Poicephalus and Pionus Parrots

© Howard Voren

Those of us who realize that bird ownership is a learning experience will often find that our desires change or expand as our experience and knowledge increases. The most common experience is to start off with one of the smaller birds and "graduate" to something either a bit larger or more exotic as our desires expand. The three groups that most commonly fit into this niche are Poicephalus, Pionus and the conures.

The group known as Poicephalus (which is also the scientific name for the group) has a range that includes most of the central and southern part of the African continent. Although they vary in color ornamentation all the common ones share a distinctive color characteristic that is common only in parrots from Africa, an extensive gray to brown coloration somewhere on their bodies.

The group as a whole have the ability to be very rewarding as pets. With handling they become well socialized, very affectionate pets that love to be handled and have their heads scratched. They are active birds and can be an unending source of enjoyment as they comically play with their favorite toys. Although their general talking ability is average, some birds have been known to develop vocabularies of close to one-hundred words. One of the advantages of the birds in this group is that they are not noisy and do not scream for attention when left alone. In fact these sweet hearts seem to not mind being left alone for extended periods of time, as long as they have a good assortment of toys.

The most commonly encountered member of the group is the Senegal (P. senegalus) from the western part of Central Africa. Although their overall body coloration is green their entire head and nape is grey. Their lower breast and abdomen is yellow with some tinges of orange. Some birds appear to have more of an overall orange coloration, although yellow is the more common color. The bright yellow of the underside of their tail adds to their beauty. There is a difference in the coloration of the sexes that can be determined by noting how the green of the upper breast "bleeds" into the yellow-orange of the lower breast. In males the transition from green to yellow is rapid and presents itself as an uneven line of color change at mid breast. In females the green of the upper breast "bleeds" down through the center of the birds breast and forms a V of green coloration into the yellow on the lower breast. As pets they are very charming and playful. Some have been known to learn rather large vocabularies, others will only learn a word or two. Most will allow a wide variety of people to handle them. If, however, they are allowed to bond with only one person, they can become very protective and aggressive to anyone that they see as an intruder.

The Meyer's (P. meyeri) of eastern Central Africa is the next one in line when it comes to availability. Its basic overall coloration is an ash-brown. This is beautifully set off by the yellow at the bend of their wing as well as around their thighs, and across the crown of their head. Most of this yellow is absent with their baby feathers and develops as they mature. Although they have the reputation of being a bit shy, once won over, they will shower their human companions with affection. Although they are not the best talker of the group they do not tend to be as stingy at sharing their affections with others, even if they are bonded mainly to one person in the household. They are very "laid back" and there are many that can be trusted with small children.

Third in line on the availability list for this group is the red-bellied parrot (P. rufiventris) from the northern part of east Africa. Both males and females are a grayish-brown color on their heads and upper-breast. There are also variable orange flecks on the cheeks. Their rump is a yellow-green that has a distinct blue wash. This is where the similarity in coloration between males and females end. The female's breast and abdomen is green, the males is a bright reddish-orange. The male's coloration develops as it matures. Red-bellies have a wonderful personality and can be rated as the clowns of the group. They seem willing to go through any type of antics in order to get your attention. They are also the best all around talkers of the group. Unlike many talking parrots, they seem to enjoy entertaining house guests. They do however have the reputation of being nippy. They are an excellent pet for a family with no small children.

The last readily available member of the group is the brown-headed (P. cryptoxanthus) from south-eastern Africa. Their plumage has none of the bright color accents of the other three members of the group. The head and neck is a dusky brown. the rest of the bird is mainly green with a brighter shade of yellowish-green on the rump. It is very similar to the Meyer's in personality. With monitoring and common sense you can allow these birds to interact with young children.

The diet of these birds should contain a limited seed mix of both small and large seed. This should be supplemented with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Their cage size will depend on how much access your bird has to "outside time". A small 18"x 18"x24" cage is fine if the bird allowed to spend its days on a playpen and is only confined to the cage in the evening. If they are going to spend most of their time in a cage then I would recommend something more ample, due to their love of going through playful gymnastics. In this case you should think more along the lines of a cage that measures approximately 24"x24"x32".

Next is the group known as the Pionus parrots. There are four members of this group that are available in the pet trade on a regular basis. The most popular is the blue-headed Pionus (Pionus menstruus). Their range is the greater part of northern South America. An overall green in coloration they have a bronze hue to the feathers on the sides of their wings. Their most outstanding characteristic is their beautiful cobalt blue head. Young blue-heads will have 30 to 80 % of adult head coloration with their first set of baby feathers. The rest fills in over the first two major feather molts

The most common variety one finds available is the White-capped Pionus (Pionus senilis). The range of these is Mexico south through Central America. These multicolored birds are difficult to describe. Adults have a large white patch on the top of their heads. They have the typical patch of bronze coloration on the sides of their wings, and variable cobalt blue on areas of the cheeks and breast. Babies are much duller looking then adults. Since their color does not fully develop until they are about two years old their popularity suffers because prospective buyers have a difficult time imagining how pretty they are at adulthood.

More sporadically available and becoming extremely popular are both the dusky (Pionus fuscus) and the bronze-winged Pionus (Pionus chalcopterus). The duskies' range encompasses sporadic localities in northeastern and central South America. The bronze-wings' range is even more restricted, being confined to the north-western coast of South America from Venezuela south through Colombia and Ecuador to Peru. From the rear, both of these birds are a bit similar. An overall bronze coloration to their backs and wings give them a very unique look among the parrot family. From the front they differ drastically. The bronze-wing has a light colored beak and a dark purple-blue breast; the dusky has a dark beak and the bronze-brown of its breast and belly is suffused with hues of blues and red-purple.

All of these are about ten inches long including a three inch tail. These pint sized parrots have captured the hearts of anyone that has shared their home with them. They are the perfect bird for those that live in apartments and are worried about the noise factor. They are also an excellent bird for those that are just beginning the experience of parrot ownership. Although they have no trouble learning a few phrases of human speech, they never develop extensive vocabularies. This is something that is dictated by their quiet nature. They more than make up for this with their sweet and affectionate personalities. Many times when Pionus mature, they will, if allowed, bond with one person in the family and become a bit aggressive toward other members.

Diet is very important for these guys. It must consist of a good quantity of fruits and vegetables with very limited quantities of seed. Since they are not very active, they tend to put on excess weight very easily.

Caging requirements are not very demanding, again due to their inactive nature. A standard 20"x20"x32" is usually sufficient if the bird is allowed recreational time on a play pen top.

Your local pet shop is the best place to go to get valuable experience with a variety of birds from each of these groups. Invest in which ever type you feel that you interact with the best. Whatever your choice, it will give you a rewarding relationship. All of them make marvelous beginner birds for those that take the time to interact with them.

Thanks to Jean Pattison "The African Queen" for input on the Poicephalus.