The Cinnamon Green-Cheeked Amazon

© Howard Voren. Click here to use this content.

THE SUN RISES and spreads the light of a new day. The humid mist that pervades the dawn starts to burn away as the sun’s rays begin to heat the ground. From high atop the thick forest of trees, a flock of Amazon parrots begins its morning calls. Suddenly, there’s a burst from the treetops. More than 150 emerald-green beauties with bright, crimson-red foreheads soar through the air. It’s a new day, and the daily search for food begins. They soar off into the distance. They will make their way through the canopy to the many stands of mature fruit- and nut-bearing trees that have become part of their normal flight path. They all share one desire: to return safely with full crops of food. A stand of trees not only gives them cover for the night, but makes available the nesting hollows that they need to lay their eggs and raise their babies.

The most amazing thing about this event is where it takes place. I am not describing a group of Amazons in their natural Mexican habitat. This daily happening is right here in the United States. The specific location is Palm Beach, Florida, at the Breakers Hotel.

The exclusive island of Palm Beach has always been one of the places to live for some of the wealthiest people in America. People from all walks of life with nothing in common but their wealth would historically seek a spot on this island to build their mansions. It’s a location that people as diverse as Al Capone, Emily Post and the Kennedy’s have called home.

It’s an island loaded with mature, exotic trees that bear a yearly bounty of fruits, nuts and seeds–a bounty that no one has an interest in harvesting. Most of the land is a “no trespassing” zone, and many of the streets allow no parking. One gets the distinct impression that those who don’t own homes there are permitted to drive through and look, but are expected to keep on moving.

There are many stories as to how the Amazon parrots got there. Most of the old timers agree that they first began to see them regularly during the late 1950s. Rumor has it that an eccentric millionaire inhabitant, who loved his birds dearly, willed that upon his death their cage doors should be opened so they could fly “to where they wish.” Among the collection of birds was a group of green-cheeked Amazons (Amazona viridigenalis). In those days, they were more commonly known as Mexican redheads. Their name not only referred to their country of origin, but to the bright crimson red area that covers the top of their heads. It was only a small group at that point, but they quickly settled into an area of tall trees that is now called “Pine Walk”–an area within the protected grounds of the hotel. They would sleep and nest in these tall stands of Australian pines and fly to other parts of the island to forage for food.

Over the years, the flock multiplied and is now estimated to contain more than 150 birds–an immigrant band, thriving among the world’s rich and famous. As if their situation was not unique enough, fate took their uniqueness one step further. Living shoulder to shoulder with America’s royalty for 40 years has created several regal members of the race. There are now a few examples of the cinnamon-yellow color mutation flying in the flock.

The cinnamon color mutation is created when there is a reduction in the dark (melanin) pigments. This reduction in dark pigmentation can cause green feathers to take on a yellow appearance. Some birds are as pure yellow as a buttercup flower. Other examples have only an overall yellowish hue to their normally green feathers. How yellow they actually are is a function of how drastically the melanin pigments are reduced in a particular specimen. Just as there is a high degree of variability in the purity of yellow, there are other traits that are also highly variable.

The normally dark, almost black pigmented flight feathers and toenails can range from a slight tan hue to almost white. Any dark pigmentation on the beak or feet is anywhere from slightly reduced to absent. The color of the eye usually remains normal, but in some cases it changes to a dark, plum-red coloration. The only way to describe a particular cinnamon accurately (without a picture) is to give it a rating from 1 to 10. A rating of 10 would be a bird that is pure buttercup yellow. The only visual difference in color between a No. 10 cinnamon and a lutino would be that the eyes of a true lutino are bright red. The only visual difference between a No. 1 cinnamon (almost green) and a bird that has a greater than normal yellow hue to its green feathers will be a slight tan hue on the black areas of the flight feathers as well as the toenails. Even photographs of cinnamons can be very misleading. Many films will enhance yellows and cause a No. 5 to look like a No. 10.

Although mutations can and do pop up by chance, in order for their existence to be perpetuated, there must be a certain amount of inbreeding. As an isolated group, these parrots have no choice. Hence, there are now several examples of this mutation flying in the flock. Although none of the cinnamons have paired together, I am sure that there will be more cinnamons produced by those green birds that are carrying the cinnamon gene. Also, as the population increases, the search for suitable nesting sites goes outside the protected grounds of the Breakers Hotel. It was this need that allowed me to acquire several specimens from the flock.

I received a phone call from someone who had noticed that two pairs were now nesting in trees that were on his family’s estate. His location was not very far from the hotel. He was very resentful that these birds dared to trespass and cause damage to many of the beautiful blossoms on some of the flowering trees on the estate. He called me wanting to know how to permanently evict them from the property. I explained that it would be very difficult and suggested that he leave them alone until they finished raising their young. I assured him that when breeding season was over they would return to the hotel. He went on to say that if he could not find a way to evict them while his trees were blooming, he would have no choice but to poison them. Upon hearing that, I explained that it would be very easy for me to evict them.

I instructed him to have his grounds keepers climb the trees and take the babies out of the nest. I explained that if they filled the hollows with cement, they would not only be performing good tree surgery, they would also ensure that the birds didn’t return the following year to reuse the nesting hollows. I made him promise to treat the babies gently and put them in a cardboard box with some shredded newspaper until I could arrive to rescue them.

When I arrived, there where six naked babies in the bottom of a small cardboard box. All appeared very healthy and well fed. He had placed one clutch in one corner and the other in another. He went on to explain that one of the parent birds that was responsible for the babies in the far corner was yellow. I brought them home and hand-raised them.

To my delight, one of the birds was a No. 8 cinnamon. When sexed, it proved to be a male. Five years have passed, and so far it has not reproduced. We have, however, had production from some of its siblings, as well as those birds from the other clutch. They produced three more cinnamons as well as several normal green birds. All of the three baby cinnamons that have been produced at the Institute are females. Their color is not as yellow as the males’, and I would rate them a No. 5.

We placed the oldest baby cinnamon female with the mature cinnamon male. He has, in a very short time, formed a much stronger bond with her than he ever had with the green female. He is now one half of the only pair of cinnamon Amazons in the world. The three females are the only cinnamon green-cheeked Amazons to have ever been produced in captivity. I am wondering, since they are at least fifth-generation “Palm Beachers,” should I add champagne and caviar to their diet in order to stimulate breeding?