Conures in Aviculture


South American parakeets of the genera Aratinga, Eupsittula, Psittacara, Guaruba, Thectocercus, Nandayus, Pyrrhura, Cyanoliseus, Leptosittaca and Ognorhynchus are collectively called by aviculturists in English conures, after the former (and now invalid) genus name Conurus; ornithologists tend to call these birds parakeets on account of their narrow, gradated tail.  Conures display tremendous variation in size, morphology and color. Some species resemble macaws in behavior and in their body structure– the Golden Conure Guaruba guarouba when seen in silhouette resembles the dwarf macaws of the genus Diopsittaca— but in the main Conures differ in many respects from the macaws. The small Pyrrhura employ helpers, typically young from a previous clutch that remains with their parents to help rear future siblings. In macaws I have only recorded this behavior in the Red-bellied Orhoptittaca manilata, a very aberrant species. The Golden Conure also nests colonially, with multiple hens nesting in the same tree and often in the same cavity, making breeding a community affair—multiple hens and males breed together and together they rear their young. Colonial nesting is also typical of the Patagonian Conure Cyanoliseus patagonus, a species in which several hens can lay in the same nest. No macaw except the aforementioned Red-bellied nests colonially. Conures also tend to feed on a greater variety of foods; no species displays the limited diet seen in some macaws, which feed on fatty palm seeds.

Like the macaws, all conures tend to be noisy, are highly sociable and live in groups. Breeding males typically join flock members while the hens incubate. All conures have long pointed tails, are monomorphic (they cannot be visually sexed) and the colors yellow and red are common to most species.

For many decades conure taxonomy was stagnant. If one examined a broad array of the Aratinga conures, for example, it become very apparent that the genus contained an assemblage of very dissimilar species: the Half-moon Aratinga (now Eupsittula) canicularis, for example, does not even remotely resemble the Red-masked Conure Aratinga  (now Psittacara) erythrogenys.

This disparity in species saw many species in the former genus Aratinga being transferred to Eupsittula and Psittacara. Pyrrhura conure taxonomy has also undergone some revisions, with many subspecies being elevated to species level. These changes will not affect their care and breeding, but should be borne in mind when doing literature searches.

Conures are strictly neo-tropical. They occur in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Several introduced populations are thriving. In south Florida one can see flocks of Blue-crowned Thectocercus acuticaudatus, Mitred Psittacara mitrata and Red-masked flying around. The latter two species freely hybridize and some completely hybrid populations now exist.

Conures range from very easy to difficult breeders. In general terms, the predominately green Psittacara and the Patagonian Conures are not easily bred. On the other hand, the Green-cheeked Conure Pyrrhura molinae is the most free breeder of the group. They will nest as early as 7 months of age and will produce multiple clutches in one season.

As avicultural subjects, some species have problems that are inherent to them. The Blue-throated Conure Pyrrhura cruentata, for example, is notorious for breaking eggs. The Red-masked and Mitred Conures seems to readily accept any nest but getting them to lay is another story. My view is that their social structure is not understood, as years ago the red cheeked form of the White-eyed Conure Psittacara leucophthalmus callogenys that I owned barely bred. When out of frustration I placed all the birds in an outdoor aviary in a group they nested extremely prolifically; in fact, in the absence of a nest some tunneled into the aviary floor and laid in burrows in the hard packed soil. The old wild imported Half-moon Conures were not easy to induce to breed. By offering them adapted nests with cork (see below), they suddenly felt encouraged. Fortunately for aviculture, most captive bred young nested more willingly than their wild caught counterparts.

To place the ease or difficulty to breed subject into perspective, the following partial list rates the more common species according to their willingness to nest. A 1 means that it is difficult, a 2 that it can be bred with some coaxing or that problems inherent in that species can frustrate the breeder but they are not insurmountable, and a 3 that it is an easily bred species. The principal used in the rating process is that the birds be sexed, are of breeding age, receive a good diet, are offered a proper nest and are healthy. When a species is mentioned, the corresponding subspecies are also considered. For example, a reference to Patagonian Conure means that the Greater, Lesser and Andean Patagonian Conures are regarded as the same.

Category 1: All of the green Psittacara with red on the head (mitrata, erythrogenys, wagleri), the Patagonian, Blue-crowned and White-eyed Conures Psittacara leucophthalmus.

Category 2: The Hispaniolan Psittacara chloropterus (breeds easily but some egg breakage is inherent in some populations), Golden, and most of the Pyrrhura conures.

Category 3: Green-cheeked, Maroon-bellied Pyrrhura frontalis, Crimson-bellied Pyrrhura perlata, Pearly Pyrrhura perlata ssp., Sun Aratinga solstitiaslis solstitialis, Jenday Aratinga s. jendaya, Golden-capped Aratinga s. auricapillus, Brown-throated Eupsittula pertinax, Nanday Nandayus nenday, Half-moon, Dusky Eupsittula weddellii and Golden-crowned Conures Eupsittula aurea.

In conures sexual maturity can be reached at under a year of age in the Green-cheeked to up to 3 years in the Patagonian Conures. Diet, housing and the nesting box can all induce or deter early breeding. Most species are seasonal, producing one or two clutches a year but in several species (including the Sun and Jenday Conures) nesting will take place year around if conditions are suitable.

Conures lay from 2-9 eggs per clutch. Pyrrhura lay the largest while the Greater Patagonian Conures Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami lays the smallest clutch. Incubation ranges from about 23 days in the smallest to 26 days in the largest species. Nestlings have yellowish or whitish down on hatching and invariably acquire a secondary down, typically grey in color. Young spend about 8 weeks in the nest, and may take from 3-6 more weeks to become independent.

Diet is key to success. I am always surprised when I visit an aviary and success is evasive. All I have to do is glance at the food bowl for the answer: a diet comprised of sunflower seed supplemented periodically with a bit of apple or orange is woefully inadequate. The birds may eventually breed, but real success will never be achieved. Conures should receive a diet comprised of a broad assortment of seeds or in the alternate pellets, or preferably a mixture of seeds (40%) and pellets (60%), considerable amounts of fruits and particularly beta-carotene rich vegetables and also greens, softfood and depending on the species nuts. We feed our conures pellets but supplement it at least thrice weekly with fruits of all types (especially the tropical varieties which are nutritionally superior to temperate fruits like apple, pear and grapes), vegetables (especially par-boiled carrot, sweet potatoes, beets and pumpkin, dark green leafy vegetables including broccoli and kale, peppers of all types, peas, corn and anything else that is fresh), cooked whole wheat pasta or brown rice, boiled garbanzo and pinto beans, sprouted seeds (including garbanzo and mung beans), and whole wheat bread. Sprouted seed is offered daily starting a month before the breeding season for those species that do not breed year around. For continuous nesters, we provide it daily. Food is offered in amounts sufficiently small to insure they are eaten but not in such inadequate levels that the birds go hungry. All food that can spoil is removed about two hours after being offered, and sprouts are washed thoroughly in water containing grapefruit seed extract or apple cider vinegar to deter bacterial growth. Nuts are offered to the Golden Conures, which require a slightly higher fat content in their diet. In winter we commonly give a little sunflower or safflower as the birds are maintained outdoors.

In trials using Jenday, Dusky and Half-moon Conures I found that pairs fed only a mixed seed diet (sunflower, safflower, corn, millet, oats, etc) or pellets did not reproduce as well. In three pairs of each set up in trials, the pairs whose diet was enriched with fruits, vegetables, sprouts and more bred 53% more prolifically than those fed on pellets alone and 61% more than those fed only on seeds. Clearly variety is key to success.

Conures are destructive and should be housed in a cage that can contain them. Some time back I received a frantic call from an aviculturist who lost a pair of Blue-crowned Conure housed in a cage made from chicken wire. The birds simply chewed a hole in the mesh and escaped. I recommend housing all species in a minimum of 16 and preferably 14 gauge wire. The small species should be housed in cages made from mesh 13 mm (1/2 in) x 25-75 cm (1-3 in). If housed in a mesh of 25 x 25 cm (1 x 1 n), the chances of them hanging themselves will be great; the birds will push their heads though one opening and try to retract it through the next opening, effectively hanging themselves. I know from personal experience. Decades ago a lost a female White-eared Conure Pyrrhura leucotis in such a manner. The loss was devastating—she was the only hen out of a group of 7 I owned.

Conures will breed in small cages. I have seen collections where Green-cheeks were bred in cages a mere 60 cm (24 in) square, but the objective should be in providing adequate housing to insure long term success; in small cages, the reproductive life will be shortened as the ability to exercise will be thwarted. In my collection, the cages range from 1.8 (6 ft) to 3.6 m (12 ft) for my conures. Not only are the birds able to fly, but watching them as they move back and forth proves far more enjoyable. The cage width should be sufficient to allow the wings to be opened without the ends touching the cage sides. When I reared many Green-cheeks, Painted Pyrrhura picta, Hoffmann´s Pyrrhura hoffmanni and White-eared Conures Pyrrhura leucotis, I housed them in cages 1.8 m (6 ft) long x 60 cm (24 in) wide x 90 cm (3 ft) high. The birds were flighted after breeding in cages 3.6 m (12 ft) long.

Conures in the wild nest in tree cavities, rock walls or in arboreal termites´ mounds; indeed, the range of the Half-moon coincides with that of the black termite Nasutitermes nigriceps. In captivity all conures will utilize a nesting box, though the structure and size will need to be varied depending on the species. When I first acquired Half-moon Conures, the birds failed to nest until I filled the traditional wooden nesting box with a block of cork, which resembles the termitarium they use in the wild in color and structure. The birds immediately excavated a cavity and bred. Subsequent generations readily accepted the standard nest with a few chunks of rotted wood inside, this so they could make their own nesting material.

In general I offer the smaller conures an L-shaped and a grandfather type nest sitting on its side, the latter containing a baffle to reduce the amount of light reaching the bottom; all conures like dark nesting chambers. Only a few (like the domesticated Sun Conures) readily accept the standard Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus nesting boxes. All nests are filled with wood for them to chew, as the time needed to reduce the wood to slivers and the darkness of the nest seems to induce ovulation. For species prone to egg breakage, I would recommend a deep and narrow nest with a slightly larger nesting chamber. Patagonian Conures can be fickle. We have now settled on L-shaped nests for them, though the birds selected these from an assortment of nests—Z, Y and standard grandfather clock types with an without an entrance funnel. The nest depths average 45 cm (18 in). All nests have an inspection door and a ladder leading to the nesting chamber.

Conures tend to be excellent parents. With species that produce large clutches, the larger young may have to be removed to allow the youngest chicks to be fed. If intending to hand-rear the young, we remove them at around 2 weeks of age. By then hand-rearing them is an easy process. Hand-reared or parent-reared young are equally good breeders. If he birds are intended for breeding, we do try to keep them in flocks, even if these may not consist of the same species.

Finally, the subject of enrichment must be discussed. Several species (Golden, Crimson-bellied and Rose-crowned Conures Pyrrhura rhodocephala) are notorious for plucking, especially if they are kept in a sterile breeding environment. I have found in my pairs of these species that as long as they receive enrichment in the form of fresh branches (whose bark and leaves many will readily eat), pods, split whole green coconuts, palm seeds and more, they will not bother their feathers. We also provide chains (never rope, which can grow bacteria or the fibers can wrap around the legs or toes), swings and other toys but enrichment is what invariably keeps them occupied the longest.

With pairs that do not nest, they are flocked in cages in groups and then returned to their breeding cages. After about six months in a group, the pairs seem to gear up and commence breeding.

In summary, conures can be noisy but their active, impish behavior, often willingness to breed and beauty justifies that they be given more attention.