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Pygmy Parrots – Thumb-Sized Lichen-Eaters that move like Woodpeckers

Micropsitta PusioI recently attended a fascinating lecture on Island Bird Diversity at the American Museum of Natural HistoryTwo Pygmy Parrot species – the Red-Breasted (Micropsitta bruijni) and the Finsch’s (M. finschii) – drew the speaker to the Solomon Islands. In reflecting back on the talk afterwards, I realized that, despite my interest, I had yet to observe a live Pygmy Parrot. They’ve never been in the collection of the Bronx Zoo, where I worked for over 20 years, and only rarely appear in museums.  Further research turned up one interesting field report, but it seems that we still know very little about these smallest and, arguably, most unusual of all parrots.

The World’s Smallest Parrots

Six species of Pygmy Parrots inhabit New Guinea, the Solomons and neighboring islands. They look, in most respects, like other parrots – but barely exceed a human thumb in size!  At 3.5 inches in length, the Buff-Faced Pygmy parrot (M. pusio) is the smallest Psittacine; its relatives are not much bigger. Please see the video below…it is hard to believe they are real!

Singular Feeding Adaptations

Small size is not their only unique characteristic. Pygmy Parrots are believed to rely heavily upon lichen and tree fungus as food, the only parrots to do so.  In 1942, the Red-Breasted Pygmy Parrot became the first Psittacine ever observed to feed upon fungus, which was described as a “jelly-like species growing on bark”.  Unfortunately, our knowledge of its diet pretty much stalled at that point! While Kakapos, Keas and other parrots are known to consume lichen, only Pygmy Parrots have adaptations that allow them to specialize in harvesting it.

Adaptations to this odd diet include short tails with stiff, outwardly-projecting feather shafts, elongated toes and long, curved nails. Aided by these structures, Pygmy Parrots “creep” up and down tree trunks as they search for food; several have even been observed to move headfirst down trees (please see the accompanying photo of a nuthatch for an example). Similar structures have been evolved by woodpeckers, creepers and nuthatches, all of which also forage in the same manner as Pygmy Parrots. Woodpeckers and their relatives use this hunting style to find insects, not lichen; some (or all?) Pygmy Parrots consume insects as well as lichen.

Field Observations

An informative Pygmy Parrot article is posted on BirdForum.net, an interesting site where I sometimes record my own wild bird observations. Although not a long-term study, the notes detail some of the best field observations available (please see article below). The author worked on New Ireland, which lies in the Bismarck Archipelago, and spent some time observing the Finsch’s Pygmy Parrot.

Brown Headed NuthatchFinsch’s Pygmy Parrots were most often seen foraging on Pometia tomentosa, a broadleaf tree. Local people confirmed that the birds, which are not uncommon, seem to favor that tree above others. Moving about like tiny squirrels, the minute parrots stripped bark from the trees, leaving characteristic scars. They seemed to be feeding on butterfly, moth or beetle larvae rather than lichen, at least when observed on Pometia trunks.  Virtually nothing is known of their total diet, as observations are difficult once they enter heavy cover; as far as I know, Pygmy Parrots have never survived long in captivity.

Insect larvae may be a significant food source for the Finsch’s Pygmy Parrot, but more research in needed. Sadly, the parrots under observation abandoned the area after some boys harassed them with slingshots. It is not known how this species is affected by humans (other than being pelted with rocks!), but Pygmy Parrots generally seem able to adapt to modest habitat disturbance.

Learning More

I’m now searching The Auk and other sources for additional Pygmy Parrot information…anything that you might be able to pass along would be greatly appreciated, thanks.



Further Reading

First Video of Yellow-Capped Pygmy Parrots in the wild: Please don’t miss this amazing film!

Field Observations of Finsch’s Pygmy Parrots

Geelvink Pygmy Parrot photos and information

Mycophageous (fungus-eating) Birds

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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