African parrots

African parrots. Part 2.

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Find out why these African parrots can be the “poi-fect” pet.

“UNLIKE MY QUAKER PARROT, Jellibean rarely screeches,” says Virginian Janet Corthon of her 4-year-old female red-bellied parrot. “ Jellibean really only talks when she has something to say or feels that I’m ignoring her. She is so quiet that several times when she was out of her cage and hidden from view, I thought I would never find her.”

“Casey likes to swing from his toys, flip over on his back and juggle his toys with his feet,” says owner Marianne Hancock of Florida about her 2-year-old male Senegal parrot. “He’ll run, hop, flap and screech when he’s wound up about something. I just love his wild and zany personality.”

Jellibean and Casey are both members of the Poicephalus genus, a group of parrots consisting of nine individual species, all from Africa. Poicephalus can be found throughout much of the African continent, from South Africa and Zimbabwe in the south and Kenya and Tanzania in east-central Africa, to Chad and Sudan in the north and the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria in the west.

In the United States, the Senegal, Meyer’s and red-bellied parrots are the three most commonly found Poicephalus species. Two less available species are the brown-headed and Jardine’s parrot. The remaining four Poicephalus species — the Cape, Ruppells, yellow-faced and Niam-Niam parrots are rarely, if ever, available in the U.S. pet bird market.

Poicephalus are relatively small parrots, normally around 8 to 9 inches in length. The exceptions are the Jardine’s parrot, which usually measures between 10 and 12 inches, and the Cape parrot, which typically mea­sures about 13 inches. But while they are small in size, owners and breeders of Poicephalus agree that the birds are big in terms of personality. In fact, Poicephalus parrots are often referred to as “big parrots in small packages.” They have all the personality traits that usually draw people to parrots: they are comical, acrobatic, fun-loving, playful, animated and gregarious, but without the noise level, mess and expense associated with many of the larger hookbills.

Susan Clubb, DVM, staff avian veterinarian with Parrot Jungle and Gardens in Miami, Florida, says Poicephalus are ideal apartment birds. “They’re small, so their cage isn’t as large, and it takes up less space,’ she says. “They’re relatively quiet, at least compared with other parrots. Most of their sounds are low-key whistles, chirps, squeaks, and assorted chattering, rather than loud squawks or screams.

Susan Chamberlain, BIRD TALK columnist and owner of two Senegal par­rots, says Poicephalus are a great choice for people who work all day. “They make good ‘home-alone’ birds for those who want a parrot but don’t have a lot of time each day to spend with their pets. Poicephalus tend to keep themselves entertained, and they’re often less demanding than other parrots.”

One attribute that many people see in their Poicephalus, which isn’t usually’ a plus, is that these birds can sometimes have “split personalities.” A Poicephalus may seem very bold, terri­torial or bossy one moment, and then a few seconds later may act extremely fearful or shy.

“Although they are sometimes totally’ fearless in the face of grossly larger creatures, Poicephalus are often terrified of the most mundane, nonthreatening inanimate objects,” says Mattie Sue Athan, avian behavior consultant and author of Guide to the Senegal Parrot and Its Family (Barron’s, 1998). Simple changes at home, she says, such as rearranging the furniture, a new hairdo for the owner, a new lamp, or a new toy in the bird cage, can send some Poicephalus parrots into panic mode.

Sue Anderson of California has seen such behavior in Coco, her 6-year-old male Meyer’s parrot. While Coco has injured, or tried to injure, all her other birds, even the ones that are bigger in size, he often gets totally spooked out with minor variations in the routines at home. “For example, I almost always have an English muffin for breakfast, and share it with him. One day I had a waffle instead. Coco was terrified of the waffle and would not sit near it Anderson relates.

Of course, these are generalities for the Poicephalus genus as a whole. Some Poicephalus parrots display certain characteristics more than others. Here’s a general description of what you can expect from the different species.

Senegal Parrot.

The Senegal (P. senegalus) is the most commonly available Poicephalus parrot in captivity. Normally 8 to 9 inches in length, the Senegal’s forehead, crown and wings are dark gray. The upper parts and breast are a rich green while the underparts are yellow and orange. The tail and legs are brownish gray. They cost anywhere from $150 to $500 each.

Gladys Prouty, a breeder specializing in African parrots, says her most popular Poicephalus species is the Senegal. “I find Senegals to be very personable little creatures,” she says. “They are very active and acrobatic, and are inclined to be little clowns. They can be a trifle bossy, but it can be overcome with a bit of common sense.”

As far as speaking goes, Prouty says some of them learn to speak very well. “Of all the people to whom I have sold Senegal babies who keep in touch, all of their birds have learned to talk,” she say’s.

Many Senegal owners report that their birds tend to be on the shy side. Accoh, an 18-year-old male Senegal owned by Ernest Gill of Hamburg, Germany, retreats to his cage or to a high perch, unmoving as a statue, when strangers visit his apartment. This behavior mirrors wild Senegals in the rain forest that hide high up in the trees and remain perfectly still and silent until danger passes.

“If a stranger unwisely approaches too closely, Accoh starts growling, raising his hackles and bobbing his head to and fro in a weaving pattern. That is his way of saying the stranger is too close and must back off immediately or else be ready to be attacked,” Gill notes. “We never let strangers get that close, of course. We respect his Senegal shyness and give him his space. We’ve found that if you learn to respect this shy and retiring breed of bird, the bird will learn to respect and love you.”

Meyer’s Parrot.

The Meyer’s parrot (P. meyeri) is the most common Poicephalus in the wild and the second most common member of this genus in captivity. Their length ranges from 8 to 9 inches long. The head, neck, upper parts, wings and tail are grayish-brown, and their back and underparts are turquoise. The legs are black, while the crown, shoulder patches, thighs and underwing are yellow. Meyer’s usually cost between $200 to $500.

Jean Pattison, Poicephalus breeder and lecturer specializing in African parrots, says Meyer’s parrots are “go with the flow” type of birds.

“They do not seem to be as athletic or play as hard as some of the other Poiccphalus. They are more refined, more easy-going,” she says.

Meyer’s parrots enjoy toys along the lines of puzzles and bird games that they can work on and study. “They seem to enjoy working on knots in rawhide for endless amounts of time or trying to see why the little bell stays in the plastic cage,” Pattison says. In terms of talking, she say’s Meyer’s are not usually the best talkers of the bunch, “although some have been known to be outstanding.”

Red-bellied Parrot.

Red-bellied parrots (P. refivcntris) are typically 8 to 9 inches in length. They have light brownish-gray upper parts with green lower parts and a wash of blue over the rump. Their wings are dark gray. The females have gray-green chests with red tinges, while the males have reddish-orange chests. Their cost ranges between $200 and $500 each.

“Red bellies are spunky and very active,” say’s Prouty. “Their personalities are perky and playful. They tend to try and dominate other birds, and demonstrate this by chewing off the tails of their rivals, whether they are red bellies or other Poicephalus.”

Pattison says red bellies are happiest when they are playing and acting silly. “Red bellies are show-offs, especially in front of company. They are some of the only parrots that don’t just clam up but will talk, even jabber, in front of strangers,” she says. Pattison adds that red-bellied parrots are one of the best talkers in the Poicephaltts group.

Jardine’s Parrot.

Jardine’s parrots (P. gulielmi) range in length from 10 to 12 inches with their overall color being green. Their wings are black and green, and their fore­head, bend of wing and thighs are orangish-red. Their feet are grayish-brown, and they can cost anywhere from $500 to $1000 each.

“The Jardine’s are the Amazons of the African parrots, without the screaming and mating aggression,” Pattison says.

“They play constantly and hard, just for the sheer joy of doing it. They can entertain themselves for end­less hours.

They love being cuddled and scratched, hopping around, chasing things and swinging.”

Bonnie Nowakowski of Chicago, Illinois, describes her Jardine’s parrot, Sparky, as sensitive and playful. “She’ll amuse herself with her imitations of my telephone or my other birds, or with herself in her ‘tube’ rolling around her head and body like a silly bird. She can lie with me for hours and snuggle right up under my neck. She also purrs when she likes the way I am massaging her head, chin or under her wings.”

Brown-headed Parrot.

The brown-headed parrot (P. cryp­toxanthus) is 8 to 9 inches long and has a grayish brown head and a mostly green body with bright yellow under the wings. It looks similar to a Senegal or Meyer’s parrot without the yellow or turquoise. Expect to pay between $200 and $500.

“Brown-headed parrots are nowhere near as flashy as the rest of the Poicephalus gang, but they can make up for a lot with their sweet natures,” Prouty say’s. She considers them to be especially good talkers. “One of our brown-headed parrots fooled me into thinking that a strange woman was in our house calling out to my youngest son. I ran full tilt about half way down the hail before I realized that not only was my child at school, but the voice I was hearing was a good imitation of my own.”

Cape Parrot.

Ranging in length from 13 to 14 inches, the Cape parrot (P. robustusis) is the largest of the Poicephalus species. The bird’s head is grayish-brown, tinged sometimes with silver or red. There is a wash of red over the neck.

“Cape parrots are very gentle, affectionate birds; some liken them to a cockatoo, without the demands,” Pattison notes. “They are fairly quiet and unobtrusive when kept as a pet; breeders, on the other hand, can be very vocal and almost obnoxious. They are capable of entertaining themselves with the simplest of things, much the same as a Meyer’s, and also swing and play like the Senegals.” She has found their talking ability to be limited to a few words and phrases. This species is uncommon both in captivity’ and in the wild. As a result, the cost per bird is usually $1000 or more.

Because Cape parrots are uncommon - both in the U.S. and in their native habitat - Clubb believes that the few Capes that are available in this country should be used as breeders rather than as pets. “We’re quickly losing uncommon species in our captive populations of some of the less popular species of birds,” Clubb says. Historically, Cape parrots have not been one of the more sought after parrot species. “If they’re not popular as pets, then the breeders can’t economically concentrate on them and so the birds don’t get bred,” Clubb says. What makes the situation even more serious is if U.S. aviculture loses the Cape parrot, wild-caught birds will probably not be available to reestablish the captive populations.

“The Capes definitely need an emphasis in the U.S.,“ Clubb adds. “Breeding high quality Capes to members of their own species and sub­species will help ensure that there will be future generations of these birds.”

RuppelI’s Parrot.

The Ruppell’s parrot (P. rueppellii) is 8 to 9 inches in length. The male looks like a large Meyer’s parrot without any blue. This species is dimorphic, with hens being more colorful than cocks. The male bird has a gray body and head, the wings are capped in yellow, and the yellow legs can be tinged with orange. The hens on the other hand have bright blue on the rump, lower back and upper tail coverts with a dull blue vent and lower abdomen.

Ruppell’s parrots are almost never available in the U.S., but occasionally available in Europe. The cost is $400 on the low-end and $700 or more on the high-end.

Niam-Niam Parrot.

The Niam-Niam parrot (P. crassus) is 8 to 9 inches in length, and resem­bles a brown-headed parrot, except that it has brighter reddish-orange eyes. The head, back and upper wings are brownish-gray’ and the under parts and shoulders are green. This species is unavailable in captivity and is also rare in the wild.

YeIIow-faced Parrot.

The yellow-faced parrot (P. flav­ifrons) is 8 to 9 inches long. It is primarily green, with light green scallops marking the darker back and wings. Like the Niam-Niam parrot, the yellow-faced parrot is rarely seen in the wild, and is never seen in captivity.


All of the Poicephalus species, except for the Cape parrot, can be nicely housed in an 20- by 20- by 28-inch cage. A good rule of thumb on cage size is that the smallest dimension should be one and a half times the wingspan of the resident bird. That way, the bird has room to flap without bashing its wings into walls.

Understand though, that with Poicephalus, larger is not always better. “Some Poicephalus parrots do not feel secure in a cage that is too large; it almost seems like the birds feel more secure in smaller cages, that they’re fearful in larger cages, Pattison says. The cage is the Poicephalus parrot’s retreat, where it can rest and feel secure.

On the other hand, Athan cautions, you don’t want to go too small, either. “A cage fewer than 18 inches deep can sometimes make a bird feel more exposed than protected because it cannot move very far into the cage,” she says.

Your Poicephalus may appreciate having a hide box or bird fort in its cage. “Senegals and other small Poicephalus like to have a place to hide when they feel threatened,” Chamberlain says. Pet Bird Express offers a bird fort that is open in the front, and Sunrise Solution makes a bird tent which is open on two sides.

Avian veterinarians recommend cage bar spacing of 1- or 3/4-inch for Poicephalus parrots. Spacing of a 1/2 or 3/8 of an inch is too close and could cost your bird ragged tail feathers. The cage should have a floor grate, and should be cleaned on a daily basis.

The material used in the construction of the cage should be non-toxic. “If the cage is wood, make sure that the wood has not been treated with wood preservatives as they have the potential to be poisonous,” cautions Peter Sakas, DVM, an avian veterinar­ian in Niles, Illinois. Some toxic preservatives include creosote, bitumen paint, naptha compounds and pentachlorophenol. “If a preservative is used, be sure it is nontoxic,” Sakas says. “Avoid materials containing lead such as solder or lead-based paint.”

If galvanized metal is present in any of the components of the cage be aware of “new wire disease,” which is a frequently encountered heavy metal poisoning caused by the zinc in the wire. “Galvanized wire and clips used to construct cages or galvanized containers and dishes, which are not properly treated, are common sources of zinc,” Sakas says. “The white rust on galvanized metal is also toxic. The brighter or shinier the metal, the more zinc is present.” He adds that scrubbing the galvanized metal with a brush and a mild acidic solution (vinegar) may help remove some of the loose zinc, reducing but not totally eliminating the risk.


A quality pelleted companion parrot diet should comprise one-third to one-half of the Poicephalus parrot’s diet. “Pellets contain nutrients uniformly ground, mixed and compressed. The advantages are that they are completely balanced diets, are relatively inexpensive, and have no waste as they are 100-percent edible,” Sakas says.

Fruits and vegetables should make up another one third to one half of the bird’s diet. They can be fresh or frozen, raw or lightly cooked, warm or room temperature. Fruits and vegetables can be a good source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

The trick is to provide fruits and vegetables that are both nutritional and tasty to your Poicephalus. Fruits that have high nutritive value include bananas, pears, peaches, figs, dates, pineapple, grapes, and apples. Good vegetable choices include squash, green beans, peas, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, corn on the cob, bell peppers, jalapenos, beet tops, yams, potatoes, carrots, and boiled or sprouted bean mixtures.

Avoid a seed-only diet. “Feeding a seed-only diet is inadequate, as seeds are incomplete foods. Most seed mixtures are deficient in certain vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and are high in fat,” Sakas say’s. Seeds should be given only in moderation, and are best left for rewards during training sessions.

Toys And Playing.

A key in keeping your Poicephalus parrot content is to provide it with a wide variety of Poicephalus-sized toys to occupy its time. Favorite Poicephalus toys include: wooden toys; ropes and leather knots; swings; beads and moving parts; Olympic rings, music boxes and echo chambers, and bells.

Some of the best chew toy’s, Sakas says, are everyday items from around the house such as paper towel and toilet paper rolls, chopsticks, plastic film cans, ping-pong balls, white pine wood, clothespins, rawhide chews, boxes of pop-up tissues, empty’ cereal boxes, and pine cones or bark-covered branches from outside.

Most Poicephalus are great at entertaining themselves with their toys. But it’s also good to set aside some time each day for interactive play with your bird. Sue Myers of Illinois, say’s Coco her Meyer’s parrot, likes to play’ ball. “He has a small plastic ball with holes in it that he grabs and throws for us to pick up, which is kind of a reverse fetch,” she says.

Michele Day’s brown-headed parrot, jasper, likes playing “peek-a-boo” with her each morning. When Jasper hears Day wake up, he will peek around his cover and tell her “peek-a-boo” and duck back behind the cover. “When I answer him with ‘peek-a-boo,’ he will peek back out and tell me ‘peek-a-boo’ and duck behind the cover again. I’ll also peek around his cover and tell him peek-a-boo and he will tell me peek-a-boo back,” Day says.

It’s important that you keep your Poicephalus parrot entertained with toys and games, rather than make the mistake of thinking it needs a companion bird to be happy. “Many people don’t realize that Poicephalus are solitary birds,” Pattison says. “A lot of people who work all day worry that they’re not giving their bird the attention it deserves and so they get it a buddy. And generally that’s a tragic mistake.”

In most cases, Pattison says, your Poicephalus parrot is not going to want a bird companion; it just wants its toys and time with you. If you get another parrot, Poicephalus often get very resentful. “If you want another bird, get it for yourself, not for your Poicephalus,” she says, “and keep it in another cage.”

Talking And Trick Training.

Many Poicephalus enjoy learning to perform tricks. Trick-training sessions keep companion birds mentally stimulated, and mean quality time between you and your pet. It’s a good idea to have a regular training schedule where you work with your bird two or three times each day.

You will have the most success if you make the training sessions short. Three sessions for 10 to 15 minutes each is better than one session for an hour. You don’t want to wear out your bird or bore it.

Every Poicephalus is an individual, so what may be a fun trick for one bird to learn may seem like torture to another. The key is to watch your bird and observe the types of behaviors it naturally likes to do, and then build on that.

Michele Treolo of California has clicker-trained her Senegal parrot, lake, to wave, do “wingies” (their version of “big eagle”), give a high-five, shake hands, pull up a bucket on a chain, take a bow, lift weights (raise and lower a small foot toy with its beak), fetch a ball, and play dead on command, lake can also play’ birdie basketball and perform a somersault on Treolo’s finger. The instant lake does the feat correctly, Treolo sounds the clicker (a cricket toy can also be used), and gives the bird a food treat and praise.

Betsy Fusco has just started teaching her 2-year-old red-bellied parrot, Baby, to do tricks. ‘I’ll tell him, ‘Do a bat,’ and then he hangs upside down like a bat,’ she say’s. “Then I pick him up by holding him onto his back and he stay’s in that position.” Baby’ also puts his head back and flips on his gym on command. “We also play hide-and-seek with one of his toys,” Fusco says. “I’ll tell him, ‘Give it to Mommy,’ and then he drops the toy in my hand.”

What about talking? Poicephalus are not known for being great talkers as African greys, but they’ can learn a reasonable vocabulary, depending on the individual bird and the owner’s willingness to spend time training.

Terry Thurmond’s Senegal parrot, R2, says such phrases as “Show me your wings,” “Give me a kiss,” “Whatchadoin,” “Let’s go,” “Stop it,” “Bad bird,” “What?” “Get your boodie, and ‘Love you.” R2 calls the family’s dog, Aggie, and whistles for her.

Poicephalus breeder Kittie Machesky DiCaprio of Pennsylvania has taught her 4-year-old male Senegal parrot, Bubba, approximately 100 words and phrases. “Bubba greets me every morning before I remove the cage cover with ‘Good Morning, rise and shine,’ and says ‘Mornin’ Tiki-Bird’ to my cockatoo,” she says. Other phrases Bubba says regularly are “Onyx get down!” (Onyx is the cat, and Bubba uses DiCaprio’s exact tone of voice), “Night, night,” “I love you,” “What ya doing,” “Hi Bubba-Bird,” and “Bye, bye.”

Not only does Bubba have a fantastic vocabulary, DiCaprio says he uses the phrases at the correct times. “After breakfast, I go upstairs to get ready for work and Bubba starts with the ‘Bye, bye, be a good boy,’ and I usually say ‘Not yet.’ When it is time for me to leave, I go to the door of the living room to tell them ‘Bye, bye.’ From that point on, I can hear Bubba saying ‘Bye, bye, be a good boy, I love you,’ until I am out of earshot,” she says.

Sometimes it’s household noises, rather than words, that Poicephalus are most motivated to learn. Cheryl Angelo, an avian consultant in Massachusetts, says Camelot, her Senegal parrot, mimics a wide range of sounds, from the microwave and telephone, to car alarms, creaking doors and alarm clocks. “And, there is no way to tell if it’s the phone or whether it’s Camelot,” she says.

There’s no question: Poicephalus are entertaining, intelligent, sweet and fun to be around. And even though there are times when your Poicephalus may’ get a little too bold, nippy or territorial, most owners and breeders agree that these little parrots are pretty’ close to being the “poi-fect” pet.

About the author - Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer specializing in pet and parenting topics. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, two sons and two parrots.


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