March 16, 2011

The Grey Cheek: Larger Than Life

Looking for a bird that is affectionate, playful, bold, perky, garrulous, intelligent, inquisitive, fearless, mischievous, feisty, and who thinks that it is as large as a macaw all rolled up in an eight inch long frame? Then look no further, the grey-cheeked parakeet is all of those things and more.

Physical Characteristics
Troll & Radar (photo by Sonja)
Weighing in at 50-65 grams, the grey cheek (Brotogeris pyrrhopterus), also known as a pocket parrot, orange-flanked parakeet or orange-winged parakeet, received its name primarily from its distinctive grey cheeks. Its other distinguishing features are a dusky blue crown, brilliant orange feathers on the underwing, iridescent green feathers on its back, outer wing and tail areas, and a lighter, lime-green shade on its belly. Until 6 months of age, grey cheeks have black or spotty, black beaks and are often not as brightly colored as their parents. As they mature, their beaks become horn-colored (Harris). Grey cheeks are not sexually dimorphic and need DNA testing to determine their sex. According to David Alderton ("You and Your Pet Bird," 1992), the average life span of the grey cheek is 15 years, but some grey cheek owners claim they can live well into their 20s if properly cared for, fed a nutritional, balanced diet, and kept out of mischief.

History/Natural Habitat

According to many sources, the grey cheek was imported into the U.S. in large numbers in the 1970s through the fall of 1992 when importation was halted by a federal bill. Susan Hoss' article, "Hooked on Grey Cheeks," states that grey cheeks were bred by A.R. Hood as early as 1935. Robbie Harris, a California bird breeder and author, is the mostly widely written grey cheek breeder to date with a book (1985) and numerous articles on the grey cheek and the Brotogeris family.


In western Ecuador and northwestern Peru, grey cheeks live in arid scrub lands and deciduous forests, making their nests in old, arboreal, termite nests, decaying wood, or in moss nests in hollow, scrub trees. Their diet consists of petals and seeds of Erythrina trees and the flowers, fruit, and seeds of other native plants (Best, et al.). They also relish the occasional visit to local banana plantations (Worth).

Baby grey cheeks were taken from their nests and hand-fed before leaving their native countries. As a result, they were "tame and sweet" upon arrival in the U.S. or shortly thereafter if the hand feeding or weaning was completed at the quarantine station (Harris and Worth). Because they were so popular and plentiful when they were being imported, Harris mentioned that they sold for as little as $25 - $30. In addition, Harris' prediction of soaring prices is now a reality; they currently range in price from $175 - $400.

Grey cheeks are "near threatened"* in the wild (Collar, et al.), and although they are fairly plentiful within their restricted range in Ecuador, they are now extremely scarce in Peru. Some of the threats to grey cheeks are loss of habitat, local trade, and formerly, the international trade, when they were imported into the U.S. by the thousands, seriously depleting the wild population (Best, et al.). This species is considered the most endangered of the Brotogeris family (Best, et al.). Luckily, four areas inhabited by grey cheeks are protected reserves or national forests, though more areas that they inhabit will need protective status if the grey cheek is going to survive in the wild.

Potential as Pets
It is very difficult to class the grey cheek into any one category, since each bird has its own personality/individuality. Hand-fed grey cheeks are generally affectionate, friendly, have gentle dispositions, and love spending most of their time with their human buddies, forming very strong bonds with their owners. They often beg you for attention and love having their heads and neck scratched, burrowing in your clothes-especially pockets, and will often sleep on their owners. Grey cheeks can be one-person birds or can form attachments to others as well depending on how well socialized they are, the individual bird's personality, and how much time is spent working with them. Grey cheeks are extremely loyal to their owners and are "social" birds that like to be included in household activities as much as possible - especially meals. If in doubt, try taking one to the dinner table with you and watch the little guy dive into your plate, head first!

The intelligence of these birds constantly amazes me. They will figure out ways to get what they want or get to where they want to go by the most outrageous means. For instance, no matter where her cage is located in the room, my clipped, female grey cheek will find a way to get to the cockatiel's cage across the room to raid his food dishes. If I leave the room for a minute or two and then return, even though precautions were taken to insure that the bird could not possibly get to the other cage, there she'll be, happily munching away in the tiel's cage making smug, little clucking noises.

These energetic little birds have 'large' personalities compared to their small size. They are often quite fearless, and their curious nature can get them into scrapes with larger birds, with other household pets, and can even endanger their own lives when out wandering if not properly supervised during "out" time (Harris). My bird often falls asleep in my hand or sidles up to my hand to sleep. A word of warning, however, do not allow your grey cheek to sleep with you. Main causes of death in grey cheeks are suffocation, being crushed when the owner rolls on top of the bird, or by being stepped on when they get under foot. Their adventurous, exploratory nature can cause them to be seriously injured as well, which is why I cannot stress supervision too strongly.

While some grey cheeks are very bold and inquisitive, others are very sensitive, quiet, and shy. Though many grey cheeks have gentle dispositions all the time, not all grey cheeks are sweet. Even the sweetest grey cheek can occasionally have mood swings and go through hormonal changes when sexually mature (Mandis), especially during breeding season (Harris). Being very territorial birds in the wild, and in your home, they may yell when strangers (or friends) come to visit. They have been known to be nippy and feisty in protecting their space and can be very possessive of their owners; "watch bird" or "attack bird" comes to mind. They can even attack their owners when one of their mood swings hits them. Some grey cheeks will throw temper tantrums when overly tired or when they do not get their own way. Parent-raised birds or adult, wild-caught, grey cheeks are generally not as sweet as hand-fed birds but can be tamed and won over with a lot of love and patience.

Grey cheeks can also be very opinionated and have their definite likes and dislikes. Grey cheek dislikes range from rustling plastic bags to resenting their owners talking on the phone. My bird will burrow between my neck and the phone and push the phone away from my face when I am talking! Though some grey cheeks are not afraid of anything, some can be afraid of things like rubber gloves, brooms, vacuum cleaners, garden hoses, brooms, dust mops, and spiders to name a few. The owner of a grey cheek named Sherlock told me that her bird seems to see invisible ants crawling on the bed and dives in terror! Their likes can range from spending quality time with their owners to splashing in their bath water.

Diet
The grey cheek's diet should consist of pellets, a good cockatiel seed mixture, fresh water daily, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. If a grey cheek consistently refuses a pelleted diet, then a powdered, avian vitamin supplement should be sprinkled on their fruits and vegetables. (I do not recommend the liquid form in drinking water due to the potential for bacterial growth). Some foods that grey cheeks love to eat or will try are: apples, papaya, cut-up oranges, carrots, melon (not the rind), corn, plums, broccoli, pears, bananas, peaches, brown rice, plain cooked pasta, squash, peas, grapes, cherries, fresh sprouted seeds, cooked beans, cheese, spray millet, green beans, red or green peppers, greens (like spinach, etc.), sweet potatoes, yams or potatoes (peeled & cooked), beets, and multi-grain cereals that are low in sodium, sugar, and fat. There is a lot to choose from. Grey cheeks are notorious fruit hounds and will often ignore other foodstuff when fruit is mixed in with it. I suggest offering them vegetables, grains or starches first and then giving them their fruit treats after they have eaten the other items. As an occasional treat, try air-popped popcorn (no salt or butter), a piece of shredded hard cheese, or a little wheat bread (keep these items to a minimum as they can cause yeast problems in your birds according to my avian vet). A cuttlebone or a mineral block should also be included in their cages at all times. (A note of warning: do not feed fruit pits or seeds as they are toxic).

Housing
A grey cheek can be housed in a medium-sized cage, 16 - 20 inches wide (or square), with bar spacing similar to a cockatiel cage (1/2" - 3/4"). Use a combination of perches (the same diameter as the bar spacing): natural branch perches, wooden dowels or comfort perches, Booda or rope perches, and a cement perch to keep the nails and beak trim. Playpens on the cage tops are often enjoyed by grey cheeks as are a wide variety of toys such as wooden toys, acrylic toys, bells, etc. to keep them entertained. Most grey cheeks--quite the little acrobats--are very playful, will hang from and swing on rope toys, and have the climbing agility of monkeys! They need time out of their cages every day as long as it is supervised. A good variety of toys and leaving a radio on during the day can help to pass the time and relieve boredom when you are at work or school. Bathing is another important part of a grey cheek's life; they love splashing around in a shallow bowl of water. I use a 2"H x 5"W round, plastic bowl which can be found at most pet stores.

Trainability
Sources, including Robbie Harris, indicate that grey cheeks can learn to perform tricks. Some grey cheek owners that I correspond with have also successfully potty-trained their birds. Mine will defecate on a newspaper that I keep handy when I tell her to "go potty" and position her above the paper. However, if I am lax about watching for the potty signals, then she will go wherever she feels like it. When she goes of her own accord to the newspaper and 'goes potty' without a reminder from me, then she will be truly potty trained!

As for their talking ability, Robbie Harris' experience with grey cheeks indicates that they can learn to speak, though she does not rate them in the top percentile of best talkers. A grey cheek breeder from Washington state, Smiles Germeau, says that grey cheeks "[do] have some ability for mimicry but are not known for the speech clarity of their larger [parrot] cousins." A booklet called "The Grey-cheeked Parakeet" (author unknown) states that they "can learn to talk and whistle with ease" and that they can be "avid talkers." Many of my e-mail correspondents have told me that their birds are good talkers as well. Grey cheeks tend to mumble and talk when covered up for the evening or just before they get up in the morning. My bird will say "peek-a-boo" anywhere from 5 - 20 times after she is covered up at night. Any kind of training will take time and patience on the owner's part.

Loudness
When compared to the vocal volume of cockatoos, macaws or some members of the conure family, the grey cheek's squawk is relatively mild. Some grey cheeks are very quiet and can be kept in apartments, though a house would be preferable. According to Harris, when two or more grey cheeks are housed in your home, their "chattering voices can be annoying at times"; however, one grey cheek is not nearly as noisy. Some grey cheek owners are probably muttering to themselves now saying, "what do you mean one grey cheek is relatively quiet? Are you crazy?" 



 

Grey cheeks definitely do know how to scream when they do not get their way, when they crave attention, or when they hear the sound of running water, rattling plastic or paper bags, etc. Visitors to your home can trigger bouts of screaming as well. Dr. Walter J. Rosskopf and other sources state that grey cheeks are "very prone to nuisance screaming." One owner describes this yelling as the "grey cheek war cry." I happen to have a grey cheek who is a screamer and who is the 'queen' of the mood swing. Grey cheeks who are "nuisance screamers," biters, or have other behavioral problems need special handling, but they are definitely worth the effort. There are a number of good articles available on the web and in avian publications that can assist with problem behaviors. It is important to be patient with grey cheeks that do exhibit these tendencies and work on correcting the problem instead of punishing them for their behavior.

In a nutshell, a grey cheek can be the best pet you ever own (or are owned by) even if you happen to have one that is a "mood swinger." Just ask anyone who owns one or has owned one in the past; most all are fiercely loyal to the breed, nearly as loyal as the birds are to them. In my opinion, grey cheeks, though not always predictable, sure are a barrel of fun, keep you on your toes, and bring a lot of joy into your life.

*Update by author: Grey cheeks are considered threatened in the wild and are no longer widely available as pets. There are a few breeders left mostly in Florida or California. Personally, I believe that there should be a cooperative breeding program for these birds so that they don't end up extinct like the Carolina Parakeet (a conure species that was endemic to the eastern United States) that was, among other things, slaughtered to extinction because they foraged on crops). I would recommend another member of the Brotogeris family like the white-wing parakeet or yellow-chevroned (both were formerly called canary-winged parakeets). Small conures like green-cheeked conures or maroon-bellied conures also make good pets and have similar personalities to the grey cheek.

Reprinted from Winged Wisdom with the author's permission.
Copyright © 1998 B.A. Marsh and Winged Wisdom. All rights reserved.


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