The Molt in African Parrots

© Jean Pattison — The African Queen

Since living in Florida and my birds being outside, a molt in my birds goes virtually unnoticed. When asked to write about the "molt," I had to stop and think and true to form, I looked up references. Not a good idea, there was just too much information.

The molt (replacing old feathers with new) is influenced by season (daylight hours), temperature, diet, egg laying, species and sex. Also, different types of feathers have different molt rates. A chick's first molt may take over 2 years to complete in some species. The wing and tail feathers may be the last to completely molt out. I personally have had African greys over two years old with some of their first tail feathers retained.

Since African greys first tail feathers are edged with a sooty looking black tip, it is very easy to monitor the progress.

Living indoors, in climate-controlled homes, molting can be thrown off quite drastically. When the furnaces are turned on for winter and when the air-conditioners are cranked up for summer, the temperature changes may cause a more dramatic molting process.

Production of new feathers can cause the metabolic rate to increase 30%, so nutrition and stress should be watched. Of course, today we are feeding our birds much better diets; so don't go overboard in the worry department.

About this time of year, I start getting the frantic phone calls from people worried their bird is starting to pluck. After a few minutes on the phone it is decided they are seeing the first "baby" molt. This molt starts at about eight months and consists of the downy feathers all over the floor. These are actually the most obvious of molted feathers, since there are so many at one time. Other types of feathers seem to molt out at a lesser rate, so may go unnoticed. At about 18 months there seems to be another molt but this is just another obvious part of the "first" molt. Once this phase is complete the bird should just about have its adult coloration.

Over the years I have read many descriptions of the juvenile to adult coloration, and I, like all the rest, have an opinion. I have noted the chicks are as vibrantly colored as the adults, but the colors seem more blended and softer. Adults seem to have much more defined color separation, crisper edges between colors. I think the crisper edges give them a sharp contrast, so the colors appear more vibrant.

Many of the African parrots have feather coloration that can help in visually sexing them. If one is setting up pairs for breeding, the birds should be DNA, or surgically sexed so one is positive of their sexes, but for a quick guide the feathering can be most helpful. Each species has its own unique feather coloration and clues.

As a general rule with the truly dimorphic birds, the chick's first feathers take after the most colorful parent, but there can be exceptions.

Senegal (Poicephalus senegalus)

The Senegal of course is the most well known of the small Poicephalus. Although they are not technically dimorphic, as adults one has a pretty good guess as to the sex of these little birds. Male Senegals for the most part will have solid yellow under-tail coverts (these are not the vent feathers), while the hens may have as little as one half a feather touched with green. Other hens may have more than 50% green on the under-tail coverts. Back in the "olden-days" Senegals were sexed by how deep the green "V" went down the chest. When getting birds out of quarantine this was a good indicator, since all the birds came from the same area, the subspecies were usually the same. This only works if the two birds are the same subspecies.

The different subspecies of Senegals have chests of different colors, as well as the grey on their heads. The chest color goes from yellow to almost red on the three subspecies. With diet and breeding season, the chest colors may intensify so all the subspecies take on a deeper richer color. Yellow chested Senegals may turn a bit orangish, and orange chested Senegals will take on more red.

Meyer's (Poicephalus meyeri)

This group of birds is really a confusing species. There are six subspecies, and some have yellow on their heads while others don't. The chest colors of the different subspecies are blue and turquoise, and green. Most, but not all, subspecies of chicks have little to no yellow on their heads when they first feather in and they develop more yellow as they age. Quite a few years ago, Mike and Jenny Mandeville (Europe) stated Meyer's were dimorphic, in that the males had predominate black bars on their chests. Upon inspection a lot of us have found this to be true. Newly feathered babies, from the same clutch, were very obviously different. The key is the feather condition. In hens that are due for a molt, this can be deceiving because of the worn feathers being shorter and showing the bars underneath. As a guide, new feathers are a good indication of the sex in the Meyer's.

Red-bellieds (Poicephalus rufiventris)

Finally a truly dimorphic Poicephalus. As adults there is no mistaking the gender of these little birds. The male has the vibrant orange chest, while the hen's chest is a muddy green or a muddy orange, depending on the subspecies. Early literature had the chicks resembling the mother (not the pretty one), but later as more of these were being bred, it was established the chicks resembled the male parent. Some aviculturists claimed their chicks were dimorphic, which many breeders could not agree with. As it turns out, the large majority of red-bellied chicks resemble the male, while an occasional pair has chicks that resemble the hen, and even more confusing an occasional pair has chicks that are dimorphic. Recently an aviculturist pointed out that male chicks, have a slight orange band across the back of their necks. She has been able to verify all her chicks with DNA sexing as being correct, using this method.

Brown-headed (Poicephalus cryptoxanthus)

At this time we know of no way to visually sex these parrots. There are too few aviculturists working with them to have a good database.

Jardine's (Poicephalus gulielmi)

Not until fairly recently have the subspecies of this Poicephalus been sorted out, here in the United States. Depending on the subspecies, some have a lot of color (lesser and black-wing) on their heads, while the greater Jardine's has very little. Rarely do chicks have any color at all, but they have dirty bronze faces and heads. Some Jardine's can also have pretty gold or bronze tail feathers. With age the colors on the head appears and grows larger in the first few years. Some Jardine's have had orange down the side of the face as well. The lesser Jardine's may have color ranging from buttercup yellow to almost red on the crown, while the black wing and greater have a reddish color. In sexing the adult lesser and black-wing, it seems the color on the head falls down to meet the eye ring on the hens, while on the males this band is narrower and does not touch the eye ring. This is a quick guide and not definitive.

Un-capes (Poicephalus fusicollus)

As with the other African species of parrots, the chick's coloration takes after the most colorful parent. In this case, the adult hen is the one with the coral feathering on the head, so both sexes feather with the hen coloration. With the first baby molt (about eight months) both lose the color and the hen gains it back with each consecutive molt. The amount of coral coloration can be quite variable from bird to bird. Often times, when pulling the chicks at three weeks, the color on the head is already apparent. In my experience, I have found the males in a single clutch have more color than the hens, as chicks.

We've learned a lot in the last few years, and it seems ... the more we learn, the more there is to learn. I hope this has shed some light on a few of the more common questions concerning our African parrots and their feathers.