August 27, 2010

Grey Cheeks are Great

by Robbie Harris

The popular little 8-inch grey-cheeked parakeet has captured the hearts of millions of bird fanciers as well as impulse buyers who just happened to walk aimlessly through a pet shop one day with no idea that they would become happy grey cheeks owners.

Most people know this bird (Brotogeris pyrrhopterus) by its common name, the grey-cheeked parakeet, but it is also called the orange-flanked parakeet, the orange-winged parakeet and the pocket parrot. The main color of this small parrot is bright green; its underparts are a little paler. The forehead, cheeks and chin are gray, and the large, bright orange patches on the underwing coverts are the basis for two of its alternative names. The orange color just peeks over the tips of the shoulders as the bird sits on a perch with both wings held close to its body, but when the bird lifts its wings, the bright orange patch is clearly visible. The wing coverts are blue, and the primary feathers are a greenish blue. There is also a bluish tint to the crown.

Very young grey cheeks are easily distinguished from adults by the upper beak, which is gray to black in color. The younger the bird, the blacker the beak. Usually by the time the young bird is 6 months old, the beak has lightened to the horn color of the adults. After the beak changes color, it is hard to determine the age of the bird. Young grey-cheeked parakeets are usually just as colorful as the adults.

Wonderful Pets If Hand-Fed

Grey cheeks inhabit a small range in western Ecuador and northwestern Peru. When they were first introduced into the United States in large numbers (less than a decade ago), they were very inexpensive. Thousands were imported, and most of them were completely tame and sweet, costing from only $25 to $35 each. A good friend of mine who retails birds purchased 150 grey cheeks the first time they were imported in such large numbers. Within five days, he sold every one of those virtually unknown little parrots, and customers were begging for more. Needless to say, the quarantine station quickly sold out of all the grey-cheeked parakeets in stock. To this day, when grey cheeks are imported, a good many of them are spoken for even before the birds are released from the month-long U.S. quarantine.

Most people are unaware that grey cheeks are not naturally tame. I have seen many adult imports that were just as nippy and feisty as a wild lovebird. Tame, sweet imported grey cheeks are birds that have been hand-reared. The South Americans remove the chicks from the nests and accustom the young birds to being handled and fed by humans. Thousands are collected for future sale to foreign bird dealers. Often the young grey cheeks are not even cracking hard seed when they arrive in quarantine stations. These grey cheeks are fed cooked cracked corn and/or soaked monkey biscuits. Sometimes grey cheeked chicks have to be hand-fed by quarantine station employees.

Some bird breeders have allowed the parents to fledge their own young because the people thought that hand-feeding grey cheek chicks would be a waste of time--that the chicks would be tame no matter how they were raised. Most of these domestically bred, parent-raised chicks became completely wild, nippy birds.

Choosing and Keeping a Pet

When purchasing a grey cheek for a pet, start with a young, tame bird. This types makes the best pet because it is playful and may learn to talk. My son's pet grey cheek will come to him no matter where he is in the house. When he calls Peppy, she flies right to him. She also returns to her cage on command. Peppy trusts Larry enough to lie still on her back in his hand until he tells her to roll over. This little parrot has the personality of a larger parrot yet is a compact size. I have also noticed that my grey cheeks seem to be extremely intelligent.

Any cage suitable for a cockatiel will do just fine for a pet grey cheek. Perches should be 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter; dowels too large or too small could cause foot problems. Natural branch perches are always welcomed for climbing and chewing.

Grey cheeks love to play on open playpens with treats and safe toys. They should, however, be supervised when out of their cages because they can be very mischievous and wander off, possibly damaging furnishings or endangering themselves.

Grey cheeks, like all other birds, need a well-balanced diet to be healthy and strong. Our grey cheeks are offered parakeet mix, safflower seed and medium sunflower seed. If more convenient, a good cockatiel mix is suitable. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a vital part of the diet that all our grey cheeks love. Each day they receive a bowl of various soft foods such as sprouted seeds, apples, oranges, peaches, bananas, grapes, peas, corn (fresh or frozen), spinach, grated carrots or beets, or whatever is in season at the time. Grey cheeks, young and old, also relish monkey biscuits soaked in water or fruit juice. Some grey cheeks even enjoy meal worms as a special treat (which are a good source of protein).

To illustrate how unusual some of their personalities can be, I had a pair of grey cheeks who began dumping the contents of their soft food bowl when their first clutch of chicks hatched. Even when I refilled the bowl, they turned it over. For days, I kept offering them the soft food mixture over and over. Then one day when I scooped some of the soft food in their bowl, the pair ran over to it chattering with excitement. They immediately started to pick out all the peas--that particular scoop of soft food contained extra peas. This time they did not tip over their bowl. The next time I fed them, I put extra peas on top of the soft foods, and again the pair was excited, and the bowl remained right-side up. I soon figured out that when this particular pair has chicks in the nest, they demand extra peas, and if not given their way, the soft food goes flying. Once the chicks are removed for hand-rearing, this pair acts "normal" again, content with my usual mixture of soft foods.

Breeding Grey Cheeks

Grey-cheeked parakeets can be bred in cages or aviaries. They are very hard to sex because they are not sexually dimorphic. In some cases, males appear to have slightly larger heads and beaks than females, but this is not necessarily reliable. The most accurate way to determine the bird's sex is to have the bird surgically sexed. Keep in mind that surgical sexing is an operation that can be more risky with smaller birds, so find an experienced vet to perform this procedure. In small birds, the dosage of anesthetic can be critical. Grey cheeks seem to recover best if they are kept warm while they are waking up from the surgery. I advise against having a special pet surgically sexed just out of curiosity. The risk is justified only if you intend to breed the bird.

When setting up pairs of grey cheeks for breeding, give each pair its own cage or aviary. Breeding pairs can become quite ill-tempered when getting ready to go to nest and may even kill other birds in the same enclosure. I've had even the tamest pair of grey cheeks become vicious toward me, lashing out to attack while I am trying to feed them or clean their cage. Our pairs use standard parakeet nest boxes with a layer of pine shavings on the bottom. There is no set number of eggs per clutch. A clutch can be as small as three eggs and as large as eight, but our normal clutch size averages four to six eggs. (I had one hen that laid an egg every other day for about six weeks; this is not normal!)

The incubation period is 25 to 26 days, but some fertile eggs do not hatch for more than a month after they are laid. Some birds seem to start incubation only when they are almost finished laying all the eggs in the clutch. The hen may stay in the box with her newly laid eggs, but she may not sit tightly until at least three or more eggs have been laid. Usually the hen does most of the incubation with the male standing guard just outside the box. Both parents tend the chicks when they start to hatch.

Because the hens do not start to set until they have laid three or more eggs, it is not unusual to have the first three eggs hatch on the same day. The chicks are tiny, smaller than baby budgies, but they grow rapidly. At 12 days old, their eyes are open, and within two more days, dark quills can be seen developing under the skin. This is the time to start pulling babies for hand-feeding. Because grey cheeks have such large clutches, the nest can become quite crowded, and the parents must work very hard to feed all those hungry mouths. Hand feeders have learned that it's best to first take the largest two or three chicks, leaving the rest with the parents, then take a couple more several days later.

Grey cheek chicks are a pleasure to hand-feed if the parents have done a good job for the first two weeks. Before that, they are almost too small to handle and, unfortunately, they are almost impossible to foster. After the two-week point, they eat eagerly and grow rapidly, and even before they are feathered, they are showing the bold, affectionate personality that endears them to pet owners. Although they are small, their nutritional needs are the same as other South American parrots, so grey cheeks will thrive on a baby formula that has been successfully used on larger parrots.

At about 4 weeks old, feathers start to pop through the quills on the tail and wings, soon followed by color on the rest of the body. If left with their parents, chicks fledge at about 6 weeks old, with both parents continually feeding the chicks outside the nest box until they are eating on their own. By the time they are 9 weeks old, the babies are usually weaned and eating mostly soft foods.

When the chicks are eating on their own, they should be removed so the adult breeders can return to nest. Most of my pairs have only one clutch per year, but there are some that double- and even triple-clutch. One excellent pair raises three clutches a year, averaging four chicks per clutch, between February and July.

Breeding Indoors or Outdoors

The grey cheek is a very hardy bird housed outdoors in Southern California weather. An indoor pair can be kept outside (weather permitting) as long as they are properly acclimated to the weather conditions. Late spring to summer, when the evening temperature does not drop below 55 degrees Farenheit, is usually the best time to move birds outdoors. Our birds are housed outdoors year-round and survive weather as hot as 118 degrees in the summer and as cold as 28 degrees in the winter. Of course, they have shade and shelter to protect them from the elements.

The grey-cheeked parakeet will hybridize with most other Brotogeris species, given the opportunity. One of our grey-cheeked hens who was temporarily housed with a male canary-winged parakeet laid a fertile egg, but the egg did not hatch. I have heard of other grey cheeks that were paired with other Brotogeris, however, producing hybrid chicks.

More people should be encouraged to set up pairs of grey cheeks for breeding. I know of several people who have set up their pairs of grey cheek pets by attaching a parakeet nest box to their cage in the living room. Many of these birds have gone to nest and raised chicks right there in the midst of normal household activities. Two pet birds can become a family. Their cute chicks can be sold or given as gifts to friends or family, thereby spreading the joy and pleasure of owning these precious little characters.

In the past couple of years, relatively few grey-cheeked parakeets have been imported into the United States. Most of the grey cheeks hatched in the world end up as single pets to spend their lives in cages. The wild population is dwindling. When there are no more imports, we will have to rely on domestically bred grey cheeks. We must start now if we are to assure that grey cheeks can still be available, popular pets in the next decade.

Article originally appeared in the November 1987 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.

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