Photo: Tony Tilford. Striking: the moustache parakeet occurs in South and South-East Asia, although extensive trapping has led to a rapid decline in some of its range

Distinguished by its striking markings, the moustache parakeet is sadly less than flourishing in its native Asia, says ROSEMARY LOW, but introduced populations have given hope that numbers will begin to rise again.

KNOWN to aviculturists as the moustache parakeet (Psittacula alexandri), this species’ ornithological name is red-breasted parakeet. Personally, I don’t like the latter because the breast is not red and, in any case, the breast colour varies according to the subspecies. In most it is pink, giving rise to the more rarely used name of pink-breasted parakeet; in other subspecies it is very dull pink or orange-pink. An elegant, long-tailed bird, it has very fine feather quality like other members of the genus, giving it a smooth and perfect appearance.    

Originating from South and South East Asia, the moustache parakeet has an extremely wide range, giving rise to no fewer than eight subspecies. What is especially interesting is that in three subspecies males and females have a red bill; in the others this is red in the male and black in the female. The plumage differences are subtle, rather than striking – a slight alteration in the colour of the head, upper breast or wing patch. In practice, it can be difficult to distinguish them in captivity. The striking black moustache and pink breast set them apart from other members of the genus.

Newly fledged young look quite different. They lack the pink breast and the crown is green, not grey. But like all young of that genus, they have a more gentle appearance. Instead of the white iris, which makes adults look quite fierce, this is grey. Another distinguishing feature is the brown beak. This changes to red and then to black after a few weeks and, at about nine months, it graduates back to red in the male. In all parrot species, the young have some features that indicate that they are not adults. This seems to protect them from possible aggression from mature birds.

In the 1970s, the moustache parakeet was imported into Europe in large numbers. It was an inexpensive aviary bird and not especially popular. By the 1980s, it was no longer frequently imported but available fairly often. These days, there are only a few breeders in the UK. We too often read that parrot species are declining due to the combined pressures of deforestation and over-trapping (usually illegal) for the live bird trade. This is especially true of species from South America and Indonesia. Unfortunately, in recent years the moustache parakeet has been so heavily trapped that in most parts of its range, especially in Laos (north of Thailand), the population has suffered a fairly rapid decline. Reportedly, its flocking behaviour makes it easy to catch. As a result, the IUCN category of risk was upgraded from Least Concern to Near Threatened in 2013. Habitat loss has also had a negative impact on its numbers in the wild.

This parakeet inhabits woodland, mangroves and cultivated areas up to about 2,000m (6,561ft). It also occurs in northern and eastern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China. On Java, the nominate race is said to be close to extinction. Unfortunately, this applies to nearly all birds endemic to Java and Bali, which have paid a terrible price due to trapping activities. Mehd Halaouate, who frequently visits these islands, told me that this parakeet might be close to extinction on Java, yet still appears in the bird markets on both islands.

Introduced populations provide some hope. Feral populations exist in some Indian cities, such as Mumbai and Bangalore. This parakeet is very well established and increasing in Singapore, especially in the Changi (airport) area. It was first reported there in 1943. There is some debate whether the subspecies is the nominate or fasciata. Perhaps the population, which must have originated from escaped cage birds, was derived from both forms. It is widespread in Singapore, even in built-up areas.

As in other parts of its range, it nests communally in tree cavities, in the same or adjacent trees. In an aviary of sufficient size, the moustache parakeet would probably be a good candidate for colony breeding, as sometimes happens with the closely related plum-headed (P. cyanocephala) and with the Alexandrine parakeet (P. eupatria). The clutch size is three or four and incubation, by the female, lasts for 23-24 days. Young fledge after about seven weeks.

Moustache parakeets take a wide range of foods: all the usual seeds, fruits and vegetables. Like many parrots, they feed on flowers in the wild and I would urge owners of these and other Psittacula parakeets to offer blossom and flowers, such as those of hibiscus, nasturtium and fuchsia. In the wild their diet consists of fruits including figs, berries and seeds. They are unpopular with farmers because they like to feed on rice and maize. In Singapore they feed on the beautiful scarlet flowers of the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata).

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