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 genuses 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).

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 has 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. 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. Pox virus 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 pox virus 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's an updated review of the commonly available species:

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 a age. Babies are sweet, begin to talk early and thus sell well. I would recommend this species to anyone considering to breed amazons but 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.

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 eg. 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 which 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).

Part 2
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