by Whit Gibbons

July 29, 2012

What is the food most commonly associated with parrots? Some people would answer "crackers," as in "Polly wants a cracker." Others, recognizing that parrots in the wild are unlikely to have access to crackers of any sort, would correctly identify seeds, fruits, and leaves as common food sources for most parrots. Few would realize that one of the more than 350 different species of parrots that live in the world today will attack and eat sheep.

At least three species of parrots are known to be predators or scavengers. The kea of New Zealand, which approaches a length of 20 inches and has a fierce-looking hooked beak, has a reputation for landing on the backs of sheep and stripping away wool to get at the animal's fat. Because of this trait, kea were placed on a bounty list and killed by the tens of thousands. This meat-eating parrot, which also scavenges dead sheep, has been protected for fewer than 30 years, and only about 5,000 remain. New Zealand is also home to two predatory parakeets that live on the Antipodes Islands to the south and eat large seabirds. Makes you wonder what's in the water those birds drink.

Parrots comprise three or more biologically distinct families, which include well-known varieties such as macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, lovebirds, and parakeets, and lesser-known ones such as the kea, kakapo, and double-eyed fig-parrot. The fact that ornithologists recognize more than 15 species of macaws and 80 parakeets speaks to the genetic diversity of the overall group.

These facts and many more can be found in "Parrots: The Animal Answer Guide" (2012, Johns Hopkins University Press) by Matt Cameron, the latest in an excellent series of question and answer books. "Parrots" is priced at $24.95 for the paperback version but discounts are often available.

Among the questions people typically ask about any animal group are what is the largest species and the smallest, and how long do they live? The largest parrot is the hyacinth macaw of Brazil, a beautiful blue bird more than three feet long with an enormous head. The large head supports the gigantic beak, which is necessary for crushing tough palm nuts that make up the bulk of the bird's diet. The smallest parrot, the buff-faced pygmy-parrot of New Guinea, is tiny enough to fit in a pocket. Generally, the larger a parrot the longer its life expectancy; pet parrots can live from 10 to 60 years or longer.

Many parrots can talk, usually through simple mimicry, but studies with a grey parrot suggest a basic level of language awareness. The author notes that "it is unlikely that humans and parrots will be sitting down discussing the weather any day soon" but the capabilities of some species is remarkable. As for their intelligence, parrots are "among the smartest of all nonhuman animals." Research on captive parrots has demonstrated impressive cognitive abilities, with problem-solving and tool-using being observed among several species.

Are any parrot species endangered? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is yes: 15 are critically endangered, meaning they have an "extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future." Another 33 are in the endangered category, and 48 are considered vulnerable; both categories mean the possibility of extinction is imminent. Sadly, 19 species have gone extinct since Columbus reached the Americas. One of these, the Carolina parakeet, was the only parrot native to the United States. The last known specimens of this beautiful, once-common bird disappeared in the 1920s.

As might be expected in a book about brightly colored birds, more than three dozen color photographs accompany the text. The brilliant scarlet plumage of a red lory, the orange and green flashes of a flock of Lilian's lovebirds in flight, and the bizarre "glowing plumage" of budgerigars under a UV light are breathtaking examples of an extraordinary group of birds. "Parrots: The Animal Answer Guide" is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning about the natural history of parrots, including information about conservation efforts on behalf of these magnificent birds.

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