the yellow-crowns and usually demonstrate a softer speaking voice. The Chaco will often demand a bit more money due to its coloration as well as its sometimes larger size, but they are all the same in other ways. Except of course for the myriad of personality differences that you will find in any group of Amazons. They are producing reliably in captivity and should be easy to obtain at any good bird shop.
Next in popularity are four different types of Amazons, with a red coloration on their foreheads. The best known is the red-lored Amazon (A.a. autumnalis), which is sometimes called the yellow-cheeked. This parrot ranges throughout the ranges of the double-yellow head and the Yellow-naped Amazons. That is from Mexico, south to northern Nicaragua. Nature blessed this bird with the most vibrant head coloration of all Amazons. Bright red, yellow and blue, set off by a bi-colored beak (horn and black). Overall they are a bit smaller in size than both the yellow-crown and blue-fronted group. But that doesn’t keep them from having a very outgoing and playful personality. Although they do not break any records for extensive vocabularies, they do maintain enough in their repertoire to satisfy most owners. As far as loyalty and affection are concerned they have one of the highest ratings.
Next in this group is the Lilac-crowned Amazon (A. finschi). The red on their forehead is a deep plum color. This is accented by a lilac-blue on the top of the head and a pale, horn colored beak. The green body feathers usually have a yellowish hue to them. This Mexican Amazon has a reputation of being among the gentlest and quietest of the Amazon group. It, as well as the red-lored and the following two Amazons, are priced lower than those of the yellow-crowned and blue-fronted groups.
The Mexican red-headed or green-cheeked Amazon (A. viridigenalis) has been a great favorite for many years. They have a large bright red patch on the top of their head with a bit of lilac-blue behind it. Their horn colored beak and bright green body coloration makes them very eye catching. It not only is usually the most animated of the four, it is also, on the average, the best talker of this group.
The last, as well as the least available, of this group is the lilacine Amazon (A. lilacina). A previously rare subspecies of the red-lored Amazon that hails from Ecuador. The lilacine has been breeding regularly in the U.S. for quite some time. It is now beginning to appear in the pet trade and is being well received. The bird is identifiable by its jet black beak, dark maroon frontal band and light green cheek color. They are a bit smaller than their red-lored cousins, with a noticeably finer head. They are very intelligent birds with a sweet and easy going temperament.
Leaving these two major pet groups there are several well known birds in the pet trade that stand alone. The orange-wing Amazon (A. amazonica) was imported in great numbers when the U.S. was open to importation. These were all wild caught and came from Guyana, a country on the northern coast of South America.
The wild caught did not usually make very good pets. Since importation has stopped, and the market is now being supplied with hand-raised babies, the orange-wing is now a bird of a different “color.” Its calm temperament and inquisitive nature make it a worthwhile companion. The orange-wing’s coloration can vary drastically from one bird to the next. In some cases they are mistaken for blue-fronted Amazons. They have varying amounts of blue and yellow on the forehead and their cheek patches can range from yellow to bright orange. The easiest way to identify them without fault is to look at the area of colored feathers on the top side of their open wing. Most all Amazons have a colored area containing large red feathers on each wing. In the case of the orange-wing, this area, which is called the wing speculum, is orange.
The largest size Amazons ever to be available in the pet trade were the Mealy Amazons (A. farinosa). Although there are still many people that have them in their homes they are difficult to find for sale. This bird, along with its cousin, the blue-crowned Amazon, has all but disappeared from the shops. Unfortunately, these birds have proved to be very reluctant breeders in captivity. The blue-crown type has a range that is from Guatemala through Central America to Costa Rica. The South American version appears along the border jungles of southern Panama and northern Colombia. It has small sporadic populations throughout much of the continent. The main coloration differences between the forms is that the best known form from Central America has a bright blue wash covering the crown. Its South American cousin usually has a small patch of yellow. Many of these birds made excellent pets, and were quiet and affectionate, others were horrid. Each bird had to be judged on its individual merit. A good one can be marvelous.
The last and the smallest of the amazons that is commonly kept as a pet is the white-fronted Amazon (A. albifrons). In the past, this parrot was often called the spectacled Amazon. Its names are related to its head coloration. On the front of its forehead it has a band of “white.” This can range from pure white to a yellowish color, depending from where in their range they have come from. The name spectacled comes from the bright red that begins just below the white above the nostrils, and runs around both eyes. This is highlighted by blue on the top of the head and a horn colored beak. These are the most reasonably priced of the Amazons. There talking ability is usually limited to a phrase or two. Due to their reasonable price they are very popular as a starter bird for those people who wish to try out something intermediate in size. Since they are now breeding readily in captivity they will continue to be available.