A Dwindling Kingdom: Presley, the Last Male Spix’s Macaw in Brazil, Dies

The parrot community has been saddened to learn of the death at the age of 38 of one of the world’s most well–known birds, Presley, one of the few remaining Spix’s macaws. On recent trips to Brazil sponsored by Phoenix Landing, members of the tour group were fortunate enough to spend some time with him. His story was the inspiration for the recent movie Rio. In person, Presley was a lot less animated, a mellow old fellow, and the oldest recorded individual of the species. He spent his final years at the Lymington Foundation, in the Atlantic forest about 45 miles from Sao Paulo, under the care of Bill and Linda Wittkoff.

PresleybyFrankRutowski(Photo by Frank Rutowski, D.V.M.)

Presley was one of 78 individuals (as of 2011) of this rare species, and the future does not look good for them.  Of the captive population, many of the birds are old, their genetic pool is limited, and their health has been compromised from being smuggled from the wild. The population is also geographically isolated from each other, kept in private collections and zoos around the world. The challenges of maintaining the Spix’s macaw population are perhaps overwhelming, which made spending time in this bird’s gentle presence a true honor.  It also proved a bittersweet lesson: humans are responsible for the decline of this and many species, and our last-minute efforts to save them may not be enough. We should support the organizations that are on the forefront of conservation efforts, and educate people about the loss of fantastic creatures like the Spix’s before it’s too late.

Presley by Mary
(Photo by Mary Ault)

Presley was comfortable in the presence of strangers, the result of many years spent as a pet in the United States. He was brought to Lymington in 2007, but breeding attempts with him were not successful. This fragile creature, from a species that is no longer found in the wild, lived out his remaining days in comfort, in an aviary in the sunshine. His cage mate of many years, a golden conure, died in 2013. A Vinaceous Amazon was his companion during his final months.

Presley by Kevin
(Photo by Kevin Blaylock)

Sadly, Presley spent much of his life as many birds in captivity do, looking out from behind the bars of a cage because the world they belong in is no longer safe for them. They are refugees from their homelands. I hope Presley has somehow returned to freedom, the freedom that all parrots deserve.

Phoenix Landing sponsors conservation efforts every year, and the Lymington Foundation was the recipient of our 2013 grant of $2,000, based on the great work the Wittkoffs are doing with other endangered parrot species, such as the golden conures, the Lears macaw, and the Vinaceous Amazon.

Dr. Susan Orosz on Filoplumes: Essential Feathers for Mental Health

Hearing Dr. Orosz lecture is like eating a huge, delicious meal. It takes a while to digest. She served up another mental feast at the Wellness Retreat, held in Ashevile NC, October 21-22. Here is one tasty nugget I learned from her.

A filoplume is a type of feather that grows in clumps at the base of flight feathers. It’s small and has a long shaft. Here’s an excellent description. This feather, unlike other feather types, has no associated muscles, so a bird cannot move a filoplume independently. Instead, a filoplume is a sensory receptor attached to a nerve bundle, which provides information to the bird about the position of the feathers surrounding it, and by extension, the bird’s own position in space.

Think of a filoplume like a cat’s whisker. Around each flight feather are many of these whiskers, which give their owner a lot of information about where she is, how to navigate, and what to do next to continue flying or to land. When a bird flaps, those filoplumes go to work, sending her brain tons of information that she must process, and making her think and react in ways that challenge her.

Why is this important? Because a bird denied flight in our homes does not receive much of the filoplume’s message: She does not get to think about and figure out how to fly, perhaps the most essential part of what a bird is. She was meant to be challenged by the constant decisions that flight requires and without them she may be bored or crazy or both. Of course we can never know what our birds are thinking, but we can imagine how we might feel about the world if our legs were tied together from the time we were born. What would it feel like to crawl everywhere? What if you could only get somewhere when someone else took you there? And what if you could only interact with what someone else decided you might like?

How do we address this problem in our homes? Give your bird many opportunities to exercise. If she is not allowed to fly, give her a hanging gym or a boing to encourage swinging and play. Provide her with a cage that is wide enough for her to move around in – and give her plenty of out of cage time. Most importantly, remember how essential sensory stimulation and the opportunities for choice are for your bird’s mental health.

Have I Created a Monster? The Tale of a Horny Pionus

Pea, my blue headed pionus, has been with me about a year. As soon as she got here, she started bumping and grinding on her cage door.

I have always ignored this behavior, but it has persisted. Initially, it was almost constant, but it has decreased now to short sessions, one or two times a day.

But throughout this past year, I’ve seen changes in her behavior that tell me that she is over bonding to me, such as flying at, and chasing off, my other birds when they come near me, and shredding the newspapers that cover the grate at the bottom of the cage. She would also run under the bed in my office, seeking a cavity to nest in.

I made some changes to her environment as a result of this. I trimmed her wing feathers – which was not an easy choice. I believe that allowing a bird to fly is important for their physical and mental well-being, but in this case the risk of injury to my other birds outweighs the benefits to Pea. I will let her feathers grow out (it’ll probably take 3 months) and allow her to fly again, if we can get this horniness under control.

I also taped cardboard all around the bottom of the bed, so she could no longer get under there.

I always only petted her on the head, and only when she put her head down to ask for it, and I’ve been limiting that a lot lately too (believe me, that’s a tough one!)

These solutions seemed to work for a little while, but then she discovered the space under my computer desk. Even with trimmed wing feathers, Pea can get down to the ground, and she consistently flies down and runs underneath the desk. Pionus can huff and puff when excited which is normal for the species (it sounds a bit like an asthma attack), and this is just what she did when under the desk. I would remove her, put her elsewhere and give her something to do, but the problem continued.

But then it got even worse.

She now runs under the desk and attacks my feet, dangerous for both her and me. Again, I pick her up and put her in her cage the minute she goes under the desk, but sometimes I am not fast enough.

Needing more help to solve this troubling problem, I did research, and emailed Pam
Clark for her thoughts. As always, Pam is a wealth of information, and here is some of what she shared with me:

“It seems from my observations that parrots actually become incrementally more hormonal as they get older, no matter what we do. . . .Once they start this behavior, it is extremely difficult to get them to stop. One answer might be to make sure that her wings are clipped really well and then to hang a boing from the ceiling that she might not be tempted to fly down from.

“I’ve been giving a lot of thought to diet recently, both because of this almost universal problem with hormonal parrots and because of the pulmonary hypertension and athlerosclerosis we’re seeing in older parrots. I’m now changing the way I feed and have become much stricter. It is carbohydrates (especially simple ones) and fats that are the primary culprits in increasing hormone production. You’ll read that increased protein is a problem too, but I don’t believe that. Protein is used for replacing tissues, etc, and is not used much for energy production. Carbs and fats are used for energy production and this triggers an increase in hormone production.

“As to how I’ve changed things: [my parrots] have their Harrison’s available all the time, but I do measure it so that I’m providing an amount consistent with the recommendations on the back of the bag. If they finish that during the day, they don’t get any more. (I do agree with Dr. Fern Van Sant that the overall amount of food can be a problem also.)

“In the morning, they get their salad, but fruit is limited. Every other evening, they get a few Nutriberries and Nutri-An cakes, and on the evenings in between they get Quinoa Pilaf or a combo of cooked whole grains and roasted veggies. I am also, though, limiting amounts more than ever before. I’ve also decreased the size of the nuts and things I put into foraging toys.”

Pam also recommended: “As you know, it’s imperative to keep her out of any ‘small, dark places,’ i.e. under the desk. Access to such places can cause very swift hormone spikes. If I were you, I would quit giving her any physical attention at all.”

I had been recently offering Pea a small chicken bone, a coveted treat of my Moluccan cockatoo and African grey, but this too is a no-no.

“Absolutely stop the chicken bones and evaluate her consumption of pellets. This is the best ‘barometer’ I know for figuring out if a parrot is getting too many carbs and fats in the diet. If she’s not eating many pellets, then it’s time to reduce any other food sources for carbs and fats – the categories of foods that will increase hormone production.

“You might try a very structured training approach. Teach her to station. Work with a perch that is as hard to get down from as possible. Reward her frequently for staying put with a small, but highly valued treat. As soon as she gets down – no conversation. Up she goes back on the perch. 2nd time, same thing. 3rd time, back in the cage she goes.”

I also used cashews as a reward when Pea did something special, like poop on command. Since cashews are among the highest in fat of all nuts, I’ll have to find something else that she will work for.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, and please share any ideas you may have about this common problem with all of us.

Thanks as always, to Pam. Her excellent advice can be found at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com


Pushing Limits, Testing Boundaries: Really?

As an adoption coordinator for Phoenix Landing, I help people navigate the challenges of living with parrots. I’ve learned a lot from families and birds over the years, and I’m still learning from the many people and parrots that I meet.

One of my goals is to give folks the tools to reduce the number of parrot bites.

People often make statements about their birds that, I must admit, baffle me.

“He’s just pushing the limits to see how much he can get away with.”
“She’s just testing boundaries, but she’ll soon learn who the boss is.”

To this I say, “Huh?”

The statements above are common ones when describing issues in child rearing. It’s natural for us to think of our birds as our children and to use our understanding of how to raise kids when we interact with parrots.

But birds aren’t children.

Birds are prey animals and we are predators.

Can you imagine a chicken testing boundaries with a fox, or a seal pushing the limits with a polar bear? How about seeing how far you can get with a mountain lion?

When a bird reacts by lunging, biting, or exhibiting body language that otherwise expresses discomfort, she is saying one thing, and one thing only: I am uncomfortable with this situation.

Please respect her clear communication, don’t force her to “toe the line,” and make trust building your top priority.

Teaching Henry to (finally!) use that tree

Getting your parrot to use a gym, tree, or other play area may take time. I recently trained my African gray to use a manzanita tree that I’ve had for years that no bird ever perched on.

Here’s how I did it.

1. I started with the tree a number of feet away from a T-stand that she uses regularly. I gave her time to accept the tree in this position.
2. I loaded the tree with her favorite toys, like cardboard cut into squares and hung on a chain.
3. Every few days, I moved the tree a few inches closer to her T-stand. It took about a month for me to move the tree so that it was right up against her T-perch. Each time I moved the tree, I watched to see if she was comfortable with the new position. Did she stand further away from the tree on her T-stand? Did she stop flying to and landing on the T-stand altogether? If she did, I moved the tree back an inch or two and waited a few days before trying again.
4. Over the course of a month, I moved the tree until it was right up against her T-stand. However, she still didn’t go on the tree.
5. I put some of her favorite toys on the tree so that she could reach them while still standing on the T-stand.
6. When I saw her play with the toy, I praised, praised, praised, and gave her a favorite treat (a bit of unsalted cashew).
7. I added more cardboard square toys on other tree branches, and other interesting toys too.

Success! One day, I came downstairs and there she was, standing on the tree like it was no big deal.

Why did this method work?


  • I watched her for signs of comfort/discomfort around this new object.
  • I moved the tree slowly and let her accept it at her own pace.
  • I made the tree valuable to her by covering it with her favorite toys.
  • I didn’t make a big deal out of it when she didn’t get on the tree. Birds can sense our frustration and if we fret about their actions (“Why aren’t you using this expensive tree I bought you? Why aren’t you using it RIGHT NOW?!?) Birds respond best to positive reinforcement and a calm approach.
  • I did make a big deal out of it when she got on the tree – she got a treat and praise.

Try it out, I hope it works for you.
See Henry enjoying the manzanita tree below, you can see the perch on her T-stand in the lower left.

What’s normal?

What do all of these “problems” have in common?

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with our parrot. Every time he sees us, he runs to the back of the cage trembling. If he gets out, he flies frantically around the room, as though he’s trying to escape. It’s like he’s scared of us.”
“Every time I try to pet my bird, he bites me.”
“My parrot screams at random times during the day. Really loudly! The neighbors are starting to complain.”
“Why can’t my bird just eat his food, and not throw it everywhere?”

These are not “problems” at all, but normal parrot behavior. Too often, our expectations don’t match the reality of parrot care taking, and the result is many birds lose their homes.

Caretakers can work with birds and the environment to minimize or eliminate these behaviors – the operative word being “work.”

What’s the key to understanding any parrot behavior or caretaker problem?

Parrots are prey animals. They are only a few generations removed from the wild.

Loud vocalizations, messiness, fear of predators (us), and many other behaviors that make parrots challenging animals are completely natural.

Conversely, the well-socialized bird is not ordinary. The well-socialized bird is like an athlete who works daily with a trainer to maintain his skills. This takes patience from both bird and caretaker. It takes respect, a keen eye for observation, and empathy.

It takes time.

As an adoption coordinator, I receive applications from new and experienced parrot people who wish to adopt a bird that wants to interact and is friendly. I’m never sure how to respond to this request.

Most birds don’t come fully loaded with Dog Mode. Most birds are normal.

Even a bird that is well socialized can quickly change when put in an environment where people don’t respect the parrot or respond to what the bird communicates.

The screaming terrified parrot is a bird who is acting normally. The parrot that perches on the hand is a miracle. Don’t take this wonder for granted. Don’t become jaded or complacent.

When a parrot steps on to your hand, marvel.

HORMONES: The Downside of the Good Life

Fern Van Sant, DVM
Presented by the Phoenix Landing Foundation
April 1, 2011

Birds were not invented at the pet store. So to successfully care for a parrot, one must understand the bird’s biological needs, and strive to meet these needs above others when looking for guidance on bird care. Understanding a parrot’s biology is essential since they have evolved from a unique array of habitats such as a variety of altitudes, temperatures etc. Birds are very adaptive.

For example, many parrots are subtropical – living 30 degrees north or south of the equator. For those species, they do not have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. Parakeets and cockatiels are good examples; they live further from the equator and are photoperiod responsive because of this. Their biological processes are triggered by the length of time these birds are exposed to sunlight. An increase in day length (light) signals abundance to these birds, and the time for mating. Water can also bring on mating behaviors, especially for birds from drought areas like cockatiels.
A study by E.D. Jarvis proves that animals respond to certain environmental triggers by producing proteins in their brains. These proteins then trigger certain types of behavior associated with breeding (a male canary singing, for example). This is also called Behaviorally Driven Gene Expression. So a change in light, food availability, height of a potential nest, or width of a hole can all trigger breeding for wild parrots.

Cockatoos are easy birds to breed, while Amazons are not. Breeders discovered that Amazons require a very particular hole of a certain height and depth to breed. Some behaviors are inherited, like lovebirds stashing things under their wings.

Most parrots are NOT designed to consistently reproduce. They are low-end reproducers. But, without environmental constraints, parrots can be in a continuous breeding mode. As hens produce more chicks, the hen’s health suffers, as does the health of the later chicks in the clutch. Later-born chicks are much less viable. For example, 12 eggs in a year in captivity might be the bird’s lifetime norm in the wild.

Parrots have evolved over 30+ million years. There are 332 species of parrots, with three subfamilies (Psittacine, Cacatuinae, and Loriinae).

Two-thirds of parrots are neotropical Psittacines (189 species) – those who live in central South America and the Caribbean islands.

The other third of parrots are found in Africa, India and South Asia (34 species) and Australia, Indonesia, and South Asia (109 species).
Parrots are flexible in our homes because they are flexible in their natural environments of forest, swamp, and dry land. For example, mitred conures are found all over the US, and the Maui conure, which started as 2 birds, has now grown to a flock of 100.

This myth assumes that one size fits all response to questions of proper diet, housing, behavior and other issues. However, each species and each individual will require care specific to their needs. There are three kinds of behaviors: innate, learned, and reproductive.

Parrot’s innate behaviors are for flight, nest selection, and vocalization. Parrots learn other behaviors, from interacting with the flock. For example, taking off is instinctive, landing and navigating is learned. Some colony nesters, like conures, may want to be more connected to you.

Reproductive behaviors include: pair bonding; vocalizations/duets; mutual preening; cavity seeking; nest building; sexual regurgitation; territorial defense; and copulation.
Do you know what a bird looks like when they are soliciting sex? Here is an example of one approach:

The hypothalamus starts the process by sending message to the “master gland” the pituitary gland. The pituitary, in turn, produces hormones to send to target organs, the gonads. The gonads are inactive at times, small and seasonally involuted. Females have one ovary on the left side, to lighten the load for flight.

The pineal gland is a day/night clock, sensing light which drives base physiology. Light is taken in through the eyes, the pineal gland and a third apparatus in the brain that is still unknown. This mystery apparatus has been proven to exist because birds who are blind and have no pineal gland still respond to light.

The Limbic system is the part of the brain that runs bonding, emotional responses, and attachment forming.

The species-specific hormonal cascade, from hypothalamus to pineal gland to gonad, happens in all birds.

Testosterone is highest in a male during nest building according to a UC Davis study.

Environmental triggers for endocrine events include light, molting, migration, and perhaps lunar cycles. Breeding and molting are biologically expensive and diametrically opposed. They do not happen at the same time.

Due to these factors, umbrella cockatoos do best with a very ordered, predictable day/night cycle.

Seasonal migration – great green macaws (also called Buffon’s macaws) migrate, as do Patagonian conures and smaller conures. These birds all migrate up and down in elevation. Tiny grass parakeets migrate 120 miles across the water to Tasmania to breed.

A hormonal trigger (as opposed to a metabolic one) produced by the thyroid takes parrots from breeding to molting. Primary feathers molt at a different time than those feathers on the bird’s trunk.

Amazons and macaw share the same nest hole at different times throughout the year.
Birds love warm food because of a thermal sensory apparatus on the roof of their mouth. When we give parrots warm food, we are simulating the actions of their mate.

Vocalizations and other hormonal triggers such as pair bonding, abundant light and food, or nesting can lead to CHRONIC HORMONAL STRESS.

Cavity seeking is also a result of the hormonal cascade. The bird may get on the floor underneath furniture, or go into a closet.
nesting lovie
When a parrot is well fed, has nest material, and has a lengthened photo period, the hormonal cascade can begin.

Copulation is initiated by lower back scratching.

Determinate layers have a specific number of eggs in a clutch. Budgies and cockatiels are non-determinate layers, laying eggs as long as the environment supports it. This causes a serious health risk to them.

Birds who have been bred are naturally passing on the genes of productive breeding. In other words, the birds that survive the breeding process are going to be more inclined to reproduce.

Parrots in the wild are low-end producers, and certain environmental constraints will limit their urge to breed.

Food availability is not a limiting factor for neotropical birds (food is pretty consistently available around the equator). Neotropical birds are limited by the availability of nest sites. Charles Munn did a study on scarlet macaws and found that adding more nest boxes to the birds’s environment resulted in more chicks.

However, the availability of food for those birds native to Australia, Africa and Indonesia can trigger or constrain their desire to breed. Seasonal abundance and drought is a limiting factor to non-neotropical birds. For example, goffins cockatoos in Australia struggle to find food and water during the drought. When food comes during the rainy season, they are ready to breed. They are designed for this kind of seasonal stress.

Birds that are in a chronic state of hormonal stress can exhibit several different results.

Clinical presentation of birds with hormonal issues (what the vet sees) include:
Feather picking
Territorial defense and aggression
Elevated mucus production in proventriculus, which can cause continuous vomiting and regurgitation
Degenerative conditions such as: osteoporosis; fractures; calcium and vitamin D3 deficiencies.

Estrogen stimulates the blood vessels. In the wild, a bird regulates its temperature thru flight. However, thermal regulation problems in the wing webs and legs can be a problem for any bird in our homes. These areas (wing webs and legs) help the bird to heat and cool because they are highly vascular (contain a lot of blood vessels). The inside of the legs has large vessels. An increase in estrogen causes these areas to flush with blood. Without the proper ability to thermal regulate, a bird may become hot and flushed in these areas, which can also lead to feather picking.
plucking grey
African Psittacines often develop feather destructive behavior at 9-14 months because they are over-stroked. They do not learn to fledge and fly as they would in the wild where their parents would make them leave the nest.

Just because we think a bird loves something, doesn’t mean we should provide it. We should only provide things that are in the bird’s best interest, not ours. Examples are over-stimulation through petting and stroking, foods that contain phyto-estrogens (sweet potatoes, soybeans).
Try “resetting” the bird by putting her in a novel environment.

Part of the problem is that vigorous, healthy parrots who are not driven by the need to breed are more difficult to live with; they are more demanding to keep them occupied. They are full of healthy energy!

When the vet does a physical exam, it starts with a detailed history.

Hormonal problems can lead to plucking, which can lead to dermatitis. The feathers are designed to, among other things, protect the skin. Skin is not designed to be exposed. If your bird has this condition, be sure that the bird thoroughly dries after any bathing. It is especially important that the wing webs are dry.

Therapies depend on each species, since they have evolved from different parts of the world (wet/dry; amount of light, etc).

The most important therapies include adding environmental constraints, just as it occurs in the wild. These include:
– Limiting shredding;
– Curtailing cavity seeking;
– Limiting physical contact (less petting!!);
– Adjusting feed schedules, such as limited food or fasting in the afternoons;
– Exercise!! More exercise, even for the elderly; and
– Spending time outdoors, especially in flight aviaries when possible.
Some short-term remedies, but not cures, can include:
Lupron can be given as a temporary solution. It down-regulates the gonads, but Lupron is expensive and it doesn’t work that long. Lupron sits on the binding site on the gonads, and prevents the hormones from landing and proteins from binding. It is a remedy, not a cure.

HCG injections are anti-inflammatory. Helps itchy macaws. It is also not a long-term cure because the immune system recognizes it and it stops working.

A more promising cure, Deslorelin, comes from Australia. It is an implant that lasts 8 months and is successful in hormonal birds.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Can be given in the form of palm oil (Sunshine Factor recommended), for birds that eat palm oil (like African Greys); and flax oil for birds who do not eat palm oil. Another good supplement for all birds is Avian Vegi-Dophilus, a probiotic specifically for birds.

Pellets are not recommended for birds from arid environments such as parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels. Pellets are hard on their kidneys and can cause gout. Avi-cakes are a good option for these birds.