Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where Have the Parrotlet Subspecies Gone? Introducing "Generic" Parrotlets.

I always say there are two types of parrotlet keepers – those that had parrotlets before 1992 and those that started keeping them after 1992. Why is 1992 so important? Because that was the year that the U.S. Congress passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act which severely limited the importation of exotic birds into the country and all but put a stop on the importation of all wild-caught birds. While people have many opinions about the WBCA, the fact is that more than 18 years after its passage, a lot of things have changed. Some of these things have been good, Americans are certainly some of the most successful breeders of parrots in the world, other things have not been so good. Many species that were commonly kept, gradually disappeared. The most notable are the Brotogerius species such as Canary-Winged and Grey-Cheeked parakeets. Another thing that has largely disappeared is subspecies of most species of parrot. This also includes almost all the pure forms of the subspecies previously found in parrotlet species.

At the end of 1992, a shipment of Spectacled parrotlets were imported into the U.S. just before the WBCA was passed. The newly-formed International Parrotlet Society realized that the probability of obtaining more Spectacleds was non-existent so a small group of very dedicated breeders formed the first IPS breeding cooperative to ensure the establishment of this species in the United States. The breeders who participated came from different parts of the country. Some were in California, some were in Florida and some were in the Mid-West, mostly in Michigan.

Fortunately, many breeders were successful with the first breeding of these parrotlets, as Spectacleds turned out to be rather prolific breeders. Like most parrotlet species, they had no set breeding season and, under the right conditions, bred year-round. Breeders began working together to exchange chicks so that a viable genetic pool could be established in order to minimize inbreeding as much as possible.

One thing that Spectacled breeders soon discovered is that, unlike Pacifics or Green Rumps, the males’ coloring, especially on the rump and around the eyes, did not develop until the birds went through their first or even second molts. At that time, most of the breeders got together once or twice a year at conventions so they could exchange birds. It was not until time had passed and the parrotlets matured, that breeders realized the birds did not look the same. It was not because the birds were hybridized or were color mutations, it was because they were different subspecies. This was verified by checking the drawings and descriptions as written in the “Bible” of parrot identification, Parrots of the World.

This created a moral and biological dilemma for both Spectacled breeders and the International Parrotlet Society. Should the breeders concentrate on preserving these subspecies in their ‘pure’ forms or should they work to establish the species in American aviculture. There was an extremely limited amount of stock to work with, less than 30 Spectacleds had been imported in total. Also, the Spectacleds that were originally imported were domestic stock that came from Europe, not wild-caught birds. There were no guarantees as to what their pedigrees were and no way of knowing whether or not the subspecies had been crossed before they were ever imported into the US. More importantly, many breeders had already set up their pairs and were not anxious to break them up as they were breeding second and even third generations of Spectacleds. The breeders and IPS agreed that, under these circumstances, it was better to establish the species with the healthiest, unrelated stock as possible and not to try and keep the subspecies pure. Now, 18 years later, we have Spectacleds aplenty in the United States, so much so they are sold into the pet trade, much to the delight of many Spectacled parrotlet owners today.

The same biological changes in subspecies have pretty much happened to all the parrots that have been domestically bred in the United States. Eclectus parrots, Senegals, lories, conures, even long-lived species such as macaws and the large cockatoos have almost no pure subspecies left since the passage of the WBCA.

Many people who had parrotlets in the early 1990’s did not realize there were different species let alone subspecies. IPS spent most of its time trying to educate people on identification of species to avoid hybridization. Identification of subspecies was largely used to help people figure out what species they had so people would not breed Green Rumps with Pacifics or Blues Wings with Mexicans.

Unlike the larger species of parrots, our tiny little parrotlets are birds that most species mature and produce offspring at a year of age. Almost 20 generations of parrotlets have been produced since the WBCA was passed. In birds such as Green Rumps, many of those countries stopped exporting even earlier – the subspecies deliciosus was the first to have importation stopped back in the mid-1980’s. For years, many breeders did not realize there were two different subspecies of Pacifics so those birds were regularly bred together. Blue Wingeds and Mexican parrotlets were so difficult to breed that if you got a male and female to produce, no one cared if they were two different subspecies.

So where does that leave us today? It leaves us with beautiful, healthy species of Spectacleds, Pacifics and Green Rumps that are available to breeders and pet owners at reasonable prices. However, the price of that is the loss of pure subspecies in most if not all parrotlet species. These commingled subspecies have a biological term and are called “generic” subspecies. Unlike a “hybrid”, which is the breeding of two separate species, such as Green Rump and Pacific, “generics” are the same species but are a mix of subspecies. This is why chicks from the same parents look different. Some Green Rumps may be very tiny like the deliciousus and some can be bigger like viridissimus. Why some Pacific hens have blue on their rumps, even in the color mutations, and some do not. Unlike recessive mutations, subspecies’ characteristics will be passed on to the offspring.

It is important to remember that these are not bad things, it is just the way things are. Had breeders not combined these various subspecies, all parrotlet species, except for possibly Pacifics, would no longer exist in American aviaries. The birds would have been inbred and in all likelihood, simply died out as they got progressively genetically weaker. Any species that survived would be in such small numbers they would be prohibitively expensive and certainly there would be few, if any, color mutations available. After all, color mutations were placed on the Captive-Bred List available for importation by the hard work of the members of the International Parrotlet Society. The government was receptive to the listing in large part because of the success of IPS’ breeders in establishing long-term, captive-bred, species of parrotlets in the United States.

So the next time you see deliciosus Green Rumps or lucida Pacifics, realize that the bird is most probably a generic that exhibits the traits of that subspecies but probably is not a pure subspecies. But that is all right – its very existence proves that the right decisions were made and that Americans will be able to have beautiful, healthy species of parrotlets available for generations to come.

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