Pedro Garcia has been my trusted field guide for a very long time. He waits for me at the Eduardo Gomes International Airport in the Amazonian city of Manaus in Brazil. We drop my luggage off and then proceed into the jungle. As a tropical fish fanatic, we would sometimes take a canoe into the forest, where I would look for Discus Symphysodon sp. at night, when they come to the surface and can be briefly blinded by a torch to facilitate collection; at other times it was parrots that I wanted to see and study. Pedro has an intimate knowledge of the forest. Many times what he has promised has played out before me like a movie. Everyone I have sent to him has come back praising his kindness, patience and knowledge of the forest and its wildlife.
That early morning, as we headed north towards one of the Indian reservations, we stopped for a brief breakfast of dark coffee (I am lactose intolerant and stopped drinking milk more than 30 years ago) and tapioca, a pancake-like bread that is filled with pieces of Brazilnut and the pericarp of palm. It is the breakfast of many forest people. I have always found it tasty.
I quickly finished my breakfast and we headed into the forest. After about half an hour, Pedro stopped me and pointed to a cleft created by a branch that had snapped off. Out of the cavity came one, then another, then another and finally, almost in tandem, a pair. The birds were Black-headed Caiques Pionites melanocephalus. The coloration suggested it was a pair and their three young. As is typical of many small parrots in the neo-tropics, the bird slept in the cavity. They emerged early to vocalize, wing-whirr (a display where they stand straight up and quickly flutter the wings) and then preened before venturing into the forest to feed.
At dusk arrived, we returned to the same spot. The family group appeared after 19 minutes. They entered the cavity one by one as darkness covered the forest.
Over many decades I have observed this same behavior in a plethora of species ranging from Brotogeris parakeets to conures. In the case of the caiques, which can be highly territorial, the group returns several times during the day to inspect the cavity. I have witnessed some very aggressive battles when another family party was apprehended entering an already occupied nest. In one case, two birds latched onto each other and fell to the forest floor. Caiques can be exceptionally sociable—they can be seen nesting in adjacent trees—but an occupied cavity is defended and no intruder is ever tolerated.
My field observations suggest that caiques are highly sociable, associating in groups and interacting away from their nest; that they typically nest in loose aggregates, with more than one family possibly utilizing the same tree as long as the entrance to the nesting cavity faces in the opposite direction; and that the nest tends to be fairly narrow and deep. Many breeders complain about caiques breaking their eggs. I have often found that these pairs, once given a narrow and deep nest, whose bottom is completely dark, stop this habit. Years ago I used a bottle shaped nest that was only 15 cm (6 in) square on the top 60 cm (24 in) and then opened into a larger nesting chamber 25 cm (10 in) square at the bottom 30 cm (12 inches). Not one pair ever broke their eggs, though if a standard square nest (30 cm [12 in] square and 45 cm [18 in] deep or a 45 cm square nest) was utilized, those same pairs invariably broke eggs. It has always been difficult to look into the bottom of a wild caique nest. Today my pairs are held inside a wire enclosure were bright light never enters the nest.
Caiques accept an extremely broad diversity of foods. Their bill is very sharp and powerful, capable of breaking through the hard skin of many forest fruits or pods. These types of foods form the basic wild diet. They seem to use soft, rather mushy fruits mainly for the juices, which they extract; they fling the chewed pulp and skin in every direction. Caique owners will know exactly what I am describing. They will also readily eat lizards, insects and small birds. I have seen a pair of White-bellied Caiques Pionites leucogaster fight over a small lizard, which one had caught. The birds ended up chasing each other from tree to tree and then out of sight into the forest. My own birds have eaten snails, which are common in Florida, and once when a group was kept in a large flight, they hunted down a sparrow that had somehow managed to get through the feed hatch. It had been killed and partly eaten before I could get it out of the cage.
There are two species of caiques. Their behavior is similar, though the Black-headed seems to be more assertive in the wild. I have seen family groups show aggression towards much larger parrots that attempted to feed in the same tree that they were foraging in. I have never seen such bellicose acts in the White-bellied.
The two species have a range that is separated by the Amazon River, called Solimoĕs west of Manaus. The White-bellied Pionites leucogaster xanthomerius is differentiated from the Green-thighed Pionites leucogaster leucogaster by the color of the thighs, which are yellow and green respectively; all caiques have a white belly, so the reference to one particular subspecies as the “white-bellied” is actually a misnomer. The rarest of the caiques is the Yellow-tailed Pionites leucogaster xanthurus. In this form the tail is yellow. It either hybridized with Pionites leucogaster xanthomerius or an undescribed new subspecies occurs along the Brazil/Bolivia border. Based on information from Mauricio Herrera, this form has the central tail feathers green and the lateral feathers yellow.
The Black-headed Pionites melanocephalus melanocephalus has a subspecies called the Pallid Caique Pionites melanocephalus pallidus. The differences are orange and yellow colored thighs, respectively.
There have been claims that that White-headed and Black-headed hybridize in the wild, but I suspect the birds involved were young White-bellieds, which fledge with dark feathers in the crown. Many years ago, I examined one of the reputed hybrids years ago in the archives of the Museu Goeldi in Belém do Pará in Brazil. I was not convinced of the claim and hybridized the two species in my collection. Hybrids as adult have the appearance of a White-bellied with orangish thighs and some black on the crown. As immatures the orangish thighs are very obvious. The bird in the museum was unquestionable a pure White-bellied. Its thighs were yellow. It showed the typical immature dark head coloring. Indeed I have never seen the two species in the same habitat.
As aviary birds caiques are consuming. They are curious, active, vocal, playful and, if tame, can become aggressive. I have pairs that will viciously attack anyone who intrudes into their cage. Mine are always kept busy with enrichment. Spent tissue boxes filled with balls of tightly packed newspaper containing a few seeds are a favorite item. I conceived this after watching wild pairs explore every cavity they passed in the forest (and which often lead to the aforementioned fracas with others of their kind). I have also placed some seeds on the bottom of a flower pot and then filled these with shavings. The birds in both cases worked hard to find the food treats. My whole goal is to keep the caiques occupied to deter plucking, which is not uncommonly reported in the group.
My pairs are fed tremendous variety. They enjoy their fruits, vegetables, sprouts, pasta, brown rice, seeds and pellets tremendously, but these are always ignored over palm seeds, whose covering is hard and which they must work at to penetrate.
Caiques bathe very regularly. Ours are on an automatic watering system, but every individual has figured out how to grasp the nipple to make the water flow and thus bathe. I have also seen one individual perch above the nipple while the other one stood below and bathed, then changed position for the other individual to be able to wet his feathers. Bowls containing water are also used. Occasionally I will take Moringa leaves or palm fronds, mist them and then place the bunch inside the cage. The caiques will rub against these like cats.
In caiques, bathing keeps the plumage clean and sleek. In the wild I have seen caiques bathe but not drink from water contained in the center of a forest bromeliad. They will also bathe in water held in a bowl in a tree, or flutter amongst the wet leaves after a rain. I have never seen them descend to the ground to bathe or drink.
We maintain several pairs in an enclosed area. Each pair is housed in a cage that is separated from the nest by a distance of from 15-30 cm (6-12 in). The close association stimulates nesting. In fact, I have never had only one pair nest at any given time. When they nest, it is usually a group of pairs that are closest to each other.
Caiques produce an average of 4 eggs to a clutch. Incubation lasts 26 days. The chicks hatch covered in a white down. They are easily hand-reared when they are a few weeks old, but some breeders have tremendous difficulty hand-rearing them from birth. I suspect this is because they easily aspirate; they tend to flip on their backs, resulting in the liquid formula going into the lungs. If you are forced to hand-rear chicks from hatching, place them penguin-like in a paper espresso coffee cup; use tissue to pad the cup. This will prevent them from turning on their backs for the critical first 4-5 days. Afterwards they can be treated like any other parrot chick. Caiques as they grow and before they feather out bear an uncanny similarity to Golden Conures Guaruba guarouba, though the latter can be separated by a darkish hint along the eye lids. The appearance is almost as if someone had applied make up to the Golden Conures.
As chicks grow, many regurgitate the first feeding. I find that under normal circumstances this is normal. We overcome this by insuring that the formula is of the proper warmth and by feeding only a small amount during the first feed. After this feeding, the problem disappears until the following morning.
In our experience, caiques mature at three years of age if allowed to pair naturally. If forced paired, they typically take about another year or two to begin breeding.
Four our pairs, we add chunks of rotted wood the nest to induce the natural process of chewing. This activity stains the white breast feathers and tells us when the pairs are about to nest. The pairs and young have access to the nest throughout the year, utilizing these for sleeping. Pet birds will readily use small cloth tents, but I have seen several cases where the birds have chewed the fibers, these entangling and constricting the toe. Providing a small Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus nest is far more suitable— and less risky.
Caiques delight in playing with one another. I do not feel that they should be kept as singles, but this is a personal opinion. I have seen very happy pets that lived single lives. Since keeping them busy is so important, having more than one bird will allow them to play for prolonged periods each day. I know of several owners who have more than one. They play and interact with each individual in a room away from where the cages are maintained, though each night the birds are allowed to interact and romp.
Caiques can be extremely interesting, comical pets. They jump, walk slowly, display, will rub themselves like cats against you or an object, wing-whirr and produce other unique displays. They can be demanding, unpredictable and jealous single owner pets if not proper socialized when young. Insuring that the bird understands that you are the dominant flock member is important, as is the step-up/step-down process. Because of their territorial nature, most bites occur when the owner reaches into their cage for the bird. Because of this, a step-up onto a perch or down from the same is a very important lesson to teach. I also highly recommend that they are trained to sit on the hand (with elbow pointing down) to discourage perching on the shoulder, where they can become difficult to retrieve. Some will also nip without warning when perched on a shoulder if they believe that they are in control. Watching behavior is important, for caiques like Amazons display their intentions with their actions. A caique that is displaying (including flashing the eyes) may nip if suddenly reached for.
The caiques are fascinating and are highly recommended for the pet person looking for a unique pet. The breeder will likewise find much in this very interesting group. They are one group that will always find a place in my home.