Double-Eyed Fig Parrots
by Geoff Girvan
This article is based on the captive situation of the Red-browed Fig Parrot, and covers the following topics:
It has also been written because I am well aware of the intention to obtain C.d. coxeni - Coxen’s Fig Parrot birds for study, including breeding in the captive situation. I believe that there are serious flaws in what is being proposed, although I believe that the concept is very supportable and urgent in its status for the sake and well-being of that sub-species, if done professionally.
There are three sub-species of the double-eyed Fig parrot in Australia, Marshall's (C.d. marshalli), Red-browed (C.d. macleayana) and Coxen's (C.d. coxeni).
The two aforementioned are reported as being in good numbers in their natural habitat. The latter is rarely sighted now, and even though funding has recently been provided to attempt an estimate of the number remaining in the wild, few sightings have been reported.
One problem with studies or observations in the wild is that, even having established a suitable viewing area, they are difficult birds to accurately observe because of their size, colour and rapid movement in a forest or near-forest situation. They are usually high up and on the edge of the foliage. When they are few in number it is even more difficult to get an idea of their population.
In my opinion authenticated studies in a very strictly controlled research program on the two sub-species C.d. marshalli(Marshall's Fig parrot) and C.d. macleayana (Red-browed Fig parrot) are the minimum needed to be carried out over several years to provide the confidence that such a program with coxeni has a realistic chance of succeeding. These studies require experienced aviculturists with practical knowledge in like species scenarios for the hands-on aspects, teamed with appropriate scientific support, including experienced avian veterinarian know-how.
CAPTIVE SITUATION WITH THE RED-BROWEDS
I will report results obtained but not always divulged in the captive situation of the Red-broweds. This article will also vary quite markedly from some of the aspects previously claimed for this sub-species.
The requirements for Fig parrots and most of the requirements for the Australian Lorikeets only seem to differ in that figs have been seen to be a major food source and necessary requirement for the Fig parrots. That may or may not be so - it is yet to be proven in the captive situation. Seed requirements may also differ, and likewise may need sorting out. But there appear to be many parallels in the published recipes.
Fresh, clean food should be provided daily. This can be provided as required when chicks are born. It should never be allowed to stand for too long, as bacterial problems in these very humid climates are always threatening. For this reason alone, particularly during the breeding process, husbandry techniques as close as possible to sterility in food presentation are considered to be an essential.
Because native figs are difficult to provide over a sustained period, preserved figs have been used as the basic diet constituent. These are taken with great relish and are usually the first item consumed. They are preferred over other native varieties concurrently provided, although all are usually consumed. Vitamin K should be added when providing preserved figs.
Other fruits can be provided when in-season. These seem to be well accepted, but they need to be assessed for their dietary value, particularly during the breeding season. Some research needs to go into the constituent elements of the fig preservation process to establish the acceptability or otherwise of this food source. In addition the need for a Vitamin K additive should be confirmed as necessary.
Small amounts of pollen can be added occasionally. I believe that a suitable form of protein should also be made available to the birds.
Some seed is taken. It is suggested that only the seed available in the wild or that having similar value be used. In this regard there are a number of Australian native seeds being harvested for resewing in appropriate landscapes. Other commercially available millets may prove acceptable once the chemical and nutritional composition of the naturally occurring seed is determined. Green seed heads are taken in the wild.
Why, might it be asked, is there such a need for all this dietary analysis?
Breeding results utilising parent-raised techniques have been very poor to date. There is a suggestion that diet may well be a reason for breeding results there not being so good, even in the wild.
Hand rearing may be the way to go initially, but if so I would hope that parent-raised progeny would eventually occur as the best available simulation of that in the wild.
Two scenarios have been used for breeding purposes. A suspended aviary situation within a building utilising a "budgie sized nest box" and/or a partial trunk of Pandanus palm in a partly sheltered/open aviary situation. Some budgie boxes have had spouts attached. The palm trunks and the budgie boxes have been equally accepted as suitable nesting sites.
It was interesting to closely observe a nine-month- old pair. The cock was just starting to colour. In spite of this early age they paired normally. The hen, who does all the burrowing for the nest (closely supervised at times by the cock), took to the Pandanus palm trunk and made a couple of false starts but succeeded on the third try. The one egg produced disappeared the following day - the cause unknown.
Although authenticated reports from the wild regularly record 2 eggs as a normal clutch, 3 eggs have consistently been produced in this most recent captive scenario.
Fertility has been consistently good - indeed, nearly 100%.
Incubation is undertaken solely by the hen, who sits very tight except for short forays to stretch and undertake ablutions. The cock feeds the hen and is very attentive at this time.
Hatchability of the eggs is consistent with the fertility. Very rarely does a fertilised egg not produce a chick. Up to that time everything appears to go well.
Chicks appear to progress to around the 7- to 10-day period. Almost without fail, and concurrent with the hen taking on a distressed appearance, most chicks die at this time. My records are that one chick in six survives to maturity, and it does so usually after appearing to struggle through this 7-to-10-day trauma.
The nest occupants were checked twice daily. Some chicks at death had full crops while some were either partly full or empty. This downturn in what appeared previously to be normally good progress usually occurred quite suddenly - as did the decline in the appearance of the hen.
Diet consisted of a dry lorikeet mix, a preserved fig segment presented in 'preservative juice' having been impregnated with vitamin K, and assorted fruits as available. This was presented in copious quantities and apart from the preserved figs, food preferences were not easily determined. Because of the close proximity of each dish the 'dry' mix soon became 'moist' as moisture transferred between food bowls. But most disturbing was that this was allowed to stand for 24 hours after being presented in a semi-tropical climate. It was very noticeable when re-feeding some 24 hours later, that fermentation had taken place.
There is no doubt in my mind that the parents were regular intakers of this alcoholic brew. It appears to have an accentuated effect in the hen when chicks are newly hatched. The chicks then become subject to an intake of what may be close to raw alcohol. - something that can clean heavy grease from cars. No wonder the chicks didn't survive - and it provided a good reason for the apparent drunken state of the hen. Post mortems did not reveal any physical deficiencies.
It is suggested that each of these recipes should be presented so that they are capable of independent intake assessment, and not contaminated by other dietary ingredients.
Fruit or other moist elements should be served whole whenever possible (grapes, native figs). Where they must be cut (pear, apple) they should be left only long enough to be presented for consumption, then removed. This may have to be repeated throughout a 24-hour period, but it is surely one way of avoiding unnecessary bacteria and fermentation, especially during breeding.
Greens were always freshly chopped but then liberally coasted with a calcium powder.
There were quite a few birds reared in the suspended cage situation that were very malformed and useless for display or breeding. Difficulties had been experienced with malformed offspring bred by Gang-gangs (i.e. malformed beaks and legs, broken feathers and stunted growth). When their formula was changed (largely the removal of calcium powder) a normal pair of young were reared in excellent health. That was the first pair bred - 10 years after the first breeding had been attempted.
Therefore, the addition of any calcium additive needs to be justified as the greens supplied should prove calcium sufficient unless there is an ingestion problem.
It has been a heartbreaking experience to witness these events, which I saw repeated on several occasions. Hence my diet. Hopefully, a concerted and experienced analytical laboratory input will provide definitive answers in the future.
I cannot escape the suspicion, though, that the seemingly healthy stock raised among so many casualties may yet prove to carry genetic imperfections into future generations. It is probably the major reason I am uncomfortable about any undertaking just yet in regard to Coxen's Fig parrot.
These birds enjoyed bathing, particularly after feeding. They often used the Swift Parrot technique to slide down wet foliage, especially when it was raining or the overhead sprinklers were on. They otherwise loved to bathe in any water container provided as soon as fresh water had been supplied.
As chewers they further enjoyed the fresh foliage of the native fig tree, which was supplied quite regularly during the time of my personal involvement. The foliage has smooth, flat leaves, which were the medium for their arboreal baths. Fortunately many of these trees are grown in the area and pruned regularly.
The cocks are quite aggressive in the suspended aviary situation and will take a chunk of any finger presented, more so when breeding - quite a savage bite for such a small bird.
They are active and attractive birds not often seen in captivity, although their popularity is increasing. Even in this situation many viewers can have difficulty in spotting them, particularly if foliage is provided. It does emphasise the difficulties encountered in trying to observe them the wild.
I would like to see the varying diets used for Australian Lorikeets optionally modified to be as close to the natural diet of that known in the wild for these Fig parrots, with more intensive studies and back-up before Coxen studies are attempted. I also hope that pre-studies could also include marshalli.
Lastly, there is one other bird that for years has intrigued me. It appears to merit investigation coincidently for mutually beneficial reasons, as being a bird not yet understood but one seemingly with similar requirements to that of the Fig parrots, and that is the Red-cheeked Parrot (Geoffroyus geoffroyi).