OUT OF AFRICA

(originally published in the July 2005 issue of BirdTalk magazine)

By John Geary

Mention the word “Africa” to most people, and there’s a good chance they’ll probably conjure up images of lions, or rhinos or elephants. However, say “Africa” to anyone fortunate enough to share their life with a parrot that traces its ancestry back to the “Dark Continent,” and visions of Congo greys, Senegals, lovebirds or ringnecks may dance through their heads.

While Africa is home to 23 species of parrots, this article focuses mainly on species commonly kept as companion animals.

AFRICAN GREYS: Intelligent, sensitive and very vocal

The African Grey Parrot, Psittacus erithacus, is the largest parrot found in Africa. Wild greys range throughout Central and Western Africa, and can be found in western sections of East African countries. They live in primary and secondary rainforest, forest edges and clearings.

There are two types of African grey parrots. The Congo, P. e. erithacus, is the larger of the two birds. They sport bright red tail feathers and a black beak. The Timneh, P. e. timneh, is smaller, its tail feathers are more of a maroon-grey color, and its beak includes tints of a reddish-beige color. These birds are often less high-strung and more mellow than Congos, while Congos are generally characterized as possessing slightly more intelligence than Timnehs.

Both are incredibly intelligent and require plenty of stimulation, both in terms of playtime with their humans and through the use of a variety of interesting toys for them to play with when not interacting with humans.

As a general rule, African parrots as a group tend to be less demanding and less noisy than other birds like cockatoos or Amazons. However, because of their highly intelligent natures, greys will require more attention than most of the other parrots covered here. They are not always the best choice for a first parrot, unless you are prepared to invest a good deal of time.

Many people prefer greys as pets because of their ability to imitate human speech. Wild greys communicate through shrill whistles, squawks, and screams, and often mimic other birds and mammals. This is evident in many pet parrots, as they imitate cats, chickens, owls and other domestic and wild animals.

Their mimicry talent is not restricted to human speech; they readily and skillfully imitate many household sounds, including microwaves, telephones, coffee grinders and percolators, computer modems and water faucets, to name just a few. More than any parrot, they seem to be able to use words and sounds in context, rather than just mimic speech.

They tend to be moderately noisy, and generally don’t engage in early morning or early evening screamfests as do some parrot species. They can be very loud though, emitting a shrill, cutting peep if they feel ignored or annoyed. They are not the best choice apartment dwellers.

While they have a reputation for not being as “cuddly” as other birds, that may depend on how they are brought up and who is doing the cuddling. They often cuddle with their favorite person, as they tend to bond strongly with one person. They should be socialized so that they are comfortable with many people handling them, though.

Because wild greys spend more time on the ground than do many other wild parrots, they are more vulnerable to predator attack. This may explain why they seem to be more sensitive to their environment. They frighten more easily at strange sounds, sights, even strange foods. They seem more rigid in their routines than many parrots, although it is important that you don’t allow them to stick to a schedule too rigidly. Vary things within a broader pattern, so they don’t become too inflexible, which can lead to problems later.

Greys do have a tendency to feather pick or chew, sometimes from boredom, sometimes from stress, sometimes from dietary problems. About a third to a half of their diet should consist of a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw; about a third should be formulate pellets, and the remainder some nuts and seeds and a bit of fresh fruit Some greys do tend toward low blood calcium, so in addition to feeding veggies with plenty of Vitamins A, K and E, include calcium-rich foods. Good food choices include sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, green peas, carrots, green beans, almonds, walnuts, apples, cantaloupe, mango, and grapes. You can occasionally treat your grey to some rice, pasta or a little lean meat.

The cage should be large enough so that the bird can spread its wings without touching the sides. For an African grey, the minimum requirements are 24” by 24” by 28”, with bar spaces no smaller than three-quarters of an inch and no larger than one inch. Make sure there are perches of difference sizes and shapes in the cage as well as some horizontal bars, so they can climb around, something at which they are very adept and something they do in the wild quite regularly. Avoid round cages; parrots feel more secure in cages with definite corners.

Make sure you include a variety of toys in their cages or play areas; provide toys for them to chew and destroy, toys that provide intellectual stimulation (some greys love untying knotted leather laced through wood) and “food” toys like fruit/veggie skewers.

POICHEPHALUS: Cuddly clowns, avid acrobats

Poicephalus parrots range throughout the southern half of the African continent including as far south as the southeastern tip of South Africa, west to Senegal, and even extending as far east as Kenya and north to the Horn of Africa in Somalia. The group includes Senegals, Meyers, Jardine’s, red-bellied and brown-headed parrots.

As a group, Poicephalus parrots are not known to be extraordinary talkers, but while they may not turn a phrase as readily as some other species, they certainly make up for it with their “body language.” They are very acrobatic and active, somewhat mischievous and usually love exploring their environment.

Meyer’s parrots are the smallest of this group, and it’s a toss-up between them and Jardine’s parrots as to which is a more popular pet. Meyer’s love laying on their backs, using their feet to engage in silly activities. They tend to whistle more than talk. They are very affectionate and show very little tendency towards aggression, making them a good choice for a home with children, provided the children are not too rambunctious. They also seem to be more willing to meet new people and form multiple relationships than some other species.

Senegals, on the other hand, have a tendency to be one-person birds, forming strong bonds with particular individuals or territories. It may take a while for those bonds to form, however.

Senegals do sometimes go through nippy or fearful stages and may not form bonds until they’ve grown out of theses stages, at about two years of age. They are the second most widely available African parrots, behind African greys.

Red-bellied parrots may be the best talkers of all the Poicephalus parrots. They may also be the shyest of this group. You can place little “hide boxes” in their cages to provide extra security for them, but make sure you let a good amount of light into the boxes, or you may accidentally trigger nesting behavior. Red-bellied parrots are sexually dimorphic, that is, the male and female of the species display different feather colors.

As with all parrots, there are always exceptions to these general rules. Lisa Szumita, a parrot lover in West Point, Utah, counts a Meyer’s and red-bellied parrot among her flock. She says the reverse is true with both her birds when it comes to talking.

“Tinker, my Meyer’s, actually talks better than Squeaker, my red-bellied parrot,” she says, “even though it’s supposed to be the other way around.”

She says both are very cuddly, although her two-year-old Meyer’s is going through a nippy stage right now.

“Tinker’s right in the middle of it, Squeaker went through it too, at about the same age, but he grew out of it.”

Jardine’s parrots display good talking potential. They are capable of developing large vocabularies, and are almost grey-like in their abilities to imitate sounds. They are also very accomplished whistlers. They are generally very even-tempered.

Jardine’s can develop Vitamin A deficiency more easily than other parrots. They also tend to produce overgrown beaks more so than parrots. You can counter the former problem with proper diet, the latter by making sure they have a constant supply of wooden toys to chew. If either becomes a problem, see an avian veterinarian ASAP.

Brown-headed parrots boast a lot of “leasts:” of all the Poicephalus parrots, they are the least available as captive-bred birds; they are often the least expensive; and they tend to be the least likely to bite, as they sport a reputation as the mildest-tempered Poicephalus parrots.

Despite their activity, Poicephalus parrots tend to gain weight easily, so the usual diet rules for parrots are even more important in order to avoid obesity. Veggies should make up 30 to 50 per cent of their diet, particularly veggies that contain good amounts of Vitamins A, K, and E. This includes sweet potatoes, broccoli, carrots and squash. Peas and green beans are also good choices. Corn is not a good choice, as it is low in the nutrients, but high in calories (these little scamps get pudgy pretty easily, remember?). Another third of the diet should consist of pelleted formula. The remainder can include fruits like papayas, mangos, cantaloupes, bananas, grapes and apples, as well as some nuts, like almonds, walnuts and pine nuts. You can feed them treats of rice, potato pasta, chicken and lean meat occasionally.

Cage dimensions for Poicephalus parrots should be about 20” by 20” by 28”, with a ¾-inch space between the bars. Round cages should be avoided. The cages should be made of steel, brass or be chrome-plated. Avoid zinc and any painted cages, as active Poicephalus parrots can chew off the paint and even swallow it. Powder-coated cages are fine.

LOVEBIRDS: The rainbow birds of Africa

Agapornis, or lovebirds, range almost as far throughout Africa as do Poicephalus, although their occurrence is restricted to smaller areas in west, central, northeast and southern Africa.

Although they are small, lovebirds are parrots, so anyone sharing their life with these little bundles of dynamite should be aware they are very intelligent, and like all other parrots, they can be very headstrong. Just because they are small does not mean they are “low maintenance.”

Lovebird species are characterized by small, stocky bodies, a short blunt tail and a beak that is proportionally large compared to their body. One of the things that attracts people to lovebirds is the incredible array of colors their feathers attain, even varying within a species as a mutation, something common in lovebirds.

Aside from color, another appealing aspect is their quiet demeanor that makes them ideal pets for apartment dwellers concerned about noise. They do have a distinct high-pitched call, but it is rarely loud enough to irritate most people.

One myth that should be shot down is the myth that lovebirds have to be kept in pairs to be healthy and happy. That is not true, and many single lovebirds live very happy, healthy lives with their human(s).

There are some lovebird characteristics of which potential owners should be aware. These birds are not known for their talking ability, although they can mimic sounds and even human voices. When they do talk “human,” their voices tend to be very low and somewhat hoarse-sounding, so they may be difficult to understand.

Lovebirds tend to be more territorial than some other parrot species and some may demonstrate increased aggression during mating season when their hormones kick in.

“I like to call them ‘spicy,’” says Charlene Beane, a California breeder and editor of the African Parrot Society’s journal, African Ark. “They are assertive, they don’t know they’re small and they’re very aggressive.”

This aggression can take the form of possessiveness around their cage or anything they perceive to be their territory. To reduce the possibility of this happening, make sure nothing in their cage can be perceived as nest box, which increases nesting behavior.

When selecting a lovebird, make sure the bird is already calm and willing to be handled. Promises that an excitable bird will “calm down with time” often never pan out.

Males are generally easier to keep than females, but females usually develop into better talkers. Males are more forward and curious. Males have also been known to pluck their mates’ feathers during breeding season.

Lovebirds can have short attention spans, so a number of short play sessions or interactions between humans and lovebirds may work better than longer ones.

Their cages should be large enough for them to flap their wings comfortably, about 18" by 18” by 18” for a single lovebird, with bar spacing of between half an inch to five-eighths of an inch. If you have a pair of birds, the cage dimensions should be at least 30” by 30” by 18.” They love to climb, so make sure your cage has some horizontal bars that allow them to engage in this exercise. Also include a swing or two among their cage toys.

In terms of food, they need to have a varied diet consisting of a good quality small hookbill seed mix, some fresh and cooked veggies, cockatiel or parakeet sized pellets, some grains and fruit treats like figs, apples and pears. Make sure any figs you feed them are sulfite-free. Do not feed these birds (or any other parrot) grit. Some people make the mistake of thinking small birds need grit. Feeding grit will interfere with their ability to digest their food.

Some distinguishing characteristics of different Agapornis species.

Peach-faced lovebirds can make excellent pets, as they tend to be very loyal and affectionate. These showoffs love to play, especially to an audience. Noise is rarely a problem. “I consider them to have the best pet potential of the lovebirds,” says Beane.

Fischer’s lovebirds make very lively pets. Their calls can be quite high-pitched. They are smaller than masked lovebirds, but also tend to be more aggressive.

Handfed masked lovebirds can be very tame and make very affectionate pets. They are occasionally confused with the black-cheeked lovebird, which is a different species. Masked lovebirds will have a full brownish-brown mask covering the crowns of their heads. Black-cheeked lovebirds do not have dark colors on their crowns.

Abyssinian lovebirds have a very different call than other lovebirds. They produce a rough-sound, soft chirp. They are also sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females display different coloring. Abyssinians are not commonly kept as pets.

PSITTACULA: To talk or not to talk …

These parrots range through Asia as well as Africa. (See sidebar for details on other Asiatic parakeets kept as companion birds.)

There are two species found in Africa: the African ring-necked parakeet, P. krameri; and the echo or Mauritius parakeet, P. mauritius. We will only deal with the first here, as the second is not usually kept as a pet, and it is very rare in the wild, when it is found at all on the island of Mauritius.

Authorities differ as to whether the African ringnecks and Indian ringnecks are different species, sub-species or races whose differences are due to geographical differences. The African ringneck has been referred to as P. krameri krameri, with the Indian ringneck designated P. krameri manillensis. They’ve also both been referred to as P. krameri. Together, ringnecks range in a narrow belt across tropical north Africa and into much of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

One common physical characteristic of this group, commonly referred to as Asiatic parrots or parakeets, is a very long tail. Depending on the species, their tails can be up to 18 inches long, while the parrot itself may only be a foot long.

Most Asiatic parakeets are considered to possess moderate to good talking abilities. They tend to be more independent than other parrots, but they still enjoy interacting with, and being talked to by, humans. They generally respond to handling, and can become more affectionate with increased handling.

In terms of food, Penny Anderlini, a Vancouver, B.C. breeder, finds most Psittacula are not usually as fussy as other parrots. They enjoy most fresh and cooked vegetables, and fruit. Include a good quality of seed mix in their diet as well. With ringnecks, you may need to alter their seed mix a little as they may not be able to crack some of the harder items other parrots can crack.

“I feed them the same basic diet as other parrots,” says Anderlini, “except they cannot crack dried corn, beans, peas and that type of material in their mixture.”

The African ring-necked parakeet is not kept as a pet as commonly as some other Asiatics, like the Alexandrine or Indian ringneck, although like other parrots, given the proper conditions and upbringing, it can make a good pet. They are hardy chewers, so keep them supplied with plenty of wood. They really seem to enjoy bathing or being sprayed.

African ringnecks are smaller than Indian ringnecks, and Africans’ beaks are dark rather than orange like the Indians’. Africans only display green colors, while Indians can display as many as 40 different colors.

While not enjoying as renowned a reputation for talking as other species, Indian ringnecks can develop fairly extensive vocabularies. Beane calls them the “poor man’s African grey.”

Anderlini echoes that. “They can talk very well, and they understand what they’re saying.”

Joyce Baum, vice president of the Asiatic Breeders Association, says her experience has taught her that most of the Asiatics can be better talkers than their reputations.

“However, other breeders have had the opposite experience, so it is difficult to generalize that they, as a species, are good or poor talkers,” she points out.

Ringnecks should be kept in cages at least 20 inches by 24 inches, with bar spacing of half to five-eighths of an inch.

While each species of African parrot displays its own general characteristics and similar behaviors within a species, it is important to remember there will always be exceptions to many of the sterotypes we associate with each species. Not all greys are shy; every Poicephalus will not necessarily become a daring acrobat. But whether you choose a grey or a lovebird, a Poichephalus or a ringneck as a feathered companion, you need to accept your bird on its own terms and love it for what it is.

If you do that, you will almost be guaranteed a rich, rewarding relationship with your African friend.

John Geary is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and photographer, a PIJAC Certified Avian Specialist and member of the African Parrot Society He lives with two Congo African greys, Nikki and Coco. When he traveled in Africa several years ago, he didn’t see any parrots, but hopes to rectify that in his next trip there.

SIDEBAR: FIND OUT MORE ABOUT AFRICAN PARROTS

For more information about the parrots described in this article, you may want to contact or consider joining one of the following organizations:

African Parrot Society

P.O. Box 204

Clarina, IA

51632-0204

www.wingscc.com/aps/Default.htm

African Lovebird Society

Agapornis World

(African Love Bird Society-WS)

P.O. Box 142

San Marcos, CA 92079-0142

www.africanlovebirdsociety.com/

Asiatic Parrot Association

4542 E. Tropicana Ave., Rm. 330

Las Vegas, NV

89121

www.asiaticparrots.com/

Asiatic Breeders Association

5932 Clapp Homestead Road

Sun Sites, AZ 85625

www.drzoolittle.net/ABA.html

SIDEBAR: SEARCH FOR WILD AFRICAN PARROTS

If you’d like the opportunity to see some African parrots in their native wild habitat, Button Birding offers “Psitta-seek Tours” in southern Africa. They ran their very successful first tour in July 2003, and plan to continue the tour in 2004. You can contact Malcolm or Gail Gemmell by telephone at + 27 39 8331029 / 082 789 5000, by email at [email protected] or by regular mail at Button Birding, PO Box 60, Creighton, 3263, South Africa. Visit their website at www.buttonbirding.com .

SIDEBAR: AND AS FOR THE OTHER PSITTACULA …

There are several other Asiatic parakeets not found in Africa, including:

Derbyan parakeet: Found wild in the Himalayas and southern Tibet. Captive bred birds are fairly docile. They are very dedicated chewers, so you need a steady supply of wood. Use a 20-inch by 24-inch cage, with bar spacing of five-eighths of an inch.

Plum-headed parakeet: A fairly quiet bird, sometimes intimidated by larger birds. It may become apathetic in too small a cage. Use at least a 20-inch by 24-inch cage, with bar spacing of five-eighths of an inch.

Moustached parakeet: Like the Derbyan and ringnecks, these birds love to chew. Have lots of wood handy, always. Use a 20-inch by 24-inch cage, with bar spacing of five-eighths of an inch.

SIDEBAR: RESOURCES & REFERENCES

To learn more about African parrots, the following books may be helpful:

PARROTS: A Guide to Parrots of the World by Tony Juniper and Mike Parr (Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-07453-0)

THE AFRICAN GREY PARROT HANDBOOK by Mattie Sue Athan and Dianalee Deter (Barron’s, ISBN 0-7641-0993-6)

GUIDE TO THE SENEGAL PARROT AND ITS FAMILY by Mattie Sue Athan and Dianalee Deter (Barron’s, ISBN 0-7641-0332-6)

THE LOVEBIRD HANDBOOK by Vera Appleyard (Barron’s, ISBN 0-7641-1827-7)

FOR THE LOVE OF GREYS by Bobbi Brinker