The Yellow-shouldered Amazon
I was a young and inexperienced aviculturist when I first met Ramon Noegel. For decades Noegel the doyen of Amazon parrot breeders worldwide. He was eccentric, charismatic, intelligent and showed an avicultural prowess that few could emulate. He achieved successes when others could only dream about them. It was in his collection that I first saw the Yellow-shouldered Amazon Amazona barbadensis—a small, voluble and charismatic species. At the time, the Yellow-shouldered was very rare in aviculture. It had never been the subject of trade, and the few birds in aviculture were scattered; all had been imported as pets, had been singletons that had been imported with other species, or were acquired by sailors who sold them on reaching a port of call. When I lived in the Canary Islands, on several occasions I stumbled upon sailors returning from Venezuela with a Yellow-shouldered they were trying to sell at the market Nuestra Señora de Africa.
Ramon had a single bird at the time—a male that spoke and had a personality more analogous to a small child than an Amazon. I fell in love with that bird. It laughed, whistled, played and would hang in every imaginable position. Ramon said he would not stop until he found it a mate and breed it. This he did.
Noegel had outstanding breeding success with Amazons. The Cayman Island Amazons Amazona leucocephala caymanensis was first bred in captivity by him in 1974. The following year he bred the Isle of Pines Amazon Amazona leucocephala palmarum, followed by the Black-billed Amazon Amazona agilis in 1978, the Cayman Brac and Tucuman Amazons Amazona leucocephala hesterna and Amazona tucumana respectively in 1981, both subspecies of Amazona barbadensis in 1982 and the Red-browed Amazona rhodocorytha, Yellow-lored Amazona xantholora and the parvipes subspecies of the Yellow-naped Amazon Amazona auropalliata in 1984. All of these were first captive breedings.
After he acquired every barbadensis that he could find, Ramon Noegel stressed the validity of the two subspecies which had been described; he was convinced the birds could be separated into the two forms, though their origin was obscure and some individuals showed intermediate features. Allegedly Amazona barbadensis barbadensis, which occurs on mainland Venezuela, is more colorful than the insular Amazona barbadensis rothschildi found on the islands of Bonaire, Margarita and Blanquilla off northern Venezuela. When German ornithologist Ernst Hartert, in 1892, named rothschildi (after Walter Rothschild, 1868-1937) he described the diagnostic feature as a bird that was less colorful than the nominate subspecies. The nominate form, Amazona barbadensis barbadensis, had been described by J.F.Gmelin in 1788. Gmelin was apparently confused. He named the bird after Barbados, where it does not occur; the type of Psittacus barbadensis either originated from mainland Venezuela or less likely Aruba, where the parrot is now extinct. Such errors were not atypical at the time. For example, the Mexican Amazona viridigenalis was described by Cassin in 1853 as coming from ‘South America’ and the Brazilian Amazona pretrei pretrei by Temminck in 1830 as originating in Mexico.
The validity of rothschildi has been the subject of contention. In Handbook of Birds of the World, volume 4 (1997), Josep del Hoyo and associates describe rothschildi as invalid as a subspecies. Juniper and Parr (A Guide to Parrots of the World, 1998) agree, writing: “The name rosthschildi has been given to birds on the islands in the S Caribbean on account of less yellow on bend of wing with some red feathers mixed in, a shorter tail and less heavy bill. However, these differences are apparently aged- rather than range-related”. They did not recognize rothschldi as valid. In contrast, Thomas Arndt and Matthias Reinschmidt in their book on the genus (Amazonen, 2 volumes, 2006-2009) recognize both subspecies.
My opinion about the validity of rosthschildi has varied over the years but with mounting evidence I am convinced the insular form is indeed valid. If one were to examine a very large series, it quickly becomes apparent that in fact the less colorful form occurs on the mainland and that individuals with more yellow on the head and a stockier body are found on the islands. There are also behavioral differences that are apparent in adults.
Amazona barbadensis is relatively small and has a comparatively small head. These are adaptations for surviving in a dry habitat. In fact, this parrot prefers dry scrub, a relatively arid environment; indeed it appears to have evolved to survive in dry areas, eating whatever food is available, nesting in trees or in rock facings, and producing relatively large clutches. Its numbers fluctuate a great deal, diminishing in very inhospitable years and flourishing during wet years. This has, in evolutionary terms, made it a willing breeder and highly adaptable.
After the environmental stressors, collection for the local pet trade is a militating factor. Throughout the range this species is regarded as a good talker and is consequently traded (albeit illegally) as pets. One can understand why they are so popular when one is familiar with their personality. It is these same traits that make it such a coveted aviary bird.
Because Amazona barbadensis adapts readily to captivity and is relatively easy to breed, it is now well established in aviculture worldwide—a distinct difference from thirty years ago when seeing one individual was considered fortuitous. So successful has the species been that in Florida alone no fewer than 60 young are produced yearly by a handful of breeders.
After my first encounter early one morning while walking with Ramon through his collection, I started searching for this species. I acquired my first Amazona barbadensis in 1984. The male was obtained first and then months later the female. Both were former pets. The male was a character. He would talk, whistle, sing and move constantly. He was a favorite. The female was an atypical barbadensis. Indeed, she reminded more of a Yellow-faced Amazon Alipiopsitta xanthops with her quiet, often sheepish behavior. They were opposites but proved very compatible. They never fought and always perched together.
Breeding barbadensis can be ornery. Males can prove vicious even to their mates. Today my view (shared by other breeders of this species) is that the calmer males are the ones most likely to be successful breeders. The agitated, garrulous males sometimes become so aggressive that the females eschew them, preventing successful mating. Some have even been known to injure their mates.
Within months of bringing together my pair, the hen laid. Two young were reared. At the time of breeding the male was around 23 years old and the female 12 years old. Neither had ever been with another bird, nor in a breeding situation. That example, little would I know at the time, was illustrative of the willingness of this species to breed.
I eventually sold my barbadensis but my love for the species never ended. Indeed today I have 4 pairs and a handful of youngsters, these representing both subspecies.
My return to breeding the Yellow-shouldered started in 2008, when I visited a flea market where everything from fresh fruit to clothing, shoes, plants and birds are sold. In one cage in the bird shop there were 2 young barbadensis. I immediately bought them. I later learned that their mother was reared by Joe Carte (another early American breeder) and their father in my collection. I also own a second male that I also reared—the first barbadensis that I hatched. That bird came into my possession more than 20 years after I hand-reared him. He is my favorite, bringing back fond memories of his father and behaving like him in many respects. When his mate is on eggs, he chews his tail and flight feathers from loneliness, though the cage contains every imaginable form of enrichment possible. He so adores his mate that he constantly checks on her in the nest. When she emerges to defecate, he is like a child: he cannot stop moving, talking, whistling and following her closely. I have never seen two Amazon parrots that are more compatible.
I know when my yellow-shoulders are about to nest by changes in their calling: the hens produce a high double note call that I have never heard at any other time. From my experience, the clutch size ranges from 2 to 5 eggs, though 4 is most common. I have had them hatch as early as 23 days and as late as 27 days. Normally they nest for me in summer (starting in May), but when they precisely start depends on how cold the Florida winter was and how much rain fell during the winter (normally a dry time). During the past six years, south Florida has experienced significant cold in December and January. One year, we had frost on the lawn. The cold and rain resulted in one pair laying in late January—a period I have never had a barbadensis breed. This flexibility is an adaptation for surviving in a hard climate.
Young barbadensis have scant, whitish primary down like other Amazons; only the Yellow-faced Amazon Alipiopsitta xanthops has bright yellow down and this fact, along with a unique behavior and recent DNA analysis has resulted in it being separated to a genus of its own. The secondary down is short and grayish. The young normally display less color than the adults. Sometimes the horn-colored bill has grayish hints. They wean by 12 weeks and can lay as early as 2 years, though normally 3 years is more common; I do not know of any male younger than 3 that has been able to fertilize a hen.
I keep my young in a group, where they are given considerable enrichment items, including the seeds of every palm tree that I can obtain, the pods of Royal Poinciana, Pandanus pods, whole fruit, bananas thrown on top of their enclosure to force the birds to work to obtain the fruit, fresh branches and anything else that may keep them occupied and more importantly that allows the birds to remain close. I have found that group rearing thwarts exceptional aggression in males at a later stage in life. I have seen extreme aggression develop in my birds only in a male that years ago I kept as a pet in a cage by himself. He was a tyrant and was eschewed by every possible mate. That particular individual never bred.
Youngsters are kept in flights until they begin to pair off and mature. At that stage they are separated and placed in cages with a nesting box at the front. The cages are separated by a solid piece of metal to prevent visual contact. This is because visual contact with another male results in the birds becoming excessively agitated and if they cannot attack the other male they vent their angst on the female. Also, with another male in sight they become distracted and not uncommonly produce clear eggs. The same pairs when visually blocked produced fertile eggs.
Yellow-shouldered Amazons as they become more available—and there are many collections with large numbers of pairs that should start breeding within the next few years—will become extremely popular because of their personality. They are special in many ways and remain one of my favorite species after so many years.