Canadian Parrot Symposium

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The Poicephalus as Pets and Breeders

Pamela Hutchinson

You're probably all wondering who the heck I am. Well, I like to think I'm indicative of the thousands of hobby breeders across the United States and Canada. We are the little people who own anywhere from two pair of exotic parrots to ten. Over the last twenty years I have kept many species as pets, including green-winged, scarlet, military and blue and gold macaws, Moluccan and umbrella cockatoos, African greys, Senegals and most currently, a 13 year old blue-crowned conure has joined our family because of the rescue work I do for the Humane Society. My breeders at the moment consist of Illiger's macaws, maroon-bellied conures, Jardine's, one pair of lovebirds and one pair of very prolific cockatiels. To say I love both large and small parrots would be putting it mildly.

One of my favorite families is the Poicephalus and that's what I'll be talking to you about. To me, the Africans are the epitome of love and entertainment. I don't think there is much difference in temperaments between the species. I believe that it is the breeder who does the hand-feeding and weaning who makes the ultimate difference in the way a baby will turn out. They are the ones that help develop steady birds that will go happily into a pet home. It is also, in my opinion, the responsibility of the breeder to offer continuing guidelines and help to the new bird owner. Poicephalus are endearing birds with the potential to become wonderful pets. They are very quiet in contrast to macaws, Amazons, cockatoos or conures. Most of them can learn to talk and develop good vocabularies. Though their voice sounds like it's been generated by a computer, you will be able to understand the words. Most of them do very well in a one bird household and I attribute that to the fact these medium-sized parrots are slightly independent, as is the African grey. They are very active birds who love their toys, and I always recommend a wide assortment to be rotated every couple of weeks so the bird doesn't become bored. Most importantly of all, the Poicephalus requires interaction with its human family on a daily basis. Simply put, if you don't find time to play with your bird, you will make it anti-social, nippy and unwilling to leave its cage. Since the Poicephalus makes an outstanding first bird, let's look at each species individually and some of the differences between them.

The Senegal (Poicephalus senegalus)

Senegals make great first birds but I do NOT recommend them for young children. It is extremely charming and if properly socialized from the day it comes into your home, it will love the whole family. It is imperative that everyone in the household play with the Senegal because if it's handled by just one person, it will form an attachment that is borderline manic. It may look at anyone besides the primary keeper as a threat and try to drive them away by biting viciously. I have also had Senegal owners call me to say their bird suddenly freaked out and became terrified of everything and everyone. We are now calling these Senegals phobic birds and no-one, including parrot behaviorial consultants seem to have an answer as to why some Senegals suddenly do this. However, reports back to me have shown that if the owner gives them time and understanding, the bird seems to overcome it. Senegals are very intelligent and most will learn to say short phrases. They are also talented whistlers and love to perform tricks. Swings can become a favorite toy because Senegals are so active. These birds are not demanding and can entertain themselves quite nicely. They like being held and cuddled and are extremely loyal to their owners. Senegals will expect that same loyalty in return.

The Meyer's (Poicephalus meyeri)

The second most available of the smaller birds is the Meyer's. A lot of people think this bird is very shy but I have not found that to be true of a chick that is removed from the nest at a young age and carefully raised. They are not as athletic as other species and in my opinion are a bit like a cockatoo in the type of toys they enjoy. They like to study and figure things out, like why the bell stays inside the plastic cage. Meyer's like to work on rawhide knots and are a very easy-going bird. They are not the greatest talker but I think they make that up by absolutely loving their owners. They seem to be the happiest when they are with their favorite people. I would recommend a Meyer's hand-fed baby for families with small children and some common sense.

The Red-bellied (Poicephalus rufiventris)

This is the show-off of the Poicephalus family. They can be just downright silly and are the happiest when clowning around in front of company. This is one parrot that doesn't sit like a stuffed bird when you're singing its praises to your mother-in-law who can't understand your attachment to a bird in the first place! The red-bellied will chatter, whistle, and yak up a storm in front of anyone who will listen. They can also make a toy out of almost anything and sometimes, nothing at all. I've gone to a cage with a red-bellied in it because it kept attacking something. There wasn't anything there except the little bird's imagination. They will do anything to get your attention, including playing dead and standing on their heads. Red-bellieds have gotten the reputation of being a bit nippy. I think that when we started breeding these birds, there were a lot of nervous parents and ones that had a hard time coming through the quarantine stations. They passed that nervousness along in their babies. But, now the species has been bred in captivity for a long time and is finally starting to settle down. I do believe the red-bellied parrot requires more strict discipline and as one of my breeder friends puts it, you need to stay on top of them more than a Senegal. However, the red-bellied is better suited to an adult with no small children.

The Brown-headed (Poicephalus cryptoxanthus)

Jeannie Pattison, (the African Queen) summed this bird up perfectly when she said, the brown-headed parrot is a blind date that's not much on looks but has a great personality. I've found their temperaments very similar to the Meyer's. I think this parrot has been over-looked by the pet trade because of its rather dull coloring. Hand-feds are sweet and affectionate and less likely to bite than other species. Their talking ability is somewhere between the Senegal and the Meyer's. I can recommend them for families with small children and would urge you not to judge this bird by its cover-lets!

The Jardine's (Poicephalus gulielmi)

This parrot is a dyed-in-the-wool Amazon masquerading as an African. They absolutely live to play and will entertain themselves for hours on end. The Jardine's is beautiful when mature and is larger than the Senegal, red-bellied, Meyer's or brown-headed. They love being held and cuddled and are fairly good talkers. If they are bad, they have this little John Wayne walk where they sort of strut sideways and look at you with a cocked head. There is one drawback to a Jardine's, they like to play dead by lying on their backs on the floor of the cage, a perch or food cup. This takes years off me. You don't see as many Jardine's babies in pet shops because until recently, it wasn't being bred as much as the other species. I can recommend this species for families with children that are at least ten years old.

The Cape (Poicephalus robustus)

I refer to this species as the gentle giant because they are the largest of Poicephalus and the only one with a beak large and strong enough to crack a walnut. I liken them to a macaw because they are more slow and deliberate in their movements. The Cape is fairly quiet as a pet and, much like the Meyer's, will entertain itself with very simple toys yet it likes to play and swing like a Senegal. They are not great talkers but can say a few words and phrases. I always hesitate to say tell people what good pets they are because I don't feel there are enough people breeding these marvelous birds to warrant putting them in the pet market.

The other members of the Poicephalus like Ruppell's, Niam-niam and the Yellow-faced parrot are never seen in the pet market.

Breeding Poicephalus

Now we'll take a look at breeding the Poicephalus. Good steady pairs can produce nine to twelve chicks a season and this has been proven with almost all species. When I purchased my first four pair of Senegals, I was as excited as a kid at Christmas. I set them up in 24 inch square cages, complete with cockatiel nest boxes. (I didn't know very much). I fed them all their favorite foods; apples, soaked raisins, peanuts, dry figs, a good parrot seed mix, Nekton S on the soft foods and Nekton E in the water for added fertility. When no eggs appeared in the nest box, I added grapes, walnuts broken in half, carrots, cracked almonds, cheddar cheese, broccoli and fresh corn-on-the-cob. Everything was carefully sliced or quartered. Each day, twice a day, my Senegals were served a banquet and still no eggs. After six frustrating months, a friend suggested I had some very well-fed, same-sex Senegals. I said, Nonsense, I bought proven breeders! I had a lot to learn. Finally, I had my birds DNA sexed and after a lot of switching around of mates, six months later there were eggs in the nest box. I also didn't buy any more proven breeders from that particular source and I replaced the nestboxes with more appropriate ones. No matter what species you are breeding, don't slow down your program by thinking you know the sex of a particular bird.

Breeding Environment

I'm a big believer in setting everything up properly before introducing the birds to their breeding cage. The Africans don't tolerate disturbance well and if you're constantly rearranging the perches, changing the food cups or cleaning the nest box, you can forget having youngsters.

This is what I do when I prepare a breeding environment.

Select a room where there is no family activity, like a spare bedroom, heated garage or basement. The heat in the room has to be kept at 55-60 degrees. Senegals breed all year round so you don't want the chicks to get cold when the parents leave the nest to eat. I also run a large air purifier to help keep the bird dust down. It kills micro-organisms that are harmful and helps to prevent disease. Plug this into its own outlet because it runs continually. Provide at least fourteen hours of daylight. This is done to replicate the longer days of a natural breeding season in the wild and to stimulate breeding under artificial conditions. Put your lights on a timer with a dimmer switch. My lights come on at 6:00 a.m. and to go off at 8:00 p.m. I have two night lights that come on automatically when the lights go out. I use Vita-Lites which provide a healthier atmosphere than incandescent bulbs.

My Senegal cages are 1/2 inch by 1 inch, 16 gauge galvanized wire mesh with a swing out door, perch and plastic tray. They are 36 inches long by 24 inches wide and 20 inches high. They can be stacked one on top of the other and you can purchase legs as an option. When I install the perches I use manzanita branches that cannot be destroyed. They are mounted at each end of the cage so there is room for a short flight. I keep a supply of natural woods on the floor of the cage so the breeders have something to chew on. I always put toys in my breeding cages. My birds breed and I've never found toys to be a deterrent. After all, what are they supposed to do when they aren't breeding? I use heavy dog crocks for feeding and watering. One is for seed or pellets, one for water and one for soft foods. I also put a quality mineral block like Manu beside one of the perches.

I prefer the grandfather clock nest box made from half inch thick plywood. The dimensions are ten inches by ten inches by eighteen inches deep. Be sure there is a secure branch across the front of the hole so the birds can go in and out without its becoming loose. I attach a ladder of wire with heavy staples on the inside of the box which provides a way for the breeders to get to the bottom of the nest. I put at least five inches of L & M Aspen shavings on the bottom and the inspection door is four inches from the bottom and hinged to open from the top. This keeps the eggs in the nest from falling out when I look in the box. I had the best success breeding Senegals when I kept the lighting low and covered the top of the cages. This worked for me but as you will hear, other breeders have no problem with their birds breeding in full light. I also run a humidifier in the breeding room and keep it well away from the cages. I like the humidity at between 60 and 70 percent for helping the chicks to hatch. Senegals usually do very well once they start breeding. You can expect three to four eggs per clutch at least twice and sometimes three times a year.

Jeannie Pattison breeds her birds outside. She lives in Florida. I live in New Hampshire. She doesn't feel the size of the cage is all that important. However, stability and calmness seems to change with the length of the cage. Jeannie tried putting small cages in large flights and found out that the Poicephalus would spend all their time in the smaller cage, going into the flight only to eat. The height of the cage from the ground does seem to matter, with four feet being about right. Jeannie uses two by fours instead of natural branches because they are easier to replace. Africans chew up perches so fast that very shortly, they need new ones. Her feeding dishes are on the same end as the nest box and placed up high. The reason for this is if the male isn't a good father, the hen will feel more secure leaving the box to eat on her own. Water dishes are large and at the opposite end of the flight. That way, when you are changing the water, you can observe the nestbox where the birds go to hide. If they don't go in, you can be sure there is something stopping them, like a snake. Also, the reason the water dishes are so big is so the hen can saturate herself before going back to the nest which they do when the eggs are near hatching. Jean uses the following welded wire cage sizes: African greys and Capes: 3 x 3 x 5 to 6 feet; Jardine's: 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 4 feet; Timnehs 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 by 5 feet; and the smaller Poicephalus: 2 x 2 x 4 feet.

African birds are tight sitters and keep their babies warm and quiet. But they are also nervous birds and may require a different nestbox. Try a 12 inch L-shape for African greys, ten inch L for the Timnehs, Jardines, and Capes and an eight inch L for all other Poicephalus. Fill the bottom of the box about one-half to three-quarters full of pine L and M bedding, a good part of cypress mulch and a little 5% Sevin dust.

Compatibility and Territory

The two most important issues with your pairs will be compatibility and territory. Body language and behavior are always different when you're around your birds, than when you aren't. A truly compatible pair will share with each other. They will pass a nut back and forth, and if one is sitting on the bottom of the cage chewing on a twig, the other will join in. When they are not compatible, they act very busy. If one is chewing on a twig and the other joins it, it will fly drop the stick and move or fly away. It's not an aggressive or defensive move, it just says, You're not my favorite bird. I would separate that pair and if they are aggressive toward each other, separate them immediately. Poicephalus are quite capable of killing their partner.

Jardine's males always keep their hen toward the back of the cage when you're around. The male positions himself between his mate and you and is very protective. My Illiger's macaw male is exactly the same. When the Jardine's hen is coming into season she will have a color change of the white eye ring. Normally it's ivory to flesh color and it will take on a yellow tint. Just prior to egg-laying, the eye ring becomes orange. It is the male Meyer's that does all the nestbox preparation work and digging. The hen will pace back and forth at the entrance hole while he's working. When he comes out, she goes in. Then, she comes back out and explains to him how she wants the furniture moved and he jumps right back in and works some more. Sounds a little like a marriage doesn't it? Red-bellied parrots hardly make any nest at all. One day, all of a sudden there is a nest, sort of, and a few days later, the eggs. Jardine's and Cape pairs work the nestbox together and Senegals usually don't go into their nestbox until breeding season. They also both work on the box.

If you have only one or two pair of birds, it's difficult to assess whether or not you have really compatible birds. Please don't think they are if you only see them when they KNOW you are around. Bonded pairs, which so many breeders and brokers sell, really has little to do with breeding in my opinion. Two birds of the same sex can be bonded. Your bird can be bonded to you. My husband is bonded to his computer, TV or me, which ever happens to be around at the time. An incompatible but bonded pair will always have a more dominant bird while the other is submissive. This produces a very stressful situation for the submissive one.

Does a bird perceive its territory as impenetrable space? And what can we do to fulfill that perception? The answer is simple. Provide the birds with security. We know an animal will fight to its death to protect its territory. Usually, the males are the protectors. With birds, they both get into the act. The hen must feel secure. That's evidenced by the fact that nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will get her babies, including you. If her security is threatened she will kill her eggs or babies. The male must feel he's providing security and he works very hard at it. One of the most important things we can do to provide security is partitioning between cages. Senegals and Meyer's are the most vicious and determined when it comes to fighting with neighbors. If there is so much as a tiny hole in the partition, they will work at it all day to get at the next cage. If they're doing that, they aren't breeding or feeding their mate while she's brooding. Red-bellieds bicker and breed, bicker and feed. Jardine's on the other hand, could care less when it comes to breeding. But they go nuts when the eggs hatch, trying to drive all neighbors away. Capes appear to be very territorial and display almost like an Amazon.

Courtship and Mating

Every species has its own special ritual and dance that lasts about ten minutes if they are really serious about mating. Once the ritual is over, breeding takes place. The male usually mounts the hen, but not always. Some times they take turns. Mating takes about ten minutes but can go as long as 20. African birds are very slow and deliberate about it and the male will feed the hen much of the time. This sequence can go on for a month before any eggs are laid but two to three weeks is more normal. Now comes the hard part. You have of course, checked the nestbox every day so you know when the first egg was laid. Since the hen won't seriously start brooding until the second or third egg you can add 28 days to the day the first egg was laid for a hatch date. Now add three weeks for the date you will pull the chicks. Have your brooder prepared because when you open the nestbox you need to be ready to take the babies out. I always tap three times on the nestbox BEFORE I open it to do any checking. This avoids panic which results in mutilation, abandonment and killing of babies. I really think this behavior is the fault of the breeder. We are either messing with them too much or setting up incompatible pairs. Remember, they will fight to the death to protect their chicks so when you open that box, be ready to pull those chicks. I feed all breeders with chicks their regular seed mix, as much corn-on-the-cob as they will eat and a cooked bean, rice or corn mix. I have also used Crazy Corn, original bean recipe.

Parenting

African birds are great parents. A hen with her first clutch is constantly in with her eggs and babies. She is always a little nervous. You're going to think she died in the nestbox because you'll never see her. As she becomes a seasoned breeder she becomes so relaxed you'll wonder if the eggs are even warm. This is when she really gets her motherhood act together and believe it or not, you will see this reflected in the babies. As she relaxes, so do they. You'll see this happen when you have fed five or six clutches from one pair. The difference in temperament of the babies is incredible. Africans will leave their eggs a few days before hatching. I think it's like a cooling down period to acclimate the chicks to the real world temperature and avoid shocking their systems.

Chicks

I pull the babies at three weeks of age and after the parents have given them their evening meal. I don't feed them until the following morning so they are good and hungry. Since African babies don't cry a lot for food, and are a joy to feed, you have to be careful you don't overfeed a chick. If you don't let them get hungry and see an empty crop, their feeding response can stop.

Pulling Chicks

I have noticed some definite temperament differences with babies regarding how traumatic pulling them was. I got very sweet babies from the breeders that left the nestbox when I pulled the chicks. These same birds have had more traumatic pulls when they wouldn't leave the box and I had to pull the chicks while listening to them growling. I really think there must be some kind of parrot communication going on there that has affected the babies' temperament. And they are less sweet than previous clutches. I believe the way in which the chicks are pulled from the box can affect them for the rest of their lives. Plan pulling carefully and make it as problem-free as possible. If it has been a tough pull, try to compensate for it during the hand-rearing stage.

Sibling Aggression

The Poicephalus seem to have a sibling aggression problem. Jardine's are the worst, Meyer's next and it's less apparent in the Senegals and Red-bellieds. What happens is this: as the hand-feeding babies get older, you'll have one that is a little nippier or more skittish than the others and you don't know why. You treat them all the same with exactly the same level of care. Here's what may be happening, and it's so subtle you may be missing it. As you walk into the nursery, all the babies run to meet you. In this happy frenzy, two of the little ones peck at the third one. After a few days of the conditioning, two of the three babies run to greet you and the third one does back flips to get away from you. This usually happens in clutches with an uneven balance of sexes. If there are more females than males, the males get picked on. If there are more males than females, it's the female that takes the punishment. Jean Pattison has a solid theory about this. She believes it may be nature's way of driving the opposite sex from the flock to prevent inbreeding. Interesting thought, yes?

So often we listen to our family and friends but do we really hear them? To be a serious aviculturist, I believe it is vital to not only listen to our birds but to hear them, especially with our hearts. Thank you.


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