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A Tale of Three Meyers Parrots by Terry Beaudoin

This article is the third in a series done for the Companion Parrot Quarterly covering my observations of the Poicephalus parrots. I have written these articles in a way that the reader will benefit most by having read them in order. Even though you may own no other member of the Poicephalus I can attest to having learned much through the observation of other members of this genus that has helped me to better understand each individual. The first article is titled The Poicephalus and I and is found in Issue #50. The second can be found in Issue #51 and is titled An Introduction to the Senegal Parrot. The only member of this group of birds that I have more experience with than Meyers parrots would be the Senegal. Considering how many more Senegals are owned than Meyers (there were vastly more Senegals originally imported as well) you could probably guess that I have had quite an interest in them.

The Meyers Parrot is native to a broad area covering Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. They can be found in Uganda, Western Kenya, Eastern Zaire, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, Northeastern Botswana, Zimbabwe, Western Mozambique, Namibia and the Northern Transvaal (South Africa). The Transvaal populations as well as some others seem to be declining due to habitat destruction. The few people that have studied these parrots in the wild believe that there are most likely six subspecies. These subspecies probably developed in part due to the huge area of somewhat varying habitat that they can be found in. These subspecies can be difficult to differentiate between. Most of the differences have to do with whether as adults (2+ years of age) they have yellow on their head or not, or those that have greenish or bluish coloration to the feathers on their lower bellies. As with a number of other parrot species in captivity it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between subspecies. This is due to the fact that most breeders who have bred these birds were unaware of the fact that there were different subspecies. Although deliberate species and subspecies interbreeding (which I think is unfortunate) does occur in the breeder community most often this occurs by accident. They simply paired up two Meyers parrots and hoped they would produce offspring. This breeding of parrots without an understanding of subspecies differences has led to most people owning a hybrid of one or more different types of subspecies. I certainly do not feel that this in any way diminishes the individual bird's pet potential but it is sad to think that some of the subspecies of Meyers parrots (and other birds) may disappear soon or are already gone because of it.

The six subspecies are:

  1. Poicephalus meyeri meyeri which has yellow on the head with a turquoise belly
  2. Poicephalus meyeri saturatus which has yellow on the head with a green belly
  3. Poicephalus meyeri trasvaalensis which has yellow on the head with a greenish belly (this bird is thought to hybridize with the Brown Headed Parrot -Poicephalus cryptoxanthus)
  4. Poicephalus meyeri matschiei which has yellow on the head and a bright blue belly
  5. Poicephalus meyeri damarensis which has no yellow on the head and a turquoise belly
  6. Poicephalus meyeri reichenowi which has no yellow on the head and a turquoise belly.

Most people have simply split the Meyers Parrot into two groups - those with yellow on the head and those without. Most Meyers parrots develop some yellow on the shoulders.I have seen individual birds with anywhere from almost no yellow to birds where half of the visible wing (when folded) is yellow.

There is no definite way to externally determine sex in the Meyers Parrot. As with the other Poicephalus these birds do tend to show a tendency for adult males to have a larger, box shaped, flat-topped head than the average female. I have yet to see a Meyers parrot with one of these large box shaped heads end being DNA sexed as a female, but I have seen a few birds with smaller rounder heads that were eventually determined to be male.

Because of space constraints and a desire to concentrate on my observances of specific traits and behaviors of the Meyers Parrot that differentiate it from the other members of the Poicephalus I would refer the reader to the two articles mentioned in the first paragraph of this article for information on proper socialization, diet, housing and general care that apply as much to the Meyers parrot as to the other Poicephalus. By space restraints I am referring to my tendency to ramble on and turn what was supposed to be a three-page article into a ten-page monster.

Why is this article entitled A Tale Of Three Meyers Parrots? My first successful involvement with breeding Meyers Parrots was the hatching and rearing of three babies. These three babies were about as different as they could be and still remain Meyers Parrots. The differences found in these three siblings are a great example of the wide range of behaviors I have found in Meyers parrots overall. They were all bundles of white fuzz when they were pulled from the nest box at three weeks of age, but there was already one difference that stood out - their size varied dramatically. It is actually very normal for baby parrots at this age to show a substantial size difference due to age. Most parrot species lay two to four eggs per clutch and these eggs tend to hatch approximately thirty six to forty eight hours apart. It is amazing how much difference an extra day-and-a-half to two days of feeding can make! The thing that made these birds unusual was that although the oldest baby was definitely bigger than the youngest, the middle baby was about as big as both of them combined! This led my good friend Scott (in whose home these birds were hatched) to name them Adam, Hoss and Little Joe after the Cartwright sons from the TV show Bonanza. Of course these names led to many jokes. The most rememberable one for me had to do with Little Joe and the possibility of this bird ever being paired for breeding. It was pointed out that Michael Landon's character Little Joe Cartwright never had a girl friend survive an episode of Bonanza. We wondered if this unlucky trait would transfer over to any romantic interest of our Little Joe as well. As these three siblings developed we began to notice definite personalities in each. Adam, the oldest, was the most cautious and tended to watch the others attempt anything new before deciding it was safe. Hoss seemed to try to throw his weight around right from the start. He was not aggressive or 'mean' to the others but he did not understand that when he would barrel into the middle of the others to get at something that they would be plowed over as a result. Little Joe, the youngest and smallest, was pretty quick to realize that size could be made up for by speed and fearlessness. Meyers Parrots go through stages of development (dexterity development, weaning, fledging, etc.) that are very similar to that of Senegal Parrots and I would again refer the reader to my previous articles for detailed descriptions of these stages. The DNA sexing results came back on the trio when they were about eight weeks old. The head-shape and size theory I mentioned earlier definitely was born out with these three. Adam and Little Joe, both of which had narrower, rounded heads, were females. Hoss, who had the largest, squarest head I had ever seen in a Meyers Parrot, was a male. Of the approximately two dozen Meyers parrots that I have known well (there have been many others I have worked with short-term) I have found that they tend to vary in size and weight substantially. Overall they are between seven and ten inches in length and weigh between one hundred and one hundred and seventy five grams. As adults these three weighed in at one hundred five grams for Little Joe, one hundred thirty grams for Adam, and a whopping one hundred seventy five grams for Hoss who was definitely not overweight. To this day Hoss is still the largest Meyers Parrot I have seen.

As the three birds continued to age their personalities became even more divergent. Adam, who had always been the most cautious, remained so. She preferred direct interaction with people who she had come to trust. She was very affectionate and liked nothing more than to be with people cuddling up. She was certainly playful as well but was always looking for an opportunity to hop on somebody. Hoss, on the other hand, was much more specific about who he liked to interact with. He was never shy or cautious about anything he did. At the age of about eight months Hoss decided that he could intimidate people that were unsure of themselves. This hesitancy in some people may have stemmed in part from Hoss' large size and confident attitude. Although a one hundred seventy five gram bird does not seem very large to those of us that have worked with substantially larger species of parrots, when placed next to Adam and Little Joe, Hoss could look quite impressive. As I will continue to state in these articles - Poicephalus can be pugnacious birds that seem to have no idea of their size in relation to other birds or people. It should be understood as well that when Hoss, or any properly socialized Poicephalus, is handled by someone understanding the basics of Nurturing Guidance and who is confident and calm that he was very well behaved. Hoss also began to show a talent for mimicking sounds and speech at this age. Little Joe, who rapidly became my favorite, continued to be a real clown. I think she had to make up for her size with personality. She was always the first bird to try anything new or find something to get into trouble with. I have seen several articles talking about Meyers parrots being shy and retiring, this has not been my experience with most of them. As long as these birds are not secluded from new experiences, whether they are toys, new foods or people, they remain quite outgoing. The Meyers Parrots that I have worked with directly or heard about that were described as shy and fearful of new things were almost always that way because somewhere along the way their lives became stagnant and void of new experiences. The fearful birds that did not fit into this category were almost always birds that had a lack of socialization. One good example of Little Joes' attitude that comes to mind had to do with the introduction of a new toy. My wife, Shari, builds some wonderful toys and one of these toys is called a Hide & Play Ball. This toy consists of a twelve-inch plastic ball that has four large holes ringing its middle and leather, cotton rope, plastic chain and an assortment of toy parts hanging from it. From my description you can tell that this is a quite large, impressive toy, especially when viewed by a bird that is as small as Little Joe. The three Meyers were sitting out in their play tree one day when we decided to try out this new toy. Generally we move quite slowly and do a number of things to prevent spooking our birds when we introduce new things to them. In this case because the birds did not seem concerned I simply walked up and hung the toy about a foot above them. As usual Adam showed some interest but was more concerned with the opportunity to convince me to pick her up. Hoss, in his slow deliberate way, began climbing up to check it out. By this time Little Joe was barreling full out towards it and immediately climbed up one of the cotton ropes hanging from it and leapt inside of it! This is an example of three very different birds presented with a large, bright red toy that was hung right above them (many birds are nervous about things moving over them) and yet they acted out of curiosity rather than fear. Proper socialization and continuing introduction of new things and experiences is key to the development of a well adjusted Meyers Parrot that will continue to be interested in interacting with the objects and people around them throughout their entire lives. Little Joe also began to excel at imitating noises at this age. She also began picking up a few words. Hoss was definitely the best mimic with Adam never showing much interest in it at this time. All three of these birds continued to be very interactive with anyone they regularly saw. New people had to prove themselves before these birds would accept them. The proof was simple - if someone was willing to remain calm and step them up and then just sit calmly with them for a few minutes speaking to them - they were OK. As a general rule Meyers parrots are not accepting of someone unfamiliar to them who attempts too much too quickly. But then, this could be said about most species of parrots. I know a number of well-socialized Meyers Parrots that actually prefer to interact with someone new over those they are familiar with - although how long they stay interested depend on the individual person's ability at interacting with birds. For the most part Meyers Parrots are like any number of other parrot species in that if they have been socialized correctly they usually have their favorite person that they will seek out when given the opportunity but they are also OK with other people as well.

Adam, Hoss and Little Joe enjoyed a number of things that I have found true of Meyers Parrots in general. They all enjoyed lying on their backs and playing, whether in our hand or their cage. In varying degrees they each enjoyed being cuddled. From Adam who lived for it to Hoss who had to be in the mood to Little Joe who was fine with it but not as driven for it as Adam. All three were very acrobatic and playful. Little Joe was amazing to watch as she would navigate from one tiny branch to another or climb across a rope perch while completely upside-down. They all seemed to enjoy chewing on soft narrow pieces of wood and knotted leather the best. We always give these birds the opportunity to sleep in one of the various tent type beds available. These three were no exception in that they each readily accepted them and would also most always sleep in them. I think these birds also appreciate having a place like these tents provide in their cage where they can tuck away during the day if they feel like it. Each of these birds had varying abilities at mimicry. Hoss was exceptional for a Meyers Parrot, as he seemed to pick up words and sounds quite rapidly. Adam and Little Joe each would say only a few words but were outstanding at imitating sounds like beepers, phone ringers, fax modems or squeaky doors. The customer that purchased Adam kept in very close contact with us (we are lucky in that most people who purchase our birds do) and reported that when Adam was about one and a half years old she began to pick up quite a few words suddenly. As far as noisiness - these three birds were very tolerable. Meyers Parrots are like the other Poicephalus species in that they are able to make substantial noise including a very high-pitched piercing peep. They are also one of the easier birds to keep reasonably quiet. It is unusual for a happy, well adjusted Meyers Parrot to need more than once or twice per day to bust loose and let everyone know they are happy to be alive. All three birds loved their baths and if they did not receive one each morning they could be seen in their water dishes shortly thereafter. These birds were also very good eaters. They were willing to give just about anything a try. I have found that they seem to prefer vegetables over fruits but this could just be a tendency our birds develop because we feed about twice as many vegetables as fruits. These three birds also exhibited a generalization of Meyers Parrots as a whole in that males tend to be slightly feistier than females. By feistier I refer to the males tendency to test their flock status more often than the average female. I think they also tend to be more serious about territorial situations as they sexually mature (one to two years of age). Another behavior I have seen all the Meyers Parrots I have known to exhibit was a real skill at messing up their cage. As someone who has worked with birds all my life I have seen more than my share of messy parrots but Meyers Parrots give Caiques a run for their money. If they were primarily fruit and nectar eaters I think Lories would be dethroned as the kings of the messy cage. A large, easy to clean cage without a grate is essential. These birds also love to soak their food in their water dish. I think this is just fine and recommend the changing of their water at least twice daily or whenever you notice it needs it. I believe this to be the birds response to eating more dry processed foods in captivity than their digestive system was adapted to in the wild.

The last behavior that I have seen to be more pronounced in Meyers Parrots as opposed to the other Poicephalus is that of the phobic reaction. In my experience Senegals are a close second but I have seen even more Meyers show phobic behaviors than Senegals. I do not think this possibility should scare anyone away from these or any other species of bird. Instead they should be aware of the possibility and treat it as something to prevent much as they would wish to prevent the development of an overly noisy or aggressive bird. Please read the section entitled The Phobic Period which can be found in the article The Poicephalus and I in Issue #50 as well as the other excellent Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report) articles on this topic. I have had excellent success with both the prevention of phobic behavior in birds through proper socialization and care as well as curing the behavior in birds who have exhibited it for as long as three years. I believe the best answer is prevention. Through a better understanding of how to raise a companion parrot I think we will gradually see the end of phobic behavioral responses in these and other birds.

In my opinion the Meyers Parrot is another great example of a smaller, less flashy parrot that exhibits all the positives of its larger and usually more demanding cousins.

This article was published on Tuesday 22 June, 2004.
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