Amazona parrots as companions

Rosemary Low

When keeping parrots in the home many problems are experienced. Even if they are captive-bred, these parrots are not living in the environment in which they evolved over millennia. They live among trees and fly many miles on most days, to and from their roosting site, in search of food.  It is therefore difficult for many parrots to adapt to life in our homes. However, there is one group of parrots that have proved more adaptable than most: the Amazons.

A tendency to generalise is found in most of us but when this is related to living creatures it can be misleading, to say the least. This is especially  true when we are talking about Amazon parrots, not only because they are almost as individualistic as humans, but also due to the fact that there are  approximately 30 (depending on which taxonomic view you take) species.

If someone says Amazons make good pets and they are fantastic talkers! they are definitely generalising. Of all the Amazons, only six are frequently kept in our homes. It is true that some species are rarely or never available but others are, but have never become popular. Likewise while most species will learn to repeat a few words, it is the ochrocephala complex (Yellow-crowned, Double Yellow-head) and the Yellow-naped which excel as mimics -- and many Blue-fronted Amazons are also very accomplished.

The Yellow-naped will out-talk the most talented Grey Parrot and, furthermore, some have learned to sing complete songs. And I do mean sing! One in California that belonged to an opera singer even made a record!

So generally speaking (yes, I have fallen into the trap of generalising!) it is the species with the most extrovert personalities that we favour as pets. However, trouble often occurs with a male when it matures!  In breeding condition males often become aggressive, confrontational and have no hesitation in flying at and attacking a human.   Sadly, this is when many Amazons lose their homes because the carer is bewildered, bitten and at his (or her) wits end. As I told one upset owner: Dont take it personally. Your Amazon cannot help it. His behaviour is influenced by his hormones.

This condition normally lasts for several weeks.  Please do not get angry with the bird. A sympathetic approach in which confrontations are avoided is essential. This probably means keeping him in his cage, which can result in screaming. Try to anticipate when he will yell and make sure he has a diversion in the form of tree branches to gnaw, a cardboard paper roll to destroy or a  favourite item of food. Or spray him with warm water -- which most Amazons greatly enjoy.


A male Blue-fronted Amazon can be very aggressive at times.

Extra attention must be paid to him: sit by his cage, talk to him, offer him titbits and rub his head if he permits this. Make sure he is not neglected or the screaming and aggression will become worse. Reducing the hours of artificial light might help, if necessary, moving his cage into a room where the lights can be turned out at 7.30pm.

When you bought that sweet baby Amazon, with its big innocent eyes, you probably had no idea of the problem ahead.  You might have avoided it by asking the breeder to have the young DNA-sexed, then choosing a female. A sexed parrot will cost a little more but is a small sum to pay for avoiding a big problem.

In other respects Amazon parrots are usually less problematical than other large parrots. Feather-plucking is comparatively rare and is perhaps more likely to be triggered by a health issue than by psychological problems -- as in a Grey Parrot, for example.

The other area of concern is not the fault of the parrot.  Poor diet results in health problems. The most common in Amazons are respiratory problems due to a Vitamin A deficiency and obesity due to an excess of sunflower seed and peanuts in combination with lack of exercise. Because Amazons are prone to obesity they must be permitted to fly and wing-clipping should be taboo. It is especially harmful in the case of young birds. If they do not learn to fly at an early age, the confidence to do so might never be acquired if their flight feathers are allowed to grow when they are older.

Obesity leads to the premature death of many Amazons parrots. The story of one that was rescued from this fate was related in the  magazine of the Amazona Society UK, in the May 2007 issue.  Kevin and Julie Manson rescued a Yellow-naped that was in appalling condition. His beak  was overgrown and broken and his nails were so long  they curled in on themselves. He weighed 700g, whereas the normal weight of a Yellow-naped Amazon is approximately 500-570g. He was unable to fly. Despite his poor condition, he was described as very friendly and loving.  An inspection by a vet revealed that the large mass on the lower abdomen was not a tumour -- just fatty tissue. His nails were trimmed and his beak was shaped.


The Yellow-naped Amazon and sub-species

are exceptionally good mimics.

So what was the fate of this unfortunate Amazon? Two years later the Mansons reported that he was a different bird. Due to an improved diet and the opportunity to exercise, his weight had come down to a highly respectable 570g -- no mean achievement on the part of his owners. Reducing the weight of an obese Amazon is not easy.

At first he had rarely moved from his perch. When he was dive-bombed by the Mansons Double Yellow-headed Amazon he would fall in an ungraceful heap on the floor. But as the months went by they became friends and the Yellow-naped moved into the other Amazons cage.

Then came the day that proved he was fully restored to health -- a male with raging hormones! When offering him a lift up from the floor, Kevin was bitten hard on the back of his hand. He started to attack feet -- a situation that I found myself in with my own first Amazon when I was in my twenties.

He was a Salvins (Amazona autumnalis salvini) -- a much-loved character and wild-caught, as were all Amazons in those days. In the short-term I solved the problem by wearing knee-length boots in his presence. In the long term the problem was resolved by finding him a female (very hard to acquire). So they lived in an aviary for the rest of his life and were totally devoted to each other. But this is not the answer for most owners of companion birds who either cannot or do not wish to acquire a female.

In any case, these days almost all Amazons acquired as companions are hand-reared. They are much more dependent on humans than parent-reared birds and are likely to react with extreme jealousy (more biting!) if another parrot appears after they are used to being the centre of attention.

An owners failure to understand the difference in behaviour between wild-caught and hand-reared birds was apparent in a letter I received some years ago. The writer had kept a Blue-fronted Amazon for many years. When he died she bought a hand-reared Yellow-naped Amazon. In her letter she complained that when he came out he would not stay on the top of his cage -- he just wanted to fly off.  I would suggest that if a young hand-reared Amazon was content to sit on top of its cage, there would be something seriously wrong with it! Such birds are active, inquisitive and constantly seeking out human companionship. In other words, they are demanding and need a lot of attention on a daily basis.


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