A Lap Bird and A Laugh Bird

By Carol Spencer

This article appeared in Issue 57 (Fall 2002) of Companion Parrot Quarterly. This article is copyrighted and may not be reprinted without the written permission of Sally Blanchard or the PBIC, Inc. Contact staff@companionparrot.com for permission.



My Lesser Jardine's parrot, Bariki, was definitely not in favor of the arrival of Tori, a Brown-Necked Cape Parrot, in December 1999. This reaction did not surprise me. Bariki had arrived as a newly weaned baby three years before and had never had to share me. He is my champion cuddle bird, melting into a puddle of parrot in my lap every evening, soaking up skritches for as long as I will give them. He is devoted to me, always happy to see me, calling out with a spirit-lifting "peek!" across the dark room if I get home late from work. He is full of "jattitude," short for "Jardine's Attitude": intense, intelligent, mischievous, loyal, loving, opinionated, quick to take offense, quick to use his beak to express that offense, honest in warning you he is going to nip. I call Bariki my "lap" bird.

At three years old, Bariki was past the worst of a nipping stage that seems common in Jardine's between the ages of six and eighteen months. Truth be told, the nipping was sometimes more like pit bull biting, complete with a grinding, locked beak. I had promised him that he would be my only bird until we worked through this stage. Bariki had taught me to pay attention to his body language and opinions. Plus, he had mellowed a bit. I was rarely nipped any more. The time was beginning to seem right to add a second - and final - parrot to my flock.

A Brown-Necked What?

I first heard about Cape parrots on the African Parrot Society's Jardine’s/Cape email list, which I joined when I was researching parrot species prior to adopting Bariki.(1) Both Jardine’s and Capes are members of the poicephalus family of parrots. Capes were never imported in large numbers, perhaps because their beauty is subtle, not flashy. Tori's breeder, who has Cape parrots as a focus of his aviary, guesses that there are almost certainly less than a hundred producing pairs of Cape parrots in the USA and could well be less than fifty pairs.(2) Only in the last few years have there started to be more Cape babies than can be placed as future breeders, which has made some Capes available as companion parrots.

The official name of the Cape Parrot was recently changed, with two of the Cape subspecies being split off from a third subspecies. When Tori hatched, he was a poicephalus robustus fuscicollis, common name "Cape Parrot." Whatever organization decides these things then decided he was a poicephalus fuscicollis fuscicollis, a "Brown-Necked Parrot." His species has a second subspecies, now known as p.f.suahelicus, the "Grey-Headed Parrot." These two subspecies can be difficult to tell apart. The only remaining official "Cape Parrot" is p.robustus robustus, which is extremely endangered and does not exist in US aviculture. However, habit, continuity, and lack of enthusiasm about the new common names have resulted in many people calling p.f.f. a "Brown-Necked Cape Parrot" and p.f.s. a "Grey-Headed Cape Parrot" . Even though it isn’t accurate, these names are often abbreviated back to "Cape Parrot."

Whatever his species name, I learned about Tori two years ago. I had read very interesting and highly complimentary comments from breeders about their Capes. But I was hesitant. There were so many unknowns. Not only had I never met a Cape in person, I had never even seen a good photograph of one.(3) There was no one on the email list with a companion Cape to tell me about life with a Cape. With two parrots as my maximum flock size, I hesitated in risking the unknown. Further, the more I heard about the many older parrots who needed good second-chance homes, the more my conscience said that one of these parrots should be my second parrot. But I was nervous about the health or behavior problems I might encounter in a second-chance parrot.

Then Tori's breeder wrote to the list about Tori. He said that Tori was one of the sweetest birds he had ever raised. However, he had passed his first hatchday, still unadopted as either a future breeder or a companion. People looking for a companion parrot wanted a newly weaned baby, not an older baby. This baby was so people-oriented that Scott felt he would be miserable in a breeding situation. He would keep him as his own pet if necessary, but his time was limited, and he very much wanted him to go to a good pet home where he could receive all the attention he deserved.

So, Tori came to live with me.

A Friendship Develops

Despite my best efforts to ease the transition, Bariki was very unhappy. Each bird had their own play area, but if I didn't watch closely, Bariki would climb down from his gym and stalk Tori.

Bariki is 200g; Tori is 300g. Tori had size and strength on his side; Bariki had indignation and jattitude on his side. Beak jousting and very rude body language is about as far as it ever got before I separated them. However, soon after Tori arrived, Bariki did manage to pull out one of his tail feathers.

Tori is a very friendly bird and very much wanted to be friends with Bariki. Bariki was absolutely sure that he did not want to be friends. Poor Tori … his favorite word is "Hi," which is a good reflection of his personality. He would approach Bariki, saying "hiiiiiii." Bariki would just say very rude things with body language. Eventually, Bariki did mellow enough that he no longer stalked Tori. He would just defend his gym if Tori sneaked over there. Tori is so persistent in his friendliness that Bariki would sometimes choose to pretend he didn't see Tori on his gym and ignore him. Tori also began to find it amusing to get Bariki upset, and would sneak over to his gym with an escape route all planned out. If the escape route was cut off, "Up! Up! Up!" would exclaim Tori, asking for rescue. And that is where their relationship stabilized for a while.

Until ... I got a second perch to put on my mirror. Bariki had always helped me get ready for work, sitting on a perch stuck to the mirror. I wanted to include Tori in the morning preparations and put another perch on the mirror beyond Bariki's reach. The first day Tori joined us, Bariki acted typically, immediately flaring all his colors and using very rude body language.

And then it happened. Tori started pumping, offering to feed Bariki. Bariki hesitated in his indignation … softened … found the offer very appealing … waffled between indignation and wanting to accept the regurgitation offer. After this behavior was repeated several times, I moved the perches just within beak reach of one another. Tori would offer to feed Bariki, then turn his head, asking to be preened. Bariki wanted to be fed enough that he would preen Tori to encourage him to regurgitate. Bariki hadn't preened another bird since he was in the nursery, so at first he apparently wasn't very good at it, and the situation would occasionally degenerate into squawks and the usual posturing. The mirror perches were the only place the preening took place. Tori once sneaked over to Bariki's gym, turned his head asking to be preened, and Bariki bit him.

As time passed, the birds' relationship continued to develop. The preening became more extensive, with few requests by Bariki to be fed. Preening started to take place not only on the mirror perches, but many other places, including, much to my surprise, on me! However, although Bariki preened Tori, he would not permit Tori to preen him. Cape parrots have very large, pointy, smiling beaks, similar to a Hyacinth Macaw beak, but smaller. Despite the intimidating beak, Tori is a very gentle bird. He is very mouthy, and can look like he is attacking viciously, but the touches are almost always feather light. However, Bariki didn’t trust that big beak. In his persistently friendly way, Tori continued his offers for over a year before Bariki eventually, gradually, tentatively, began to let Tori touch his head. After several months, Bariki figured out that he had been missing out on something nice! It is very amusing watching the two of them preen one another now. A preening session consists mostly of them turning their heads at one another, both soliciting preening. Eventually one of them will give in and preen the other for a couple of beak strokes. Then they go right back to turning heads at one another.

As an indication of the magnitude of Tori’s accomplishment in winning Bariki’s friendship, less than a year after Tori arrived, I married. My husband is not interested in working on a relationship with a bird who bites, so, unlike Tori, he and Bariki have never become friends. If I am in the room, he and Bariki are polite to one another, with Bariki sometimes stepping up without a stick and sometimes accepting a few skritches while relaxing as a puddle-of-parrot in my lap. If I am out of the room, Brad reports that Bariki becomes uneasy and will try to bite if Brad comes within a foot. If I am out of the house, Bariki mopes on his gym with an "I’m going to sit here until Carol gets back" attitude. Fortunately, Bariki will always step up on a stick and will always accept an almond or other treat from my husband.

On the other hand, Tori considered the addition of a husband to the household another opportunity to make friends and have fun. He and Brad enjoy one another very much. "Maul the Tori" is a favorite game. Brad picks up Tori by his body, rolls him around, turns him upside down, and molds him into shapes like a "Tori phone" and a "Tori tie."

Bariki and Tori now have what I call a "sibling" relationship. They preen and enjoy one another's company, but they also squabble on occasion. Tori is a silly, active, ebullient bird who considers everything a toy, and chews up wood pieces like potato chips. Unlike many Jardine's, Bariki is a demure player, not particularly active, and prefers small toys that have interesting textures to tongue. Perhaps because of these differences in personality, combined with Tori’s greater size and strength, Bariki almost always quickly yields to Tori in a dispute.

Tori is a bird who is much more interested in fun than in flock status. If Tori intends to be nice, he approaches Bariki with a "hiiiiiii," exuding friendly body language. Bariki takes offense easily; it pays to make your intentions clear! If Tori has mischief in mind, he approaches saying "hey! hey! hey!", then knocks Bariki off the gym. He leans over and peers at him on the ground, commenting "Up!" or "What's That?" If his mischief lasts long enough for me to intervene, he waits until I am within a split second of issuing a stern "Up," then quacks like a duck or does something else so silly that I am completely unable to maintain a stern appearance. Tori is my "laugh" bird!

All in all, Tori has been wonderful for Bariki. Bariki came to live with me when he was a newly weaned baby, and I am not sure he knows he is a bird. Tori has taught him about flexibility, flock manners, and the joys of bird friendship.

The Full Story

A well-known book says that Jardine’s may be the "perfect parrot." Honestly, that comment had a significant influence in my choice of a Jardine’s as my first larger parrot. And I certainly do not regret that choice. However, I have come to consider that comment unfair to Jardine’s, as any specific bird will almost inevitably have some trait that does not fit into their specific owner’s definition of "perfect." Similarly, Capes are almost always spoken of in glowing terms. However, as with any species, Jardine’s and Capes do not always fit "perfectly" into a human household.

Although I have first hand experience only with Bariki, I have been on the Jardine’s email list for five years and have seen some patterns emerge. Biting is by far the most common behavior problem that comes up on the list. Not all Jardine’s go through the infamous biting stage, but many do, with varying degrees of severity. I have found that paying attention to body language and avoiding situations where biting may occur is the best approach with Bariki. For example, he finds it amusing to nip while I am taking him out of his cage, so I always use a stick. I do not want to scare people away from Jardine’s by mentioning the biting issue. Many of the bites I received were my own fault, and even those that were not are a small annoyance in comparison with the intense bond I share with Bariki. However, the same bright-eyed jattitude that wins Jardine’s many devoted fans also leads to the most common complaint about them.

Also, some instances of screaming, feather picking, or phobic behavior have been reported in Jardine’s. Although these behaviors tend to cause Jardine’s owners more worry and anguish than biting, they also seem to occur considerably less frequently.

Jardine’s vary considerably in their responses to everyday situations. Bariki is curious about new toys, and likes traveling in his carrier to new places. He will politely let my few visitors admire him, and will sometimes accept treats from them. However, he does not want them to come too close and is not interested in making friends. I have noticed a tendency towards tension, insecurity, or fretting when the world does not conform to his expectations and wishes. He camouflages his timidity with quick irritability and jattitude. Other Jardine’s have completely different responses to these same situations.

Aspergillosis is by far the most common health problem seen among Jardine’s on the Jardine’s email list.(4) The Jardine’s list represents probably 150 to 200 Jardine’s. In one three year span, thirteen Jardine’s became ill with aspergillosis. Eleven out of the thirteen died. While random chance is a possible explanation, the number of cases is disturbingly high. No obvious explanation has been found:

I absolutely do not want to cause panic or give Jardine’s a bad name. As I said, the sample size is so small that the apparent concentration of cases could be a fluke. However, I do think that Jardine’s owners would be wise to take several precautions:

If you choose a Cape as a companion, be aware that you are a bit of pioneer. Friendly, gentle, playful, silly Tori seems to be a "typical" Cape. However, few conclusions can be drawn with so few Capes kept as companions. Also, the few companion Capes are almost all very young, and their behavior may change as they mature. However, given those caveats, I have seen very few behavior difficulties reported about Capes.

Capes are generally very gentle birds, and biting does not seem to be a common complaint. When he was about eighteen months old, Tori began showing some adolescent sass, including becoming a bit territorial about his cage. Sometimes he requires a stern glance and a reminder to be gentle. Silly bird that he is, he will often reprimand himself a split second before I do, using the same words and tone I was going to use, but with a sarcastic twist. In his third Spring, he had some irritable, nippy weeks that I attribute to hormones. Also, during rambunctious play, I have been scratched accidentally by the sharp point of his beak. As with other species, if someone was intimidated by that big beak, they could probably unintentionally teach a Cape to bite.

Breeders report that although single companion Capes are usually relatively quiet, their breeding pairs can be loud compared to other African species. Although he can entertain himself well, Tori needs to feel fully included in his flock’s activities. He can be loud if he can hear activity, but can not see it. He is especially likely to demand to participate if the sounds are related to food preparation. Placing him where he can observe the activity usually satisfies him. By "loud" I mean that I would worry that the neighbors would complain if I lived in an apartment. However, I doubt that my closest neighbor, at least fifty feet away in a separate house, ever hears him.

In addition to his need to participate, Tori is very active and playful. He needs lots of room and plenty of toys to destroy. A great deal of debris results from his play.

I do not have much information on feather destructive behavior in Capes. Plucking Capes exist. One breeder has seen Capes pick their banded leg, apparently due to irritation from their band, often enough that he no longer bands his baby Capes. On the other hand, Tori seems to consider his band a portable toy and enjoys it a great deal.

I do not have information on phobic behavior in Capes. I have never heard of a phobic Cape. Tori proved himself to be quite adaptable by leaving his familiar nursery when he was over a year old, taking a noisy plane ride, and adjusting successfully to a new home and flock. When he first arrived, he was a Cape statue for a few days. He was mostly comfortable within a few weeks, with complete trust and bonding taking a few months. He enjoys exploring new toys in his cage. He hates vacuum cleaners, but relaxes as soon as the vacuum is gone. He doesn’t meet many new people, and wants to meet them while safely snuggled against my neck, but he always clicks excitedly at them. A new petsitter, unfamiliar with handling larger birds, called him a flirt and said he was hopping to her and talking to her within a few days.

I do not know of Capes being unusually susceptible to any illness. A well-known book comments that Capes can be difficult to keep alive in captivity and may have special dietary needs. However, the breeders on the Jardine’s/Cape email list are emphatic that they have not found this comment to be true. Their Capes have no more health problems than their other species, and they have not noticed any special dietary requirements in their Capes.

However, I hesitate to praise Capes too much. As much as I think that they are undiscovered treasures, part of me thinks that perhaps they are better off staying unknown. Right now, any breeder who has one of the few pairs of Capes tends to be a knowledgeable, experienced breeder who cares a great deal about his birds and their welfare. Similarly, any person who calls a breeder asking about Capes as companions tends to be a knowledgeable, experienced parrot owner. If Capes became popular, inevitably they would start being bred by less knowledgeable, less caring breeders and would end up going to less knowledgeable, less caring homes. In some ways I can see the strengths of Capes … their friendliness, sweetness, intelligence, playfulness, and love of humans … also being their weakness. If Tori was kept in too small a cage, not given many toys, ignored, or treated harshly, I can see him becoming loud, very aggressive, or even undergoing psychological collapse. The thought of one of these trusting, gentle, smiling birds being severely mistreated is so awful that I am tempted to remain silent about them.

Some Fun Facts

I don’t want to conclude on such a depressing thought, so let me share some trivia.

Jardine’s knock. Most Jardine’s love to find a hard, resonant surface and thump their beak on it. It seems to have different meanings for different Jardine’s. If Bariki knocks, it means he is happily excited, with territorial overtones. If you knock at a Jardine’s, you may very well be rewarded with a return knock and a happy head bob.

Capes dip. Or at least Tori does. When Tori finishes eating his evening mash, he races off to find a foot toy. He then spends much happy time dipping the toy in the sticky food, chewing the toy, dipping and chewing, dipping and chewing.

Jardine’s have beautiful eyes. They are big, rich brown, expressive eyes, surrounded by a big white eye ring that makes them look even larger. Even in pictures those big, beautiful eyes are bright with all the shifting passions that make up jattitude. Bariki’s eyes have an unusual basset-hound shape.

Capes have amazing tongues. They are very large, flexible, active, inquisitive tongues, flatter and more like a human tongue than I have seen in other parrots. Tori’s tongue is baby pink, matching his big, baby pink feet. I have not seen another Cape with feet as pink as Tori’s.

Tori has strange hobbies. He is fascinated with cracks. His favorite crack is between the sofa and the wall. Gingerly peering over the edge of the sofa, looking much like someone who is afraid of heights peering over the edge of a cliff, he will stare intently into the crack for a while. Then he moves three inches down and repeats his inspection. Tori also likes to stuff himself in his food bowl and dig for long periods of time. He is even happier if some wooden balls are added. All that is visible is a green back, a black tail, and the occasional flick of a big pink foot.

Bird people are crazy. Like many poicephalus, Bariki and Tori greet one another and me with small rapid beak movements. I return their greeting the same way. This greeting has become so natural that I often wonder if I unconsciously greet people the same way!


(1) More information on the African Parrot Society and its email lists is available at http://www.wingscc.com/aps
(2)"Cape Parrots" by Scott Lewis, Old World Aviaries.
(3) Many pictures, as well as much other information about Capes, is now available at http://www.capeparrot.org/
(4)For more information on aspergillosis and the experiences of the Jardine's email list with aspergillosis, see "Aspergillosis and Jardine's Parrots," by Virginia Caputo