Forshaw, Juniper & Parr, Sweeney, and the Lexicon of Parrots provide detailed descriptions of each of the subspecies, yet Forshaw’s distribution maps show only five distinct populations.
The so-called nominate species, Pionus sordidus sordidus, first described by Linneaus in 1758, is depicted in Juniper & Parr as occurring primarily in the west and central mountains of Venezuela, while Forshaw describes a somewhat smaller range. The illustrations in Juniper & Parr depict a parrot with strong bronze coloration on the wings and across the back, while the illustrations in the Online Lexicon of Parrots shows wings that could hardly be called bronze or brown.
Pionus sordidus antelius was described by Todd in 1947 and is listed as occurring in the mountains of eastern Venezuela. Juniper & Parr describe this race as essentially the same as the nominate, but without the characteristic blue throat feathers while the Lexicon of Parrots and Forshaw both add that the plumage is paler. The photograph in the Lexicon of Parrots shows a parrot with brighter, greener plumage.
The species Pionus sordidus ponsi, while described as occurring in eastern Venezuela is hardly mentioned at all by Hilty in his recently published book Parrots of Venezuela. Indeed, all descriptions of this subspecies that I could locate mention the almost total absence of blue breast feathers while the photograph in the Lexicon of Parrots shows a parrot that could quite easily be mistaken for a juvenile Blue-headed parrot.
The photograph in the Lexicon of Parrots of the subspecies Pionus sordidus saturatus looks surprisingly similar to P. s. sordidus even though saturatus is described as living in northern Colombia. Rapid Biodiversity Assessments & Conservation Evaluations In The Colombian Andes, published in 1999 (Gonzalez, C. E. (1999), Botanica. pp 14–17 in Donegan, T. M. & Salaman, P. G. W. (eds.) (1999) Colombian EBA Project Report) reports a range extension, that is, P. s. sordidus was recorded in this area (western slopes of the Cordillera Oriental—eastern cordillera) for the first time. Also of interest are the recorded altitudes, for example, at Nabu they are spotted at 1900m., at Tataui at 2200m. and at El Doron, 2500m.
Two subspecies, Pionus sordidus corallinus and Pionus sordidus mindoensis are described as occurring in Ecuador, Ridgely discounts mindoensis and, based on my personal observations in an area ranging from Ecuador’s Pedro Vicente Maldonado forest to the Mindo Valley, I tend to agree. While corallinus is frequently spotted in both small groups and flocks of up to 60 or more, I have yet to see a single parrot that fits the mindoensis description.
Sweeney mentions that P. s. corallinus is the species most commonly found in aviculture and I agree with his assessment; however, I seriously doubt if early breeders in the US even considered subspecies designations when pairing up parrots for breeding. Thus it’s possible that the parrots presently available in the US are a mixture of several subspecies—however without expensive DNA analysis we will never know for certain.
The Coral-billed parrots that I’ve observed in Ecuador seem quite tolerant of fragmented forestland and freely associate with humans. Many people in the town of Mindo keep these parrots as pets, however they are seldom caged or restricted in any way. Some Mindo residents report that their parrots fly off from time to time, allegedly to feed with the resident flocks or, possibly, even to breed. I’ve been able to approach wild Coral-billed parrots within a few feet and, on one occasion, even had one step up onto my hand for a brief period.
Coral-billed parrots, at least the ones we have in our aviary, are pleasant, inquisitive, vocal parrots. Presently there are only a few gene lines extant in the US. I hope that with continued responsible breeding, we will soon have a population large enough to warrant these parrots being introduced into the pet trade.
Adding to the taxonomic confusion are the size and range statistics. Ridgely reports that these parrots can be found mostly between 1200 and 2400 meters in Ecuador, with some occasional sightings at 1000 meters and some individuals present at 2600 meters. Hilty describes the Venezuelan populations mostly at 450–1800 meters, with some sightings occur everywhere from 100 meters up to 3000 meters.
Coral-billed parrots are rare in US aviculture, but their presence in western South America is fairly ubiquitous. It is true that information from earlier authors presents evidence of as many as six different subspecies, but a careful reading of the descriptions of these races and a knowledge of how widely the appearance of captive parrots can vary (even in parrots from the same clutch) leads me to think that we would all benefit from seeing some DNA analysis.