An Introduction to Senegals

We own four birds, ranging in size from our thirty-four inch Blue and Gold Macaw to our eight-inch Senegal. Guess who rules the roost?

Anyone who owns one of the feisty little Senegals does not even need to know what the other two birds are to tell you that the answer is obvious: the Senegal, of course! The African Greys may be the best talkers in the psittacine world, the Hyacinth Macaws the largest, and the Moluccan Cockatoos the most drop-dead gorgeous, but no bird tops the Senegal for finding its way straight to its owner’s heart and making itself number one. And no bird is less shy about letting everyone (the larger, showier birds included) know just where its place is in the pecking order. This small African bird’s brash self-confidence is among the traits that have made it one of the fifteen most popular pet birds, according to the 1996-97 Annual Directory Issue of Birds USA.

The Senegal, or Poicephalus senegalus, is a member of the family of African parrots that includes Meyers, Jardines, and Brown Heads. The coloration of most of these species gives them the appearance of being hooded; in the Senegal’s case, the color of the hood is gray. The Senegal’s back, wing, and short tail feathers are shades of green, and the breast coloring ranges from lemon-yellow to orange. The beaks and ceres are gray, and the feet pink. The description does not do justice to this attractive little bird, however. Senegals are compact and neat in appearance. Their feathers are smooth and glossy, the gray of their hoods is like polished pewter, and the yellow breasts are given a striking, vest-like appearance by a green “v” at the neck. The eyes of an immature Senegal are gray, but with maturity they become yellow. The typical Senegal is eight to nine inches in length, although I have seen a couple of birds as large as ten inches.

Most veterinarians and most books on parrots will tell you that the Senegal is not sexually dimorphic, and that the only way to tell an individual’s sex is by DNA or surgical sexing. Many Senegal owners, however, believe that although this may be the only way to be 100 percent sure about a Senegal’s sex, there are several fairly reliable clues in the bird’s appearance: Males are slightly larger and stockier than the females; males have larger, less-rounded heads; and the vent feathers are yellow on a mature male, but green on a mature female. I had owned (and named) my own Senegal, Hercule Parrot, for several months before having him DNA-sexed. Before I took him in to our vet for the test, I looked him over and compared him to the criteria suggested by other Senegal owners on the Senegal list. Based on this, I predicted that the DNA test would show Hercule to be a female. Based on gut-instinct, my domestic partner, Sam, bet against me. When the DNA test results were returned, the criteria proposed by the Senegal list were vindicated: Hercule is a girl, although we have all gotten so used to calling him “Hercule” and “him” that we decided not to change.

Senegals are excellent pets. They are loyal and intelligent, and bond quickly with their owners. They may, in fact, have a slight tendency to bond a little too strongly, if anecdotal evidence is any guide. The Senegal list is full of stories of Senegals who are jealous of their chosen person’s spouse or children, or of other family pets. Hercule has suffered from this problem a bit, and it was tempting at first to be charmed by his choosing me over everyone else. Ultimately, however, it is not really charming to have a bird that bites everyone but its favorite person, and we have really worked with Hercule to get him to accept other people. Persistence and patience generally work, both in my own experience and that of most other Senegal owners. Hercule now loves Sam almost as much as he loves me, and accepts attention nicely from other family members.

Senegals are relatively quiet parrots. They have fair talking ability, although often their voices are so soft that they are easily drowned out. (My teenaged daughter insists that I am imagining Hercule’s talking — but Sam and other family members have heard it, too!) Their natural cries are quiet enough (unless they’re really alarmed) that you could have a Senegal in an apartment without any of your neighbors being aware that you had a bird. They are excellent mimics of household noises, especially noises that bring their owners running. (Hercule’s specialty is the smoke detector.) It is the Senegal’s personality, however, that is its most attractive trait. As all Senegal owners can attest, these little birds have a sense of humor. Hercule’s favorite trick is to reach over and bite me, very gently, on the tip of the nose, and then do an uncanny imitation of my laugh! They are cuddly birds, and love being tickled. A Senegal can easily become spoiled, and the term “brat-bird” is fairly commonly used by Senegal owners, but the extent to which your bird is spoiled is really up to you. These birds are not the constant attention-hogs that cockatoos are, and a Senegal that gets regular love and attention in the mornings and evenings can stay happy and contented with some well-chosen toys while its owner works all day. They also are relatively neat birds; the mess around our Senegal’s cage is trifling compared to that around the other birds’ cages.

Like all psittacines, the Senegal needs a complete and varied diet to stay in top condition. A diet of seeds alone will lead to health problems and premature death. Hercule’s vet recommends that one of the high-quality pellets forms the main part of Hercule’s diet, supplemented by lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. Seeds are given only as a treat; I measure them, and make sure that Hercule gets no more than half-a-teaspoon a day. I let Hercule have other healthy parrot and human treats as well, keeping in mind what our vet said: If it’s junkfood for humans, it’s junkfood for parrots, too. (And, of course, chocolate and avocados can be toxic to parrots, and must be avoided completely.) Hercule is very fond of mashed potatoes, Rice Chex, and yogurt.

When we first got Hercule, he hated, loathed, and despised bathing. Consequently, we neglected him in this area a bit, bathing him only once a week. We also had read a book that advised us to dry our birds with a hair dryer, and for a while we followed this advice. When Hercule’s feathers began to lose some of their gloss, we consulted our vet, who recommended daily bathing, and allowing Hercule to air-dry. An article in Bird Talk further suggested using cool water (rather than the lukewarm water we had been using). We decided to try these suggestions, and to persist until Hercule got used to his bath-time. Hercule now gets “showered” daily with a plant-mister until he is fairly thoroughly wet. We shower all four birds at once (in the kitchen over the tile floor!), and they all, including Hercule, love it. Hercule, in fact, now squawks if he feels that the other birds are getting more time under the sprayer than he is! The new routine agrees with him; he has the prettiest, neatest, shiniest feathers around.

Senegals, like all parrots, need regular veterinary attention. Our vet recommends semiannual checkups, and annual checkups would certainly be the minimum. A healthy, well-cared-for Senegal is a delightful first bird, or an addition that can hold its own in any aviary. Opinions about longevity vary, but the best information suggests that a Senegal can be expected to live twenty to twenty-five years. Recent advances in diet and healthcare may make even longer lifespans possible for these wonderful little creatures. Don’t be surprised, if you take one of these little charmers into your home, if you find your home taken over.