Keeping Swift Parrots
|The Swift Parrot,(Lathamus discolor), is a small 25cm bird with bright
green plumage, the throat and foreparts of its cheeks are red; borders of the facial
areas are yellow; the crown of its head is dark blue; vent and under tail
coverts dull red; wing primaries violet-blue and its long central tail
feathers are brownish-red (Forshaw, 1981). Not that the average punter
would actually see these beautiful colours as this parrot certainly
lives up to its name when flying! It is a VERY fast flying parrot-a trait that
helps separate it from its 'look-alike', the musk lorikeet,
The Swift Parrot arrives in Tasmania around late August, early September and, following its breeding season, returns to the mainland in March and April. Like the majority of migratory species it must face the barrage of birds of prey and other natural hazards (and no doubt some unnatural ones!) on its route to and from Tasmania. In recent years much has been written about its status in the wild and the decline in the wild population. Such discussions are best left to more knowledgeable authors and the purpose of this article is to stick to various aspects of their captive maintenance and propagation.
Whether as single pairs or in small colonies the swift appears to have little in the way of preferences as far as aviary design goes. We have kept and bred them by housing 2 pair in aviaries 5m long, 1.5m wide and 2.2m high. At present they are housed in smaller flights 3m long, 1m wide and 2m high. We also maintain a colony system in a larger aviary complex. Both systems have produced young. In the colony there are far more males than females yet young have been reared with no signs of the overt aggression mentioned by some authors. Perhaps the only problem that may be encountered in larger flights is the risk of a broken neck and/or wings due to their rapid flight if disturbed-especially at night. If you have possums in your area this can be a serious problem. Generally, this 'night shock' is now one of the main causes of aviary deaths among captive Swift Parrots. Others maintain and breed these birds in mixed collections with finches and Neophemas.
When constructing aviaries there is one important feature that should be of paramount importance. This is to ensure that you minimise heat build-up in both your aviaries and the nesting logs or boxes. The swift appears highly intolerant of excessive heat, especially when breeding, with losses of chicks to be expected in unseasonably hot periods. Shade cloth over exposed flights, the use of alsynite rather than polycarbonate based clear roofing and ensuring that tin tops or bottoms on nesting containers are replaced with wood or cement sheeting are all ways of reducing this heat stress. McGuiness (pers.comm.) has swinging tops on his breeding containers, which he opens in very hot weather to ensure airflow over the chicks. He also has attached Hessian to some containers which can be soaked with water should the variable Tasmanian weather get too hot!!
The author has used this technique to save Green Rosella, ( Platycercus caledonicus), chicks on several occasions. To date this 'interference has not resulted in any abandonment of chicks or eggs. In fact the Swift Parrot would have to be one of the most human tolerant species in our aviaries. Mainland breeders experience real problems with the summer heat, which often results in breeder’s hand rearing youngsters rather than risking losing them in the nest (Laubscher, 1999; Mossop, pers. comm.). However, given the ever increasing numbers of Hooded Parrots (Psephotus dissimilis) and Northern Rosellas (Platycercus venustus) that have now adapted their brooding behaviour to fit Tasmania's cooler weather, there may be hope for mainland breeders if stocks can be maintained. Brett Stokes (pers. comm.) recently related the behaviour of his hen Northern Rosella which sat in the log right through to the day the chicks left the nest-unheard of behaviour 10 years ago.
In the wild, successful breeding is apparently linked to the presence of two Eucalypt species-the blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, and the swamp gum, E. ovata. Captive birds will consume the flowering heads of a far wider range of eucalypts with relish. McGuiness (pers. comm.) has fed five different Eucalypt species to his birds and has observed them eating all of these plus some creeper that grows through the aviary sides. Obviously without crop analysis he cannot be sure which part of the Eucalypts and creepers are being consumed. Suffice it to say that all flowering parts were fully destroyed! In the aviary the Swift will consume a variety of different foodstuffs and the research of Laubscher (1999) recommends as varied a diet as is possible. Most successful breeders feed a commercial pelletised diet, a wet food lorikeet mix, small parrot seed mix plus a liberal supply of seasonal fruit. Wild birds are seldom reported eating fruit yet this season (2000) McGuiness (pers. comm.) observed two wild Swifts eating apples through the wire of his aviaries. He had not observed this behaviour previously.
Care must be taken to limit the amount of sunflower seed consumed as this parrot suffers from obesity in captivity if incorrectly fed (Laubscher, 1999). Apples, pears, grapes, oranges, kiwi fruit, rock and watermelons are all fed when in season. Their keeper Rob McGuiness also feeds our birds a ‘salad’ of silver beet, spinach, celery, corn, peas and broccoli. All birds are also fed a commercial wet lorikeet mix and Sheps Lory Dry is available at all times. As a 'treat', when young are in the nest, pairs are given tinned Apricot Nectar twice a week. All birds love this nectar but it is given sparingly to avoid any 'sugar rushes' from its ingredients-guess most of us like a little chocolate 'now and again'!! Different breeders feed various brands of lorikeet food with one successful aviculturist feeding his Swifts diluted Farex baby food with glucodin as their only wet mix. Fresh water should be available at all times which often means replenishing the supply twice daily.
During the breeding season many authors point to the need for insect
feed. Gartrell (pers.comm.) suggested that insects were a major food
source of wild birds during the breeding season. Febey (pers. comm.) has
always fed mealworms to his Swifts and has successfully bred this
species for a number of years. Recent dietary information and research
should give the aviculturist a far greater degree of breeding success
than was previously possible. Forshaw's (1981) comments that Swift
Parrots rarely breed in captivity and do not adapt successfully to an
aviary existence are now, at least amongst Tasmanian aviculturists, no
longer strictly correct. The great pity is that so few pairs are
permitted to be held in captivity in this state.
As previously stated, the advances in dietary information and availability have meant that the Swift can be maintained in a far healthier state than was often true in the past. Despite this a check must be made for the signs of obesity and an appropriate nutritional program instituted. Night shock still remains the major killer of these birds in captivity-whether from birds of prey during the day or owls and possums at night. Laubscher (1999) cites a number of cases of keepers experiencing problems and some that attach tree branches to the ends of their flights to alleviate this problem. Fledglings are especially at risk of this fate during their first few weeks out of the nest.
As part of Brett Gartrell's PhD thesis a number of autopsies were performed to detect the cause of death in aviary (and wild) bred Swifts. His work on four of our birds showed that parasitic roundworms were responsible for the death of three birds and head trauma (possum induced!) in the fourth bird. All of our birds were wormed with Panacur 25 directly via the crop once a year EXCEPT for young birds. Water based worming was also carried out twice a year. As we had experienced some feather abnormalities in other parrot species we made it a rule never to worm juvenile swifts. The only birds that we lost to roundworms were juvenile Swifts! Since Brett Gartrell's work with our birds we crop needle ALL birds twice a year with two other treatments in their nectar using different wormers.
To date we have had no feather problems with our young Swifts and have
not lost any other birds to roundworms or tapeworms. Thanks to Brett’s'
work our birds have never looked healthier. As with all parrot species
care must be taken to reduce stress levels to prevent outbreaks of the
potentially disastrous bacterial infection - Psittacosis. Much has been
written about its symptoms and treatment but, so far, we have no first
hand experience with this disease. Thankfully, other Tasmanian breeders
contacted had a similar lack of trouble or experience with this disease.
Swifts have been bred in a number of different boxes and logs and, based upon our observations; they show little preference for either logs or boxes. They also appear to show no preference for containers hung vertically or those hung on an angle. Brett Cook, a successful Tasmanian breeder, uses vertical boxes for all his breeding while our birds, and Kerry Febeys, use both vertical and horizontal logs and boxes. All nesting boxes have natural wood pulp placed in them to a depth of about 5cm. This appears to be enough for most Swifts. However, Rob McGuiness observed one female that dug into the pulp to such an extent that the wood could be seen flying out of the entrance to the box! She twice emptied the contents of the box before 'allowing' the nest to be refilled-eggs were subsequently laid and 2 young reared. To date we have not noticed any 'wet boxes', as is often seen in captive lorikeet species, so we have not felt the need to add sphagnum moss to our nest box material. We do not use wood shavings. Between 3-6 white eggs are laid, incubation is about 20 days and the young leave the nest after around 6 weeks (Forshaw, 1981).
Our swifts usually commence breeding late September but periodically do not lay until late November. It is imagined that this late breeding could have disastrous consequences for mainland birds given the heat at this time of the year. This season (2000) Brett Cook showed me nests of fully-fledged young in mid November. At the same time our birds had only just commenced to lay eggs. Three eggs are the clutch for our Swifts (never more or less-so far!) and they usually rear 2 or 3 chicks per nest. Double brooding usually only occurs if breeding commences in September. While our birds invariably rear 2-3 young, Brett Cooke usually has 4 per nest while at Kerry Febey’s a nest of 5 and one of 6 was observed. Unfortunately the parents did not rear all 6 youngsters and it was not ascertained whether 2 hens were responsible for these large clutches.
Immature Swifts are considerably duller than their parents, have a broad
underwing-stripe and have the undersides of the vent feathers a
yellowish colour tinged with red. Juveniles moult at 4-5 months and
again at 10-12 months of age (Laubscher, 1999). We do not breed with
immature females until their second season.
In all mainland states the Swift Parrot is protected by law but may be kept under permit. In Tasmania only those breeders that held them before 1998 may still do so. It is illegal to sell, trade or transfer them to other aviculturists. In our case two aviculturalists purchased the original colony and a request was made to have dual names on the permit. We were told that this was not necessary as only the residential keepers name was required and another permit issued to the other partner when he was ready to receive his part of the colony.
Now, under new laws, this is impossible-so much for the promises of government officials. Hardly fair or equitable given their assertions previously. If the wildlife authorities are so concerned about the plight of this species then surely (?) they should be doing all in their power to ensure that responsible aviculturists breed as many Swifts as possible. What is the value of the plethora of information gleaned from the work of Brett Gartrell, and others, if it does not flow on to captive breeding programs?
No one contacted during the course of compiling this article was in favour of seeing an 'open slather' approach to keeping Swifts given their exacting dietary requirements. However, they suggested that certain strict requirements must be met as regards their feeding and housing before permits are issued to people wishing to keep this species in captivity. They also believed that these 'guidelines' should be set in co-operation with the relevant wildlife authorities and that they be enforced by officers of the Department of Environment. With recent DNA technology and close ringing of chicks surely some 'middle ground' is possible.
It is not proposed that the aviculturist is the 'saviour' of the Swift Parrot but, given that habitat destruction and competition from the introduced Starling, ( Sturnus vulgaris), are frequently cited as major contributors to their decline (Garnett and Crowley, 2000), the need exists for a concerted effort at establishing a large-scale captive-bred population. It is particularly ironic to read European Aviculture publications and see that Swifts have dropped to prices far lower than here in Australia and that there are at least 4 mutations established in their aviaries. Why ironic? Because here in Australia they are kept in tenuously low numbers and the state that has the potential to contribute so much to their long-term survival, albeit in captivity, have restrictive and narrow-sighted laws in place. Who better to contribute to the husbandry of this species, a person who has kept and bred them for years or someone paid by the government to do so? No contest really.
Perhaps the legislators should learn from the Brazilian experience with regards to the conservation methods employed for the 'Blue Macaws'- Hyacinthine, Lear's and Spix's macaws. The Brazilians elected to develop a recovery program board, which consisted of members from diverse backgrounds. Included on this committee are government officials, ornithologists, zoo specialists as well as national aviculturists currently holding those 3 species (Pittman, 2000).
Too often, and occasionally with good reason, aviculturists are blamed for the disappearance of parrot species worldwide. It is refreshing that the Spix's Macaw Conservation Program recognises that the private aviculturists hold the key to the recovery of this species (Pittman, 2000) Let us hope that a similar fresh approach can be instituted in Tasmania- but the current prejudices suggest that this may be some way off. Perhaps the ecological sustainability approach of the Northern Territories Wildlife and Conservation Department might be the way to go.
One has only to go back to the 1980's to observe the effects of legislation upon parrot species. People in Queensland were not allowed to hold the Eclectus Parrot, (Eclectus roratus), the Hooded Parrot, ( Psephotus dissimilis), or the Golden-shouldered parrot, ( P. chrysopterygius), plus several other parrot species. Due to overgrazing and other agricultural practices the Hooded and Golden-shouldered Parrots were at risk of population reduction to unsustainable levels. Aviculturists throughout Australia were required to list these (and other) parrots on a national permit system.
The laws in Queensland were repealed allowing these species to be kept and bred under permit. In a few brief years Hoodeds' dropped from around $750 to $100 a pair and Golden-shouldered from $3000 to $300. In fact so many Hoodeds are now bred that young can be purchased for as little as $10 each (Butler, pers. comm.) and NSW has now removed this parrot from the permit system. This must surely reduce the temptation to trap these birds in the wild. It would be great to believe that this same scenario could be achieved in the case of the Swift Parrot. If the Europeans could achieve this with the limited stocks that they held why not the same in Australia?
As we read more and more on the effects of habitat destruction on our native wildlife it would be a promising scenario if local wildlife authorities could work alongside aviculturists to safe guard swift parrot numbers in captivity. At least it would be a start. Consultation with avicultural organisations would lead to a far more harmonious relationship rather than the present situation where bird keepers are told what to do with no prior input into any legislation-like the 'new' laws governing the keeping of swifts in Tasmania.
Like it or not, given the demands placed on the environment by
population trends, the private aviculturist may well hold the key to the
long-term survival of many avian species. Let us not allow petty
constraints and prejudices to send the Swift Parrot down the same road
as the Paradise Parrot, (Psephotus pulcherrimus), and the
Rodriguez Parrot, (Necropsittacus rodericanus). Here is hoping
that a more enlightened attitude allows a far greater number of bird
keepers to discover the joys of keeping one of the most colourful and
confiding of all the Australian parrots. Who knows, they may even let me
have access to my own Swifts again!
GARNETT, S.T and CROWLEY, G.M. (2000) The Action Plan for Australian
Birds 2000. p.327-329. Environment Australia
Diet Used By
Feeding- Take out 2 dessertspoons of dry mix per bird, mix 2
dessertspoons of honey water per bird, thicken with stewed fruit.
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