Few tropical fish stir up as much emotion as the Parrot cichlid, says Jeremy Gay. But should they be avoided?
I remember the first time I saw a Parrot cichlid. It was in an advertisement in PFK in 1993, in which some apricot-coloured cichlids were displayed in a rather fine looking Juwel Lido aquarium.
I didn’t know what they were back then. They were new, weren’t in any fishkeeping books and the Internet wasn’t around yet.
Soon afterwards I saw these chunky looking, but cute cichlids, cruising up and down a furnished 120cm/48" aquarium and carrying a price tag of more than £200 for the pair.
First impressions? I liked them. I’ve always liked stocky, deep-bodied fish and this was the start of a love affair with cichlids that would continue to this day. I was a teenager at the time and although I would not be able to afford them back then, I could still daydream about the sort of set-up that I would keep them in.
At the time tropical aquariums were still very much about having the token display fish in your set-up — typically a pair of angels, Discus or gouramis — and these new fish fitted nicely into that display category, drawing your eye to them among the plants and shoals of smaller fish.
Years later I had a bit more money and the price of Parrots had come down to about £40 each. I bought one and kept it as pride of place in my hexagonal aquarium, complete with black gravel — another sign of the times!
My friends liked him, my family liked him and I loved him. I was convinced that this was easily the most intelligent fish that I had ever kept (Oscars included.) He was hardy too, surviving all my various errors and wipeouts, even outsurviving a Common plec.
I woke up one morning, however, to find my beloved Parrot with a piece of the black gravel stuck in its mouth. It could still breathe, but definitely couldn’t dislodge the gravel on its own.
Going on what I had learned from my dad years previously, when the same happened to a family goldfish, I caught the fish, held it in the net and levered the gravel from its mouth with a matchstick.
Luckily it was fine, but I had found out that this was a hybrid fish, with its own set of problems, including a deformed mouth.
I got older, discovered girls, rehomed the Parrot at my local pet shop and shut down and sold the hexagonal tank. I didn’t keep Parrots again until I later worked in an aquatic shop.
By then I had become better educated about fishkeeping in general. The parrots were still stocked, these days selling at the cheaper price of £15 to £25 each.
The shop ordered some Parrot cichlids from Singapore, but instead of getting the usual apricot- coloured fish, we received something listed as "Purple Parrot, ART." What had arrived? About a dozen, deeply coloured purple- dyed Parrots!
The ART stood for artificially coloured, and through our complete naivety we had ordered dyed Parrot cichlids.
We took them off sale immediately, but a clued-up customer spotted them and wrote in, saying how disappointed he was that he had seen them in store.
I wrote back saying that I was equally disappointed to have received them, but did not believe that euthanasia would be right and instead offered them tlc and time, hoping the dye would eventually fade —which it did. I have been particularly twitchy about Parrots ever since.
In 2007 PFK visited the Aquarama aquatics show in Singapore. I’m sure most people are already aware, but Singapore is the largest exporter of tropical fish in the world, and most of the easily bred, community fish we keep have usually come from farms there.
Parrot cichlids are massive business out there. Together with another cichlid hybrid, the newer Flowerhorn cichlid, and the Asian arowana or dragonfish, which may also be a hybrid of several wild species, they make up the big three exports and were a major feature at the farms, the show and in their aquatic shops.
You can see a video showing Arowana, Flowerhorns and Parrot cichlids at the show below:
What are they?
We didn’t know what Parrot cichlids were at first, but many guessed that they were a cross between the Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus) and the Golden severum (Heros efasciatus). More recently the Singaporean suppliers started to list them as such, Heros severus x Amphilophus citrinellus, so it appeared that the guesses were correct. The true H.severus by the way is a mouthbrooder, and the Singaporean severus are all almost certainly efasciatus.
The trouble is that the Singaporean fish breeding industry is very much about selling the next big thing, frequently at the expense of the fish themselves. Singapore brought you the Balloon molly, and the Parrot cichlid itself has a very much shorter, and some would say deformed body, than both the Midas cichlid and the severum.
A shorter-bodied fish means more people can house them in smaller tanks, which in turn means more sales.
The apricot-coloured Parrot quickly became the red Parrot, blood red Parrot and then the purple Parrot. There were even tattooed Parrots with messages and pictures scarred onto them. Even worse is the physical abuse and cruelty involved in cutting the tails off some live fish to create "heart Parrots."
Placed into everything from African cichlid tanks to arowana set-ups these are the clearly most abused of all tropical fish and treated with similar disrespect, by many, to goldfish.
One noticeable factor with Parrot cichlids these days is how large they can grow. Midas cichlids easily top 30cm/12", and Severums 20cm/8"+, and I’ve witnessed many rehomed Parrot cichlids, topping 20cm/8" in length.
Going by this, and working to our six times tank length recommendations, they will need an aquarium of at least 120cm/48” in length, long term, and powerful filtration combined with regular water changes to deal with all of their waste.
In terms of water parameters we must look at the parent’s requirements. The Midas cichlid is native to hard water and Central American lakes, so requires pH in the high 7-8. Temperature can range from low 20s°C to low 30s (72-90°C). Wild Severums are South American so we typically associate them with higher tropical temperatures and softer water, pH 5-7 and 24-30°C/75-86°F.
From this, and adding the factor that the Parrot cichlid is very much removed from wild fish, we can assume that a pH of 7-8 and a temperature of 24-28°C/75-82°F will be fine.
Feeding and friends
Parrots are easy to feed and will accept dry frozen and live foods. As they get larger a main diet of cichlid sticks or pellets will be fine.
As for tank mates, if Parrots grow up with them from small they are generally OK with such as rasboras, tetras and barbs, though add a shoal of small Neons to a tank of large Parrots and they will be eaten.
The standard mix with Parrot cichlids typically includes Angelfish, Silver dollars, Tinfoil barbs, Convicts, Severums, Jewel cichlids and hardy medium-sized catfish such as Doras and Synodontis.
Depending on where you shop, these are sometimes kept and sold alongside Malawi cichlids.
They tend to do OK even in these chaotic set-ups as the mbuna just think they are a large Red zebra — though I don’t advise that you take this route, as if the dominant mbuna does take offence, the Parrot — with its deformed mouth — does not have the dentition to fight back.
One thing that often happens with Parrot cichlids is that they spawn. They are substrate spawners, like their ancestors, cleaning a rock or piece of wood on which to lay hundreds of adhesive eggs.
If the fry hatched they would protect them too, only they never do, and despite being one of the most likely cichlids to actually spawn, I have never seen or heard of the eggs hatching, instead going white due to being infertile.
And here’s a word of warning…Parrot cichlids will try to breed with almost any other substrate- spawning cichlid.
Midas and Severums would make sense, though I have seen them spawn with any number of other Central American cichlids, from Jaguars to Convicts, luckily with the eggs never hatching.
What may start off as an interesting chance spawning may become tiresome as your singular Parrot lays batch after batch of eggs that prove infertile.
Where we stand...
We actively campaign against the sale of dyed fish, as we know through our own research that the dye is injected into these fish or tattooed onto them. We therefore in no way condone the sale of dyed Parrot cichlids and don’t recommend that you keep them either. Heart Parrots are treated even worse, though we have not seen them for sale in the UK.
Hybrids cause us problems too (see below) when it comes to identifying fish.
So although they are cute, clever and generally good fish for the community, we would recommend that you try some other fish instead.
If you still want to buy Parrot cichlids avoid all but the apricot coloured ones, or rarely, the olive coloured ones, as these are not dyed for appearance. However, I can’t help but feel that the purchase of any Parrot cichlid is fueling the demand for more, including those that have been dyed, tattooed or tail-docked.
Why are hybrid fish such a problem?
Hybrids are found everywhere in the animal world and are especially common in the terrestrial plant world.
It could be argued that domestic Discus are probably hybrids of the three wild species, as are some forms of platy (crossed with swordtails) and lots of Malawi cichlids, like calico Aulonocara. If you knowingly buy hybrids and breed them, as long as the buyer knows what they are there may not be a problem.
Hybrids do, however, cause problems when you want to positively identify fish (like the very similar Vieja cichlids from Central America or Metriaclima cichlids from Lake Malawi) and when it becomes paramount to keep a species absolutely pure, as in conservation.
As any seasoned Malawi cichlid keeper will confirm, if left to hybridise the hybrid progeny becomes increasingly large, drab and similar, and if left for years a Malawi tank can change from a colourful, diverse mix of many different species to one, singular hybrid mass. Imagine that happening in the wild?
Hybrids may then, unknowingly, make their way back into the shops and have the fish buffs puzzling over them, misidentifying them and then unknowingly crossing them again. This creates a headache for the home collector and loss of the true species that we sought out and brought into the hobby in the first place.
Some argue that hybrids are sterile, as Parrot cichlids in particular seem only ever to produce infertile eggs. This doesn’t seem to be the case however with Discus if they are hybrids, livebearers, with most Central American species, or with most Malawi cichlids. So beware.
Hybrids are also known to have something called 'hybrid vigor' with a new injection of foreign blood making them larger, more aggressive potentially and more successful than either single parent species. This again could be catastrophic if hybrids are released into the wild.
What of the true Parrot cichlid?
There is another Parrot cichlid — not a hybrid, but a true species — called Hoplarchus psittacus from South America (pictured above).
This large, softwater fish is peaceful and until recently very rare in the hobby. It is becoming increasingly more available, however, and being tank bred it can be kept with other, large, peaceful South American cichlids like Uaru, Severums and Satanoperca.
No, we're not just talking big fish here - but some of the smaller, more common species many of us have swimming around in our tanks! Jeremy Gay highlights the fish aquatic retailers are most often asked to take back.
We're all now only too aware how many tankbusters cause problems to shops and public aquariums, but a recent shoptour spurred me to ask the question of which of the smaller, even more readily available stuff is brought back to the aquatic shops the most.
I asked several stores which fish they were asked to take back on a regular basis, and the same species cropped up again and again.
Below are some of the usual suspects:
It's not their fault by any means, but the poor old Common plec is one of the most abandoned species in our hobby, firstly because of its seemingly unstoppable growth and secondly because it poos so much.
I don't think its the fault of the shops necessarily as everyone knows they grow to over a foot long, but the sad truth of it is they're just so hardy that few people kill them, and living for two decades in many circumstances they simply outlive people's passion for hobby, and their drive to maintain a large tank and change water week in week out over a 20-year period.
As for the Common plec, only these things grow even bigger and poo even more. Plus that very rigid, armoured body and those huge pectoral fins mean that through no fault of the fish, when it tries to cruise around an average sized aquarium it gets snarled up in plant stems and stirs everything up.
As fish go I do think it's a handsome one however, and I still maintain that if the gibbiceps had only recently been discovered, adults would be carrying price tags in the hundreds and not being given back to stores for free in their droves.
And as for the Common plec, Sailfin plecs do make suitable tank mates for all sorts of cichlids and oddballs if the tank is large enough, only global trends for smaller and smaller tanks, and the recession, means there just aren't so many big tank, big fish communities out there any more.
We're not talking Black tip reef here, instead we're talking Ruby sharks and Red tail black sharks. Why do so many come back? In short, aggression, as these stunning fish are known for getting more and more narked as they get older and larger.
The sharks' story is simply one of being misunderstood however, as place a single specimen into a 120cm/48" plus, heavily decorated tank with plenty of food to browse and no similar fish that will compete with it and your shark will be very much more chilled out. But place it into an overcrowded, small, bare tank with nowhere to call its own and lots of similarly shaped, similarly coloured, sharky type fish and they will soon become intolerable both for other fish in the tank and for you watching.
The worst mix is to put them with their own kind. So how do shops get away with it? By overcrowding them as you would with Malawi cichlids, though this is less than ideal and most of the sharks I see on sale have split fins when kept with their own kind, and in high number.
Convicts (Picture above by Dean Pemberton, Creative Commons)
Another favourite of mine! The Convict's only crime is its success at reproducing, and the attitude that comes with it when protecting its own fry. Keep a lone male or female in a community of medium to large, robust fish and you may never have a problem.
I'll even go so far as to say that a mature female can be very beautiful, but put a male and female together, of an inch in length upwards, and that community tank will quickly turn into World War III.
So buy two Convicts and they can quickly turn into hundreds, thousands even within a short term as they will keep spawning and raising fry if you take the old fry off them. Where do you take them? Your local aquatic store of course, only the 24 Convicts they had in stock turned out to be 12 pairs and you are now one of 12 of their customers who are wanting to bring several hundred fry back on a monthly basis.
One store I spoke to refused to order in or take back any Convicts in the future, such was the problem in their local area. And they'd stopped selling Sailfin plecs too.
Guppies, platies, mollies and swordtails, and now endlers, are very much new fishkeeper fodder, and when you visit a store to see that they'll typically have 12 tanks of livebearers to just one tank of Neon tetras, that's a lot of livebearers being sold each week.
Of the ones that survive being dunked into high nitrite levels, or aren't carrying a disease, they will inevitably breed and inundate the average 60cm/24" starter tank with just too many fish.
I don't think that baby livebearers are a problem like, say adult Common plecs are, and there is a ready market for cheap fry, but just don't expect all shops to take them, or to offer any money for taking them off your hands.
An adult Oscar is a handsome fish indeed and they have a certain grace and character about them, but thousands come back each year, probably because of the large fish, long-lived, in need of large tanks, poo-a-lot scenario, as with the Common and Sailfin plecs — and the three are often kept together, so if a tank gets shut down the shop will receive both the Oscar and the plec.
Mate them up is one thing to do, as a mated pair, or better still a "breeding pair" of large adult Oscars in good nick will have a certain amount of re-sale appeal, but being predators, most attack each other as soon as they are mixed and few staff have the time or spare tanks to sit it out and pair up fish.
The adult Oscar can be a blessing in one way however, as to import a 10-12"/25-30cm fish from abroad would end in a selling price in the hundreds of pounds. At least by importing them small, and being returned to shop when larger, those who can home them long term get a lot of fish for the money.
The goldfish of the tropical fish world, the stores told me they get a lot of Parrot cichlids back too. Parrots grow surprisingly large (25cm/10" or more in some cases), will eat small fish like Neons and can vary in temperament, but because of their hardiness they are hard to kill so re-homed ones do the rounds.
Many lay batch after batch of sterile eggs too, and the novelty of a cichlid spawning can quickly wear off.
One of the few positives to come out of rehoming fish is when you receive a large amount of fish that you actually want to get in and re-sell. This is the case with Bristlenose catfish, which are surprisingly easy to breed, with the fry seemingly needing no special care from their owners whatsoever.
So being offered 50-100 4cm bristlenose by one of their customers can be a blessing, as it saves the store having to import them in from the Czech republic and a deal can usually be done where the owner is paid in fish food.
There are two main sorts of Tilapia, mouth brooders like Oreochromis and substrate spawners like the genus Tilapia proper. Both are very hardy, and very prolific, which they need to be as they share their natural waters with some of the scariest freshwater predators on earth. Put them in a predator-free aquarium though and two will quickly become many hundreds, and adult Tilapia aren't everyone cup of tea, or particularly easy to re-sell.
Tilapia mariae is a classic case of this. If you are a livestock manager and budding cichlid collector, a batch of small, striped Tilapia mariae can add a touch of the unusual to your cichlid stock offering, yet little do you know that by "infecting" your store with these little fish, you will have unwanted stocks of their fry for ever more.
As with the Tilapia, a Midas cichlid added to a fish order may seem like a good idea, excet that breeding isn't so much of a problem this time — it's aggression! From a size of about 5cm/2" Midas cichlids start to colour up and sex out, and the horrible scenario happens all too often in shop tanks where one dominant fish terrorises all the others, who go black and try desperately not to look like the species they actually are. So eventually six Midas cichlids need six tanks.
One gets sold, does the same thing in the hobbyist's tank and becomes pretty much unhousable, before being given back to the fish store who have to sentence it to a life of solitary confinement, where its one pleasure in life is biting the person who cleans its tank!
We want to hear from you
If you work in an aquatic store and have any to add to the list, please leave a comment below, or if, like me, you visit a lot of shops and see any other of the usual suspects, again, leave a comment below.
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Lee Nuttall chooses the biotope of a Central American mountain stream as his theme for a competition entry. Follow his step-by-step approach.
Biotope and natural aquariums have grown in popularity over the last couple of years, especially among keepers of Central American cichlids.
With all the information, film and images available on the Internet, hobbyists can learn more about the fish they keep and the natural habitat they live in, helping to re-create as natural environment as possible.
These were all the tools I needed to create my second entry to the latest AGA Aquascaping contest. My foremost passion is for the genera of New World cichlids, especially those from North and Central America, so based my chosen biotope on them.
The aim was to create something contemporary, yet still keeping the authenticity of a biotope environment.
Aquarium size is a major reason that deters many hobbyists from keeping Centrals, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There’s a lovely group of smaller cichlids under the Cryptoheros complex that will make an ideal choice for my size of aquarium.
I wanted to base my project around a Honduran river or stream, in particular the Rio Monga. This, along with its tributaries, originates in the coastal Cordillera mountain range and flows into the Caribbean.
Mountain rainstorms provide the clear water conditions that the fish fauna thrive in and, dependant on the time of year, the water can be shallow and crystal clear in this rugged prepublic. The river environment has rocks and boulders which range in size from a small football to a small car. The formations can break up into small rocky areas with a sandy bottom or mixture of small pea gravel.
How I set up
I used a 103l/23 gal, 80 x 36 x 36cm/32 x 14 x 14” tank that was too small for a cichlid community biotope, but ideal for a small breeding pair of Cryptoheros spp. If you’re not sure, bigger is better, but I usually advise using tank from 90cm/3’ in length.
1. I add a thin layer of washed sand, you can use either playpit or pool filter sand. This helps cushion the larger boulders added later. Alternatively you can bed the boulders on thin sheets of polystyrene and then cover with your chosen substrate.
2. The rocks and pebbles were bought from my local garden centre as most good outlets will label the rocks fish safe. You can also collect them yourself from rivers, but always prepare and wash and scrub in very hot water first. Place the rocks using the rule of thirds; makes the arrangement more aesthetically pleasing.
3. I added smaller cobbles and pebbles around the base of the larger rocks. This helps blend in the larger rock formations, also giving a more natural look to the sand substrate. Arrange the cobbles into natural piles; trying to imagine how the river bed may look.
4. Small twigs and debris can be expected in the natural biotope, so I added a basic twig arrangement from a beech tree. The wood is soaked and washed in very hot water, then left to dry outside for a week. Thin branches like those I used should sink in a couple of days.
Dimensions: All glass, 80 x 36 x 36cm/ 32 x 124 x 14”.
Décor: Playpit sand, large worn river stone and cobbles, beech tree twigs.
Background: Black paper.
Lighting: One Arcadia freshwater lamp.
Filtration: Fluval 204 external canister.
Heater: One 200w.
There are around 13 described species and one undescribed in the Cryptoheros complex. All are suitable for this set-up, as most only attain 10cm/4”. The fish chosen here are the undescribed species ‘Honduran red point’, so called because of the colour on the ends of the dorsal, anal fins and base of the caudal peduncle.
This colour trait appears to be lacking in females, however they tend to have orange bellies.
This is a beautiful fish that usually maxes out to only 3” for males, making them ideal for smaller biotope aquariums. They are also readily available and very easy to breed.
It’s safe to add a small young group, but once a pair has formed the surplus fish will need to be removed straight away!
Check our Lee Nuttall's other tanks in this series:
See some of the other tanks in the Your Tanks section.
Mark Evans, part one
Mark Evans, part two
Mark Evans, part three
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Got a problem with algae in your aquarium? These fish will all earn their keep by helping to keep it under control...
As our tanks become increasingly smaller we need to find similarly sized nano algae eaters to match. Otocinclus are tiny South American algae eating catfish. They are well behaved, communal and great for grazing algae. Just don't combine them with Amazon sword plants, which they will also eat.
Don't underestimate the power of livebearers as algae eaters with platies and guppies even doing their fair share. Of them however, Mollies are very good, and of the mollies the true black molly, Poecilia sphenops is the best of the bunch. Often available these days with a slight lyre tail.
One of the best algae eating fish you'll ever keep, Bristlenose are hardy, easy to keep, easy to breed and they don't get too large, topping out at about 12.5cm, depending on species. Any of the Ancistrus group make great algae eating additions to the tropical tank.
Previously only known as drab, ugly fish, Garra can be pretty too with recent additions such as the Panda garra, Garra flavatra, and the Garra sp."redtail". Unlike you see in beauty salons poor old Garra rufa will prefer an algae covered rock to some stinky feet to suck on too.
Algae eating shrimp
Now mainstream, you still can't beet the Japonica, Amano or algae eating shrimp, Caridina multidentata, for its sheer work rate and effectiveness on most types of algae. But with some many other, more colourful species emerging into the freshwater hobby, they can all play a part in algae clean up too.
Jordanella floridae is a temperate, hardy killifish from Florida that we have kept in the hobby for many years. They are a bit odd, sometimes nipping fins and are best when kept in a weedy tank set up just for them. But they are known to eat hair algae, so could be added to deal with a very specific problem, just watch your other fish though...
There are several species sold as Flying fox including Garra cambodgiensis, Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus and the one that we are most interested in, Crossocheilus siamensis. Known as the "true" flying fox the latter species is used universally for algae control, but is also used for specific hair and brush algae control. They do grow to 15cm in length, so will need large aquariums.
Another member of the Crossocheilus genus, this one is as good if not better at eating algae than the Flying fox. Their bodies are basically silver with a black blotch near the tail and a net pattern on the scales. They grow to over 15cm in length, so again will need a large, spacious aquarium. Some of the plainer Crossocheilus species are marketed as "world's best algae eaters". Picture by H. rolof, Creative Commons.
Certain representatives from lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are also adapted to a life of constant algae eating. Malawi mbuna, the rock dwelling cichlids will all pick at and graze algae but members of Labeotropheus are best. From Lake Tanganyika, a group of 10 or more Tropheus are colourful, collectable and even need algae in their diets.
These small plecs are found at altitude in streams and rivers in South America and area dapted to a life in fast flowing, cool water. Known as Bulldog plecs, these streamlined dwarfs will eagerly rasp away at algae, keeping your decor and glass clean, and becoming popular additions due to their cute faces and antics too. Picture by pl:user:lcamtuf, Creative Commons.