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Home » 2010 - Issue 1, Aviculture, Companion Parrots, Issue

An examination for the preservation of the Black-cheeked Lovebird

By Jörg Asmus


The Black-cheeked Lovebird (Agapornis nigrigenis) is represented by the greatest number of species within the genus Agapornis - nine in all - but its area of distribution is the smallest within its genre.

Considered the most endangered of all African parrot species, the Black-cheeked Lovebird is endemic to south-west Zambia, and is mainly found in extensive lowland areas - between altitudes of 900 and 1,400 m - along the Nanzhila River and the courses of the Kafue, Simatange, Sichifulu, Ngweza and Zambesi Rivers. The proximity of these rivers makes these parrots more independent of the annual rainy season, on which they would otherwise be strongly reliant.

The Mopane woodland (Colophospermum mopane) is the natural habitat of the Black-cheeked Lovebird, but other species of trees which occur in the savannah area are Adansonia digitata, Combretum imberbe, Diospyros mespiliformis and Balanites aegyptiaca.

Until 1960, the Black-cheeked Lovebird was captured and exported from its natural habitat  in considerable numbers -16,000 parrots alone were exported in a single month in 1926.  In 1960, however, the government of Zambia imposed an export prohibition on the species, but the human population of Zambia still tracks them as a crop pest.

Habitat loss is also a factor in the diminishing numbers of Black-cheeked Lovebirds in their natural distribution areas, and the extent to which the Circo virus affected the stock of the remaining birds some years ago is still not known.  According to Birdlife International, it was thought that as recently as 1994 no more than 10,000 parrots were in existence Zambia. The stock is therefore classified as endangered.

The situation of the Black-cheeked Lovebird in captivity, however, looks more promising.  An inventory within Europe started with several thousand individuals, but what is the reality?

The Black-cheeked Lovebird reached Europe for the first time in 1907, and for a long time its natural colour remained unchanged; it did not develop a mutation of its own in captivity.  The species became more interesting for aviculturists after the appearance of the first colour mutations, with the the Masked Lovebird (Agapornis personatus) in 1927, the Fischer´s Lovebird (Agapornis fischeri) in the 1930s, the Lilian´s Lovebird (Agapornis lilianae) in 1933 and the Rosy-faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis) in 1954.

The interest in experimentation of some of the cultivators created a wide variety of colour mutations for the Rosy-faced Lovebird, and with the Masked Lovebird, similar tests achieved a considerable number of results as well.  By crossing it with the Masked Lovebird, some colour mutations of the latter were assigned to the Black-cheeked Lovebird, and different-coloured Masked Lovebird and Black-cheeked Lovebird hybrids resulted.

It can now be claimed that all mutants of the Black-cheeked Lovebirds are hybrids or the descendants of these hybrids. They should therefore under no circumstances be described as pure Black-cheeked Lovebirds!  They were also crossed with the Fischer´s Lovebird, the Lilian´s Lovebird, as well as the Rosy-faced Lovebird, whether out of ignorance, indifference, or experimenting by some breeders.

The result of this irresponsible behaviour now abounds in our aviaries. Pure Black-cheeked Lovebirds have become an actual rarity - and this remaining stock is threatened by several viral diseases. Decades ago breeders ought to have done something to reverse this situation, which appears to be almost hopeless at present, and the stock of Black-cheeked Lovebirds will be lost if breeders do nothing about it.

The VZE (Association for Breeding and Conservation of Native and Exotic Birds, Germany) will within the next few weeks initiate an endangered species program for the Black-cheeked Lovebird which will not stop at the country borders of European states. The main aim will be the return of this parrot species to our aviaries.

How can such a project be successful and where does one still find birds for the creation of a pure and healthy strain of this species? I have carried out some enquiries within the last months to find potential Black-cheeked Lovebirds within Europe for a project of this type, and achieved success in the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Germany.

The origins of some of the available Lovebirds in these countries can be traced  back over many generations, to when they were imported.  According to information from the respective breeders, no colour mutations have influenced subsequent generations, nor have they ever appeared there.

Furthermore, a so-called “zoo line” which was brought into being by members of the British Lovebird Society at the beginning of the 1990s has been discovered.  This organisation has succeeded in securing in captivity Black-cheeked Lovebirds without the influence of mutants. Six members of the Society submitted several parrots to as many British Zoos at the beginning of the 1990s, in order to achieve a permanent extension of the population by specific propagation.

Descendants of this extension have at last arrived at the Walsrode bird park at the zoo in Frankfurt am Main. The first Black-cheeked Lovebirds of this zoo line have been cultivated without the influence of mutated birds and hybrids. Their ancestors are partly retraceable before they were imported, according to information received from members of the Lovebird Society.  All of these Black-cheeked Lovebirds could represent the starting point for a breeding project to ensure survival of the species.

How should further work in this initiative now proceed? I have already contacted breeders of pure Black-cheeked Lovebirds and introduced the forthcoming project in rough outline. The response has been mainly positively, however, there was also a degree of scepticism, since it’s likely that hybrids will find their way into the registered stock of Black-cheeked Lovebirds without being noticed, since they will not necessarily be easily recognized by breeders.  We must try to prevent these hybrids being crossed with pure strain birds, since fledglings which result from such couplings would be without value to our initiative.

Can one live with this danger, or is there the possibility of not recognizing hidden colour mutants and hybrids?  Hybrids can be visually recognized from time to time, due to different colouring of the feathers, but they can also be hardly, or not at all, different from phenotypical Black-cheeked Lovebirds.  Hidden colour mutations can therefore not necessarily be immediately noticed.  A mutated bird and a hybrid can phenotypically resemble the wild bird.

In the first instance, the owner should therefore carry out a visual comparison of his birds with those from Zambia. Since 1960, no more Black-cheeked Lovebirds have been exported from Zambia, but it is still possible to compare a bird with collection pieces in different natural history museums.

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