The 315 parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, Lories, lorikeets, macaws, lovebirds, budgerigars, are a diverse group; yet they are so uniform in their diagnostic features that all are recognizable at a glance as members of the parrot order and family. They range in size from the little 3.5 inch pygmy parrots of the Papua region to the gaudy, long-tailed, 40-inch macaws of the Amazon jungles. They vary in shape from plump African lovebirds and South American Amazons to the slender Lories and wildly crested cockatoos of the AustraloMalayan region. The coloring defies summing up in a sentence, but their bodies are usually a solid green, yellow, red, white, or black, with contrasting patches of red, yellow, or blue on the head, wings, or tail.
Identifying characteristics are the large head and short neck, and particularly the strongly down-curved, hooked bill. An equally important structural feature is the parrot’s strong, grasping feet with two toes in front and two behind. Parrots also have a broad cere at the base of the bill through which the nostrils open and which is feathered in many species. Their smallish eyes are often bordered by patches of bare skin, particularly in the larger species. Their rather sparse plumage had powder-downs scattered all through it.
The parrots are a distinctive ancient group well warranting their ordinal rank. They show some affinities in anatomy and in habits to both the pigeons and to the cuckoos. Being essentially arboreal birds, their fossil record is poor. The earliest so far unearthed are of Miocene age, less than 15 million years ago. These show parrots were formerly more widespread in temperate latitude than they are today, spreading north almost to Canada in North America and to France and in Europe.
The parrots’ present distribution is pan-tropical. They occur on all lands in the Southern Hemisphere except the southern tip of Africa and the more remote Pacific islands. In the Northern Hemisphere they now reach northern Mexico (central United States, until recently) in the New World and southeastern Asia in the Old. Parrots fall into six major groups, which are sometimes given family rank, but the structural difference between them are so slight that most students today accord them subfamily rank at best.
While they have never been domesticated in the sense that chickens, ducks, and pigeons have, probably more species of parrots have been tamed and raised in captivity than any other group of birds. Primitive tribes have kept them as pets since time immemorial. The talking ability of the African grey Parrot is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman writings. The parrot’s appeal is partly aesthetic, partly anthropomorphic. Coupled with their attractive hues and the ease with which they are tamed and maintained in captivity are their intensely human traits of imitating the human voice, of showing affection to each other, of reacting to flattery, and of using their feet almost as hands. No other bird holds food in one foot and bites pieces off, much as one eats a sandwich. Parrots are extremely long-lived. How long the birds live in the wild, where natural enemies take their toll, is unknown, but individuals have lived upwards of 50 years in captivity, and one is reported to have reached 80.
Parrots develop their ability as mimics only in captivity. In the wild they are raucous-voiced birds that shriek or squawk or Twitter, depending on their size, and have a poor range of vocal expression. Yet in captivity they learn to imitate all sorts of sounds, some species better than others. The African Grey Parrot is considered one of the best mimics, closely followed by the green amazons of Central and South America. The larger and the smaller species do not do so well. Cockatoos and macaws can learn a phrase or two, and the little budgerigars and parakeets can be taught to whistle a tune if one has patience enough.
Though parrot-lovers will cite examples to prove the contrary, talking parrots haven’t the slightest idea of what they saying. Often it takes a bit of imagination to put the proper words to the syllables they utter. Parrots learn best when young and repeat the simpler sounds they hear most often with little choice or selectivity. A friend kept a young Yellow-headed Amazon on her pouch while a house was being built on the next site. Intriguing by the zipping sound of hand saws, the bird made this the favorite item if its vocabulary. My friend soon tired of hearing carpenters sawing all day every day and gave the bird to the zoo.
Parrot fanciers had a severe blow in the 1930s when it was discovered that parrots suffer from a virus disease, originally called psittacosis, which they can transmit to humans, sometimes in a virulent form. To combat this disease, the importation of wild plants was prohibited, and the traffic in caged parrots suffered from a severe setback. Later researchers revealed that “parrot fever” occurs in almost all birds, including domestic fowls and pigeons, and the disease is now more appropriately called ornithosis. Antitoxins and antibiotics have been developed that greatly reduce the severity of the virulent strains, and fear of the disease has now been largely overcome. Parrots are again gaining favor as cage birds, particularly the little budgerigars, which are now bred in whites and yellows, far removed from the blues and greens of their wild Australian progenitors.
The kings of the parrot family are the 15 gaudy macaws that live in the tropical rainforests from Mexico south through Central and South America. One of the largest and handsomest is the red-and-green macaw found from Panama to Bolivia. When fully developed its tail alone is more than two feet long. The slightly smaller Hyacinth Macaw, highly prized by parrot fanciers for its lovely coloring, lives only in the jungle vastnesses of interior Brazil. The commonest macaws seen in zoos are the Scarlet Macaw and the Gold-and-blue Macaw. Another species widespread from Mexico southward is the Military Macaw, the all-green one with a red forehead. Macaws usually travel in pairs. As these magnificent birds fly screeching on strong and rapid wings over the high panoply of their native jungles, they are a far more stirring sight than their tamed counterparts on a zoo perch, and one never forgotten. Other members of the group are smaller; all have long graduated tails.
New World Parrots
Perhaps best known of the New World parrots are the 25 or so species of amazons, often kept as cage birds. These are the stout-bodied green parrots with short square or rounded tails, most of them marked with yellow, red, or blue. One of the largest, the Yellow-headed Amazon, is among the best talkers of the American parrots. Other commonly caged amazons are the Yellow-faced and the Red-fronted, one with a yellow and the other with a reddish forehead. One of the smallest is the 10-inch White-fronted Amazon, with a white forehead, bright red lores, and a red wing patch in the male.
Among the less familiar groups of New World parrots are conures, which are smaller and more slender-bodied than the amazons and have longer, pointed tails. Most striking of this group is the Golden Conure of Brazil. Also classified here is the only parrot native to the United States, the recently extinct Carolina Parakeet, a pretty little parrot about 12 inches long with a yellowish green body, a long pointed tail, and an orange-yellow head.
In the early 19th century Carolina Parakeets ranged from North Dakota and central New York south to eastern Texas and Florida, and were abundant in the heavily forested bottom lands of the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic seaboard. Slaughtered for sport and to control their depredations to fruit and grain crops, flocking parakeets had an unfortunate habit of hovering in curiosity and concern over a fallen bird, so that the hunter could often kill them all. They had become exceedingly rare by 1900. The last ones were seen in the Florida Everglades in the early 1920s. Though kept commonly as cage birds in the 19th century, they were never raised successfully in captivity and the species vanished before any determined effort could be made to save it.
Similar in size and form to the amazons is the African Grey Parrot, which commands the highest price of all parrots among bird dealers because of its excellence as a mimic. This grey, red-tailed bird is at home in the rainforests of the Congo from the Gold Coast to Kenya and Tangayika. Like so many of the smaller parrots in the wild, it is generally seen in screaming, chattering flocks flying bullet-like over the tops of the trees. In western Africa it does considerable damage to grain.
The lovebirds are a group of small, heavy-bodied, pointed-tailed Old World parrots best developed in Africa and Madagascar. They are highly prized as cage birds, partly for their attractive colors, partly for their human trait of liking each other’ company. Caged birds sit huddled together by the hour, giving every evidence of fondness for each other. In the wild, lovebirds usually travel in large flocks and often damage crops. In most the sexes are alike, but in the gaudy Electus, of the South Pacific islands, the sexes are so different in color (the male bright green, the female soft maroon) that they were once believed to be different species.
The true Parakeets are a widespread Old World group centered in the Indo-Malayan region. Most of these small parrots have long pointed tails. Many live in cultivated areas and eat grain as well as fruit. They travel in large chattering flocks and often feed on the ground. Best known of the group is the Budgerigar of Australia, now popular as a cage bird. A weird group is the hanging parakeets, tiny green birds found from India to the Philippines that sleep at night hanging upside down from their perches like bats.
Another distinct group of Australo-Malayan parrots consists of the 16 cockatoos, which differ from other parrots in having a crest of long, pointed feathers they can raise and lower at will. Most are fair-sized white birds, frequently washed or tinged with pinks or yellows, and in some the crest color varies. Wild cockatoos are noisy, gregarious birds that travel in small loose flocks through the treetops and perch on exposed limbs, where they stand out conspicuously against the dark foliage. The Solomon Islands White Cockatoos was a familiar bird to Americans there during World War II, and men got live ones from the natives as pets. A Seabee outfit taught one bird to repeat monotonously “Bledsoe said so,” to the delight of the troops and the annoyance of their imperial executive officer, Mr. Bledsoe. Among the commoner white cockatoos are seen in zoos are the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo with its bright yellow crown, and the pink-shaded Leadbeater’s Cockatoo.
The largest is the 31 inch Black Cockatoo of New Guinea, whose tremendous curved bill ends in a long, sharp point. With it the Black Cockatoo cracks and digs the meat out of hard-shelled nuts that a man has trouble breaking with a rock. Unlike the White Cockatoos, the Black Cockatoo is a solitary bird, usually seen alone or in small groups of two or three in the tops of tall jungle trees. Also unlike other cockatoos, the Black Cockatoo has a bare face, and its cheeks change from pink to red with the bird’s emotion.
Lories and Lorikeets
The Lories and lorikeets of the Australasian region, 6 to 15 inches long, brilliantly colored in greens, blues, reds, and yellows, have their tongues edged with a brushy fringe for lapping up nectar and fruit juices. Unlike other nectar-eating birds that siphon flower nectar with thin, tube-like bills, the lorikeets crush flowers with their beaks and lap up the extruded juices with their tongues. A common bird in the coconut plantations throughout the South Sea islands is the painted, or Rainbow, Lorikeet, a slender, long-tailed bird that breaks into many geographical races, each island population vary slightly in color and size. Large flocks of these birds dash twittering and chattering through the treetops and alight in the palm fronds like to many bright flowers. Just as suddenly they take flight again with a great rushing of wings, still chattering.
Smallest of the family are the tiny pygmy parrots, only 3 to 5 inches in length, whose six species range from New Guinea eastward through New Britain and the Solomons. These midgets act more like small woodpeckers than parrots. They creep about the trunks and large limbs of forest trees prying insects out of bark crevices. They have stiff woodpecker-like tails with spiny tips, and long claws for clinging to bark. They are not so common or gregarious as most other parrots, and are quiet and hard to find in their jungle haunts. They have never been kept successfully in captivity.
Strangest and most aberrant of all the parrots is the Kakapo, or Owl Parrot, of New Zealand. This very rare bird is threatened with extinction by New Zealand’s introduced predators, for it has lost the power of flight. A large parrot about 20 inches long, its soft feather is cryptically streaked with greens, yellows, browns, and blacks. Largely nocturnal, it hides during the day in holes in rocks and under tree roots, and comes forth at evening to feed. It runs rapidly on the ground and when in a hurry often spreads its wings. It climbs trees for fruit and nectar and then glides down to the ground. Its longest glide recorded is about 90 yards. In the forest habitat it frequents its keeps path and trails open by snipping off roots and vegetation in its way as it walks along. The Kakapo is believed extinct on North Island but a few have recently been reported still surviving in the extensive beech forests of South Island.
Kea and Kaka
Equally distinct and abnormal are the two other New Zealand parrots, the Kea and the Kaka, both fairly large birds about the size of a crow, brownish-green in color, variously marked with reds and yellows. The Kea is a highland form living above the tree line in alpine regions of South Island, where it nests in crannies and fissures under rocks. In summer, it lives on a normal parrot diet of fruit and buds, supplemented with insects, grubs, and worms. In winter, it descends to lower levels where it becomes a scavenger, and it has acquired the obnoxious habit of pecking into the backs of living sheep for their kidney fat. To curb their sheep killing, a bounty was put on Keas, and paid on almost 30,000 during an 8-yeard period. This had little effect on their numbers, which apparently increased because of the plentiful food supply. Removing all sheep refuse after butchering was found a more effective way of controlling them.
The Kea’s close relative, the Kaka, lives in low-level forests on both islands. It is a noisy bird usually seen in flocks. It lives on fruits and nectar, and on grubs it digs out of rotten wood with its powerful beak.
Parrots are remarkably uniform in their nesting habits. Parrot eggs are quite white, round, always white, and fairly glossy. The number per clutch varies from 1 in some of the larger species to 9 or 10 in some smaller ones, and averages 3 to 5. Most parrots are cavity nesters and they usually lay in an unlined hole in a tree. Some nest in burrows on the ground, some in rock crevices. The pygmy parrots and several other small Australasian species dig their nests in termite houses. Incubation is normally by both sexes; in a few species by the female alone. The young usually hatch naked but soon sprout a down coat which makes them look remarkably like fledging owls. Little is known of their incubation periods, but in the smaller parakeets they run from about 17 to 20 days. Both sexes feed the young by regurgitation, much as pigeons do.
The Grey-breasted Parakeet of Argentina nests colonially in huge structures built of twigs high in trees in which each pair of birds has its own private compartment. The birds use these huge nests as sleeping quarters the year round and add to them from year to year until the wagonload or more of twigs breaks down the supporting branches. Other birds, such as tree ducks, sometimes occupy vacant nests in these colonies with the parakeets, and once in a while opossums move in and apparently live at peace with them.