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Choosing a Black-Masked Lovebird

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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Black-masked lovebirds (Agapornis personata) are among the most common pet birds worldwide, the second most popular type of lovebirds (after the peach-faces). These tiny parrots are known as lovebirds because of the strong pair bond between mates, which are constantly together - preening, cooing and billing. Given good care, the birds can live 18 to 20 years.

Natives of Africa, these birds are admired for their beautiful coloration, engaging personalities, small size, and ease of maintenance. Black-masked lovebirds are small bundles of energy, personality and vitality that are always active, playing with toys or chattering, and interacting with each other or their owners. They are highly domesticated and have been bred for over a century. They are readily available worldwide and are usually modestly priced, between $35 and $100 for a young bird.

When buying a black mask, make sure you choose a young bird. You can recognize youngsters by a large dark patch on the upper beak, which is not as bright a red as the beak of adults. Likewise, a young bird's mask is not as dark as an adult's.

The voice of a black mask is a mixture of energetic chattering and short, high-pitched shrieks. Black-masked lovebirds are not easily taught to speak and have a squeaky speaking voice, which is difficult to understand. Adult black masks tend to become nippy - especially females. Males tend to be better pets for people who wish to handle them. Some lovebirds can become overaggressive to other birds, though not to their owners or mates.

Black masks make nice pets for older children who are willing to give them a lot of time and attention. They are most commonly kept in pairs rather than as single birds and are ideal companion birds for people who prefer to watch the antics of a colorful lively pair of birds rather than handle a single bird.

Wild-type black-masked lovebirds are a beautiful bright green with a blackish brown mask and bright yellow collar and breast. Mature birds have a bright red beak and white eye ring. Their eyes are black. Typically, the birds maintain their plumage in good condition and have very sleek feathering.

Through the years, several color mutations have been established in captivity and black-masked lovebirds are now available in several colors. Initial mutations were blue-masked lovebirds, whose body was green. Later mutations produced light versions of the blue mask, called the white mask. Keep in mind however that color mutations are typically not as strong and healthy as the original.

In the wild, they live in well-wooded grasslands with Acacia and other scrubby trees. They are found almost exclusively on a plateau in east and south Tanzania at about 3,000 to 5,000 feet elevation, but feral populations exist in mountainous areas of Kenya.

Feeding

Pelleted diets are available for black-masked lovebirds and provide balanced nutrition in every bite. Black-masked lovebirds should also be offered small mounts of fresh, dark leafy green vegetables, tiny slices of apple, grapes, melons, sprouts or other fresh foods. Boiled eggs or commercial egg food are excellent for young and breeding birds, but be careful not to leave moist foods in the cage too long to avoid contamination. Vitamin supplements are not necessary if the bird eats a pelleted diet, but if vitamins are given, make sure to wash the bowl or water bottle daily to prevent bacterial overgrowth.

Historically, black-masked lovebirds have been fed only seed mixes. While they can survive for an extended period of time on such a diet, eventually they fall into poor health. Lovebirds shell their seeds, so vitamins added to the outside will be discarded.

Contrary to popular belief, black-masked lovebirds do not need grit. They will consume it and if they are in good health it will not harm them, but if they don't feel well they may eat too much resulting in an impaction.

Housing

Black-masked lovebirds are small, but they are very active and should be given plenty of room to move around their cage. Since lovebirds are typically kept in pairs, purchase a cage at least 50 percent larger than you would think appropriate for a single bird.

The cage should have at least two perches (don't use sandpaper perch covers, as they are very abrasive on the feet). Place one perch near the food and water to allow easy access. Black-masked lovebirds love to swing; they also like playing on a small rope perch. Toys should be supplied to keep the bird busy and he should be introduced to a variety of them at a young age so he is not frightened of them. Single birds also love mirrors and will even court - or spar - with their own image. Other favorite toys include bells, toys with moving parts, and little plastic fake birds, with which they will spar. Black masks also like toys that they can enter: snuggle companions, paper bags, boxes, etc.

Grooming

Black-masked lovebirds love baths and small bird baths can be purchased that will fit through the door of a standard cage. This can be filled with lukewarm water and left for the bird to enter as he chooses. Black-masked lovebirds can also be bathed by misting with a fine-mist spray bottle. They should be bathed twice weekly to maintain excellent plumage.

Wing clipping is essential for initial training of the black mask, and the bird will need periodic trimming as flight feathers grow back in. If you choose to keep your bird flighted, be aware of safety issues: Accidents are often associated with ceiling fans, birds falling into open toilets, swimming pools, pots on the stove, etc. Birds can also escape very quickly when a door is suddenly opened and the bird becomes startled and flies out.

Breeding

Black-masked lovebirds are easily bred. The breeding cage should be larger than a single pet cage. A good size is approximately 24 inches long by 20 inches tall by 24 inches wide. A small wooden box – approximately 6 inches by 6 inches by 8 inches - can be mounted at a top corner. Pine shavings can be used as nest material, however black-masked lovebirds like to build a nest inside the box. Many breeders give them woody vines, such as honeysuckle or pieces of palm fronds.

Breeding pairs are often in a hurry to start another clutch of eggs and may abuse the chicks to force them from the nest, plucking or biting them. Such chicks may need to be removed for hand feeding. Hand-feeding newly hatched black-masked lovebirds is very challenging, due to their small size, but if they are left in the nest until two to four weeks old they are easily hand-fed and are delightful babies.

Black-masked lovebirds will breed year-round if allowed to, which will exhaust the hen. After three clutches in a year the nest box should be removed and the birds forced to rest. Reducing the period of daylight to about 10 hours of light daily will help reduce the urge to breed.

Common Diseases and Disorders

The black-masked lovebird is a relatively healthy bird. The following diseases have been reported in this species:

  • Psittacosis or parrot fever
  • Polyoma virus
  • Psittacine beak and feather disease
  • Yeast infections
  • Liver disease
  • Traumatic accidents and accidental poisoning
  • Megabacteria – Historically called "going light" this "bacteria" is probably actually a yeast infection and is treated with antifungal drugs. It causes chronic weight loss.

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