Double yellow headed amazon chicks

The Aquisition, Husbandry and Breeding of Common Amazons


Significant advances have been made in the science of breeding psittacine birds during the past decade. The wide spread use of formulated diets, the advent of safe surgical or blood sexing, increases in disease prevention through the development of specific tests and vaccines, improved techniques for hand rearing babies plus other developments have greatly aided aviculturists. However, some genera of parrots such as Amazons are still a challenge to breed. The intent of this paper is to provide a broad overview of the sources of breeding stock, captive management, breeding and feeding of the psittacine genus Amazona.

Sources of Breeding Stock

Choosing birds that will become the best breeders continues to be a challenging task. Birds to be used for breeding are available from importers (wild caught birds), pet owners (long term captives which are mostly imports but now increasingly could also be domestic), breeders (babies, proven pairs or unpaired stock) and pet shops (a combination of many sources).

Double yellow headed amazon breeding pair
Double yellow headed amazon breeding pair at HARI

In the long term, captive-bred birds that are later pair bonded will be the main source of breeding stock and hopefully the most efficient breeders. Parent raised birds would of course be better than hand-raised but in Amazons I don’t think it makes too much of a difference (cockatoos are a different story). If babies are to be used for future breeding minimize human contact during hand-rearing, other than that required for care, and have several conspecifics in the same container.

Hand-reared birds make better breeders and parents because they are less stressed by confinement and contact with people than wild-caught birds. Captive raised birds acclimatize much easier and sooner to new flight cages. Pairs are more likely to be compatible if they grow up together. Captive bred birds are usually not sub-clinical carriers of pathogenic organisms especially Pacheco’s disease which is a major problem with imported birds. An obvious disadvantage of obtaining young birds is that the purchaser will have to wait three to five years for the birds to become sexually mature and old enough to breed.

When buying young birds their age is known but once a parrot is mature and is in full adult plumage there is no way of determining its age. Young birds are also a better value because it can seldom be certain that adult birds have not been sold because they failed to pair up and breed or are very old. Unsatisfactory breeding in Amazons may be corrected with by re-pairing or changing the environmental conditions. Whereas a cockatoo that has killed its mate or destroys eggs is a more difficult and potentially permanent problem.

Another good source of breeding stock is to buy surplus long-term captives from other breeders, pet owners or pet shops. The extra cost of an egg laying or proven pair is well worth the expense. When adding to the cost of cheap imported birds, the years it takes them to settle down, the higher mortality and morbidity plus the veterinary costs associated with these problems, using recently imported birds is actually just as expensive as proven breeders are. About a dozen species of Amazons have been imported in large enough numbers in the past that a pool of long-term captives exists from which breeding stock can be obtained. This paper will examine those species.

Stress In Wild Caught Birds

Stress is a major deterrent to long-term captive reproduction of psittacine birds. A wild-caught bird is subjected to a wide variety of stressful situations from the time of capture to its arrival at its new home. Often inhumane methods of capture are used. Overcrowding is the norm; it exists at the time of capture, during transport and in quarantine stations. It is not exactly known but probably about half of the wild caught birds die from the time of capture until they are well established in a stable captive setting. This process takes years during which birds are exposed to many new and potentially pathogenic organisms with each move.

These birds must learn to adapt to a completely new diet, climatic changes and human contact. Stress will decrease the ability of the birds’ immune system to effectively deal with these pathogens leading to illness. Viruses may go undetected in imported birds only to come out in the future resulting in high mortality if spread through the aviary.

Increasingly the birds being exported from the wild are babies removed as nestlings out of trees and hand-fed in quarantine stations. Most imported Blue-Fronted and Red-Lored Amazons were such young birds. These wild-caught but hand-fed parrots are a mixed blessing. They are adaptable to captivity like domestically raised birds but may have the diseases often associated with wild-caught birds. Poxvirus is a common problem with these birds and the vaccine that was developed is used mainly in these imported young Amazons. Unfortunately, the nature of the poxvirus has resulted in a vaccine that does not provide total protection and some morbidity still occurs during outbreaks.

The cost of birds and their availability varies from one species to another. Here is an updated review of the commonly available species:

Blue-Fronted Amazon

Blue fronted amazon
Blue fronted amazon

More Blue-Fronted Amazons have been exported by Argentina in the past decade than all other Amazons from all other countries combined. During the peak of the wild bird trade in the mid-1980’s in excess of 40,000 Blue-Fronts were exported each year (Table 1 summarizes trade data). Thus, this Amazon is now one of the commonest of the large parrots in captivity. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has recently forced a two year moratorium on exports from Argentina until sustainable quotas can be set.

There is a wide variation in the amount of blue and yellow on the head of these birds. I have seen some with totally blue and some with totally yellow heads plus there is variation in the amount of colour covering the head.

The Argentinean sub-species, preferably called the Yellow-Winged (A. aestiva xanthopteryx), is, in many cases, difficult to differentiate from the nominate sub-species (A.a.aestiva) found in Brazil because of so much variation in head and wing coloration. Many people who refer to their bird as a “Blue-Front” probably own a bird from Argentina as Brazil has not exported any parrots for over 30 years. There are some special Yellow-Wings referred to as “Chaco” which have nice blue fronts, lots of yellow on the head descending down to the nape and around the neck and a few inches of yellow around the bend of the wings.

Blue-Fronts make good talkers and are not as aggressive as the Yellow Head group.
Pox and Pacheco’s viruses are a problem with imports. With the large pool of pet birds, it would be better to buy breeding stock from birds already here for a few years. They appear to be a little harder to breed than other Amazons, although with all the cheap imports and the diseases associated with them, less have been set by aviculturists. This is now changing and I predict that many captive bred babies will be available in the future.

Yellow-Fronted Amazon

Guyana is still allowing the export of fairly large numbers but airline embargoes, quarantine station closings in the USA (Canada does not allow direct importation from the Tropics) and lower demand (recession) has significantly dropped off imports. Although not as many were imported as the Blue-Fronted Amazon there are a few around as pets which could be used for breeding. Most of the breeding stock at HARI was recently imported however, our best breeders are pairs made of ex-pet birds.

Our Yellow-Crowns are more prone to feather picking with about half of an imported group of 12 showing signs of psychological stress. Some of these birds are still chewing up their tail and wing feathers two years later. When buying any Amazon stay away from feather chewers as the few we have make poor breeders. Adults are shyer and rather quiet even during the breeding season. It makes a reliable breeder with our two breeding pairs breeding year after year, often double clutching and with above average fertility for an Amazon. As with most Amazons, they raise their young well until we pull them at a few weeks of age. Babies are sweet, begin to talk early and thus sell well. I would recommend this species to anyone considering to breed Amazons – but to use acclimated birds.

Double-Yellow Headed Amazon

A very popular Amazon and my favourite parrot. An outgoing personality, excellent talking ability, beautiful coloration and general hardiness gives this species the qualities that lay people think all parrots have.

Double yellow headed amazon nest
Double yellow headed amazon nest

Mexico, the main range state, stopped exporting parrots more than a decade ago so the only source for breeding stock is from pet birds and other breeders. Be very careful to get documentation from a seller that they have had the birds for as long as they say e.g. a sexing certificate dated five years ago with corresponding band numbers. This is the most commonly smuggled parrot into the USA and also into Canada. I have been offered “mature” double yellows, which upon sexing were babies that had their heads dyed Yellow! Blood sexing would not have picked up their immaturity. Anybody breeding this species would want a fair price for their babies, so if a “breeder” suddenly has more than a few babies for each pair in their collection and is selling them for below recent market value beware that they may be laundering smuggled babies through their operation. In such cases, Endangered Species Protection laws (now in most Countries) allow for blood tests to confirm by DNA “finger printing”, the parentage of the babies with stiff fines for dealers laundering smuggled parrots.

Since many Double Yellows were exported legally by Mexico there are pet birds around that could be used for breeding. This species seems to be more sensitive to Pacheco’s Herpes Virus, based on the outbreak we had in 1989. We now vaccinate for this disease (see Disease Prevention section).

Yellow-Naped Amazon

The best talking Amazon – but with a strong personality, making it a challenge to keep a pet under control. One of the most expensive of the Amazons exported in the 1980’s resulting in far fewer entering the pet market and more going directly to collectors and breeders. Honduras exported most in the mid-1980’s but now Nicaragua is the main exporter and most of these are going to Japan. Not that common in captivity compared to other Orcocephala Amazons. Six of HARI’s breeding pairs were imported as nestlings from the wild in 1985 and 1988. Two of the 1985 pairs finally bred in 1991 but most of the eggs ended up on the floor of the aviary or were cracked in the nest box. Our breeding pair were imported as a proven pair and have bred for us but only lay a single clutch of two eggs per year with poor fertility. This pair are carriers of Pacheco’s Virus as they were exposed to it in quarantine and then were implicated as such in our 1989 outbreak. Unethical dealers would simply sell off such a pair but we are now successfully using the vaccine to deal with the carriers in our collection.

Green-Cheeked (Red Headed) Amazon

This Amazon’s Mexican habitat is under constant change by man and this along with illegal trade has made it a threatened species. If present trends continue, it could become endangered in the wild although enough are in captivity to establish a strong avicultural program. Mexico recently joining CITES and may, as a public relations gesture, propose to list it on Appendix I. This would do nothing to stop Mexicans from cutting down trees or stop keeping this bird as a pet; it would only hamper legal international trade of captive bred birds due to the massive paper requirements work for App.I species.

Large numbers were legally exported from Mexico in the 1970’s and these older pets are now being used for captive breeding. Several of the old pets we obtained were so imprinted on people that we could not pair them up and had to resell them to the pet trade; others we have are arthritic or are so old they may never breed. We have obtained several captive bred specimens and are working with other breeders to exchange young. Our one breeding pair (we have six pairs) skipped this year after producing only one fertile egg out of 12 eggs laid during 1990-91. The female has subsequently developed cloacal papillomas. Infertility is a common complaint among Amazon breeders and different pairing and winter flocking methods may increase fertility (more on that later).

Lilac-Crown Amazon

Similar problems as the previous Amazon but with even fewer in captivity. The Lilac Crown is in the worst situation out of all the species listed here. Again, it’s a species once commonly imported but now becoming severely threatened. We may be dealing with only about a dozen original pairs in Canada and already some improperly marked captive bred birds are entering collections. It is imperative that pet birds be set up for breeding in order to maximize the “founder” stock and save as much diversity of the gene pool as possible. Studbooks for this species should be set up ASAP both in Canada and USA. It is a shame to see this species discounted in price and not held with more esteem by breeders in the Southern USA. Apparently some breeders would rather not have to compete with cheap illegal birds thus are not serious in establishing this species.

Tucuman Amazon

This species is now on Appendix 1 of CITES which bans the commercial trade in wild caught specimens. Comparatively few were imported over the few years they were available. Once there was a proposal with CITES to list this species many were imported in the last year. Fortunately, most of these were sold to breeders. There is a small shortage of females. Our breeding pair are very prolific laying four eggs per clutch with excellent fertility. This is another species which we must carefully manage to avoid inbreeding in the future. HARI would like to exchange babies with another breeder but I think we have the only breeding pair in Canada right now. As soon as a second pair breeds for us we will first offer unrelated pairs of domestic babies to other breeders before selling any to the pet trade. Most Amazon breeders do this with their endangered birds but it is being poorly documented, we must improve our record keeping.

The Tucuman appears to be more sensitive to kidney failure than other Amazons. There may be a relationship between vitamin D3, calcium, and protein to energy levels, and kidney stress. HARI is presently studying this by the long term feeding of exactly known amounts of these nutrients while monitoring kidney health by regular biopsies to look for morphological changes and blood tests.

Red-lored Amazon pair
Red-lored Amazon pair

Red-Lored (Yellow Cheek) Amazon

A lot of variation exists between individuals in the amount of yellow covering the cheeks. The Salvin’s sub-species is supposed to have no yellow on the cheeks but I have also seen some of the nominate species with almost no yellow and likewise Salvin’s with some yellow making the sub-species identification difficult. The Lilacine sub-species has a lighter hue of green over the body and face and a burgundy rather than a red coloured lore.

The nominate species has a loud shriek and together with its limited talking ability, it may not be a popular Amazon for the pet trade. Of course, I am generalizing and there are always exceptions. Its mid size and cheaper price than other Amazons does make it a good species for beginning breeders.

Another Central American Amazon commonly exported in the 1980’s but now in only limited numbers. Honduras was the major exporter. Now Nicaragua is.

Mealy/Blue Crown Amazons

These large Amazons are uncommon in captivity but several sub-species are still being exported by range states in Central and South America. The Mealy (the nominate sub-species; farinosa) can be distinguished by usually having some spots of yellow feathers on the top of the head and very little Blue on the Crown. Most of the “Blue-Crowns” exported in the 1980’s were the Costa Rican sub-species, which do not have as much blue on the Crown as the Guatemalan form. Nicaragua is presently exporting baby Blue Crowns taken as nestlings from the wild. Our pairs of Blue-Crowns are probably the loudest Amazons we have, giving off loud shrieks for no reason at all. They are supposed to talk well.

Orange winged amazons
Orange winged amazons

Orange-Winged Amazon

A common bird in northeastern South America – with reports that it is even a pest in Venezuela. Guyana has fairly high export quotas each year but the demand is low for this species. We recently imported 40 birds but lost a few to Pacheco’s, before the vaccine had a chance to work, and subsequently more than a quarter of them have developed cloacal papillomas. Once imported birds have their full adult plumage, they can be quite beautiful. I have also heard from experienced Amazon breeders in the Southern USA that it is one of the most difficult Amazons to breed. By changing the conditions under which any species has not bred after many years, we may find the right conditions to finally stimulate reproduction.

Spectacled Amazon

HARI does not presently have any of this species so our avicultural experience is limited. We did have one pair but a few years ago we found the female dead with her head chewed up. The male had bloodstains on his beak.

Males have red alula and primary coverts while in the female they are green. The species is a nice small size and there are many already in captivity but it has a limited talking ability. It is relatively common in many parts of Central America since it has adapted to agriculture and the secondary growth of cut forests. I predict that this species might be one of the few imported under the new US Bird Conservation act as it should be easy to show sustainable yield in a species that lives so close with man.

Table 1.
International Trade in Amazon Parrots (1983 – 1989)

Amazona species Seven Year Average Total per year
Yellow Wing
(A. aestiva)
 280,000  40,000
Orange Winged
(A. Amazonica)
100,000  14,100
Yellow Crown & Nape
(A. ochrocephala)
 70,000  10,000
Yellow Cheeked
(A. autumnalis)
40,000 5,600
(A. albifrons)
25,000  3,750
(A. tucumana)
18,500 2,600
(A.f.farinosa){Guyana exports}
12,500 1,800
Blue Crown
(A.f.guatemalae & virenticeps)
12,500 1,800

Source: Perceptions, Conservation and Management of Wild Birds in Trade, 1992 Ed. J.B. Thomsen, S.R. Edwards, T.A. Mulliken, Pub. TRAFFIC/WWF

Screening Breeding Stock and Disease Prevention

If disease is present in carrier birds, it is activated by poor nutrition, over-crowding, sudden environmental change or other stress. Many diseases are transmitted primarily from the droppings, which dry out and form a dust, which circulates in the air and can be breathed in. Pathogenic organisms can also be present in material that is coughed or sneezed up in crop contents. Therefore, any object that has been exposed to diseased birds is a potential carrier of the germs, for example: dirty food and water dishes, other birds, humid air, shoes, nets, clothing, cages, rodents, insects and hands.

Disease prevention is best achieved by good sanitation. All objects should be washed, first in soap and water; then disinfected with a good disinfectant such as tamed iodine (soak for at least ten minutes), quaternary ammonia, aldehyde, phenolic or bleach solution. A common problem has been dipping food and water dishes into a common storage source. It would be best to use a food scoop and water pitcher to fill up the dishes. As mentioned in the housing section, proper ventilation is a must to minimize spread of pathogenic organisms.

When birds are first acquired for a breeding program, a quarantine period is imperative. But it only reduces and does not eliminate the risk of introducing disease into an established breeding facility. During this time every new bird should either be tested for Psittacosis or be fed a tetracycline medicated diet for at least 60 days. We vaccinate all new world birds against Pacheco’s Herpes Virus but have not started testing for polyoma virus. We have not experienced a decrease in production or have lost any birds to the vaccine, but do get localized reactions in about one in fifty birds. Not vaccinating could be worst e.g. an outbreak of Pacheco’s as we experienced four years ago.

Pacheco’s Disease

Pacheco’s disease is a highly fatal, contagious disease of psittacine birds. It is caused by a psittacine herpes virus. The spread through a susceptible population is rapid and most psittacine species are susceptible to the disease. HARI unfortunately experienced an outbreak of this disease in January/February of 1989 while we were in a leased and temporary building. Similar outbreaks have occurred in many other large parrot holding facilities. This outbreak at HARI and means to prevent such outbreaks follows.

The leased building that HARI had occupied during the outbreak was not specially designed as an animal holding facility. Our winter heating costs were high due to our cold winters. A reduced amount of interior air was exchanged with the fresh but cold outside air; we had turned off our venting barn fan. Our veterinarian commented that the air was of questionable quality, dust and odours, and that we should get an engineer to design a good ventilation system. The circulation pattern of air was created by the heater fans and was not based on minimizing transfer between pairs. However since we were moving out of the building shortly it was decided not to invest in an expensive ventilation system for this temporary facility.

It was under simulated “summer” conditions that we experienced a terrible herpes virus outbreak. We felt strongly that the virus was spread via the water droplets in the air contaminated from the faeces soiled cage wire and floor waste. We are not completely sure of the source; if it was a long term carrier bird that has been at HARI for years or a bird which was introduced in the fall when 18 new birds were added to the colony. The latest acquisitions were from our own quarantines, in which no problems had occurred, or were previous pets. These birds included four astral conures, four black-headed caiques, four white-capped pionus, four moluccan cockatoos and two double-yellow headed Amazons. For various reasons I do not think one of these birds brought in the virus but that it was being shed by one of our established birds. Based on previous experiences I believe we may have yellow-napped and/or yellow-winged Amazon carriers who are intermittent shedders of some host adapted virus.

Our Amazons were set up in one long row of 76 cm wide x 152 cm high x 320 cm long split cages with very little space, about 10 cm between each set of two cages. The species are in random order. Sudden mortality began in the area where the air flow from the propane heater was greatest, near the middle of this row. Over a one week period the disease spread down to each end of the row, thus it is assumed that all the birds down this row were exposed to the virus. Most of the birds that died did so within two days of becoming clinically ill.

Controlling a Pacheco’s Outbreak

The first thing to do is to move all the surviving sick birds to another location for isolation and supportive care. Vaccination during an outbreak may spread the disease and will not save birds in the acute stage of the disease. Supplemental tube feeding was required for 5 to 10 days in sick birds most of which stop eating. Acyclovir (Zovirax – Welcome) a drug to treat human genital herpes was administered both orally via the tube fed food and as an injectable (intramuscular). Zovirax is very expensive and its effectiveness in sick parrots is poorly documented. Most of the birds that survived the first three days would go on to recover making all the supplemental care and medical treatments worthwhile. If we were to do truly scientific research half the sick birds should not have received the acyclovir. This would allow a comparison with a control group to observe differences in mortality. However, these birds are not only valuable but also companion animals, each with its unique behaviours. Every effort was made to save each one.

Twenty seven per cent of HARI’s Amazons died (15 out of 56) with 13 sick birds surviving. Major species differences in susceptibility were observed; the double yellow-heads – 6 of 17 died plus most of the rest were sick, tucuman – 5 of 8 died, salvin’s – 2 of 3 died, and yellow-checked – 2 of 8 died, experienced the highest mortality and morbidity while our 10 yellow-napped, 6 yellow-fronted and 4 yellow-winged were resistant with no deaths and only 3 sick birds. All our yellow-napped Amazons have come from quarantines where significant (about 25 %) acute mortality had occurred, but to which the federal lab in Ottawa could not identify the causative agent, although we believed that disease outbreak was caused by an Amazon poxvirus. Our macaws (21 pairs), and all of the old world birds (40 pairs of cockatoos, 8 pairs of African greys) were not affected. Only two moluccan cockatoos died and two others developed head tremors after being quite ill but recovering with tube-feeding and supportive care.

Serology confirmed the presence of Pacheco’s herpes virus anti-bodies in all birds that were sick and recovered. One of the birds, a yellow-napped Amazon, which showed no signs of illness during the outbreak was positive for Pacheco anti-bodies.

The birds that recovered did so very quickly. One pair of double yellow-headed Amazons were breeding and produced fertile eggs less than one month after being so sick they had to be force fed for 3 days. Marek’s disease in poultry is also caused by a herpes virus and egg transmission has not been demonstrated. We decided to pull the eggs, wipe them with a phenolic disinfectant and artificially incubating the eggs for hand-rearing. Two of the three fertile eggs hatched and were successfully raised.

Health Management

Vaccination of all healthy birds within even closed breeding collections should be performed in advance of exposure. Vaccination is a minor stress since birds must be handled and injected but it is a good time to do a physical examination i.e. weight and check for cloacal papillomas.

Health management includes a high quality balanced diet, caging which reduces stress and proper quarantine of new birds. Mate selection and pair bonding should be carefully monitored to produce compatible pairs and not lead to aggressiveness between birds. When accompanied by sudden changes in temperature, or by moving, crowding, unusual noises, changes in the feed programme, or other management changes, the birds resistance is weakened. Multiple stress cause a greater reaction than their sum would indicate. Many birds are carriers of disease organisms, but show no clinical signs. Stresses may trigger such an inactive state to an active disease. There should be daily inspection of all birds to observe feed and water consumption and the state of their well being.

Aviculturists should use as many of the resources available as possible to prevent and monitor disease. This includes post mortem, professional experienced veterinary care and effective use of vaccinations and drugs to prevent disease such as Pacheco’s Parrot Disease and Psittacosis. Every aviculturist should establish a disease control plan in the case of an outbreak. Such planning will assist in the prevention of an outbreak as it may point out deficient areas of management which require improvement. This outbreak in 1989 made disease prevention a top priority for HARI. All collections of Psittacines which include Amazons (and other new world birds) should be vaccinated against Pacheco’s Disease as carriers may be present. Quarantining birds for even a year will not detect carriers or eliminate the virus they may be harbouring.

Sexing Methods

Amazons are not sexually dimorphic although small but overlapping differences in beak, head and body size do occur between the sexes. Incorrect attempts have been made to determine sex by these differences. Last year I bought a “pair” Double Yellow Heads which had major differences in body size and head size. However, surgical sexing revealed two males; no wonder the breeder had no success with this “pair”!

Methods of sexing presently being used include DNA blood sexing, chromosomal karyotype, and my favourite endoscopy. Although non-invasive techniques, which simply need a blood sample, are of no risk to the bird they only tell you the sex of the bird. We recently surgically re-sexed a Red Lored that had been DNA sexed as a female. Well the bird was a male and there was apparently a mix up in paper work between the lab, vet and owner!
Endoscopy has proved to be a more useful management tool, if performed by an experienced avian veterinarian, for it can also evaluate maturity, the general condition of many internal organs plus the bird will be immediately identified by a band. The presence of air sacs allows main organs to be viewed including testes and ovaries, making the bird an ideal patient for laparoscopic examination. This allows the veterinarian to make a health check on the bird long before any external signs of sickness are given by the bird.

The equipment required for endoscopy includes a light source, fibre-optic light guide, a small diameter endoscope and anaesthetic gas machine all of which can cost at least $5,000. Be careful when a veterinarian who does not have this equipment says that the risks of surgical sexing are too high and offers blood sexing. We have now surgically sexed about 1,200 birds with Avian Veterinarians in Guelph, Toronto and Montreal with only two loses. A very small surgical incision is made necessitating the use of isoflurane, the anaesthetic of choice. The two birds that died both had other complications, one was an extremely obese Maximillian Pionus and the other a baby African Grey with major crop burn plus the veterinarians involved were both inexperienced.

Veterinarians appear to be charging about the same for both procedures so the extra information from endoscopy (e.g. gonads are scarred) may save you a lot of time and effort. Both sexing procedures can be performed on young birds before they are sexually mature, which is useful for structuring breeding populations and exchanging birds at a younger age. Chromosomal karyotype (different from DNA blood sexing) can detect birds with genetic abnormalities such as triploids but these birds are rare. It is more important to know the quality of the internal organs of a bird, which can be done in a very cost effective way by surgical sexing.
Leg banding is commonly done by most clinics surgically sexing. By convention, the right leg is banded for males, and the left is used for females. All of our birds are banded and we have only had a few minor problems. It is important that the space between the butt ends of an open band is as small as possible for if this gap if left too wide it could allow the cage wire to pass through thereby hooking the bird. The bird will then panic and may in the struggle break its leg or chew off its foot. Close bands on domestic reared babies are quite safe and are an important means of identification. They can verify that the bird is domestic since they can only be slipped on very young babies and if the breeder has kept good records, the parentage of the bird.

Indoor Housing

Sexed, pair-bonded birds must be placed in housing that will be conducive to breeding, non-injurious to the animal, easy to clean, and offer visibility of the pair. Housing should be large enough for the birds to exercise and feel comfortable and be durable to withstand the destructive nature of parrots. Each species individual requirements must be considered when deciding on the type of housing to use. Tropical birds kept in cooler northern climates should have indoor quarters or be protected from rain and have other sources of warmth such as infrared heaters.

Indoor breeding flight
Indoor breeding flight at HARI

Indoor housing has many advantages including the ability to control temperature, humidity, hours and intensity of light to optimize breeding. Other advantages of indoor breeding are: elimination of rodent problems in a properly designed facility, no contamination from wild birds, insects (e.g. a parasite passed by bugs in Southern USA is still killing Cockatoos) and the reduction of disturbances from predators, cats and robbers interested in stealing expensive species.

At HARI most of our birds are housed indoors most of the year, similarly to many northern breeders. Indoors we can operate under “winter” conditions i.e. misters off, eight hours of light and cooler temperatures or “summer” conditions i.e. misting, 16 hours of light and warmer temperatures. Green house sprinklers suspended over flights are an excellent way to increase humidity and give the birds a shower. When our misters are on, the air is saturated with tiny water droplets and our pairs go into a bathing frenzy especially at the start of the breeding season. Some birds like to splash around in their dish of water, but most prefer to be “rained” on. Sprinklers are controlled electrically via solenoid valves connected to timers with 15 minute intervals. These timers can turn on the systems any number of times a day and can be set to skip days.

The main disadvantage to indoor flights is that birds are denied access to sun and rain and need expensive ventilation and heating systems. Although bathing facilities or sprinkler systems and “natural” fluorescent or sodium lights can stimulate this, we are going to move some of our breeding stock into outdoor flights during the summer months. But many parrots including those we are concentrating on here have reared young indoors, often in circumstances which might be thought far from ideal. The problem with below standard indoor facilities is the increase in disease to both the birds and their keepers who must breath in the concentrated fecal and feather dust.

Outdoor breeding flight
Outdoor breeding flight at HARI

Suspended Cages

In 1969 Ramon Noegel, a leading breeder of endangered Amazons in Florida, changed the style of his aviaries from the traditional walk-in type to aviaries suspended about three feet off the ground. These are actually large cages since they are made completely of wire and usually are smaller than aviaries. Breeding birds in this type of suspended flight has become popular in the last few years due to the many advantages of this system. They cannot be entered, thus they provide the occupants with a feeling of security. Birds soon learn that a person cannot get to them and even some of the most nervous specimens will calm down.

This arrangement also allows discarded food and droppings to pass through the wire bottom and out of the reach of the parrot: a most hygienic arrangement which allows easier cleaning by keepers. The nest box is attached to the outside of the aviary which facilitates easy inspection with a minimum of bother to the parents. The main problem with these suspended cages is that aviculturists tend to make them too small for the birds to exercise.

A longer, narrow flight space is preferable to one of more cubical dimension, in order to afford the birds ample flying space, since vigorous and frequent wing exercise is most certainly conductive to producing healthy and sturdy bodies. A length of six to ten feet and a width of three or four feet I would consider adequate for Amazons.
Birds feel more secure if they can perch above our eye level thus hang or support the cages as high as possible. A space of four feet between the bottom of the cage and the floor will also facilitate easier cleaning.

The door entering the bird room should be tight fitting, have a viewing window, and adequate width for the passage of cages. Every room should have a double door. One door, opening into a little vestibule, which is closed before the main room is entered. This minimizes the amount of air exchange between the bird room and corridor, an important consideration in disease control.

The floor of the bird room should be made of concrete and coated with a nonslip, corrosion and dent resistant paint. Floor and wall junctions should be covered and a floor drain should follow the floor perimeter. For proper floor drainage, a high centre sloping down to the drains will allow for fast washing, with high pressure sprays. The walls of the room should have a smooth surface for ease in cleaning, be vermin proof, water resistant and have large viewing windows for behavioral observations on the birds. Suitable bird-proof air vents should be placed in the bird rooms to provide a down draft ventilation flow with at least three air changes per hour.
Parrots need large, strong and secure food containers. They should hook onto the side of the flight and, along with the water bowl, be kept clean. An established feeding routine: same time, same person, same bucket, etc. offers the keeper an opportunity to observe any unusual behaviour -fighting among cage mates, breeding activity, change in droppings due to illness or egg laying.

To maintain the birds welfare and reduce psychological stress, the preferences and aversions of each species should be taken into account when designing a species specific artificial environment. Perches should be made of wood, the thickness depending on the size of the birds. Naturally, the larger the bird, the thicker and heavier the perches required. So far as placement is concerned they should be set far enough apart to give the birds as much flying room in the centre of the cage as possible. To prevent birds from soiling perches they should not be placed directly below each other. Placement and size of nest-boxes are important factors in encouraging a pair to nest. When building artificial nests, it is important to try to simulate the nest conditions found in the wild. Most birds prefer a confined nest with a small entrance hole.

We use vertical nesting boxes sized 12″x12″x24″ deep for our smaller Amazons and 15″x15″x30″ deep for the larger Yellow Head and Nape Amazons. We use metal boxes which are then lined with 4 cm thick spruce. The wood is cut to fit tight and is wedged into the metal box with a sledge hammer. Thus no nails or screws are used. Our Amazons chew the nest box wood a little but not as much as our cockatoos who usually chew up all the wood within a few months.

Deep nest boxes should have a stable ladder placed inside them from the nest material to the entrance or the bird may become trapped and be unable to get out. A small door should be placed near the bottom of the nest-box. This entrance is used for inspection of eggs and chicks and for adding nesting material. The most common materials used are pine, cedar shavings and peat moss.

Specialization & Pairbonding

There are many management benefits by specializing in selected species and building up numbers of the same species rather than having only one pair of each of many species. Simply placing a pair of sexed birds together into a flight is not recommended. Compatibility is no guarantee when you place a female with a male. Pairbonding or letting each bird choose their mate is the best method, as it dramatically increases the chance of getting a compatible pair.

Placing at least four mature birds (two of each sex) of the same species into a large cage should result in at least one compatible pair. It may be especially noticeable when a nest box is placed within the group. When the dominate pair take over the nest box or chase away the other birds, remove the others and leave the bonded pair. When working with younger birds, it may take months or years to observe serious pairbonding. But this method enables the aviculturist to get compatible pairs that are most likely to nest earlier.

Amazon pairs develop strong bonds and will remain together even when put back into a colony situation. Parrots in which the pair-bond is strong spend hours sitting together, usually with their bodies in actual contact. Much of this time is spent allopreening. By nature they are very affectionate and two individuals of the same sex can act as a true pair, indicating the need for sex identification markers.


Male birds ejaculate scant amounts of seminal plasma which usually provides nutrients and acts as a fluid vehicle for transferring spermatozoa. This results in fewer copulations leading to a successful fertilization especially since the male has no copulatory organs. However, female birds are able to retain sperm in glandular regions of the uterovaginal junction, which are slowly released, explaining their ability to maintain fertilizing sperm for long periods.

The breeding behaviour and stimuli needed for each species is sufficiently different to make generalization dangerous for it may mislead aviculturists. Some birds will breed readily in captivity, while others possibly of the same species, resist even most persistent encouragement. In between, there are many degrees of what might be termed “breedability”.

Reproduction in birds is discontinuous and is triggered by a complex repertoire of behaviour patterns and environmental stimuli. Important factors are; temperature and humidity (thermal), calls and behaviour of mate and other con-specifics in the immediate area (auditory), territory and nest site (visual), nest and allopreening (tactile), food and energy (gustatory) and light acting by induction (photic), Little research has examined these parameters and their role in parrot breeding.

The more resistant species to breed such as Yellow-Napped and Orange-Winged Amazons may just not like the management systems under which they are presently kept and would breed better under a different set of circumstances. The challenge is to keep modifying their management until the optimum conditions contusive to breeding are found. This may include more colony type of housing with more chances to defend territories to the opposite, more privacy in very quiet environments.

Amazons have a higher degree of infertility than macaws or cockatoos. Obesity may be one reason for this higher level of infertility but I don’t think it’s the major one. The defense of territory is perhaps another key component in stimulating reproduction in male Amazons. Flocking the birds during the non-breeding season is being used by several leading US breeders. Also visual barriers in between cages are removed after the breeding season until the commencement of another cycle the following spring. Timing is important so that the stimulatory behaviour of other birds does not preoccupy the male.

Diet and Feeding

Generally speaking, psittacines are omnivorous. Much of their daily activity in the wild is involved in the procuring of food, which offers limitless opportunity for flying exercise. Budgerigars, for example, are know to have a feeding range of 100 square kilometres. Restricted flight and ease of obtaining food make energy considerations important in evaluating captive diets. Thus the concern of captive feeding of psittacines is not to reproduce what is available in the wild but to develop a practical diet that provides for the biological requirements under conditions of lower caloric expenditures.

Years ago, diseases directly and indirectly caused by dietary deficiency were very common in captive birds. The widespread use of supplements and now formulated diets, at least by breeders, has significantly reduced problems relating to diet. Cases of obesity are still being seen especially if sunflower, safflower peanuts or other high fat nuts are given (these oil seeds contain about 50% fat in the kernel). Eliminating oil-seeds has the advantage of encouraging sampling of a greater variety of foods offered and hopefully result in a better-balanced diet. “Bird seed” is notoriously deficient in many minerals and vitamins and also contains protein of lower biological value. Many of the Amazons that I have bought from pet owners and other breeders were obese, even though some were on “pellets mixed with some seeds and fruits and vegetables”. If these “pellets” are supposed to replace cafeteria style feeding why do these people still add sunflower to the birds diet?

Psittacines are intelligent, active animals but using food to keep them occupied i.e. as a toy, is in my opinion a waste of resources and may not even be nutritious. Cafeteria style feeding a variety of food such as a little of everything e.g seeds, pellets, fruits and vegetables and bean/rice mixes is expensive, time consuming, messy, and may introduce pathogenic bacteria or fungi to the bird. Contrary to popular opinion it may not be providing the level of nutrition people think it does as the birds are selecting their favorite food. People falsely believe that feeding fruits, veges, pulses etc. is more natural than a uniform formulated diet. Yet a formulated diet can contain these same foods only that it is formed into a uniform pellet or extruded into a granule. Also, when we look at what parrots eat in the wild, it is not sweet high moisture fruits or vegetables. These are domestically grown and genetically altered for human taste and provide very variable nutritional value. They do provide an excellent vehicle for supplements, which are required by birds eating such a variety of pseudo natural (for an exotic bird) food. Analysis of bean/rice mixes confirms that they are deficient in calcium and many other important nutrients thus must be supplemented.

When I was in the Amazon rainforest (southern Colombia) in 1986, at an Earthwatch research camp, I collected and tasted some of the favorite fig and palm nuts of the macaws and Amazons in the area. They were bitter and sour but the birds loved them. It was literally raining broken pieces of these nuts under a tree that a group of Scarlet Macaws were eating from. Parrots are seed predators because they destroy the seeds of these trees. Evolutionary pressure is on the trees to produce tanins and even toxins to limit the feeding on their nuts. Regardless of this, many species of parrots still only eat a limited variety of these nuts, flying with their parents to seek out these trees and learn what to eat. Thus the truly natural feeding of many parrots in the wild is more monotonous than people think and is far from the equally learned behaviour of cafeteria style feeding many of us do to these birds in captivity. The easiest birds to switch onto a formulated diet are recently imported parrots as they have not yet developed a taste for the sweet domestically grown fruits and vegetables. Likewise the hardest birds to get to eat a formulated diet are those which have been eating human food from the table. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we should not feed fruits, veges etc. to individual pet birds. Pampering your pet bird and watching it derive pleasure from its food is one of the pleasures in having a pet. But aviculturists who must optimize cost, their time, and most importantly nutrition, need to understand all aspects of feeding philosophy.

Some interesting recent research has found that when the actual food being eaten on a fruit/vege/seed style diet is determined and analyzed (by collecting all the wasted food and subtracting it from the food fed) it was found that the birds ate a richer diet than had been previously thought. If parrots prefer to eat a diet with twelve per cent fat, and do not get obese on such a diet, why do so many pellets on the market contain only three to four per cent fat? Some companies who sell these products even advise the use of fruits, vegetables or seeds in addition to their product. Ask the manufacturer if they feed their research birds their diet totally or with the addition of seeds or nuts to increase fat levels.

Some people fear the birds may get bored with a formulated diet but long term feeding studies are showing this to be false as there is no increase in feather picking or fighting associated with these diets. To stimulate the psychological needs of parrots rather give lots of tree branches, pine cones, rawhide bones and toys. At HARI we did a controlled feeding comparison where 80 of our mature non-breeding pairs (presently we have 280 pairs of mostly medium to large sized psittacines) were split into two equal groups of species and pairs. One group received only our Tropican Parrot Granules and the other group the same but with an additional bowl of “soft food” eg. diced apple, orange, fresh corn, cooked beans and rice. Well after a whole breeding season we had more pairs commence egg laying on just the Granules (12/40) than in the other group that also received the “soft-food” (9/40) but the difference was not statistically significant. What this does indicate is that the use of “soft-food” does not significantly increase the reproduction of our mostly imported parrots when a good formulated diet is used. In fact in many aviaries breeding has improved with the use of formulated diets.


Amazons are a unique group of pet quality parrots who will always be in demand.
By the end of 1993, imported Amazons for unrelated breeding stock will not be available for aviculturists to work with. To be a successful Amazon breeder modern avicultural techniques must be utilized including safe, surgical sexing of birds, formulated diets or supplements, disease prevention using screening tests, vaccines for Pacheco’s and tetracyclines against psittacosis, efficient safe housing, banding and micro-chip identification, and computer assisted record keeping of breeding stock. Now is the time for us to work together to set up professionally managed stud books of these parrots and ensure their survival into the next generation.

By Mark Hagen, M.Ag.
Director of Research