Smaller than a cockatoo and larger than a cockatiel, the short, stocky, blunt-tailed pionus is the perfect parrot for many owners. Though more subtly colored than many popular birds, what this beautiful family of parrots lack in color they make up for in character. The lively pionus (pie-oh-nuss), or “pi” as they are affectionately dubbed, aren’t readily available in all areas, but their charming, intelligent, and quirky qualities have been capturing hearts and vastly increasing their popularity in the United States. The more that is learned about them, the more it seems bird-lovers are falling in love with these practically perfect parrots.
There are eight individual species in the Pionus family. The five most commonly available varieties are the Blue-head (Pionus menstruus), the Maximilian’s (Pionus maximiliani), the White Cap (Pionus senilis), the Bronze Wing (Pionus chalcopterus), and the dusky (Pionus fuscus). The coral bill (p sordidus), though available in the United States are not well established and are most commonly found only in aviaries until their population is increased. The last two species are the plum crown (Pionus tumultuosus), and the Massena’s or white head (Pionus seniloides) who are so rare they are even scarce in their natural habitat.
Pionus are native to the tropical rainforest environments of Central and South America and are found in nearly every country on the continent. Each of the eight species has their own habitat and can be found from high altitude subtropical forests to tropical coastal forests. Due to the remote areas where these parrots are found, little is known about their lives in the wild.
The look of the pionus is similar across the genus. Coloring ranges from the green and blue hues of the blue-head to more subtle tones of rose and bronze in the dusky and the bronze wing. All pionus have large white rings around their eyes and a patch of red feathers under the tail. Their beaks are also slightly longer and looking than many other types of parrots of similar size.
An unmistakable feature of these birds is their tendency to emit a soft, sweet smelling scent when they are excited or stressed. It is not an unpleasant smell and many owners actually admit to sniffing their parrots on occasion for fun. During some times of the year however, the scent can be a little strong and can easily be remedied by regular birdy bathing.
One thing that is certain about these parrots in captivity is that they love to eat and therefore a varied diet is essential to their well being. These little birds will happily consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables than birds double their size, thus having a wide variety on hand will be beneficial to their well-being. Like all parrots, a bowl of mixed seed or pelleted food and a bowl of fresh water should always be available. In addition, an assortment of prepared fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables should be offered to them daily. Never use canned foods as they are high in sugar and salt. Vegetables that pionus love to eat are corn, peas, broccoli, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and beans while bananas, apples, oranges, pears, kiwi, and pomegranate are some of their favorite fruits. Other foods such as pasta, cereals, and rice are other treats that should be fed sparingly as these parrots love food so much they are prone to obesity. As with all birds, dairy products and anything containing avocado should never be offered.
Pionus also love to sleep and require an unusual ten to twelve hours of sleep every night. In addition to this, they often take naps during the day while their owners are away at work. A sleepy pi is a cranky pi! Pionus sleep best at night when their cage is covered by a light blanket. The intention is not necessarily to make their cage dark, but to act as a blind. Pionus have an odd tendency to occasionally thrash around in the bottom of their cages at night for reasons that are unknown. Experienced owners surmise that movement outside the darkened cage frightens them and causes this odd and often noisy behavior. Covering their cage at night will prevent some of these attacks from happening. Should it occur, briefly turning on a light in the room is usually enough to help them regain their bearings and re-perch for the night.
Rub-a-dub-dub, these tropical parrots love to scrub in the tub! Whether it is in a bowl of water, with a spray mister bottle, or even on a perch in the shower, pionus are always ready to be bathed. Given their rainforest roots, it is easy to understand why they love to wash. Their love for water certainly manifests itself in odd behavior, however. It is not uncommon to hear of a pionus putting on a full bathing display to the sound of an operating vacuum cleaner, running tap-water, or wind rushing through tree leaves. It is suspected these sound to a pionus similar to the reverberations of raindrops on the rainforest canopy and invoke an instinctual response to bathe.
The pionus is touted to be a quiet bird, though in the parrot world quiet is a relative term. Compared to an Amazon or a Macaw, pionus are quiet birds, but when raised in the same household as one of these larger parrots, or in a generally loud environment, they can be just as noisy. Essentially, they are a product of their environment and the louder their surroundings the more boisterous the bird will be.
Their natural vocalizations are expressive and pleasant. Some owners describe the clicking and purring noises a pionus makes while playing as being robotic sounding in nature. It is easy to tell when these birds are content as they have a habit of making soft chattering and cooing noises. Similarly, an upset pionus is easily identified by their piercing, shrill “jungle” call, in these instances truly exhibiting their unruly tropical origins.
Though not noted for their speaking ability, the average pionus will learn between eight to ten words and the more talkative birds may learn up to twenty. Some pionus will say words quite clearly but most seem to speak very quietly and their words may sometimes be mistaken for random chattering. However, most pionus owners were initially attracted to their sweet personality, and any words they may mimic are simply a bonus. These parrots easily learn how to whistle and will almost certainly pick up on household noises, such as ringing telephones, beeping microwaves, and barking dogs.
Pionus have a peculiar habit of making a panting or wheezing noise when they are disturbed, excited, or frightened. This has caused many pionus owners and unwary veterinarians to panic, thinking a bird was seriously ill as it sounds disturbingly similar to an asthmatic attack or an upper respiratory problem. However, after the parrot has become comfortable again, the wheezing will stop and breathing will return to normal.
Though they may not say many words, the average pionus is easily understood through their body language. Owners report their birds seem to “lean” wherever it is they would like to go, whether that is towards their owner, their cage, or the kitchen. There is no mistaking their desire for attention when they begin bobbing their head, dancing on their little feet, and swaying from side to side, begging to be picked up. When feeling antisocial or aggressive, one can easily tell by their slightly ruffled feathers, beak held slightly open, and wings parted slightly from the body. This is often accompanied by pacing back and forth on a perch or top of the cage, in what many owners call “The Pionus Strut”. To some, this is a glaring sign of a parrot who does not want to be handled, though some owners report they are still able to manage their pionus in this state with no problems.
There is no doubt about it: pionus parrots love to be where there is action. They enjoy quietly watching their humans accomplish daily tasks. However, they are not necessarily cuddly birds. They are more companion animals, who like to observe and feel they are part of the flock, but don’t necessarily want to be fussed over. They will solicit scratches when the mood strikes them, but most of the time they are simply satisfied being in the same room as their humans.
Pionus have sweet, curious, often goofy personalities who unlike many parrots, stay tame and loveable even after periods of infrequent handling. They are fearless, and many owners report their birds will climb off their cages and follow them from room to room, just to see what they are doing. It is also not unusual to see a pionus hanging upside down from their cage, swinging wildly from side to side begging to perch on a willing shoulder. If well socialized at a young age, these parrots are less likely than other types to become specifically attached to one human. They will happily accept head scratches from most anyone. However, even the most well socialized pionus may become possessive of their favorite household member. Given this tendency, they may also especially become jealous of other parrots. It is important to expose them to as many people and other animals as possible when they are young in order to lessen the likelihood of having a possessive or jealous parrot.
Pionus need a medium sized cage that that is about eight to twelve cubic feet with bars that are spaced no more than one inch apart. The ideal dimensions are two feet wide, two feet long, and three feet tall. This provides optimum space for them to spread their wings during the day and thrash around in safely at night. The cage should have perches of varying size, with most being just big enough for the pionus to wrap their toes around without overlapping.
The pionus are an intelligent species that requires, as all parrots do, mental stimulation and they must be offered a variety of toys. Their favorite types of toys seem to be made of material they can shred or chew, such as natural fiber paper and soft wood. They seem to particularly love foot toys, such as small balls or barbells made of wood or plastic. Most pionus owners report their bird loves to play “fetch”, parrot style: they love to drop these small foot toys over the side for their owner’s to “fetch” for them. These parrots are generally not very destructive but if they have a favorite type of toy, it would be best to keep several of them on hand!
Breeding pionus is sometimes difficult, as there is no visual way to determine their sex visually and their gender must be determined by a DNA test. Pionus become sexually mature at about 18 to 24 months old and can begin breeding between the ages of 3 to 5 years old. When these parrots pair off, they bond intensely to their mates and are great parents to their chicks. The parents should be moved to a larger breeding cage well before the eggs are produced. The size of the cage should be from 24 to 32 cubic feet. The optimum size is at least two by two by five feet or three by three by three feet. Inside the breeding cage, there should be a nesting box that measures ten by ten by thirty-six inches high with a hole five inches in diameter towards the top of the box. The eggs will incubate in this box for 28 days and the average clutch is four to six chicks. Breeding season varies, but usually starts between February and May and the babies are fully weaned in July through November at about four months old. However, as with all birds, adopting the little pionus as a pet is not a task to be taken lightly, for with proper care and feeding, pionus can live to be 40 years old! To keep them healthy and happy, they should be taken to the veterinarian when first adopted, and then once a year from then on for check-ups and weigh-ins.
With their little bodies and big personalities, it is easy to understand why pionus parrots are growing in popularity. They may not be as flashy, colorful, or talkative as many popular birds, but their loveable clownish ways are winning them a devout following among people enchanted by their sweet dispositions. It is easy to understand why these delightful, sweet-smelling little birds are making their way into the hearts of bird lovers across America. Whichever the species, pionus is sure to please.
Grindol, Diane. “Stop and Smell the Pionus.” Bird Talk. Dec., 1999: pgs. 48 – 59.
Gorman, Mary. “Mary’s Pionus Page.” 2005. http://k12s.phast.umass.edu/~mgorman/
Nelson, Bob. “Positively Pionus.” Bird Talk. May, 2001: pgs. 52 – 59.