The Keeping and Breeding the Swift Parrot OR What More Have You Got to Do!

By Marcus Pollard




Fig.1. 'Head of the Pack!!


When first we contacted the Australian Parrot Society for any assistance and advice that they could offer us in our ‘fight’ to be able to continue keeping and breeding this magnificent parrot we had little notion of how our plight would evoke such a response within the avicultural community! The phone calls and world wide e-mails of support have been amazing, Texas and Brazil for heavens sake. Did you know there were Swifts in these places? We sure didn’t – do now though!
However, this is nothing as to the response in Australia, which has been unbelievable, from Birdo’s and non-Birdo’s alike!
I guess at this stage I should thank Mick Logan from the Canberra Avicultural Society for taking a punt on allowing a confirmed ‘finch man’ to take the rostrum and speak about parrots at the 11th National AFA conference in March 2004! I must admit that I found it extremely difficult to stand there and speak about our fight with the Tasmanian Nature Conservation Branch (NCB) knowing that, as I spoke, some bureaucrat in Hobart could be deciding the fate of our colony of Swifts and ending an avicultural success story just as it was beginning to reap rewards.

Well, I must have done or said something right as your president, Stewart Williamson, invited me to present a similar paper to your members at the Parrots 2004 conference!
What can I tell you about the present state of play with regards to this species in Tasmania? Unfortunately I can only give you a glimmer of hope rather than a ray of sunshine! Since the Canberra Conference we have had one letter from the minister for the Environment stating that we may continue breeding the species for limited trade but that they consider that "I do not accept the proposition that captive breeding is either necessary or desirable as a conservation measure for Swift parrots" – begs the question whether the Spix macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii, people would have objected to having a ready source of over 80 birds for their ill fated breeding program. But I shall resist the temptation to further ‘wax lyrical’ on my thoughts regarding this ‘debate’ and let your readers make up their own minds. Maybe when the issue is finally put to rest I shall inflict myself upon your readers for a second time with the outcome!

I have kept and bred the Swift parrot, Lathamus discolor, for a number of years and was one of the ‘breed a few, lose a few’ fraternity. Kept my numbers Ok but never really got in front breeding wise. As they were on permit and required special husbandry I gave them away when my lorikeets left the property to make way for, dare I say it, a finch complex! No doubt some will say I’d turned to the dark side but them’s the breaks! It was to be a few years ‘down the track’ that a mate asked me to go halves in a colony of these gems. After he collected them the ‘pairs’ turned out to be 9 males and 2 females - one of which I suspect was older than me! Well, we knew of one breeder whom had two females so a swap was arranged which gave us two pairs for the coming breeding season. Our breeding results were predictable, a fair number of eggs laid, poor fertility and only seven youngsters of which three died some 2 months after fledging.

However, we were lucky to be introduced to Dr Brett Gartrell who was working upon his PhD here at the University of Tasmania on the Swift parrot. He offered to perform autopsies upon these young birds and found that all were heavily infested with roundworm – these birds were in ‘good’ condition and none showed the sharp keel bones and huge appetite that we had come to associate with worm infestations. A further faecal analysis of our adult birds revealed that we had a problem! This generosity on the part of Brett was to become a life line to the breeding of Swift parrots in our aviaries. Since this time our birds are wormed 3 times a year – once in their food and twice directly by crop needle - and since adopting this strategy we have gone from breeding several birds to around 30 youngsters from our 4or5 pair. Mind you I should add that we still have occasional worm problems. I was recently told that there are those that consider these statements as……….eerrr… can I politely put it, "bollocks", might be the safest word I could opt for! Well, to each his own and all I can say is I know what I know and have participated in enough scientific programs to be able to correlate our improved breeding results with the onset of our rigorous worming regime.

Fig.2. Aviary Design.

Fig.3. Pair 'Hot to Trot' -2004.

Before I give you a little more information on our husbandry I guess I should try to outline the time line associated with our ‘dealings’ with NCB.

Prior to 1998 these birds were on license and could be traded within Tasmania but no legal trade to the mainland was permitted.

1998 saw a letter from the then manager of the Threatened Species Unit stating that there would be no further trade permitted in these species and that birds were not permitted to leave the property of the permit holder. This saw most people get rid of their Swifts leaving, I believe, only three aviculturists with them in the state.

Two breeders continue to produce large numbers of Swifts so that in late 2002/early 2003 they are permitted to trade their young birds to the mainland. They are then told that they may keep their remaining Swifts but that no more are to be bred and all males and females are to be separated at the commencement of the breeding season – this is stated at a meeting in August 2003 and the participants request a written transcript of the meeting so that they may prepare their case. Nothing more is received, no new permits, no ‘special clauses’ for the existing permits. Breeding time comes and goes and both parties again produce large numbers of young swifts.

The 12th of January 2004 sees official notification and the institution of the separation of pair’s clause. NCB hits the roof when breeding results are tabled!

The ‘Party of Three’ Swift breeders lobby the minister to try to see if some sinew of sanity can be applied to the captive breeding of the Swift parrot.

2004 letter from the minister as previously mentioned.

● July 2004, a further meeting with NCB where we are told that it will cost upwards of $400 a year to hold Swifts and $200 per permit to export birds – we walk out in disgust!

The future? Well, we guess that may well be determined by people like you and I, breeders and non-breeders alike. However, we hope that this ‘generous remission’ on the part of the minister might mean that the captive numbers of Swifts will increase over the coming years and we hope they will become as common in captivity as Bourkes, Turks, Superbs, Princess, Hoodeds, Golden-shoulders……………………….endangered species all!

Our birds are kept in a communal aviary that composes a colony of 5 to 6 females and 10 males. From our trailing of single pairs we found that the colony system worked best for us even with the surplus of males. Other breeders have experienced success with single pair so, to each their own!
The aviary is half enclosed, where the enclosed section is a conventional concrete floored structure, and has an open flight section, which is a suspended area where the birds are fed their fruit and vegetables – scraps fall through and can be hosed away! The aviaries are 4 metres long and around 4 metres wide.

No matter what aviary design you opt for there is a need to ensure that you minimise heat build-up in the cage as these birds appear to be susceptible to heat stress in summer months – especially when breeding. This is more so when the birds are breeding as, in hot mainland summer conditions, you will have troubles with parents sitting too tightly on their chicks and also from the heat generated by several chicks in the nest box. It is for this reason that many mainland breeders hand rear their chicks rather than take the risk of losing them.

Fig.4. Female Underwing stripe.

 Fig.5. Male Underwing.

Wild birds are said to be dependant upon two Eucalypt species – the Blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus and the Swamp gum, E. ovata. However, in captive birds any flowering seed head will be attacked with relish – from any of the Acacias or Eucalypts species that are in the area! Our birds are supplied with fresh green branches to eat and play with on a regular basis. Willow sprigs were also readily shredded!
It was great to hear EB Cravens during his "Natural Parrots Presentation" at the Parrots 2004 conference state that he considers it essential to supply any captive parrots with branches, leaves, flowers or anything green to eat, chew, vandalise or do with anything they choose to! Through this practise we have been able to supply a range of different ‘experiences’ to our birds which means they find outlets for many behaviours that might otherwise lead to aggression or self-mutilation.
All of the birds have access to a dry seed small parrot mix from Peppers Bird Products in Quirindi, NSW. They will consume the grey sunflower avidly but care must be taken not to over feed them on this seed. We recycle the seed mix until they have tackled the millets and plain canary as well – a rounded diet is ensured!
Fruit is fed to the birds fresh every day with apples oranges and pears being their staples. We feel sure that mainland breeders with a wider range of fresh fruit available to them would be able to trial any number of goodies on their charges. Apricots, grapes and Kiwi fruit are also fed when available.
If you are a purist and sceptical about them eating fruit maybe this will change your mind. Three years or so back there was a strange season where the Eucalypts did not flower until long after the Swifts had arrived and Rob was out feeding our Swifts with fresh apples. He was leaning against the aviary when he felt a tugging on the apple he was holding in his hand. Believing it was one of the aviary birds he ignored it until he happened to glance round to find a wild Swift parrot with its beak firmly embedded in his apple. After a nervous minute and a quick head count in the aviary he was able to confirm it actually was a wild bird! Feeling sorry for it he left a few apples in a bowl on the aviary roof and he noticed two birds hanging around for a fortnight ‘freeloading’ – they would come down onto the aviary roof awaiting their fruit and both showed little fear of Rob – brave birds! Finally the Eucalypts flowered and these birds disappeared, but it does show that they are versatile when they have to be. Or was it a case of "monkey see, monkey do"!!

Fig.6. The Lads Looking Toey!!

Fig.7. Female 2003 Bred.

Our birds are also fed a fresh salad, which consists of a mixture of lettuce types, silverbeet, spinach, endive and celery leaves. These celery leaves are much sought after during the breeding season when chicks are in the nest. The roots, leaves and seed heads of Dandelion plants are also enjoyed. Our birds appear to show little interest in seeding grasses and the heads of milk thistles, which are relished by most parrots even when feeding youngsters.

Lory wet is fed during the breeding season and is served rolled into lump like plasticine rather than as a true, more watery, wet mix. The regular Lory Wet is also bolstered twice a week by the inclusion of wholemeal bread and Weet Bix. When young are in the nest the birds have this Lory wet made up with tinned Apricot Nectar once a week – as this appears to be a real favourite we limit them to just once a week to avoid a ‘sugar fix’! Following some discussions with a number of people we no longer give the bird’s access to Lory Dry all year round. This species is, apparently, prone to liver disease thought to be brought on by too rich a diet. Fortunately we have not had a bird diagnosed with any dietary related illnesses so I guess the adage of ‘all things in moderation’ is working for us!
Some breeders feed their Swifts mealworms but we have not done so even though wild studies suggest that they are partial to live insects for fear of supplying yet one more source of an intermediate host for parasitic attack.

Fresh water is supplied at all times. No medications are administered through the water.

I have enclosed an ‘old fashioned’ diet that we used to use before the advent of prepared Lorikeet diets as we bred a number of Swifts and Australian Lorikeets on this particular formula:

2 packets of High Protein baby food or Farex.
2/3 of a cup of Sustagen.
2/3 of a cup of Malted Milk Powder.
2/3 of a cup of Glucodin.
2 cups of Raw Sugar (or half raw and half normal sugar).
Honey Water- 2 dessertspoons of honey to 500ml of warm

Mix all dry ingredients together.
Mix with diluted honey water-thicken with Rice Cereal or stewed fruit.
During the winter add 2/3 of a cup of low fat milk powder.
Feeding- Take out 2 dessertspoons of dry mix per bird, mix 2 dessertspoons of honey water per bird, thicken with stewed fruit.
We now use commercially available diets, but this diet was successful before these prepared fares were available.

Our birds commence breeding around late August to early September when weather conditions down here are certainly not optimal! Hens often enter the boxes and commence preparation 3-4 weeks before eggs are laid. All of our birds are presented with wooden nesting boxes – this after we tested half natural logs and half boxes and the Swifts only chose the boxes! The material placed in the logs is a mix of natural wood pulp (from rotten trees) and peat moss and we use no wood shavings after being told by a respected breeder that he had seen chicks that had swallowed wood shaving and had them become stuck in the crop causing impaction and death.
3-4 eggs are the norm with some clutches of 6 on occasions. Where a larger clutch is attempted we will often pull 1-2 chicks for hand rearing to reduce the burden upon the parents.



Fig.8. Male on Right & Female on Left.


They appear devoted parents and will usually rear all chicks hatched. Since adopting a thorough worming regime our fertility has increased to around 90%.
The young leave the nest at around 5-6 weeks and are a dull version of the parents. Most young birds have a broad under wing stripe, which will moult out from the majority of the males – we believe that this happens at around 3 months of age but will confirm it this season.

On occasions some Swifts, in their eagerness to return to nest, will pluck their youngsters in an attempt, we believe, to remove them from the nesting chamber.
Two- three clutches are attempted by most pairs but we often limit each breeding pair to only two nests per season as results from a third clutch are often poor and it reduces the stress upon the hens.

Fig.9. First of 2004/5 Season - October.

Fig.10. In a nest box on the other side!!

Health Problems:
As previously alluded to the major concern we have with our Swifts is the parasitic roundworm component. We have yet to have any other type of intestinal worm identified from our Swifts. Since our fruitful discussions with Dr Brett Garttrell concerning this problem we have been able to forge ahead with our breeding program. As I have mentioned this aspect previously I shall stick to the basics of our worming program:

Our experiences with these birds suggest that worming is the key to increased productivity. The flights of our aviaries are not completely closed and this may cause us a few more problems than a completely closed system. However, a completely closed system can lead to heat build up problems – damned if you do, damned if you don’t! Maybe the fact that the Swift is such a migratory species and spends so little time in one location may be the reason that they are so susceptible to worm attack when housed in aviaries. If you also consider that the Princess parrot, Polytelis alexandrae, is renowned for its propensity to ‘attract’ worms we might be on the right track!

Apart from this we have not had any major problems with our birds.
Head trauma is possibly the worst cause of death, especially when youngsters first leave the nest. Possums, cats, owls and rats can all cause disturbances and when a Swift leaves the nest box at night they tend to fly until they strike the aviary wall. At the speed a Swift generates this is invariably fatal! The attachment of leafy branches to the ends of your flights should reduce the impact on demented youngsters when they are first out flying! We have seen no incidences of beak and feather although we are led to believe it has been reported recently in wild birds. Psittacosis has also been absent from our aviaries in all autopsies performed.
Hopefully the NCB will make a decision so that we may remove some youngsters from our holding aviary before any overcrowding problems can surface – we live in hope that they will consider the health of the species above petty ‘administrative’ requirements.

Pretty difficult to know what to write for this section at present. Regardless of the outcome we have been able to contribute something to the captive husbandry of a species that had long been considered difficult to maintain in captivity. The parallels between the Golden-shouldered, Psephotus chrysopterygius, and Hooded parrots, P. dissimilis, in Queensland where a lifting of the ban on aviculturists being able to keep and breed them in that state has seen them become a common aviary bird. This augurs well for any problems that may beset the wild populations as much has been learned of their captive husbandry. Unfortunately for the Swift many aspects of their captive husbandry are still in their infancy and will be consigned to the dark ages unless something is done to address the current thinking of the Tasmanian NCB.
Sure the wild populations should be protected and habitat set aside for them but this, as has been demonstrated in this state far too many times, is more in the hands of business interests rather than dedicated Swift parrot conservation officers, more is the pity.

However, as EB Craven stated so eloquently at Parrots 2004, with the increased demands upon habitat by population pressures the aviculturist has much to contribute to ensuring that no more parrot species slide down the road to extinction. Whenever we feel that we are ‘banging our heads against a brick wall’ we remember his sentiments and resolve to keep fighting on and will stick with the Swift parrot regardless of the long road before us.

We can but hope that somebody there can see the obvious benefits of allowing a regulated trade in captive bred Swift parrots from Tasmania being allowed to enter the aviary trade so that a wide range of information can be gleaned about this brilliant little Australian.

Let’s hope that many of your members will decide to make a place for these guys in their collections!


Fig.11. A PSA Swift!!


Article Appeared in the Jul/Aug Edition of the PARROT SOCIETY of AUSTRALIA news.