Old World Aviaries

Species and speciation

by Darrel K. Styles, DVM
Hill Country Aviaries, L.L.C.

The question of speciation usually comes up when an aviculturist selects a species or genus in which he or she wishes to specialize. Most people want their collections to represent the entire spectrum of the species including subspecies. This is not always easily accomplished, even for the experts, either due to availability of stock or difficulty in identifying the subspecies.

Take the genus Eclectus. While it is relatively easy to determine the subspecies of the females, the males are virtually impossible unless you can compare them side by side. Even then it is very difficult. So, there are many subspecific hybrids of Eclectus Parrots on the market even though we might want a pure-and-unadulterated collection. In this genus, hybridization does not lead to radically different appearances in the birds, but subtle changes exist.

Another question about species I am frequently asked concerns African grey parrots—“How do I know if it is a ‘Congo’ grey?” Well, according to Forshaw in Parrots of the World, only two species are recognized, the African grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) and the Timneh grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh). (Forshaw does list a third, P. e. princeps, but says “…this subspecies is probably not distinct from [P. e.] erithacus.”) These two subspecies are easily distinguished, but do others exist? In this situation, I agree with Forshaw. I have even tested the “experts,” and they cannot tell a distinct difference other than between P. e. erithacus and P. e. timneh. There are big greys and smaller greys; greys with redder tail feathers and some with duller tail feathers. When I worked in quarantine, some greys were called Ghana greys for the country of origin. These birds were supposed to be smaller and duller than Congos. But no one could tell the difference when comparing a supposed Congo with one of these Ghana greys.

The macaws have some subspeciation, but it is not as prevalent as with other species. For example, in scarlets I have to admit there is a distinct difference in Central American birds, which are a brighter red-orange compared to other scarlets from further south.

Unfortunately, the propensity to hybridize macaws is rampant. A plethora of hybrids exist. Here is a short list.

Although some of these hybrids are striking, others fall short of the beauty of the parent species. If you can avoid it, do not hybridize species. This leads to dilution of the species and defeats the conservation purpose of aviculture.

Amazons provide a challenge in subspeciation, but it is fun. The differences in Amazonian subspecies can be subtle to remarkable. The unfortunate problem is that it is difficult to locate subspecies, and sometimes, as in the ochracephalids (yellow-crowns, yellow-heads, and yellow-napes), the differences blend into each other as the ranges overlap.

There are too many oddities in taxonomy (ed. the science of classification) for me to mention, but one which might be fun for you is that of the moustached parakeet. We all know that moustached parakeets are sexually dimorphic—Right?—Wrong. There are several subspecies in which the female, having a red beak, looks just like the male. I saw this in quarantine once and thought it was a cage full of males. Sometimes, we would have to know which island the birds were exported from before we could subspeciate the birds. (We would sometimes get angry calls from pet shops complaining that we hadn’t sent any females or worse, unscrupulous dealers would sell them all as males.)

So, it pays to study your taxonomy. You may have a mispaired bird based on an incorrect assumption. Also, having different subspecies not only adds to your hobby or business, it greatly increases the value of your collection, because many people are out there looking for that one certain subspecies to fill out their own collection.

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