by Robbie Harris
The ever popular grey-cheeked parakeet is part of a genus of birds called Brotogeris. This group has seven species, with the grey cheek now being the most popular.
More than 30 years ago, the bee-bee parrot (also known as the orange-chinned parakeet) was the member of the Brotogeris genus that most people sought out as a pet. Bee bees were offered for sale in most pet shops, and even today, people over the age of 70 are still calling me looking for bee-bee parrots. This bird was a very popular little pet back in its time. The orange-chinned parakeet also goes by the name of the Tovi parakeet, but the bee bee nickname is the most common name used for this bird.
Many years later, over a decade ago, a new little bird was imported here into the United States. These cute little birds stole the hearts of almost everyone who came into contact with them. The birds would beg for human attention, practically screaming, "Hold me, hug me, love me!" For years, the import stations would sell out quickly--many times in just a couple of days. The name of this charming import was the Grey-cheeked parakeet.
The grey cheek imports were hand-reared babies, and that is the only reason they came into the country so tame. Grey cheeks are far from naturally tame birds. A wild-caught adult bird can be just as nippy and feisty as a wild lovebird imported grey cheeks were very young babies that were hand-reared in Ecuador and Peru. For years, the chicks were hand-fed right here in U.S. quarantine stations by employed hand-feeders. Babies were hand-fed a baby food formula two to three times a day until they were able to eat solid foods on their own.
The general care and breeding of all Brotogeris is the same. All the birds in this family make excellent pets when purchased as very young hand-fed babies. The most commonly available is the grey cheek, followed by the canary wing, the Tovi, the cobalt wing, and the golden wing. Until very recently, these were the only Brotogeris being bred in the United States. Now, the Tui parakeet--the most beautiful to me--is being bred here, too (by me). These birds will not be available as pets for many years; aviculturists must establish pairs of them for future breeding. Establishing breeding pairs first and selling pets second is very important for all uncommon species.
Some of the young and adult Brotogeris will tame with much patience and time, but nothing can compare to a hand-reared baby. These by far make the best pets. Grey cheeks and their relatives are highly intelligent, which has contributed to their popularity as house pets. They are very bold, and even though they are only 7 to 8 inches long with a weight of 50 to 60 grams, they will challenge a parrot three times their size.
Members of the Brotogeris genus often become very attached to their owners. Their chattering voices can become loud at times (this happens more frequently with grey cheeks than with the other species). A single bird kept as a pet, however, is usually not very noisy. Most birds learn to vocalize because their new owners run to pick them up or remove them from their cages at the first sound of a peep, thinking, "How cute, he's calling me." Soon, the bird learns to expect attention when it calls. If the bird is ignored, it just continues to scream louder and longer, hoping someone will hear and come to play with it like they used to do. Remember, birds, like all animals and people, learn by association. Take your pet out to play when it is being quiet, never when it is being noisy. Don't teach your bird to call you, and you could end up with a quieter pet.
When purchasing a young, weaned bird, try to be sure of its age. Once the babies of most Brotogeris are fully feathered and weaned, they resemble their adult parents. If you are a novice with birds, you may find it difficult to determine the true age of your fully feathered pet; many young and older birds look very much the same. Healthy baby Brotogeris are feathered by the time they are 7 weeks of age. The most important thing is to buy your bird from a reliable source, whether it's a breeder or pet shop.
Grey-cheeked Parakeet (Brotogeris pyrrhopterus)
The most common of all Brotogeris, the grey cheek has also been referred to as the pocket parrot, the orange-flanked and the orange-winged parakeet. This brightly colored green bird is paler on its underparts. The gray chin, forehead and cheeks are what give this bird its name. The primary coverts are blue, and the crown is bluish. The grey cheek is the only Brotogeris with a bright-orange patch on its underwing coverts, which sometimes can just be seen as a touch of orange on the shoulder tips. When a grey cheek lifts its wing, the large orange area can clearly be seen.
Very young chicks are easy to identify by their prominent black beaks. The black-colored beak will soon turn to the horn color of an adult, usually by the time the chick reaches 6 months of age. Range: Western Ecuador and northwestern Peru
Canary-winged Parakeet (B. versicolurus chiriri)
This is a bright apple-green-colored bird, lighter colored on its underparts. A large band of bright canary-yellow color appears on the secondary coverts. This, of course, gives this bird its common name. There is a slight tinge of blue to the flight feathers. I often see canary wings offered for sale as domestic babies. Range: Parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina
White-winged Parakeet (B. v. versicolurus)
This bird, the nominate race of its species, differs from the canary wing in many ways, almost so much that it seems hard to believe they are just different subspecies rather than entirely different species. First of all, the white wing's green color is darker and slightly more olive-colored. The white-winged parakeet also has a canary-yellow color on the wing and a large patch of white as well. With this bird's wings folded, the white often does not show. White wings also have less facial feathering around the beak and eye areas.
My son Larry has a domestic white wing for a pet, which I raised. This little bird just adores him and will fly to him when he calls her. Larry plays with her as if she were a toy. She'll lie on her back and stand on her head, and stay in that position until he stands her back upright. She has complete trust in him. She also speaks a few words that were not taught to her, things she heard and picked up. Her favorite word is "Larry," which she yells when he is not around. Range: Parts of Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru
Orange-chinned Parakeet (B. jugularis)
Back in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, it seemed like anyone who knew anything about a bird knew what a bee-bee parrot (also known as the Tovi parakeet) was; these birds were commonly kept as pets. Many were brought in the country and tamed for pets. They are mainly a bright-green color with lighter shades of green on the underparts. A bright-orange spot can be seen right under the lower mandible, which gives this bird its common name. A large yellow patch can be found on the underwing coverts. There is a blue tinge to the crown, lower back, rump, thighs, and under the tail and flight feathers. Range: Areas of Mexico, Columbia, and Venezuela
Cobalt-winged Parakeet (B. cyanoptera cyanoptera)
Like the orange-chinned parakeet, this bird has an orange chin spot. The forehead is yellow, and the crown is a bluish color. This birds earns its common name from the wing flights and primary coverts, which are a bright cobalt blue. The central tail feathers also have blue, and the underside of the tail is a yellowish green. The overall color is a dark, almost olive, green.
Back in 1983, I received the first U.S. breeding award from the American Federation of Aviculture for breeding the cobalt-winged parakeet. Since then, I've bred large numbers of these beautiful birds, with my third generation now producing young. Range: Part of Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia
Golden-winged Parakeet (B. chrysopterus chrysopterus)
This bird gets its name from the small orange patch on its outer primary wing coverts. A brownish-orange chin spot is present just under the lower mandible. The forehead has a band of dark brown. The main color of this bird is a very dark shade of green. The crown has a blue tinge, as do the cheeks and flights. This is the shortest Brotogeris, at about 6 1/2 to 7 inches, and the stoutest. Range: Areas of Venezuela, Guiana, and Brazil
Tui Parakeet (B. sanctithomae sanctithomae)
This beautiful bright-green bird has a forehead that is yellow, and this yellow extends to the crown. It looks very much like a small 7-inch version of the yellow-crowned Amazon parrot.
Most Brotogeris have a light-colored beak when mature, but the Tui has a very distinctive chestnut-colored beak. The wing flights are a bluish green, brighter blue on the primary coverts. A tinge of blue can be found on the nape, cheeks and undersides of the wing flights.
My young chicks, when just feathered, had dark eyes. As they grew, now more than 6 months of age, their eyes have lightened. When mature, the iris is a glowing golden color. All other Brotogeris have very dark eyes.
Most books state that there is no breeding of this species in captivity. I am breeding these birds and hope to get breeding pairs well established. The adorable chicks are a real challenge to retain for breeding stock; they would have made beautiful pets. I am resisting this temptation, however, to create and establish large numbers of breeding pairs before I ever consider them suitable for the pet market. Range: Areas of Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia
Plain Parakeet (B. tirica)
This bird is also known as the all-green parakeet, with this title describing the bird's basic overall color. The plain parakeet lacks the color of other Brotogeris. A bluish tinge is on the hind neck, mantle and underside of the tail. The upper back and wing coverts have a brownish tinge. This bird is not available in the United States. A blue mutation is part of a bird collection in Brazil. Range: Brazil
A good diet with a variety of foods is very important for these birds to help them maintain excellent health. An improper diet can result in vitamin deficiencies that lower birds' immunities toward diseases.
A well-balanced diet for Brotogeris must contain a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many diets on the pet market today are called complete diets--such as pellet-type diets. As nutritious as these foods might be, Brotogeris need fresh fruits and vegetable in their daily diet. Even if the manufacturers of pelleted diets insist their foods are complete, please offer fruits and vegetables along with the pellets. My birds have done very well on their diet for 20 years now. The following is what I feed my breeding birds as well as my pets.
As a staple food, I offer a seed mix containing a medium-size sunflower seed, safflower seed and a parakeet mix (containing 42-percent canary seed). This food is available to my birds at all times. A good cockatiel seed mix should work just fine for pet grey cheeks or other Brotogeris. Included in their dietary needs is fresh clean water and a mineral block. The mineral block I use is the all-in-one mineral block that contains grit, oyster shell and minerals. Each day, various fruits and vegetables can be offered to your birds. Keep in mind different individual birds prefer different things. The various foods I offer are apples, oranges, peas (fresh or frozen), corn (fresh or frozen), beets, carrots, and greens (spinach, collards or Swiss chard). These can usually be found year round at your grocery store. Additional foods, when in season, are also good to include. These foods include grapes, cherries, plums, pears, bananas, peaches, squash, papaya, and sweet potato (baked and cooled). Other nutritious items include multi-grain wheat bread and breakfast cereals.
Never feed avocado. I know of many birds that have died after eating this fruit. Never use spoiled or overripe produce. To ensure that no insecticides remain, make certain all fruits and vegetables are thoroughly washed before you offer them to your birds. Also purchase a good bird vitamin and lightly dust it on fruits and vegetables at each feeding.
A simple, safe cage--like one for a budgie or cockatiel--will do just fine for a single pet grey cheek or any other Brotogeris. If using a cockatiel cage, make sure the bars are spaced close enough together so that the bird cannot get its head between them. Many birds injure themselves or worse by getting their heads caught.
Playgrounds with toys and various foods make great play areas for pet grey cheeks. Be sure to supervise your curious pet when it is out of its cage. Grey cheeks are known to get themselves into mischief, so keep a close eye on your pet. If enough toys and treats are kept on their play areas, it helps keep these energetic parrots from wandering off. Many good, healthy treats are available at pet shops, and they should keep your pet happily entertained.
Other interesting treats that seem to amuse my birds are different types of breakfast cereals. Trix now comes in different colors and shapes that seem to generate interest from birds. Other fun cereals come in O's, such as Cheerios.
Both sexes of Brotogeris species look alike, so picking pairs can prove difficult. I have all my birds surgically sexed by a competent veterinarian who specializes in birds. Yes, problems can arise from surgical sexing, and a bird can be lost, but this is very rare. I suggest that people do not surgically sex their pets, but have the sex determined by other methods available, such as DNA and feather chromosome analysis.
Sometimes the hens seem more petite in the head and face, and the males may be a bit larger in size. Keep in mind this, too, is not always true when picking out birds; there are many large hens and some very small males.
In the wild, Brotogeris nest in termite mounds found in trees. Aviculturists are unable to come up with these mounds in captivity, so we use the next best thing: wooden nest boxes. I line my Brotogeris nest boxes with a soft type of cork that is used for ceiling and wall covering. This cork comes in 12-inch square tiles. I can easily break these tiles into any size when working with them. I attach the cork lining with a nontoxic glue, such as a white school glue.
At the bottom of the nest box, I place a 2- to 4-inch layer of white pine shavings. The birds will toss out any or all that they do not want inside, so don't worry if your Brotogeris thinks you added too many shavings and send them flying everywhere.
I breed and house only one pair of birds per cage. Quarreling can and does happen when two pairs occupy the same cage. These birds are very capable of killing one another when fighting over territory, so keep this in mind when setting them up for breeding. I live in Southern California where the weather is somewhat mild all year. My birds do well outdoors all through the year. In areas where the weather is good, these birds do just fine outdoors, but they will breed well indoors too. I have seen people breeding grey cheeks right in their living rooms with all the family commotions going on. These grey cheeks seemed to feel right at home and went ahead with their own business. When these birds are ready to breed, there is no stopping them.
I have had very young pairs go right to nest and produce young even before they were a year old. I set up my breeding pairs close together so they can see one another. Grey cheeks remind me of the old saying, "monkey see, monkey do." If one pair starts breeding, many times the other pairs follow and do the very same thing. This type of behavior can send the whole colony to nest, so sometimes it is a good idea to set up individual pairs close together within sight of each other.
The average clutch size is four eggs, but they can lay as many as seven. Usually, however, they will not raise that many on their own. If there are large clutches, I step in and help out, usually by removing some of the older chicks for handfeeding. Many times I have even raised all the chicks from day 1, hatching them in my incubator.
I feel an incubator is a must for anyone who owns breeding birds--even one pair. Many incubators are very inexpensive, costing under $150. One life saved will more than pay for that incubator. I use the incubators put out by Lyon Electric. I run at least six of them at all times during breeding season, hatching eggs as small as a parrotlet's and as large as a big macaw's. When incubating Brotogeris eggs in an incubator, I can candle the eggs in just four days and see the embryo developing (I use the M.D.S. probelite). But when candling eggs under a pair, it could take close to two weeks before I can see if the eggs are alive.
Many Brotogeris do not start incubating their eggs until the last egg has been laid. They may look like they are incubating when they actually are not. Usually an egg is laid every other day, so the complete laying process could take almost two weeks.
Don't discard any eggs until you are absolutely sure the eggs are no good. I have known too many people who broke open eggs that they thought were no good because of the length of time they were in the nest box, only to find a live under-developed chick inside. Incubation is about 26 days from the time the hen starts to sit and actually incubate her eggs. Candle yours eggs about one week after the last egg was laid to be sure of what is happening inside of them.
Most of my Brotogeris, which are set up outdoors all year, start to breed in late winter or early spring. Most usually lay one clutch per year. A few will lay two clutches per year, and on very rare occasions, three times per year. Birds set up indoors may breed anytime they please, even nesting numerous times a year. Remember, each pair is different and has its own individual personality.
Sometimes, owners of grey cheeks become upset when their cuddly pets become aggressive and nippy. If this happens, it is usually an indication of sexual maturity and the birds' desire to breed. Instead of getting rid of their pets like some owners do, these people should buy mates for their birds and supply them with nest boxes.
Hand-Fed Brotogeris Pets
Hand-fed Brotogeris make excellent pets. When raising Brotogeris chicks, it is best to remove them from the next box for hand-rearing between 2 to 3 weeks of age. If the parents raise them all the way to weaning, the chicks may not end up tame, and too much work may be necessary to tame them into sweet, trusting pets.
Handfeeding them at about 3 weeks of age is easy. You can make your own formula or buy a good commercial formula. Many different brands are offered in pet shops. For grey cheeks, as well as any of the other Brotogeris, I would be sure to add some baby food fruits and vegetables. A couple of different varieties are available at grocery stores, and you can add a very small amount to the formula at each feeding. Applesauce, peas, green beans, corn and sweet potato are just a few that may be good choices to add. Add one or two types of fruit or vegetable per feeding.
All hand-reared Brotogeris make excellent pets. Grey cheeks are the most sought after of the Brotogeris because their availability has made them popular. Many people became owners of imported, handfed grey cheeks unexpectedly when they walked into a pet shop to browse. These tame birds just begged for attention, and before the unsuspecting person knew what was happening, he or she became a new bird owner. Soon the word spread that the grey cheek was the only bird to own as a pet. Well, this is just not true. There are lots of really nice birds out there, but the key thing to remember is that they should be hand-fed and tame. Make sure the bird is tame when you get it. You should be able to handle the bird at ease without getting nipped.
There are other Brotogeris besides the grey cheek that are being bred and make just as nice and wonderful pets. Canary-winged and Tovi parakeets are often offered for sale and make great pets when hand-fed. Cobalt-winged parakeets are rarely available, but when they are, they, too, make excellent pets.
We as birdkeepers and breeders need to be aware of bird-related issues in our world that change quickly. New regulations concerning animals are being drafted all the time, and imported birds that some of us took for granted may soon be unavailable.
A few years ago, new regulations were put into affect that would no longer allow the importation of baby birds unless they were eating on their own, requiring no handfeeding at all during their quarantine stay. All imported birds had to be completely self-sufficient. The day of the real baby grey cheek as a pet may soon end unless they are domestically reared in larger numbers. Most of the grey cheeks imported were still young and tame, because they were hand-reared in their country of origin.
Now there has been an even newer regulation that has just gone into effect pertaining to grey cheeks. This has stopped all imported grey cheeks from entering the United States. Now, anyone wanting a tame grey cheek is totally dependent on grey cheek breeders. The most unfortunate thing about this situation is that there are very few bird breeders keeping and breeding grey cheeks and other Brotogeris. Something must be done quickly to set up pairs for future breeders to enjoy. Right now, there are still large numbers of grey cheeks in the United States. Pairs can still easily be put together. Soon, however, it may be next to impossible to procure these birds.
Look at the very popular bee-bee parrot, a formerly popular member of the Brotogeris group that has practically disappeared. There were large numbers of these birds at one time too. Now it takes some effort to find even one for sale. This is what could easily happen to the grey cheek if people do not start obtaining them and creating true pairs for breeding.
Soon, if not already, the famous grey-cheeked parakeet will be very difficult to find--especially tame sweet babies. Regulations to stop all birds from entering our country may soon be imposed. With all the deforestation, very few birds may be left on earth at all. Domestic breeding of birds is a must!
I can remember telling people that when importation closes, the price of grey cheeks will soar. Well, that time has finally come. The shortage of grey cheeks here may not be felt for some time because of the large numbers that were imported in the past few years. But the number of available baby grey cheeks has now been cut drastically.
Yes, they do take some work and patience to breed successfully, but believe me, they are well worth the effort. These birds should not only be kept as pets but bred as well to assure a future supply. If this does not happen, they may disappear for good.
Article originally appeared in the March 1993 issue of Bird Talk. This is copyrighted material, reprinted with the author's permission. This article may not be reprinted without written consent from the author and Bird Talk magazine.