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"The Glorious Great Billed Parrot" --by June Dinger, President,
The Tanygnathus Society 2001


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he Great Billed Parrot, Tanygnathus Megalorynchos, is an elegant bird with a long, rounded tail (compared to other similar sized birds such as Amazons, and Elcletus) and aptly named for their large, red beaks. I didn’t know much about Great Billed Parrots when we purchased our first pair from a breeder in central Florida in 1989.

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"Great Bill's beak can be destructive, so watch what they are chewing on when out of the cage."
This is Cyrano, a mature, male Great Bill"

We bought a pair of Amboina King Parrots but the female of that pair escaped before we went to pick them up and it was suggested by the breeder we might like a pair of Tanygnathus. I told them I would think about it and due to a lack of information available, we learned very little before going to see them but they were in perfect feather ( drawings did not do them justice), very beautiful and interesting, so we brought them home to add to our small flock. What little we had been able to learn led us to believe they required a large flight (6x6x12’), which we had already prepared for the expected Amboina pair. Looking back, I believe that is why we never experienced any problems from female aggression which we later learned had beset other owners. We had just passed spring - summer and this we believed to be their breeding season so we placed them in their new flight with a nest box.

It was a couple years before the pair, Luke and Laura, showed any interest in that box but when they did they immediately went to nest and had a beautiful baby. Their second egg (they typically produce 2 eggs per clutch, sometimes 3) had been fertile to but died early in development for some unknown reason. We were thrilled and only knew one other person who had babies at that time, Kevin White, in the Florida Keys. We had gotten in touch with Kevin the year before through a friend who also raised birds and he was very helpful with information on nest box sizes and raising babies. We had already decided to leave any babies with the parents if at all possible as Kevin had told us he had lost several when attempting to artificially incubate them and we didn’t   want to take any chances.  To our delight, the parents did a fine job raising the baby and we waited until it was 3 weeks old before taking to hand raise. She proved to be   an absolute delight and sampled every food offered to her when weaning. All the babies I have raised since then have been the same, just plain fun. The more you have to raise together, the funnier they are, tussling for food and toys, one year we had 9 of varying ages playing on the kitchen floor.

Over the years the growing youngsters proved to be just as sweet and gentle as the adults. That big, red beak is intimidating to most but the truth is Great Bills rarely bite, at least in my experience. Of the many babies raised, I can count on one hand the times I have been bitten, if they are upset or afraid they will usually open their beak lightly and growl a little. If I push it and insist they step up, they will do so without aggression.

As mentioned, Great Bills love to eat! Since we could find very little regarding their diet in nature, from the beginning we supplied as large a variety of fresh fruit and veggies as possible, some we grow ourselves such as guavas, passion fruit, several varieties of citrus and queen palm fruit. This comprises approximately 2/3 of their daily diet, equaling about 2 cups per bird. They are also provided unsprayed branches, vines and flowers regularly to keep them entertained. We did use pellets early on as a part of their diet but found them very difficult to keep fresh in our hot, humid and often rainy climate. The balance of their diet consisted of approximately 2/3 cup of a good seed mix, including 6 or more large nuts in the shell per bird daily. We know of those keeping their birds indoors because of climate considerations in the north, who report success feeding small amounts of meat to their Tanygnathus, such as fried chicken! I have seen these birds, they are in beautiful feather and productive, so it apparently agrees with them. I would not recommend that in an outdoor setting as it would surely attract every unwanted varmint in the area.

We felt we were on our own for a few years and then spotted a small piece in Bird Talk in 1992 mentioning a newsletter and that anyone interested should contact Chris Stokes. We did so and soon received the first newsletter. We were thrilled to learn of others around the country keeping these glorious birds and were happy to share with them the news of some of our first babies being handfed at that time. We heard from other breeders around the country wanting to know what we did to achieve breeding success and were glad to share whatever we thought might be useful to them.

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"..after coming out of quarantine, they produced babies.."

Subsequently several sent us their pairs on breeder loan as they lived in cold climates and thought they weren’t going to produce there. Without fail, after coming out of quarantine, being set up in a large flight, they produced babies the following breeding season, usually 2 clutches per year. Occasionally a pair would begin late in the season and only have one clutch. All the pairs took excellent care of their babies and the only occasion we had to pull babies earlier than usual (when youngest reaches 2 weeks of age) was when a pair had 3 babies during an exceptional hot summer and were not feeding the youngest. We didn’t know how they would react to our removing only one baby so we pulled them all to handfeed, that was only the second time I had raised a baby Great Bill that young but we did just fine.

After receiving three newsletters, we learned of Chris’ tragic and untimely death in an auto accident. Since Chris had sent out a membership list in one of the newsletters we managed to keep in touch and formed lasting friendships with some of our contacts. We have always felt a deep sense of gratitude to Chris for putting so many of us in touch with each other.

We would often discuss the unique personalities of these birds. Some would tell me how their domestics sit side by side and play together, none of our wild caught pairs interact in this way. They typically perch as far apart as possible in their flights and only interact during breeding season. Their courtship is indeed a sight to behold, the male dances, bobbing and weaving and emitting a strange courtship song as he woos his mate. Each male has a distinctly different song. The hens can be aggressive and numerous males have lost toes, beaks, or their lives to overly aggressive hens. For this reason we would not recommend placing a mature hen with a younger male. To be safe, we believe the male should be at least 6-7 years old and never introducing a pair during breeding season. All of our breeding pairs are flighted, another reason we may have avoided this problems over the years. Males are normally very cautious around the hens and will fly away if she is in a mood. We have heard of some males actually starved to death by aggressive hens who wouldn’t let them near the food dishes to eat. We recommend using separate feeding stations with some distance between them to avoid this tragedy. People don’t seem to pose such a threat for some reason and I’ve never had a hen attack even when inspecting nest boxes. Those we have raised remain sweet, even when mature, I find them just as entertaining as pets as the males. We use large macaw-sized cages for the youngsters and allow them at least a couple hours play time when they go from cage to cage and visit. We also begin early on giving them baths at least a couple times a week to keep them in good feather. After discussing with others their clumsiness during weaning, resulting in broken tail feathers and bruised beaks, we opted no to trim their wings at all.  This helped a great deal and, when possible, we recommend youngsters at least be allowed to learn to fly fairly well before being given as minimal a trim as is safely possible. It should also be done by a professional being careful to not leave sharp or uneven edges on feathers as this seems to lead some to chew the cut ends.

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"We used to think Tanygnathus didn’t bond but have learned
they do....
"
Elvis in playpen

We used to think Tanygnathus didn’t bond but have learned they do, just differently than other birds such as Macaws and Amazons. This was brought home to me when we accidentally switched mates after a hurricane scare when all the birds were brought indoors for safety. Of necessity, they we placed in small cages side by side. When the hurricane passed and we began moving them back to their flights, somehow we put the wrong birds together. At first I thought their odd behavior towards each other was from being indoors for a couple of days, then upon closer inspection I realized the mistake we had made! We immediately caught the males and put them with their proper mates and all was well again.

Although the Great Bills don’t seem very fussy about nest box size or type, the hens are very fussy about the male entering the box. We gave a horizontal box to a new pair one year. The hen went to the far end (36” deep) and the male entered to feed her. She tore into him and he had to be removed and rushed to the Vet. He had an injury over one eye and she had pulled out or bitten off several tail feathers. He totally recovered but since that near disaster we now stick with tried and true vertical boxes, approximately 16x16x24”, where the male can see the hen without entering.

The males usually feed the hen at the entrance and many hens will only come out once a day or so to get a drink. As mentioned, we have always had good luck with parents caring for the babies, including first time parents.

My friend, Diana Holloway, has domestic pairs which have produced in an indoor home setting. Diana planned carefully and went to considerable expense to provide the space required with Expandable Habitat cages. She also learned that they will still come out to play and interact with her after breeding season is over.

I am often asked if they are loud…not as loud as Macaws, but I must say, yes they can be quite loud. The more of them one has, the noisier they become, especially around breeding season, which for us is from December (when they may begin working nestboxes and courting) through June or July (when they would be raising their second clutch). They often vocalize at night too, especially during breeding season.

We have found most Great Bills to be good talkers, with very clear voices. Some imports, kept as pets, have very extensive vocabularies and domestics usually begin to mumble before they are even weaned. In my experience they seem more willing to talk to or with you instead of waiting until one is out of the room. We have a three plus year old male who recently decided to add the meowing of one of our cats to his repertoire!

Although they are referred to as one of the touch-me-not parrots, and rightly so, most will allow a kiss on the beak or back. Once they get past babyhood, it does seem to annoy them if one tries to pet or hug them. They do seem to enjoy their people and want to be wherever you are and will often climb down from their play area or cage to seek you out. Those big beaks can be destructive so it is best to know where they are and what they are about when not in their cages. They enjoy out time and we recommend as much as possible even if they are provided a large cage and lots of toys for entertainment when confined.

Sudden deaths…in 1997 when we had 22 Great Billed Parrots of varying ages, adults outdoors in flights and youngsters and juveniles on a 50 foot screened porch, we suddenly lost 9 of all different ages(2 of which were our very first parent raised babies). This occurred over a span of about 10 days. We have always watched the birds very closely and know immediately if one is not feeling well. They had been eating, playing and vocalizing one day and were obviously very ill the next. All were rushed immediately to our avian veterinarian. Some died while he was examining them, some the next day and only one held on for several days, the newly weaned and parent raised female. Another of our vets was at a conference and through his contacts there these birds were sent to several different vets and pathologists around the country in hopes of finding the cause for their deaths. Sadly, we got no answers. We only knew what is was not and that was anything that usually kills birds.  Our food and water was sent off for tests for toxins and poisons. Our aviary was inspected by our vet to determine the proximity of the various birds that died. We don’t have a large aviary but have other species of birds but none of them became ill.

Once we recovered from the shock and loss, we conducted a survey of those around the country keeping Tanygnathus. We heard from others about an occasional unexplained death, learned a great deal about how others housed and fed their birds, but nothing as to the cause of deaths. We did learn much later of others who had suffered large losses such as ours when they would contact us to see if we wanted their remaining birds. When we discussed the circumstances, time of year, and symptoms, they seemed all too similar.

After we picked up the pieces and paired up our remaining adults, we continued to have success with several producing pairs but would intermittently suffer tragic losses, and again we would have no reasons upon necropsy. Always the same symptoms (sudden weakness, regurgitating and very dark to black droppings) and always the same time of year, our stormy, rainy hurricane season.

This also coincided with the latter part of their breeding season, making for a nervous time of year.

Through contacts with our friend, and supporter, Diana Holloway,(who also keeps and breeds Tanygnathus and has given numerous talks on their behalf around the country, is renowned for her many years involvement breeding Amazons and as President of The Amazona Society), we were instrumental in getting a study started at Texas A&M University in 1999 to investigate these unexplained deaths. We also set up a web site and discussion group that year in hopes of disseminating accurate researched information.

In 2000 we formed The Tanygnathus Society with the same goals in mind plus working to build a self-sustaining captive bred population; to assist where possible the reservation of the genus in the wild; and promote responsible aviculture for the genus. We hope all with an interest in Tanygnathus will join us in our efforts.

--June Dinger, President, The Tanygnathus Society

 

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