PARAKEET INTRODUCTION, FEEDING, BREEDING & FOOD
The majority of psittacines described as grass parakeets belong to a group known to ornithologists as "broad-tailed parakeets." This name is applied to these charming, ornamental birds because the tail feathers are arranged stepwise, in other words they increase in length from the outside to the centre, making the tail look very broad when the feathers are spread. The tail is always longer than the wings and the four central feathers are of equal length. Broad-tailed parakeets originally would have all been forest dwellers as some of the contemporary species still are (for example members of the genera Purpureicephalus and Lathamus). During the gradual drying out of the Australian continent, forests and woodlands decreased in area, being replaced by savannah and the so-called open woodland. Such biotopes are the main habitats of most broad-tailed parakeet species today. But there are some species, Bourke's parakeet for example, that over the (many) years have adapted to even drier regions. In these semi-desert areas, night parrots (Geopsittacus occidentalis), Princess of Wales parakeets (Polytelis alexandrae) and even budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) find themselves at home.
It is understandable that wild birds only breed when adequate food is available. As plant growth is dependent on rainfall and rainfall is scarce in a great part of Australia, annual breeding is not always possible. Most species breed just once per season, but of course the weather patterns must be suitable. In central Australia there may be two, sometimes three, clutches per season, but this of course is only possible under optimum weather conditions. Looking at the southern regions of Australia, we see that the influence of a pleasant spring coupled with an adequate food supply means that many bird species go to nest in August. Thanks to the mainly light but sometimes heavy rainfall of the preceding winter, there is a riot of flowers and seeds, which in turn attract myriads of insects that also are appreciated by many parakeets. The "table is set" for many bird species until well into August, through an abundance of half-ripe seeds. Towards the end of November and mid-December, the temperature rises sharply and may remain in excess of 86F (30C) for long periods. The rains are over and grasses, shrubs and other food sources dry up, making a shortage of food. This means the end of the breeding season. Sometimes a second wave of light rains in April and May can trigger a second nesting response.
In northern and central Australia, temperatures are suitable all year for successful breeding. The main rains fall from December through April (sometimes later) making these the ideal times for breeding (suitable temperature and moisture). Species such as the golden-shouldered parakeet, paradise parrot, Brown's parakeet, and pale-headed rosella will then start nesting with great enthusiasm. They will continue to breed until the end of the rainy season means a decline in available food. Professor Dr. Karl Immelmann, who carried out much ornithological fieldwork in the sixties, especially in relation to parakeets and finches, states in his book Die Australischen Plattschweifsittiche (Ziemsen, Wittenberg Lutherstadt, 1962) that in central Australia there is no regular rainy season, but the northern summer monsoon rains and the winter westerly rains of the south may occasionally reach inland. Sometimes, deep pressure systems from both regions can move towards the centre. Such factors would appear to suggest that rain may occur in any month of the year, but many years can pass with no rainfall whatsoever. The smaller bird species have adapted themselves to this unreliable situation. They have no regular or particular nesting period, but will breed at any time of the year when there is sufficient moisture to trigger an abundance of food items. As the rain is not only unreliable regarding the time of the year, but also to the area in which it falls, birds often breed closely to each other in small areas, sometimes during totally different periods. Under the broad-tailed parakeets, there are mainly five species which have this irregular breeding period (Melopsittacus undulatus, Nymphicus hollandicus, Polytelis alexandrae, Neopsephotus bourkii, and Geopsittacus occidentalis.
An Adequate Feeding Regime:
For medium-sized parrots:
--oil rich seeds such as medium sized sunflower, safflower, and a little hemp--especially during the winter and in the breeding season, or when birds are kept in unheated accommodations:
--leguminous plants, fresh and germinated, corn (softened and crushed), oats, wheat, various millets (especially millet spray, which is loved by all psittacines), canary grass seed, greens, fruits, fresh twigs, egg food, cottage cheese, yogurt, and so on.
For small parrots and parakeets:
--various small seeds (millet varieties--approximately 70 percent), crushed oats and canary grass seed to 25 percent and about 5 percent mixture of niger, hemp, poppy, and linseed.
--boiled egg, other animal protein sources, fruit, and greens.
All groups can be given daily "snacks," such as diverse cereals (corn, wheat, bran, rice, shredded wheat, puffed wheat, rice, and millet), pieces of granola bar, and uncooked dry pasta. The latter can be given as a mixture in various shapes and colors, being curious, the birds are bound to try it and soon will eat it greedily. The above is intended to enhance variety in the daily menu, one that is much safer than a monotonous one. That latter will be stressful and boring to the birds and will result in screaming and feather plucking, and they will seldom or never breed satisfactorily. A balanced diet in captivity means that the variety and quantity of, constituents are such that they maintain the parrot in the best physical and mental health.
During the European settlement of inland Australia since the late eighteenth century, farmers have made storm water dams as drinking holes for their cattle, and artificially irrigated their land by bore or pipeline for the cultivation of crops. Such actions have resulted in dramatic changes to much of the inland environment, some of which have, by no means, been detrimental to many bird species. The extra availability of water and the presence of edible crops means that many parakeet species can now live in areas that previously were barren to them. Birds that follow human habitation and agriculture are known as "culture followers." Unfortunately most of these birds are classified as pests by the fruit growers and farmers, as they can cause enormous damage to orchards and grain crops. It is thus open season all year-round for some bird species which are shot in great numbers. Fortunately, most parakeets are very prolific and manage to keep their numbers at a reasonable level. More serious is the use of poisons in water, on land, and on fruit trees. This poison unfortunately is not selective and kills not only the pest birds but other birds as well as various animals, and can be a great danger to the continuing existence of some species. One interesting culture follower is the Bourke's parakeet, which during the heat of the day may seek shelter under the veranda of a house! The development of fruit orchards and grain fields has not been only a benefit to birds. European settlement also has brought dangers to the birds and other forms of native wildlife. The introduction of rabbits (Orytolagus cuniculus), European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), and European foxes (Vulpes vulpes) is an example of some of the difficulties. In eastern Australia, starlings have taken over many of the nest hollows formerly used by parakeets and driven many of them from their original haunts!
The ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus) and the night parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis) are, as you know, mainly ground breeders and their eggs and young form all too easy prey for foxes and feral domestic Cats. Fortunately, there are in Australia a number of wildlife reserves that are kept free of foxes and cats so that birds can breed undisturbed. In this connection, we can mention the birds of prey as natural enemies of parakeets. The parakeets are searching the skies for signs of danger and forget to look around them, making themselves easy prey to a cat or a fox. As we already know, broad-tailed parakeets are exclusively hole breeders. They use hollow tree trunks or thick hollow branches. I have found many nests with eggs or young in fallen trees. As you will imagine, such nests cannot be regarded as safe from foxes and cats. Most parrots and parakeets do not use any nesting materials, and the eggs are deposited directly on the lining of the hollow. Some Psephotus species make their nest hollow in termite mounds or in the vertical loam banks of watercourses. The ground parakeet however, is an exclusive ground nester, just like the night parrot, which inhabits the barren, rocky semi-desert of central Australia, the former makes an insignificant little platform in the sand with a few grass stems, or will even make do with a bare hollow in the sand, the latter constructs an exquisite nest with spinifex grass. Together with the quaker parakeet of South America and the African lovebirds (Agapornidae), this is one of the few (and in Australia the only) hookbills to construct a substantial nest, in this case in the middle of a spinifex bush, and access to the nest via a narrow tunnel. The bottom of the nest is covered with a thin layer of little twigs so that the brooding hen does not injure herself on the sharp needles of the spinifex. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the painted fire-tailed finch (Emblema picta) builds its nest in a similar situation and uses the same precautionary measures.
In normal circumstances, all broad-tailed parakeets lay their four to six eggs between 12 A.M. and 2 P.M., at intervals of around 48 hours, sometimes only 24 hours. As they are hole nesters, the eggs are white in color, requiring no camouflage. The eggs may be matt or glossy. Older hens often lay larger clutches. Brown, swift, splendid, and paradise parakeets are known for their small clutches. In the wild, the hens begin to incubate after the laying of the next-to-last or last egg. The cock stays close by and stands guard, the barraband and the rock pebbler are exceptions to this as the cocks may be found far from the nest, only going there to feed the hen. With other species also, the cocks go to the nest to feed the hens at particular times. The turquisine cock feeds only in the mornings and in the evenings. The hen leaves the nest to meet the cock on the ground or on a twig near to the nest. This method of feeding outside the nest is common to all Neophema species. The incubation time for most broad-tailed parakeet species averages 20-21 days, for Neophema species and the Bourke's 18-19 days. As incubation may be commenced before the clutch is complete, the young may not all hatch at the same time. They are fed first by the hen, the cock beginning to help when the young are ten to fourteen days old. Dr. Immelmann noted that unlike all other parrots, broad-tailed parakeets do not remove droppings from the nest. However, certain grubs feed on the droppings of the young, keeping the nest hollow remarkably clean. At four to five weeks of age, depending on the size of the species, the young leave the nest. A week after fledging, they already can feed themselves, although the parents will continue to give them tidbits for two or three weeks. At three months of age, they begin the first moult. Smaller species are in full adult plumage after this moult, but the larger kinds have a sort of temporary plumage before coming into full color in their second year.
After the breeding season has finished and the dry period has begun, the broad-tailed parakeets form into large groups that go through thick and thin together, these groups can hold enormous numbers of birds, especially in regions where watering facilities are few and far between. When breeding begins again, the pairs depart from the group to seek nesting places and rear a family, without any particular contact with the main group. A clear exception are the Barnardius species, which remain paired throughout the year and rarely form groups of more than four to six birds. During the breeding season, a social contact is maintained in the turquoisine, rock-pebbler, swift, red-rumped, and Princess of Wales parakeets. Cocks and hens show their affection to each other by mutual preening, feeding each other and so on especially among the Neophema species. In the Platycerus species however, mutual preening is not carried out.
The staple diet of all broad-tailed parakeets is ripe seeds, but they also will take many kinds of insects and spiders, especially during the breeding season. These are mainly insects and their larvae found on blossoms and leaves, but also some from the bark, which are pounced upon and devoured with obvious delight! As a change they also will take many kinds of fruits, especially apples and pears, as well as berries, blossom nectar, and eucalyptus blossoms. Stomach examinations have shown that most species also swallow coarse sand which helps in the grinding up of food in the gizzard. Many species of parakeet forage on the ground for food, but also in the trees, especially after insects, fruits, nectar, and eucalyptus seeds. It is interesting to note that, like cockatoos, members of the genus Platycercus lift food to the beak with their feet. Other kinds will hold a loose twig with seeds, grains, and so on against the ground with the foot, to enable them to extract the tasty parts more easily. In captivity, I have seen most of the broad-tailed parakeets sooner or later pick up food with one of the feet (including all of the Platycercus species).
Before further discussing the use of the feet to assist in feeding, I would like to mention something about "scratching." Most broad-tailed parakeets pass the foot behind the wing to scratch the head, this is contrary to the cockatoos, lories, lorikeets, most Africans (lovebirds, for example) and many South American psittacines, which pass the foot before the wing to scratch the head. Exceptions are the king parrot (Alisterus scapularis) and members of the genus Polyteris, which scratch their head in a similar manner to cockatoos. Dr. Immelmann believes that the "behind scratching" is a trait originating from the reptilian ancestry of birds, though birds in the nest scratch themselves "before the wing" a long time, later turning to "behind the wing."
In view of the above, one can imagine that scratching and the picking up of food in the feet are related phenomena, but this is not so! Platycercus and Barnardius species, for example, can take food in the foot and raise it directly to the beak if necessary, but to scratch the head, the foot goes behind the wing. Lories and Lorikeets however do not have the habit of taking food in the foot, but scratch the head before the wing. On this subject, Dr. Immelmann remarks that it is indeed an amusing sight when, for example, a rosella, bringing a piece of food to its beak in the foot, suddenly passes the same foot behind its wing in order to scratch its head--sometimes quite close to the beak itself. Although the foot comes close to the beak in both cases, it passes directly in one case and behind the wing for the other. It is true that the Platycercus and Barnardius species scratch their heads directly, but should they require a more thorough scratch, the foot always is brought behind the wing in order to reach the head. Dr. Immelmann thinks that perhaps in these two genera, we are seeing the evolutionary transition from one method to another.
In the remaining genera of broad-tailed parakeets, neither Dr. Immelmann nor I could observe any similar transition. I would like to discuss a few generalised points about the drinking habits of broad-tailed parakeets. In the wild, I have seen almost all Platycerus species, but also cockatiels and golden shouldered parakeets, go to drink between 1 and 3 P.M. In contrast, the barraband, Bourke's, Brown's (or northern rosella), and turquoisine parakeets have their thirst in the morning and in the evening. Also, all broad-tailed parakeets like to bathe with the exception of Bourke's. Not only do the birds enjoy a light shower of rain (when they gather high in the trees), but I have seen them take an early bath at their drinking venues, whereby they dip their head in the water, plunge, and make shaking motions, so that they dampen themselves down with the wings. The birds never allow the wings to become too waterlogged in case they have to make a quick getaway in time of danger.
Feeding Captive Parrots and Parakeets:
As we have discussed already, we do not know enough about the natural (wild) diet of many parrot species. It is impossible or at least very difficult to allow captive birds to forage for their own food, especially with the demands of the breeding season, moult, and so on. Research has shown that many parrotlike species feed, in the wild, mainly on seeds and fruits. Some species, for examples lories and lorikeets, or the Kea of New Zealand, are special exceptions. The Kea, for example, uses its "pick-axe" beak to dig up roots, bulbs, and burrowing insects. Many large cockatoos and members of the genus Platycercus (rosellas, and so on) eat many insects, water snails, and worms in their native Australia and in captivity usually will eagerly accept small pieces of red meat. Psittacines have a characteristic method of feeding. Seeds are dehusked and the husk discarded, and fruits are peeled or skinned. Thus, the digestive system is not troubled with large amounts of indigestible fibre. Because parrots dehusk their seeds, it is best not to use automatic feeding hoppers as the fresh seed will become covered with husks and the birds may have difficulty in finding their food. Another well-known feeding habit of many parrots is the holding of larger food items in one of the feet and manipulating it as though "feeding from the hand."
The majority of parrots are natural seedeaters. Captive psittacines often have to make do with the several kinds of commercially available, dried, packaged seeds. This is, naturally, far from optimal feeding, in the wild the birds have the opportunity to seek out all kinds of fruits, leaves, buds, flowers, seeds, grasses, roots, bulbs, bark, and insects. Thus captive birds cannot live from seeds alone, they require a lot more! Smaller parakeets feed mainly on grass seeds (oats, millets, wheat, canary grass seed, and so on), larger species also take bigger, oily seeds (sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and so on). These oily seeds are very "fattening" and deficient in various vitamins, especially vitamin A. Unfortunately, birds also soon can become addicted to these seeds (especially sunflower) and, all too frequently, a bird may make one of them its staple diet, refusing all other food. To make further variety in feeding, give your birds unripe seed, preferably still in the ear (ears of wheat, millet sprays, and so on) as they would find it in the wild. This is not always available, so another possibility is germinated seed. Most parrots are partial to green food and fruit, but especially the Neotropical species, like the Amazons, that will gnaw greedily on fresh branches of willow, fruit trees, and so on. Many species will devour the buds, fresh twigs, and flowers of trees and plants. Many aviculturists give their birds the seeds of leguminous plants (peas, beans, and so on) either fresh, cooked, frozen (thawed), or canned.
Indeed wild amazons will rob legume plantations, much to the disgust of the farmers! All psittacines require extra protein-containing foods during the breeding season. Excellent sources include meat (lean red meat, cooked poultry, pieces of fish without bone), cooked egg (yolk and white chopped in tiny pieces), small pieces of not too fat cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Raw or pasteurised milk is not recommended, although many birds will take it eagerly--for example stale bread soaked in boiled and cooled milk---some cannot stomach too well and others may be sensitive to the milk sugar content (lactose). Unfortunately, birds newly out of quarantine frequently have been kept on a monotonous diet. It is the task of the new owner to introduce these birds to a more varied diet, in fact the more varied the better! Newly imported birds often are deficient in vitamin A. This vitamin is fundamental to the correct function of body cell metabolism, the maintenance of skin and mucous membranes. And the enhancement of sight. It also has an influence on the respiratory system, and plays a part in the pigmentation of the retina, thus allowing the eye to function well in poor light. Vitamin A is not only called the anti-infection or growth vitamin, it is also called the anti-sterility or fertility vitamin.
A Standard Menu:
By looking around and seeing what is available commercially and what can be found in the wild, it will not be difficult for the average fancier to put together a suitable menu for his/her birds. As the parakeet fancy has boomed in years, commerce has found it lucrative to produce all sorts of appropriate products. The following is a summary of what psittacine birds should be fed in order to give them a balanced diet and ensure that they remain in the best of health through all natural phenomena:
--a seed mixture. There are various commercial mixtures made especially for larger parakeets and these are suitable as a basis for our Australian parakeets.
--an egg food. This also need not be self-manufactured. The commercially available preparations are in general, of good quality. This part of the diet is ensure that your birds get the necessary animal proteins. CEDE brand name is a good quality egg food with a vitamin and mineral supplement.
--fruit and greens. These provide vitamins and minerals and can include garden fruit and vegetables plus grass and herbs from the wild. Wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly.
--fresh twigs. These not only contain nutrients, but help relieve boredom and help keep the beak in good shape. Willow twigs are particularly useful.
--gravel. To help grind up food in the stomach.
--grit or cuttlebone. To provide calcium.
--bathing and drinking water.
Do not collect plants, fruit or vegetables from hiways or farm land that gets sprayed. They can be tainted with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The more varied the diet the less need their will be for vitamin and mineral supplements. Australian parakeets are mainly herbivorous, feeding largely on plant material. The small amount of animal proteins required are obtained from insects and other small invertebrates consumed accidentally while taking plant food or sometimes deliberately. In addition to the normal seed ration, parakeets can be given germinated seed. The required amount of seed is soaked in water for 24 hours. Then it is rinsed thoroughly in clean water, drained, and placed in a dish in a warm place. Depending on the temperature, the seed will begin to germinate in two or three days. During this process it is a good idea to rinse the seed again to help minimise the risk of mould forming. The nutritive value is best when the shoots are 1/8 to 1/4 inch (2-3 mm) long. In the winter, give parakeets more oily seeds (sunflower seeds, for example). This will help them resist the colder temperatures. In frosty weather, the drinking water is likely to freeze over so this must be replaced frequently. Birds soon find out that they can eat snow and thus quench their thirst. You also can break up the ice in the dish or scrape a layer off, the birds will like to nibble on a piece of ice. In my aviaries I regularly see birds holding a piece of ice in the foot. Sometimes a bird will throw the drinking vessel about in play. This can be stopped by weighing it down with a heavy stone or brick, or fastening it somehow to a surface.
Giving charcoal when a bird has diarrhoea is a waste of time. Charcoal is not digested and because it is porous it can remove valuable nutrients from the bird's digestive tract when it leaves the body. Some of the fruits: that can be given to parakeets are banana, orange, tangerine, raisins, apples, pear, currants, strawberries, apricots, fresh pineapple, blackberries, mulberries, loganberries, lemons, dates, rasberries, grapefruit, juniper berries, cranberries, cherries, blueberries, kiwi fruit, gooseberries, rowan berries, mandarins, melon, peaches, plums, rose hips, hawthorn berries, wild elderberries and figs. Too much fruit can also cause loose droppings.
(Berries of the Dwarf Elder are poisonous.)
All utensils for food and water should be cleaned at least once a week or every other day. Household bleach and water (1:1) makes an excellent disinfectant soaking them for 15 minutes and rinsing in clean water. Re-use the seed containers only when they have dried out. It is a good practise to have 2 of everything so you can swap the clean and dry for the used.
Sedentary or Nomadic:
From the above it is fairly easy to draw a conclusion in regions where rain falls, birds will go quickly to nest, whereas where temperatures are high and there is no rain, parakeets will not breed. Many birds move from unsuitable to suitable areas. Only in areas where there is always regular rainfall, and thus adequate food, are the birds sedentary in their habits, these areas are primarily coastal. Groups of birds that dwell in the Australian outback are thus forced to be nomadic in order to find adequate food and water. Once they have found both in adequate supply, they can spend some time in such a "fertile" terrain, as long as the situation remains such. In the real sense there are no genuine "migratory birds" under the broad-tailed parakeets, although some species like the blue-winged parakeet (Neophema chrysotoma), the orange-bellied parakeet (Neophema chrysogaster), and the swift parakeet (Lathamus discolor) are "on the go" annually as they leave Tasmania and fly over the Bass Strait to the mainland in order to avoid the lower winter temperatures of their breeding areas. Bird lovers who have the possibility of observing Australian broad-tailed parakeets in their native habitats soon will discover that most species are outstanding fliers with great endurance. The "migrators" mentioned above are recognised by their swift, straight flight, with sharp turns, the same can be said for the cockatiels and members of the genus Polytelis. All of these species frequently fly at great altitudes. Rosellas, grass parakeets, Bourke's parakeets, and members of the genera Barnardius, Purpureicephalus, and Psephotus all have a rolling finch-like flight. These species usually fly close over the ground and vegetation. I must point out here that the Neophoma species are not quite such enthusiastic fliers and prefer to forage on the ground. When they take off they never fly in a straight line and their flight can be described as similar to the weak fluttering of a butterfly. Should they be travelling over greater distances however, they fly in a straight line high in the air. The ground parrot, a particularly inept flyer, is a champion clamberer and an amazingly fast runner. All Neophemcr members are also good climbers.
Food, a Summary:
All animals, including Australian parakeets, require a balanced diet containing the constituent proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Protein: forms 50 percent of the dry weight of the body of any animal, in plants this usually is much less.
Proteins: are involved in all animal activity. In our birds they are important in growth, repair, and maintenance of all tissues including the feathers. In the breeding season, as the young parakeets grow, protein is of greater importance than in the winter, which is a rest period. Before they take on their new plumage for the winter after the moult, extra protein is essential, as protein is the basis of feathers. Proteins are built up from a great number of, little building blocks, the so-named amino acids. Some of these can be made by the bird itself, others must be present in the food. The food value of proteins is related directly to the essential amino acid content, that is, those that the bird cannot make itself. Most plant foods are poor in proteins, so the necessary animal proteins also must be made available.
Carbohydrates: are necessary for producing energy and are an important part of the diet. In general, they originate in plants. They have no function with regard to growth or repair of cells, but are important for movement and maintaining body temperature. Grains and seeds contain a lot of carbohydrate, usually in the form of starch, sugars are also carbohydrates. Fats and oils: also provide energy and protection, and can be stored as a reserve of food. In the winter, a layer of fat is good for our birds. It will help keep them warm and can be used as food in an emergency.
Vitamins: in small amounts are important for the maintenance and normal functioning of the body and its organs. They give no energy but are essential to life itself. Parakeets require various vitamins to enable them to reproduce and grow and to stay healthy. Vitamins are taken as part of the diet and are used in the breakdown and manufacture of proteins. In nature, vitamins occur in various forms, today they also are manufactured artificially.
Minerals: are inorganic or nonliving materials that the bird needs for growth and maintenance of the body. The most important minerals are salts containing calcium, phosphorus, sodium, manganese, copper, potassium, iron, and iodine. Each of these has its own function(s). The term trace elements often is used to describe those minerals that the birds need less of. Little need be said about the importance of water. The bird's body consists of more than one half water. Not all parakeets drink a lot of water. Birds from drier environments can go longer without water as they get their moisture requirements from the food they eat. In addition to the above, grit and gravel are important. Grit and cuttlefish bone, eggshells etc. can help supply the birds calcium requirements to build bone. This is very important in the breeding season. Small grade gravel or grit has the function of grinding up the food in the stomach, making it easier to digest. The gravel is not digested but passes through the body once it has worn too smooth to continue its job.
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