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The Swift Parakeet (Lathamus discolour)

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What has happened to the Swift Parakeet in South Africa? I think that if one asked this question to a group of aviculturists at any meeting today most would say “What bird is that?” The truth is that although they were imported in small numbers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, they don’t seem to have become established. I personally have no knowledge of any in the country at the moment so if anyone is breeding them at present I would like to hear about it. There may also be other readers who would be interested as well.

These little parakeets are unique. They are, for one, the only specie in their genus and there are no subspecies. Their diet in nature consists of a lot of nectar and pollen and they are gregarious, so one gets a whole flock scrambling about a flowering tree, like a eucalypt, eating the pollen and nectar. People have likened to lorikeets, but they differ from lorikeets in many ways. For instance they lay clutches of four or five eggs as opposed to the lorikeets usual two. They have a primitive brush tongue and not the highly evolved brush tongue of the Loriidae. Their beaks do not protrude like the lorikeets beaks, but are flatter to their face, more like grassparakeets. Biologists have concluded that they have not evolved from the lorikeet ancestors, but more likely from the Platycerus family in what is known as a case of “Parallel evolution”.

These birds are gregarious and several nests can be found in one tree. This means that they can be kept in a group. The first time that I saw them was at the Umgeni Bird Park in Durban. They had several pairs in a planted aviary about 7m long 2.5m wide and about 2.2m wide. They are very active birds and therefore very entertaining to watch. They will hang upside down from twigs and branches as they play with each other, and they do the same in the wild when they are feeding on blossoms in a flowering tree.

Swift Parakeets get their name from the speed of their flight. They fly at about 80km/h and as a result many are killed by flying into overhead wires and other objects during their annual migration from their breeding grounds in Tasmania, across the Bass Strait to South Eastern Australia, where they spend the winter. They are becoming critically endangered and it is estimated that there are about 1000 pairs remaining in the wild with a larger number in captivity around the world.

There is a degree of sexual dimorphism in these birds and young males can often be identified in the nest by having a more extensive red facial mask than the young females. Adult males are slightly brighter in colour than adult females with red mask being more noticeable, while the females show more yellow surrounding the red facial mask.

Captive Breeding

A successful German breeder says that although the birds are gregarious he found that the dominant male in a group prevented the other males breeding by interfering and chasing them when they attempted to mate with their partners. His aviaries were 5m long 1m to 1.4m wide and 2.1m high with a heated shelter occupying about one third of the length. The heated shelter is essential for Germany and the temperature is not allowed to drop below 6⁰C to stop the water freezing. Because his aviaries were large he then kept one pair of Swift parakeets, one pair of grassparakeets and one or two pairs of compatible Australian finches in each aviary.

This proved to be very successful. The Swift parakeets mostly would double clutch. He found that the hen would want to lay the second clutch before the first clutch was out of the nest. So he put in a second nest and the hen would move to it and lay a second clutch before the first clutch was weaned. The cock would then carry on feeding the babies until they weaned. Once the babies were weaned he could leave them in the aviary with the parents who did not bother them. On the other hand, the Grassparakeets and the finches would also double clutch but once the first clutch was weaned he would have to move the babies otherwise the cock would attack the young birds. All in all it was a very productive system, but it did require close supervision.

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Feeding

Examination of the crop contents of birds that had been accidently killed in the wild shows that they consume the same diet as lorikeets and only use dry seeds as a secondary source of food. They also eat large numbers of insects and their larvae. Another of their favourites is the half ripe seed heads of indigenous native grasses. During the breeding season examination of the crop contents of birds killed in the wild show that they eat very little seed at all, but it is at this time of the year that the insects become available and it coincides with the breeding season.

In the mixed aviary described above, there was seed for the finches and the grassparakeets, as well as sprouted seeds including sprouted sunflower seed. Lorikeet nectar and supplements were provided for the Swifts. In the breeding season fruits and ripe berries were also fed to the mixed aviary. It became apparent that in the breeding the Swift parakeets did not eat dry seed but most pairs did eat sprouted sunflower seed along with fruits, lorikeet nectar and supplements like egg food. In fact having them in a mixed aviary probably is one of the best ways to breed them as they then have access to such a wide range of food items.                                

Conclusion

I hope that this article prompts those serious aviculturists among us to acquire these birds and breed them for the future. For those of us who have mixed aviaries of finches and grassparakeets, the addition of a pair of Swift parakeets is very easy and it will greatly enhance the value of your collection, both financially (they double clutch) and from a conservation point of view. The dangers to these birds on the migration across the Bass Strait, from Tasmania to Australia and back each year, could lead to their virtual extinction in the wild. Although there are a couple of thousand of these birds in captivity, releasing more into nature will not solve the problem as the dangers to them are increasing and not easily controlled on the migration route.

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