Each evening, Ariel, my blue-headed Pionus parrot, flies around the dining room, living room and kitchen, landing on the door of the cupboard. We now leave the cupboard door ajar for her so that her preferred perch is always available. Ariel remains on the cupboard door until we retrieve her for bedtime. When we approach, she goes agreeably but usually lowers her head to request a minute or two of neck scratching before stepping up onto the offered finger.
Pionus parrot sare creatures of habit.
She seems to enjoy her nightly routine, but this behavior puzzled us until we read about the habits of wild bronze-winged Pionus parrots
). Researchers in Ecuador’s Mindo Valley observed that one parrot always perched in a tree above the rest while the rest of the Pionus
flock foraged below. At the first sign of danger, a call from this bird would send the flock flying. If things remained quiet, however, eventually one of the other parrots would approach the lone bird and initiate mutual preening. The preening pair later moved to a lower perch while the topmost position was assumed by another parrot.
To anyone looking for evidence of a parrot serving as flock-leader, this behavior didn’t meet the criteria. The highest position was shared among different birds, and an approach to the topmost parrot was not met with aggression or shows of dominance but with friendly preening. Rather than a flock-leader, this parrot seemed to be taking its turn as a temporary flock sentinel.
The Mindo Valley studies provided a different way to look at Ariel’s routine. Her behavior is consistent with the description of the sentinel, perching on the cupboard door and keeping an eye out for any dangers that might venture into our kitchen. This interpretation accounted for the easygoing way that Ariel greets our overtures to relieve her of her sentry duty, provided she receives the expected preening.
Pionus Are Creatures Of Habit
Ariel shares another habit with her wild cousins: the tendency to follow a regular schedule.
After just three days of observing a flock of bronze-winged Pionus parrots, the Mindo Valley researchers noted that they could predict the flocks’ daily activities to within 15 minutes. The birds flew to the same cluster of trees at 6 am each day and remained there for about four hours. Around 10 am they flew south and so on. And so on. Their daily schedule continued until dusk when they flew off to one of the ravines on the end of the valley, presumably to roost for the night.
In a report published on the website of the Pionus Breeders Association, Ana Christina Sosa observed similar habits in a flock of blue-headed Pionus parrots (Pionus menstruus): foraging and feeding from 8 to 11 am, followed by roosting until 2 pm, more foraging and feeding until 4 pm, and so on until going off to roost at dusk.
Learning how wild Pionus parrots seem to thrive on their routines can help bird owners who are striving to make a happier environment for their companion parrots. Unfortunately, insights such as these are not often available. The Pionus Parrot Research Foundation (PPRF) strives to change this by providing more sources of information on these birds.
PPRF had its origins in a bronze-winged Pionus female that died of visceral gout just as she and her mate were setting up their nest for their first clutch. Russ Shade, the owner of the pair, began searching for possible causes of the hen’s fatal condition. “As I searched harder and harder for information about the bronze wing diet in the wild, I eventually realized that no research had ever been performed,” Shade recalled. He unsuccessfully tried to interest several ornithology schools in studies. “In the end,” Shade said, “I raised some money online and sold some stuff out of my attic, and off I went to Ecuador.” The expedition was successful in locating four species of Pionus parrots: the bronze wing, blue head, coral- or red-billed (Pionus sordidus) and white head or white crown (Pionus seniloides).
“After the trip,” Shade said, “a few of us sat down and decided to form the foundation to fund future work and work by others, and to be a source of reliable Pionus parrot information.”
What To Feed Your Pionus
One of the most confusing questions facing owners of Pionus parrots is what to feed their birds. In his book, The Practical Pionus: Volume I, Shade calls it one of the most controversial subjects among Pionus owners. The difficulty in making the best diet choices for your parrot is that definitive research simply hasn’t been conducted.
Dr. Mauro Galetti’s study on the diet of the Maximilian’s Pionus (P. maximiliani) provides some insight for curious pet owners. Galetti found that seeds comprise nearly 70 percent of the parrots’ diet during much of the year. These seeds, however, do not resemble those commonly available in the U.S. as bird food, which are much higher in fat.
Galetti also found that protein typically made up only 3 to 4 percent of the wild Pionus’ diet, but this percentage jumped to as much as 8 or 9 percent during breeding season. This shift in diet does not coincide with a seasonal increase in the availability of higher-protein food sources, so it might indicate that the physical demands of breeding caused the diet change in the birds’ eating habits.
“Galetti’s work was important because it was a long-term study that showed how dietary content was somewhat independent of what was in abundance at the time; that was, to me, pretty revolutionary,” Shade commented.
Pionus owners can certainly testify to their pets’ particular palates, and there is evidence in wild Pionus research that supports this fact. Sosa observed that parrots in her study area had 54 food items available to them, but the blue-headed Pionus fed on 27 percent of these and showed a preference for two of the types of fruits available.
Their finicky tastes might also spare Pionus from prosecution in their native land. Mindo Valley researchers suggested that wild Pionus were not responsible for widespread damage to corn crops in the region. They found that only a few of the ears of corn left behind by the birds were damaged, and those examples had only been chewed at the top. The researchers suspected that the birds might actually be interested in eating the grubs on the ears rather than the corn itself.
Subsequent observations, however, have not been consistent with this finding. “We’ve since observed wild Pionus literally decimating cornfields,” Shade reported. Researchers also observed a flock of Pionus eating tent caterpillars and leaving the flowers, leaves and bark of the trees alone: an observation that also merits further study.
Shade indicated that there is simply not yet enough evidence to support any particular philosophy on the perfect Pionus diet, but some of Galettis’ findings did help him change his mind about what to feed his own Pionus flock. “We altered the protein levels that we fed, ramping them up gradually when we wanted individuals to breed and reducing them when we saw excessive breeding behaviors, such as overly hormonal males,” he said. “Plus, we always feed a variety of foods, and we watch what the guys eat. If they are ignoring broccoli, we pull broccoli from the mix and re-add it four to five months later.”
Although it is difficult to draw conclusions based on the limited amount of research, Shade urged concerned owners to read about their birds’ requirements for vitamin A, vitamin D and calcium, and — with their avian veterinarians — make up their own minds about the best diet for their birds.
Some Pionus owners and breeders have observed that avoiding a diet consisting primarily of high protein pellets can reduce the incidence of visceral gout in Pionus, but there is currently no formal research to support the contention. “Visceral gout can result from genetic issues or other factors in addition to diet,” observed avian veterinarian Dr. Larry Nemetz of Santa Ana, California.
Pionus owners and breeders are not the only ones wishing that more information were available; avian veterinarians would also appreciate further study. “I would love to see a scientific nutrition-based research [study] on these guys,” said Joerg Mayer, head of the Exotics department at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Many Pionus owners eagerly devote the extra effort toward researching their parrots’ dietary requirements and don’t begrudge the hours they spend chopping vegetables, tending organic gardens or making homemade sprouts. “Usually, the health of the Pionus is a bit better than other parrots [I see in my practice], as it appears that people who have these birds are experienced and read books before getting a Pionus,” Mayer observed. “This is not your typical first ownership bird.”
Avian veterinarians warn against drawing conclusions based on the diet of parrots in the wild. “Just because they eat something in the wild doesn’t mean it will make them live longer,” said Nemetz. “They’re just eating to survive. But in captivity, we want them to live forever,” he added, noting that the possible life span of a Pionus in captivity is not yet known.
Solving The Pionus Mystery
Many people say that the Pionus species are the best-kept secret among parrot enthusiasts, and it appears that the word has not yet fully reached the research community. “Aviculturists have to take up the challenge of funding the research they would like to see, just as the poultry producers did,” Shade said. “Aviculturists also have a tremendous resource: young people. By supporting students via scholarships ... and offering them opportunities to observe wild parrots we can help to shape their careers,” he added. Until then, Pionus parrots, like Ariel, will keep some of their most fascinating secrets to themselves.
Although academic research on Pionus parrots is still in short supply, avian veterinarians such as Dr. Larry Nemetz of Santa Ana, California, who regularly sees this species, can offer recommendations on how to care for your pet Pionus.
Food: Fans of Pionus parrots can attest to the fact that these birds are good eaters. “They eat more than other species, but their metabolic rates are high,” Nemetz observed. “They’re not slugs on a perch.” He added that these birds can still be prone to obesity if overfed and noted that it is important to make sure your Pionus gets enough vitamin A in its diet. Nevertheless, Nemetz did not recommend a one-size-fits-all approach to Pionus diet. “You have to treat each bird as an individual,” he recommended.
Common Health Issues: Nemetz noted that Pionus parrots are prone to fungal infections and aspergillosis in particular.
Monitoring Your Bird’s Health: Nemetz advised keeping a close eye on your Pionus parrot’s behavior and taking it to the vet promptly if you suspect something is amiss. “They tend to be more stoic,” he warned. “Even if they’re very sick, the only symptom might be that they’re just not playing like they used to.”