The Genus Pionus
by C.T.E. Partridge

For pictures look at these picture pages.

The genus Pionus encompasses 8 different species. All the Pionus are the same shape and close to the same size but the colors are very different. In fact, those species without green as the main body color (the Duskies, Bronze-wings, and White-caps) have highly variable coloring between individuals. The one similarity in coloring for all of the Pionus species is the red underneath their tails (under tail-coverts). Because of this, the Pionus parrots are often referred to as the Red-vented parrots in older books. As to shape, all Pionus are a bit stocky with a short square tail. They have the same general body shape as some Amazons. All Pionus have small naked eye rings and a prominent naked cere (nose). Their upper mandible (the top part of the beak) has a definite notch and the upper mandible extends in a point almost to the bottom of the lower mandible (the lower beak). If you are not familiar with Pionus parrots, you might think their beaks look a little overgrown. Their beaks also tend to become a bit flaky with wear, but this is also normal. Pionus, if misted regularly, will often have slight iridescent areas on the tips of their feathers. No matter which Pionus you choose as a pet, you will be constantly amazed by the complexity and shading of their colors.

Of the 8 species, there are 5 that are available in the pet trade. These are the Blue-headed Parrot, Maximilian's Parrot, White-capped Parrot, Dusky Parrot, and Bronze-winged Parrot.

The different Pionus species have similar personalities. And in describing them for you, I am going to make some generalizations. Please realize that generalizations are simply general statements. No matter how good a generalization is, you are bound to find at least one bird that is completely different. Since every bird is an individual, I am just trying to tell you what to expect in a broad sense.

Surgical or blood sexing is required for all Pionus species. There is no accurate way of visual sexing.

Stress Response
Pionus have three different responses to stress. The most severe is when they thrash. This response is initiated if something very scary enters their room or if their cage is hit when they are asleep. The bird will thrash around in his/her cage until calmed down. The next stress response it to sit very still. At bird shows, when many of the other birds are screaming, a Pionus will often sit perfectly motionless. The last stress response is unique to Pionus. Pionus, when scared, will wheeze as if they are having an asthma attack. The wheezing will stop as soon as the scary person or object backs off.

Talking Ability
Pionus are not known for their talking ability. They usually learn to say a few words but never very clearly. The clarity of Pionus "speech" ranges from rather clear to words only a mother could understand. This varies greatly with individuals. Most Pionus do love to learn new and interesting sounds. Microwave beeps, clucking, and whistles are usually considered lots of fun.

When Pionus are first brought home, they often seem to be a bit stand-offish. It is not that they don't like cuddling, but simply that they are shy. With gentle nurturing your Pionus will soon love physical attention. Pionus will never be cuddle bunnies, but they do love having their head, ears, and neck scratched. Even though Pionus will never be considered love sponges, they do not become less affectionate as they mature.

One of my favorite descriptions of Pionus parrots is written by Irene Christie in Understanding Your Parrot. "They have remarkably quiet, gentle natures, so make excellent pets." (p. 64) This is true, to an extent. Pionus who have not been exposed to loud noises will be quiet. However, a Pionus who listens to kids scream will scream like the kids, a Pionus who listens to conures scream will scream like a conure. A Pionus will never scream as loud as a cockatoo or macaw and generally will not scream for very long or very often. The Pionus who do scream are relatively quiet compared to cockatoos and macaws, but loud compared to cockatiels, budgies, and finches.

When I was looking for my first pet bird, I was a bit intimidated by parrot beaks. I didn't want a bird that could take my finger off. In the wild, Pionus feed mostly on softer foods (like fruits, berries, and small seeds), so they do not have a strong enough beak to crack the nuts that even a similar-sized conure could manage. What this means is that even if they are really mad, they can't take off your finger. They can break the skin and maybe make you bleed, but usually no terrible damage will be done. However this is rarely a concern, since Pionus are mostly very gentle and rarely bite. There is some thought that the females are more gentle than the males. I believe this is somewhat variable.

Pionus are very obedient and less hard headed than many other parrots. They still require nurturing dominance and behavioral guidelines but control/dominance struggles are few, except of course during the terrible twos. Pionus can (and sometimes do) develop behavioral problems, if proper behavioral guidelines are not enforced.

Pionus are a bit shy by nature, not bold and clownish like Amazons or conures. You need to go slowly, talk softly, and be sensitive, especially with a Pionus in a new situation. "Training should be fairly low-key to allow for the bird's quite sensitive nature - never try to rush things. This parrot soon becomes very tame if handled gently." (Irene Christie, p. 64) This is one of the most important things to remember when buying a Pionus. You need to go slowly. Once your bird is comfortable with his/her environment and your rules and expectations, he/she will open up and be less timid. However, a Pionus (in general) will never be as bold as an Amazon or conure. They do tend to be completely quiet in front of strangers. There are some people who don't like sweet sensitive birds. I have a friend who has a Sun conure who bites frequently and is rather feisty and bold. To her the feisty nature of the conure is the definition of personality and the sweet quiet Pionus has none. Is a sweet, sensitive bird the type of bird you want?

How much time does a Pionus need? How much time a pet Pionus needs depends a lot on how much time your pet is used to having. However, they will demand less time than an African gray or Cockatoo. Pionus are very good at staying home alone all day. It is important to have a short morning hello when they get their food and goodies before you leave for work. For most of the day they will play and nap waiting for you to get home. In the evening a half hour of full attention and hour or two of companionship is good. Naturally, more full attention time would be much better. Full attention is actual physical contact with your pet. Companionship time is where your baby plays on a play-gym or his/her T-stand while you watch TV, relax, or cook. The important thing with companionship time is that your baby can see you and there is some occasional verbal interaction. Remember, if your pet will spend a large amount of time confined, buy a large cage and rotate toys frequently. Also consider having a radio or TV on a timer so for 1 or 2 hours a day your pet can have a different type of entertainment (you don't want the TV or radio on all day as this would interfere with play and nap time).

Cage Size
The bigger the cage the better (as long as it is easy to clean and the bar spacing is no larger than 1"). The minimum size is a cage large enough for the bird to flap its wings and stretch fully without touching the cage bars. Pionus confined to too small a cage are inclined to become rather sedentary and tend to become over weight (not to mention unhappy). I feel a good sized cage is 2' tall, 3' wide, and 2' deep (or slightly narrower to make it easier to manage through doorways). This size has enough room for a swing, 2 or 3 different types of perches, several toys and several food cups without being crowded. I realize that not everyone can afford a cage of this size; however, you should try to buy one as large as possible. Again, remember to make sure the cage is also easy to clean and the bar spacing is no larger than 1" (for the smaller Pionus, like the White-cap and Dusky, 3/4" would be safer).

Pionus do not have very strong beaks, but still love to destroy toys. When you look for toys pine is great. Any wood harder than pine will often be too hard for Pionus to destroy but they do like removing the bark from harder woods. Generally, Pionus love all of the softer materials used in toys like leather, knotted cotton, and sisal (and of course pine). Some harder toys can be a good choice as long as you realize these are not considered chew toys (and a parrot should always have at least one chew toy to wear down the beak and release aggression). Good harder toys might have bells (remember, no jingle-type bells), make noise, or move in interesting ways. As to size, this depends entirely on your individual bird. Your bird might love only small toys and be scared of large ones, or he/she might love Macaw size toys as long as they are made of pine and have lots of leather knots.

You & Your Pet Bird by David Alderton says that Pionus live an average of 25 years. Pionus can live to be over 40 and often they live only 3 or 10 years. Why is this? Accidents and bad nutrition. There are countless stories of birds flying away. Please clip your parrot's wings even if he/she never goes outside. The chance of a door or window being open at the wrong time is very great. Think of it this way. If your parrot lives 25 years (9,125 days), there are 9,125 days that the door might be opened at the wrong time. It takes only a second for your bird to fly away forever. Also remember, that a properly clipped parrot that flutters softly to the ground inside only needs a slight puff of wind out-side to sail away forever. Other household accidents include, but are not limited to, death by electrocution (birds love to chew on cords), toxic fumes (this includes overheated non-stick cookware, car exhaust, aerosols, cleaning fluids, smoking, etc.), heavy metal poisoning (birds love to investigate, so watch curtain weights, the paint on mirror backs, jewelry, coins, fishing weights, etc.), and cats and dogs (remember, it takes only one very small scratch from a dog or cat to kill a bird). Improper cage maintenance can also spell untimely death for your feathered friend. Accumulated foods and fecal matter can, among other things, mold (and give a bird incurable aspergillosis), and attract rats, mice, or roaches (who can give your bird a number of nasty things). The last major cause of untimely death is bad nutrition. Birds are very sensitive to salt. I read a story in Bird Talk where a man shared his bag of potato chips with his bird (a macaw), the bird died from the salt overdose. Birds are also very sensitive to fat. They can quickly accumulate large fat deposits on their liver and heart and eventually die. It is wonderful to share food with our feathered friends but follow common sense. Eat healthy foods low in fat and salt (and no avocado, chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine).

As will all birds, it is important to discuss any particular questions you have regarding nutrition and care with a veterinarian experienced in avian care. However, it is my opinion that Pionus do benefit from extra vitamin A. Vitamin A is a large component of feathers and increased amounts will improve feather shine, quality, and color. If your bird is on a pelleted diet (and hopefully he/she is) the only way you should increase vitamin A intake is through feeding carrots or sweet potatoes (do not use vitamin/mineral powders, you can kill birds, and people, from an excess of vitamins and minerals). You also don't want to feed your bird too much of any one fruit or vegetable, variety is good. Pellets are a wonderful way to make sure that your bird is getting the basics. The best pellets are ones that your bird will eat. I am a firm believer in all natural colors and ingredients (artificially colored pellets lead to colored poop that stains clothes), other than that I do not have a favorite pellet brand. There are several pellet manufacturers that will give you free samples of their pellets. This way you can try some different kinds and see what your bird likes best. A good book that discusses nutrition is Feeding Your Pet Bird by Burgmann.


Notes: I did include all 8 Pionus species but the ones not available only have a very short description. Remember that parrots, like people, do vary in size and weight. The sizes I have below are just general. Also, I only described subspecies that might be available in the U.S.

Blue-headed Parrot (Pionus menstruus) 28 cm (11 in)
Description: The beak is black with one reddish pink spot on either side of the upper mandible. The feet are dark gray to black, the iris dark brown, and the eye-ring is light gray. The body is all green, of slightly different shades, with darker green on top and lighter underneath. The head and neck are a beautiful bright blue. The ear coverts (feathers over the ear-hole) are black. There will sometimes be a few pink feathers underneath the chin.
Immatures: Baby Blue-headed parrots will have very little blue. There will be a few red feathers right above the cere (nose). The number of red feathers varies greatly with individuals. These red feathers usually fall out by 3 months, but are definitely gone by 1 year of age. The blue color is close to complete at one year of age. However, the blue can increase up until about the second year of age. After the 2nd (or sometimes 3rd) year your baby will definitely be in full adult coloring.
  • Distribution: From Central America down south to Costa Rica, northern Bolivia and central Brazil, so most of northern South America. Also found on the island of Trinidad. The Blue-head is usually found in either lightly timbered country or forests in the lowlands and some foothills. They also enter farmland areas to raid crops, especially corn.

    Red-billed Parrot (Pionus sordidus) 28 cm (11 in)
    To my knowledge, this parrot is not found in the U.S.A.
    • Different Subspecies: There are 5 subspecies, but I am only going to list the one found in the US.
      P. s. corallinus, or the Coral-billed parrot. 30 cm (12 in).
      The Coral-billed parrot is almost all green with a little blue under the chin and some blue edging on cheek feathers. The beak is a bright coral pink color, the iris is yellow and the legs dark gray. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the exact eye-ring color, but it was white or light gray. These birds are very rare in the US and you probably won't see them.
    • Distribution: From northern Venezuela and western Columbia south through Ecuador and eastern Peru to northern Bolivia. In other words, the top edge and north-west edge of South America. This species is usually found in mountain forests.

    Scaly-headed Parrot / Maximilian's (Pionus maximiliani) 29 to 30 cm (11.75 in)
    Description: At first glance you might think this is a plain bird. However, if you look closely, you will see many subtle shades in the plumage. Most of the body is green. The central feather shaft of most body feathers is a darker olive green. There is some dull blue edging the green feathers at the throat and chin. The eye ring of Maxi's is either white or gray. Some breeders think this variation might be a subspecies designation. The beak is a yellowish horn color with dark gray at the base of the upper mandible. The iris is a dark brown and the legs are gray.
    Immatures: Young Maxi's are a paler green with less blue than the adults. There are often red feathers on the forehead but the amount of red varies greatly with individuals.

    • Different Subspecies:
      P. m. melanoblepharus
      P. m. siy
      P. m. lacerus
    • Distribution: Found from northern Argentina to the southern parts of Brazil which includes some of the eastern coast of South America. The Maximilian's parrot is usually found in lowland forests and open woodlands.

    Plum-crowned Parrot (Pionus tumultuosus) 29 cm (11.4 in)
    Description: This parrot is mostly different shades of green. There is red on the sides of the head with darker red at the crown and nape. There is also purple edging on the feathers at the crown. The legs are a green gray, iris brown, eye ring is white, and beak olive-yellow.
    Immatures: Younger birds have much less red and purple.
    • No Subspecies
    • Distribution: Found in the high forested elevations, usually over 2,000m in Bolivia and eastern Peru.

    White-headed Parrot (Pionus seniloides) 30 cm (11.8 in)
    Description: First, this is not the White-capped Parrot commonly found in the US. In this parrot the entire forehead and crown is white with some reddish-orange tips. The remainder of the head has several mixed colors, including white, gray, blue, black, pink, and mauve. The breast and abdomen are reddish-mauve and brown. The beak is a pale olive-yellow, the iris is brown, the eye ring is whitish, and the legs are greenish gray.
    Immatures: The young of this species have much less color.
    • No Subspecies
    • Distribution: This species is found from the mountains of northwestern Venezuela west to the central Andes of Colombia and south through western Ecuador. Usually White-headed parrots are found in forests at 1,000m.

    White-capped Parrot / White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis) 24 cm (9.5 in)
    Description: The forehead, forecrown, chin, and mid throat are white. The ear-covers are dark blue and there is blue edging on the head. The breast is an olive-brown edged with purple-blue which gradually becomes more green towards the abdomen. The top side of the wings (primary-coverts, secondaries, and primaries) are violet-blue, green, blue, and golden-brown. The under side of the wings (under wing-coverts, flight feathers) are bluish-green and dull green. The beak is greenish-yellow, the iris is dark brown to orange brown. The legs are pink and the eye-ring is a light pink-white.

    Immatures: The young have much less white and little if any blue.
    • No Subspecies
    • Distribution: This parrot is found from southeastern Mexico to western Panama on the Caribbean mountain slopes. They are usually found in forested areas anywhere from the lowlands up to 1,000m (sometimes as high as 2,000m).

    Bronze-winged Parrot (Pionus chalcopterus) 29 to 28 cm (11 in)
    Description: The general appearance is a subtle violet-blue (at a quick glance you might think it a very drab bird). The wings are dusted with bronze that with a slight misting and some sunlight seem almost golden. There are many subtle blendings of colors, including dull pink, purple-blue, bluish-green, bronze-green edged with blue and some deep blue. These many colors make this a very beautiful bird that almost changes colors in different lights. The beak is yellowish, the iris is brown to orange-brown, and the legs are light brown to pink. The eye-ring is a pink that turns a darker pink during the breeding season. I have heard of a color variation that has a more apricot eye-ring.
    Immatures: The young have much more green, much less blue, and in general are not as colorful.
    • Subspecies:
      P. c. cyanescens
    • Distribution: The Bronze-wing is found in the mountains of northwestern Venezuela, west to Colombia and Ecuador, and into northwestern Peru. This species is mostly found in forested areas.

    Dusky Parrots (Pionus fuscus) 26 to 24 cm (9.8 in)
    Description: From far off you might think these birds are a muddy charcoal, but on closer inspection you will see that it is more of a slate-blue color. There are a few red feathers on either side of their forehead right next to the cere (nose). The ear-coverts (feathers over the ear-holes) are black. This species almost looks as if it is constantly molting at the neck, because the feathers at the throat and sides of the neck are edged with a dusky-white. The chin feathers are edged with a dull pink with dull pink, purple-red, or reddish-blue on the breast and underparts. The primary wing feathers (primary-coverts and flight feathers) are purple-blue on top and a deep violet-blue on the bottom (under wing-coverts and undersides of flight feathers). On close inspection some soft green can be seen as well. The beak is a dark gray with yellow at the base of the upper mandible. The iris is dark brown and the eye-ring is dark gray. The legs are gray. I have had a couple of people tell me that these birds remind them of peregrine falcons, probably because of the streaking at the neck.

    Immatures: The young have a little more green, and the red at the forehead is more towards the center instead of the sides.
    • No Subspecies
    • Distribution: This species is found in Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas and Brazil (north of the Amazon). Duskies are found in both forests and savannas and often near the coast.

  • Books

    Alderton, David. Parrots. New Jersey: Tetra Press, 1992.
    This is a good coffee-table-type book. It does have some wonderful pictures (and pictures of almost all budgie and cockatiel mutations). It has great color pictures of the 5 Pionus species commonly found in the U.S. I used this book as a backup to the Forshaw book.

    Alderton, David. You & Your Pet Bird. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
    This has good pictures but does not include many parrots. For example, it shows only the Blue-head and not the other Pionus. This is the only book I have found that lists approximate lifespan for all species that it covers.

    Burgmann, Petra M. Feeding Your Pet Bird. New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1993.
    This is a wonderfully informative book that might help not only your bird eat better but you as well. It includes lists of important nutrients and the foods that are highest in those nutrients.

    Christie, Irene. Understanding Your Parrot. London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1989.
    This book has dated information. Many of the nutritional and behavioral advise should be ignored. I find it interesting because Christie describes the different species directly from her own personal experiences.

    Forshaw, Joseph M. Parrots of the World. New Jersey: T.F.H. Publications, 1977.
    This is the decisive book on all parrot species of the world. Most of my information on different Pionus species came from this book. The book has good color plates of the different parrots. I should mention that the drawing of a Blue-headed Parrot is not completely accurate. Forshaw incorrectly shows a large red area on the lower mandible. From my experience, there is sometimes a slight pink area there, but not as bright or as large as the picture.

    This page was written by C.T.E. Partridge. Any questions or comments please ask.

    Comments or Suggestions should go to the current maintainers of the FAQ files:

    Kathryn A. Smith
    Damian Bates

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    This FAQ is by no means meant to replace the many wonderful and informative books, breeders, magazines, and veterinarians that are out there.

    Last Revised: Friday, 18-Jul-2008 19:51:50 MDT ( Damian )