Poicephalus “Big Parrots in Small Packages”.
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
“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
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.
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
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,”
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
“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.”
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
“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,”
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
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 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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.