With a stunning, colourful plumage, BILL NAYLOR explains why these birds are superb by name and superb by nature
IN THE tropics of New Guinea and Australia, groups of brightly coloured birds crash around in the tree canopy feeding on figs, berries and other fruit. Referred to as “parrot pigeons” by some native people, they can be mistaken for parrots, but their loud wing beats and robust method of fruit picking identifies them as fruit doves.
Most of the 50-plus species of fruit doves in the genus Ptilinopus possess a variety of colours, and are among the most beautiful birds in the world.
One of the most popular of those kept in captivity is the superb fruit dove (Ptilinopus superbus), which lives up to its name – with a deep-lilac crown, chestnut-orange collar, and body plumage of blue and moss green. The female is predominantly green, and like most females of this genus, lacks the male’s variety of colours, including his lilac crown.
Superb and other fruit doves can be kept in attractively planted enclosures, and in warmer climates their aviaries are often planted with fruiting shrubs and trees.
In the UK fruit doves require heating in winter and are usually kept in flights with adjoining heated quarters, or in tropical house enclosures.
The gizzard of Ptilinopus species is less muscular than other pigeons and is more like a potato peeler. The nodules in the internal wall scrape off the fruit skins, the fruit pulp is digested and the undamaged seeds are excreted, making fruit pigeons important distributors of fruit seeds. And because their gizzards don’t function as grind stones, they don’t require grit that is so important in other pigeons’ diets.
In captivity, they will eat virtually any fruit, such as grapes, apples, melons and pomegranates. Raisins soaked overnight are a favourite food, along with vegetables, including peas, sweet potato, and soft cooked carrots – citrus fruits are not recommended.
Vitamin C can be supplied by offering diced tomatoes. Dog food was often provided to supply protein, but fatty liver disease in exotic pigeons has since been linked.
Pigeons naturally burn their calories by energetic flying. The superb fruit dove frequently migrates from New Guinea to Australia. But in captivity, apart from the ground-dwelling species, pigeons are largely sedentary, and remain in one position for long periods.
Being fruit eaters they eat frequently, and in a mixed species flight they will help themselves to insectivorous foods, poultry and softbill pellets and mealworms. Fruit alone will not sustain them, but where seed is easily accessible it is important to monitor their diets.
It’s hard to believe that when wild fruit pigeons were first imported their frequent refusal to eat led them to be force fed. It’s thought that this reluctance was due to the difference between sweet-tasting fresh fruit in the wild and fruit that was on offer in captivity. Adding honey or nectar to fruit often persuaded them to eat.
Ptilinopus species build a flimsy nest even by pigeon standards, but will use trays and baskets if provided.
In the wild the nest is built at varying heights and is often conspicuous. Eggs frequently succumb to predators, and in Australia the green catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris) is the main culprit. New nests are built to compensate the losses.
The single egg is incubated by the male during the day and the hen by night, for 12-16 days. Pigeon milk is fed to the squab for the first three to 10 days by
Consuming the protein-rich food, the nestlings grow rapidly – although young fruit pigeons are much smaller than other young pigeons.
The nestlings are easily spooked and they usually leave the nest at nine days with only wing feathers. The parents are very protective, but with good reason, as the small young doves are unable to defend themselves.
When nesting on the ground, which they occasionally do, they have been killed by aviary occupants, such as thrushes, and treated as food by pheasants.
■ A 2006 issue of Birdkeeper magazine featured UK aviculturist Mike Curzon, who regularly breeds superb fruit doves. The size and vulnerability of young fruit doves sometimes necessitates hand-rearing. This is notoriously difficult with pigeons, due to the need to replicate pigeon milk.
■ Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Florida, USA, has perfected a successful hand-rearing method and formula, using liquidised parrot pellets.
■ London Zoo’s hand-rearing of a young superb fruit dove was published in The Avicultural Magazine in 1998. Imprinting occurs early in pigeons, and this was avoided at London Zoo by using a puppet in the guise of a parent dove.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture, working in zoos, bird gardens and museums in the UK and overseas.