Keeping and Breeding the Eastern Rosella by Shane Fairlie

Due to its striking colour, pleasant whistle and general hardiness, the Eastern Rosella, (Platycercus eximius) has always been a popular aviary bird, having first been bred in Spain in 1863.

Description

For people like me who have trouble imagining what a bird looks like from a written description, the best advice to give on Eastern Rosellas is to look at any Rosella foods label and imagine their emblem 32 cms long. The bird pictured on their labels shows the colouration of an adult male Eastern Rosella, giving a far better likeness of the bird than I could describe. Females and immatures are a duller version of the male with the females also having a considerably smaller head and narrower bill.

A recent study by Professor Walter Boles of the Australian Museum’s Ornithology Department showed that, on average, the broadness of bills in Eastern Rosellas was 12.9 mm in males and 10.5 mm in females, This is an easily recognisable difference when sexing these birds.

Sexing of immature birds is relatively easy using the comparison of both head and bill size and also the fact that the young cock bird’s cheek patches are usually larger and cleaner. If it is possible to observe the birds in the hand then a few brown feathers directly behind the eye usually denotes a female.

The normal opinion is that full adult plumage is obtained after their first full moult at about 12 months of age, however, my view is that it really takes two years to obtain full colour plumage, although the last year probably only accounts for approximately 10 percent of improved colour.

Subspecies

Apart from the nominate form, there are two recognised subspecies of the Eastern Rosella – the Golden Mantle (Platycercus eximius cecilae) and the Tasmanian race (Platycercus eximius diemenesis).

The Golden Mantle differs from the nominate race by having the feathers of the mantle, back and wings edged with a rich golden yellow. The green on the rump and vent also takes on a bluer hue.

The Tasmanian race is an overall bigger and brighter bird with larger cleaner cheek patches. The overall length of this bird is about 34 cms.

Distribution

The nominate race inhabits a wide ranging area of the East Coast, varying from north-eastern New South Wales through to Victoria and South Australia, and is fairly common throughout its range.

The Golden Mantle subspecies takes over from the nominate form in its north-eastern range and extends into south-eastern Queensland.

The Tasmanian race, as its name suggests, inhabits an area that covers a wide range of Tasmania and, as with all species of Eastern Rosellas, it shows a preference for more open lightly timbered country as opposed to denser forest growth.

There is also a population of this bird established on both islands of New Zealand, having been introduced from captive stock many years ago. There is varying opinion on the origins of the Eastern Rosellas that inhabit parts of the Mt. Lofty Ranges and suburban areas of Adelaide, with the two streams of thought being that the birds are native to the area and the other view being that the birds originated from released stock earlier this century. Whichever is true, the fact remains that these birds are indeed well established and seemingly improving in numbers every season.

In fact, Eastern Rosellas are now regular visitors to many Adelaide suburban gardens and also to many inner city areas where they can regularly be seen feeding in Adelaide’s parks in the company of both the Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus) and the Adelaide Rosella (Platycercus adelaidae).

Mutations

I have read of Lutino, Par-yellow, White-winged, Pastel and Cinnamon Eastern Rosellas being bred, but I have neither seen these birds or pictures of them. Two mutations of this bird that I have seen in the flesh (or feather) is the Black or Melanistic mutation and also the Red mutation.

The Black Eastern, as its name suggests, is a predominantly black bird, but still carries white cheek patches and cock birds retain a red chest, which makes this recessive mutation easy to sex.

These birds are slowly being established in New South Wales aviaries and are also now being kept by South Australian aviculturists. My personal view is that apart from novelty value this mutation does absolutely nothing for me in comparison to a richly coloured normal bird.

The red mutation is an altogether different bird with its full body being a rich blood red, but retaining its snowy white cheek patches with its wings being almost a normal colouring apart from some red edging on its feathers. These birds are well established in the Harkaway aviaries of Syd and Jack Smith near Melbourne and as a matter of interest their foundation stock were five wild trapped (legally) red birds caught locally.

These birds have seemingly been around in the wild for some time as Gould first listed these birds as a new species in 1837 and named it the Fiery Parakeet (Platycercus ignatus) and had a skin that was taken from the Moreton Bay area of Queensland. Another skin taken from near Temora in New South Wales is held by the Western Australian Museum.

The longevity of this mutation in the wild (albeit in small numbers) puts a different light on the normal argument of mutations not surviving in the wild.

These birds are absolutely striking in an aviary, but as my good friend P.E. Adelaidae stated – ‘If you want a red rosella why not save yourselves thousands of dollars and buy a pair of Crimson or Western Rosellas’. That’s a viewpoint that I personally find hard to argue against.

Housing

The Eastern Rosella is relatively easy to cater for and has been known to live and breed in quite small aviaries, however my preference is for larger aviaries. Visitors to my place invariably inform me that my aviaries are too big for the birds housed in them, but I think my results speak for themselves. What may look to be too big an aviary outside of the breeding season, with only two adult birds sitting in it, takes on a completely different view in breeding season when we have as many as 10 to 12 young birds in with their parents. Due to the large aviary size, these birds can be left together for many months without any mishap or jealousy shown by the parent cock bird to his offspring.

Two seasons ago we had four breeding pairs of Easterns and their aviary sizes were: one aviary 6.5 metres x 1.7 metres; two aviaries 5.5 metres x 1.3 metres and one aviary 4.3 metres x 1.1 metres, with all aviaries being 2.1 metres high.

Our experience was that the birds in the larger aviaries were much less flighty and overall much more settled than would otherwise be the case. Another interesting thing we have noticed is that with the extra width we provide, our birds tend to fly past at hip height to the side of us rather than attempt to fly over our heads. My opinion now is that aviary width is just as important as height in making our birds feel secure when we enter their aviary (unless of course the aviary provided is in the range of 2.8 metres plus high).

All our shelters are approximately one third of the overall size of the aviary, are draught free and have a liberal layer (five centimetres) of shell grit on the floor. All our flights are bare earth and are vermin proofed by the usual method of burying a kick plate 30 cms under the ground and extending it to 45 cms above the ground. This kick plate extends the full perimeter of all the aviaries and as well as keeping mice out it also offers protection from cats during extremely hot weather, when our birds frequently sit on the cool shady earth of the flights rather than on one of the perches provided.

Late autumn and early winter is our ‘spring cleaning’ time and all our aviaries are emptied of birds and furnishings, disinfected and painted and repaired if necessary, and fresh shell grit and new perches put back in, our birds are then wormed and put back in their newly cleaned home.

One aviary furnishing that we have found invaluable is the tree branch of a sturdy nature that has numerous horizontal branches on which we spike their daily fruit rations. We have found that this not only keeps their fruit off the ground but also keeps our birds active by having to climb and hang onto a branch to enjoy their fruit. These ‘fruit branches’ are placed halfway along the flights, and, although they are open to the elements, all the fruit is generally eaten before sun, wind or rain has a chance to spoil it.

Feeding

As with most aviary birds (excluding lorikeets) hard seed forms the basis of our Easterns’ diet, and while a small parrot mix would be suitable our preference is to feed individual bowls of Sunflower, Japanese and White Millet, Canary Seed and Hulled Oats. By doing this we have noticed quite a varied preference of seeds between different pairs at different times of the year.

Our birds hard seed diet is supplemented by apples, oranges, silverbeet, broccoli, sweetcorn, pomegranate, sprouted seed, seeding grasses, tree branches (both gum and Cotoneaster) and insect cake. All these items are fed when available (when either cheap or free) but we purposely try to change our feeding patterns from an austerity diet in winter to a more varied and available diet during spring and summer. By doing this we attempt to copy Mother Nature and put our birds in a ‘breeding mode’ by making readily available different foods suitable for feeding their young. In the past we have fed soaked seed but we have discontinued this because we saw no benefit for the amount of time it took. This was replaced by sprouted seed, which is bought loose at the local supermarket quite cheaply.

Breeding

The breeding season for Eastern Rosellas commences in August and can go through to January. We pack our logs with a dampened mixture of peat moss and chainsaw shavings and hang them in the shelters in mid to late July. Eastern Rosellas are easily catered for with their nesting requirements, taking to a medium or large parrot box just as readily as a log.

As soon as a nesting receptacle is put in the aviary the cock bird usually commences to display to the female as part of his normal courtship. The display of the Eastern Rosella is unmistakable, with much tail wagging and drooping of wings, accompanied by a soft chattering that seems to all combine to put the hen into a nervous state. Following this the cock bird usually feeds the hen and then copulation normally takes place. In some devoted pairs the cock bird feeds his hen all year round, but this is an exception rather than the rule.

Eastern Rosellas can be double-brooded and we have one pair that do this regularly, in fact they are what I would call the perfect pair of birds, in that they have never had a sick day, are double-brooded, always have 100% fertility and have never failed to raise a chick, which indeed makes them a very rare pair of birds.

Having owned this particular pair of birds for quite a few years it has given us a good chance to breed from their progeny (not together) and compare the results. It is interesting to note that none of their offspring have been double-brooded. By contrast they usually go to nest at what I would consider to be a relatively late time for Easterns (late October – November). These young birds have however all continued to show their parents pleasing traits of good fertility and ability to raise their young without mishap.

First year birds mated to each other have had fertility ranging from one egg in a clutch of five, to three fertile from a clutch of four. All these birds achieved 100% fertility in their second year.

We initially used to supply a second log to our double-brooded pair but, although it was thoroughly inspected, it was always passed over in favour of renesting in their old log once their first clutch had completely vacated it.

All our cock birds spend considerable amounts of time in the logs with their hens, both during incubation and while the young are in residence, although they have never spent nights in the logs.

Incubation takes approximately 21 days and even though I’m the worlds worst ‘sticky beak’ I don’t recommend inspection of nesting logs. I have tried nest inspection in the past and I have always found it impossible to flush the hen off the nest. Hens invariably dive into the nest at the first sight of people, and when viewing the nest with the hen present, she will back down onto her eggs or chicks and spread her wings out and open her beak in readiness to defend her young. This behaviour makes proper viewing impossible and also puts at risk any eggs or young due to accidental breakage or injury.

The young normally start to leave the log at about four weeks of age and I do not hesitate to put them back in the log if I think they have left too early or if inclement weather is forecast. This minor interference has always been accepted by all our parent birds.

Previous articles on this bird have stated that the cock bird commences to feed the chicks at about twelve days of age but this theory was blown out of the water by the video shown at our recent Minchin Memorial Meeting. This video showed a cock bird feeding a newly hatched chick. When the chicks fledge, their flight shows all the clumsiness of a new bird, but closer observation shows that their main problem is in stopping rather than in judging distances. This can be born out by the fact that our young birds always land feet first when they crash into the wire rather than head first as is usually the case, also in all the Easterns we have bred not one bird has scalped itself. This is another area in which a larger aviary has an advantage, with younger birds being far less panicky in a bigger area.

Although the young are usually independent at about three weeks out of the nest, we leave all our young in with their parents for many months after that with virtually no problems at all.

Barring mishaps, a well housed and cared for pair of Eastern Rosellas should still be a viable breeding proposition well into their late teens.

Habits

Eastern hens tend to be very shy if their log is left in the aviary all year round, diving into their log as soon as they hear anyone approach their aviary. For this reason, we either take their log out or cover over the entrance hole during the non-breeding season.

Eastern Rosellas enjoy nothing like a good bath and, therefore, we provide a large water dish, although this is normally replaced with a smaller one during breeding season to prevent any mishaps with new chicks. Despite their joy at having an early morning bath it is very rare to catch these birds in this vulnerable position, as they are soon out of the water at the slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary.

Their alertness is the main reason that we have purposely housed our Easterns in corner aviaries, wherever possible, as they act as an early warning system to alert our other birds to the advances of a prowling cat or the like.

Their distress call is invariably heard before the danger is actually seen, thereby putting our birds on alert without the accompanying panic.

Summary

Whilst it could never be said that Eastern Rosellas have the trusting and confiding nature of a Bourke’s Parrot or the comical antics of a Princess Parrot or Blue Bonnet, they nevertheless have much to recommend them as an aviary occupant.

They are extremely hardy, and relatively easy to cater for and would make an ideal addition to anyone’s collection, be they an experienced aviculturist or a beginner just starting off in birds, as I was when these beautiful birds came into my life.

One thing that I could not stress highly enough is that people select good quality unrelated stock when selecting their birds. Also, we must breed these birds true to type and not intermix subspecies with the nominate race as is so often the case. Every bird breeder has a duty both to himself and his hobby to breed pure species and subspecies whenever it is possible if we are to maintain the integrity we seek.

Although total numbers of these birds in aviculture is relatively high, there are quite a few inferior birds amongst them, as well as numerous wild-trapped birds that are really not a viable breeding proposition.

As with the Princess Parrot, it is high time Eastern Rosella breeders culled their poor quality birds and concentrated on breeding a good standard of bird, rather than just trying to achieve a maximum head count.

Hopefully, the days of hearing people say “She doesn’t look real good, but she breeds too well to get rid of” are on the way out, especially when used in reference to such a widely kept bird as the Eastern Rosella.

Reprinted from the October 1991 edition of Bird Keeping in Australia, the official publication of The Avicultural Society of South Australia Inc.