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. Sphynx kittens 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.