"Getting Together - The Great-billed parrot"
--by Diana Holloway © The Tanygnathus Society
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Getting Together - The Great-billed Parrot
began doing research on Great-bill Parrots with June Dinger when an article came out in a major publication describing them as top heavy with short, rounded tails. June is a well known and highly respected Great-bill Parrot breeder and aficionado. After reading their full description in the magazine, June and I concluded that the author had never seen a Great-bill parrot in good feather. It is often mentioned that they have a longer digestive tract, but necropsies have shown that they are not noticeably different from other parrots. One of the purposes of the Tanygnathus Society, formed in 2000, is to disseminate only accurate researched information.
The late Chris Stokes put a survey together in 1992 and put a notice in Bird Talk magazine asking for responses from Great-bill owners. Soon several of us who were interested in Great-bills started corresponding with each other. I met Chris at the AFA convention in Utah in 1993. This is where I first learned about June Dinger in Florida, who had been breeding Great-bills for many years. Chris and June compiled a list of people who had Great-bills and June took over the list when Chris was tragically killed in a car accident in 1994. June has become the mentor of many people with the common goal being to learn as much as possible about this remarkable species. We formed the Tanygnathus Society in 1999 in the hopes of introducing these fascinating Great-bills to a wider audience.
Widely but patchily distributed through Nussa Tengarra, the Moluccas and the West Papuan islands, the predominately green and blue feathered Great-bills are captive reared in the Philippines by Birds International in Quezon City by the de Dios family. The wild birds are island hoppers, and people who have seen them in the wild say they fly in a straight line in small groups. There are thought to be eight subspecies but most references about these fascinating parrots come from books written in the sixties and the eighties and are often out of date.
When I looked at a map of the islands the Great-bills inhabited, there were at least thirty-seven named islands. Timor and Seram stand out because of all the human conflict that has been in the news. The parrots come from countries rife with civil wars and religious upheaval. In previous CPQ articles, Barbara Bailey and Dr. Stewart Metz reported seeing several Great-bills on their trip to Seram with Project Bird Watch. The Tanygnathus Society has joined with Project Bird Watch (now headed by Dr. Metz) and is raising funds to hire a native spotter to observe Great-bills in their natural habitat on the island of Seram.
Great-bills can be great talkers. When I come into my Great-bills room in the morning, they yell loudly, Whats for breakfast? and then Oh, what a mess. They love to throw their food on the floor and tend to be quite messy. They can talk as well as any Amazon saying, Hello, my darlings, is everybody ok? and many other phrases. They have the cutest habit of putting their faces into the breakfast bowl and making mumbling sounds when they eat it is so endearing.
Great-bills love to be around people and will sit beside you for hours watching television, having little conversations to let you know about their day. They are busy birds and very good at keeping themselves entertained when you are not around, provided they have plenty of toys and lots of room to move about in their cages. Because of their size and need for exercise and activity, they need to be housed in very large cages and they should have play stands available when they are out entertaining us.
The Great-bills in my Life
I have the privilege to live with nine Great-bills. While they are similar in basic traits, each one has a distinct personality. I purchased my first Great-bill in 1991 when he was two-years-old. Ugh was an imported bird and when he came to live with me he was in poor feather. Ugh is loving, kind, and respectful towards his very wild mate Bali. Although I have his daughter and grandson, I can still pick him up when he comes out of his cage. Ugh loves people food, especially macaroni and cheese. Balis age is unknown and she is wild as the wind. Although she is afraid of me, I have learned to let her out of the cage for some out time and then entice her back in with food.
Lee is a domestically raised Great-bill and at age nine, he is a great talker. He can be friendly and sociable except when he and his mate, April, have babies. Lee loves to play games and sneaks around behind me when I am cleaning his cage and shrieks BOO. It makes me jump every time. He says many phrases and loves to watch television.
April, who is 7, is Ughs daughter. She is a nosey busy body and needs to know EVERYTHING. When I come into the room, she immediately starts to mumble, Is everybody alright? When she has babies, she flies out of the nest and grumbles at me until I leave.
Cyrus, an 8-year-old male is domestically raised. He loves to do the Great-bill dance for his bride Nubbie. Cyrus is a music lover with a particular love for rock. He is a gentle soul continually harassed by his harridan of a wife. Cyrus mate Nubbie is 7-years-old and while she is an excellent mother, she runs the roost. She is my precocious child and is possessive, self-centered and always has to be FIRST with everything. Nubbie gets annoyed if she doesnt get the first bath, first nut and on and on. She loves to talk to me but from her tone of voice, I think she is telling me about all my character defects.
Allie-Katherine is my sweetest parrot child. She loves to fly over to land on my head and then look at me with her big liquid eyes waiting for her kiss. She has a way of turning her head ever so slightly when I am talking to her making such direct eye contact with me that I swear she understands every word.
Willow and Xander, the new babies, hatched in June. They are as sweet as can be but they know they are Great-bills and dont like to be touched even at this young age. They are very aware and alert about everything that goes on around them. After I watched Carla Freeds wonderful nestbox videos of baby Amazons being fed by their parents, I decided to spoon feed them very slowly and they seem to really enjoy this extra coddling. They mumble almost constantly as I feed them with the spoon almost as if they are complementing me on my cooking. One is a male the other is a female but I cant see a difference in their personalities yet.
People who are interested in a Tanygnathus as companions must understand that while they love to hang around with people, they do not like to be petted and forcing this on them can cause the birds considerable stress. Great-bills will sit on your arm, and you can kiss their big red beaks, but they become very uncomfortable when you attempt to pet them. In spite of this they make wonderful human companions. They love people as only parrots can love people. They love to see you, talk to you and know you are around. I view my relationship with my birds as letting them be birds, and they let me be a person. We enjoy seeing each other and we enjoy each others company while we each do our own thing.
They like to be the boss when you have other birds to interact with them. This information comes from our members who have several different species of pet birds. The Great-bill tends to take center stage.
They Tanygnathus Two-step
I found this out when at two oclock in the morning; blood-curdling screams came from the Tanygnathus room. I sat up in bed terrified until I realized it was the Great-bills. I live in the center of town, and my house is probably 10 feet from the neighbors. Fortunately no one has called the police. The birds can be very loud and raucous.
Great bills love to play, and swing, and flap. They do a little dance that I have never seen in other species, bowing and weaving, two-stepping from side to side and stretching their necks. It must be Tanygnathus communication. I keep rope swings in their cages. They will swing back and forth and round and round, climb up and down the ropes and really play with their toys. A few months ago Nubbie got a quick link stuck to her beak. I thought we would never get it off. I always thought quick links were about the safest things you could hang a toy with, but clever birds who want to manipulate everything with their beaks can have trouble with them. We go through a lot of wood and constantly replace toys.
Tanygnathus are birds that need to be bathed or showered every day. I have seen June Dinger use a garden hose to drench her outside birds and watched them wiggle with delight, loving every minute of it. If I dont spray my indoor birds every day, they will stick their heads in their large water dish and splash it all over the place until I come in with the spray bottle. They love their showers so much that I spray until my hands hurt ... and it is never enough.
Food Variety is Necessary
I think this is where the species can get into trouble. They cannot thrive on a pelleted diet especially one full of food coloring, preservatives and other artificial ingredients. They need a huge variety of fresh, wholesome foods. This means fruit such as oranges, apples, kiwi, mangoes, and vegetables that include Brussels sprouts, squash, and sweet potatoes. I also feed pasta, beans and rice, crackers, whole grain bread, and well-cooked meat. My birds love occasional small pieces of well-cooked lean meat chicken, steak, and pork chops are their favorite. I offer Harrisons, and they eat the pellets sparingly. Vitamin supplements are not recommended for Tanygnathus. I feed a high quality seed mix; each pair gets about one cup of seeds and about five nuts per day. When they molt they look as if moths have attacked them. Little bare patches appear, and their feathers look mottled until the cycle is completed. This is not an attractive time for them.
Great-bills are susceptible to disease and possibly have a poor immune system. This was pointed out to me in Toronto by a former zoo veterinarian who observed Great-bills in the wild and talked about island species, including humans, having always been stricken by disease when invaded by strangers from other countries. Remember how measles wiped out entire populations. It makes sense when put that way.
If their basic needs for proper care are not met, they are highly susceptible to health problems in captivity. Unfortunately far too many Great-bills have died in captivity because people have not taken the time to learn about their proper care and diet. Taking short cuts with diet can result in serious problems and Great-bills have done very poorly on manufactured diets as their sole source of nutrition.
My Breeding Pairs
I have four domestic Great-bills, who are paired, and one wild-caught pair. They are housed indoors in Expandable Habitat cages and are free to play outside the cages under supervision. The grandparents of one of the youngsters are housed in view of the others so the young birds can learn from experienced, wild-caught elders. All six birds interact with each other in a friendly manner. I have had few problems to date with aggression other than some tail pulling and females showing dominance at the food dishes. The hens are dominant so I watch them very carefully.
My youngsters sit side-by-side and play endlessly together, although they do not preen each other. I sneak in to peek at them late at night, and they are always side-by-side on their perches. They do bond, but it is a different kind of affection than species such as Macaws and Amazons.
My domestic pairs were raised together and produced offspring at the ages of five for the females and six for the males. Copulating Great-bills are a scary sight. The male mounts the hen, standing straight up with eyes glowing neon white. His head weaves back and forth like a cobra. It makes me think about The Exorcist. It is not a pretty sight. Great care must be taken that they have adequate room, as the dominant females have been known to attack and maim or even kill the males when the hens are annoyed. The male is never allowed in the nest box. If he enters it is a probable death sentence. I have heard of many female Tanygnathus who have lost their mates. We think we know why. I have seen Great-bills for sale missing beaks, legs, and feet all because they were put into small cages with an aggressive female. Never introduce a pair to each other in the middle of breeding season.
Placing a young male with an older female is totally inappropriate as the hen will be aggressive. The males dont begin practicing their dancing and wooing skills until five or six years of age. One precaution I have always taken to curb aggression since my birds were youngsters is to have separate feeding bowls for each bird. That way, they never have to squabble over food. Hens have been observed keeping males from eating dont count on her sharing. A parrot keeper lacking in observation skill who doesnt notice this may find that their males are starving.
Since there are so many more hens than males, selling the females to the pet trade will greatly enhance public awareness of the great pet potential of Great bills. I have heard stories of females having permanent pms, but most are sweet from the very beginning. I think this myth is from the birds peculiar breeding habits. My females talk, although they do not enunciate as well as my males. We bought a wild-caught female who had languished in a pet shop in a cockatiel cage for two years. She was sweet from the beginning, even through quarantine, and when placed in a large outdoor flight at the sanctuary, she blossomed. She takes her favorite almond treat from Junes hand every day.
All Tanygnathus are tropical birds and need to be set up indoors in areas where the weather is seasonal. They have not done well when they have been set up in outdoor aviaries in states with seasonal weather and, as of this writing, have not produced offspring.
The incubation period for eggs is 26-28 days. They generally lay two eggs, and the hens recycle if the babies are pulled at 17-21 days for hand-feeding. When they have hatched three chicks, which is unusual, the third one was generally not fed and had to be pulled. Even when left in the nest for over four weeks the babies have been gentle and sweet.
Great bills are not very picky about nest boxes .Be sure, whatever you use, the male can see the hen and not have to go looking for her. The most successful box to deter aggression by the hen is a 16x16x22-inch vertical. The hole should be just big enough for the hen to get into; she will enlarge it to her needs. The second and most important aspect is to have as large a flight as possible so the male can feel safe and. if he needs to, fly away from the hen.
Baby Great-bills are an absolute hoot. One baby would throw her toys across the room to see how far they go and what noises they would make when they landed. She has now learned to play catch, throwing her toys in the air and runs to them, growling and mumbling. Meredith Browns Mango does everything with her, watches TV, eats dinner, takes showers, does homework, and helps her type on the computer. The birds will play with one toy for hours. Another Great-bill idiosyncrasy that is amusing to watch is the fun they have pushing toys around with their beaks. These birds are a lot of fun to have around. One of our members kept a car seat on a chair, and whenever the TV was turned on Gatsby would climb down from her cage and walk over to the chair and wait until she was put in the car seat to watch TV.
My parrot, Austin is the only Philippine Blue-naped I have had any contact with. I visited the aviary he came from in Washington State, and they had several young birds for sale. I know there are breeders in California and other states who raise them, but have not seen many kept as pets. Of the three species, Blue-naped have been the most successful in captivity. As a smaller version of the Great-bill, Austin is a delight. He has an extensive vocabulary, is a loving companion and becomes distressed if over-handled. He will eat with gusto almost anything that is put in front of him and loves to swing and climb. He is housed in a large macaw cage and likes his out time and a shower every morning. It is such fun to hear the Great-bills talking and little Austin in his pip-squeak voice chiming in. He seems more comfortable with his own kind, preferring to be with the other Tanygnathus in the household. He is the sentinel bird, needs to be in charge of the flock and will tattle on the others if they misbehave.
Mullers or Blue-backed:
These stocky Tanygnathus are the most raucous and least known of the three species. The bills are red in the male and horn colored in he female. They have good vocabularies and make fine companion pets according to member Cathi Graham, who raises them. They have bred readily in captivity.
I hope the information I have shared with you will keep you interested in preserving this most unusual species and bring an appreciation of the beauty and intelligence of all Tanygnathus.
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