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HomeLifeFrom George the Cockatoo to St. Thomas Conures: A Journey with Tropical...

From George the Cockatoo to St. Thomas Conures: A Journey with Tropical Birds

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My first intimate contact with tropical birds was a result of a two-year odyssey to rescue a Lesser Sulfur Crested Cockatoo named George.  George was, I suspected due to his lack of a leg band, an illegally-caught wild bird.  I could not trace his history back any further than the three years he spent in a parakeet cage in an unheated, unlit garage.  His suffering did not end there for he traveled from the garage through a series of pet shops, each of the shops eventually passing him on to another with successively inferior care.

George’s price at the first pet shop was $3,000, a sum I could not afford.  Realizing that George’s mental state was seriously impaired due to many years of abuse, I suspected that anyone buying him would shortly return him so I repeatedly visited the shop; hoping to talk the owner into selling George to me for a much reduced price.  As George was shunted from shop to shop I followed…for almost two years.

Eventually George found himself back in another parakeet cage on the floor of a pet store where children were taunting him and kicking his cage around like a soccer ball while George screamed in terror.  I demanded to see the owner and was told that George was to be killed that night because he was “too dangerous” to handle.  I lifted George’s cage off the floor and took the bottom off as the shop owner objected and ran for the safety of the back office.

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George limped out and walked up my arm to perch on my shoulder.  I knew I could not leave him there, no matter the price.  After a long negotiation with the owner who remained behind the office door, George was mine!

It was very late on a Friday night and there were no cages big enough for George so I placed him in a large cardboard box to transport him home where his temporary shelter would be a small flight cage used in my wildlife rehabilitation work.  Unfortunately, George decided he didn’t like the dark box so, mid-way thru the two hour drive home, he ripped open the box and went berserk whilst I drove back country roads hoping I wouldn’t be pulled over for speeding—and have to explain to a police officer why I couldn’t open my window or get out of my vehicle.

George never fully recovered from all the trauma he suffered and he will never fly again. It was almost 10 years before he developed enough confidence, and his atrophied wing muscles developed enough strength, for him to launch himself off his perch and glide to my desk where he spent many hours watching the computer screen and muttering quietly to himself.

Wars, Views and Backwards Forts

When I moved to the Virgin Islands I did not consider moving George; he’d had enough long distance trips and none were pleasant for him.  George now lives with an avian veterinarian who specializes in traumatized birds and he’s as happy as his damaged mental state will allow.

I miss him on a daily basis but, to my delight, I now see his smaller avian cousins, the St. Thomas conures everyday.  Also called the Brown-throated conure, the St. Thomas conures are members of the genus Aratinga meaning “little macaws”.  Having seen most every species of conure as I visited bird shows, avian veterinarians, and animal parks in my quest to gain insight to help poor George recover, I find the St. Thomas conures to be some of the most beautiful in their genus.

They are multi-colored with green upper wings, blue and yellowish underwings, blush tipped primary feathers, brown to grayish throat patches, orange-yellow heads, green and olive tail feathers, gray feet, black bills, white eye patches, and yellow ringed eyes.  And they are “fussy”; at least it sounds as if they are fussing to one another all day long, for they constantly chatter and squeal whether flying or perching.

Fortunately, for anyone living near conures, the beautiful but noisy little birds are active during the day, usually in pairs or small flocks.  As evening falls the conures gather in larger flocks to roost in the tree tops or tree hollows in heavily forested areas.  In undisturbed areas the same roosts have been used for eight to 10 years; however, human disturbance and development continue to destroy the conures’ habitat, leaving them fewer and fewer roosting areas.

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There are approximately 14 subspecies of Aratinga pertinax, the St. Thomas conure being one of the subspecies.  The main differences are found in the coloration of the face and throat patches with varying colors of eye rings and foreheads.  When fully grown they measure approximately 10 inches in length.  Their average life-span is estimated to be about 10 years.

Endemic from Brazil through the Lesser Antilles, the Brown-throated conures were introduced to islands of the Greater Antilles during the 19th century including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  While the little birds are still fairly common on St. Thomas, they have not proliferated on St. John or St. Croix, and a study conducted in 2003 produced no sightings in Puerto Rico.

The Brown-throated conures are not yet protected under the CITES convention due to their current population numbers. However, with the continuing destruction of their habitats, particularly in the islands, it is only a matter of time before we find at least some of the species protected.

Each morning when I see the St. Thomas conures leaving their roost and each evening as I see them return to their roost, I think of George and so many other caged and suffering exotic birds.  They should be left to fly free.  And, their habitats should be protected.  They can live amongst people if we do not mow down forested areas but rather incorporate those areas into our landscape.  Doing so will protect the birds’ future and provide many hours of enjoyment for those willing to look after our natural heritage.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

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