Canadian Parrot Symposium

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Poicephalus Parrots:
A Closer Look at Brown Headed, Red Bellied, Jardine's and Cape Parrots

by Isabel Taylor


Poicephalus parrots from Africa are coming into their own today. Aviculturists are discovering the advantages in breeding this group of parrots and pet owners are discovering what a charming pet a hand raised Poicephalus parrot can be. As we keep filling the world with more people, inevitably having to live closer and closer together, quieter pets will become more and more desirable and I can well imagine the day when loud species will even be prohibited from apartments and condos. Poicephalus are generally quiet birds, although they can make some shrill squeaks from time to time. I have found the Capes make loud calling sounds, but to me it is a cheerful noise and not at all grating on the nerves. Talking ability, intelligence, ease of care and limited space requirements are added to the list of Poicephalus advantages and it is no secret why this group's popularity is soaring. Although hundreds of thousands of birds have been imported into the U.S. over the years, it seems to have been the charm of handraised youngsters that convinced the public of their value.

The Poicephalus group are small to medium sized parrots with robust beaks and stocky bodies. Germans call them "Long Winged Parrots" because the 8th and 9th flight feathers are equal and longest of the flights. They are birds of many colors and come from many environments in Africa, from the rainforests to the subdesert. We know so little of their lives in the wild, which is a sad reality about so many African birds. There are nine species, and of these, three are very rare: Ruppell's, Yellow Faced and Niam-Niam. The other six species are available in the States. The Senegal is the most common and best known of the species. I have found Senegals and Red Bellieds the easiest to breed and Capes and Meyers the most difficult to breed. Several of these species have confusing juvenile plumage and many books in print contain incorrect information describing this plumage. The word poicephalus seems to refer to the perplexing head colors of these species which can vary with age, sex, subspecies and individual differences.

I have been breeding birds in a basement for the last 13 years. Breeding inside means you can produce Poicephalus every month of the year. This can be an advantage unless you wish to take a vacation from handfeeding. However, I do feel basement breeding has its limits. I and some other long term basement breeders I know, have seen a slowing down of breeding over the years. Fresh air and sunshine just can't be exactly reproduced. Birds are not fooled by our artificial attempts and after a number of years I believe the lack of these factors can take a toll on breeding. On the plus side, many Poicephalus like to have a dark breeding area and a basement can easily provide this. As I write these proceedings, I am getting ready to move in a week and will convert a larger garage at my new house into an aviary. I hope the birds will welcome the change and appreciate real fresh air, sunshine and perhaps even the presence of predators to make life more realistic! Check with me in about a year to find out if it makes a difference!

It will be well worth your time to breed this group of parrots. There is strong demand for domestic babies and some species, like Red Bellieds, can be quite prolific breeders. I have found wild-caught birds are shy, some painfully shy, but a handraised baby is a delightful pet -- devoted, trusting, flexible, forgiving; and many have amazing talking ability. Wild birds are not aggressive when breeding, but some domestic birds can be, especially if they have been teased or abused while a pet. My experience is that many pairs make excellent foster parents, not only for other Poicephalus species, but also for Grey and perhaps other species as well. Although I feel parrots should have fresh vegetables and fruits in their daily diet, I know for a fact that they can be maintained very successfully on pellets alone and that they also can breed successfully on pellets alone. In summary, I would say that a handraised Poicephalus is worth many wild-caught birds from the bush. Not only is it well worth our time to raise these charming birds in captivity for our own pleasure and to help save the species for future generations, but we can help protect species in the wild by contributing observations of captive birds to the pool of information on species.

The Brown Headed Parrot

One uncommon member of this group of parrots is Poicephalus cryptoxanthus or the Brown Headed parrot. A Brown Headed parrot is very similar to the Senegal parrot but is missing the yellow breast feathers and has an upper mandible which is light colored with a black tip. They have the least color of the more common species of Poicephalus. When compared visually to a Senegal, they are not as desirable but those who know their quiet and gentle nature are readily won over. They are basically a green bird with a brown head and yellow under the wings and because of the hidden yellow they also are called a "Concealed parrot". I have found them very quiet birds although they are said to have loud screeches. I suspect that the quietness of the Poicephalus group as a whole has contributed to their being overlooked by aviculturists for many years.

Subspecies: P.c. tanganyikae. Described as having brighter or richer feathers underneath and head being "more olive-brown" (Forshaw).

Range: They like dry woodlands and scrublands in the lower southeast coast of Africa. They are said to form flocks of 4 to 12 and up to 40 birds. They are also said to eat flowers and nectar.

Breeding: they lay 3-4 eggs and do not start incubating until the third egg. I have had several eggs with airsacs on the side that hatched successfully. They can be removed form the nest at one month of age.

Pet Quality: One of the sweetest and most gentle of this group of birds. They do not seem to learn but a few words.

Problems: Wild-caught pairs have smelly droppings while incubating and while feeding little babies. Babies I have raised have to have a lower protein handfeeding formula than other species of Psittacine I have raised. Adding strained corn to the handfeeding formula will help prevent any problems in using commercial formulas.

My two pair of Brown Headed parrots have been the best and the worst breeders I have. One pair raises 4 babies every clutch and will raise about 3 clutches a year. I can check in the nest box anytime I wish with no ill effects. The other pair have destroyed eggs or babies in every clutch they have produced in spite of my efforts to stop this destructive behavior. If I look in the nestbox at all, they will destroy something!

The Red Bellied Parrot

Before 1980 these charming little birds were rare in captivity. However, one lived in the London Zoo for 26 years, dying in 1931. They have not imported well, but once they are acclimated and accustomed to captivity and treated for diseases, they make a great addition to any aviary. They are sexually dimorphic and juveniles are unusual because they are all colored like the adult males. They make marvellous pets, being quite intelligent and talented talkers. They have a special charm that is hard for me to describe. One owner said, "Red Bellieds do not have personality, they have character." They also are prolific breeders when established.

Description: Red Bellieds have brown-grey, with some green included, wings, tail and head. The adult males have a wonderful carrot orange tummy and orange underwing coverts. The adult females have a green-brown tummy, sometimes flecked with orange, and brown underwing coverts. Both adults have orange eyes to match the male's belly. Juvenile plumage is paler than the adults, but all young have male coloring.

Subspecies: Poicephalus rufiventris pallidus. This subspecies is said to have paler brown on the head and chest and is said to nest in ant hills.

Range: These birds live in very dry habitat and are found in northern Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia. They like Baobab trees, avoiding thick foliage, and are seen in pairs or small groups.

Breeding: Red Bellieds will lay 3-4 eggs per clutch and will lay up to 3 or 4 clutches a year. It is hard to stop them once they start breeding. They can be good foster parents for other Poicephalus. Young should be removed from the nest as close to two weeks old as possible. If you wait too long to remove them, they can be very cross and growly and it takes a lot of handling to get them used to being a happy human companion. I have found them relatively easy to pair up. I have also seen very little maiming or killing of babies with Red Bellieds.

Pet Quality: I think Red Bellieds have been one of those well kept secrets of aviculture. They do best if put in a pet shop at an early age and raised there so they are used to crowds of strangers. They can show some very strange and bizarre behavior at weaning age. Handraised males can become aggressive toward people if kept with a female, but the females tend to stay tame when paired. They are great little talkers, having a special ability to say the right thing at the right time. Most owners become very attached to their pet Red Bellied. Like most parrots, they usually become very fond of one person and do not have a lot of tolerance for other humans.

Problems: Traditionally, these birds have not imported well. With the slowing of importation this may not be relevant any more, but if you do acquire a newly imported Red Bellied, I advise you to go immediately to a veterinarian for testing and prophylactic treatment. If Red Bellieds get psittacosis, they may be difficult to treat. They quickly metabolize oral or injectable Vibramycin so it does not reach therapeutic levels in their blood. I doubt if there is any point in treating them unless they are sick. Good diet, fresh air, adequate room to exercise and a happy environment will make a big difference in keeping your bird healthy.

Jardine's Parrot

Poicephalus gulielmi is a medium sized parrot with a large head and beak and striking plumage. The back, wings and tail are black feathers, but the back and upperwing coverts are edged with bright emerald green scallops on the edges of the feathers. They have bright apple green breast and tummy. The forehead, shoulders and ankles are orange. They are bright and responsive birds and often funny clowns.

Subspecies: There are three subspecies found along the southwestern coast of Africa, in the countries of the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Liberia. The descriptions given of these subspecies do not describe most of the birds we find in captivity. Therefore, I find these subspecies the most difficult to identify in the Poicephalus genus and when asked, I do not try.

Range: This species is a true forest inhabitant and they are usually seen in pairs or small groups of 10 to 12 individuals. They are usually shy in the wild, but I have found them the least shy in captivity. They range up to 9,000 feet elevation.

Breeding: Jardine's make an excellent and desirable pet. They are sweet, funny, quiet and utterly relaxed babies. They are also good talkers and are strong little characters. Babies are similar to cockatoos in craving attention and becoming "love sponges".

Problems: I have seen several Jardine's with beak overgrowth and splitting problems and I tend to think that beak problems may be common in this species. Another problem I have encountered is babies being plucked in the nest by the parents. I have not been able to let one pair raise any babies themselves because of this problem. Perhaps in a new aviary they may be happier, less threatened or some other psychological factor might influence changes in behavior. Jardine's can also pluck themselves or their mates. Often this behavior goes along with breeding, but can become a habit under some conditions of stress. They frazzle their tail feathers on cages but have a good ability to grow and replace feathers. Several years ago, during my daughter's operation, I could not care for a clutch and their baby sitter had no prior experience. When I returned in a week, they had not gained one gram of weight and were starved. When their feathers emerged, I was amazed they had no stress lines in them.

The Cape Parrot

I consider these wonderful birds the cadillacs of the Poicephalus genus. They are the largest of the genus with an oversized beak and undersized feet which gives them a comical look. The large beak often makes them look as though they are smiling, as does the dark mischievous eye. Wild-caught birds are extremely shy and stress-prone, but hand-raised birds are happy and comfortable with captivity. This species is rare and not many babies are raised in captivity. I have found them the most difficult to breed of the Poicephalus.

Description: This is a large green bird with a silvery-tan head and orange markings on the forehead (of females), shoulders and ankles. Males do not have orange on the forehead -- at least in the suahelicus subspecies. All youngsters resemble the mother with orange foreheads. At six months old they molt the forehead feathers and females will have a grey head for several months before the adult plumage comes in at about nine months of age. They can leave you wondering if you are depending on feathers as an indication of sex. Youngsters have no orange markings on the shoulders or ankles. There is usually a noticeable difference in head sizes of males and females. Some birds have scattered yellow feathers, especially in the wings, but I do not consider this normal coloring and it is perhaps the result of overplucking or poor diet at some time in their life.

Subspecies/Range: There are three subspecies which have separate ranges. Most of the birds we have in captivity are of the suahelicus subspecies whose head is a silvery grey. South Africa offers some protection to the nominate race, Poicephalus robustus robustus. It is illegal to export them, but pecan farmers shoot them when they threaten their crops and they are still taken from the nest for pets. The species travels widely in search of food and their unpredictableness makes it hard to count their actual numbers. Just how endangered they are is not readily known. As with other African birds, we very badly need field work to learn about their status in the wild.

Breeding: These birds have been difficult for me to breed. They have not been consistent breeders and are very susceptible to stress. Wild caught birds need a lot of privacy and they like being close to other pairs of Capes. They do a lot of calling between pairs and are the most vocal when breeding. They lay 3-4 eggs per clutch and can lay a couple of clutches in the fall, which is their favourite time. They form loose pair bonds and I have switched pairs around, which often seems to help breeding. Many pairs will foul the nestbox and can pluck the babies. Babies are real charmers and sweethearts and will beg for food for months after they are weaned.

Pet Quality: Handraised Capes are wonderful babies, sweet and lovable and very hard to make yourself sell. It has been written that they are like Grey, but they are very unique characters and I do not see that similarity. They can acquire a good vocabulary and are an intelligent bird with interesting behavior. I hesitate to say that they are a "wonderful pet" because all offspring at this point should be put into breeding situations. They can make a loud calling noise, but a single bird does not use this loud call often. Their large beaks may have been developed for communication by banging them on a limb because their size does not seem necessary for the foods they eat in the wild. If you take a tame bird and put him/her in a breeding situation, you will have a hard time keeping your hands off that bird!!!

Problems: Many different problems can develop for a bird that is so easily stressed. Wild birds should be watched carefully for signs of illness, which is not easy in a bird that must hide. My pairs foul their nestbox which creates a sanitation problem for the aviculturist. I usually change their bedding every other day. Another problem is plucking their babies in the nest. Both of these problems may very well be due to stress.


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