Those incredible Amazons


Susan C.

            Amazons are parrot paradoxes. Friendly, yet demanding, sweet but feisty, playful but scrappy, independent yet often fiercely bonded with their owners, they’re personality packed party animals. Gregarious, clownish, intelligent and usually friendly, Amazon parrots are an amazing group indeed. Treasured for their talking ability, beauty and companionship potential, Amazon parrots are the birds most likely to have been associated with the sailors, pirates and explorers of yore. Christopher Columbus, when he came ashore in the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti in 1492, was the first European explorer to document the sighting of Amazon parrots.  The birds traded to him by the natives were most likely Cuban Amazons; these birds returned with him to Spain where they were much admired by the populace. Several years hence, Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese who called it “Tierra de Papagaios”, Land of Parrots.[1]

            Later, in the United States, parrots were the household pets of several presidential families.  Martha Washington owned a talking parrot, which was hauled back to Virginia atop the family’s furniture following their tenure in Washington.  Dolley Madison’s green talking parrot was the center of attention at parties, and the McKinley bird, most likely a double yellowhead, according to descriptions, sang songs, hummed and whistled. Theodore Roosevelt also owned two parrots. Since then, smaller birds have resided in the White House under various administrations, but Amazons have been conspicuously absent. 

            There are 27 species of Amazon parrots and numerous sub-species. All but the nine “Island” species are indigenous to Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, South America and nearby islands. The birds referred to as “Island Amazons” are native to such islands as Grand Cayman, Cuba, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Lucia, Hispaniola and Jamaica. Because most of the Island Amazons are critically endangered, and are not available for sale, individuals kept as pets have likely been with their human families for decades.  The pet trade and widespread habitat destruction has contributed to the decline of all Amazons in the wild. Recent, devastating hurricanes have further imperiled the Island Amazons. The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation

is striving to preserve endangered species, including the St. Vincent Amazon(Amazona guildingii) through captive breeding, conservation programs and habitat acquisitions. (Visitors to New York City can see a St. Vincent Amazon at the Bronx Zoo.)


[1] Parrots A Natural History;  pg. 107; John Sparks & Tony Soper; Facts on File Inc.; 1990

Amazons range in size from the small, 10-inch white-fronted (Amazona albifrons) or spectacled Amazon, to the massive, 17-inch mealy Amazon (Amazona farinosa). Only the Imperial Amazon (Amazona imperialis) is larger, but it is seldom seen in captivity or even in its natural habitat, the Island of Dominica[1].  In general, Amazons have green plumage, with distinguishing colors on the head, throat, wing, legs and flared tail. The breast or belly feathers on some species are tinged with color as well. Beak color varies among species.  The double yellowhead (Amazona ochrocephala oratrix), for instance has a light, horn-colored beak, while the blue-fronted (Amazona aestiva) Amazon’s beak is black. Amazons’ eyes are surrounded by small rings of flesh. Iris color ranges from dark brown to pale yellow, depending on species.

Amazon parrots are rather stocky birds, with short squared tails. Most have a tendency to become overweight if they are not provided with a balanced diet and plenty of opportunity to exercise.  They, like other psittacines, are zygodactylous, with two toes facing front, and two back.. Amazons are very dexterous, and use their feet to manipulate food, toys and other objects.  Observe your bird while it scratches its head or holds a nut or stick.  Is it right or left footed? Yes, birds do have a dominant foot!

Sharing your home with an Amazon parrot is like having a little person in a bird suit living with you.  Amazons are extremely intelligent.  They have something to say about everything that occurs in the household, commenting in their own language or that of their owners! They can learn to speak entire sentences, sing songs, and mimic sound effects. Bogart, my 26 year-old red-lored[2] Amazon (Amazona autumnalis) says only one word: “Hello”, but he does sound effects galore. One of his favorites is to imitate the sound and motion of a sponge on glass…and you should have seen the expression on the UPS man’s face when he thought I had a rooster in the house—it was Bogart, doing his chicken noise! Bird Talk reader, Taylor Banaszak’s red-lored Amazon, Sergio could join the barnyard with his oinking pig sounds!  Her blue-fronted Amazon, Eisen sings and speaks well, but his specialty is duck noises. “A neighbor even accused me of hiding ducks in the house!” related Banaszak.


            The noise potential of an Amazon seems to me to be related to the clamor in the household.  Loud rock music, televised football games and game shows, boisterous family members, barking dogs, and arguments seem to set them off.  Soap operas, on the other hand, are often calming.  Because of the relatively slow speech patterns of daytime drama, your bird may also pick up a few words or phrases from watching its favorite “story” each day.

It’s natural for your Amazon to sound off in the morning and several times throughout the day. In the wild, birds vocalize to greet the day, to warn each other of impending danger, to notify one another that food has been found, to attract their mates


[1] The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation is working to create a 10,000 acre national park on  Dominica.

[2] Also commonly known as the yellow cheeked Amazon

and to signal a return to their nighttime roosts. You need to accept a certain amount of noise, but unrelieved screaming is a symptom of a problem. The environment may be too stressful, the bird may not be getting enough sleep (10-12 hours of dark-time a night), or bad behavior patterns may have been established.  Never hit your bird, throw things, or scream back at him in an attempt to reduce screaming. The bird will think your yelling is a game and join in at an even louder decibel level. Hitting and throwing things will result in a fearful, biting, screaming, neurotic bundle of feathers.

Often, creating a peaceful environment and a regular routine for your pet will reduce the racket.  Noted Amazon breeder, Ramon Nogel plays soft, classical music at his Florida aviary to calm and quiet his birds.  I can often quiet my quartet of Amazons by whispering to them, singing to them (they appreciate -– and imitate--bad singing!), and switching them to talking by repeating “Hello” over and over until they answer. I also keep millet spray, cut into 2-inch lengths on hand to offer them at particularly noisy moments, like when they know I’m about the leave the house. Each bird holds a piece, eating the small seeds one-by-one, giving me some blessed quiet.

The introduction of a new bird, particularly of the same species will also incite an Amazon to riot. When I adopted a second double yellowhead, it was like an out of control day care center around my house for several months until the birds adjusted.  It’s been two years since Romez moved in. He and Cracker are not bonded in the least, but they speak the same language and greet each other noisily after they’ve been in separate rooms for even a few minutes!

Remember, birds vocalize to communicate. When your bird is sounding off, it’s telling you something. My orange-winged Amazon (Amazona amazonica) is my little “crime reporter” squawking loudly if one of the other birds has climbed off its gym or gotten into some other mischief. The others warn each other loudly when a cat passes through the yard outside their room, or when they observe big, black crows at the bird feeder.

            Amazons also communicate with very distinct body language. Whenever the vacuum cleaner is running, my birds are either stimulated to bathe or to posture about with sings extended, tails flared, and eyes pinpointed as if to intimidate a predator. Pinpointed eye pupils may indicate keen interest or aggression.  My double yellowheads pin their eyes when they’re listening intently to someone, when they see something they really want, or when they’re about to perform surgery on an interloper’s hand. The difference between interest and aggression is evident in the nape feathers: when the bird is about to attack, the nape feathers are raised. It is believed that the double yellowhead is named for its tendency ward off aggressors by puffing its head feathers to “double the size”.

Friendly body language includes raising the head or nape feathers and lowering the head for a scratch; extending and vibrating the wings as if begging for food or attention, and raising the foot to be picked up. A raised foot can also mean “Don’t touch me.” Observe other body signs to interpret your bird’s intentions correctly.  

Joanie Doss, who shares her home with a troupe of performing parrots, “The Amazing Amazons” believes the key to handling Amazons is being able to read their body language. “They have a very extensive body language and once you understand it, you know when you can and cannot mess with them.”  Doss owns five sexually mature male Amazons. “I call blue-fronts, yellow-napes and double yellowheads the ‘hot three’ as the males, when their hormones are raging, have very short fuses! Many ‘hot three’ males are put up for sale or adoption between the ages of  5 to 10 years.  During that time, these boys go through one or two very aggressive years, then begin to simmer down.

“Bad as these boys can be, they are so intelligent, beautiful and full of personality that one quickly forgives their transgressions. They are wonderful, wonderful companions, but you’d better learn to read their body language if you don’t want to get bitten. I feel that mealies, orange-wings, lilac crowns (Amazona finschi) and green cheeks[1] (Amazona viridigenalis) are better choices for people who are inexperienced with Amazons.  Even the females of the ‘hot three’ are much milder than the males.” Doss is in the process of writing and illustrating a definitive book on Amazon body language. “It has taken me 15 years to sketch, write and compile this information. When I’d see a particular behavior, I’d wait to see it repeated by some of my other birds or those belonging to friends and acquaintances”.

            The yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona ochrocephala[2]) displays the most intricate and comical body language of all the commonly kept pet Amazons.  Peri, a friend’s nape,

weaves and bobs, turning her head virtually upside down as she greets visitors. She then draws herself up to full Amazon height before she does the equivalent of a curtsy, spreading her wings in an elaborate display.

            Amazon parrots can be loving and devoted, but I’m convinced they have the souls of terrorists. If my “gang of four” were left to their own devices, they’d embark on search-and-destroy missions throughout the house, chewing furniture, uprooting plants and intimidating the macaws. Supervision is the operative word when you live with Amazons. Keep their wings clipped for safety and escape prevention, and know where they are and what they’re doing at all times. Amazons like to be kept busy. Provide your bird with plenty of chewable, challenging playthings and rotate toys frequently to prevent boredom.

            Amazons require spacious cages with plenty of room for toys, extra dishes, a swing and multiple perches. There should be sufficient space for wing flapping and other Amazon antics. Feeder ports and doors must have secure fasteners or locks, as some Amazons are adept escape artists. Outside access feeders are desirable, especially when leaving your Amazon in the care of a bird sitter.

            Permit your Amazon plenty of time outside its cage each day.  My birds all enjoy playing on their gyms for several hours each morning, then again in the afternoon. I’ve


[1] Also known as the Mexican red-head

[2] May be reclassified as Amazona auropalliata in recent writings

established a routine, and they’ve become well adjusted to it, spending their cage time eating, playing and just resting.

Multiple Amazon households can be a party of parrots, but do exercise care when introducing a new bird or allowing established pets physical contact with each other. Never simply plop one bird into another’s cage or onto its stand.  Amazons are very territorial, especially during mating season, and will defend their space vigorously. Allow the birds to become accustomed to each other’s presence, then permit them brief togetherness on neutral territory, such as a new gym or perch. Supervise them carefully to be sure they can interact safely. 

            Feed your Amazon parrot a varied diet. A formulated, pelleted or extruded diet is more nutritionally complete than a seed diet. Young, hand-reared birds will usually readily accept a manufactured diet, but older birds, accustomed to a seed menu, may be resistant to change.  Supplement a formulated diet according to manufacturer’s directions. A vitamin supplement is usually not necessary with a pelleted regimen. Supplement a seed-based diet with fresh fruit and vegetables, a protein source, such as cooked beans or scrambled eggs, pellets and an avian vitamin preparation.  Consult your avian veterinarian for more specific advice.

            Breeding Amazon parrots is not for the timid. Amazons are still quite challenging to breed, perhaps because they do not always like the circumstances under which they are kept., according to Mark Hagen[1] of the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute. “The challenge is to keep modifying their management until the optimum conditions conducive to breeding are found. These may include more colony types of housing with more chances to defend territories or the opposite, more privacy in very quiet environments.” Hagen says other important factors affecting breeding success are: temperature and humidity, calls and behavior of mates, territory and nest sites, allopreening, food, energy and lighting.[2]

            Ramon Nogel, who bred endangered Island Amazons in Florida revolutionized aviary design when he changed from  traditional, walk-in style flights to large wire cages suspended several feet above the ground. These were advantageous for several reasons. The nestboxes, attached to the outside could be easily accessed by human caretakers, and the flights were sanitary, with droppings and discarded food dropping to the ground well out of reach of the birds. Breeding pairs seemed to feel more secure in this type of flight, since neither predators nor humans could gain access to the inside.

            The birds can become extremely aggressive during mating season, and will zealously protect their mates and their nesting areas. Learn all you can about the species before you attempt to breed.  Obtain young, sexed birds and pair them early, or purchase proven pairs if breeding is your primary intent.


[1] The Acquisition, Husbandry and Breeding of Common Amazons; Mark Hagen, H.A.R.I.

[2] You can access Mark Hagen’s research papers online at, then click on Hagen Avicultural Research Institute

Popular Pet Amazons

The blue-fronted Amazon is indigenous to Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil and is distinguished by the band of aqua/blue across the front of its yellow head. The amount of color may vary, depending on the individual bird and subspecies. While it usually makes an affectionate pet, it can be nippy, especially during breeding season. Like other Amazons, they have strong, individual personalities and become closely bonded to their owners. Many develop impressive vocabularies and delight their human companions with their melodious voices.

Natives of Mexico, the Yucatan and the  Tres Maria Islands, double yellowheaded Amazons possess excellent talking potential and often enjoy singing in high, operatic voices.  They can be cuddly and affectionate, and I’ve found them to be quite even tempered as well. The lemon yellow head feathers extend down the neck to form a majestic looking “hood” on mature birds; the yellow is echoed on the legs, and the “shoulders” are red.

Orange-winged Amazons are scrappy, agile little clowns who, in the wild occupy a great range, from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and  Peru to Trinidad, Tobago and the Guianas.  My Kelly is a “pretzel bird”, hanging from cage bars in all sorts of contortions. Occasionally mistaken for blue fronted Amazons, the orange-winged is distinguished by lemon-yellow cheeks and crown of the head, accented with an iridescent blue across the lores and eye area.  This is the only Amazon to display orange on the wings, hence its name. 

The orange-winged Amazon is rather drab looking when immature, but brightens considerably with age. Frequent bathing will help your bird look its best; orange-wings have a dusty preen, similar to that of African greys, and the feathers will appear dull if the bird is not misted  or bathed regularly. 

Orange-wings possess fair talking ability, and often learn to talk by mimicking other birds. In fact, they often “apprentice” themselves to other species, imitating their speech and behavior. The orange-winged Amazon emits an ear piercing squawk when alarmed; my bird “tattles” on the others in this manner, and will also sound off when her favorite double yellowhead is removed from her line of vision. If you own a noisy orange-wing and you have other birds as well, try placing the noisemaker closer to the others. You may be pleasantly surprised.

A unique habit of the orange-winged Amazon is its tendency to puff up its yellow cheek feathers like mutton-chop sideburns, then raising the nape feathers like a hawk-headed parrot!

Its yellow cheeks, red lores and lavender feathers on top of the head make the red-lored Amazon one of the most colorful. The green feathers on the neck are edged in black for a scalloped effect, and red feathers often accent the yellow cheeks as the bird matures.

Possessed of good talking potential, this denizen of Central America, Ecuador and the Amazon basin is also a skillful sound-effects bird, emitting door squeaks, coughs, laughs, and household sounds.  My Bogart chirps loudly, like a 300-pound canary, and hums along with the theme from a popular soap opera! 

There’s nothing like a yellow-naped Amazon!  These birds are personality-packed dynamos, raucous, playful and outgoing.  They are capable of learning extensive vocabularies, which they accompany with whistles and songs. They often accent their vocalizations with head bobbing and other unique posturing.

These Honduran and Nicaraguan natives are much in demand due to their talking ability and  clownish personalities, but beware; they can become quite dominant.  Provide your yellow-naped Amazon with plenty of challenging toys, a swing, and a big playgym for gymnastics!

Some lesser-known Amazons that make good pets include:

The white-fronted Amazon, a small (10”), adventurous creature;  can be visually sexed.  The male has red wing coverts and alula[1]; the female, green. This Amazon is not renowned for its talking ability, but it can develop a fair vocabulary and makes an engaging pet.

Mexican redheads are  pleasant, relatively quiet Amazons, possessed of fair talking ability and even temperaments. The forehead, crown and lores are red; a lavender-blue band extends from above the eyes to the neck.  In 1997, this endangered Amazon was listed on CITES[2] Appendix 1. Once quite common in the US because they were exported from Mexico in substantial numbers when such export was legal, they are  now occasionally available for sale as pets.

Lilac-crowned Amazons are relatively quiet and somewhat docile. They possess fair talking ability.

Mealy Amazons are large, usually gentle birds with loud voices.

Whichever Amazon you choose, be aware that its personality will ultimately reflect its upbringing. Loving care, a consistent schedule, proper diet and plenty of attention will result in a happy, well-adjusted parrot.


“Step Up”

[1] Alula: the feathers at the outer edge of the wing, just above the primary coverts

[2] CITES: Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species

One of the most important things to learn when you acquire an Amazon is how it is accustomed to stepping onto a hand or arm.  These opinionated birds have distinct preferences, and I believe many bites can be avoided if new Amazon owners ask the right questions of breeders and sellers. My red-lored Amazon will step forward onto a right hand, but will only step backward off the hand and onto his perch. He hates hot pink, so nail polish in that color is out!  Kelly, the Orange-wing steps readily onto a right hand held sideways, and Cracker, the female double yellowhead prefers a flat hand.  Romez is stick trained, and hops right onto a proffered stick.  Do stick train any Amazon.  It will come in handy during “bitey bird” adolescence, and may be your bird’s lifeline in case of escape.

Learn from the Latin

How did our Amazons get their “popular” names?  Break down the Latin words:

Double yellowhead (Amazona ochrocephala oratrix) Amazona=Amazon  ochro=yellow  cephala=head  oratrix=she who speaks

White-fronted Amazon: (Amazona albifrons) Amazona=Amazon albi=white  frons=front

Other Latin names indicate location tucumana for the Tucuman Amazon, or brasiliensis to indicate the red-tailed Amazon’s origins in Brazil.