Dot Schwarz tells us what we can learn from wild Parrots.
Can the lifestyles of wild Parrots teach us how to improve the lives of captive Parrots? I believe they can. Our Parrots are not domesticated birds; often they’re only a few generations from their wild ancestors. Therefore, to understand a captive-bred bird’s requirements, it’s helpful, if not imperative, to know as much as we can of their wild relative’s lifestyle.
Wild bird behavioural studies have increased over recent years and although scientific knowledge of wild birds is incomplete, the information that does exist can be adapted for use with captive birds and enrich their lives considerably.
Here are some brief descriptions of wild lifestyles and how I’ve tried to integrate that knowledge into how I deal with my own birds. Let’s consider a few aspects, nutrition, foraging, flock behaviour, vocalisation, species difference and lastly intelligence.
At the time of an ongoing pandemic, it’s almost impossible to travel to South America or other exotic destinations to view Parrots in the wild. And in fact, compared with the knowledge we have of Parrots, as ‘species.’ comparatively little is known of their life in the wild.
Their behaviour especially, has been poorly explored. But among the many books on the ornithology and the care of captive Parrots, one book stands out as unique because it gives a valuable insight into the life of wild Parrots like never before.
It is aptly titled, Parrots of the Wild – A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating birds. Ten years in the writing, the main author Catherine Toft assimilated over 2,400 research papers and added her own comprehensive knowledge. This is the best book I know to help anyone at any level to increase their understanding of Parrots.
Catherine Toft writes: All Parrots are primarily herbivorous, meaning that they eat parts of plants. Within the Pssittaformes, different group of Parrots have diverged resulting in four specialised diets.
These are granivorous (seed eating) nectivorous ( nectar and pollen eaten) frugivorous (eating fruit pulp) and folivorous (eating leaves).
For many Parrots, we can consider a fifth and generalist category, omnivorous, which is one that combines one or more of the four above plant-food categories with significant animal protein. Which usually mean the pupae of insects that Parrots find while foraging for other food. (Parrots of the Wild page 42)
We cannot accurately simulate wild Parrots’ diets, but it does help when deciding what to feed your Parrot if you have an awareness of what its wild cousins would eat.
I keep Cockatiels and Australian Parakeets. I know that they are basically feed on seeding grasses. Which explains that the nuts and fruits that Macaws relish are of no interest to them.
Wild Parrots have greater need of calories than pets, and even aviary birds, which expend so much less energy. The biggest consumer of energy is flying and captivity severely restricts flying.
If you keep Amazons, African Greys or some species of Cockatoo like Galahs, that gain weight easily when they consume high carbohydrate or too much human junk food. You need to monitor their food intake closely.
People new to Parrot keeping often wonder why when provided with a dish of food a Parrot will often take a bite from an item before discarding it and moving on to the next. It’s because Parrots forage for their food, searching for the next delicious morsel is an innate characteristic.
The movement of Parrot flocks from one location to the next is associated with the appearance of tree fruit, seed, and blossoms. This activity includes learning detailed internal maps of where food is to be found.
And they employ considerable ingenuity in extracting it. Up to four hours a day may be spent foraging, although large birds like Macaws can gather food in a shorter time. (Contrast that with 30 minutes a day taken by captive birds fed on pellets which are provided in a dish.)
The traditional method of providing food in bowls is increasingly being replaced by experienced Parrot keepers providing a substitute for foraging. By using purchased items or home made ones such as by wrapping food up or hiding it in parcels.
You can use skewers, baffle boxes, thread edible branches through cage bars – the list is endless. Parrots enjoy working for their food.
How do wild birds behave? Behaviour varies between species and populations of species, depending on the type of habitat and other factors. However, a few common traits can be observed. The most striking visual observation is that Parrots are social animals and with very few exceptions, live in flocks.
They may split off into pairs for breeding. Others breed in flocks. Some like Quaker Parakeets build a communal nest and each pair leases an ‘apartment.’ Patagonian Conures are colony breeders nesting on holes in coastal banks.
Budgerigars nest in tree holes preferably in decaying trees, ideally where some of their flock are nesting. Flock size can vary from a few birds to many hundreds or indeed thousands. Parrots will often remain in their family groups.
Some species are more or less monogamous for life, others less so. But apart from the Kakapo, the largest of the Parrots, which is solitary by nature, most other Parrots are gregarious, and ideally they should not be kept singly, although with careful consideration a lone bird can become well adjusted to captivity.
Although breeders or pet shops will sell a single bird, most Parrots prefer to be with another Parrot preferably of the same species. At home, Artha a female African Grey has the companionship of male African Grey Casper. They indulge in mutual preening which is a good sign that the two preening Parrots are compatible.
In birds of the opposite sex it’s sometimes a prelude to courtship, but not always. Parrots can always surprise you.
The two Greys will also mutually preen with me. (You need steady nerves when your pet Parrot decides to groom your eyelashes.)
In the wild Parrot species don’t mix much – if at all. Although in Australia a number of Parrot species will gather at water holes. In Peru in South America Macaws, Conures and other Parrot species will congregate at clay cliffs where they consume clay that neutralises the toxins such as tannins in the natural foods they eat.
Obviously species are separated more by behavioural than by physical differences. There is also the dominant factor. Within every bird flock will be a hierarchy or to use the phrase coined from observation of farmyard chickens, the pecking order.
The human Parrot keeper will usually be the dominant individual among his or her Parrots, which will each have their position in the Parrot pecking order. A bird at the bottom the peck order will be subservient to all other birds and must be watched to see that it is not unduly bullied.
When different species are housed together it’s more complicated that having two members of the same species, and it’s hit and miss whether they will be compatible. Sometimes it’s successful other times there can be fights or even fatalities.
It is unwise to cage Parrots together unless you are very sure of their compatibility. If they both assert dominance there can be a physical altercation. But in nature there is more bluff than violence, but then in nature an unwanted interloper can be chased away, in a cage the interloper can’t leave and violence can result.
As keepers you always have to be aware to the potential for conflict. Benni and Mina my two Macaws share a large Macaw cage as do Artha and Casper the Greys. But Mina the Military Macaw managed to get into an Amazon’s cage and severely wound him.
And Artha Grey, a gentle pet, attacked a Kakariki nestling which had fledged and I was not quick enough to separate the aviary sections.
Parrots may fly long distances (although not all species do so). A tiny bird like the Australian Budgerigar is nomadic and flies hundreds of kilometres at different times of the year. An Eclectus male flies many kilometres to bring his hen food while she may spend up to 9 months in her nest hole. (Where other males other than her mate will feed her.)
Parrots rest in the hottest part of the day. They need to prevent heat accumulation in their bodies. Since most Parrots live in tropical areas their world heats up at mid-day. Parrots’ body temperature runs high….104 F. Much higher than humans.
And their bodies have high metabolic rates to create enough energy to fly. Muscles and nerves contract and conduct better at high temperature. Parrots are like racing cars with turbo chargers. Consequently, they overheat easily. Therefore, during the heat of the day they try to minimize their activity and internal heat production. To us it seems like a siesta. Your home Parrot will rest after lunch if you let it.
In captivity we cannot imitate vast distances for Parrots to fly but we can ensure Parrots are fully flighted and are encouraged to fly in whatever space we can provide for them. Allowing free flight, which is a growing trend, can be adopted as long as the caregiver has gained enough information in regard to the training and is aware of the difficulties and problems that can occur.
In my area (Essex) there are many predators’ hawks, peregrines, owls, etc. Yet I have been able to free fly my two Macaws with no problems. Sadly, an experiment in flying Parakeets (Australian Rock Pebblers) ended in disaster. A hawk got the novice.
Parrots are generally loud animals. Most of these noises are unattractive to human ears-unpleasant to ear splitting. They are avian alarm clocks, that go off just after dawn to alert the flock members where they are. This is their way to encourage the flock to assemble and begin the daily activities, like foraging.
Parrots vocalise in late afternoon or the evening when they are preparing to roost to inform flock members where they are. Some species will fly with the only the sounds of wing beats while others will make a splendid noise. For example, Amazons approach their nest silently. Many Macaws approach with a cacophony of shrieks. Palm Cockatoos actually drum on the tree stump to warn off rivals. (using a whittled drumstick shaped branch to do so.)
Once you become aware that making noise isn’t a Parrot plot to drive you insane but normal behaviour for Parrot species, you can become more tolerant. Sadly, what can happen with certain species, especially Cockatoos and Amazons, which are the worse for screaming, their vocalisations in an urban setting can magnify out of all proportion and become intolerable.
Although abnormal screaming (as with biting) can be controlled by sensitive training.
Parrots play – especially juveniles. But adults also. Because Keas play they have earned the name clowns of the mountains. YouTube has many clips of captive and wild Parrots playing and of course, pets dancing and singing.
On YouTube Snowball the Cockatoo demonstrates his 14 synchronised movements when he dances. Also, on YouTube are clips of a juvenile Kea group in a ski resort ripping windscreen wiper rubbers of parked cars, while sympathising with the irate owners, you’ll laugh aloud.
Parrots have mates and special friends and will groom these friends. In the wild young Parrots play with juveniles of the same species but in captivity you can find mixed species playing. Chris Armstrong in USA has a Sun Conure who nestles under the wing of a Green- wing Macaw.
Parrot behaviour changes radically when in breeding mode. Some species display more aggression than others. Amazons and Cockatoos are well known in captivity for their aggressive behaviour (towards Parrots and humans) during the breeding season.
It probably comes to the surface at this time because Parrots will fight to defend nest sites and mates.
Parrots have a rich emotional life. Some may not agree with the claim that wild Parrots show emotions that we can recognize, curiosity, love, anger, fear and grief. But all these aspects of behaviour are observed in varying degrees in wild flocks.
Captive birds alas can’t perform many of these behaviours: flying long distance, foraging, mating, contact with co-species – the list is sadly long. Often you’ll notice your bird’s frustratingly attempting to perform some form of these activities.
Can we imitate something similar in the captive environment? Yes, if we think creatively. The captive environment can never be more than a pale imitation of wide-open skies, but it can satisfy some of our birds’ innate cravings and thus diminish or prevent the emergence of habits like screaming, biting, feather plucking and phobias.
We can also take comfort in the thought that not everything we do is negative. We free our birds from the fear of predators; we eliminate the constant search for food; we regulate the climate. If they produce young, they may even be allowed to rear or partially rear them.
We also provide an added bonus of human companionship which a well-adjusted pet apparently finds stimulating and rewarding. My pets have the possibility to argue like all intelligent beings. And the loser flies away to another rope or perch.
In the outdoor aviary, the birds can bathe on their own initiative in rain or water bowls. Indoors is more problematical. Artha has chosen from a young age to wash herself in the dogs’ water bowl. The Macaws love to bathe in the rain in trees.
The conservatory (adapted to suit avian preferences as far as I can ascertain) gives the birds a limited space to fly of about 20 sq. metres. But also, space to display natural behaviours. They also fly in the house at liberty during their out times. Experts disagree about allowing birds loose in a house.
Screened windows and doors, covering items with thick towels can sometimes hide items like TV remotes and ornaments, but not always. Using the same precautions, you take for a lively toddler are usually sufficient for safety. Except of course that these Peter Pan toddlers can also fly.
Young birds like most young animals and humans learn by imitation. Parrot parents and flock mates educate young birds and teach them how to forage, mate and live according to the flock rules in their habitat. Education is not neglected in the Parrot world, the first year of survival is a steep learning curve but Parrots like all animals are eager to learn to explore life.
We can’t teach Parrots via imitation but we can use positive reinforcement training. Finding the favoured food or toy for the reward is essential during training. It’s not an artificial practice for birds to be trained using positive reinforcement.
I disagree with the opinion, ‘I don’t train because I like my birds natural.” Well, yes, but in nature their parents would have trained each fledgling strictly, scolding them when they did wrong, uttered reassuring vocals when they did the right thing. (Admittedly with more skill than you or I have.)
Training by means of positive reinforcement reaps tangible benefits. It’s essential if you are to let your birds loose in house or on a patio that they will obey certain basic requests: ‘fly to me’, ‘step-up,’ and ‘off’.
And finally –
Keeping birds so that they have an enriched environment with some possibility of choices in their lives, entails giving up some our personal freedom. Few of us are skilled, have time enough to learn how to free fly our birds.
However, we can give limited flight to captive birds. If we have a small house, a Cockatiel or Budgerigar can get adequate exercise. With larger birds we need more space or an aviary or the occasional use of a gym or a school hall.
Even if you have no room for an aviary you can turn your yard, garden or patio into one and have enormous fun watching birds behave in a semi natural way.
The author wishes to thank Chris Armstrong and Bill Taylor for their help