The morning was steamy and hot. As part of my daily routine I would go to the Ver-o-Peso, the market sitting at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, in the Brazilian city of Belém do Pará. I would go there to buy fruits and to look in the fish market, to see what species of aquarium fish were being sold for human consumption. That day I bought extra, so that I could take some to a man I had barely met. The fruit would be payment for sitting with me and discussing a subject he had mentioned casually, almost fleeting several days earlier as we drank cafezinho, the strong overly sweet coffee drunk in the country, in the store of aviculturist Juan Carlos Ferreira. The information seemed incredible. The man was known locally as Nascimento—a short, slightly overweight and irascible figure whose personality metamorphosed when he spoke about birds. Anyone would have dismissed him as a doido, a crazyman, until they heard him talk about birds.
Nascimento told me that the birds I was asking about nested in group, selecting an emergent typically in a cleared area or agricultural field and reared the young as a family. This seemed incredible. Had I not been able to look into his eyes, I would have suspected the person had been overly fond of cachaça, or fire water. No conure was known to nest in such a manner; indeed the perception was that they were highly territorial when breeding, aggressively chasing any pair some distance from the immediate vicinity of their nest. Nascimento argued vehemently against that concept. The bird involved was the Golden Conure Guaruba guarouba, the ararajuba or yellow macaw in the indigenous language.
Nascimento was a bird trapper. His home always held various unique species—Amazona ochrocephala xantholaema, Deroptyus accipitrinus fuscifrons and others– but he was also a keen observer, as borne by subsequent field work. Indeed, every detail he described in our many conversations over the years were confirmed decades later. He told me that the Blue-fronted Amazon Amazona aestiva nested in some areas in terrestrial termitaria (at the time the only ground nesting Amazon was the Bahamas race of Amazona leucocephala), that the “Sun Conures” Aratinga solstitialis in the Brazilian range were a different type than those found further north (ie. in the Guianas and Venezuela), sporting a perpetual immature plumage (the form is now called Sulphur-breasted Conure Aratinga maculata), that the Lear’s Macaw Anodorhynchus leari originated in a desolate dry area (subsequently confirmed by research) and that the Spix´s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii was destined to vanish, as the population was small and facing multiple pressures—habitat modification by goats, Africanized bees and excess trapping. He was right in every instance. He was also correct in his claim about the Golden Conures nesting in groups. Multiple females will lay in a cavity and then then entire clan will rear the young.
Golden Conures are stunning birds. Georg Marcgraf, who apparently knew the species as a cage bird, described it for the first time in 1638. No writer since then has failed to be impressed by its beauty—a rich yellow plumage and green flight feathers.
Guaruba guarouba is a large, typically noisy conure that when tame is extremely gentle. If I ever catch any of my adults and move them away from their cage, they quickly revert to their tameness and will readily step up on my hand. They are only aggressive when nesting, when they would not hesitate to attack any intruding hand. They then perform all series of displays. Once a visiting school kid said they reminded him of Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk, as they pace back and forth on the perch performing animated gestures.
Golden Conures are very sociable, though are poor at playing with their surroundings. In groups, they are constantly interacting. In such a setting, the feathers seem to typically suffer from the excess attention, with the flights and tail feathers being chewed. Only if they are trained to play with items introduced into their cage will they ignore their feathers. To achieve this training, we rear our young Guaruba with Sun Conures Aratinga solstitialis, who entice the Golden Conures to chew palm fronds, sections of decomposing wood, fresh branches, flowers, pods, palm seeds, coconuts and more. The effort is in my opinion justified as the interaction of the group will provide hours of observation that is even more enjoyable if the birds sport flawless feathering. Single housed pairs tend to be less vulnerable to feather chewing, though also need to be kept occupied. If they do chew their feathers, it will be around nesting time. Most will allow their feathers to regrow if they chewed them once the post breeding hormonal state has dissipated.
The sociable nature of the Golden Conure allows it to be bred in groups or in trios; in Brazil several collections breed two females to one male. I breed mine in pairs but house them collaterally, which has a stimulating effect. Indeed, over the decades I have also found that pairs housed in a group tend to nest successfully earlier (average 31.9 months, 18 pairs) compared to pairs kept in an isolated manner (average 42.3 months, 11 pairs). Interestingly I have also found that the pairs housed in groups collaterally will nest much more prolifically (average 2.9 clutches per annum) than those housed singly (1.7 clutches per annum). The auditory and visual contact is with this species (like some other neo-tropical parrots) key to inducing breeding.
In terms of diet, we treat Golden Conures like miniature macaws. They are fed a little fruit, especially those that are not sweet, vegetables (particularly steamed carrot, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, which are beta carotene rich), cooked whole grain pasta and brown rice, pellets, sprouted grains and seeds, and wheat bread liberally smeared with almond or peanut butter, some cracked walnuts or almonds, or a bit of sunflower seed. The fatty component to the diet is varied. We can grow a number of items that they find in the wild and these, even in birds that are generations from their wild ancestors, are preferred above other fruit. They will, for example, eat the astringent cashew fruit (note fruit, not the nut) and also the seeds of guava over temperate fruits or vegetables. The diet is made austere during our Florida winter, and consists primarily of pellets, vegetables and a fat component, but starting in February (the approach of spring) they receive sprouted seeds, pasta or rice, fruits and much more fat. Their nests are filled with rotted wood and sprinklers are placed over the cages to allow daily bathing for a period of about 10 minutes. The birds typically nest a month later. The original birds did not stop nesting during the heart of summer like many other parrots in the collection, being impervious to the heat, but the latest generation takes a rest in July, August and September and nest again in November.
Why do we augment the fat in the diet for nesting? Many years ago I collected the crop contents of wild youngsters being parent reared, as well as of adults which Nascimento had trapped. There was a distinct increase in the fat content of foods being fed to the young. This observation has also been made in macaws and other species. The fat provides energy that the growing young require.
Enclosure and nest size seem to be less important than diet in this species. I have had pairs nest successfully in cages 1.8 m (6 ft) long and aviaries 4.5 m (15 ft) long. Rarely will the pairs utilize the flight space; instead they will quickly crawl
from one end to the other. Mine nest in boxes 40 cm (16 in) deep and 30 cm (12 in) square or in L-shaped nests made for medium sized parrots. They do not seem to be very demanding in terms of the nest and once a pair laid in a log placed on their enclosure floor for chewing, the birds tunneling into one side. I realized what was happening when I reached into the cage to replace the log. The female, which had been great at hiding her activity, flew at me and latched onto my shirt. I immediately realized that she was nesting inside. When I was able to distract her and look, I found the nest to contain three eggs.
Golden Conures lay clutches of 3-5 eggs, with 4 being average. Incubation in my birds oscillates around 26 days. Young are born covered with a white down that is yellow hinted. The bill is large and is shovel like. Up until this stage they are very much like Pionites. They develop a scant secondary down, being rather naked. The chicks from a young age recognize their feeder and people they see regularly and are extremely alert; I often see them following me as I move around the hand-rearing room. They are adorable as they feather out and this results in them receiving far more attention than the other young. Like macaws, they can flip on their backs when startled. Weaning can be a problem, with some calling constantly with wings outstretched and others weaning relatively easily. I have found that young that tend to cry for food and are slow to wean often have slight bacterial or fungal infection.
The Golden Conure was once rare, but as more and more are produced in aviculture, this species is becoming readily available. Indeed, in Brazil there are collections that focus on producing young for the pet trade. As aviary birds they would be one species I would never be without. They still mesmerize me like that hot morning decades ago when Nascimento took me to the Gurupí area and showed me as bird after bird emerged from a dead tree in a field and gathered in a nearby tree before leaving to forage in the nearby forest. That day I was struck by its unique nesting habits but above all by the brilliant yellow birds as they flew into the forest to feed. If you ever have the opportunity, do not hesitate and add this conure to your collection.