Photo: Tony Tilford. Fiery-shouldered parakeet: the two-toned wing coverts are shown well here 

Even among the Pyrrhura parakeets, the fiery-shouldered parakeet is little seen in captivity, yet ROSEMARY LOW has happy memories of two youngsters that fledged under her care.

PYRRHURAS are a group of very lively and sociable parakeets. The name originates from the Greek for fire (pyrrhos) and tail (oura). This is a little misleading because the long tail in most species is maroon, not fiery. The tail feathers are nearly uniform in width, rather than tapered to a narrow point.

Known to aviculturists as conures, the most popular and free-breeding species is the green-cheeked (P. molinae). Males usually have a broader head and beak and are slightly larger (broader) than females. However, DNA sexing is the only reliable method.

The fiery-shouldered (P. egregia) has plumage that is subtle rather than gaudy. Its brightest feature, the yellow and orange greater and lesser under-wing coverts, are revealed only in flight.

Most Pyrrhuras are difficult to observe in the wild, the exception being the common maroon-bellied (P. frontalis), which is often found around human habitation. In contrast, very little is known about the life of the fiery-shouldered parakeet. Most of its habitat was, until recently, seldom visited or difficult of access. This is why it was almost unknown to aviculture until 1988 when a few pairs were imported into Europe.

In common with most members of the genus, it is very wary and vigilant. Its flight is extremely fast, with twists and turns that make it difficult to follow before it lands in dense tree canopy and immediately becomes invisible.

Like most mountain species of Pyrrhura the fiery-shouldered’s range is not large. It occurs in south-eastern Venezuela, western Guyana and a small area of north-western Brazil. So little was known about it in Brazil that when Helmut Sick published his great work Birds in Brazil in 1993, the entry for this species consisted of three words: “Roraima and Venezuela”. Its homelands include the flat-topped mountains across south-eastern Venezuela known as tepuis, which means “houses of the gods.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 1912 novel, The Lost World, was inspired by this mysterious region. It is reached by several days’ hike across Venezuela’s savannah, through rivers, under a waterfall and along a narrow path scaling the cliffs of Mount Roraima or, increasingly, a helicopter ride for wealthy tourists. Visitor numbers have increased so that the fragile ecosystem of the area may be at risk. Deforestation is a threat that could – and almost certainly will – cause this parakeet to decline.

Those who venture there have a chance to see the fiery-shouldered parakeet in the wet, higher areas if they are vigilant – and if they can see through the mist and cloud. Even in sunshine, the camouflage of this little 25cm (10in) dark green parakeet against the moss-laden branches would make this challenging. Roraima’s vast plateau reaches 2,800m (9,200ft). Its landscape includes strange and gnarled rocks, formed when the African and American continents were forced apart.

An elusive species there, it could be described the same way in aviculture. Only small numbers were exported, mainly about 30 years ago. And only small numbers can be found today.

In 1993 I had the good fortune to look after two pairs that had been hatched the previous year. They were still in quarantine when one female laid! The clutch consisted of six eggs, two of which hatched. At three weeks the chicks were covered in thick whitish-grey down: montane species have thicker down than lowland ones. These little chicks looked so appealing!

On fledging, the areas of orange and yellow at the bend of the wing were as extensive as in adults. The plumage differed mainly in the duller breast feathers lacking the white margins.

Pyrrhura conures are extremely active little parakeets whose flight is very swift and agile. In my opinion, they should not be bred in cages, only in aviaries, because of their great need to fly. In captivity their inquisitive nature is endearing yet calls for extreme vigilance on the part of the keeper because they will find the smallest hole and escape.

Their voices are pleasant in comparison with the Aratinga conures, and seldom harsh or repetitive unless alarmed. They are exceptionally watchful, observant birds and have lightning-fast reflexes to react to danger or any other stimuli.

Rosemary Low is an internationally respected authority on psittacines.

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