An Introduction to Senegal Parrots
by Terry Beaudoin
VOL 10 No 1 #51 Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report)
In my first Pet Bird Report (recently retitled the Companion Parrot Quarterly) article on the Poicephalus parrots in (the 50th Anniversary issue, Vol 9 No 6 # 50, I spoke at length about the general observations I have noticed in the species from this genus that I am familiar with. Those being the Senegal, Meyers, Red Bellied and to a lesser degree Jardine's Parrots. I also discussed what my first experiences with these birds (about 19 years ago) were like. This article begins a series of several about these Poicephalus species and what I have seen them from them when they are raised as well-socialized, healthy companion birds. As the title states - this first article will concentrate on Senegals.
First a few statistics about Senegal parrots. The Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus) originates from central western Africa where they live in moist woodlands and on the edges of the savannahs. They are the most commonly owned bird of the poicephalus genus. Senegal parrots average about 9" in length and the birds I have raised and worked with have attained a typical adult weight ranging from 130 grams up to 170 grams. The 170 gram bird was a bit overweight - his owner liked to refer to him as 'big boned'. These birds are primarily green with a grey head and appear to be wearing an orange cardigan sweater. If these birds are on a quality diet and receive enough full-spectrum light (UV-B) they will develop a dark black bandit mask across their eyes as they mature. The eye itself has a dark black pupil surrounded by either a grayish-white or bright yellow ring in the adults. It is currently agreed upon that there are three subspecies: 1) Poicephalus senegalus senegalus - have a yellow colored belly, 2) Poicephalus senegalus versteri - have a reddish colored belly which has caused some to refer to them as 'Red Senegals', 3) Poicephalus senegalus mesotypus - have a deeply orange belly. I have heard of several methods of visually identifying the sexes in Senegals but have found that DNA sexing is the only truly accurate way. Having said this I will list a few of the ways that have been fairly accurate: - If the birds head is large, square shaped and broad and flat above and between the eyes the bird is most likely a male (my wife has referred to this as the blockheaded male method). This does not mean that a bird with a rounded narrower head is necessarily female though as I have seen as many males as females that look this way. -Female birds have a smaller, sleeker beak than males. - Males tend to be overall larger and chunkier. -The V of green on the chest stops higher on male birds ending midway down the front where in the female it extends much lower and usually ends between the legs. The last method worth mentioning that seems to have some success is used in mature (2+ years) birds only. If the underside of the birds tail is completely yellow or very light yellow green it is more likely to be male whereas if the underside of the tail is green or a combination of yellow and green it is more likely to be female. As an aside - I always recommend having your bird DNA sexed to accurately know the sex of your bird. If your veterinarian is ever drawing blood for any reason it is very simple for them to draw a tiny amount extra to send in for this test. There are many benefits to having your bird sexed. One of the most important of these is that a qualified avian veterinarian will be able to practice a better, more accurate form of preventative medicine when they know a bird's sex. For example: Reproductive disorders in female birds that are associated with egg-laying can be watched for and many times prevented from being a severe problem.
Senegal Parrots are one of the few members of the parrot family that non-parrot enthusiasts would consider cute when they are featherless chicks. Baby Senegals very quickly develop a uniform layer of grayish-white fuzz all over their bodies. This gives them a cute look similar to that of baby chickens or ducklings. This was quite a change for me as I was used to raising baby cockatiels who initially look like little baby dinosaurs with yellow-grey patchy fuzz on about half of their bodies. In cockatiels this quickly disappears to be replaced by porcupine-like quills as their feathers grow in.
By comparison Senegals keep their fuzzy coat of down and grow in their feathers through and eventually over it.
Baby Senegals grow very rapidly and can consume amazing amounts of formula considering how small they are. The distinctive, high pitched peep-peep sound that Senegals use to pester their parents into feeding them gets more and more urgent as they age from two to four weeks and then begins to settle down as they learn that they can actually eat on their own sometimes. Most of the Senegals I have raised have developed very quickly. They will often times begin eating even the larger sized formulated diets at the early age of five weeks. It is interesting to see these small youngsters whose feathers have only grown in about halfway reach over and pick up a big chunk of Scenic or Harrisons Bird Diet and smash it up with great gusto. Please note: I do not advocate the force weaning of baby birds and all our birds are handfed formula as long as they will take it. We begin offering them a varied diet containing formulated diets, a small amount of an organic human consumption grade whole foods mixture (5 or 6 individual different items each day including nuts, dried fruits and veggies and some seed) and a large variety of high vitamin A veggies and some fruit as well as pastas, beans, etc… Senegals also develop very quickly physically. By six weeks of age many Senegals are doing things that it would take other species of parrots several more weeks of development to attempt. This is when we move them into a cage from their brooder. I would recommend a minimum cage requirement of 24"Lx24"Wx25"H to give them enough room to exercise and burn off some energy. A properly sized play tree or gym is also a must at this point. They will already be up on their perches and climbing throughout their cage. They will be hanging on and attacking their toys while many other species of parrots would be just developing enough balance to try standing on a perch. At as early as three or four weeks we like to get these guys out of their brooder and show them around. They have had foot toys and several smaller hanging toys for about two weeks which imprints upon them the safeness and fun of a variety of toys. These little guys will roll around on their sides or back playing with their toys and their toes for long periods of time at this age. This is also a great time to work on them accepting whatever we wish to do to them as far as touching them all over (I call this gently 'mauling' your bird) including their feet, wings, head and even the inside of their mouth (we wash up thoroughly before doing this).
By five to six weeks we will have them out in a play tree climbing about and socializing them to the bigger world around them. This is a wonderful developmental stage in which it is quite easy to get Senegals to accept just about anyone or anything as long as we do it in a calm, gentle way. If we spend time regularly socializing Senegals from these ages on up we can help prevent the 'phobic' responses we will sometimes see in them when they are five to six months of age or older. Note: Please refer to my first article, The Poicephalus and I - VOL 9 No 6 #50, Pet Bird Report (recently retitled the Companion Parrot Quarterly) for a more thorough explanation of phobic behaviors and their causes in poicephalus parrots. At this age juvenile Senegals look quite similar to adult birds except they have a large entirely dark eye. At anywhere from ten months to two years Senegals will develop the distinctive dark pupil surrounded by the white or yellow eye ring. In juvenile senegals the grey markings on the head are not as distinct as the more solid grey helmet and dark bandit mask that develop over the next year or so. Although they are not known as great talkers this is also a good time to work on speech training with these birds. They really seem to begin trying out their voices at this point in their development. Senegals are, for the most part, one of the more naturally quiet members of the parrot family. I am not saying that they are completely quiet - I am saying that comparatively speaking they are on average quieter that many parrot species. Senegals, like all parrots, have the ability to make noises that even the most tolerant of bird owners could find disruptive. Senegals can be quite good at learning to mimic sound effects. I have heard a number of them that have learned to exactly imitate phones ringing, doorbells chiming, smoke detector alarms or even fax modem sounds to perfection. When speaking Senegals usually tend to have either a high-pitched almost computer generated voice or a soft, grumbly voice. It is not uncommon for Senegals to learn ten or more words from someone who is willing to put in the effort to teach them that talking is a great way to get attention from us.
I have always felt that I would rather have my birds try to get my attention by vocalizing in ways that are fun and interesting rather than by trying less desirable methods.
By seven to ten weeks of age Senegals are typically into everything. They can hardly stand not being able to explore everyone and everything around them. They usually will only accept hand feeding formula twice per day at this point and each feeding is only a portion of what it was a few weeks ago when we were feeding four plus times per day. They are developing independence and I feel this is something to encourage. I really begin to teach these birds how to play on their own at this time. Whether in their cage or out in their tree I will be sure to give them a good variety of toys and will rotate them regularly. One of the things that I like best about these birds is how easy it is to teach them independence yet also keep them wanting our attention whenever we offer it. Many species of birds have a much harder time understanding the concept that we are not able to directly give them our attention at all times. Senegals seem to quickly accept the idea that it is OK for us to be in the room with them but be doing something else either in their cage or out on a gym while they play and occupy themselves. Stopping by regularly to praise them, offer a scratch at the base of the back of their neck (a favorite poicephalus spot) or to pick them up for a few minutes is enough attention to keep them happy. With a little effort it is simple to create a bird that is content without having to be held and occupied always. One of the most common mistakes made with Senegals and all companion birds is the creation of an overly dependent animal. If you are always holding your bird and occupying it's every moment through these stages it will begin to think that things will always be this way. Many people start to lose some of their interest in the bird or have other things come up in their lives that cause them to spend less time with their bird. These birds have a terrible time accepting this. Unfortunately, members of the parrot family, including Senegals, have always had ways of making their unhappiness known. Most of these methods are not desirable - in particular noise or aggression. One of the most desirable characteristics of Senegals as companion animals is the relative ease with which we can teach them to be easy to live with, long-term companions in our homes.
From about eleven or twelve weeks to about twenty weeks most Senegal Parrots really develop a sense of independence and individuality. Very few Senegals in this age range want anything to do with hand feeding formula. They are usually eating just about anything we offer them. The Senegals I have raised have shown a tendency to like veggies over fruits. They seem to like peas (in or out of the pod), both red and green peppers (the hotter the better) and beans of all sorts. Their personalities really seem to explode onto the scene now. Many of the clownish behaviors that Senegals are known for start to show up. Behaviors like rolling over on their backs, burrowing inside of anything that they might have a chance of squeezing into (I recommend giving all poicephalus one of the several huts or snuggies designed for this purpose), and hanging upside down like a bat for extended periods of time. One of the Senegals we raised at Parrot Island was trained at this age to start at one end of his 32" long rope perch where he would flip upside down and then walk down its entire curving length while remaining upside down until reaching the other end where he would right himself and then wait for the crowd's applause. This same bird would also do loop-the-loops on his perch and also stand on his head in a corner of the cage to get attention. These 'tricks' were vastly preferable to some other more obnoxious things he might have tried to get the attention he craved. This stage is also a critical time to keep introducing new foods, toys and people to your Senegal. It is also very important to continue with what I earlier referred to as 'mauling' your bird. Work with your Senegal to keep him tolerant and unafraid of being touched everywhere. Show others that the bird trusts how to do this as well. A little time spent each day on this will keep your bird accepting of new people, places, foods and toys. One of the Senegal Parrots I have known longest actually prefers strangers (especially men, I find it interesting that the bird's primary owner is a woman) attentions over people that she knows. This bird was extremely well socialized especially during the first year of her life and the bird has remained this way ever since.
From five months until two years is the age range that I have seen the earlier mentioned phobic behaviors most commonly develop. Phobic responses are found more often in Meyer's Parrots and Senegals than in the other poicephalus. Rather than going into a detailed description of this behavior and how to approach it here I would refer you to my earlier article (The Poicephalus and I) as well as a number of articles Sally has authored in the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report) for detailed explanations. Suffice it to say here that if we practice the socialization techniques I mentioned throughout this article the chances of a severe phobic response are lessened greatly.
This same five month to two year age range is when Senegals can become holy terrors if they are confused in the least about what it's place is in the flock. We must be sure that all members of the family are viewed as flock leaders. Sally Blanchard's book The Companion Parrot Handbook, my earlier poicephalus article and many other articles in the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka --Pet Bird Report) cover this topic in great detail. Do not slack off on your cute little baby Senegal or it can be amazing how fast they can become fiercely domineering. Senegals have a well earned reputation for fearlessness when they are going through some of their more erratic hormonal development. Pay attention to the signs these birds give when they are 'worked' up. It is hard to miss the raised feathers at the base of the neck or the rapidly dilating eyes that come with an excited Senegal. Reproductive maturity is also a cause of many of these feisty behaviors. Senegals are also very fond of regurgitating (my wife refers to it as 'hoarking') at anyone they think might be a potential mate during these years. The best response to this is to simply ignore it. Do not give any reaction beyond turning away. Do not reprimand the bird for this. Some days you may be spending as much time not encouraging this behavior as you do interacting with your bird. My opinion has always been that we do not want to form a sexual bond with our birds but a bond in which we are the flock leader. The encouragement of a mating bond almost always leads to aggression related problems. Aggressiveness tends to develop with both the intended mate (after all people only go so far in the relationship - at least I have yet to see anyone climb into a hole in a tree and lay eggs for their bird) who gets frustrated at a certain point and also others in the environment who the bird may begin to perceive as competition or a threat to it's relationship with the other person. Female birds who go as far as to lay eggs because of this relationship are also at higher risk for a variety of reproductive disorders. If ignored most birds give up on the person fairly quickly. By being consistent and following some basic rules it is quite easy to develop a thirty+ year companion who will be a joy to live with.
In overview, there are many reasons that I feel the Senegal Parrot is a wonderful choice for many people as a companion bird. They have all the positives of their larger, more expensive (the bird, cage and care costs are all substantially less with a Senegal) and usually more time consuming cousins in a smaller and for many, easier to live with package. Senegals can be very affectionate yet independent. Their clownish personalities can entertain anyone. They have some ability at mimicry and yet are relatively easy to teach to keep their noise level tolerable. When raised with care and guidance the Senegal parrot can be one of the most enjoyable, easiest to live with members of the parrot family.
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