Writer's Primer on Parrots


Vision 10

Writer's Primer on Parrots


Jami Geimer

Copyright © 2002, Keri Bas, All Rights Reserved

Parrots are amazing birds, living jewels with the gift of communication with humans. They are also among the most intelligent of birds, with certain individuals functioning on a level similar to a three- to five-year-old human child. The larger species of parrots are also among the longest-lived birds, many having life expectancies as long as or longer than humans.  But even with all the awe and majesty that parrots command in real life, it is only rarely that authors choose to place a parrot in their story, and usually only those authors that have companion parrots of their own.  This overview of parrots and the things that make them tick should be helpful to anyone who is interested in portraying these beautiful birds.


Parrot Geography

New World parrots are found in South and Central America and include some of the most popular species of parrots.  Macaws are the biggest of the large parrots, ranging from 20 to 40 inches in length for the larger species, and are distinguished by their bare cheek patches striped with lines of feathers. Amazons are the stereotypical "Pirate's Parrot," mostly green with various bright markings on their faces and wings.  Smaller parrots found in South America include Caiques, Pionus, Conures, and various types of parakeets.

In Australia, farmers hunt some varieties of Cockatoos as pests.  However, in  other countries these lovely birds with moveable crests and pale coloring  are expensive and fairly rare pets.  Eclectus parrots, found on several islands in the South Pacific, are the easiest parrots to visually determine gender with - the females are bright red with purple, blue, and yellow markings and a black beak, while the males are green with red and blue markings and a candy-orange beak.  Also found throughout Australia and Pacific islands, Lories and Lorikeets are unique among parrots because their primary food source in the wild is nectar.  The most popular small parrots, cockatiels and budgerigars (commonly called parakeets), are originally from Australia's grasslands.

Africa's most famous parrots are the greys, known for their incredible intelligence and speaking ability.   Lovebirds, named for their common pose of snuggling against a companion or mate, are also native to Africa.  Poicephalus parrots are a group of small, quiet birds ranging along the western African coast, colored with various shades of grey, green, and brown.  Ringneck parakeets round out the African species, ranging all the way to Eastern Asia, so called for the black or grey ring of feathers around the neck of most birds in that family.


On the Wild Side

In the wild, parrots spend most of their time foraging for food, covering large areas during the day and returning to their nest or a common roost at night.  They are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever they can find.  Seeds, fruits, vegetables, and insects are all part of most parrots' diet.  Parrots are not neat eaters, oftentimes taking one bite of an item and discarding the rest.  While this helps many plants spread their seeds in the wild, humans that have companion parrots are not often amused at the apparent waste of food.

Many parrots form flocks when they are not in the breeding season, ranging anywhere from a few individuals of a single species to large groups of several species.  These flocks feed and roost together, keeping watch for predators from above and below.  With their loud voices, parrots can keep in vocal contact with each other over long distances.  Even companion parrots sometimes take the role of sentries, shrieking out harsh alarm calls when they see an unknown person approaching their home.

Most parrots in the wild mate for life, even going through a mourning period if, for some reason, they are separated from their mate.  When breeding season comes around, each pair finds a suitable nest site.  Larger birds prefer to nest in hollowed out tree trunks, often taking over old nest sites and modifying them by chewing through the wood with their strong beaks.  Females lay a clutch of one or two eggs (more for smaller birds), which are incubated for about a month.  When the chicks hatch, they still need a lot development.  Depending on the size of the bird, eyes open and feathers start emerging on chicks anywhere between a few days to few weeks after hatching.  Up until the time that the young birds take their first flight, the parents take turns feeding the chicks by regurgitating their own meals. 

Smaller birds may fledge within six or eight weeks of hatching, but the largest parrots often need months.  When the young are ready to take their first flight, they often start to refuse feeding from their parents in order to drop their weight to a level that can be supported on their own.  This is the start of the weaning process: the chick generally starts attempting to eat on its own after fledging, but may beg for "comfort" feeding from a parent from time to time.   Young macaws in particular stay with their parents for an extended period of time after fledging, occasionally soliciting feedings at one year of age or older.


Birdie at Home

Companion parrots are not that far different from their wild cousins.  Importation bans started going into effect only about a decade ago, and even domestic bred individuals are often less than five generations removed from the wild.  Many of the behaviors and instincts that wild parrots exhibit are brought into the living room when someone brings home a pet bird.  The domestication of parrots is in the earliest of stages, and most people don't realize that their pet was designed to decorate the rainforest and not their home.

When a parrot is purchased as a pet, the human (and their friends and family) become that bird's "flock."  Most birds adjust to life with a family well, the process being easier when the parrot is provided with a routine.  The human takes responsibility for providing a safe, healthy, and enriching environment for the bird, which is not always as easy as it sounds.  Unfortunately, many birds are surrendered to rescues around the time they reach sexual maturity because they begin to bite, scream, and display other behaviors that evolved to aid a flying, roaming creature.

The modern drive for speed and ease has led to development of "complete diets" marketed towards parrot owners, generally some combination of pellets and seed.  While convenient, this is generally an insufficient diet and the bird suffers for it - the feathers will be dry and dull. Some birds may even become excessively aggressive on an inappropriate diet.  The current "suggested" diet consists of mostly pasta, cooked grains, and raw vegetables, combined with small amounts of animal protein, fruits, seeds, and nuts, fed several times a day (plus access to pellets in the cage at any time).

Even when a varied and interesting diet is provided, parrots in captivity spend a lot less time devoted to their food, mostly because it is provided for them in a handy bowl and they don't have to roam the forest actively foraging for sustenance.  This frees up considerable time in the parrot's day to be devoted to play.  All birds in captivity should be given some kind of toy, anything from branches and leaves from their natural habitat to gnaw and climb on to odds and ends such as Q-tips and paper towel tubes.  Unfortunately, many people won't give their birds toys "because the parrot destroys them."  Birds that are not provided with enough outlets for their curiosity and energy may become nippy when interacting with their family, or will go so far as to destroy their feathers and possibly even mutilate their own skin for lack of something better to do.


Wordy Birdy

One of the biggest draws to parrots is that they can communicate with us in our own language.  Parrots and many other birds havethe potential to learn at least a few words or noises that they hear on a regular basis, although some do pick things up after hearing them only once.  Birds most often will repeat words that they perceive as contact calls - vocalizations that let them know what the rest of their flock is doing.  When their flock is human, often these contact calls are fairly simple - their own name, hello or goodbye, "what'ya doin."  Birds that live in households with children often imitate the contact calls used within the family - the names of the family members and their other pets, "come here," "dinner!"  Objects that use noises to contact us are also imitated - telephones, microwaves, doorbells and even answering machines, just to name a few.

Not all parrots that learn to speak will learn to speak in context.  Most often they learn context the same way as a small child would, by listening and observing people speaking and acting around them. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, an African grey parrot, are currently doing research at MIT on the acquisition of languages, studying the way that Alex learns to understand more about how we learn.  Alex not only asks for specific objects or actions ("want shower" or "want key"), but can also differentiate between different classes of objects and even counts!  When given a group of objects of differing sizes, shapes, textures and colors, he will happily answer questions about the group of objects - as long as he gets his almond as payment.

In addition to being quite the elegant speakers, parrots learn tricks and actions with great ease.  Parrots remember what actions have gotten the most attention in the past, and will often repeat them to get more attention.  When their human companions are aware of this, parrots are quite easy to train - reward the behavior you like and want to see more often, and ignore what you want your bird to stop doing.

This can backfire on someone who is not aware that parrots live for the attention reward, however.  For example: when a bird screams, the owner always comes to the bird and scolds him for being such a bad bird, complete with big facial expression and wagging finger. Not only is the human responding to the screaming as a contact call and therefore reinforcing the bird using it as such, but the bird likely is reinforced by the dramatic "bad bird" display.  While it might sound like a simple training method and fairly easy to follow, many people unintentionally reward and reinforce behaviors in their bird that they find undesirable.


Beyond This World

Parrots are a fun addition to any worldbuilding project.  They are most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical climates, although they adapt to new environments so easily that they would also work in more temperate climates.  They have evolved with strong hooked beaks designed to aid them in chewing wood for their nesting sites, as well as allowing them to feed upon even the toughest fruits, nuts, and seeds.  Unlike humans, parrots use their syrinxto form all words and sounds, a necessity as they don't have lips to form words with.

Coloration in parrots is mostly an evolutionary device to allow them to hide from predators by blending into their background.  In birds that are found in the rainforest and other areas with thick plant growth, their body color will generally be solid.  Markings, if any, will show up in the inner wing feathers and on the tail, as those are the least visible feathers when the parrot is being still.  Oftentimes these markings will be shown during courting or dominance displays.


Other Resources

If you need more specific information on individual species of parrots, check out http://www.parrot-lexicon.com .  Complete with photo references for most species of birds, this is a great place to get information on parrots in any given area of the world.


The best sources for behavioral information would be individual owners.  There are many message boards online for parrot owners, and many are very busy.  A good starting point for behavioral information are the message boards hosted at http://chats.upatsix.com