Notes from the Field: Issue 4
by Bonnie Zimmermann
Indonesia is awe-inspiring. It has over seventeen thousand island, is the fourth most populous country in the world, has the largest Muslim population in the world, and an incredible diversity of birds, animals and people.
The birds that I observed were on the island of Seram in the Moluccan Islands, and the Raja Ampat Islands in Irian Jaya. I’ve also been communicating through email with several long-term missionaries in Papua New Guinea and they have provided me with some interesting information as well.
Eclectus can be found in both secondary and primary rainforest throughout many parts of Indonesia. Although Papua and its coastal islands are near the equator, many mountain ranges rise over 14,000 feet. To produce enough food to live, local inhabitants make their gardens along the sides of mountains. Along the coast it can prove to be rocky with little soil so wide terracing is impossible. Some of the slopes are 45 degree inclines and it is quite a hike from the coastal villages up to where the gardens of yams and taro are planted. The hike to our Rumah Teman (House of Friends) camp in Gam was over an hours hike at a steady incline but well worth it. I would estimate that it is probably situated at about 3,000 feet. The small fenced in gardens surrounded by pristine rainforest are the perfect environment for Eclectus parrots. In Indonesia, they are called kakatua hijau (green cockatoo) and kakatua merah (red cockatoo). These birds are very gregarious and tend to congregate in separate groups male and female. For males the group can run up to 20 individuals, female groups are smaller and usually 5 – 10 birds.
They have a tendency to roost in large groups on a favorite tree. Once they get settled down for the night, they are fairly quiet, but like most birds, their activities begin long before the sun comes up and with their activity comes lots of noise. The birds have also been observed bathing in the wet leaves of trees.
Frequently, the older males sound an alarm when they first take flight, and they all continue to squawk while they fly. Since they do not normally need to fly long distances unbroken by trees, their flights away from predators are usually short and they scream the whole way.
Eclectus love to eat seeds and grains and in some areas of Papua New Guinea, they get into the village sugar cane and corn crops. They also favor papaya, mango, star fruit, pomelo, bananas, pineapple, passion fruit and guava.
In many areas Eclectus are considered pest birds especially with food crops. To protect their food supply, many local people tend to plant root crops which the Eclectus do not eat, such as yams, sweet potatoes, taro, tapioca and manioc.
Eclectus have learned to avoid people but still have a hard time resisting those gardens. The local people see them as a bigger threat than crows. Crows tend to be rather solitary animals, and although they are large and can eat quite a lot they can’t compare with a flock of 30 hungry Eclectus.
In Papua New Guinea, the birds are not taken as pets since the locals cant imagine bringing these pests into their homes. The only people who keep them as pets are dim dimsor (white skins – Caucasian people). Eclectus are normally killed with slingshots and the feathers sold for decoration.
There is definitely a ‘pecking order’ to this flock-driven bird. Older birds insist on feeding rights, defend their favorite nesting sites, and maintain order. When they are in a tree feeding, they normally move around quite a bit. There is a lot of bickering, squawking and screeching. They do fight over nuts on trees and try to run each other off. Males frequently are seen chasing other males off a preferred limb. Bickering aside, the group still tends to stay together and will fly off together if disturbed by a hawk or kite.
Also the fact that they congregate in large groups testifies to their ongoing ability to keep that group together. If there was too much fighting, the large groups would likely fragment into smaller ones which would make them much more susceptible to predators.
We rarely saw males and females together. Little is known about the mating habits of these birds. Also the females are more sedate and solitary then the males. We observed a female Eclectus in the nest for several days and she rarely left the nest. The male only would come to feed her several times a day and then leave. At night he roosted nearby, but not in the nesting tree. This gives clues as to why, when people have attempted to breed these birds, they exhibit so much aberrant behavior. They normally do not live together.
To conclude, each time we answer one question, a hundred more arise. PBW will continue to observe, record and gather data on these birds and share it with our members. Together we can make a difference.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bonnie Zimmerman is the Vice President of Project Bird Watch. She is also the founder of The Wild Connection whose mission is to promote the education, conservation, rescue, rehabililtation, and awareness of parrots in captivity and in the wild. Bonnie travelled around Indonesia last year with Project Bird Watch.