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Parrots are found in most warm and tropical regions around the world. A vast majority of the species lives in tropical and subtropical regions but a few parrots live in temperate parts of the Southern Hemisphere. The greatest diversity of parrots is found in South America and Australasia.
Many different parrots are commonly kept as pets, such as budgerigars (“budgies”), parakeets, lovebirds, African grey parrots (“African greys”), cockatoos, cockatiels, caiques, conures, macaws, and Amazons.
If you wish to keep a parrot, it is important to choose a species that suits you when it comes to temperament, sociability, size, feeding-requirements, and other preferences. It is however important to remember that each parrot is and individual and there are great variations even within a single species. A hand-fed parrot that received a lot of positive attention from humans as a baby will for instance generally be much more sociable and cuddly with future human keepers.
Parrots belong to the order Psittaciformes which is comprised of three families: the Psittacidae (true parrots), the Cacatuidae (cockatoos) and the Nestoridae. Roughly 370 different species of parrot have been scientifically described and placed in 86 different genera.
Psittacidae (true parrots)
Important information for prospective parrot owners
Before you decide to get a parrot, it is important to familiarize yourself with national and international trade regulations. Do not rely on old information since a lot of changes have taken place during recent years. International and national regulations are not always synchronized, so it is important to research both. Also keep in mind that parrot legislation not only pertains to international transactions.
All species of Parrots are protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). As of 2009, 56 parrot varieties are listed on CITES appendix 1 (endangered species) and all the other ones are listed on CITES appendix 2 (vulnerable species).
Import, export and trade in wild-caught specimens of appendix I species is illegal, but can be permitted with a licenses in exceptional circumstances. Captive bred animals of appendix I species are considered appendix II specimens when it comes to trade, and you must therefore adhere to the appendix II requirements.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes 19 species of parrot as extinct since the year 1600 (the date used to denote modern extinctions). This does not include species that haven’t been seen for many years, such as the New Caledonia Lorikeet which was last seen a century ago.
How to care for parrots
The parrot order Psittaciformes includes over 370 species in 86 different genera, so it is hard to provide any guidelines that will be true for all and any parrot. Parrots are also highly individual creatures so you will have to be ready to tailor your care for each specific parrot.
If you keep your parrot in a cage, it is important to keep the cage clean. Parrots also like to have a clean tray filled with water to bath in or be sprayed with lukewarm water once in a while. The instructions below are only general guidelines on cage maintenance; you can make adjustment as you get to know your parrot and its habits and preferences better:
once a day clean water and food dishes, clean bars and perches
twice a week change bottom trays, replace dirty litter
once a week wash all bars, perches and toys
once a month clean the entire cage
once or twice a year disinfect the entire cage
Parrots are clever and highly social birds and they must receive plenty of mental stimulation and social interaction to stay happy and healthy. Together with crows, magpies and jay, parrots are considered some of the most intelligent birds in the world. Parrots kept in a boring monotonous environment can develop harmful behaviours and may for instance start ripping out their own feathers. Spend a lot of time with your parrot and continuously provide it with new toys and things to explore and investigate.
Since it is hard for most human keepers to devote enough time to their parrots, these birds are commonly kept in pairs or groups. A single parrot will only be happy if you spend vast amounts of time with it; you can for instance play with it, teach it tricks and let it stay with you as you go about your ordinary business (doing the dishes, watching movies, hanging out with friends, etc). Some individual parrots are known to have developed strong bonds to other pets, e.g. birds that aren’t parrots.
Regardless if you keep a single parrot or several, the cage, gym or playpen should ideally be placed in a room where you spend a lot of time, e.g. kitchen or family room. Parrots should not be subjected to draft, so avoid such spots. The minimal recommended cage size depends on the size of your bird, how many birds you keep in the same cage and how many hours the bird spend outside the cage each day.
Including rough items in the cage is recommended since parrots need to trim down their claws and keep their beaks in shape (unless you do it for them). You can for instance use natural branches and concrete perches.
Just as with humans, learning in early life is very important for parrots. A lot of the skills displayed by wild parrots are not instincts but learned behaviours. Teaching your young parrot new things and behaviours are therefore important if you want it to develop into a knowledgeable adult. In the wild, a young parrot would learn where and how to forage for food; in captivity we can instead teach our parrots tricks and reward them with food. Learning is a vital part of the social interaction between young parrots and their parents and older siblings and a young parrot will therefore benefit from this type of interaction from its human handler. Young parrots also need to play a lot to develop their motor skills.
Since the parrot is such a clever bird, it will quickly find out how to get what it wants. This means that it is easy to involuntary teach a parrot unwanted behaviours. If you for instance enter to room to say “shush” each time your parrot starts screaming, it will quickly learn that screaming is a great way of getting your attention and some company.
The exact feeding habit varies from species to species, but most true parrots eat a lot of seeds, plus nuts, fruit and buds. If your parrot has a large and powerful bill it is adapted to a diet that contains a lot of hard to open seeds or nuts.
Some parrots, such as lories and lorikeets, can extract nectar from flowers and some like to eat pollen. A few parrot species also catch prey, chiefly insects. The Keas of New Zealand will kill and eat juvenile petrels and they have also learned to feed on the large herds of sheep introduced by the Europeans. Golden-winged parakeets prey on water snails and several species of cockatoos are known to excavate tree branches to find grubs.
Many parrot species in the Americas, Africa, and Papua New Guinea eat clay to get enough minerals in their diet and to absorb toxic compounds that some plant species use to protect themselves. In captivity we must make sure that such parrots get enough minerals through their diets, unless we’re willing to provide them with the right type of clay.
It is important to keep parrots on a varied diet to boost their immune system and make life in captivity less boring, unless you keep a highly specialized feeder. Always research you particular parrot species to learn more about which type of a diet it needs. Most parrots will like a varied seed mix supplemented with nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables. Sprouted seeds and flowers are usually appreciated as well.
If you suspect your parrot might not be getting enough protein, you can give it occasional treats in the form of cottage cheese, cooked chicken or hardboiled egg whites. Do not serve products that are processed or seasoned. If your bird needs more calcium, you can sprinkle pure calcium over it’s fruits or serve the bird cottage cheese.
Stress, e.g. poor health, the loss of a friend or being moved to a new home, can increase the parrot'sneed for vitamins and minerals.
Most parrots are monomorphic or minimally sexually dimorphic which makes them hard to sex.
With a few exceptions, parrots nest in tree holes and will need tree holes or nestboxes to breed in captivity. Most parrot species are monogamous, claim no territory except the nest itself, and produce white eggs from which helpless (altricial) chicks emerge.
Parrots form strong bonds with their mate and in most species the couple will stay together and prune each others feathers even outside the breeding season. They may for instance join the same flock and stay close within the flock.
As mentioned above, there are a few exceptions to these general rules. The Monk Parakeet and five species of lovebird of the genus Agapornis build nests themselves instead of using tree holes, and three Australian and New Zealand ground parrots stay out of the trees altogether and nest on the ground instead. There are also quite a lot of parrot species that dig out their nests in cliffs, banks, or even termite nests.
Incubation varies from 17 to 35 days, chiefly depending on size. In some species both parents incubate the eggs, but for a majority the female is responsible for incubating while the male is responsible for feeding her. The female may also get her own food during short breaks.
Newly hatched parrots have no feathers at all or are sparsely covered in white down. They are helpless and need to stay inside the nest for anything from three weeks to four months, depending on species. In some species the young ones continue to receive parental care even after having left the nest, sometimes for several months.
It is often difficult to determine the exact cause of illness in a parrot since a lot of different problems have similar symptoms. It can also be hard to pin down the underlying cause, e.g. improper diet, unsuitable environment or mere boredom. Ideally contact a veterinarian specializing in pet birds if you parrot show signs of poor health.
Parrots can for instance suffer from parrot fever (psittacosis), parasites, or intestinal inflammation. Parrot fever can spread to humans so be careful.
Visible signs of poor health in parrots:
- the parrot sleeps more than normally
- the parrot eats less than normally
- changed faeces
- unusual screaming
- the parrot sneezes
- discharge emerging from nostrils
- slit eyes instead of round eyes
- the plumage become ruffled or listless
- bare spots can be seen in the plumage
- the parrot plucks its own feathers
Parrot fact # 1
Many species of parrot can imitate sounds, including human speech. They have no vocal cords and the sounds are instead produced by expelling air across the mouth of the bifurcated trachea. By changing the depth and shape of the trachea, the parrot can accomplish different sounds.
Parrot fact # 2
Until the early 20th century, temperate North America was home to one species of parrot that had adapted to life in temperature conditions, the Carolina Parakeet. Sadly enough, this species was hunted to extinction in the early 1900s.
Parrot fact # 3
While many species of parrot have become extinct or are endangered in the wild, other species have managed to successfully colonize entirely new regions outside their natural range. You can for instance find thriving parrot populations in Florida, California and Texas in the United States made up by foreign parrots brought to the U.S. by humans. The highly adaptable Monk Parakeet currently breeds in at lest 15 U.S. states.
Parrot facts # 4
Parrots have fascinated man since prehistoric times and been kept as pets as well as worshiped as deities. The Ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote "The Dead Parrot" in Latin, and in the Masnavi, a work by Rumi of Persia from AD 1250, the author talks about an ancient method for training parrots to speak. A Polynesian legend tells us the story about a hero who travels to a far away island to fetch the feathers of a red parrot, and the Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped birds, including parrots, and frequently depicted them in their works of art.
Parrot facts # 5
An African Grey Parrot named Alex could use words to identify objects, describe them, and count them. He could even answer questions such as "How many red squares?" with over 80% accuracy. N'kisi, another famous African Grey Parrot, had a vocabulary of roughly one thousand words and could use words in context as well as in the correct tense.
The expected life span of a parrot varies from species to species. Small parrots, e.g. budgies and lovebirds, normally reach an age of 15-20 years if well cared for. Some large parrots on the other hand have amazingly long life spans with 80 years not being that uncommon and reports existing of parrots living well beyond the age of 100 years. Getting a parrot is therefore a long term commitment. If you get a small parrot for your ten-year-old son, the parrot will stay be there when he’s out of college. Some owners of large parrots make arrangements with other parrot lovers in advance and write these agreements into their wills to make sure that the parrot ends up in suitable hands if anything where to happen to the owner.