Parrots and their relatives have such a long history as pets (the first written record of a parrot in captivity is that of a plum-headed parakeet in Greece in 400 BC) that it is easy to forget how spectacularly adapted they are for life in the wild. Today I would like to pass along some information concerning the natural history of these fascinating birds, with the hope that it will help you to develop a better understanding and deeper appreciation of your pet’s unique qualities.
All 360 species of “parrot-like birds” (of the world’s nearly 10,000 bird species) are classified within the order Psittaciformes. They are divided into approximately 80 genera but belong to a single family, Psittacidae.
The hyacinth macaw, which reaches 3.4 feet in length and sports a wingspan of nearly 5 feet, is the world’s largest parrot. Papua New Guinea’s buff-faced pygmy parrot, fully grown at 3 inches, is the smallest. The flightless kakapo of New Zealand, at 9 pounds in weight, is the heaviest parrot.
Parrot bills are distinguished from those of other birds by the fact that the upper bill is hinged where it joins the skull, allowing for great flexibility and rendering it very useful as a tool. The thick tongue also helps give parrots their extraordinary ability to manipulate objects.
Parrot tails may be long, as in the macaws (2/3 birds total length) or nearly absent, as in the blue-crowned hanging parrots. The central tail feathers of the racket-tailed parrots of Indonesia and the Philippines are elongated and bare, and capped with flat, rounded tips. The function of their odd shape is not unknown. The New Guinea pygmy parrot’s stiff, bare tail feathers support the bird as it forages on tree trunks.
Parrots feet are termed “zygodactyl” – 2 toes point forward and 2 point backwards. This arrangement confers strength and dexterity. Parrots are distinctly “left-footed” or “right-footed” when it comes to handling objects with their feet.
Range and Habitat
The ring-necked parakeet, found from North Africa to China, is the widest ranging parrot. A group that escaped at Kennedy Airport in NYC still survives in the area surrounding the Bronx Zoo (an injured one that I came upon had lost some toes due to frostbite, but was otherwise in fine shape). Stephen’s lorry, the species most limited in distribution, survives only within a 13.5 square mile area on Henderson Island in the South Pacific.
The now extinct Carolina parakeet ranged to North America’s Great Lake region, making it the most northerly of parrots in distribution. Today that title is held by the slaty-headed parrot of Afghanistan. Tierra del Fuego’s austral conure ranges the furthest south.
Most parrots are associated with forested areas and even grassland species, such as the budgerigar (common parakeet) and Fischer’s lovebird, rarely stray far from thickets. There are however, a number of exceptions:
The kea lives at elevations of 2-6,000 feet in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and is often seen rolling about in the snow. Other mountain dwelling parrots include the derbyan parakeet of the Himalayas and the Sierra parakeet of the Andes.
Australia’s ground parrot inhabits coastal sand dunes while the night parrot, also of Australia, is found only in desert grasslands.
While the vast majority of the world’s parrots feed upon nuts, seeds and fruit, several species take quite unique food items:
Black cockatoo – the larvae of wood-boring beetles
Kakapo – juice obtained by chewing leaves
Pygmy parrot – fungus
Lories and lorikeets – pollen and nectar
Perhaps the oddest parrot diet of all is that of New Zealand’s kea, which favors bot fly larvae. The kea hunts fly larvae by perching upon the backs of sheep and pecking at the skin – much to the dismay of both sheep and shepherds! This habit, and the bird’s inordinate fondness for carrion, has resulted in their being unjustly labeled as sheep-killers.