Photo: © Becerra. Green honeycreeper: the only member of the genus Chlorophanes. This species was a regular addition to Geoff’s collection


Geoff Gradwell has worked with some of the most beautiful species in the Neotropics during his career as an aviculturist, and here he profiles some of the lesser-known gems from the treasury of Latin American songbirds


THE honeycreepers and flowerpiercers are two diverse groups of small, mainly nectivorous birds, which originate in South and Central America, with a few species reaching the Caribbean. My first experience of honeycreepers was a male red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus). It was in full colour when I obtained it, but soon went into eclipse plumage. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

A large number of red-legged honeycreepers, when imported, would be in full colour from February until August, but if they were needed for exhibition purposes, this scenario was not ideal. I was taught a trick by a wily older fancier, who told me that if the bird was going into a moult from full colour to eclipse plumage, I had to move the bird into a slightly darker cage as soon as the first couple of flight feathers dropped.

This would pause the moult for up to eight weeks and, if done every year, a bird that was in full colour originally in the spring would come into colour in the autumn just in time for the show season. It normally took three or four years, but for a bird that could live 12-15 years, it was worth it. Although it sounded implausible, it worked and I did it with a number of red-legged with absolutely no adverse effects.

I was fortunate to breed the red-legged honeycreeper in 1972 and the chicks were reared on the crumble mix I fed to all my birds, plus sponge cake soaked in nectar. The only other things offered were white mini-mealworms and freeze-dried mini shrimp. I would not feed maggots, because I had heard stories regarding other fanciers losing large numbers of birds due to poisoning. I had four large mealworm cultures and could take one pound of mealworms weekly, which saved a fortune over the year.

I have kept the green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) on numerous occasions and found this to be one of the most aggressive birds I have ever owned. On one occasion, I made the mistake of trying to put a female in the same cage as an established male. Even though I caught her immediately, the male was trying to get in between my fingers to attack her.

My personal favourite, though, has always been the purple honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus). I have kept a number of them over the years and as long as they were obtained as juveniles, they were relatively easy to cater for. I remember in the late 1960s and early 70s a number of purple honeycreepers were imported into the UK in which the legs were pure white instead of the usual yellow. If my memory is correct, they were called the isthmian purple honeycreeper. I assume that this must have been a subspecies, but I can find no reference on the internet or in any literature that I have access to, so they remain a mystery.

The rarest honeycreeper that I owned was the golden-collared (Manacus vitellinus), which was once categorised as a member of the tanager family. Everything about that bird is more tanager than honeycreeper.

Another group of birds that I enjoyed were the flowerpiercers, which are mainly nectar-feeding bird with a slightly upturned bill. In the  wild, I suspect, they take nectar from the flowers that are too deep for the hummingbirds to reach. I have kept the masked (Diglossa cyanea), slaty (D. plumbea) and the indigo (D. indigotica). The person I purchased the latter from thought it was the masked flowerpiercer, which was the most regularly imported, but I suspected that it was something out of the ordinary and this suspicion was proved to be correct.

Over the years, I have always had personal favourite families of birds and the manakins would come very close to the top of any list I may compile. I have kept the blue-backed (Chiroxiphia pareola), red-capped (Ceratopipra mentalis) golden-crowned (Lepidothrix vilasboasi), white-collared (Manacus candei) and the swallow-tailed (Chiroxiphia caudata). The latter is also known as the blue manakin.

I found them very easy to establish, because I only ever purchased immature birds. The only thing that I discovered was that they had a tendency to become overweight very quickly; if food was placed anywhere near the perch, they would not move very far. So, any dishes had to be placed as far from the perches as possible, which kept the birds moving on a regular basis.

Another oddity with manakins is that they swallow all their food whole and do not tear pieces of fruit from a larger piece. Therefore, all fruit has to be chopped. To accommodate this behaviour, they have a piece of skin on either side of the mandible, which enables them to open the bill wider than a bird normally would. It is unbelievable to see the pieces of fruit that they can swallow.

Geoff Gradwell is the secretary of the Scottish Bengalese Fanciers Association.


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