Anyone who visits with us for any length of time, soon will discover that we own a pair of cherry-headed or red-masked conures (aratinga erythrogenys). The cherry-heads were not the first conures to enter our household, but they definitely have made a very firm claim on their corner.
Cherry-heads are very vocal, active and agile birds. They are intelligent and curious. Their talking ability is better than most conures and their red markings make them one of the more colorful birds. These birds average 33 centimeters in length and are from the arid zone of western Ecuador and north-western Peru according to Forshaw.
Cheryls first interest in these birds began with one of those discussions that seem to start up between people who keep birds as pets. Her boss's wife owned a mature cherry-head named Pickles. Cheryl was intrigued by her bird's vocabulary. He had an entire routine of "What does the animal say?" (Duck, pig, cow, etc.) The person had to answer properly or Pickles would quickly make a correction. The entire routine ended with "What does Pickles say?" and the enthusiastic answer of a loud conure squawk!
Cheryl learned that Pickles was completely potty trained and would tug on his owner's ear to tell her that he need to go. A trip into the bathroom and the command "Bombs away!" was all Pickles needed to hear. After discussions about Pickles, Cheryl decided she would someday like to have a cherry-headed conure.
In September 1993, we read a notice in our bird clubs newsletter that two conures were up for adoption through the clubs rescue program. We offered our home to either bird and were asked if we could adopt both wild-caught birds: a half-naked nanday (plucked) and a cherry-head who hated both women and hands. It soon became evident that Murphy, the nanday, only tolerated people and Blaze, the cherry-head, had a definite dislike for Cheryl but absolutely loved Leland.
After quarantine ended, Blaze soon began to show a definite interest in and possessiveness of Maurie, our pet mitred. Cheryl did not like this since she could see Maurie becoming less of a pet as a result. We decided to have Blaze surgically sexed and found that she was indeed a hen. Our next mission was to find a single cherry-head male.
We called everyone we could find who might have a cherry-head but found that not many were available. Finally, we purchased a pet cherry-head. We figured our chances were 50/50 on getting a male, which is better than the odds for the lottery. So, Sparky entered our lives in January 1994.
Sparky proved to be very active and vocal. He had a good vocabulary for a wild-caught bird and was not too hard to manage. After quarantine time was over, we introduced Sparky to Blaze. In less than a minute the two were side by side and showing signs of being very interested in each other. Blaze quickly moved close to Sparky and said "Alright!" Sparky immediately answered with "pretty, pretty bird!" The two have been inseparable since that day.
In April 1994 we decided to have Sparky sexed just in case these two conures didn't have the gender thing figured out. Much to our relief, Sparky checked out to be a male. We had a perfect match. We purchased a new, larger cage and attached the nest box.
Initially, the birds completely ignored the nest box. We enticed and tricked them into the box, but they simply weren't interested. So, we gave up on helping them like the nest box and, of course, they started going in it a few weeks later. We didn't expected them to have any eggs this year and only hoped for a clutch in 1995, at best.
Ever the optimists, we checked the box daily. Now we would be greeted by two conure pit bulls snapping and biting from the bottom of the nest box, but no eggs. We still worked with both birds and handled them a little each day in order to keep them under control. Our theory being that whatever we made "normal" would be their normal routine.
In a twist of fate, Cheryl's pet quaker began to lay eggs and sit on them at the bottom of her cage. After throwing a couple of eggs away, we gave in and made her a makeshift nest of pine shavings in a dog dish. Watson faithfully sat on her eggs waiting for them to hatch. The cherry-heads, on the other hand, continued to guard an empty nest box and give us a good "cussing out" every time we dared to peek inside.
About ten days after we gave Watson her nest, Cheryl asked Leland to check the cherry-head nest box for eggs. Instead of the usual "no eggs", he dropped the box lid and exclaimed "there is an egg in there!" Another egg showed up the next day, followed by the third egg two days after that. We were excited to see a clutch of three eggs.
Blaze faithfully sat on the eggs while Sparky guarded the door or sometimes joined her in the box. We checked the box several times a day with the theory that the birds needed to be used to us looking in there to check on babies. They didn't like it, but seemed to get used to the daily peeking.
Much to our surprise, one more egg appeared five days after the third egg. All of our mentors and advisors told us that this last egg would be a problem because it would be so much younger than the other three. We pondered the problem and wished we had a pair of birds who could act as foster parents. Then our eyes wandered over to Watson sitting on her nest of three infertile eggs. No, that was a crazy idea to put a foster egg under a single quaker!
About 23 days after the first egg appeared, we discovered our first chick during daily inspection. We managed to come up with a way to block the parents out of the nest and removed the chick. The tiny little pink alien had a full crop and appeared to be healthy. Leland and I both breathed a sigh of relief that the parents were caring for the chick.
The next two chicks hatched out every other day like clock work and the parents took great care of them. We still had the fourth egg and already we noticed a difference in size from the first chick and the third chick. Watson would have to do as a foster parent.
We removed one very mad quaker from her makeshift nest and replaced one of her infertile eggs with the larger, fertile conure egg. Watson quickly returned to the nest and settled back in without seeming to notice a difference. All we could do now was to hope that she wouldn't get tired of sitting before chick number four hatched.
Luckily, only four days passed and the chick hatched successfully. We carefully watched the quaker and were happy to see her busily feeding her new baby. Leland pulled the other two infertile eggs and Watson dedicated herself to the care of her baby.
About ten days before the first chick hatched, we realized that we needed to order leg bands for our babies. Conures have been so heavily imported in the past that we wanted closed bands on the babies as proof our birds were raised domestically.
We found out that the main band supplier was closed for the entire month of July. A quick phone call to the American Federation of Aviculture, however, saved the day and leg bands arrived that week. Upon close inspection we decided to reorder the next larger size and hoped that the bands would arrive in time. AFA came through again and we had the correct size bands available a full week before the chicks were big enough to band.
Now all we had to do was feed the parent birds a good diet and wait for the babies to grow. We saw the cherry-heads put away more food than we could imagine. Even by providing a large bowl of soft foods and a large bowl of Pretty Bird pellets, the conures would be out of food by the time we came home from work in the evenings.
The foods we provided were simple and healthy. In addition to the pellets, we fed C & J Sprout Mix almost every day. We also provided pasta and veggies, rice and veggies, fruit, and birdy bread on a rotating basis. Sparky and Blaze ate it all, even the carrots! (They normally won't touch carrots!)
We inspected the nest daily and began handling the chicks every day in order to inspect them and get them accustomed to humans. The cherry-heads were such good parents that the nest box only needed to be cleaned out a few times. The remainder of the time the pine shavings were dry and clean.
Banding the babies was easier than we expected. By following the directions from an article in our bird clubs newsletter, we managed to band the babies with no incidents. The only problem we encountered was banding the first chick too soon and having to sift through the pine shavings to recover the band.
Two weeks after the chicks hatched we knew that the decision to hand feed or allow the parents to raise the chicks was now upon us. After considering all of our options, we arranged for the chicks go to an experienced breeder for hand feeding. They came back home to us at the end of September 1994. We enjoyed playing with the babies for the short few weeds we had them. We sold two, one stayed with the lady who handfed as payment for her services and one was traded for a dusky conure.
During our first year as conure breeders we learned several valuable lessons and a lot about conures. First of all, we consider ourselves very lucky to have had this first clutch of birds with so few problems. Secondly, we relied very heavily on books, friends and associates who know birds. Our bird club members are a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Primarily we learned that if you set a pair of birds up with a nest box you should be prepared to have chicks. Preparation for chicks includes having handfeeding supplies on hand, an incubator of some sort and closed bands in the appropriate size(s) for your birds. By educating yourself as much as possible, you can provide the proper environment for your birds to breed and to raise healthy chicks.
The cherry-heads immediately returned to guarding an empty nest box. We removed the box for a short break in late summer of 1994 while Sparky prepared to compete in a couple of bird shows. Blaze had plucked chest feathers and looked too rough for a show.
The two birds were so excited when Leland finally put the nest box back on their cage that they began attacking him before he could get it secured. Finally, he had to remove them to another part of the room before he could finish.
We expected to have another clutch of babies again the following year, but the cherry-heads have not produced any more chicks. We added more bird to the bird room since then and gave them a larger nest box size, so either could be a factor. We have since changed the nest box back to the small cockatiel size that they used for their first clutch.
Poor Blaze no longer is as beautiful as when she first met Sparky as he plucks her face feathers. She quickly learned to imitate most of Sparkys vocabulary, including his tone-deaf style of singing some unrecognizable song. Both birds still are inseparable.
Hopefully, the cherry-heads will once again have another clutch of babies, but if they never do it was a wonderful experience that summer!