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The Bird That Would Be King: The Black-headed Caique

by Sally Blanchard, Editor, Companion Parrots
Reprinted with permission

Caique King

All of the Eyes in the Room

It was the final judging for the best bird in the show and all eyes were on the black-headed caique. He certainly seemed aware of this as he played to the crowd. Standing erect, the parrot fluffed out his cheeks and puffed the feathers on his orange "pantaloons". No one ever told this little parrot that green and orange were not supposed to be compatible decorator colors. This was the first caique that I had ever seen in person and I was fascinated by this pompous little bird holding court. It appeared that he was doing the judging as he deliberately swaggered on his perch closely scrutinizing his audience. I had never seen such a small parrot grow so straight and tall. I blinked and before my eyes this arrogant "little Napoleon" turned into an acrobatic clown. Suddenly, he had thrown himself on the floor of the cage and was doing somersaults. Did he win best of show? I believe so but I really only remember the performance. I know that if I had been the judge, the caique would have easily manipulated me into voting for him even though one of my parrots was his competition.

100% On or 100% Off

I saw this delightful little creature over a decade ago and although they are now certainly more common, caiques are still one of the rarer pet parrots. Unfortunately, I do not have the knowledge to discuss the personality of the white-bellied or to differentiate the various races of caiques. I have talked to several owners of white-bellied caiques who report that they also have a delightful comical personality. Since I acquired Spike, my black-headed caique, I have been acquainted with several pet caiques and they seem to have many personality traits in common. The black-headed caique has an incredibly high energy, almost manic personality. Their behavior may fluctuate between 100% ON and 100% "dud". When Spike first came home with me he was totally wound up, throwing himself around his cage as if he was having a seizure. Suddenly, he fluffed up, squinted his eyes and looked as if he was about to fall off of his perch. I was quite alarmed and took him up to see my avian veterinarian, Dr. James Harris. By the time we got to his office, Spike was back to 100% ON. The various tests showed nothing abnormal. I've learned to accept these vast differences in his personality although I have found that improving his diet lessened the extremes. Spikey was a previously owned bird with some serious behavioral problems. When he came to live with me, Spike ate far too much seed but according to the previous owner, seemed to prefer fruit loops and Pepsi Cola. It took a few weeks to convert him to a manufactured diet in place of the seed. Now Spike will eat just about everything that he is offered. I believe that caiques do very poorly on a predominantly seed diet and because of their high energy, require more fruit than most parrots. Spike gets lots of fresh fruits and vegetables with an emphasis on vitamin A. In addition, every few days, I give him some lory food mixed with fruit juice. The healthy diet and an addition of full spectrum lighting over his cage has improved Spike's feather condition to a velvety sheen.

South American Lories

Comparisons are often made between the South American caique and the lories of the Austral-Asian area of the world. They are an example of "convergent evolution" - two unrelated species from different parts of the world that have coincidentally evolved similar physical and/or behavioral attributes. The lory and the caique are both colorful, intelligent and somewhat aggressive members of the parrot family that often hop to get from place to place. Both can make excellent pets but only if the owner understands the difficulties of their behavior. Although caiques are charmers, they are not the right pet for a timid master. The caique may have the potential to be a sweet and gentle cuddler and an aggressive nasty biter -- almost at the same time. The owners who have the best pet caiques have established a strong nurturing dominance with rules and guidance. Using the "UP" command is essential to maintain control of this excitable bird that is very "big for its size". When Spike gets too big for his little orange "britches", I give him the intense "evil eye" and say "UP"! At that point, because he has been disciplined with my immediate disapproval, he knows that I am in control and that his behavior was unacceptable.

More Bounce To The Ounce

Although I have been greatly amused by many different parrots over the years, there have been few that rival the comic performances of a caique. They are intelligent and learn quickly. Spike's repertoire of tricks seems limited only by my ability as a teacher. Caique KingIt took only a few minutes for him to perfect a somersault in my hand and he will do one for any trusted human who positions him in their hand correctly.

I can't even remember teaching him to hop across the table after I "wind" him up. I hold him with my hand around his back and gently bounce him a few times and he hops across the table. Caiques are natural hoppers and most good parrot tricks take advantage of natural behaviors. I was visiting Phoebe Linden at Santa Barbara Bird Farm at the time of the terrible firestorm there. Although we were some distance from the fire area, there was still concern that it could change direction and come our way. We sat at the dining table for hours waiting to see what would happen in case we might have to evacuate the aviaries. To pass the time, I was playing with Spike. I set him on the table, pointed my finger at him and said "Pow Pow". Then, I gently rolled him over on his back. I repeated this for less than a half an hour before Spike learned to roll over on his back on cue. In all of his performances at my seminars and programs, Spike has never needed any reward except my praise and the applause and laughter from the admiring crowd.

First Impressions

Caiques can be impetuous, reacting immediately to most situations. They often form instant "opinions" of people, often disliking some relatively innocent bystander intensely. My belief is that it is often the energy of the person that they are reacting to and not their physical characteristics. Often Spike will dislike someone immediately if I am uncomfortable with them. Caiques may not be subtle in their reaction which may be a quick lunge at the "enemy's" face with a fierce bite to the nose or lip. Even the tamest caique, including Spike, may suddenly respond to someone this way if the situation is just right. This has only happened a few times and I have tried to anticipate who Spike may react to in this manner. It is rare and often unpredictable but if I pay close attention, I can usually tell by his immediate body posture how he will be with strangers. I make it a point to control introductions by handing Spike to people rather than allowing them to just pick him up. The people who Spike immediately loves are those who just automatically pick him up with utmost confidence and playfully "maul" him. I hesitate to use the word "maul" because it has such a negative connotation but I can not come up with any other word that fits the way that Spike likes to be played with. If he trusts someone, he loves to be gently "grabbed" and rolled around, upside down -- right side up, being tickled and skritched. This seems to be fairly normal behavior for Caiques, even with each other.

Aggressive Behavior

It is wise not to challenge a caique by imitating their aggressive posturing. Marge West, a knowledgeable bird owner, was one of Spike's friends until one day when we were visiting her home. Spike became possessive about a food treat and began posturing aggressively. He repeatedly raised his head with puffed cheeks, snorted like a miniature bull and then suddenly dropped his head and bowed deeply. In jest, Marge returned the posture. Spike never forgave her for her "aggression" towards him and has been nasty to her ever since. Caiques seem to defend their territories quite aggressively if their owner is not the dominant "partner" in the pair bond. It is very important to establish cage dominance with a caique by always using the "UP" command clearly when taking the bird out of its cage. Don't ever let the bird get into the habit of letting itself out of its cage. I have been the recipient of variations of this territorial caique behavior several times. A very tame pet caique owned by clients lunged at my face when I approached it without any introduction at a bird show. I believe that this bird was in "overload" from the excess of activity at the show. Carol Frank of Dallas, Texas has a delightful caique named Chuck. When I first visited Carol, Chuck was a baby and was tame to everyone. A year later during my next visit, Chuck mistrusted me immediately and stalked me on the back of the couch. I didn't really respond to him one way or another and after a day or so, Chuck's behavior towards me suddenly changed. Instead of stalking me aggressively, he suddenly showed great fear at my presence. The complex whys of caique behavior are often a puzzle to me. I can only presume that since Chuck's aggressive behavior did not make me go away, he perceived my presence as a continuing threat that he did not know how to deal with me and in his confusion, he became afraid of me. It sometimes appears that such a dramatic little bird would not be afraid of anything but I believe that much of a caique's aggressive behavior occurs in situations when they are afraid. Spike changes his behavior drastically when he is startled.

Nothing Subtle

There is nothing subtle about a caique. Their body language is easily readable. When they dislike something or someone, there is no question about it. If Spike does not like someone in my house, he can rigidly stand for hours in the corner of his cage staring at them intensely. When these little parrots are trying to impress, they strut and puff like a caricature of themselves. Caiques are natural "hams" delighting in the drama of human response. In my seminars, as an illustrations of why I don't like Spike on my shoulder, I put him there giving him permission to be there with the "OK" command. Without my permission, he immediately climbs up and starts ratting around in my hair with some sort of displaced "leaf bathing" behavior -- often called "hair surfing" by observers. As he rubs his face through a tuft of hair, he often looks up to see if the audience is responding. It is obvious when a caique likes something. They dissolve into ecstasy. Spike seems to go into a hypnotic trance when I lay him on his back and "skritch" the area around his beak.

Better Than Television

Who needs TV? I have watched Spike entertain himself for hours. He juggles two or more toys at the same time, rolling on his back, doing somersaults, hanging upside down, doing the splits and twisting and turning with great acrobatic skill. Sometimes he seems to go into a frenzy, flinging himself around the cage. Although caiques are stocky, conure size birds, I believe because of their level of activity, they should be housed in an Amazon sized cage. Caiques love toys and should have a wide assortment of various kinds to hang from, climb and play with. Most of my friends feel that Spike is incredibly spoiled when they see his vast array of toys. People just don't understand that he is a professional toy tester and having all of these toys is his job. Spike loves the colorful acrylic toys with dangling bouncing pieces. I hang at least one low enough that he can lay on his back and fiddle with it with both feet -- one of his favorite pastimes. In the same way that he runs his face through my hair (if given the opportunity), Spike loves running his face through various rope and cloth "preening" toys. One of his favorite toys is the Razzle Dazzle made by Parrot Affair toys with its dangling strips of leather and assorted beads and wood shapes. For their size, caiques have large strong beaks and also need toys that they can chew up and destroy. Even though they are capable of great destruction, I find that it is unusual for them to destroy their toys quickly like many other parrots. Constantly busy when they are "ON", caiques can be incessant chewers. Although they are not really biters when they play, they particularly seem to enjoy "beaking" soft finger skin. I always recommend having some sort of untreated leather or rope knot "foot" toy handy to stick in their face when they start chewing on their owner's fingers. One of Spike's favorite "knuckle saving" toys is the "Parrot Pal" by Emerald Bird Caddy.

Choreographed Dancing?

One of the most entertaining caique behaviors that I have observed was Spike and a younger bird named Spike Junior (guess who he was named after?) meeting each other for the first time. Spike and I had given a seminar at a pet shop -- the owner had Spike Junior for a pet. After the audience left, we placed both caiques on the carpeted floor. They seemed to ignore each other as they hopped around like two wind up toys. Gradually, their circles bounced together. Without even seeming to notice each other, Spike suddenly dropped onto his back while Spike Junior continued to hop around him in circles. These behaviors did not seem to have anything to do with aggression or submission -- nor did they seem sexual. It just seemed to be another form of play just for the fun of it.

The black-headed caique is a marvelously entertaining parrot. I remember being disappointed as a child because I couldn't really make my dolls come alive. Finally, after all of these years, it feels as if that has finally happened with Spike. However, anyone contemplating the ownership of a caique should not enter that relationship lightly. They can be wonderful pets or aggressive monsters. Creating a good pet caique requires a person willing to accept the responsibility of continually working to nurture and control their little companion's often dominant personality. By the way, is it ki-eek, ki-eek-ee, cake or kike? I really don't know for sure but I personally prefer ki-eek. I think that it suits their personality the best.


Reprinted From Companion Parrot Quarterly, March 1992
(formerly Pet Bird Report)
Laughing Parrot Gallery
239 E 4th St, Loveland, CO 80527

COPYRIGHT 1992. All text and drawings by Sally Blanchard
Reproduction in whole or part is prohibited without written authorization.