Black-cheeked Lovebird (Agapornis nigrigenis)

Black-cheeked Lovebird (Agapornis nigrigenis), here one of my own breeding females.

The perfect cage bird

The title is connected to the fact that we here are dealing with a species that represents the Lovebird genus (Agapornis) in the absolute best way: It has beautiful colours, it is not as noisy as several of its other relatives, it has an exciting and funny behaviour, it is relatively easy to get it to breed, in addition, it is very sociable, which means that it can be kept in flocks without the great risk of the birds during confrontations going so far as to cause damage on each other's beaks, toes and claws.

Paradoxically, the Black-cheeked Lovebird (Agapornis nigrigenis) is without comparison the Lovebird species of which there are the fewest specimens left in the wild, and the population in the wild is estimated to be only approximately half the population of the Nyasa Lovebird (Agapornis lilianae).

The English species name, Black-cheeked Lovebird, is a complete extension of the scientific Latin name, "nigrigenis".


Colour description

The late Dane, J. L. Albrecht-Møller, describes the Black-cheeked Lovebird as follows in the "Papegøjebogen" (“The Parrot Book”, not published in English) from 1973:

"Male and female: Forehead, crown  to above the eye sienna brown to black; sides of head, cheeks and upper part of throat brownish black to black; lower part of throat salmon red to orange red; back of head, sides of neck and nape olive green; wing coverts, hind neck, back and upper tail coverts dark green; breast, belly, sides of body and under tail coverts light green; secondaries green, but almost black at the root; the inner vane of the primaries and the tip of the outer vane black, the rest of the outer vane dark green; the tips of the tail feathers yellow-green, the two middle tail feathers green on the rest of the feather, the other 5 tail feathers on each side have behind the yellow-green tip a green belt which continues up the outer vane, within this an almost black spot over the entire inner vane and a little of the outer vane, within this again a yellow-orange patch over almost the entire rest of the inner vane and a strip of the outer vane along the middle of the feather. Around the eye a naked white ring. Iris yellowish brown in the male, dark brown in the female; the beak is coral red, the upper beak however lighter at the root, the cere flesh-coloured; legs light grey or bluish grey. In the female, the colours are duller and more blurred, the sienna brown does not have quite the warm and reddish hue found in the male; the cheek, which in the male is pure black, is only blackish-brown in the female, and also somewhat less widespread. The female is the largest.

Length 140 – 153 mm”.

In the first weeks after fledging, the young have a black border along the root of the beak and the plumage generally appears somewhat duller in colour. The Black-cheeked Lovebird's appearance (body structure) seems somewhat "chubby" compared to e.g. the Masked Lovebirds (Agapornis personatus), yet the Black-cheeked Lovebird is a fast-flying little parrot. In relation to its size, it has a relatively strong voice (screech), but it is a lot softer than the voice of e.g. the Masked Lovebird.

Zambia, home of the Black-cheeked Lovebird, has issued 3 different stamps featuring this species. Here is one of the two stamps that were issued with this species as a motif in 1996. The first stamp that Zambia issued with this species as a motif is from 1977 and is not very lifelike.

In the wild

According to Birdlife International, the Black-cheeked Lovebird lives in places in the south-western part of Zambia between the Kafue River to the north and the Zambezi River to the south with an estimated distribution area of 17,500 km2 within which the central breeding areas are estimated to cover approximately 2,500 km2. The species is found within an area of 4,550 km2 covered by Mopane forest (Colophospermum), of which 3,200 km2 occurs in the Zambezi catchment. The Black-cheeked Lovebird used to have a larger distribution area, and certain historical - as well as unconfirmed - records refer to wild populations from the eastern Caprivi region of Namibia. There have also been unconfirmed reports of the occurrence of the Black-cheeked Lovebird in Botswana and Zimbabwe. The core population of Black-cheeked Lovebird can be divided into two subpopulations in the dry season, that in the Zambezi catchment (approximately 6,200 birds in 1994) and that in the Kafue catchment (nearly 3,800 birds in 1994). According to Birdlife International, the general density of occurrence of Black-cheeked Lovebirds within the presumed breeding area was calculated to be about 2.2 birds per km2, which does not reflect the species' "clustered" occurrence, and the total population was estimated to be approximately 10,000 birds. Evidence from farmers and bird trappers suggests this is a significantly lower number than at the start of the 20th century. Birdlife International's latest estimate of the Black-cheeked Lovebird's presence in the wild is in the category of 2,500 - 9,999 birds within an area of 17,500 km2, and the population trend is decreasing. The Black-cheeked Lovebird was therefore assessed in 2009 by BirdLife International - the official "Red List" authority for birds on behalf of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) - to belong to the category "Vulnerable" species), and it is thus the most endangered Lovebird species in the wild. The reason why the Black-cheeked Lovebird is listed as vulnerable is that it is a small population that is in continued decline, mainly as a result of the gradual drying up of water bodies within a very local area.

​The Black-cheeked Lovebird lives in deciduous forest, dominated by Mopane trees, where there is permanent access to water bodies. It also forages for adjacent habitats such as riverine vegetation and agricultural areas to consume food and water. It needs access to water in places undisturbed by people and livestock, and it needs to drink water twice a day. In the dry season, in certain areas it can gather in large flocks of up to 800 individuals or more.

It forages - what you also see in human care - mainly on the ground on the basis of seasonal grass seeds, but also takes other vegetation and animal food in the form of insect larvae, as well as the maturing Sorghum grass species (sorghum, which is similar to the millet species) and millet from fields. The Black-cheeked Lovebird has also been observed to consume insects, worms, leaves, flowers, nectar, bark, mosses and soil. The crop ripening season coincides with the species' breeding season and its appetite for field crops has earned it a local reputation as a pest. In south-western Zambia, it has thus been established that the Black-cheeked Lovebird has been able to cause damage to nearly 20 % of the millet fields during the ripening season.

The Black-cheeked Lovebird breeds in naturally formed holes and hollows in mature Mopane trees from January to May and is believed to be faithful to its nest site from year to year. The breeding season coincides with the time of year when maximum rainfall falls and at the beginning of the dry season. The pairs usually raise a single clutch. Clutches of up to 6 - 7 chicks have been observed.

This is an example of a non-species pure Black-cheeked Lovebird photographed at a bird exhibition in Denmark in autumn 2009. Note the blue upper tail coverts between the tips of the primaries (I apologize for the lack of sharpness of the picture).


There are 3 threats which over the last century are believed to have contributed to the decline in the number of Black-cheeked Lovebirds in the wild. Firstly, in the period from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, there was an intensive capture of the species in order to satisfy the demand of us aviculturists. Secondly, its distribution areas have been affected by gradual drying out, which - for the moment - is believed to be the biggest threat to the species, not least considering its very limited distribution area. Next, the gradual replacement of the attractive sorghum and millet crops with maize fields in the period between the 1930’s and 1950’s has contributed to the declining number of birds in the wild.

There is said to be evidence that trade in wild-caught Black-cheeked Lovebirds is currently at a very low level and that trade and export are only isolated, although it is clear that any international demand would be eagerly met. Here, the EU's ban on importing birds from countries outside the EU has probably had an impact on demand. The bird is sought after in the wild, as it is considered a pest, and the dead birds will usually become human food. Farmers implement measures to reduce crop damage caused by this species, but these measures are largely ineffective and rarely fatal to the birds (unlike what can be seen among crop-threatening parrots in Australia). The current level of hunting and trapping of Black-cheeked Lovebirds is not considered to have any serious long-term consequences for the population, except that it may threaten local populations suffering from the effects of drought. Recently, there may have been local reduction of the species due to lack of access to surface water during the dry season, perhaps due to long-term climate change. The number of permanent water bodies in the Mopane forests has decreased since the beginning of the last century. The low availability of water during the dry season is probably the main reason for the permanent disappearance of the Black-cheeked Lovebird from the Bovu and Sinde River areas, as well as the changes that have occurred to the population living along the Ngweze River. The situation has been exacerbated by a decrease in annual rainfall in the species' habitat by an average of about 5 mm per year in the period from 1950 to 1995, which has increased the Black-cheeked Lovebird's dependence on artificial water resources, in addition to the exploitation of Mopane forests for industrial forestry. Finally, it is said that PBFD - also called "Bird AIDS" (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease Virus) - is present in the natural population, but it has not been proven that this disease is a serious threat to the survival of this species.

This is how the upper rump (upper tail coverts) should look on a 100 % pure species Black-cheeked Lovebird. It should be the same colour as the bird's back without any blue or bluish feathers or turquoise shades when seen in sunlight or in strong artificial light. Photo from the internet.

Nature protection measures

The Black-cheeked Lovebird has by far the smallest range in nature compared to the other Lovebird species, and it is therefore in a very vulnerable situation. The Black-cheeked Lovebird is listed on CITES, list II, (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as "The Washington Convention"). Its two relatives, the Fischer's Lovebird (Agapornis fischeri) and the Nyasa Lovebird (Agapornis lilianae) are also listed by Birdlife International as nearly treatened, but not at the same high level. These two species are "only" registered as "Near Threatened", where the Black-cheeked Lovebird unfortunately already is registered as "Vulnerable", i.e. decidedly threatened. Capture of the Black-cheeked Lovebird for trade is now prohibited. In Zambia, a trade ban on wild-caught birds was already introduced in 1930. Approximately 35 % of the Black-cheeked Lovebird's habitat is in Kafue National Park and surrounding wildlife management areas. Detailed research programs regarding this species were carried out in the 1990’s, from which published reports are available. An educational project focusing on this species was carried out in south-western Zambia in September 2001 with the participation of local schools, villagers and staff of the Zambia Wildlife Authority.


Various measures have been proposed to protect the Black-cheeked Lovebird, including:

  • Regular (e.g. monthly) counts of the stock at centrally selected locations (at water points during the dry period) in the core distribution area.
  • Restoring its potential for return to former ranges, initially through the provision of undisturbed water bodies and access to durum and millet fields.
  • Offer to train potential local surveyors in ornithology and nature conservation.
  • Holding meetings with farmers on the protection of resources such as trees and water.
  • Continue to enforce the trade ban on wild-caught birds.
  • Investigation of the effect of burning grasslands.



Due to projects developed, initiated and financed by Loro Parque Fundación over the recent years, the Black-cheeked Lovebird has been saved from extinction. This species went from the brink as being endangered according to the IUCN Red List to having the status of "Vulnerable" thanks to the collaboration between Loro Parque Fundación and the Research Center for African Parrot Conservation, where great efforts were made in order to preserve this bird.

Note a specimen of the Black-cheeked Lovebird, which at first appears to be pure species, but where the upper rump (upper tail coverts) clearly has turquoise hues. Photo from the internet.

In human care

In the mid-1970’s, as a very young person, I saw this species in human care for the first time ever. So far, I had only read about it in various books, but then one day during a visit to the then chairman of the Animal Dealers' Industry Association, K. Heiberg, in Lyngby Bird Farm (near Copenhagen) I saw a large cage full of Black-cheeked Lovebirds. By scraping together and saving up, I ended up buying a pair that I enjoyed very much over several years.

The Black-cheeked Lovebird is occasionally still offered for sale, typically by breeders. It is not a bird that you see everywhere, but conversely it is not rare among the European aviculturists either, however, the quality of the birds is questionable, cf. below.

In human care, the Black-cheeked Lovebird is best kept in small flocks, where unrelated, already paired, birds can live together. The species is much more peaceful than, for example, both the Masked and the Fischer's Lovebirds (Agapornis personatus and Agapornis fischeri), etc. If the birds start to argue among themselves, I have fortunately not yet seen that - as with a number of the other Lovebird species - it results in bitten off toes or claws.

Where the Black-cheeked Lovebird previously was thought to be sensitive, not least in relation to the weather in Northern Europe, the species has become quite robust over time. It can therefore go outside all year round, provided that at night - or on particularly cold days - it can seek into a frost-free and heated interior.

It is a magnificent bird in every way, which you can spend many hours watching from a bench in the garden, when it moves lively in a flock around the natural branches of the aviary.

Notice the upper rump (upper tail coverts) on bird no. 2 and 4 from the left. Here, too, there are clear turquoise spots in the places where there should be green upper tail coverts. Photo from the internet.

Is the Danish population of Black-cheeked Lovebirds species pure?

As can be seen from the above, the Black-cheeked Lovebird is unfortunately still in a very vulnerable situation in the wild. It is therefore extremely important that aviculturists who keep this bird in human care work seriously and purposefully to ensure in every way healthy - and species pure - strains of this species. Unfortunately, you still see that this species in human care is hybridized with other Lovebird species, not least the Masked Lovebird (Agapornis personatus). The Masked Lovebird is, among other things, characterized by having an ultramarine blue "ribbon" on the upper rump (upper tail coverts). Such a "ribbon" must not be found on the Black-cheeked Lovebird, as it is a sure sign that there has been another species involved in the breeding, even if, by back-mating the species pure Black-cheeked Lovebirds over generations, it has subsequently succeeded to remove other "non Black-cheeked Lovebird" species characteristics (e.g. the Masked Lovebird's yellow feathers around the neck). The photo below (which is unfortunately very blurry) shows a non species pure Black-cheeked Lovebird, which has a clear (ultramarine) blue "band" on the upper tail coverts. Under no circumstances should such a hybrid bird be bred.

According to various literary works with numerous records from the wild, the upper rump (upper tail coverts) of pure Black-cheeked Lovebirds must have the same green colour as the feathers on the back, just as it appears in the photo below.

However, quite a few times at Danish aviculturists who specialize in breeding Black-cheeked Lovebirds, I have come across specimens that in terms of phenotype (appearance) completely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird, but when you see their upper rump (upper tail coverts) in either sunlight or strong artificial light, larger or smaller areas ("stains") appear in different places with turquoise shades. Oddly enough, it is often birds whose colouring may appear a little more intensive than otherwise, as can be seen from the accompanying photos.

Notice the upper rump on the bird on the far right, which also has clear turquoise shades on the upper tail coverts. Photo from the internet.

The occurrence of the turquoise colour has given me reason to doubt whether the birds of these breeders are genuine pure species. I have therefore submitted the 3 bottom colour photos on this page together with the following questions to one of Denmark's leading international bird experts, namely Professor emeritus Jon Fjeldså at the Natural History Museum of Denmark – University of Copenhagen:


"My question - as a serious breeder of the Black-cheeked Lovebird - is whether here (cf. photos 3 – 5) we are talking about birds that in the 7th or 8th generation are descendants of birds that have been hybridized with other Lovebird species (and thus must be discarded as breeding material)? As far as I remember, the blue feather colour is formed via light effects on the feather structure, since the blue feather colour does not exist by itself, and it is thought-provoking that it is especially in sunlight or strong artificial light that the turquoise shades can be seen on the bird's upper rump (upper tail coverts)”.



"According to all the literature I can find about Agapornis nigrigenis (which today is considered an independent species), it must have a green upper rump without any blue. The turquoise colour is due, as you yourself mention, to light refraction in the feather structure and not to any pigment, and this must therefore not be naturally occurring in Agapornis nigrigenis. On the other hand, it is found in Agapornis roseicollis and Agapornis fischeri, partly also in Agapornis pullarius (and very strong ultramarine blue in Agapornis swindernianus). Because the species is not found together with any of these species in nature, I must therefore assume that the changed ultrastructure in the feathers has arisen from hybridization in human care".

In other words, in the further breeding with the Black-cheeked Lovebird, we aviculturists have to reject birds with these turquoise shades/spots on the upper rump (upper tail coverts), which are therefore mainly visible in either sunlight or strong artificial light. When you buy the Black-cheeked Lovebird, you should ask the seller to be allowed to see the bird's upper rump (upper tail coverts) in sunlight or strong artificial light.

As can be seen from the above, there still remains a great deal of breeding work among serious Danish breeders of the Black-cheeked Lovebird.

Black-cheeked Lovebird, one of my young breeding pairs.

Colour mutations

According to Gottlieb Gaiser's and Bodo Ochs' book, "Die Agapornis-Arten und ihre Mutationen", from 1995 (ISBN 3-9803274-1-8), the blue colour mutation should have arisen in Denmark in the mid-1980’s. At about the same time, the same blue colour mutation appeared in the Netherlands and Germany. This was followed by both dark green and olive green colour mutations, and over the past few years countless colour mutations have been produced within the Black-cheeked Lovebird, such as e.g. already for several years has been known from the Masked Lovebird (Agapornis personatus). The reason I use the word "produced" is related to the fact that these colour mutations are man-made through transmutations, which means that they are created through mating with a colour mutation belonging to another species. These colour mutations, regardless of how many percentages of Black-cheeked Lovebird they may contain, are worthless, and it can even threaten the existence of species pure wild-coloured Black-cheeked Lovebirds in human care, i.a. because mutation breeding can also result in split birds, which may risk being included in the further breeding of wild-coloured birds. As can be seen from the above, pure bred wild-coloured Black-cheeked Lovebirds are already in great short supply in human care, and we cannot get more birds from the wild. That's why we have to protect the pure wild-coloured birds that we have.

So far, I have seen many colour mutations of this species in Denmark, but I still haven’t seen a bird that for sure is 100% species pure, but at one point or another such one will probably appear.



Refer to the same section under Masked Lovebird (Agapornis personatus).


Jorgen Petersen

Conceived/Updated: 28.12.2009 / 18.02.2024