It’s February, and love is in the air at the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP), but for the keepers, this signals only one thing: ‘silly season’. Silly season is basically how the AWCP keepers refer to the bird, or more specifically parrot, breeding season, when and the quiet oasis of the Wildlife Park becomes a battle ground where mostly, only the parrots win.
Hormonal behaviour in pet birds is typically enhanced in the springtime. As breeding season approaches, the sexually mature birds experience natural hormone surges that can trigger some bizarre and undesirable behaviours. Hormonal behaviour in birds is typically enhanced in the springtime. As breeding season approaches, the sexually mature birds experience natural hormone surges that can trigger some bizarre and undesirable behaviours that can make the keepers’ and volunteers’ work particularly challenging.
9am: For many years, the bird section of the AWCP has been lovingly tended by the volunteers, under the watchful eye of the bird section keeper. The collection of parrots at the AWCP is a mixture of confiscated African greys from ships passing through the Straits by customs and unwanted pet parrots that their owners can’t look after any more. Parrots are by nature highly social and intelligent creatures. In fact, scientists have identified the brain region responsible for parrots’ remarkable intelligence. This neural circuit is similar to that found in primates, including humans, and is the source of their intelligence. Quite remarkable given the small size of parrot brains in comparison to primates. Avian brains therefore have the potential to provide much higher ‘cognitive power’ per unit mass than do mammalian brains.
Both their higher intelligence and their highly social natures are reasons why parrots are seen as attractive and entertaining pets, but it is for this reason too that zoo professionals know they really don’t make good pets. Unless kept in a stimulating and or natural environment with conspecifics or plenty of suitable company, most parrots become destructive, noisy and some can be aggressive. There is now scientific evidence to support the theory that isolation and lack of socialisation is damaging for parrots. Scientists have found that the telomere lengths [sections of DNA at the end of chromosomes] of single African grey parrots were shorter than those housed with a companion parrot, indicating that social stress and loneliness can interfere with cellular ageing and a particular type of DNA repair.
As far as possible, the AWCP will house parrots of the same or similar species together or as close together as possible. During breeding season, this comes with its own issues as when both male and female parrots enter breeding season, they become less tolerant of others, other than their bonded partner. It is not just their conspecifics that can feel the sharp end of their beaks!
Feeding time can become a traumatic time of day for those on the bird section from February onwards. The worst culprit is a gutsy African grey called ‘Pancho’ and his softer, but equally mischievous side-kick. From late December onwards, entering the enclosure with Pancho takes on a similar vibe to the hunter in Jurassic park, being hunted by three velociraptors. Some keepers even take to wearing protective clothing, such as a cap and thicker jacket or they will enter an enclosure as a team, with one as a lookout/bodyguard whilst the other quickly feeds and cleans in relative safety.
Some birds are amorous all year round. The black lory ‘Blackie’ has a habit of mating with keepers heads, so much so that volunteer, Lynn has taken to wearing a cap whilst tending to Blackie’s needs.
12pm: Parrots’ vocal ranges are vast; they have the capacity to mimic almost any noise, from car alarms to phone ringtones, or in one unfortunate case, mimic the voice of someone’s secret boyfriend (another good reason not to have one as a pet!). Things can get quite noisy down at the parrot section, with some interesting vocalisations, many of which the parrots learned before coming to the park, but they also mimic each other’s learned vocalisations. The African greys often mimic the voices of staff and volunteers, much to their amusement.
Most of the parrots at the AWCP have been hand-reared. When they arrive at the zoo, most have no idea that they are a parrot. Instead, they act like little feathered toddlers with wings. Much as happens to any animal raised by another species, the lines get blurred. Given their intelligence and ability to mimic the human voices to a tee, it becomes almost believable. It’s down to the keepers at the AWCP to gently introduce them to their own kind.
Jumbo, the blue and yellow macaw, came to the park when he was just two years old. He speaks English and Spanish, has a repertoire of three nursery rhymes, counts to four, suggests a cuppa to his hardworking keepers and perhaps the most eerie of his habits, asks “what’s that?!” when he encounters anything new. It took two years for Jumbo to feel comfortable around other parrots. His favourite Keeper is Emily. Emily has been working with Jumbo for around seven years. Their bond is quite special. In order to help manage such a large bird and to help keep Jumbo occupied, Emily has been training him to do a variety of actions on command. Jumbo can often be heard throughout the day, practicing the commands by himself.
4pm: The most recent love story is that between Susie the newest addition to the park, a young African grey parrot and Steve the Head Keeper. It is hoped that Susie will one day form a pair bonding with one of the male African greys in the group, when she reached sexual maturity in a year or two, but for now she is quite content receiving extra attention from Steve and the other Keepers. Although Susie has made a good adjustment to living near other parrots, she is not yet ready to move in with the gregarious and sometimes quite despotic group of African grey males!
Not all of breeding season is chaotic, there is also the softer ‘loving’ side. Maddie and John are an unlikely pair of parakeets. Maddie is an Alexandrine parakeet, while her mate, John is a ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeet. Almost identical except for the fact that Maddie is almost twice the size of John. But John makes up for his lack of stature, with his cheeky attitude and amorous advances. Although they are different species, they are actually able to produce offspring, hybrids. Not something the AWCP encourages, but they are more than happy for John and Maddie to practice!
2021 also signals the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration; a decade to halt and try to reverse the damage done to habitats and ecosystems across the world. Generation Restoration is a chance to undo the damage that has been done and restore nature back to what it should be. Every year on Valentine’s Day the AWCP takes part in the Climate Coalition’s #ShowTheLove campaign, to encourage people to show their love for the nature around them. This year the AWCP are asking people to paint, draw or photograph what you love about nature in and around Gibraltar, be it animals, flowers, vistas or snails. There are three categories Ages 0-7, 8-16 and 17- 100+. There is still time to send your entries to the AWCP by 10th February, in time for the judging on the 14th of February. Visit the website at www.awcp.gi/events for more ideas for #ShowTheLove for nature this Valentine’s Day.