Introduction to Parrots
What makes a parrot a parrot?
Above you can see a Hyacinth Macaw (the largest known Parrot species) and a Budgie Parakeet (one of the smallest known parrot species). The budgie is so small that it could almost fit entirely into the mouth of the macaw. In spite of the incredible difference in size, both of these animals are parrots!
The word Parrot refers to over 370 species of birds. That’s right, they are SPECIES of birds not BREEDS of birds. Some people assume that the difference between the Macaw and the Budgie pictured above is the same as the difference between a Grate Dane and a Chihuahua. In reality it’s more like the difference between a fox and a bear. Different species of parrot can have totally different diets, social structures, voice sounds, and behavioral instincts. Each species has uniquely adapted to live in its perspective environment and as a result, parrots can be found in jungles, deserts, plains, mountains, and forests of virtually every corner of the planet.
Biologists typically separate parrots into 2 groups due to differences in body structure and evolutionary history: True Parrots (Found in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia), and Cockatoos (found only in Australia and the surrounding areas). Parrots come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but they all have at least two basic things in common that all of us non-scientists can easily spot:
- Strong Hooked beaks - Parrots can move their bottom jaw in the same way most animals do, but they have another joint that allows them to move their upper jaw as well. This gives their bite great power but also allows for very delicate and precise movements as they crack open nuts or preen their feathers.
- Zygodactyl Feet – This means that parrots have 4 toes on each foot with two pointing forward and two pointing backward. This is a great set up for perching but is rare among birds because it is awkward when walking on flat surfaces.
Parrots tend to be colorful, highly social, and as you know, many of them can mimic ‘non-bird’ sounds they hear around them, even human speech. Male and female parrots usually look so similar that if you want to know if your pet is a boy or a girl, you have to take the little critter to the vet for DNA testing or surgical examination.
Parrots in the Wild
Some species of parrot live in huge flocks of over 100 birds, others live in small groups of 2 to 5 but virtually all parrots are social creatures. They spend a bulk of their time searching (or foraging) for food as a group or resting together to socialize. Parrots show affection by grooming one another’s feathers, chattering back and forth, and oddly enough, they will even regurgitate food into each other’s mouths.
Parrots usually mate with only one partner and can stay together for life.
Parrots don’t tend to be good nest builders. Instead, when breeding season comes, they look for hollowed trees or branches to nest in. The photo to the left shows the nesting spot of a little Blue Winged Parrotlet from Brazil. Once they find a good spot they can become very territorial.
Parrots and the Pet Trade
People have been keeping parrots as pets for thousands of years. In ancient times, most all pet parrots were captured from the wild because breeding them was thought to be impossible. As parrots became more and more popular, the pet trade began to destroy some wild bird populations in its quest for more birds.
Some species of parrot are so prolific that their numbers have been virtually unharmed by the pet trade. In certain areas of Australia, the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo (pictured here) is so abundant that it is considered by many farmers to be a pest. Other species of parrot have not been so lucky.
As a result of the pet trade along with habitat loss and other factors, Sun Conures which were once common in Northern Brazil are now down to about 1 to 2 thousand animals left in the wild. The Blue Throated Macaw is down to 50 to 250 individuals and the Spix’s Macaw is now believed to be completely extinct in the wild. These are just a few examples of the tremendous loss caused by the wild parrot trade industry.
When bird lovers realized what was happening, they reacted in two different ways: some of them began creating laws to ban the wild capture of threatened species, and others began learning how to breed birds in captivity as an alternative to wild capture. With time, breeders learned how to successfully breed virtually all parrots that were common in the pet trade and law makers are continuing to fight wild capture.
In 1973 the USA, Australia, most of Europe, and several other countries around the globe entered into an agreement called the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Since then the USA has also created the Wild Bird Conservation Act which has given more legal teeth to the CITES agreement. Today it is illegal to import wild caught parrots for the pet trade. All pet birds must be bred in captivity.
Not only is this good for wild birds, it is a wonderful thing for bird owners too. Captive bred birds which have been correctly socialized to humans make much more friendly and loveable pets. They are also less likely to come to you with illnesses or injuries that wild caught birds usually acquire during capture and transportation.
The Beauty of Parrots
Natural selection has produced very few creatures as beautiful, elaborate, and fascinating as parrots. In the wild they have proven to be extremely successful, they have adapted to survive in virtually every ecosystem and on every continent except for Antarctica. Parrots in captivity have become great ambassadors for their wild cousins. They show us exactly what we have to lose if we ignore our responsibilities to be stewards of our jungles and wildernesses.
As you will learn in our next article ‘Do parrots make good pets?‘ parrots can prove to be difficult to care for and are not suitable for many to keep as pets. In spite of this, for those of us with the resources, time, patience, and dedication, parrots can prove to be wonderful companions. We hope that if you decide to take one of these incredible creatures into your home, this website will be a help for you as you learn how to properly and responsibly care for your new feathered friend(s).