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Parrots

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A bird from the parrot family engages in a spot of light sewing.

Parrots, Psittaciformes1, are bright, colourful, attractive and intelligent birds which come in many shapes and sizes. The parrot family is large, with around 316 species, 85 genera and six subfamilies, recognised by certain characteristics. They are possibly one of the most distinctive types of birds, being instantly recognisable to many people. Parrots are usually monogamous and long-lived; 80 years is not uncommon in the larger species. They are frequently kept as pets.

Taxonomy

Like all living organisms, parrots are classified according to their physical characteristics; this is known as its taxonomy. All birds share the same basic features:

  • Kingdom Animalia - having life, sensation and voluntary motion.

  • Phylum Chordata - having a notocord, which is a technical name for the spinal cord.

  • Subphylum Vertebrata - having a skeleton and an articulated backbone.

  • Class Aves - possessing a horny beak, no teeth (except in breaking out of the egg when an egg tooth is used), a large muscular stomach, a crop and a strong, light skeleton. Class Aves also denote feathers and yolked, hard-shelled eggs. The parent bird provides extensive care of its young until they are grown, or persuades another bird to raise them2.

Parrots are a taxonomic nightmare and the listing is often under review. This is partially due to inaccurate use of scientific names in the past by aviculturists and dealers, as well as the vague application of group names.

Characteristics

One obvious characteristic is the short, strong, curved, sharply-pointed upper beak which is connected by a flexible joint to the skull. This fits neatly over a shorter lower mandible. The beak is very strong, capable of cracking the toughest nut, and contains a prehensile tongue.

The feathers are glossy, vibrant, hard and sparse, interspersed with powdery down. The plumage is often predominantly green, but may include red, yellow and/or blue feathers. The sexes can have similar plumage, although, as with most bird species, the male is often more colourful than the female.

The feet are zygodactyl, meaning the first and fourth toes point backwards, while the second and third face forward. They not only allow a firm perching grip but also aid manual dexterity, and are used to manipulate food.

Distribution

Parrots are found in the southern hemisphere in warm climates, with a few exceptions, primarily in South America and Australia. The only parrot naturally found in the northern hemisphere was the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis which became extinct in the 1920s. The ring-necked parakeet, found in England, is an introduced exotic and escapee.

Other birds, such as monk and Alexander's parakeets, budgerigars, lorikeets and cockatiels, are also found in the wild, but are nonviable as breeding groups. New World parrots are usually found in dense forest and are largely composed of macaws, recognisable by the partially naked areas around the face and elongated tails. Old World parrots are found in most avian niches and come in many shapes, colours and sizes.

Parrots rarely flock, except when roosting, and are often aggressive. Budgerigars are an exception, as they are often found in groups ranging from the low hundreds up to a recorded flock of 25,000.

Diet

The birds' feeding is often complex. Most parrots are vegetarian, eating grain, fruit and nuts. The beak and tongue are very effective tools specially adapted for removing the kernel from the nut. One bird, the kea, has taken to eating carrion, possibly due to a shortage of parrots' preferred dietary requirements in their mountain habitat, while loris' and lorikeets' tongues have adapted to form a brush tip so that they can sip nectar from flowers.

Reproduction

The nest is usually a tree-hole and is unlined, although some parrots have specialised nesting habits, such as burrows in the case of ground parrots, while others use termite mounds. The egg clutch varies from a single egg in the case of large parrots like macaws, to 12 in the smallest-sized species. The young are altricial3 and naked. They are cared for by both parents and are fed by regurgitation.

Domestication

Parrots are very popular as pets, due to their diversity, colouration and ability to mimic. Their longevity may also be an attraction. However, there was a period when keeping parrots was considered dangerous due to an avian disease called psittacosis (parrot fever). It is now known that many birds are carriers of the disease, now more commonly known as Ornithosis (bird disease). This is not to be confused with H5N1 (bird flu), which is a pathogenic disease.

Parrots' popularity has led to a profusion of clubs and societies specific to the parrot family around the world. These cater for both breeders and owners, with the trade of the birds running into tens of thousands of parakeets alone. There are many shows purely to display birds. In the UK, two organisations that specialise in parrots are the Parrot Society and the Birdline Parrot Rescue Society.

Parrots are highly intelligent and endearing; the African grey parrot Psittacus erithacus being one of the most popular and long-lived (and therefore expensive) of all parrots. True mimics, they are often claimed to have large vocabularies and show good intelligence. Parrots appear to have an inherent intimacy with man, enjoying petting, being fed from hand and mouth, as well as responding to being called by name. They appear happy to perch on arms and shoulders, which is often shown in their portrayal as companions of pirates in pictures, portraits and on film, possibly from their link with the Caribbean and the looting of Spanish treasure from South America. Their intelligence gives them a mischievous temperament which they rarely lose, but this can be destructive. One parrot, the kea Nestor notabilis, has a reputation for removing windscreen wipers and windscreen surrounds of cars in nature reserves in New Zealand. Larger birds, such as scarlet macaws, are often chained to perches as they can be aggressive and their beaks could remove an adult human's finger.

The most common caged parrot is the Australian budgerigar, Melopsittacus undulatus, or 'budgie', and is also possibly the most recognised parrot after the above mentioned macaw. In its native environment it is naturally grass green with bright yellow on the head, a blue tail, patches of sooty grey and yellow across the plumage, royal blue cheek patches and three black flecks on the neck. However, domestication has led to various colourations and feather styles. They make popular pets due to their size, ease of taming, affinity for handling, (except for aviary birds), but also their cuteness when being mischievous, such as attacking cage mirrors, ringing bells etc. Other Australian birds which are common pets are rosellas and cockatiels.

Conservation

Although parrots have predators, their biggest threats come from humankind. Probably the principal one is the destruction of their habitat. Another is from 'bird fanciers'; there is a thriving illegal trade throughout the entire parrot family due to their popularity. One of the most famous cases of indiscriminate trapping was the Spix's macaw, one of only four blue macaws that commanded high prices in the collecting world; the others being the Lear's, the hyacinth and the now-extinct glaucous. The last wild Spix's was caught in Brazil in 1987, although there are hopes to release captive-bred birds if a suitable habitat can be found. There is a list of endangered parrots on the CITES4 website.

Non-parrots

As noted, parrots are famous for their mimicry, but there are numerous instances of other types of 'parrots' in the world, like a South African reptile called the parrot-beaked tortoise (Homopus areolatus). The following is just a selection of a few more parrot imitations:

Parrotbill

Parrotbills are members of the Order Passerine or perching birds, and are part of a group of Old Warblers primarily found in China, Tibet and other areas of Southeast Asia. They have an adapted beak especially suited to feeding on reeds or bamboos. This is why the birds have been labelled as parrotbills.

There is only one kind of parrotbill resident in England, which is the bearded reedling (Panurus biarmicus). It is also known as the bearded tit (as it was thought to be related to the tit family) or bearded parrotbill. They have an ochre/brown plumage, with distinctive 'moustaches' rather than beards, blueish faces and cheeks, white wing bars and long tails for balance.

They are more likely to be heard than seen, with their ringing 'ping' calls, from deep within reed beds. When they are seen they are very acrobatic, generally perching across two stems. They fly in small flocks. Their breeding status is amber, which means they are classed as vulnerable by the British Trust for Ornithology5.

Parrot Crossbill

Crossbills, Loxia pytyopstittacus, are very distinctive birds of the family Carduelidae, living in pine forests. They have large bodies, with an intriguing beak especially designed to remove seeds from pine cones, which they hold with one foot. This makes them appear almost parrot-like. The parrot crossbill is even more similar due to its very heavy, solid beak. They are stocky and finch-like with red plumage, and cannot easily be confused with similar birds like the redpoll. The parrot crossbill is also amber-listed.

The Parrotfish

The parrotfish is a bright, gaudy fish of the family Scaridae, found primarily in tropical waters and reefs, such as the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is not actually the vibrant colours from which the fish takes its name, but more the mouth parts that give the impression of a parrot. The mouth is composed of a large quantity of tooth-like attachments arranged in a dense accretion around the parrot-like 'beak'. This is very powerful to enable the fish to graze on algae, which grows on coral in the reefs. This grazing wears the 'teeth' down rapidly, so they are constantly replaced. The fish form groups (or harems) with each male having a number of female partners. Each fish can alter its gender according to need. They are popular aquarium fish, but are not widely used as a human food source.

Parrot Tulips

Parrot tulips are very vivid, vibrant and distinctive flowers. Their large, brightly-coloured waxy petals are feathered and usually curled, twisted or wavy. They are probably the most flamboyant of all the tulip family. They tend to flower mid-to-late spring, as they are largely a mutation of Triumph class tulips (which are themselves late-spring flowering). Some of the variations have a fragrance. One of the most popular plants is the black parrot tulip which is as close to the famous 'Black Tulip' of Alexandre Dumas fame as possible. A black tulip is the most desired plant in the flower world; it has proved impossible to cultivate to date.

Freddy 'Parrot-Face' Davis

Also known as Freddie, he was born in Brixton, London, on 21 July, 1937, but has spent most of his life in Salford, Manchester. He made his name in the 1960s and 1970s in variety and television after appearing on Opportunity Knocks. His trade mark was wearing a trilby hat, crammed on his head forcing his ears to splay, and blowing raspberries while talking with a lisp. His catchphrase was 'I'm thick, thick, thick up to here' with a rising inflection on each 'thick', while hitting his eyebrows with the thumb-side edge of his right hand at the same time.

John Parrott MBE

John is obviously not a parrot, but a UK celebrity sportsman with Parrot in his name. He was born on 11 May, 1964, and lives in Liverpool, England, with his wife and two children.

John's snooker career started in 1982 when he won the Junior Pot Black Championship, which was televised by the BBC. After his second consecutive win he took up the game professionally, winning nine major titles, which included winning the Embassy World Snooker Championship and the UK Snooker Championship in the same year, 1991, a feat only matched by two other players. He has also made a maximum break of 147 in the Matchroom League in 1992. His interests include horse racing and football (he supports Everton FC) and he is involved in a lot of charity work. He was made an MBE in 1996.

John is probably better known to non-snooker enthusiasts as one of the captains on the popular BBC quiz show Question of Sport chaired by Sue Barker. He was made captain in 1996, sparring with Scottish former international footballer Ally McCoist until 2002. John retired from the professional snooker circuit in the 2005/06 season. Since then he has continued with snooker but as a presenter for the BBC.

Parrot Fashion

This has nothing to do with the sartorial elegance of parrots. It is an expression that is used for a particular style of learning: where somebody is taught by rote, learning completely word for word, but without necessarily understanding what it means. It has been coined from the way that a parrot mimics phrases. Three very famous ones are Who's a pretty boy then?; Pretty Polly; and, staying with the pirate theme earlier, Pieces of eight.

Monty Python

The Dead Parrot Sketch is possibly the most quoted by fans of the Monty Python team. It was based on a dead Norwegian blue parrot which, in reality and, according to the sketch, does not exist. Or at least, in the sketch it exists physically but not spiritually, 'if you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink'.

Sick as a Parrot

The expression appears to have a number of derivations, any of which may be definitive, but more likely apocryphal. It means to be really disappointed. One possible explanation is that parrots, as noted previously, carry transmittable diseases which, aside from psittacosis, include campylobacteriosis, chlamydia, encephalitis and histoplasmosis. There has not been a definitive link of them being carriers of transgenic diseases yet.

Another use allegedly came from English football in the late 20th century. The phrase has ended up in regular football parlance, and it is also often quoted in the British tabloids. It is now a common cliché, but this Researcher could find no etymology of it. Thankfully, writing this entry did not cause said Researcher to feel 'sick as a parrot'.

1Parrots received their Latin name from Aristotle, who called them Psittace, the 'talking' bird.2The cuckoo, for instance.3Very immature and requiring feeding by the parents.4Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Fauna and Flora).5A good site for viewing 'beardies' (as they are generally known amongst the birding fraternity) is Stodmarsh Nature Reserve, near Canterbury.

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