This article was previously published in Bird Breeder magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
The World of Eclectus Parrots
by Laurella Desborough
In writing about the four Eclectus subspecies commonly available in the United States, I am writing from personal experience with many breeding pairs, hand-rearing hundreds of babies from Day 1, hand-rearing many from 3 to 4 weeks old and having parent birds rear and fledge young. In addition, I have held back youngsters from these different upbringings and observed their development into adults. I have taken every opportunity to discuss experiences with other Eclectus owners and breeders.
Over the past 10 years, I have consulted with many Eclectus owners who had various questions or problems with their birds. After being introduced to Eclectus parrots in the early 1980s, I made the decision to specialize in working with these birds and soon discovered a serious lack of readily available information of the distinguishing characteristics of the various subspecies. In order to be as accurate as possible regarding the physical characteristics of subspecies, I studied many skins of Eclectus in the collections of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Natural History in New York, which were collected from their native habitats. All of my comments on Eclectus subspecies characteristics are based on studies of these skins because they form the only accurate data on which to base judgments about the various Eclectus subspecies.
Eclectus Parrots are Unique
Eclectus parrots are unique in two special ways. The first is their dimorphic coloration: Males are basically green with red feathers under the wings, and females are basically a rich red with different colored bands on their tail tips, according to the subspecies. This article will not discuss subspecies differences since those details have been sufficiently addressed in previous publications, including Bird Talk magazine and the AFA Watchbird journal.
The second way they are different is in the hair-like quality of their feathers on their heads, necks, breasts and bellies. Each feather is composed of single strands that are not locked together as contour feathers normally are. Each contour feather on the back, and the wing and tail feathers are formed the way such feathers are on most other parrots, as interlocked feather vanes.
Another pleasing characteristic in the Eclectus parrot’s dramatic appearance is the smooth beak surface. In the males, the upper mandible is corn yellow on the lower half and tip, and orange on the upper half near the face. As young male birds mature, they sometimes will have one line of peeling beak material near the meeting of the yellow and orange areas. The adult females have solid-black smooth beaks. Beaks with ridges and grooves indicate some kind of problem, most often poor nutrition in young hand-fed birds or inadequate diets in adult birds. Incorrectly colored beaks in adults indicate dietary problems. Sometimes, adult males are observed with beaks with extensive yellow and very little orange, which is an indication of serious inadequacy in the diet.
Eclectus Parrots Behave Differently
Eclectus parrots signaling communication is different from that of Amazons, cockatoos or macaws, which commonly display or send signals of excitement or threat by raising head feathers or crests and fanning their tails while flashing their eyes. To express threat, Eclectus parrots usually raise the feathers on the napes of their necks and upper backs. If the threat is extreme, they will raise all body feathers to make themselves look larger. Sometimes when the adult females are excited or angry, they will expand the retinas of their eyes, which provides a larger looking eye and sends a clearly visible message of "I am very excited" or "Look out, I am going to attack!"
Eclectus males and females also signal by standing tall and opening their wings, either holding them open, fanning them back and forth or flapping them rapidly. This is also a combination signaling device. It can mean "Back off, or you will have a fight on your hands" if there is a threat. If performed by a male before a female it can mean “See what a beautiful and desirable bird I am!" When courting, both males and females pull their feathers tight to the body, stand tall, flash their eyes and open their wings slightly to display the underwing colors. A pair of courting Eclectus presents a beautiful sight as each bird displays to the other, holding wings partially open or flying from perch to perch with flashing reds and greens.
Another behavior common to Eclectus parrots is their apparent calmness or quiet demeanor, which leads people to believe that they are not stressed or worried in a situation where one would see an African grey hiding in the corner or an Amazon wildly flapping wings to escape. Eclectus parrots generally mask their worries or stress by standing quietly. If the stressing condition continues for a week or more, such as ongoing pain or if a single stressful incident is great, reactions can vary from feather chewing or picking to bacterial infection arising from a change in the body chemistry due to continued stress. Therefore, it is wise to avoid stressful situations if you can and to plan on ways to reduce stress when the situation cannot be avoided, such as moving the bird to a new location.
Stress in Eclectus parrots can be reduced by maintaining some continuity for the bird, such as familiar (or very similar) food dishes, diet and toys, as well as familiar words. For breeding birds, a familiar cage setup, nest box arrangement and diet are helpful in a move. If the birds have been indoors and are moved outdoors into open lights under open skies, they will be fearful of open areas and ever watchful for hawks. Proven breeders may often stop breeding if changes in location are too upsetting. This is unusual though, since most happily paired Eclectus are highly motivated to mate, nest and rear their young.
Eclectus Parrots Are Generally Healthy
Eclectus parrots, whether pets or breeding birds, live long and healthy lives if they are provided the major elements of proper care, such a following management practices that take into consideration the special needs of Eclectus, providing a healthy, well-balanced diet, providing the birds with proper housing, following the basic rules of disease prevention and avoiding the creation of stress.
Eclectus have special needs that include avoiding the caging or crating of two Eclectus in a small enclosure under any circumstance. All Eclectus parrots, once they are fully feathered, should be crated separately for shipping, each bird in its own compartment. Placing two Eclectus together in a crate, whether they are young siblings, clutch mates or a bonded breeding pair, is an invitation to disaster. The combination of unfamiliar confinement, strange noises and events, coupled with a fear response will generally lead to aggression and attack by one or both of the crated bids, resulting in major injuries or death.
For instance, the old-timer advice to people with an unbonded and uncooperative pair was to lock them in the nest together, and they will settle their differences. This is a dangerous piece of advice that betrays a great deal of ignorance about the characteristic behaviors of adult Eclectus parrots.
A normal, healthy adult female Eclectus owns her nest and in a crate creates an environment similar to a nest. When a pair of Eclectus are crated together, the hen wants the male to leave the crate because she knows he does not belong there. He also knows he does not belong and is anxious to leave, but cannot. In even the happiest of Eclectus parrot pairs, fighting then occurs, which can result in injury or death. Therefore, avoid the stress and danger of this situation by always crating each bird in its own individual compartment for shipping or even for driving a short distance across town to the veterinarian’s office.
Eclectus parrots are charming companions as pets, demanding little and giving much. Eclectus do not make the incessant daily demands for handling and love that cockatoos do, nor do they hang on the cage and expect to be let out of the cage as soon as you walk in the door, unless that is what you have trained them to do! Eclectus parrots are typically not noisy, screaming birds unless the environment and your management practices develop those behaviors. Eclectus do best in good-sized cages, at least 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep for one bird. Pet birds need a basic diet of good-quality fed on a routine basis. You cannot expect an Eclectus to be fed one day at 7 in the morning and the next day at noon, varying the diet from pasta and grapes one day to apples, corn and birdie treats on the next day.
Eclectus Parrot Diet
It is wise to provide fresh foods at a routine time and to use the same basic ingredients daily: a variety of soaked sprouted legumes and brown rice, defrosted mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, green beans), and one or two fresh chopped fruits such as green apples and pears. To this base diet, you may add a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, such as cherries and blueberries in the late spring, various melons with their seeds and corn on the cob in the summer, and cranberries, pomegranates and squashes in the fall and winter.
Eclectus parrots will eat peanuts and other nuts that have been removed from their shells. However, their nut consumption should be truly limited to one nut per day, since the adult females have a tendency to become fat. Eclectus parrots were not designed to consume large amounts of nuts--most Eclectus cannot even open an almond shell, much less a walnut. This tells us that their beaks were designed to cut through the skin of green nuts in the early process of forming, or to cut off flower and leaf buds, and to gather various fruits and berries, but not hard-shelled nuts. Eclectus parrots, like most other parrots, will choose to eat sunflower seeds first if they are provided in a seed mix or sprouting mix. Eclectus seem to do best when provided with sprouted seed mixes, rather than dry seed mixes. In order to acquire the needed vitamins and minerals to maintain good health and beautiful condition in the beak and feathers, Eclectus need a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits on a daily basis, not a weekly basis.
One problem faced by Eclectus owners is the myth of the great need for vitamin A. This myth has encouraged many Eclectus owners to provide additional vitamins to an otherwise excellent diet, resulting in a condition known as vitamin toxicity or vitaminosis. Journal articles on this condition have been written by respected avian veterinarian Dr. Gregory Harrison. Therefore, it is wise to provide the birds with vitamins in their natural form which can be shed if overconsumed. Beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) is found in many vegetables, such as peppers, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens such as chard or commercially grown dandelion greens (available in many grocery stores). Pomegranates provide potassium and vitamin C. Placing man-made vitamins on top of a good diet of fresh soft foods can result in an imbalance in the bird which is demonstrated by muscle spasms, most notably toe-tapping or wing-flapping, or by skin irritation leading to uncontrollable chewing of feathers, and also behavioral problems such as irritability and unusual “touchiness” when companion birds are handled. It is important that Eclectus owners be very conscious and careful about adding vitamins to their Eclectus parrots’ diets. Even breeding birds can become overly irritable and aggressive toward their mates when fed excessive vitamins. Present studies of the nutritional needs of parrots have not completely addressed the special needs of Eclectus parrots. Until this is done, it is wise to be extremely cautious about adding any man-made vitamins to Eclectus parrots’ diets.
Many pet owners and bird breeders now feed commercially prepared pellets to their birds, most often as the dry food component of the diet. I use a commercial pellet, Roudybush Maintenance, as a part of the Eclectus parrot diet. This generally comprises less than a quarter of the total food provided, the major portion being a variety of soft foods, some fresh fruits and vegetables, some soaked and cooked or sprouted or a mixture of these. When birds have been on a seed diet and changed to pellets, the owner needs to know that the birds recognize the pellets as food. Otherwise, the birds may not eat them and may eventually starve to death. Bird breeders have had this happen, especially to birds unfamiliar with pellets.
A different concern has developed with the widespread use of pellets for parrots. It seems that colored pellets consumed by Eclectus parrots, both companion birds and breeding birds, may dramatically affect the ability of the Eclectus to grow normally colored feathers after they molt. This does not seem to occur with all Eclectus all the time; it seems to occur most often with vosmaeri females and to affect their red feathers. The vosmaeri females will consume the colored pellets, and when they molt, the new feathers (which should be red) are yellow or red with yellow stripes. If the bird eats a lot of colored pellets, even the beak may turn yellow. This condition has appeared in aviaries across the U.S. When the colored pellets are removed from the diet, the bird's new feathers (when they molt again) generally come in colored correctly.
How this change in feather color occurs is not known. However, based on anecdotal observations, it can be postulated that the chemical components in the colored pellets, once absorbed by the bird's system, prevent the feather follicle from utilizing the available and necessary nutrients that produce the normal red feather color. Some of the companies that produce colored pellets in the U.S are aware of this situation and are seeking answers to it. To my knowledge, studies have not been conducted on what happens to the coloring agents once they are in the bird's system. When solid data becomes available, it will be publicized. Until that time, it is wise to avoid feeding colored pellets to Eclectus.
It is important to provide the proper balance of minerals, such as calcium and phosphorous. In order for the adult breeding females to maintain adequate calcium in their bones when they are producing eggs, properly balanced calcium supplements must be provided. Eclectus parrots will lay clutch after clutch if they are allowed to do so. The results can be disastrous and even deadly for the female Eclectus when she is not provided with an adequate supply of calcium. Caring, competent bird breeders do not allow or encourage Eclectus hens to produce clutches year round. They know that doing so will make the breeding hen's bones brittle from lack of adequate calcium and her upper beak deformed by ridges.
Breeding Pet Eclectus
Sometimes owners of companion Eclectus parrots will be concerned because their male Eclectus is regurgitating to their ear, finger or cage toys and "copulating" with their arm or the perch. Owners sometimes believe that this behavior means the bird wants an Eclectus mate. This behavior does not necessarily indicate the desire for a mate. It is simply the acting out of a normal developmental aspect in the mature Eclectus male. He is behaving naturally, but there is no female Eclectus present to receive his attention.
However, it does not mean he wants one. In my experience, most of these males will either completely ignore a female Eclectus or attack her with the intent to chase her away or kill her. It is important to understand that a natural programmed behavior is being expressed. It is also important to understand that in most cases, these males have had no experience or interaction with female Eclectus and also have no desire to do so. They are acting out an instinctive behavior, but they have not had the opportunity to learn how to apply it to a female Eclectus. They are most often past the developmental timeline where they could learn how to interact normally with a female bird. That is why many bird breeders not only hand-rear and handle young birds so they are good human companions, but during their early development place them in brooders and cages with other birds of the same species, hopefully of both sexes. This provides opportunities for normal intra-species socialization, which makes it possible for companion birds to later become breeding birds if the situation warrants.
Beware of the phrase, "The bird is plucking because it wants to breed." Plucking around the legs and in the center of the belly area in females may indicate nesting urges. Plucking on shoulders, around the neck and upper breast is more likely an indication of severe frustration or irritation or a bacterial infection of the skin. Most behavioral plucking by males is an indication of anxiety, anger or frustration. Frustrated and/or anxious birds are generally in situations where something is or was bothering them greatly from which they could not escape.
Breeding Eclectus Parrots
Once you have a pair of birds that like each other and are interested in breeding, they will do well in 6- or 8-foot-long suspended wire cages of 3 or 4 feet wide by 3 or 4 feet high. Placing two high perches, one on either end, and a low perch near the cage floor in the middle is desirable. Pine or fir make good perches, as do eucalyptus branches. Adding safe wood toys and fresh "chew" branches make for an enriched environment for the pair.
Eclectus will use nest boxes of many types. I use rectangular boxes and Z-boxes. Rectangular nest boxes can be hung at an angle, which provides some depth for the nest at the bottom end of the box. Pine or fir shavings make excellent nesting material. It helps to provide a length of 2 by 4 pine fixed firmly to one wall of the nest box so the hen has something to work on inside the box so her urge to make nest shavings can then be satisfied. When metal nest boxes are used, the floor should be lined with plywood.
Many Eclectus parrots are unconcerned about human presence when they are mating. However, they can be extremely distracted by other noisy or displaying species of most birds, such as Amazons or macaws. Eclectus pairs may forego the mating process, and the hen will lay infertile eggs when the pair is located in an aviary full of noisy conures or next to displaying cockatoos. Sometimes copulation takes place inside the box, on the perch or on the floor of the cage. Eclectus produce better in the company of less noisy birds, such as African greys and other quieter species. The best situation is to have only Eclectus parrots in the same area.
Once the eggs have been laid, the hens generally keep the males out of the box. The hen may start sitting the day after the first egg is laid. Incubation is 28 days. Chicks hatch without significant down and must be brooded closely by the hen until they grow their first down of grayish black, which is thick and keeps them warm. Domestic-raised Eclectus that have experienced being fed by their parents generally make good parents themselves. If the hen was hand-reared from Day 1, she may have to learn how to feed her own babies. Some hens never learn this very well. Stunted adult males used as breeding birds do not prove to be adequate parents in that they are not able to feed the hen as often as she requires food for the babies. That is one reason it is important that breeding birds be selected for good conformation as well as good health. It is also important that breeding birds be maintained in top physical condition and excellent health in order to produce and raise healthy chicks.
Chicks can be pulled for hand-rearing at 2, 3 or 4 weeks. When the chicks are pulled from the nest, the hand-feeder should wait until the crop empties completely before starting hand-feeding. I use a commercially produced formula, Roudybush 3, to which Gerber dry cereal is added (one part dry cereal to seven parts commercial formula to provide texture and prevent clumping when the formula is mixed with water). Jar vegetables and fruits for human babies are also added to the formula at about 1 part vegetable to 4 parts liquid formula. Only distilled water is used in preparing formula since too many public water supply systems are contaminated with bacteria and unknown chemicals that are dangerous to the parrot chicks. Formula is fed at the consistency of thick yogurt or cereal when chicks are 2 or 3 weeks old.
Temperature of the formula is measured by a calibrated thermometer and fed at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Feeding cold formula to chicks chills them. Feeding overly hot formula burns them. Correct temperature can be determined only by an accurate thermometer. Formula should never be heated in the microwave since when the formula is removed from the microwave, it continues to rise in temperature and is prone to developing hot spots. Water heated in a container into which a container of formula is placed is a safer way to control formula temperature. Continuously monitoring formula temperature is advisable if the feeding session is long.
Day 1 Chicks
Day 1 chicks are fed a thin, runny mixture of Pedialyte and Roudybush formula. At each feeding, the formula is mixed slightly thicker. By the second and third day, dry cereal is added to the mix, which is slowly thickened over the next two weeks. Chicks are fed approximately 9 percent of total body weight after the first couple of days. Chicks are fed every two hours or whenever they are empty. The critical element for Day 1 Eclectus chicks is that they be kept in a brooder that is heated to 99 degrees Fahrenheit for the first couple days. By Day 3 the temperature is reduced to 98 degrees and slowly reduced so that by the second week the temperature is about 94 degrees.
However, brooder temperature is always adjusted according to the needs of each clutch, based on their reactions to the temperature. Moving air in the brooder is not allowed to blow on the bare chicks, since it will dehydrate them. Chicks are housed in small tubs lined with clean, disinfected wash cloths with one edge of the cloth folded over the top so the chicks do not get a draft. Paper towel is too harsh and does not provide a comfortable nest for these bare chicks. Small pieces of paper towel can be placed on the bottom of the small tub as a liner to collect feces so that the wash cloth does not have to be changed at each feeding.
Temperature is measured with thermometers that have been calibrated for accuracy against a laboratory-grade thermometer. Otherwise, you cannot be sure about the true temperature of the brooder. Also, temperature must be measured in a cloth-lined tub at the location where chicks are placed, not on the side of the brooder (and not in the same tub with the chicks since it will read their temperature).
Inexpensive, Reliable Brooders
Inexpensive and easy-to-disinfect brooders can be made by using two plastic "small animal environments," which are rectangular plastic containers with lids used for frogs, snakes, mice and other small creatures, and a fish tank heater. These containers and the fish tank heater are available at most pet stores. Place the fish tank heater in one container, add water to cover the heater about 1 to 2 inches, and place the second container into the first; it will rest on the water bath. Depending on the size of the brooder, 25-watt or 50-watt fish tank heaters are selected. These heaters can be turned up or down, increasing or decreasing heat.
Another way to control heat in the brooder is with toweling. For tiny babies, all sides and the bottom must be lined with toweling to keep in heat. The tubs with babies are then placed onto the toweling on the brooder floor. A thick towel is also placed over the top. If the temperature of the room is very cold, toweling can also be placed around the brooder. In warm climates or environments, less toweling is needed. As chicks grow, they are moved to larger brooders. Eventually all toweling is removed and chicks are placed in the brooder on a 1/2-inch wire grid which feces fall through. Throughout their hand-rearing development, Day 1 chicks require more careful temperature management than chicks pulled from the nest.
Weaning Eclectus Parrots
Eclectus subspecies vary in the time it takes for them to wean. Solomon Islands Eclectus wean the earliest, slightly before 3 months. Red-sided Eclectus often wean at approximately 3 months, but vosmaeri have been known to take as much as 4 months and wean with greater difficulty. Problems can be created for the young birds by force-weaning them. It is best to let them wean at their own pace. Providing a good variety of soft food helps. Although the young birds often hull sprouted sunflower and other seeds, they seem to have difficulty manipulating the seeds after hulling in order to eat them. Upon inspection of the food dish, one often finds a lot of hulled sunflower seeds among the debris. It is helpful to provide pellets and a wide variety of foods, including spray millet, which these young birds love.
Selling Unweaned Babies
It is never wise to sell unweaned babies of any species to members of the general public. It is not advisable to sell unweaned Eclectus parrots, since these birds are very aware of their regular hand-feeder and are very stressed by a change in hand-feeders. Since Eclectus are quiet and fail to provide strong indicators that they are stressed, most people do not recognize that the birds are having problems until the problems are quite severe. Unweaned babies sold to inexperienced hand-feeders often suffer from a lack of adequate daily provision of formula because they are so anxious they do not eat sufficient amounts. Some of these birds never reach their normal size, many develop stress marks on their feathers, some develop bone deformities based on nutritiona1 deficiencies, and those that do eat can become fearful and bitey with unfamiliar handling. Eclectus seem to develop best when they are completely weaned and well-stabilized in their original environment before going to their new home.
In summation, Eclectus parrots, like other parrots, have their own unique set of basic needs and behaviors, both instinctive and learned. When owners understand and respect the birds' needs and work with their natural behaviors, they are rewarded with outstanding companion birds and productive breeding birds of unsurpassed beauty.