STELLA'S LORIKEET: 
BEAUTIFUL AND ENDEARING

By Rosemary Low

Few people would argue with the statement that Stellas Lorikeet (Charmosyna papou) is one of the worlds most beautiful birds. Colourful, elegant and lively, can there be a more desirable aviary bird? It is recognised by its two long central tail feathers, narrowing to less than 1cm in width in some birds and  measuring about 27cm in length. Stellas ranks with only a few other birds in the world, such as the Quetzal  (Pharomachrus mocino) and the Streamer-tailed Hummingbird (Trochilus poltymus) in the extreme tail length in proportion to body size.

                                     

As an aviary bird its extreme beauty makes it desirable -- and it has other attributes: it is quiet, fairly free-breeding and easy to sex. Its personality (my birds, anyway!) is friendly and endearing. However, it does have one disadvantage. It can be extremely aggressive towards other birds and can and will kill much larger species.

History in aviculture

Stellas Lorikeet (C.p.goliathina) was first imported into the UK in 1907 when its appearance made a stir among aviculturists. The famous collector Walter Goodfellow had obtained the pair and imported 14 more in the following two years. It was decades before Stellas were seen again -- perhaps not until 1969 when San Diego Zoo obtained a single bird. In 1972 Mrs Stephanie Belford imported a single C.papou papou into the UK. It was a young bird, delightfully tame, and she lent it to me for nine months. That started my love for this wonderful lorikeet. However, I have never seen another bird of the nominate race in the UK, only goliathina. During the late 1970s goliathina (red and melanistic) was imported into Europe on a commercial basis. Importation continued until about 1990.

In 1999 the now defunct  Lory Group of the UK Parrot Society carried out a survey among lory keepers. Twenty-four species were kept and, numerically, Stellas was first. How different is the situation today! Stellas has become rare -- and the 2010 Breeding Register of the Parrot Society listed only one breeder but I do know of several others.

What happened to those birds that, numerically, put Stellas at the top of the list? I would suggest that most of them have died and that some of them were exported. How did this happen? First of all, the number of lory keepers declined dramatically during the early and mid part of the first decade of the 21st century. Many lories and lorikeets were exported or were sold to inexperienced keepers.  Secondly, the use of formulated diets, some or most of which are suitable mainly or only for Trichoglossus species, caused the rapid decline and death of many individuals.

As an example, in 2006 I acquired a female red Stellas in exchange for two copies of my Encyclopedia of the Lories. The reason for the low value set by the owner was that the bird was in very poor condition.  I suspected that she was suffering from liver disease due to the unsuitable formulated diet on which she had been fed. Her beak colour was not the strong orange of a healthy bird, her plumage was poor and her tail feathers broke easily.

Fortunately the liver has marvellous powers of recovery and after six months on a good and varied diet, she seemed to be in excellent health. However, no breeding success occurred until 2011 when she was ten years old.  I would expect Stellas to breed at the age of three or possibly four years.

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Stellas Lorikeet is almost unique among parrots in several respects:

It has two colour forms in the wild. (The Dusky Lory (Pseudeos fuscata) has an orange phase and a yellow phase but there are also intermediate birds so these forms are not so distinctive.)

                         

Its vocalisations are distinct from those of other lories and lorikeets, with the exception of the closely related Josephines Lorikeet (Charmosyna josefinae).

The length of the tongue. This is quite extraordinary and can be waved around outside the beak. This happens when the bird cleans its beak or when it is very excited, when the tongue can be vibrated almost too rapidly for the human eye to follow.

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Aviary accommodation

Stellas breed well in captivity under good conditions. I dislike seeing them in suspended cages or anything less than 4.5m in length. It is incomprehensible to me that anyone would want to keep and breed such beautiful and active birds in 1.8m cages. Stellas are forever on the move -- more like softbills than parrots -- and need to be able to move quickly. (This is in total contrast to the small Goldies Lorikeet Trichoglussus goldiei, for example, which move around slowly and stealthily). They are seen to their best advantage in a large planted aviary. I had never seen this species at its best in captivity until I gave a pair to friends who had a 20m long planted aviary. Within hours I saw them moving their tails from side to side in a manner that I had never observed when they were in a 4.5m flight. They are so fast and agile in flight  and there is only a hint of this in a limited space.

The best perches are twiggy branches from apple and straight ones from willow. These should be quite thin.  Vertical branches are enjoyed as much as horizontal ones. Fresh-cut branches will be stripped of bark immediately -- and this helps to maintain the correct beak shape and length. The plumage will immediately be anointed with the sap from the fresh branches. Leafy branches, especially those with blossom, are greatly enjoyed. If the aviary cannot be planted it is a good idea to place tubs containing Eucalpytus gunni, willow or elder in the aviary. It is also good to grow honeysuckle or passionflower over the roof and sides. If this is nibbled it does not matter. It still provides a pleasant green, leafy environment. I feel that this is very important for all lorikeets.

The aviary should have an enclosed indoor part (usually inside a building) to maintain a temperature at which the nectar will not freeze in cold weather or become rancid in hot weather. This also permits the use of artificial light in the winter.  I do not allow my lories to breed in the winter and all birds are shut inside at night -- every night. This keeps them safe from night predators.

Climate concerns

Stellas Lorikeets are very hardy birds. When you see where they live, in the highlands of New Guinea, which are cloudy and cold most of the time, you understand why they do well in the not dissimilar climate of northern Europe.  I have seen my birds become very excited when it snows, dashing about licking the snow flakes off the branches!

Conversely, melanistic birds cannot tolerate very high temperatures. They will literally die of heat stress. Unfortunately, I discovered this at Palmitos Park, Gran Canaria where, on rare occasions in the breeding centre in the mountains, the temperature could rise to 40°C or more. On the first occasion, one melanistic pair died within seconds of each other. Thereafter I would take melanistic Stellas into an air-conditioned room  if the temperature was about to reach 40 degrees. No other parrots were affected in this way.

In the same circumstances red Stellas would look very uncomfortable and pant with open beak. But they would survive.  It is interesting that in the wild there are more melanistc birds at higher elevations where such high temperatures would not occur.  Note that aviaries for these birds should be sited in shady locations in countries where high temperature occur. Shade cloth should cover any sides that are exposed to direct sunlight.

Indicators of health

The colour of the feet and beak is a good indication of health and of a suitable diet. The redder the better! The beak tends to be more red in melanistic birds. A red Stellas with a pale pink or whitish pink beak is not in good health. Note that the upper mandible is naturally long and narrow in this species, with  at least one third of its length below the lower mandible. I mention this to prevent anyone trimming what they might believe is an overgrown beak. If fresh branches are provided regularly, the beak should never need trimming. As in any parrot, an overgrown beak can be a sign of liver disease or of an aged bird.

Diet

Nectar, greenfood and fruit form the main part of the diet, nectar being the most important item. I offer my Stellas two types daily: Nekton Lori which I believe to be the best commercial lory food available (and I have used it for more than 20 years) and my own mixture. This consists of approximately one tablespoonful of honey, ½ tablespoonful of malt extract, one tablespoonful of  Lory Cédé and during the breeding season, ¼  teaspoonful of  pollen, with warm boiled water added to make up 500ml of nectar. The consistency is not thick. Nectar is always served warm (and stirred), which is how they like it, and offered three times daily. I use stainless steel container which are washed and replaced daily  -- or more often if other items have been dropped in the nectar.

The metabolism of Stellas (and even more so, the smaller Charmosyna lorikeets such as the Pleasing C.placentis) is extremely rapid.  Everything about them is fast. They need to feed often and must always have nectar in front of them.

The two favourite foods of my Stellas are chickweed and celery which they receive daily, weather permitting. Like some smaller lorikeets (Goldies and Whiskered), chickweed is a very important part of their diet). Some keepers fail to realise this.

Their favourite fruits are pomegranates and grapes and they will also take pear, apple and orange. They seem very discerning and certain individual fruits are not eaten, because the taste or degree of ripeness is not to their liking. Soaked sultanas (but not soaked dried figs) are also consumed. Wedges of young, tender carrot (raw) stuck into the welded mesh are also eaten.  From the end of March until the end of the flowering season, I offer dandelion flowers. These  have a high pollen content (which is why they are favoured by bees and wasps).  Pollen has many desirable qualities and probably contains more vital ingredients than any other food we can offer. Being high in protein, it is especially important when there are chicks in the nest.

Sexing

This is one of the few lories or lorikeets to exhibit striking sexual dimorphism. The colour of the lower back and flanks indicate sex as follows:

  Male
 Female
 Red red bright yellow
 Melanistic red  green

 

Most young can be sexed at 35 to 40 days when the rump feathers emerge but occasionally one individual does not conform to the normal juvenile plumage.

Tail plumage

There are four sub-species of Charmosyna papou, of which only goliathina is well known in aviculture.  The two long tail feathers are yellow for about half their length in the red phase, or grey-green tipped with yellow in melanistic birds. The sub-species stellae is probably unknown in aviculture except in New Guinea, where I have seen it. In this sub-species the upper side of the tail is orange for half its length.

However, the tails of captive birds do not always  conform to text book descriptions. Perhaps they originated from local populations whose tail colour has not been described. The width of the tip of the tail of individuals varies from little more than a hairs breadth to about 2mm. This is only partly dependent on abrasion as some individuals have wider tail tips than others.

The tail feathers average about 27cm in length but might be as short as 25cm. Newly fledged young have a much shorter tail; the long feathers start to develop a few weeks later. For some years I have measured the moulted tail feathers of my birds, curious to know whether tail length increases with age. I found no evidence of this. The longest feather I have ever retrieved measured 36cm, moulted by my melanistic male, yet his previous tail feather, moulted in March 2012, measured only 30cm.

The other ornamental feathers are the elongated blue-grey ones of the nape. These can be erected when the bird is excited.

                         

Breeding

The nest-box should be hung so that inspection can take place from outside the aviary, within a service passage. The inspection door should therefore be in the back or side of the nest-box. Some Stellas can be quite aggressive when they have chicks.

I prefer the use of L-shaped or inverted L-shaped boxes for all lories and lorikeets. An L-shaped box gives a wider area over which faeces are squirted and reduces the frequency of changing the nest litter. If two chicks hatch, the nest litter will need to be changed every second day. Alternatively, I use an inverted L-shaped box with a drawer in the bottom that can be pulled out and instantly replaced with a spare drawer containing fresh wood shavings. The size of the latter type is 28cm square and  41cm high with the entrance part jutting out 15cm.

Note that, as in all lories, if the nest interior becomes wet, feather plucking of the chicks is more likely to occur. I prefer not to handle chicks, except to quickly place them in a clean drawer and to ring them,  and in the other type of box I remove the litter around them rather than remove the chicks to a container.  I have handled literally hundreds of lory chicks over the years, but in 2010  a shocking incident occurred which made me change my routine. As I picked up one of two Goldies chicks, aged about three weeks, it coughed and died. The same happened with the second chick. The first chick had a full crop so I thought perhaps I had accidentally touched the crop causing it to aspirate (food entering the windpipe). However, the younger chick did not have a full crop so I was at a loss to explain why this had happened. Nevertheless, I now never change nest litter soon after the birds have been fed -- only when they are due to be fed.

Incubation

Stellas Lorikeets lay two eggs. Although the minimum incubation period is 25 days, eggs usually hatch 28 or 29 days after they are laid. I have recorded periods of 27, 31 and even 32 days. This is because incubation does not start in earnest for several days, even if one bird of the pair is in the nest. Male and female share incubation.

Some years ago I installed a nest-box camera in one nest.  One adult male, origin unknown, bred for the first time with an experienced female. On the monitor I watched his reaction soon after the egg was laid. He started to kick it about. I went straight to the nest-box with a plastic egg and removed the new-laid one. When the second egg was laid, I did the  same. For a few days he tried, without success, to break the plastic ones. Then he left them alone and the females eggs were returned to the nest. He never again tried to destroy an egg.

Chicks

Newly hatched chicks weigh about 5g. They have quite long down, white or salmon-coloured, and the skin is pink in red birds. In some melanistic chicks, and in one red one, the skin has a grey tinge and the down is grey. Chicks are fitted with 7mm closed rings at about 16 or 17 days.  Their eyes open soon after.

By the age of four weeks chicks are covered in quite dense dark grey second down, and their contour feathers are starting to erupt. They usually leave the nest at about 60 days. In one nest the eldest, a red female, emerged at 56 days and the youngest, a melanistic male, came out briefly at the same time but did not finally leave until 62 days.

The parents, more especially the male, are very excited when the young emerge. They feed the young for two or three weeks more but the young usually feed themselves on nectar two or three days after emerging, if the food is placed near a perch. Young start to bathe only a couple of weeks after leaving the nest. Like all lorikeets, Stellas are enthusiastic bathers. They need a large bath to splash about in. I use large stainless steel dishes with a rim. Three holes are drilled at equal distances in the rim and chains are attached to these and gathered at the top in a dog clip. In this way the water container is hung from the roof.

Pairing young birds

Siblings should be separated by the age of five months before they form a strong bond. Two unrelated young birds can be put together at this age. In my opinion, the female should not be introduced to an older male until she is 12  months old. Mature males could have a stressful impact on young females not mature enough to lay.

Pairings, red and melanistic

Red x red = all red young.

Melanistic x melanistic = all melanistic OR, less often, melanistic and red.

Red x melanistic =  red and melanistic.

Vocalisations

Stellas have no loud or harsh notes. When they display, stretching upwards, they make a strange, almost indescribable sound. In the Field Guide to the Birds of New Guinea it is described as a nasal note which increases in volume: mreeennnMGG, generally on one pitch.

This sound must be practised by young birds. It is not one that they make spontaneously. Young with their parents start to try to make this sound at the age of about 11 weeks, Not until they are about eight months old can they do so as effectively as adults. A Stellas that I hand-reared in isolation from its species started trying to vocalise at 14 weeks.  The other vocalisation is a thin high-pitched sound, which is often heard -- a quiet contact call.

In New Guinea

Stellas Lorikeet is found in the highlands that occupy the central spine of New Guinea, at altitudes from about 1,500m to 3,500m. The nominate race is found in the mountains of the  Vogelkop Peninsula in the western part of  Indonesian New Guinea. The fourth sub-species, also isolated, is wahnesi in the Huon Peninsula of north-eastern New Guinea. It is recognised by the yellow band on the abdomen. I do not know of any records of it in aviculture.

I saw both forms (red and melanistic) of goliathina, the most widespread sub-species, on a visit to the Southern Highlands. It was a wonderful experience because they are spectacular in flight. Except when feeding very high in flowering trees, they are usually seen in ones and twos -- not in flocks like most lorikeets. I did not see them flying higher than canopy level whereas other lorikeets, such as the two species of Neopsittacus, fly high, often in small groups. As well as taking nectar and pollen, Stellas are greatly attracted to fruiting Schefflera trees.

When you see a red female in flight, the yellow plumage seems to be lit up like a little beacon. This surely does not aid its survival and I have one sad memory. It is of a New Guinea Harpy Eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae), which is not quite as imposing as the South American species, flying with its prey in its talons -- a Stellas.

New Guinea tribesmen  decorate themselves with the skins of colourful birds. Stellas are one of the most favoured species for this purpose, along with birds of paradise.  This is not known to have made any great impact on the species. Its biggest threat in the future will be that which threatens all birds, worldwide -- loss of habitat. However, high in the mountains it will hopefully survive when many lowland species are extinct.

 

For further information on this lorikeet refer to Rosemary Lows Encyclopedia of the Lories, published by Hancock House in 1998. Click here for more information



 

 
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