It was difficult to breathe. No matter how deeply I drew my breaths. I couldn’t get enough air. I was sitting in a plane on a mountaintop in Pa Paz, Bolivia. If we didn’t take off shortly for the lower altitudes of Santa Cruz, I would succumb to oxygen starvation. I looked around for help. Everyone had left the plane! There had been warnings that people with lung problems shouldn’t risk such high altitudes. It was painfully obvious that my recent bout with the flu qualified me. My first thoughts were of getting out of the plane. My second thoughts told me I should sit as still as possible and concentrate on breathing. Would I do to see a parakeet?
Several years earlier, I had met with a Bolivian exporter while he was vacationing in Miami. The importer I represented was interested in the commercial,” more common birds that Bolivia exported. I asked the exporter if he had anything unusual. He confided that someone had brought him a pair of conures so rare that they could only be found mentioned in one book. He claimed that he discovered a short reference to them in a very old text where they were called rock parakeets. His promised that if I was sent to Bolivia to do business with him, he would sell me the pair to bring back with the shipment. Little did I know it would be three years before I would be asked to travel to his compound in Santa Cruz. And little did I know that when the opportunity came, I would be in no position to take advantage of it. I was bed ridden with a high-fevered flu. Could I recover enough to be on a plane in five days?
I called the exporter in Bolivia. Although he had sold te original piar to someone in Europe, the trapper had recently brought him a few more. I asked how much he wanted for them. He would only say that if I came, I could look at them, and we would talk. I asked how quickly he could get me out of there with the birds and the proper paperwork. “Four day after your arrival,” he said. How quickly I felt energized. I told him to count on me being there.
I was now wishing that I had never left home. This was too high a price to pay. I thought I heard a sound. I looked up, and the plane was being boarded by the crew. WE finally took off. The cabin was pressurized. The oxygen was on. Oh, how wonderful the air was! The next breaths were the sweetest that ever filled my lungs. I was glad that I had come.
“Welcome to Bolivia. How was your flight?” the exporter questioned as he ushered me out of the airport.
“Great,” I lied. “How are the rock parakeets doing?” I asked.
“I have good news for you. I think I have two pair,” he exclaimed as his eyes widened. His expression quickly changed. “I also have bad news,” he said. “Due to political problems, all export of birds from Bolivia has been temporarily suspended. Don’t worry. I’m sure that the problems will be resolved shortly – two weeks maximum. Tomorrow I will pick you up at the hotel and bring you to the holding are compound, where you can look at all the birds. I’m sorry for the holdup, but I promise you two weeks of- how do you Americans say it? – wine, women and song!”
The next morning he picked me up to take me to the compound. I had brought along a copy of Joseph M. Forshaw’s Parrots of the World. I asked if he had checked out Forshaw’s book to see if there was an illustration of them in it. He had never seen the book. When we arrived, he brought me directly to the cage where the rock parakeets were. I could immediately see that they were representatives of the family of small conures with the scientific name Pyrrhura. They had a brilliant red patch of color on their primary wing coverts that was visible wen they opened their wings. They also had the same bright red that started just below the shoulder and ran down the front edge of the wing. There was a bit of maroon coloration on the lower belly. The upper breast was dark gray to black, with a broad, white edging to the feathers that created a beautiful contrast. Their most outstanding identification characteristic, however, was their black head. Checking carefully through the book revealed that they were black-capped conures (P. rupicola). There was very little known about their habits.
The exporter left me there to browse, and after about an hour he returned to drive me back to the hotel.
“I will call you later and take you out for a night on the town,” he said.
I received no call that evening or the next day. The following day I called him at his office. “Anything new on the papers?” I asked.
“Not yet, but we are working on it. I will come by this evening and show you a night on the town that you will never forget.”
I heard nothing that evening or the next day. I called his office again. “Anything new on the papers?” I asked.
“Not yet,” he replied.
The 14 days crept by with no night on the town and, most importantly, no export papers. On the 15th day, he called my hotel and informed me that he flew a representative to the capital city and would have a definitive answer that night upon his return. He asked if I would like to come to the airport with him to meet the plane. I agreed.
As soon as he hung up the phone, I called the airline. I made reservations on a plane that left for Miami one hour after the plane from the capital arrived. I’d had enough!
If I didn’t hear something extremely positive when his representative arrived, I was out of there! The plane arrived. The representative was another exporter who had gone to speak on behalf of both of them. He had a huge smile on his face.
“We are guaranteed to get the permits,” he said as he approached us.
“When?” I asked impatiently.
“In tow weeks,” he said in an excited manner, as if it was no different than two days. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“I’m going home. Call me if you ever do get the papers,” I said.
He finally did get the papers. Of course, I wasn’t there, and the companies that I traveled for weren’t ready to buy what he had to offer. By that time, he had acquired a few more black caps. They all went to one of our competitors. I found out when they were to be released from quarantine with the hopes of purchasing two pairs.
I called the day of their release and was told they were already were sold. There were different stories as to how many were in the shipment, but total numbers didn’t matter. There were only three females. Luckily, a colleague had purchased two of them, and a few years down ther line I was able to purchase representatives from both these bloodlines.
Several more years passed and I heard of a farm that was breeding the one female whose bloodline I didn’t have. A friend of mine who had to visit them on some other business agreed to purchase another female fo me while he was there. Since their original stock involved only one female, they were doing a bit of inbreeding. I got a frantic call from my friend.
“Some of these babies look exactly like yours, but some look completely different,” he said in an excited tome. “They have bright red and yellow in all kinds of places that the normal-looking ones don’t have. They also have lighter feet and toenails,” he explained. He went on to tell me that the vet had sexed them and found out that all of those with unusual coloration were females.
“Buy them all,” I said.
With only the female offspring displaying the odd coloration, I was hoping that they wre some type of sex-linked mutation. This is definitely something we would want to work with at the Institute.
I was surprised that they were not only everything that my friend had described, they were more. They were also unlike any mutation that I had ever seen. Their green wing coloration was not changed in any way. All areas that were normally dark – feet, toenails, beak and head feathers – were a bit lightened from black to dark brown. The belly was variably marked with a bright crimson instead of a dull maroon, and the upper breast feathers were suffused with yellow at the sides.
Another interesting point was that all the visual babies varied in the amount and intensity of the unusual color that they displayed. I was able to determine, through production of visual offspring, that it was a se-linked mutation. Within five years we were producing visual males. Another two years gave us offspring from pairs where both the male and the female had the mutated color pattern. That is when the next surprise came.
Although the offspring from these visual pairs were still highly variable in their coloration, the overall colors increased in intensity and quantity. In many birds, the upper breast feathers that are normally black and white are suffused with variable amounts of yellow, orange and red. In some, these colors were extremely prominent, in others, they were less apparent. Some lost a bit of their high coloration as they matured; some retained it
With each successive generation, however, the colored areas expand and intensify. Their propensity to retain all of their color into adulthood also increases
I have shown some of these birds to well-respected aviculturists, and they all agree that they have never seen anything like them. The one question that some have asked that I have the most trouble with is: Now that we have invested years in developing a beautiful color mutation that has never existed before, what will we call it? I guess that for now it will be Voren’s strain of black-capped conure.
Another pleasant discovery about all the black caps that we have hand-raised is that the vast majority have very sweet and engaging personalities. Even though the normal-colored black caps are still in high demand by breeders throughout the U.S., some have made it into the pet trade. Those that have them as pets are enthralled by their wonderful pet qualities.
Luckily, even though the gene pool is limited and there has been the inevitable inbreeding, the productivity of these birds has not been affected. They continue to be excellent producers.
This is not always true. In some cases, when there are bad traits, they become magnified.
One of the other very rare conures from the same family is in serious trouble because of the magnification of some nonproductive traits and the inability to introduce new blood into the gene pool. This is the pearly conure (P. perlata).
Howard Voren is the founder and director of the Voren Research Institute for Psittacultural Science. Vern is also the owner and operator of Voren’s Aviaries Inc. in Florida, and has been a full-time professional aviculturist for more than 20 years.