I've lived with Peachfront Conures Aratinga aurea for 30 years. I've bred 'em, trained 'em, even visited Bolivia to observe them in the wild. For more about me, click right here.
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11:00 a.m. 2012-04-09
All About Conures
This piece was first published in a slightly different form under the title, "Crazy About Conures," in the Jan./Feb. 1988 American Cage-Bird Magazine. This updated edition is copyright 1988, 2012 by Elaine Radford.
When most people look for a small parrot, they're thinking of those congenial Australians, the cockatiel and the budgie. But nowadays, they're likely to be confronted with a third choice: the conure. These handsome South and Central Americans are winning hearts everywhere as pet owners discover the bird that might best be described as a macaw personality in a compact package. For those who want the spunk of the larger parrot but don't have the space, the conures are the perfect choice.
Conures are identified by their tapered tails and distinctive eye rings. They're slim, elegant birds, with profiles that more closely resemble a young macaw's than the chunky shape of the generic parrot. The sexes are pretty much alike, although a finger check of the spacing between the legs has about a 75% chance of giving you the right answer. (If the pelvic bones are far apart, you've probably got a hen.) The conure character puts me in mind of the tough-but-lovable grump stereotype so popular on TV sicoms; They're more aggressive and harder to tame than the sweet-natured cockatiel, but once they've given their love, they'll loudly demand the opportunity to show their affection. Which brings us to the major drawback of conure ownership: the noise. Imported Aratinga conures can really raise the roof! Apartment dwellers beware. But for those of us who don't have close neighbors, the fierce love these birds offer their owners more than compensates for a little squawking.
The conure squawkbox is a positive advantage in one way, because these little birds can be excellent watchdogs. I've never tried to cure my pet of shrieking whenever I first open the door to the house for the simple reason that I believe he's kept me from being robbed at least twice. On the first occasion, I returned from vacation to learn that 30 homes around me had been robbed; I was apparently spared because anyone trying to enter was discouraged by the barrage of ear-splitting aggrieved shrieks. The second time, I came home late at night to find my front door wide open -- and absolutely nothing missing. Once again, the noise chased away the would-be intruder.
A prospective pet should be selected with care. Hand-reared chicks are first choice for sweetness of temper; fortunately, conure breeders are easier to locate than even just a few years ago. The striking Sun Conure has been the object of particular attention, and although they're not cheap, they can usually be found fairly quickly by checking the specialty classifieds. Already tame adults or imported wild juveniles are second choice. Wild adults should be left to the experts, as they're almost impossible to tame without superhuman efforts. Juveniles can be picked out by their poorly developed or absent eye rings. Don't forget to ask the dealer to clip an untamed conure's wings.
Taming and Training
My first Peachfront Conure was a legal import from Bolivia, purchased in 1982. He was so frightened of people that he scampered to the far side of his cage with a squawk whenever anyone entered the room. In two days, he was eating out of hand, and within the week, he was riding all around the house on one or another human shoulder. King Arthur, as we called him, ruled the roost for many years until I set him up in a breeding situation, where he became a proud and successful father of strong, domestic-bred Peachfronts that I still hold to this day.
It is no longer legal to import wild birds from South America. However, you could still encounter a parent-raised bird which needs to be tamed. The first step is simply to get the bird used to seeing people walk freely around it. Its time in a large store, aviary, or breeding facility may not have done this, perhaps because the conure was then reassured or distracted by the presence of many other birds. Its first spot in the home should be cleared of such distractions, be they auditory (like a radio) or visual (mirrored surfaces and televisions). You don't want the bird to relax only to fall in love with its own reflection, and you certainly don't want it terrified out of its wits by some frightening image on TV. (A program on the eagles once threw my Peachfront into a tizzy.) Just walk quietly about, muttering soft phrases as you draw near the cage. After a short while, the bird will no longer panic when you approach. You're then ready for the next step.
Pick a quiet, safe corner where you can be alone with the conure. Have a supply of treats -- I like to use bits of peanut -- and a training stick or two on hand. Then move the cage to the corner and open the door. In the not unlikely event that the conure ignores the invitation to emerge, you can get it to come out by using the stick. Hold it horizontally in front of the bird's chest, near its body. Since its instinct is to climb up, it will hop onto the stick where you can pull it out of the cage before it knows what happened. Don't go too fast, don't jerk, and don't forget to murmur something reassuring. Moving very slowly, offer a bit of peanut between your fingers.
If the conure tries to escape, be patient. The bird will want to try its clipped wings a few times before it's sure it can't get away. Use the stick to pick it up again. Each time offer the treat. Praise it effusively when it first takes and eats a treat. You needn't hide your excitement. You've just overcome the first hurdle.
Once the conure steps on and off the stick on command and is accustomed to your hand moving near to give treats, getting it to step onto your hand is fairly easy. Hold your hand (with closed fist) in front of its chest, just as you did with the stick. After a few false starts, the conure will climb aboard. Be sure to reward it with plenty of praise, as well as a favorite tidbit.
Once you've gained the conure's trust, you may want to teach it a few tricks. Feel free, but remember to go slow and be generous with the bribes. All conures are intelligent, but they vary greatly in their inclination to perform. Some, like cats, think they should be worshiped for their intrinsic worth instead. The aptly named King Arthur, presented with a stack of coins and ceramic pig, neatly expressed his royal contempt for my wish to teach him to put pennies in the bank. With a world-weary air, he picked up a coin, waddled over to the pig, and flipped the coin through the slot -- picture perfect the first time. Then, having proved he could do it if he wanted, he refused to ever so much as glance at the pig again.
Talking ability also varies greatly, but it's generally quite poor. If your heart's set on teaching a bird to talk, you'd do better to pick some other variety.
Care of the Conure
A good metal parrot cage is the best bet for one of these birds. They aren't as big as macaws, but they're just as determined, and a plastic home that's fine for a cockatiel won't hold a conure for long. Don't put more than one conure to a cage, even if the pet store did it. Remember, they were planning on the bird's stay being temporary! A permanent conure home should be the individual's very own castle; otherwise, fighting and injury are certain to result. If you want a pair for breeding, be prepared to set up aviary-size quarters.
Outfit the cage with chew toys. Clean wood and rawhide is great. Shop around and pay the lowest prices, because eventually the conure will destroy its playthings. Never give it plastic or anything coated with a lead-based paint. Have a supply of cuttlebone on hand; you may have to clean it frequently, as the conure is as apt to perch on it as to eat it.
Any good parrot diet meant for the macaws is fine. Since they eat a lot of fruit and vegetables in the wild, you should offer fresh produce regularly. Every other day, offer dark green vegetables such as broccoli, turnip greens, or other dark green in order to ensure that your bird is getting enough vitamin K. (Pale iceberg lettuce is worthless.) Cherry and grape halves, small hot peppers, and apple cores with the apple seeds removed, are excellent treats. When fresh corn is in season, don't miss the chance to give your conure a bit of whole cob. I don't know which they enjoy more, eating it or playing with it.
Conures usually molt once a year, during the fall in preparation for winter. Sometimes they will also molt before the onset of hot weather. If the conure is eating a good diet and hasn't just been through a period of stress, the molt will probably go so smoothly you'll hardly notice it. On the other hand, if the bird has been stressed, particularly by the loss of a beloved friend or a traumatic move, many new feathers may pop out at once, sticking out of their growth sheaths like so many tiny plastic spears. Since your pet isn't so pretty any more, you may be tempted to play with it less. That's the last temptation you should give in to. Now, of all times, is when you should be fussing over it, offering special goodies, misting it often, rubbing the new feathers gently to release them from the sheaths, and just generally reassuring the bird that it's still special. Such attention will prevent your bird from developing the vice of feather-picking and will also ensure that it gets back its pretty plumage in record time.
Our Favorite Conure: The Peachfront
I suppose that the most popular pet conure species, hands down, is the lovely yellow-orange Sun Conure (Aratinga solstitialis). No other common conure so well combines a pleasing personality with brilliant plumage. Another beautiful conure that one hopes will be bred more often in the future is the pretty green and gold Jenday Conure (A. jendaya).
However, even if price were no consideration, I would still choose the lovable Peachfront Conure, (A. aurea), the star of this website. In my humble opinion, its voice is far more pleasing and well-modulated than the other Aratingas. Its personality is just as charming, in its own bossy way. It has perhaps a bit more talking talent than some of the other conures, but I wouldn't expect much talk from any birds in this genus. What tickles my funnybone is how quickly my Peachfronts pick up on odd sounds and noises like snoring. I'm convinced that these intelligent birds attempt to convey meaning with these efforts. For instance, my first bird only "snored" at night, after his cage had been covered and people continued to chatter around where he could hear. This snore was such a loud, determinedly annoyed buzz that I couldn't help but interpret it to mean, "Can't a guy get any sleep around here?" Some of his descendents have picked up the same habit; if they want to sleep, and they think we're making too much noise, you can expect to hear a loud sarcastic snore from the most watchful, protective male and maybe sometimes from the others.
Breeding the Conure
The story of how I bred the Peachfront Conure, and some hints for how you can do the same, is told in a separate article. For now, here are a few quick hints.
Those who have successfully bred Cockatiels may be disappointed to learn that conures won't breed in a like amount of space. An outside aviary with an enclosure to retreat from rain and bad weather is probably best in the south, but you MUST have adequate mosquito screening. Heat may need to be supplied in the winter or while the birds are being acclimated, but you may be surprised at how readily these so-called tropical birds become accustomed to cold. If they ignore a heated retreat, they probably don't need it. Next boxes can be sturdy cavity-nesting set-ups. Sometimes even a cockatiel nestbox will do, but keep an eye on the wood, because they WILL chew holes in it sooner or later.
For best results, you must allow only one surgically sexed pair to a flight. Conures packed together add up to fighting over nestboxes and invading each other's territories -- conditions unlikely to promote successful breeding.
Hand-raised conures do have the sweetest personalities and the best chance of learning to talk, so you will probably want to pull the chicks for personal care after two to four weeks in the nest. I prefer to allow the parents to raise my babies, but if you are planning to sell the babies as pets, you should probably get the guidance of a local bird club or breeder, so that you will be able to hand-feed the babies safely. Your reward for your hard work will be conure charmers whose pet quality can't be beat.
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