Parrot Particulars

Retailers should brush up on what makes parrots so unique–and so uniquely beloved.


Why are we so fascinated with parrots? After all, there are many species and groups of birds out there. Still, it’s the birds known collectively as the psittacines that we keep as pets the most.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s National Pet Owners Survey, doves and finches, including canaries, make up less than 14 percent of birds owned. The rest of the pet birds in the United States are parrots, with budgerigars (parakeets) and cockatiels making up the largest percentage at 67 percent.

Shared Characteristics
What makes a parrot a parrot? Birds in the same group share certain physical characteristics. For parrots, the most obvious one is the bill–the upper part is curved and hooked at the end while the base is wide on both the upper and lower portions.

A parrot’s bill is strong no matter what size the bird. An angry or fearful budgerigar can draw blood just as easily as an Amazon parrot. But parrots rarely use their beak in self-defense in the wild; they would rather fly away. The bill is used mainly to break open hard food items, such as nuts, and to touch and/or taste new things.

The best way for a parrot to keep its bill strong and from overgrowing–their beak grows out continuously–is by chewing on wood, rope and other items. This is why it is so important for bird owners to supply their pets many types of toys, made out of different materials and to change them out when used up.

Another characteristic all birds in the parrot group share is that their toes are zygodactyls, meaning two toes face forward and two face back. The toes of canaries and other finches are configured so that three toes go forward and one goes back, like most “perching” birds. Parrot’s toes are very robust like those seen on raptors such as hawks. A raptors’ strength lies in their feet and not in their bills like parrots. This makes sense as a hawk will fly in and grasp its prey quickly and strongly so it cannot get away. Parrots can grab on strongly with their toes to our finger or hand, but they cannot use their nails to puncture the skin and flesh as a raptor can do even if it is a large parrot that needs a nail trim.

There are two likely reasons why parrots feet and toes are so thick and strong. First, parrots like to climb and, unlike most birds, will hang upside down and even swing crazily on vines in the wild. Perching birds will land on a branch and then hop short distances, but they rarely go far. They’ll just fly to a new spot, even on the same branch. Parrots, on the other hand, move back and forth, up and down and all around branches by walking and climbing, sometimes using their bill as a “third foot.” Even on the ground a parrot will walk around freely with their “pigeon-toed” gait.

The second factor that may explain why parrots have larger feet is that they use their feet as hands. There are other birds in the wild that can hold food, but usually a bird will hold food to the ground or a branch with its feet so it can use its bill to tear off pieces. Parrots will grasp food with their toes and hold the foot up to eat. They will even grasp toys the same way so they can chew them easily. Some of the larger parrots will reach their foot out of their cage instead of their beak to grab something. This ability to actually hold something in their foot up off the ground to eat or chew makes parrots unique in the world of birds.

Bird Intelligentsia
One of the most amazing things about parrots is their intelligence. They can be curious, innovative and cunning. Many years ago it was believed that one of the traits that separated man from animals was the ability to make and use tools. Of course, when chimpanzees and other apes were seen making and using tools in the wild, that definition had to be changed. Soon, other non-primates, such as birds like crows and parrots, were observed making and using tools. Almost all tools made and used by primates and birds are for reaching and obtaining food, but there is a parrot species that has gone one step further.

The palm cockatoo is the largest in the cockatoo family with one of the oddest calls. They sound nothing like the other cockatoo species, and maybe this is part of the reason why these cockatoos make a tool that they use to make a drumming sound. Males make this tool by finding a branch of the right thickness, breaking it off to the correct length and then shaping it to use as a drumstick. Tapping up to a hundred times on a hollow tree trunk– which, by the way, almost always makes a good nesting place–the male palm cockatoo tries to lure a female to come and check him, and maybe their future nesting home, out.

The drumming may also be for claiming a territory. If the male palm cockatoo doesn’t like the way the drumstick sounds, he will make a new one. This is extremely unusual in the animal world because this tool is not being used to obtain food. In fact, it may be the only case of a non-human creature making a tool not used for getting at food sources.

Parrots are amazing and unique creatures. Their stunning plumage was most likely the first thing noticed about wild parrots and probably the reason parrots were brought into captivity. But it was the parrots’ intelligence and the ability to mimic human speech that made them a favorite in the past–as it does today. Owning such a smart and curious creature means a lot more responsibility, time and care is required than for most other commonly kept pets, but most parrot owners will strongly agree that the rewards far outweigh the costs.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

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