The Scarlet-chested Parrot
An Avicultural Gem
by Graeme Hyde, Elliminyt Victoria
Discovery and First Description
The scarlet-chested parrot Neophema splendida was discovered near the Swan River, Perth, Western Australia in 1840 154 years ago (100 years before the Avicultural Society of Australia was formed). This specimen was sent to John Gould in England who described it in 1840 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, (1841), London.
It is one of the six green Neophema species - the others being the turquoise, blue-winged, elegant, rock and orange-bellied parrots. Bourke's parrot, which is basically a grey and pink bird, is now classified by Stan Sindel and James Gill as Neopsephotus (Neophema) bourkii. In their recently published book Australian Grass Parrakeets they claim it is "an isolated monotypic genus---. In other words, it occupies a genus (family) of its own and is, therefore, the only species in the genus. Overseas the scarlet-chested parrot is known as the splendid parakeet.
Translation of Scientific Name
Neophema is from the Greek Neos which means new; Phema is voice; and splendida is Latin for bright. A literal translation of the scientific name is “parrot with the new voice that is bright in colour".
As Stan Sindel's delightful colour photo clearly shows the difference between male (right) and female a written description isn't necessary. Length 19-20cm
IMMATURES The young when they fledge are similar to the adult female but duller in coloration. Also, the bill of the immature bird is horn coloured. Young males take up to 18 months to obtain full adult plumage whereas the female attains her adult plumage within 12 months.
This species is not fully mature until two years old even though most Australian aviculturists probably breed from them when they are 12 months old. The male in particular is not fully mature, and coloured, until it is 18-20 months.
Early Sightings in the Wild
It was next reported in the wild in 1842 at Toodyay, 80km northeast of Perth, Western Australia. It has been recorded only once this century in Queensland, at Mooraberree Station in western Queensland "in the 1920's during a period of extreme drought" (Hutchins & Lovell). The most easterly sighting in New South Wales was near Bourke in 1892. Sightings in the northwest of Victoria have occurred but are rare The last recorded breeding in north-western Victoria was in September 1941. Details of early sightings are well documented in Australian Parrots: A Field and Aviary Study and Australian Parrots. Bert Pollard observed a flock of 800-1000 in the Upper Murray area of South Australia in 1960.
· Two male scarlet-chested parrots were seen in the Plumridge Lakes Nature Reserve, Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia, in May/June 1992
· In May last year (1993) a party of seven "... came across a large group of Scarlet-chested Parrots on 14 May 1993" and they had superb views of birds as close as a few metres away." (Wingspan, June 1993). There were 30-40 sitting in trees and bushes. After camping in the vicinity that night they found "... about 150 birds were concentrated in the same area." On the 16 May there were an estimated 240+ birds in the area (Wingspan June 1993).
· On 17-18 June two pairs were seen near the Serpentine Lakes, Western Australia (Shephard pers. comm.).
· A minimum of 120 scarlet-chested parrots were observed in the Vokes Hill Corner area, South Australia, on 22-23 June 1993 with approximately equal numbers of males and females. (Shephard pers. comm.).
In relating part of their encounter with the species in the wild Mark Shephard said: "Whilst one of our party was attempting to photograph a group of seven birds on an exposed branch, one of the adult males strutted up the branch towards the photographer pulled his chest out and stood on his toes in display, and then walked back down the branch to resume his original position".
Distribution of the scarlet-chested parrot
The greater part of its range is desert country with the predominant vegetation being species known collectively as mallee. As native grasses, spinifex, acacias, eucalypts and native herbs grow within its distribution area it means that the scarlet-chested parrot feeds on a range of available small seeds. It obtains moisture from succulent plants when water is not available.
As evidenced by the distribution map little is known about its movements. It is a nomadic species which as, discussed earlier, is usually found at the extremities of its range, e.g. in the Great Victoria Desert.
First Record of Keeping it in Captivity
In 1901 A J Campbell recorded that William White of Adelaide South Australia took a female scarlet-chested parrot from a hollow in a mallee tree, on 29 September 1863, where she was incubating eggs. The nest was on Pudnookna Station, 18km east of Morgan in the South Australian Riverland. Although a shy solitary bird it apparently lived for several years in its Adelaide aviary.
First Recorded Captive Breeding
The first authentic, officially recorded breeding of this species in captivity in Europe, was by Edward Boosey at the Keston Foreign Bird Farm, Kent, England in 1934, from a pair he had received from the Duke of Bedford (Boosey, 1956).
Trapping In 1931 and 1939
In August 1931 (63 years ago) some were trapped, west of Oodnadatta, South Australia, along the Transcontinental Railway Line. In 1939 large numbers were trapped at Wynbring, South Australia, where a population explosion had occurred. Presumably these (legally) trapped birds were absorbed into the avicultural trade in Adelaide with some of either the wild-caught birds, or their progeny, being sent across to Victoria and New South Wales. We can only presume that the stock in England (and Europe) originated from birds trapped in 1931 which would have, at that time, been sent by boat, a long trip indeed. Although we know that The Zoological Society of London purchased a pair (for the London Zoo) in 1871 from a bird dealer for seven pounds (approximately $14) there doesn't seem to be any authenticated documentation of when the first live specimens reached England. As editor of Australian Aviculture it saddens me that so much of the early avicultural breedings and experiences were never written down and published in appropriate journals.
First Captive Breeding in Australia
The first recorded captive breeding of the scarlet-chested parrot known in Australia was achieved by Simon Harvey of Adelaide, South Australia, in 1932 - one year after the species was established from the birds trapped west of Oodnadatta in 1931. This was also the first official breeding of the species in South Australia.
Aviculture of the Scarlet-chested Parrot
Little is known about its aviculture prior to 1932. From that time on the scarlet-chested parrot has become firmly established in Australia, South Africa, United States of America, Europe and the United Kingdom. In his superb book - Aviculture in Australia (which all keen aviculturists should own) Mark Shephard estimates that there could be more than 20,000 scarlet-chested parrots in captivity in Australia. In 1985 the records of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of South Australia showed that there were 7,555 held by aviculturists in that state. By any reckoning that is a lot of birds!
In England The Parrot Society's Breeding Registrar 1992 records that 2,588 scarlet-chested parrots were bred in 1992 by "Some British Members”. The total bred for the three-year period 1990-1992 by members of The Parrot Society who responded to the survey was - 1990 2,398, 1991 3,083 and 1990-1992 2,588 - being a total of 8069 birds, which is proof of its domestication in the United Kingdom. As an aviary bird it is free-breeding and, consequently, a well established species, both at home and abroad.
Like the other members of the Neophema genus it has been housed in various types of aviaries of varying sizes. However, from my experience I think the ideal size is one that is 2.5m-3m long, 1m wide and 2-2.5m high. Even though it is tolerant of cold and/or wet weather it cannot cope with draughty conditions. Regardless of the aviary design it is important that it has a shelter section to which it can retreat whenever necessary.
Many Australian aviculturists house it with a collection of finches and small doves in a planted aviary. This method enables the bird to display its natural beauty, colour and personality. After keeping and breeding this delightful small parakeet in an assortment of aviaries I have decided that it is best kept in a small aviary that is fully roofed with a wire netting front (e.g. box-type aviary). The aviary should face north, east or northeast. Often the shape of the backyard, the position of the clothes line - and the spouse, or parents' flower garden determine its location! If keeping this species in a small aviary only two perches are necessary - one at the rear and one at the front. This gives the birds as much flying room and exercise space as possible. I prefer natural perches rather than dowel rods which don't offer as secure a grip - or exercise the feet as well.
The scarlet-chested parrot likes to "camp" in dry brush in a sheltered section of the aviary -during both cold or wet weather -as well as in the heat of the day during summer months. At night it is important that brush is available for it to roost in. This provides it with security and warmth and is how it would roost at night in the wild. I have seen it housed in a colony of (from memory) five pairs in Tasmania but it is not usually housed in a colony.
The breeding season in Victoria is from August through to March. The species is double brooded with a third round being common. Although in the past many Australian breeders supplied a natural log for nesting purposes the trend today seems towards a wooden nest box. Either way it is wise to supply two nests per pair of birds so they have a choice. Conversely, I have seen an Adelaide aviculturist simply reverse the nest box at the end of the breeding season and leave it hanging on the aviary wall with the entrance hole facing the wall. At the start of the next breeding season he turns it the right way round so the pair of scarlets can inspect it and, eventually, nest in it.
For many years I have used the ''Bill Gordon Special Parrot Nesting Box" with great success. This nest box measures 35cm deep, 15cm wide, with an entrance hole 5cm in diameter. Small cleats of wood are attached to the inside front of the box to enable the birds easy access. A cleat of wood is attached to the front of the nest box, just below the entrance hole, which enables the bird(s) to land ''front-on". This is considered most important when the male is feeding the female at the nest entrance. Some form of nesting material should be placed in the bottom of the nest. Materials that have been successfully used include, peatmoss, sawdust, a mixture of peatmoss and sawdust, wood dirt and even garden soil. Whatever is used needs to be free of sharp pieces of wood or stones to prevent damage to the eggs. An adequate depth for the "filling" is 6-8cm.
Many scarlet-chested parrots carry small pieces of grass or leaves, such as tea-tree leaves, to their nest. These items are tucked under the rump feathers and carried to the nest. The reason for this hasn't, to my knowledge, been recorded in the literature. When the male courts the female he adopts an upright stance and then encircles her on the aviary floor, spreading his wings and fanning his tail feathers, and emitting an excited "mating" call.
Four to six white eggs form the clutch and prior to egg laying the male feeds the female. Some males enter the nest to feed the female, some don't. Incubation is approximately 18 days. The female broods her young very closely for the first ten days during which time the male feeds her. From my experience inspecting nests during this ten-day period is unwise as often the female will allow one, or more, young to die. You need to know your breeding pair before attempting nest inspection during this stage and I don't recommend inspection if the female, or the pair, are breeding for the first time. The young fledge about 28-30 days after hatching and are, like the young of the turquoise parrot Neophema pulchella, flighty - with no apparent sense of direction. It is during this stage that caution must be used when approaching the aviary and, likewise, when moving in front of it - or entering it. As the eggs hatch on alternate days not all the young fledge on the same day but, generally speaking, the young are independent about 28 days after fledging. If the aviary is small it is wise to remove the youngsters at this stage as the scarlet is double-brooded and the parent birds will want to go to nest again. Remember, in the wild the youngsters would be flying around the general nesting area but not in the close proximity that occurs in the more "clinical environment" of an aviary (e.g. the space constriction doesn't apply in the wild). If they are bred in a small aviary l believe it is wise to allow the young to develop and mature in a larger aviary.
In the March 1986 edition of Australian Aviculture Peter Clifford detailed his breeding observations of four pairs of scarlet-chested parrots over a two year period. His notes of this behaviour are fascinating.
Although it is an easy species to cater for a varied diet should always be available, especially during the breeding season. The basic diet should include panicum, red panicum, white millet, canary and, when breeding, sunflower seed. Greenfood including silverbeet, lettuce, endive, cos lettuce, milk thistle and seeding grasses, plus soaked or sprouted seed are eaten with relish. It is fond of apple and orange as well as scraps from the kitchen such as potato peel, carrot tops etc. Cuttlefish bone, crushed baked eggshells, crushed charcoal and fine shellgrit are important components of their diet. Fresh, clean water should always be available. I once forgot to fill the water dish in an aviary and although the pair went without water for three days in the middle of summer - without any ill effect - I don't recommend such bad ''housekeeping''.
Extraneous Items in the Water Dish
A curious habit of this species is the dropping of pieces of grass, seed husks, shellgrit and other items into the water dish.
Unlike the other members of the neophema genus the scarlet-chested parrot, both male and female, utter a "musical feeble twittering” (Hutchins & Lovell).
Historical Avicultural Notes
The late Marquess of Tavistock (later known as the Duke of Bedford) in his well-known book Parrots and Parrot-Like Birds in Aviculture (1928) wrote: "The Splendid Grass Parrakeet is practically unknown to aviculture ..."
In 1966 Dr H D Groen of Holland in his interesting book Australian Parrakeets - Their Maintenance and Breeding in Europe wrote: "In spite of the fact that Splendids are prolific breeders, in Holland they have never prospered as well as in other European countries and I have the impression that in our country their numbers increase but little and that is due to the wet climate." Dr Groen suggests that as the bird is from the dry interior of Australia it finds it difficult to cope with moisture caused by sea-mists.
It is an accepted fact that this species is different to the other neophemas and isn't as hardy. For example, Stan Sindel of Sydney experiences difficulties with young scarlets in autumn when: 'As overnight temperatures drop, the juveniles suffer stress and become vulnerable to bacterial infections." The southwest area of Sydney has a climate that doesn't suit this species. Aviculturists in northern Queensland find the scarlet has some problems associated with the humidity of the area. This is understandable because it is a bird from the dry arid interior of the continent.
Barry Hutchins advised me (pers. comm.) that the scarlet-chested parrot is more easily stressed than any of the other green neophemas. Likewise, he claims that all Australian parrots carry the disease psittacosis in some mild form and, if the scarlet-chested parrot has psittacosis and is stressed, it will die quickly because it cannot cope with both the infection and the stress. For example, I caught up a female scarlet one day as I suspected that it had psittacosis - and it died in my hand. Alan Dear, a well-known Victorian aviculturist, believes that this species has the thinnest skull of all the neophemas with the consequence that it often dies through hitting its head on a protrusion in the aviary. He eventually solved the problem by lining the (box-type) aviary ceiling with foam rubber.
It is wise to avoid transporting this species in a car with the heater on too high because the change in temperature between the car and the aviary (or the house if kept inside overnight) may be too great. Figures from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of South Australia in 1980 indicated that 17-20% of captive scarlet-chested parrots die each year This occurs despite South Australia being a basically dry climate that, to some degree, is similar to the climate in the wild.
I worm my scarlets prior to and following the breeding season using Panacur 2.5 direct to the beak.
A Liking for Water and Sun
It enjoys bathing, even on dull cool days, and on hot days eagerly flies into - and stays under - a fine mist spray. It will fly around in the rain if the day is mild. Often it can be found sunning itself on the floor of the aviary, especially if there is sand on the aviary floor.
Developing a Strain
Like all captive held birds it is helpful if you can maintain two separate, yet closely related, strains of scarlet-chested parrots. This means that when selling birds you can offer the buyer a pair of "related'' yet "unrelated" birds by choosing a male from one strain and the female from the other strain. For example, I still have my "Bill Gordon" strain that I commenced with 25 years ago. To refresh on the absorbing subject of line breeding, breeding and selecting for ''type", I re-read two books - The Cult of the Budgerigar by W .Watmough and Exhibition Budgerigars by Dr M D S Armour. I like the examples given and the references to other forms of livestock, e.g. rabbits and horses, as well as exhibition budgerigars.
Small Size of Some Specimens
I have noticed that a lot of scarlets, both in private collections and zoos are small. There is no excuse for this occurrence, which is also found in Bourke's parrot.
The scarlet-chested parrot Neophema splendida is an ideal aviary bird. It mixes well with finches and small doves -both Australian and foreign. It is placid, can become tame and confiding if encouraged, is not a "chewer" and has an ideal temperament. It is an interesting, colourful, beautiful bird. It is the ideal aviary bird - it is an avicultural gem.
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