The big, colorful birds with long tail feathers that many people call “rainbow birds” are known by the specific name of parrots. Parrots belong to the scientific order Psittaciformes and are part of a large, diverse family called Psittacidae. There are over 350 different species of parrots, and they are found in the wild in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide.
Quick Facts About Parrots
- Parrots are known for their intelligence, ability to imitate sounds and human speech, and their brightly colored plumage.
- The largest parrot species is the hyacinth macaw, which can grow up to 40 inches long. The smallest parrot is the buff-faced pygmy parrot, only about 3 inches long.
- Parrots have zygodactyl feet with two toes facing forward and two facing backward that allow them to easily grip and climb.
- Most parrots are herbivores, feeding on seeds, nuts, fruit, buds, and other plant material. Some of the larger parrot species may eat small animals and insects.
- Parrots mate for life and use their beaks to build nests in tree hollows and cavities.
With their bright plumage in all the colors of the rainbow, parrots are highly charismatic birds that have captivated people for centuries. But what exactly are these intelligent, vocal birds called?
Naming and Classifying Parrots
The parrot family has gone by many common names, including parakeets, macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and budgerigars. However, scientifically speaking, they are all classified into the single family Psittacidae. Any bird that falls into this taxonomic family is considered a true parrot.
There are six subfamilies within the parrot family:
- Psittacinae – Includes Amazons, macaws, conures, parakeets, and others
- Arinae – Includes aras such as scarlet and blue-and-yellow macaws
- Loriinae – Includes lories and lorikeets
- Cacatuinae – Cockatoos
- Strigopinae – New Zealand parrots
- Nestorinae – The kea and kaka of New Zealand
Within each subfamily there are many different parrot genera, and within each genus are individual parrot species. For example, within the genus Ara in the Arinae subfamily are several species of macaw, including scarlet macaws, blue-and-gold macaws, and green-winged macaws. Classification helps organize the diversity within the extensive parrot family and enables specific identification of distinct species.
Common Types of Parrots
While there are hundreds of different species across the world, some of the most popular types of parrots kept as pets or seen in zoos include:
- Macaws – Large, long-tailed parrots including scarlet macaws, blue-and-gold macaws, green-wing macaws, hyacinth macaws, and military macaws.
- Amazon parrots – Smaller short-tailed parrots like the yellow-headed Amazon, blue-fronted Amazon, and lilac-crowned Amazon.
- Conures – Small, slender parrots like the sun conure, jenday conure, and green-cheeked conure.
- Cockatoos – Distinctive parrots with erectile crests like the umbrella cockatoo, Moluccan cockatoo, and sulphur-crested cockatoo.
- African grey parrots – Highly intelligent medium parrots with grey plumage and bright red tails.
- Lovebirds – Small, stout parrots with short tails, often kept as pets.
- Budgerigars – Also known as budgies or parakeets, these small Australian parrots are wildly popular as pets.
- Cockatiels – Small crested parrots similar to cockatoos but smaller.
- Lories and lorikeets – Small, colorful parrots with specialized brush-tipped tongues, found in Australia and south Asia.
This list just highlights some of the best-known parrot types, but there are many more unique species around the globe!
Parrot Characteristics and Traits
What makes a parrot a parrot? Here are some of the main physical and behavioral characteristics that set parrots apart from other bird species:
- Brightly colored plumage – Vivid colors of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple.
- Curved beak – Designed to crack hard nuts and seeds.
- Zygodactyl feet – Two front toes and two back toes allow climbing and gripping.
- Large brains – High intelligence and ability to mimic speech and sounds.
- Short and stout bodies – Built for climbing and maneuvering in trees.
- Long tails – Aid in flight and balance and display dominance.
- Loud, raucous calls – Parrots are vocal birds that squawk, screech, and chatter.
- Cavity nesters – Use beaks to chew nest holes in trees and cliffs.
- Flocking birds – Many parrot species are highly social.
- Seed and fruit eaters – Vegetarian diets supplemented by some insects.
This unique combo of traits is exactly what gives parrots their recognizable look, abilities, behaviors, and charm!
Where Parrots Live in the Wild
Parrots are found on continents around the globe in tropical to sub-tropical regions near the equator. Here’s a breakdown of where different parrot species occur naturally in the wild:
- South America – Macaws, Amazon parrots, conures
- Central America – Amazon parrots, conures, parakeets
- Africa – African grey parrots, lovebirds, pygmy parrots
- Asia – Lories, hanging parrots, rosellas
- Australia/Oceania – Cockatoos, lorikeets, budgerigars, Kakapo
Within these regions, parrots inhabit forests, woodlands, and wooded grasslands. They avoid arid deserts and high mountains. Many species flock to coastal areas where palm trees provide food and nesting sites.
Parrots thrive in warm environments with ample vegetation. Here are some of the main habitat types inhabited by different parrot species worldwide:
- Tropical rainforests – Tall trees for nesting and plenty of fruit and seeds.
- Deciduous forests – Seasonal forests that provide nuts and seed crops.
- Savannas – Scattered trees on grasslands provide food and lookout perches.
- Mangrove forests – Coastal habitat with palm trees used for feeding and nesting.
- Woodlands – Open canopy habitat with grass understory.
- Forest edges – Transitional zone between forests and open areas.
- River groves – Trees along waterways for roosting and feeding.
Having intact forest ecosystems is crucial to maintaining healthy parrot populations in the wild. Deforestation has contributed to the decline and endangerment of many parrot species.
Diet: What Parrots Eat
Parrots are primarily vegetarian birds that eat a mix of seeds, nuts, fruit, buds, and other plant materials. Some parrot diets by species include:
|Parrot Species||Diet in the Wild|
|Scarlet macaws||Nuts, seeds, fruits, palm nuts, clay licks|
|Cockatiels||Seeds, berries, vegetables|
|Amazon parrots||Fruits, seeds, blossoms, nuts|
|Budgerigars||Grass seeds, seeding grasses|
|Lorikeets||Nectar, pollen, fruits|
|Conures||Berries, fruits, nuts, seeds, insects|
Some of the larger parrot species, like macaws, may eat small amounts of animal protein like insects, snails or even small reptiles or amphibians. But the main bulk of a parrot’s nutrition comes from plant foods.
Parrot Behavior and Intelligence
Parrots display very advanced intelligence and behaviors compared to other birds. Some key aspects of parrot behavior include:
- Ability to mimic speech – Parrots, especially species like African grey parrots, are able to mimic human words and sounds with great skill.
- Use of tools – Parrots may use sticks, branches, and other objects as tools to get food and solve problems.
- Complex social bonds – Parrots form close relationships with mates and flock mates.
- Long-term memory – Parrots can remember words, people’s faces, and solve puzzles even years later.
- Play behavior – Parrots playfully interact with toys, objects, and each other.
- Foraging skills – Parrots use excellent spatial memory to locate scattered food sources.
Research has shown that parrots have emotional intelligence and cognitive abilities on par with primates and young human children. Their big brains and sociable nature make parrots one of the smartest bird groups!
Parrots are vocal birds that use a wide repertoire of sounds and body language to communicate. Forms of parrot communication include:
- Mimicked speech – Some parrots can mimic human words and other sounds.
- Squawks – Loud, harsh squawks used to announce alarm or stay in contact.
- Screeches – High-pitched screeches indicate excitement and aggression.
- Chattering – Constant chattering while roosting bonds the flock.
- Whistles – Soft whistles are used as contact calls between mated pairs.
- Clicks – Parrots click their beaks during feeding and preening.
- Body language – Postures like ruffled feathers signal aggression.
- Dancing – Some parrots perform courtship dances.
Parrot vocalizations are unique to each species and can convey a wealth of information between individuals in a flock.
Reproduction and Breeding
Parrots exhibit some interesting behaviors and traits when it comes to finding mates and breeding:
- Most parrot species are monogamous, mating for life.
- Breeding pairs engage in courtship rituals like duets, dancing, and preening.
- Parrots nest in tree cavities using their beaks to chew nest holes in soft wood.
- Females lay 2-8 white eggs that are incubated for 3-5 weeks.
- Both parents help feed the young regurgitated food.
- Chicks fledge the nest at 5-12 weeks old.
- Some parrot species live 40-60 years, with long maturity periods.
Breeding seasons are timed with food availability. Scarcity of nest sites limits breeding success for many wild parrots.
Parrot Conservation Status
Due to deforestation, illegal trapping, and other threats, many parrot species are at risk of extinction. Here are some examples of parrots with declining populations:
|Parrot Species||Conservation Status||Primary Threats|
|Scarlet macaw||Least concern||Habitat loss|
|African grey parrot||Vulnerable||Trapping for pet trade|
|Yellow-crested cockatoo||Critically endangered||Pet trade, hunting|
|Golden conure||Endangered||Deforestation, pet trade|
|Hyacinth macaw||Vulnerable||Habitat loss, illegal pet trade|
Conservation efforts like cracking down on illegal trade, captive breeding programs, and forest habitat protections are critical for ensuring the future survival of endangered parrots worldwide.
Significance of Parrots to Humans
Parrots hold an important place in human culture, history, and biodiversity:
- Parrots are important seed dispersers that help regenerate forests through their feeding habits.
- Their bright colors and intelligence have made them highly desirable pets, but many wild populations are threatened by illegal trapping.
- Parrots like macaws and Amazons feature in the legends and rituals of indigenous cultures in South and Central America.
- Talking parrots are a familiar pet in Western society and pop culture.
- Parrots serve as an important ecotourism draw, supporting conservation efforts.
- Research on parrot intelligence provides insight into the evolution of cognition in different species.
Yet there is still much to uncover about these remarkable birds through additional study and conservation initiatives worldwide.
Parrots comprise a diverse, widely distributed family of highly intelligent, vocal