The Eclectus Parrot

by Fred Bauer
copyright 1996

No one would argue that the Eclectus parrot is not unique, particularly in its appearance. The first thing you notice when you see a pair of these magnificent creatures is their extreme dimorphism, o outward sexual distinction. Males are predominantly green, and females are predominantly red. The species was named for their distinctive appearance. Eclectus (pronounced ee-KLEC-tuss, not elect-tus nor ekalectus) comes from the word "eclectic", which means "from various sources," referring to the disparate colors of male and female. For some time, biologists believed that the red birds were of one species and the green birds of another.

Eclectus are native to New Guinea and surrounding islands extending eastward through the Solomon islands, westward to Sumba and Buru. To the north they have naturalized in Palau, and to the south they inhabit Cape York, Australia.

Eclectus share a fur-like feather quality with some other Asian parrots. In eclectus parrots, particularly in the female breast and abdomen, this quality is more noticeable because the colors blend when the loose "hairs" overlap. The overlapping also produces other optical illusions, such as shimmering patterns and iridescence, which are more prevalent in the male.

Identifying the subspecies can be confusing. I believe we can lay the blame for this confusion at the feet of the ornithologists who christened many of the subspecies. Risking further turmoil, I am encouraging the use of new commonsense common names. The following descriptions are greatly simplified versions of those printed in the book, A Complete Guide to Eclectus Parrots b K.Wayne Arthur, Fred Bauer, and Laurella Desborough.

Four Eclectus subspecies are readily available in the United States: the yellow vented (or Vosmaeri), the blue bellied (or red sided), the Solomon island and the dusky (o grand). A few of the Cornelia and perhaps some Australian Eclectus (Macgillivray) exist in American collections but are not generally available for purchase.

The Yellow Vented (Vosmaeri)

The largest and most distinctive of the four subspecies readily available in the United States is the yellow vented. The female has yellow feathers around her vent and a wide, one-inch band of bright yellow across the bottom edge of her tail feathers. A transparent wash of rich lavender covers her abdomen and breast, and extends around the back of her neck, covering most of her nape and mantle. The color areas lack the definite edges seen in other subspecies, appearing almost to be applied with an airbrush. The red on he head seems brighter and that on her back ad the top of he wings appears richer than on the other subspecies. The male yellow vented is large. His green plumage has a bright almost fluorescent intensity, possibly from a yellow pigmentation. The lemon-yellow band at the end of his tail is wider than in other subspecies, perhaps because of his size, and the tail is proportionately longer than those of the males of other subspecies. The male's skull is, as is see it , blocky and somewhat flat toped. His beak is a brighter orange than those of other subspecies.

The Blue Bellied (or Red Sided)

The blue bellied Eclectus female, usually called the red sided is quite different from the yellow vented eclectus. Most notable is the complete lack of yellow in the plumage, including the lower half of the tail, which is pale red to pink-orange. The royal blue of the abdomen and lower breast terminates cleanly with a hard edged separation from the crimson of the upper breast, head, and nape. Her back and upper wings are burgundy. Look closely and you will see a very narrow ring of tiny blue feathers around her eyes.

The body color of the blue bellied male has a warmer tone that that of the yellow vented. The head, back, and wings are darker, closer tot a forest green. The band on the tip of the male's tail is narrower and a paler yellow than that of the yellow vented.

The Solomon Island

The Solomon island Eclectus is, in reality, a regional variation of the blue bellied (red sided) Eclectus and probably does not deserve subspecies status. Smaller than all other subspecies, except the riedeli, it has a proportionately shorter neck, shorter tail, and more compact appearance with a noticeably rounded skull. The female's coloration is like that of the blue bellied; however the breast color is often more of a vibrant purple than the royal blue of the blue bellied.

The male Solomon Island has a shorter neck and tail than the other subspecies, and he is smaller than either the yellow vented or blue bellied. The green on his body has a blowing golden cast, which is most noticeable on hi supper wing. The yellowish tail band is narrow and pale. The red side patches are longer and wider than in the other subspecies.

The Dusky (or Grand)

The dusky Eclectus, usually called the grand Eclectus, is in no way grand. Smaller than most other Eclectus subspecies, its colors are duller, and its personality has no remarkable advantage compared to the other subspecies. To compound the problem, many breeders persist in calling the Vosmaeri by the name grand Eclectus. Let us put this title grand to rest for it is meaningless. Despite its lack of comparative brilliance, the dusky is quite beautiful, just as the sky can be quite beautiful at dusk. At first glance, the female may appear to be a cross between the yellow vented and the blue bellied, but on closer examination, hr coloration is distinct. she will have the same hard-edged termination of colors on the lower breast as th blue bellied, but the color of her breast is a gray-purple. All of her red feathers have a burnt or darkened quality, giving the bird an overall warm look. The tips of her tail feathers are often edged with yellow orange, and the vent area is orange. Nowhere is there any clear yellow. The dusky is stocky in form similar to the Solomon.

The coloration of the male dusky Eclectus is less vibrant. The tail is considerably shorter and only narrowly tipped with lemon yellow. The beak is narrower, and his body is stocky.

A Word About Crosses

Distinguishing between Eclectus subspecies would not be difficult were it not for crosses. Lacking field studies to demonstrate that crosses occur in the wild, I assume that the cross colorations we see in increasing numbers of Eclectus parrots are created by unknowing or irresponsible aviculturists.

Even if crossing did take place in the wild, it would occur with unchanging geographic restrictions, which would not threaten the purity of subspecies populations. Cross breeding in captivity is rapidly diluting the original gene pool. With no authorized importations, this is a serious threat to the purity of those birds breeding in captivity. If you own a pair or pairs of Eclectus, do not cross-breed subspecies. I urge all Eclectus breeders to separate pairs made of different subspecies and to stop breeding birds that show indistinct characteristics. If you are truly concerned about preserving these natural subspecies, don't even purchase cross bred birds.

Color Aberrations

The extreme dimorphism in Eclectus can create curious and complex color aberrations in some offspring. Males may have red bands around their necks or scattered red feathers. Young females may have green feathers at the edges of their wings or elsewhere, but these usually disappear. Do not confuse these temporary color variations with color irregularities caused by dietary deficiencies, such as females with yellow, orange, o bronze feathers in place of the normal read feathers. These colors can often be attributed to improper beta-carotene absorption and will resolve with a balanced diet and a molt.

Misunderstood Beauties

Eclectus parrots display such a stunningly beautiful array of colors, it's no wonder they are so appealing. When they were first imported in the late 1970's, a friend told me that he knew of no finer gift than a female eclectus. for the right person, this still holds true.

Thee are, however, profound misunderstandings about the personality of the Eclectus parrot. They have been characterized as dull, boring lethargic, shy, and stupid. What the casual observer is seeing, however, is the Eclectus' reaction to stress. They freeze and wait when presented with unfamiliar situations or people. In familiar surroundings with people they know, Eclectus parrots are highly animated, active flyers, garrulous (though seldom loud), curious, affectionate, playful, and inventive. Their inventiveness was recently demonstrated when I trained a young pair to use a nipple-type watering system. After a few days of transition, I removed their water bowl from its place near the new device. Eclectus often dip dry food into water before eating it, an indication of their need for succulent food. The male carried a primate biscuit to the site where the bowl had been and dropped it there twice, then picked it up and attempted to push it into the spout of the automatic waterer. I would not call this bird stupid.

Breeders working with their birds have found that the male Eclectus parrot may have speaking ability close to that of the African grey. Their vocabularies are often extensive, and their voice quality quite human. In addition, there are indications that they spontaneously use words in context with environmental situations.

Although some people believer Eclectus, particularly the females, are aggressive and unfriendly, the truth is more complex. It is an instinctive characteristic for female Eclectus parrots to be in control. The male is secondary in the breeding, nesting, and rearing process. He must solicit and wait for an invitation from the female to mate. She keeps the balance in the relationship with aggressive gestures. This is the normal relationship between males and females of this species, and a female Eclectus will attempt to relate with her human companions in the same way. There is plenty of room for warmth and affection, however, and female Eclectus can become devoted pets. It is the males, however, that are the real lovers.

Eclectus chicks go through an interesting developmental stage I call "the terrible twos." For a couple of weeks just before weaning all Eclectus chicks become aggressive toward everyone, often even toward the person who has fed and cared for them. This is normal instinctive behavior, though somewhat disappointing to uninformed hand-feeders. This phase soon passes and the birds become more loving and sweet natured than most other parrots. Of course, the success of any good relationship depends largely on the awareness and respect of the participants. The young Eclectus will always do its part, but its human companion must work at the relationship too.

Dietary Needs

Most observers note that Eclectus have a high vitamin-A requirement. This could be true, but I believe it is more of a balance and or absorption problem. The main fare at China Prairie Farm is sprout seeds, grains, and legumes; sprouting greatly enhances their vitamin-A content. More important, however, sprouting probably enhances the absorption of vitamin A because the food is alive at the time of consumption.

At China Prairie Farm we use no synthetic vitamin additives. We do use powdered red peppers of various kinds and a trace-mineral earth, which adheres to the moist sprouts. Carrots, sweet potatoes and other vegetables and fruits in season are shredded and mixed with the sprouts. Hulled sunflower seed makes up only 10 percent of the mixture.

Eclectus are fond of small seeds, such as millet, canary seed, and sesame. They also show an intense interest in green foods, such as kale, mustard, and any leaf or flower bud. Make these foods available to them, but take care not to offer toxic plants. With this diet, calcium supplementation is not necessary since the fat content is restricted. Birds kept outdoors can utilize more fat in the winter to help keep them warm. In addition, birds kept indoors will need a source of vitamin D3, which is normal obtained from sunlight.

Housing Eclectus

You can house your Eclectus indoors or out. Breeding birds indoors obviously creates space limitations but aviculturists who breed their birds indoors tell me that their birds do not need large flights because they prefer to walk or to climb about. I find that eclectus parrots from indoor aviculturists fly little until they have been in my outdoor flights for several months. Without exception, however, all become active flyers and will utilize a relatively large flight enclosure, more so than most other parrot species.

I have not found that large outdoor flights impede the breeding of Eclectus. At China Prairie Farm, we house our Eclectus outdoors in suspended flights, measuring 3 by 4 by 12 feet or 4 by 4 by 16 feet. We cover half of the tops and sides with sheet metal for privacy and protection from the wind.

These birds have wintered for many years in unheated flights. Although temperatures i Northern California can drop to as low as 17 degrees Fahrenheit, they have never been adversely affected by the weather. The benefits birds derive from sunshine and rain far exceed any discomfort from low temperatures. They must, however, be in good health and be protected from wind and predators.

If you offer a sufficient amount of fresh water, Eclectus will bathe daily. In dry climates, or if birds are housed indoors, misting or sprinkling is essential. When clean, the colors of eclectus parrots will be especially vibrant, and you can more easily distinguish the subtle color differences of the subspecies.

Although Eclectus have a reputation for prolific breeding, this is not the whole story. A sexually bonded pair in the swing of things, can produce fertile eggs about every 30 to 60 days, depending on how long one leaves the eggs in the nest. This productivity level can continue throughout the year, but pairs this prolific are the exception. Eclectus can be difficult to bring into production. There is a full range of success and failure with these birds. Often, age and experience improve productivity and parenthood skills. The greatest difficulty seems to occur with long-term pets turned breeders. Imprinted Eclectus, for reasons not clear to me, have trouble with instinctive sequences that lead to fertility. Either the females do not send the right signals at the right time to the males, or the males are not soliciting the females in a timely manner. Some breeders have overcome this impasse by placing the defective pair near a pair that breeds successfully, so they can learn by example.

Eclectus females will accept and produce in nest boxes of a wide variety of size, shapes, and material. They seem more than happy to spend most of their adult lives inside their nest boxes. Males seldom enter the nest boxes, but they perform all duties of fatherhood.

At China Prairie Farm, we supply our Eclectus pairs with boxes made completely of sheet metal. They are easily disinfected, escape-proof, and long lasting. Objections that these boxes are too cold or too hot are unfounded. No nest box should be placed in direct sunlight, and birds are covered with feathers and, therefore do not feel the metal. The one disadvantage is that these boxes provide no insulation for sound. This can be overcome by gluing Styrofoam or other sound-deadening material to the outside.

The number of eggs in a clutch varies with subspecies. Yellow vented (Vosmaeri) generally lay two eggs per clutch. Blue bellied Eclectus (red sided) can lay three eggs per clutch, and Solomons have been known to lay as many as four per clutch.

For nesting material, offer coarse wood fragments that will allow the female to chew the bedding to prepare the nest. Do not use soil or peat moss in an Eclectus nest box because these substances may contain toxic material or pathogens, or may get into the chick's eyes and mouths. We use 3/4 to 1 inch long Douglas fir chips, which are nearly sawdust free. Replace nesting material between clutches if the chicks hatch in the nest, less often if you remove th eggs for incubation. Domestic breeder Eclectus and seasoned veteran wild-caught birds are not disturbed by this maintenance if the work is carried out with calm respect.

The better Eclectus smothers will accept up to four Eclectus eggs for fostering, and some will raise this number of chicks. The eggs must be laid within five to six days of one another. Eclectus have an accurate internal clock and will abandon eggs not hatched on time. Do not attempt to foster Eclectus chicks to other species, because the weak feeding response natural to Eclectus hatchling swill cause other species to abandon them Eclectus mothers will not foster other species, they will kill them.

Most of the misconceptions that continue today about Eclectus being shy or aggressive are rumors perpetuated b people who have had little exposure to them o whose experience was with wild caught or mistreated birds.

Not only can Eclectus make good pets, they can be among the best and most practical. They do not chew clothing, furniture, carpets or appliance wiring. They will, however, destroy house plants. Most make little noise. They make pleasant and unusual sounds including soft bell or gong tones, 'coos', whistles, comic 'konks' and squeals and other unusual but not harsh sounds. They are capable of a frightfully piercing alarm cry, which is seldom uttered, but could certainly raise the dead. Eclectus are not prone to the on-man-bird syndrome. They are family birds, often taking to a guest after a short get acquainted exchange. If kept as singles, they seldom bite. There are, of course, so antisocial individuals in any species.

All hand-fed Eclectus respond to cuddling and caressing but he the Solomon Island subspecies is the most affectionate. Although Eclectus are not fond of being scratched or of rough play, their obvious pleasure at being stroked or nestling against a human companion's cheek is equal to that of umbrella or Moluccan cockatoos.

Contrary to several written accounts, Eclectus parrots are playful. The attack toys with curiosity and zest. They shadow box, hang upside down like lories, and are enthusiastic about swings and rings.

Living quarters for Eclectus parrots need not be fancy if the bird has reasonable periods outside of its cage, the enclosure need be only large enough so a bird a can flap its wings and play with toys without damaging its feathers. They are especially good candidates for an indoor-outdoor arrangement that allows them to come into the house through a bird door to be part of the family and to play and exercise outdoors whenever they choose.

It would be difficult to imagine what life would be lie with Eclectus absent fro my daily routine. Their striking beauty and joyous nature are rewards well worth the little bit of patience and maintenance they require. Can a parrot smile without lips? Sure it can. And if a joy green-winged macaw reminds you of Milton Berle, a contented Eclectus will conjure up images of Mona Lisa.