By Tony Silva
I can recall that day in the 1970s as if it were today. I had walked into a quarantine station to see several pairs of a new species… a species that was commanding a hefty price– $800.00 per pair. The “pair” concept was a literal interpretation of just that—any two birds. As I walked to the cage containing them, they were typical of wild caught conures: they rushed to the farthest corner and hid in a clump. They were, even in that position, stunning: green, yellow, red and orange intermixed. I had previously only seen that species as taxonomic skins in a museum. The stuffed birds did not do justice to the birds before me. They were more beautiful that I had imagined. The birds were Sun Conures Aratinga [solstitialis] solstitialis.
The taxonomy of the Sun Conure has always been of interest. Some regard it as monotypic, meaning that it is a separate species from its allies the Jenday, Golden-capped and Sulphur-breasted Conures. These individuals, however, believe that the four species form a complex grouping, a closely related set of species that are separate but allied as a result of sharing certain features. I have long felt that the four forms are best treated as subspecies, the birds replacing each other geographically and in more than one case interbreeding where the ranges (historical or actual) converge. The theory behind a subspecies is that they should hybridize when they come n contact with one another and this is certainly the case here. Not only will they interbreed but the young are fertile. The Sun, Jenday, Golden-capped and the Sulphur-breasted Conures are in my opinion subspecies.
The Sulphur-breasted Conure was common in Brazilian aviculture many years ago. Indeed, during multiple conversations during the 1980s and 1990s with Nelson Kawall (a prominent aviculturist from Brazil and whom the Kawall´s Amazon Amazona kawalli was named after), we discussed how poorly colored were the Sun Conures kept in aviaries in Brazil and how they had to be bred to birds from the Guyanas to improve their color. In 2005 when the Sulphur-breasted Conure was finally named, the puzzle of the poorly colored birds was solved: they were a new form that had not been previously officially recognized.
That discovery, confirmed the subspecies concept that I endorse. The Sulphur-breasted and Sun Conures hybridize in the southern part of the Guianas, where the two meet. The Jenday and Golden-capped Conures also hybridize in the contact zone. I saw hybrids that had been taken from the wild at the home of Mauricio Ferreira dos Santos many years ago.
The contention as to the taxonomic status of the Sun Conure and allied species is common in the ornithological sciences. The Sulphur-breasted Conure is exemplary. This species was named maculata in 1776, but was dismissed as invalid; its coloration bears a semblance to the immature Sun Conure and museum specimens and individuals seen in the wild were suspected of being immature Sun Conures. It was not until 2005 that it was recognized that the birds were not immature solstitialis but a distinct form, which was named Aratinga pintoi (after Olivério M. de Oliveira Pinto, a Brazilian ornithologist). Four years later, it was discovered that maculata and pintoi were the same. In taxonomy, the first used name take precedence and thus the conure became known as Aratinga maculata. Initially it was believed to occur only in the Brazilian state of Pará, but its range has been extended to the Guianas (there are skins in the Netherlands collected in the Sipaliwini Savannah in Surinam) and thus it may be more widespread than believed. I have seen birds that were poorly colored in the Amazon, some distance north of Manaus, which I thought were immature Sun Conures but in retrospect were probably this species and this suggests that its range probably extends further than currently believed.
The Sun Conure occurs in Roraima, Brazil, north to the southern part of the Guianas and adjacent sections of Venezuela, with recent records from Santa Elena de Uaréin. Its Brazilian range is poorly understood and it appears to come in contact with the Sulphur-breasted Conure in various locations. This is where the aforementioned hybrids originate.
Up until the turn of the century, the Sun Conure was regarded as locally common in the wild, with the bird becoming rarer towards the Brazilian portion of the range. Its current status is believed to have changed. The Sun Conure is currently regarded as declining and possibly extirpated over large parts of its range. The bird trade has been implicated but changes to the habitat should not be discounted, as wild birds have not been traded for decades and yet the populations have not responded. (Generally when populations have declined as a result of trapping experience a reprieve, they respond. This is especially true of an ostensibly prolific species.)
In the wild, Sun Conures inhabit open forest, savannahs, palm groves and seasonally flooded scrub. They nest in narrow tree cavities. I was surprised the first time I peered inside an active nest. The tree trunk was not much thicker than my thigh. Inside a hollow approximately 17 inches deep there were two chicks and remnants of two eggs. The original wild birds did not nest for me until I provided them with a nest only 20 cm (8 in) square and 45 cm (18 in) deep. Today my Sun Conures readily accept nests 30 cm (12 in) square and 35 cm (14 in) deep. Interestingly they are only one of two species that I keep that will not accept a metal nesting box. They therefore have nests available made from plywood and encased in a wire enclosure to prevent escapees should they chew through the nest walls.
While the modern Sun Conure is a relatively recent introduction, the species was known long ago. The first breeder was Madame de Kerville in France in 1883. In the US, R. Schmidt claimed the first breeding in 1932. I do not question the French breeding, as birds from French Guyana for many years reached France, but the US breeding probably pertains to a Jenday Conure—if the photographs shown to me by the late Dave West in fact represented the birds bred by Schmidt.
The Sun Conure proved an incredibly welcome addition to aviculture. Interest in the birds was immediate. The young found a willing market in the pet buyer, who became mesmerized by the beauty; to many the vocal powers were not a consideration. By the early 1990s young were selling for between $700.00 and $1000.00 each in retail stores. One store that acquired the young from me, told me that he always had waiting customers and that the young were sold before he even collected them.
Today the Sun Conure is with the Green-cheeked Conure Pyrrhura molinae the most commonly bred and popular neo-tropical parakeet. I know of many collections with hundreds of pairs that produce young to satisfy the demand for a pet.
There are several reasons for their popularity. They can be noisy pets and do not learn to “speak” very well, but they are incredibly beautiful and can be affectionate, amusing and intelligent companions. The young do not go through the “teething” stage of Green-cheeked Conures when young and even as adults tend to be much more tractable. If they were not noisy, they would be much more popular than the Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandiscus as a companion bird.
As aviary birds, Sun Conures can be prolific. Pairs will produce multiple clutches yearly. Pairs lay 3-4 egg clutches. Incubation ranges from 22-26 days, with ambient temperature having a significant effect. In the heart of summer, I have recorded 22 and 23 days incubation in our birds while in winter, when temperatures can drop into the 50s°F the incubation period can extend to 26 days. The natal down is yellowish. The secondary down is greyish-white. Young fledge between 81-88 days after hatching. They are duller versions of their parents, with significant green in the plumage. This makes them quite similar to the Sulphur-breasted Conure. Adult coloration is acquired by a year of age and young only two years old are capable of breeding. In decades of intermittently keeping and breeding this species, the average age of first breeding has been 17.3 months for a female and 21.9 months for a male at the earliest to 34.1 months for a female and 33.5 months for a male at the latest. Early breeding has invariably been attributed to rearing the young in groups and then placing pairs that had nexused together in a breeding cage containing a nest and immediately offering the diet described below.
Pairs that are mature can be induced to breeding by feeding them primarily a balanced seed mix for 6-8 weeks. No fruits, vegetables or other dietary item is fed during this time. The intention is to provide a diet that will thwart breeding. After the 6-8 weeks, a complete and abrupt change to the diet takes place. The birds are then fed chopped fruits, raw peas and corn (both can be purchased frozen and allowed to thaw), chopped steamed carrot and sweet potatoes, sprouted seeds and pulses (safflower, small sunflower, popcorn, various types of peas, lentils and mung beans) and a piece of wheat bread. This is offered in the morning. In the afternoon, a small amount of pellets can be provided. In a collection containing 32 pairs, which had only 5 pairs breeding, this dietary changed induced 27 pairs to nest. The enriched diet is then fed throughout the nesting period. (Note: This same regimen can be used to induce many conures into nesting.)
Like all conures, the nesting box should be offered throughout the year for sleeping. Removing the nest to stop nesting is thus not an option to force a pair to rest. Providing an abrupt change to the diet is thus the best option. The birds are switched to the dry diet and allowed to rest. They can then be placed in a flight cage with other pairs and allowed to rest. Placing all of the pairs in the flight cage at once or separating the sexes is recommended to deter fighting. I would not allow the pair to produce more than three clutches if the young are taken before they are two weeks of age for hand-rearing. If they are allowed to rear the young to weaning, no more than two clutches should be permitted. This is to prevent over breeding from sapping the stamina of the pair.
When Sun Conures were rare, buyers always wanted young with brighter colors. I would give the young .10 cc of cod liver oil daily in the first feed from the time they were removed from the nest (on average at 7 days of age) and this induced them to have much brighter colors. I learned this trick from Amazonian Indians, who would hand-rear young parrots (i.e., Festive Amazons Amazona festiva festiva, Sulphur-breasted Conures, etc) and add fish oil to the food. The birds invariably weaned sporting adult coloration. This technique is differed from “tapiragem” whereby the indians would extract feathers and rub into the open shaft secretions from small frogs, this to produce mottled feathers for insertion into headdresses.
Two mutations in the Sun Conure have been reported.
The best-known mutation is the “red factor”, a form in which the bird has a distinctive reddish wash over the body. The differences between a normal and a red factor are significant and is easily understood when a bird is seen.
The red factor appeared in the early 1990s in Hawaii. The youngsters have distinctive reddish heads when feathering out. Once they acquire their adult coloration, the bird is stunning. Most do fade in intensity as they age, but even as adults the red factor is easily distinguished from a normally colored individual.
The red factor is dominant, meaning that either parent can carry the genetic ability to produce reddish colored young. On the other hand, I have never seen red factor young produced from normally colored siblings. The mutation has a lethal gene when two red factor individuals are paired together. The young will prosper until they approach weaning, when they begin to lose body motions; some become very unstable and will appear dead as they lay prostrated on the cage floor. They can be kept alive for weeks by hand-rearing them but they invariably perish. Prevention is here clearly easy: pair a red factor with a normally colored Sun Conure, allowing red young to be produced while and avoiding the lethal gene.
At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called “pied” Sun Conures. These birds have a reduced presence of red and appear almost yellow (except for the head, which retains the reddish or reddish-orange hint); the green in the wings is greatly reduced and flight feathers not uncommonly are white in color. One advantage of this mutation is that the young sport much brighter colors on first feathering out, having considerable yellow in the wings; in normal Sun Conures, the young have predominately green back and wings.
The mode of inheritance in the pied is recessive.
In the US, Kevin Clubb produced a yellowish form through selective breeding. I once kept these birds and they were primarily yellow, having the appearance of a small Golden Conure Guaruba guarouba. They bred to phenotype, though in my birds only the females appeared yellow.
The Sun Conure has proven to be an incredibly welcome addition to aviculture. They are an undemanding, beautiful and prolific species that can safely be recommended for the novice hobbyist. The more experience aviculturist can also find joy in this imposing parakeet.