The Rock Parrot
by Charles A. Hibbert
The rock parrot Neophema pefrophila is kept and bred in very small numbers in Australian aviaries.
This lack of popularity may be due to improper feeding which causes obesity and the resultant infertility; its dull coloration and the lack of the ever-popular mutations; a difficulty in sexing; and a high price for what is wrongly perceived as a dull bird.
However, the rock parrot needs special attention if it is to remain a viable and continuing aviary species.
Pizzey describes the rock parrot as the dullest of the neophemas. Male: brownish olive above, yellow below; forehead band dark blue, slight blue facial mask extends slightly past the eye; bend of wing and flight feathers narrowly edged dark blue, margined pale blue; some have an orange patch on the belly. Female: duller. Immature: duller, less blue; pale wing-stripe in flight. Size approximately 22cms.
A subspecies, N. zietzi, is found along the South Australian coastline and adjacent islands. It has a darker blue frontal band and is generally less brilliant in colour. It has a browner olive body and is a darker yellow ventrally.
The Atlas of Australian Birds (1984) gives distribution of the rock as occurring along the coast of South Australia and south-west Western Australia from around Robe, SA, to Shark Bay, WA. The Atlas also states that the rock parrot has two endemic populations, which appear to be isolated but are without morphological differentiation. It has been suggested that the break between the two groups may be due to lack of drinking water.
The rock parrot is quite specialised in habitat selection. It occurs in a narrow band along the coast or rocky offshore islands, usually where there is pigface (Mesembryanthemum). It is not known if the rock parrot needs fresh water daily, but the Atlas of Australian Birds states that it has been recorded regularly visiting the freshwater soaks on Rottnest Island, Western Australia.
Ornithologist John Warham, after studying the rock parrot on Lancelin Island, Western Australia, in 1954, stated that rock parrots have a rapid, jerking flight and a call note of tsit, tsit, tsit. Slight differences in the call notes of the various neophemas are an important diagnostic for ornithologists trying to identify a species in the wild. For example, that of the blue-wing is given as tsleet and the orange-bellied as tzeet. These two neophemas occur in the same habitat as the rock parrot.
Warham also says that they have a rather upright posture when perched, and if uneasy bob their heads slightly. He noted that they became very dishevelled after even light rain and their feathers stuck out at all angles. This lack of water-repellency in the feathers was especially marked. He did not see adult rock parrots preen.
Rock parrots are an ideal bird to include in any collection. They settle down well and their lifespan is equal to other neophemas. However, they are not active and can become become sluggish and overweight. The problem of infertile eggs may be due to this lack of activity and consequent weight problems.
Surviving in the habitat that they live in, they are hardy birds and can stand cold conditions. Heat does not worry them unless it gets over 40°C.
With the onset of the breeding season both birds become more active. The male begins to call more frequently.
During courtship feeding, the male bobs his head jerkily, stretching up and down and his throat pulsates as food is brought up. The hen keeps up a tsit, tsit cry, and after receiving food also bobs her head. Both actions are probably the result of regurgitating and swallowing food.
As food is transferred the birds' beaks are turned at right angles to each other, the feeding parrot simply bending forward, the other turning its head sideways so that the four mandibles form four walls of a tunnel down which the food passes, controlled by their tongues.
The most difficult hurdle to overcome in breeding rocks is sexing. For some breeders the best method is to have the birds surgically sexed.
The male bird is slightly deeper in colour, the back being a darker olive green and the breast and the remaining parts of the body fade to a slightly lighter shade. The frontal bar over the nostrils is brighter than that of the hen. Hens may take until they are two years old to colour fully.
Hens are usually a little smaller than the male and the head slightly narrower. In mature birds, the flight feathers on the cock are a more intense black; this is quite conspicuous on some birds. The under wing feathers of the male are black; those of the hen are a brownish black.
Hens have a slight, white stripe under the wing; a point which can be quite a useful diagnostic with some other members of the genus.
Skins in the bird department of the National Museum of Victoria were somewhat inconclusive on this point because of the difficulty of spreading the wing without damaging the specimens. On average, the wing-stripe of the male was variable or absent, present in the female and showed in one immature.
The upper mandible of the male is black; that of the hen tends more towards dark brown.
Rocks can be housed in the same types of aviaries as other neophemas. Good breeding results have been reported in planted aviaries.
Though it has been noted that the rock parrot is a hardy species, the minimal shelter size would obviously depend upon what area of Australia you lived in. Care should be taken to guard against draughts, a known killer of small birds.
In the wild, rock parrots nest in crevices in the extensively eroded limestone and granite habitat of coastline and off-shore islands. However, this choice of nesting site may reflect the absence of suitable tree hollows rather than a preference for rocky tunnels.
In captivity the rock parrot almost exclusively elects to breed in normal neophema-type nest boxes or logs.
The Atlas of Australian Birds states that a factor limiting the rock parrot's distribution is its habit of nesting on the ground in crevices and the burrows of seabirds. Such nesting sites on the mainland would be vulnerable to predation by rats, foxes, goannas and feral cats.
Perhaps the national parks authorities in South Australia and Western Australia could induce rock parrots to nest in habitats that lack suitable crevices by providing duck-style nesting boxes.
BREEDING IN CAPTIVITY
The breeding season varies slightly depending upon which state the birds are housed in. This variance could well be due to pairs commencing to breed earlier in the more southern than northern latitudes.
In South Australia they have been recorded going to nest from July through to November, but October is generally the preferred month. In New South Wales they generally start in September. In Victoria the season is August to December. Clutch size varies from 3-4 to 6 eggs. Incubation lasts between 18 and 21 days. They will double brood, but young in the second nest are sometimes lost during hot weather. Only the hen incubates. Young are independent in 4-5 weeks.
Warham described the young in the wild thus: "nestling rock parrots in down have orange beaks, their irides are brown, legs greyish-flesh and down grey."
Young rocks are covered with more down than the other neophemas. As they grow, the down darkens and the skin pigment gets quite dark. It has been suggested that the dark skin pigmentation may help reduce the loss of body heat in their natural nesting sites along a sometimes bleak coastline.
The young leave the nest in approximately 30-35 days. Immature birds are duller in body colour; the blue frontal band is almost absent; lores and foreparts of cheeks greyish-olive and the bill a light horn. Adult plumage is attained after the first moult, which starts around three months old.
Observing rock parrots in the wild, WA ornithologist D.L. Seventy noted that "this parrot is entirely a seed-eater and has a partiality for Carporotus". At the Albany railway yards birds are sometimes seen on the ground picking up spilled grains of wheat. This is also the case at Esperance.
In the wild, samphire, Haloscaria spp, pigface, Mesembryanthymum, sea-rocket, Cakile maritima, and ice-plants, Carporotus crytallimum, are some of their favoured foods.
In captivity their diet could consist of canary, pannicum, white and jap millet and hulled oats. Because of the birds' tendency towards obesity, sunflower should be kept to a minimum. Shellgrit, cuttlefish and clean water are other obvious necessities.
Hybridisation between members of the Neophema group should never be attempted. Arthur Prestwich, in the Records Of Parrots Bred In Captivity, lists three hybrids: rock x orange-bellied, elegant x rock and bluewing x rock.
The crosses between the blue-wing and orange-bellied parrots were bred by Dr Alan Lendon in Adelaide, in 1947. One chick hatched from the orange-bellied cross but it lived only a few days.
The only mutation I have come across is a cinnamon hen (red eye) that I bred in the late 1980s. I have had reports of this mutation occurring on odd occasions in other collections and in the wild. Unfortunately, I lost the bird before I could breed from it.
It would appear that rock parrots are just as easy to keep and breed as any other member of the neophema group. They are inactive but this would not be so noticeable in a planted aviary, an environment that suits them.
The best diagnostics for sexing rock parrots are beak colour, the frontal band over the nostrils and the presence of an underwing stripe, much the same as for the blue-wing parrot.
Diet should consist of the basic seed mix with little or no sunflower. Greenfeed is a must. Mesembryanthemum is a popular garden plant, and so the flowers and seed pods, which are directly behind the flower, could be offered.
Rock parrots have never been common in our aviaries. And, while they may be more of a challenge than the turquoise or scarlet-chested parrots, there is no reason why dedicated aviculturists cannot maintain or increase their numbers in captivity for the enjoyment of aviculturists in the future.
© 1997 Parrot Society of Australia Inc