THE ECLECTUS PARROT, Eclectus roratus (P.L.S. MULLER 1776)
By Dale R. Thompson & Susie Christian
When comparing the size of any of the Eclectus subspecies or doing a comparison between them, one must be aware that only averages can be given. Words such as length, stockiness and larger are only used to help the reader define the average sized subspecies. When one becomes extremely picky, they can easily find discrepancies.
Due to the fact that size variation can occur within one generation, it is easy to understand that extreme cases can occur that do not follow the norm. Any breeder of Eclectus can easily show a size difference between their first generation offspring and their parents. It is well known that two siblings of the same sex can be of different weights and lengths when they are weaned. This can easily be explained from being a second sibling within a nest that did not get as much food as the first hatchling during the first week of life. With some of the excellent hand feeding diets that are well balanced nutritionally, it is no wonder that many of our offspring are larger is weight than their parentage.
It would easily be possible to find a very large Solomon Islands Eclectus to match the size of a very small Grand Eclectus. This does not mean that one should use this unusual instance as a guideline but should use the average as a guideline.
Not only are size and color variations evident within island species but variations can also be observed where there are great landmasses or mountains dividing certain avian species into different subspecies or races. Hurricanes or great wind storms can originally move certain individual birds into completely new areas of islands.
Note: For over a century and one half, the scientific literature has included another Eclectus subspecies to the genus and it has always stated that it is very doubtful that it is a true subspecies. This is the Westerman’s Eclectus Parrot. The Westerman’s Eclectus is from 11 (5 males and 6 females) museum skins that have come from captive stock. Their origins are very uncertain. Some authorities state that these specimens could possibly be hybrids between the Grand or Vosmaeri Eclectus crossed with the Riedel’s Eclectus Parrot. After observing good photographs of these museum specimens, the authors agree that the individual skins show that the males are actually E. r. riedeli and the females are E. r. roratus. Museum skins of riedeli and roratus are almost identical with a minimum of red showing from beneath its closed wings and they both a have the identical yellow edging of the tail. Due to the variability of roratus, the female Westerman’s Eclectus skins are very similar to those of roratus. The Westerman’s skins show a bluish- purple breast (which eliminates the vosmaeri subspecies) that blends into the upper chest region in a blotchy appearance. This could easily be a roratus skin from having its neck stretched in the skin preparation or an aberrant version of roratus. It is time to retire forever the Westerman’s Eclectus as a possible subspecies.
ORIGINS AND NATURAL HISTORY OF THE ECLECTUS PARROT
Within the classifications of Psittaciformes (parrots) there are several categories used to separate or classify members of this order into groups of similar relationships and evolutionary or adaptable patterns.
GENUS is the classification that divides a primary category from all other groups. It represents a group of species. The classification of genus is a unit that includes one or more species into one group of which there is a division from all other similar groups.
SPECIES is the category from which all modern classification is based. Species is a sole entity, being separate from all other similar types. There are many descriptions of the term species and one is that this entity freely reproduces with its own kind but will not crossbreed naturally with another similar population. For example the genus Neophema (a group of small, long-tailed grass parakeets from Australian) has several species found within it. But the Bourke’s parakeet, Neophema bourkii freely breed with each other but does not naturally reproduce with the Scarlet-chested parakeet, Neophema splendida Even though they inhabit the very same territory, they choose their own when reproducing.
SUBSPECIES or race is a division of classification that has gained much notoriety in recent years especially since so many of our avian species are becoming threatened with extinction. The subspecies question is often quite controversial. The question often appears when authorities disagree if there is validity in certain subspecies. A subspecies is a division in the species classification where a local population of a certain species is separated from the rest of the group by means of a geographic division whether it be a body of water or a mountain range etc. This local population through time and adaptation changes in a significant way away from the original species entity. This change is usually in a size or color difference. A subspecies does not always have to have a geographic division to separate it from the species but can be along a continuous geographic distribution that is in a process of change within the species. But subspecies is most likely due to the division of a geographic separation.
The separation between species and subspecies is clear if there is a definable difference between the two. If it is ever judged that the dividing characteristic (be it a geographic one or a dietary one, etc.) were ever to be removed and the existing subspecies where unable to reproduce with each other, than the subspecies would then be changed by taxonomists to be a species on its own.
A good example of subspecies that are geographically separated from each other is the Golden-shouldered and Hooded Parakeets. The former being from the southern parts of Cape York Peninsula while the latter is a distinct isolate originating from the northeastern regions of Northern Territory.
In nature, sporadic hybridization does occur where two closely related species partially overlap each other's geographic locations along which there is a contact line or area. If this contact area produces numerous hybrids or intermediate forms, then the original two linking populations are judged as being two different subspecies (or races) of one species. If the contact area produces very few, if any, hybrid forms, then the two linking populations are judged as being two complete species.
Probably the most common used example in this area in the parrot family is that of the "Adelaide Rosella." Originating in southeastern South Australia along the Mount Lofty and Flinder’s Ranges, this natural hybrid is in the overlapping or contact areas of the Crimson and Yellow Rosellas. Much of the modern scientific literature consider this a natural hybrid while other authorities even break down this hybrid into two different subspecies or races, P. adelaidea (southern range) and P. subadelaidae (northern range).
Hybridization from captive production is not a good guide for taxinomical use as many of the natural barriers that separate species in the wild does not occur in captive conditions. Many environmental, behavior, and genetic factors cause the separation of subspecies in nature. As stated before, natural populations can be separated by mountain ranges, rivers, bodies of water (bays to oceans) or simply vast distances of land space.
Subspecies or racial traits in the Eclectus can be linked to both random variation or to adaptation. For instance the intensity of blues and purples may differ between two different subspecies or even within a subspecies. Thus the difference between the light and darker lavender colors of the Vosmaeri Eclectus. This can be caused by a difference in the thickness of the iridescent blue barbs and gray edging of the red barbules.
Natural hybridization also appears to have occurred within the female Eclectus subspecies. It appears that those Grand Eclectus occurring on the Island of Ceram are more closely related to the Vosmaeri Eclectus as they have acquired (or more likely retained) some of the Vosmaeri traits. Other wild caught Grand Eclectus have a greater affinity to the Red-sided Eclectus in their breast coloration. These Grands have a more defined purple-blue chest bar that is influenced by the Red-sided Eclectus traits.
The Eclectus is divided into nine subspecies which includes the nominate race (or subspecies), Eclectus r. roratus and eight other subspecies. The nominate subspecies does not mean that this was the first occurring entity of its kind but only that it was the first of its kind to be described by mankind. The genus Eclectus is found on numerous islands found throughout the Australasian area.
As with the Rainbow Lory, it is theorized that the Eclectus Parrot originated from the large island of New Guinea. The Eclectus Parrot over the many years has colonized many surrounding islands some by flying across water masses that are of short distances. From these islands the Eclectus kept extending its range to far-flung islands of great distances. The ability to reach these great distances in the past can easily be understood if one has ever experiences the great changes in weather. Wind storms, cyclones or terrible monsoons can easily carry birds and insects great distances away from their original homes.
This short distant to long distant colonization through island-hopping has allowed the Eclectus species to attain various levels of endemism. These changes have now produced subspecies within the Eclectus species. Over time these geographical separations have shown slight to great marked endemism within this group. Subspecies occurring on islands close to the big island of New Guinea are very similar to the original species. As those subspecies found on increasing distant islands, so is the increase in their marked differences. A pattern of the Eclectus Parrot colonization can be followed in Figure 1. Its origin is New Guinea and there is a well-defined change as the colonization reaches further distances.
From this colonization the Eclectus has developed into three distinct groups: 1) the lavender or purple breast-feather group; 2) the cobalt to blue breast-feather group and; 3) the red breast-feather group. Although these groupings are only referring to females, it is because this is the sex that has the most identifiable separations.
Colbalt or Blue Breast-feather Group
Four of the subspecies found closest to New Guinea are the macgillivrayi, solomonensis, aruensis and biaki. All of these are very closely identified to the Red-sided Eclectus, polychloros, found throughout New Guinea (except in its high altitude mountains). Every one of these subspecies are from the cobalt-breasted group. The main difference within this group of subspecies is size.
The macgillivrayi subspecies is found directly south of New Guinea on the continent of Australia. It is found within a small range on Cape York Peninsula. The macgillivrayi is a Red-sided only much bigger. Those who have observed both can easily tell the difference. The great size in both weight and length is impressive in the Macgillivray’s Eclectus parrot. Those individual birds that colonized the Cape York Peninsula had the genes within the group that through interbreeding put size on this subspecies.
The solomonensis subspecies is found along a western to eastern line away from New Guinea through the Solomon Islands, and the Admiralty and Bismarck Archipelagos. This subspecies is very similar to the Red-sided Eclectus except that it is smaller in size. As the Solomon Islands subspecies colonized these islands away from New Guinea in a western to eastern direction, a size difference also occurred within this subspecies. The western (closest to New Guinea) populations are closer to being the same size as the Red-sided while the eastern (being furthest from New Guinea) populations are very much smaller than the Red-sided subspecies. As the Solomon Islands subspecies colonized or migrated eastward, the gene pool within those individual birds produced a smaller bird than the original subspecies found in New Guinea. It appears as the Solomon Islands subspecies migrated further eastward those individual birds even had a more selective gene pool of smaller producing birds. Some references have questioned whether the availability of food sources could have diminished their size, but this is questionable as these groups of islands have a great variety of natural food items. Anywhere a lory or lorikeet lives, so can an Eclectus Parrot, and lories populate this entire area.
The biaki subspecies occurs very close to New Guinea; in fact, it is found within one of its large bays (Geelvink Bay). This subspecies is also very similar to the Red-sided except that its size is smaller but are closer to the Solomon Islands Eclectus subspecies. Some authorities doubt its validity but this subspecies in closer inspection does stand up to the standards of being a valid subspecies.
The aruensis subspecies occurs directly west of New Guinea and is found on the Aru Islands. This subspecies is similar to that of the Red-sided Eclectus except that it is much larger in size and has a very long, narrow look to the bird. This lanky appearance is due to its very long tail and stretched-out neck. Those individual birds that did colonize this island contained these characteristics within its genes.
Lavender and Purple Breast-feather Group
There are two Eclectus subspecies that belong to the lavender- and purple-breasted group. These are the Vosmaeri (lavender-breasted) and the Grand (purple-breasted) Eclectus subspecies. These two Eclectus subspecies are further from the birthplace of the Eclectus found in New Guinea than the previously discussed subspecies (cobalt- and blue-breasted group).
The Vosmaeri subspecies is found in the northern and central Moluccas with the island of Halmahera having the dominant population. This is why some of the scientific literature refers to it as the Halmahera Eclectus. This subspecies has a lavender-breasted chest that in some individuals appears to be a pale version. This subspecies is the beginning of the colonization of the Eclectus subspecies that have a completely red breast (riedeli and cornelia).
The Grand subspecies is found in the southern Moluccas with the island of Ceram having the dominant population. There is a great variance in the Grand subspecies with some individual characteristics showing a definite bib line compared to others. Those that have the lower bib line have a bluish-purple breast compared to others individuals that have an undefined bib line and the purple breast definitely blends into the upper breast area similar to that of the Vosmaeri subspecies. What is so interesting is that the Grand subspecies from Ceram have the bib line and this island is the closest to New Guinea compared to any others of this group. This island appears to have been influenced with some of the Red-sided Eclectus genes from the big island of New Guinea.
Red Breast-feather Group
There are two Eclectus subspecies within this group and these are the Riedel’s and Cornelia Eclectus subspecies. The first is the Riedel’s Eclectus and it originates from the Tanimbar Islands. This small island group is found to the south of the Moluccas.
The colonization of the red breast-feather group started with the Vosmaeri in Halmahera and going in a southern direction. Those members of the Vosmaeri subspecies that migrated south had the genes that eliminated the barbules that have a thin edging of iridescent blue to them. This gave the Vosmaeri the lavender appearance. With this being eliminated, the breast feathers appear bright red, which is the color of the Riedel’s female. Those birds that migrated retained the beautiful cadmium-yellow under-tail coverts and broad yellow tail edging of the Vosmaeri. The thin yellow barring of the male Vosmaeri was also retained. The Riedel’s subspecies also decreased in size.
A further colonization of the red breast-feather group is the Cornelia Eclectus subspecies. This subspecies is truly a distant isolate from the other Eclectus subspecies but it is also very obvious that its origins followed from the Riedel’s Eclectus. During a great deal of time, this subspecies lost all of the strong cadmium-yellow coloration of the Riedel’s Eclectus and is an almost completely red bird. The male also has a very thin yellow edging to the tip of his tail that is almost non-existent from a top view but can be seen from the bottom view in contrast to its black under-tail coloration. This subspecies also gained in size to that of the Vosmaeri from which it branched.
The Eclectus Parrot is a sole species in the monotypic genus of Eclectus. Its closest relatives are those parrots found in the Geoffroyus species (Red-cheeked Parrot) and those of the Tanygnathus genus (Great-billed, Muller’s and Blue-naped Parrots). The Eclectus parrot shares many physiological characteristics with the above groups, most notably in the similarities of skull and mandible structure. Through chromosomal studies, it has also shown that the Eclectus Parrot was similar to that of the Blue-naped Parrot and Muller’s Parrot in breeding behavior, feeding and chick morphology. This similarity is easily observed when one feeds the young of these three species. These three neonates gently take the food from the syringe or spoon.
Only the male bird of the Eclectus Parrot species was first described by Scopoli in the early 1700’s and it was over 100 years later that the female was described in the scientific literature. It is no wonder that the Eclectus male and female were thought to be two different species. The female Eclectus was first described in 1837. Even the noted world traveler and artist John Gould described the Eclectus male and female separately for many years until he personally observed the Red-sided Eclectus nesting in the wilds of New Guinea.
It is often written that there is an over-abundance of males observed in the wild in comparison to females. This observation has also been the true with this author. I do not, however, believe there is that much of a ratio difference between males and females. This may be that observations may have been done during the nesting periods when females spend their time in the nest. In captivity, it is easily observed that there is no defined breeding season and captive Eclectus may breed during any month of the year. In Australia in the Iron Range of the Cape York Peninsula, this writer observed two active Eclectus nests in the wild when it was not supposed to be their nesting period.
In the wild, the red Eclectus females may also be less active than the males and any perched female Eclectus in any foliage is very difficult to observe as the color red under these conditions turns black to the human eye and thus is not observed. This gives the brilliantly red bird a great advantage of being camouflaged.
To give a background on the material was to try to straighten out so much of the misinformation give in recent American literature. Breeders here are often so ignorant that they produce hybrids without knowing (or for that matter - don't care). After working with the Eclectus for over 30 years and enjoying them so much we were striving to change the ignorance which abounds here.
The first part is material we have worked with in each different subspecies. We have seen all the subspecies in person except the E. r. riedeli and the westermani. We have reproduced most of these, so we felt we could give personal accuracy to these subspecies. The last paragraph of the first part and the second part, 'Origins and Natural History of the Eclectus Parrot' is material given on our own belief of how they were distributed throughout the region and how their color patterns were established. So to answer any questions or other concepts, much of this portion is the authors' (us) opinion.
Questions that might need clarification:
1. We have seen photographs of the westermani as in Edelpapageien (1992 Horst Muller-Verlag Walsrode) by Angelika Fergenbaier-Kimmel. There were a couple of questionable skins in a collection purchased by Ed Harrison which evenually was combined in the Los Angeles County Museum under the Jean Delacour wing, that appeared as the westermani , but appeared so much like hybrids or mixes that we have seen in captivity. It was in my opinion that with these skins from captive collections did not give this subspecies validity. This was why I do not believe this is a true subspecies but this is a personal opinion.
2. The authorities mentioned in the section describing the Biak subspecies are US writers that at that time did not believe in the validity of this subspecies. They were writers for American magazines especially, many who did not have the correct information, let alone observe the live biaki. I would eliminate that portion of our writings ie 'some authorities could doubt its validity...'
3. The Grand Eclectus is a subspecies that observed early in the 1970's that had origins from Ceram. They were a confisated group that had been imported with improper paperwork. So many of the Eclectus in captivity in the US have unknown origins or the person that has them has no way of finding their correct origins. This confiscated group of Grands that I observed did have correct origins from the Island of Ceram and they were consistent in their bib-line (hens). Many other Grands observed in US collections have a variety of different bib-lines with few being consistent. Most birds observed in the late 1970's ands 1980's did not have the high bib-line of the original group that I had observed. This is why I mentioned this bib-line comment in our 'Origin's section. This was a personal observation.
4. This section of the 'Origins and Natural History' section are personal opinions. After observing most of the color variations of the subspecies and following their line eastward and southeastward across the Indonesian group of islands, is why we came to this hypothesis. So this is an author's opinion. We did this section because of all the misinformation put out in many of the American magazine articles and books. There is so much coping with lay magazine authors. They take from a previously published article from magazines such as Bird Talk Magazine. It is not the magazine editor's fault as they wish to publish. So much of these new Eclectus authors or 'experts' came aboard without having much personal experience at all. This is not to condemn all of the Eclectus experts here, as there are some very good ones. It was that so many others decided to become known through popular magazines.
We are trying to get the authority who did the work on feather structure as this was some excellent material. Yes, you may say 'possible migration' as this was part of our hypothesis.
5. Concerning the information of the origins and its transformation from vosmaeri and cornelia is again our projection on how the subspecies are related. So the word 'branched' is an author's opinion. There is no way to confirming migration that happened so long ago.
We would perfer that the 'Origins' section not be deleted as some of the material, especially the color variation reasoning, has been proven in the avian world. Can we say that the conclusions of this section are the authors' opinion.
Dale Thompson has been in the zoo field for over 25 years and is now the General Curator of the Chaffee Zoological Gardens in Fresno, California. He has worked with the Eclectus parrot for over 30 years. He has observed two of the subspecies in the wild and all of the subspecies except riedeli and westermani in captivity. In 1985, the American Zoos and Aquariums (AZA, then AAZPA) awarded their gold propagator's certificate to "Behavioral Studies of Birds, Inc." for recognition of the sustained captive breeding of the Eclectus Parrot. This was for recognition of rearing 100 successful clutches of this parrot. Dale Thompson was the Director of this organization. Over his 30 plus years working with the Eclectus Parrot, Dale has reproduced over 1000 Eclectus parrots, both hand-reared and parent-reared. Dale has published many articles on this group of parrots and has spoken about this group of parrots at seminars, conferences and symposiums around the world. One of the many studies done on the Eclectus parrots under Dale's care was a computerized work done to discover what the natural temperatures used by incubating Eclectus hens and what the average times they turned their eggs during a 24 hour time.
Back to Map