The Princess Parrot

by Charles Hibbert ©

This article covers the following areas:

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Status
  • Habitat
  • Captive History
  • Housing
  • Housing with Neophemas
  • Feeding
  • Sexing
  • Breeding
  • Nesting
  • Fostering
  • Mutations
  • Hybrids
  • Conservation

INTRODUCTION

The discovery of Australia's Parrot extends over a period of about 250 years - starting with the probable sighting of the Little Corella in 1699 up to the discovery of Marshall's Fig parrot in 1947.'

HISTORY

The genus Polytelis was established by Wagler in 1832. At the time it consisted of two species: the Barraband (Superb) and the Regent.

Normal/Yellow/White (c) & White (h) Princess Parrots - Polytelis alexandrae. Photo by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton, QldNormal/Yellow/White (c) & White (h) Princess Parrots Polytelis alexandrae Photo by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton, Qld

The Barraband was discovered in the Murrumbidgee area of New South Wales in 1826, the Regent by Captain John Sturt on his Murray River expedition in 1830-1831. The third member of the genus, the Princess was discovered in 1862 by ornithologist Frederick G. Waterhouse, who shot two birds at Howell's Pond, central Australia, while a member of the Stuart Exploratory Expedition.

It was named Polytelis alexandrae by Gould in 1863 who wrote "I feel assured that the discovery of an additional species of the lovely genus Polytelis will be hailed with pleasure by ornithologists..."

Barraband (Superb) Parrots - Polytelis swainsonii. Photograph by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton, Queensland

Polytelis is Greek for magnificent, alexandrae after a Danish princess who married Edward Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII.

Other common names are Princess of Wales parrot, Queen Alexandra parrot, Spinifex parrot and Rose-Throated parrot, a name which more aptly describes this beautiful bird.

STATUS

It seems apparent that since the coming of the white man, at least, the princess has been a rare bird. Both its remote habitat and the dearth of people in the area have made reported sightings rare.

Two birds were taken from the nest by Alex Magery at Crown Point, 600 miles south of Howell's Ponds in 1890.

A few years later three birds were shot at Newcastle Waters and the Horn Expedition collected a series at Glen Edith in 1894 - one of which had a fine spatule feather prompting some taxonomists to put it in the sub-genus spathopterus.

The Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) Atlas Scheme from which some recent maps were compiled, had only 27 sightings of which only 4 were breeding reports.

Sightings in the pre-1900 and 1900-1950 groups seem to show a northerly distribution around Sturt Plains in the NT and Fitzroy River area of WA while the last two periods seem to indicate that their present distribution appears to follow the Macdonald, Petermann and Warburton Rangers south into the Great Victoria Desert. There has been only one breeding report in the wild since 1930.

Yellow Princess Parrot - Polytelis alexandrae. Photograph by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton, Queensland

In 1966 both Princess and Scarlet-Chested parrots were seen near Neale Junction, Western Australia and several birds were sighted in November 1981. Birds were seen on Lake Amadeus, north of Ayers Rock and at Carmichael Crag.

Sightings in the pre-1900 and 1900-1950 groups seem to show a northerly distribution around Sturt Plains in the NT and Fitzroy River area of WA while the last two periods seem to indicate that their present distribution appears to follow the Macdonald, Petermann and Warburton Rangers south into the Great Victoria Desert. There has been only one breeding report in the wild since 1930.

In 1966 both Princess and Scarlet-Chested parrots were seen near Neale Junction, Western Australia and several birds were sighted in November 1981. Birds were seen on Lake Amadeus, north of Ayers Rock and at Carmichael Crag.

HABITAT

The Princess's habitat encompasses the second largest desert area in the World. The word Desert should not conjure up visions of the Sahara... Hutchens and Lovell describe the habitat - "the desert areas the Princess inhabit are not flat and featureless places devoid of all growth; their range includes numerous mountain ranges, undulating hilly areas, sand dunes and ridges and gibber plains, over most of which grows Spinifex, which in good seasons produces an abundance of seeds. Being nomadic in habit, the Princess moves from one area to another wherever food is available".

Spinifex is not their main diet, they also feed on the many eucalypts and other native shrubs which occur throughout their range.

Princess appear to favour the tall gums growing along the dry water courses for nesting. Cayley gives the breeding season in the wild as November to January.

CAPTIVE HISTORY

The earliest record I could find of Princess breeding in captivity was the report in January 1899 of one bird being reared by the then director of the South Australian Museum, Mr A. Zietz.

The London Zoo had received birds in June 1895 but were not successful in breeding them until 1912.

In 1925 Mr S. Harvey, of South Australia, obtained 10 wild-caught, hand-reared birds. Not long after in 1929 the South Australian Society presented their breeding medal to Mr A. Kell. The Adelaide Zoo did not breed Princess until 1936. The original cock bird was wild-caught, captured near the Hermansburg Mission in Central Australia.

It would appear that very few Princess were bred in the first 20 years of this century after Mr Zietz's original success, however, since then there has been a noticeable increase in their numbers both in this country and overseas, until today we have the situation where they are regarded as almost domesticated.

HOUSING

Many breeders have found that Polytelis do particularly well on the colony system. With 3, 4 or even more pairs to a large aviary the chances of birds finding a compatible partner would be greater than with pairs mated arbitrarily by the breeder. It has also been noted that the cocks react to the stimulus of other birds calling in close proximity to them.

I house my Princess in a small colony in an aviary measuring approximately 2m x 2m x 6m long. The front perch is situated low down giving the birds room to fly back and forth without hitting their heads - an important point, especially if the birds are panicked in any way.

A branch of bamboo, which sits in a piece of water pipe, provides fine stems for the birds to exercise their feet.

NEOPHEMAS

In the past I have included a pair of Neophemas in with Princess but have come to a conclusion they are best housed on their own. Princess are not vicious towards the smaller birds but do impose a subtle form of stress on them.

Blue-winged are late nesters, usually going down in October. By the time their young have hatched the young Princess will have left the nest - forcing the adult Blue-wingeds to compete with 6 or 7 large Parrots for any soaked seed or greenfeed being fed.

I have also experienced fighting between Princess and Turquoisine hens over nest boxes and Bourkes deserting young because they are physically unable to compete with the bigger birds.

FEEDING

My Princess are fed the usual seed mix of sunflower, canary, pannicum, white millet, and hulled oats. Each seed being fed separately in a milk-bottle hopper.

From experiments on the time the birds take to eat each bottle of seed, a mix chosen by the Princess themselves would be 5 parts each sunflower and canary, 2 parts hulled oats, 1 part white millet and 1 part pannicum.

The Princess also like safflower and a mix of various herb seed readily available through supermarkets - linseed, niger, rape, maw, celery, cumin, fennel, cardamom, alfalfa, dill, caraway, mustard and aniseed. This is given at the rate of one large tablespoon per pair per week.

Other titbits the birds enjoy are apple, cotoneaster berries, cuttlefish bone, plain cake, silverbeet, seeding grass heads and especially the flowers of grevillea, eucalypt and callistemon. Care should be taken with any dry food such as cake as the Princess soak it, fouling their water. Perhaps this is instinctive, resulting from their desert habitat.

Cayley in his work on Australian Parrots suggests they will eat mealworms but my birds show no interest in them.

During the breeding season I feed soaked seed; starting in June and gradually increasing in frequency until it is given every day. Added to the soaked seed is a proprietary egg and biscuit mix.

SEXING

There are several factors to look for when sexing Princess:

  • the rump of the cock is a violet-blue, whereas that the hen is a more greyish-blue
  • the head of the cock is bright blue and the bill coral red, with the hen the crown is a slaty-blue and the bill wine coloured
  • the central tail feathers on the cock are up to 8cm longer than the hen's

The cock bird also develops a spatule on the third primary feather in each wing. This seems to develop at the second complete moult and becomes longer as the bird ages. The wing coverts of the cock are brighter. The iris of the cock is orange and the hen more brown.

BREEDING

I have found that Princess will breed at less than twelve months old. With the onset of the breeding season the cocks start to display to the hens in earnest.

The cock faces the hen calling constantly; at the same time jerkily moving his head from side to side, as if to show the hen each eye alternately; while so doing he expands and contracts the pupils of his eyes and raises a small crest.

The hens start their incessant begging calls in September. The cocks can be a little slow to respond but eventually begin feeding the hen and mating takes place; either on a perch or on the floor.

In captivity in Southern Victoria the breeding season lasts from September to December. The birds then go through the moult from late December until March.

The hens incubate during October, have young in the nest during November and the young leave the nest around the middle of December. This is generalising but it is near enough to the pattern the breeding season follows. Princess will go down for a second brood, especially if they lose the first clutch.

Clutch size varies from 3 - 6 eggs with the hen laying every second day. Incubation lasts about 18 days and only the hens sits. The young remain in the nest for around 5 weeks.

Blue Princess Parrots - Polytelis alexandrae. Photograph courtesy of Garry & Shirley Walsh, Qld

I prefer a nest box around 65cm deep and 18cm square with an entrance hole 65mm in diameter; hung at an angle of 45°. It is not necessary for the log to be deeper than the length of one's arm.

I have no accurate information on the breeding life of Princess but one well-known breeder states that he has had fertile eggs from one hen for 35 years. I carry out no special worming programme before the breeding season starts. I only worm the birds when I feel they need it, or I may give 3-4 drops of Panacur if I ever catch them for any reason.

The young leave the nest a slightly duller version of the hen. They become independent at 6-7 weeks. The differences between young cocks and young hens start to appear at around 8-9 months old.

Several subtle factors allow young Princesses to be sexed at around seven months old. The blue feathers begin to show on the front of the crown of young cocks as well as the rump; hens show a pinkish-mauve on the crown and have greyer rump feathers. Also the young cock's tail feathers are noticeably longer than that of the hen and tend to end in a definite bulb shape.

FOSTERING

Records show that when circumstances have proved it necessary, Princess have been fostered by quite a few different species of parrots - Red Rump, Barraband, Regent, Elegant, Bourke, Crimson Rosella, Mallee Ringneck, Cockatiel and even Masked Lovebirds.

The Cockatiel will not rear young Princess to independence. Once the green pin feathers start to show they seem to sense something is being put over them and the chicks have to be taken away and hand-reared. The young hatched by the Masked Lovebirds were also hand-reared.

Boosey, who ran the famous Keston Bird Farm in England before W.W.II, carried out many experiments on other species rearing Princess and found the best results came from using Red Rumps.

MUTATIONS

There are three mutations of the Princess:

  • Blue
  • Lutino
  • Albino
Double Factor Blue Princess Parrot - Polytelis alexandrae. Photograph by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton, Queensland

I am not a great fan of mutations, believing in most cases the normal bird far outshines the variant. If there is one exception, however, it must be the Blue Princess. This magnificent mutation appeared quite by accident in the aviaries of Mr George Ruddle, South Australia, during the 1950-51 breeding season. George, interestingly enough, bred his birds on the colony system. The Blue mutation is an autosomal recessive - which in layman's language means the gene for normal is dominant to the gene for Blue, which is recessive. To visually show blue the young chick must inherit two blue genes.

Blues also appeared in Holland in 1958.

Perhaps this hidden factor was carried by quite a few birds but had to await an accidental pairing before Blues were produced.

The Lutino was possibly first bred by Herr D. Meyer in East Germany in 1975 and an Albino has since appeared in overseas aviaries.

As well as three mutations, we have in Australia what appears to be two colour variations.

The first is what I shall refer to as the Red Princess. Characteristics of this variety are a delicate suffusion of pink down the chest and intermittent pattern of deep wine coloured feathers on the wings and back.

Correspondence with the well-known English Veterinarian and authority on parrots, Doctor George Smith, suggests that the red colouration may be caused by the bird's inability to assimilate, or the lack of, Carotenes in the diet. The full explanation for this variation will have to await more birds being bred.

As well, several authors, such as Hutchens, Lovell and Geoff Haywood, in an article appearing during the 60's in Australian Aviculture, have referred to the possibility of at least 3 subspecies:- a brightly coloured bird where there is little difference between cock and hen; one where the cock is much brighter than the hen, its bill orange as against brown in the hen; and a much duller bird, where the green is almost replaced by a greyish colour.

Hutchens, in correspondence, stated that he had seen a brightly coloured bird which may have been a sub-specific form in the late 1950's. It would be impossible to prove that such a form could still exist in our aviaries after all this time, however, there is a variation which fits the description of this brighter bird - the blue-bellied Princess. In this variety there is a definite blue-suffusion down the chest and belly, the rump is a rich blue against the violet of the normal type and the blue on the crown of the cock bird is noticeably brighter.

Recent breeding reports suggests that colour form is both hereditary and dominant.

Hybrids

In my opinion hybrids are a dead-end street and, while accidents will continue to occur I hope aviculturists will discontinue deliberate attempts at hybridisation, no matter what their objectives.

George Smith, in his book Lovebirds and Related Parrots, verifies hybrids between Princess x Barraband, Princess x Crimson-wing, Regent x Princess and Barraband x Princess. I have records of all except the Crimson-wing cross in this country. And, unfortunately, I have another to add to the list - Princess x Red-Rump.

Conservation

It is difficult to assess just what the exact needs of the Princess are in the wild. The remoteness of the birds' habitat may be a contributing factor in the low number of sightings this century.

The curator of Birds at Taronga Zoo, Graeme Phipps, in an article, Aviculture and Conservation, suggested that captive-bred birds could be released into the wild and I find a lot of merit in this proposal. But, the perilous status of the other two members of the genus, the Regent and Superb, in the wild is such that aviculture would best be served by turning its attention to these species.

There you have it...my understanding of this beautiful parrot; a bird which enjoys a very high degree of popularity throughout the Avicultural World.

 

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