Breeding Great-billed Parrots in South Africa


History of Great-billed Parrots

in South Africa

H aving contacted the key players as far as psittacine imports to South Africa during the last two decades is concerned, it appears that only 60-70 Great-billed Parrots were imported into the country during the last 20 years. All these came in small shipments of between 5-16 birds at a time. They were generally hand-selected in Singapore when dealers flew across to the East to source birds. They were usually surgically sexed there and so the sex ratio was roughly even to begin with, although today there are more females than males.

A likeable South African old-timer ex-dealer of birds and animals recently told me how he used to buy Greatbilled Parrots at Durban harbor when they were smuggled on boats as way back as the late sixties and early seventies costing just over $1 USD each! Ships used to come to Durban from I long Kong en route to South America and West Africa. Often when they docked in Durban he would get a call from his contact and make late-night trips to the docks to secretly collect birds and animals. His stories about these dealings made me shudder in amazement. "Banana birds," so called because that's all they were feel included Toucans, Toucanettes and Aracaris, and were all hand-tame. Their sales gimmick was catching a tossed grape. They would come on tile return trip of a ship from South America among various Amazons, Macaws including Hyacinths and Marmosets. The Hong Kong trips occasionally included Black Palms, Philippine Red-vented, and Citron-crested cockatoos plus Greatbilled parrots and tropical fish. The ship from West Africa would have African Greys and sometimes baby Chimps. To see tile selection of tropical fish in the bold of one of these ships, the old-timer once remembers having to squeeze to the back of a hold, past 20 double-decker busses bound for Hong Kong from England. He didn't fancy tile fish but bought a chimp in a sailor outfit instead. Such are some of the boggling specifics of his illicit dealings and smuggling operations as retold from memory over a friendly cup of tea.

Not surprisingly, none of these Great-billeds are alive today and the handful of imported birds still sitting in collections originate from the later imports in the eighties and early nineties.

I remember as a youngster occasionally seeing Great-billeds at bird dealers and marveling at their massive beaks and being terribly tempted to buy them but being put off because they were rumored to die easily, much like the wild-caught Eclectus Parrots. At that stage youthful frugality over-rode any desire to buy birds that would probably snuff it soon and see me out of pocket. Little did I realize that I would indeed keep and breed them many years later.


Prices have inevitably climbed steeply since those early days. In 1991 wild-caught birds cost $45 USD each to land in SA. In 2001 I was offered them for $800 USD each while visiting Indonesia. Today in South Africa they are not available and I have a waiting list as long as my arm for my youngsters.

My First Great-billeds

Merridy Ballinger purchased a pair of Greatbilleds Parrots Tanygnathus megalorynchos in 1993 and over the subsequent years managed through persistent advertising to obtain most of the few remaining birds scattered across South Africa. Initially her attempts to find these scattered individuals proved exceptionally frustrating. I used to see her same "Wanted" advertisement in every issue of our avicultural magazines and wondered after years of no response whether she had totally lost the plot. Thankfully for her own sanity (and for those who thought that her Wanted advert had been pre-programmed into every avicultural publication editors' PC and would continue to appear for the next 100 years), her luck changed and she suddenly sat with half a dozen unrelated birds. I was incredibly impressed with her enthusiasm and her determination to get the species established and breeding. It wasn't long before she had her first successful breeding.

Incidentally, I've successfully used Merridy's tenacious advertising ploy of subtle nagging to eventually get to the nerves and consciences of the stubborn few who had previously not wanted to part with their odd birds on a number of occasions since then!

I exchanged a young pair of Ara rubrogenys for my first pair of Great-billeds in 1997. My client explained that the pair had bred a couple of times but that he had not managed to get a chick onto the perch and he suspected the hen of killing them. The pair settled down fast and they were soon on two eggs. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and they did a magnificent task of hatching and raising their chicks. This was around the same time that the AFA Watchbird ran a feature on Great-billeds in the XXlV March/ April issue and Bill Duncan and Susie McKinney's interesting accounts fuelled my enthusiasm.