An email I received made me realise that more information on the lovely little Forpus Parrotlets would be welcome, now that small Parrots have overtaken large species as companions in the home. My correspondent wrote:
“I have acquired a male Parrotlet of around six years old from a friend who had lost the confidence to let him out. He had spent some months inside his cage before he came to me. My friend agreed to let me have him because I am one of the high risk elderly people on lockdown.
She thought he would be therapeutic for me. Alfie has, in fact, kept, me sane over the recent months.
“He is now let out morning and evening and is increasing in confidence in his new home. He actually only came to stay for just a few days. Initially he bit me hard whenever he was near me but he is now, I think, a much more confident and happier little bird.
I let him out night and morning, when I clean him out and feed him. He has a fascination for my shiny cutlery and has his own set of spoons which he rocks and plays with, with great delight.
“I have found it difficult to get information on care and feeding as people give me contradicting advice. I feed him Cockatiel mix mainly, removing the sunflower seeds to use as treats. He is now responding to my teaching him not to bite.”
This lady seems to be very sympathetic to the needs of her new companion, but let me offer a little more advice.
Parrotlets need a basic mixture of small seeds, comprising various millets, canary seed and just a little hemp and safflower. They greatly enjoy millet sprays, which should always be available.
These offer a form of enrichment as they keep the birds busy feeding in a more natural way than from a container of seeds. It is a myth that millet sprays are fattening.
Let us look at an analysis of some frequently fed seeds, with the approximate values as a percentage.
Oil % protein
Millet 5 12
Canary seed 5 12
Sunflower kernels 25 23
Safflower 25 16
Hemp 32 20
A Parrotlet that does not receive a lot of flying exercise out of its cage could become overweight if fed on seeds containing a lot of oils (fat) so the diet should be modified to the bird’s lifestyle.
It is less wasteful to buy various seeds and make up a mixture. It is also less expensive as you pay VAT on seed mixtures but not on “straight” seeds. Also, many Parakeet mixtures contain items that a Parrotlet will not eat, such as hard maize or split peas.
They also contain oats which are best fed separately, either whole oats sprouted or soaked, or soaked groats.
Parrotlets should also be offered fruits such as apple, grapes, pomegranate, orange and kiwi. One should experiment with various ways of presenting these, as chopped fruits in a dish might be ignored, especially as they can end up as an unappetising mess.
Slices of apple can be pushed through the cage bars, attached to a stainless steel fruit hanger or even to a favourite toy. Chopped fruits might be better added to a mixture of sprouted grains, also frozen, thawed green peas and sweetcorn. In an aviary a natural branch with a short projecting side branch is an ideal place to spike a piece of fruit.
Greenfoods, including chickweed, dandelion leaves and pea shoots, are recommended. In the wild Parrotlets feed on fruits and berries, and seeds, also on flowers and blossom. Try to offer dandelion flowers and fresh branches, such as those from apple and hawthorn with buds or flowers.
Pellets are best avoided. I recommend fresh foods, loaded with enzymes and natural vitamins.
In north-east Brazil I watched Blue-winged Parrotlets (Forpus xanthopterygius flavissimus) feeding on the seeding heads of small sunflowers. In the bright sunshine their pastel colours were extremely beautiful and their diminutive size enchanting.
This little bird is very light green and the male has the face yellow, above and below the eye. In another area of Brazil, in the Atlantic forest, I visited the beautiful island of Ilhabela. In the state park I watched Blue-winged Parrotlets (Forpus xanthopterygius), high in a tree, eating tiny berries.
Intelligence and cognition
Parrotlets are small – but do not underestimate their intelligence. In Germany researchers tested four Parrot species, including Spectacled Parrotlets (Forpus conspicillatus). They believed that a characteristic of complex cognition (the mental faculty or process of acquiring knowledge) is the ability to understand causal relationships spontaneously.
One way of testing this is to offer birds a reward that is out of reach.
The Parrots were given five variations on a string-pulling task that might or might not produce food. One task involved a pair of crossed strings, only one of which had a food reward. In other words, pulling the string directly above the food would not result in acquiring it.
The result was that the Spectacled Parrotlets and the Rainbow Lorikeets worked this out but the Macaws and Cockatoos did not. Only the Parrotlets could get the food when the strings were the same colour.
The next test was designed to probe flexibility of behaviour. The Parrots were offered longer strings so that they could obtain the food from the ground rather than pulling up the string. Several members of all four species adapted their problem-solving strategies by getting the food from the ground but only the Parrotlets and Lorikeets preferred this method. Note that most Macaws are canopy-feeders, not ground feeders, so they instinctively avoid going to the ground.
Another task involved a string with a reward on the end and another string with a reward under it but not attached. The Parrotlets were the only species to solve the task of acquiring the food not attached by a string.
The researchers compared the results with the birds’ lifestyles, and reported that the differences were best explained by the species’ social structures rather than their diets.
Parrotlets live in large groups and form different social sub-units that split and merge, providing the opportunity for many different kinds of social interactions. I would think this is also true of the Lorikeets. The researchers said that the Parrotlets were the only one of the four species tested that forms crèches where young birds socialise.
They thought the findings can be best explained by the variation in social complexity among species, rather than in their ecology. (Krasheninnikova et al, 2013).
Research on nesting behaviour
Parrotlets (genus Forpus) are truly amazing little birds. They have proved good subjects for research. Some years ago American scientist Steve Beissinger saw Parrotlets in Venezuela nesting in a fence post.
It occurred to him that if he provided nest sites, these birds would be easy to study. This fortuitous observation resulted in a 20-year research programme that revealed amazing facts about these sparrow-sized Parrots.
I was fortunate to be present at the 2007 Parrots International convention in Long Beach, California, when Steve Beissinger presented some of his findings. By then he and his researchers had ringed 7,500 individual Green-rumped Parrotlets (Forpus passerinus) and tracked 3,000 nest attempts. (Surely a feat unequalled in any other Parrot research project.)
They found that the population contained about twice as many males as females. Some pairs consisted of two males whose ages were usually less than one year, and there were also lonely males. Male groups would sometimes harass breeding females.
After studying more than one hundred nests what did he discover about their breeding biology? Females bred at one year old. The average clutch size was seven eggs. Newly hatched chicks weighed 1.7g and at 12 days they weighed 15g. Any chicks that hatched after the fifth had a small chance of survival.
Of 96 chicks studied, 4% were predated in the nest, 27% starved, 10% died from other causes and 52% fledged (Beissinger, 2008).
From the mortality figures given above, it might be that food is scarce at times. Interestingly, there were upland and lowland populations only 1km apart that functioned as separate flocks.
It seems that Parrotlet pairs are very faithful. Of the 488 pairs studied from 1988 to 2003, 83% of pairs stayed together.
In 11% the female found a new mate if the male died but only 5% of males were able to find a mew mate in that event. Amazingly, “divorce” occurred in only 1% of cases.
Behaviour of females was not totally exemplary, however, as was discovered by DNA testing. Of 832 young, 8% were not fathered by the male attending the nest. However, this is the case in many bird species as males are increasing the likelihood of their genes being passed on by mating with more than one female.
I have watched Parrotlets from Trinidad and Colombia to Brazil and Peru, noticing how often they are found around human habitation. They take little notice of humans, perhaps because most people are unaware of their presence.
They blend so well with foliage and even with ground cover – until they take off and the blue areas of their plumage are revealed.
I find it sad that breeders usually keep Parrotlets in small cages where there can be problems with aggression. Many years ago I saw a flock in a huge aviary in Wassenaar Zoo in the Netherlands.
What a delight they were -- compared to the birds that spend all their lives in cages. So breeders, please give your birds plenty of space where they can fly and show off their lovely colours!
Beissinger, S. R., 2008, Long-term studies of the Green-rumped
Parrotlet (Forpus passerinus) in Venezuela: hatching asyncrony,
social system and population structure, Ornitologia Neotropical
(19) suppl): 73-83.
Krasheninnikova, A., S. Bräger and R. Wanker, 2013, Means-end
comprehension in four Parrot species: explained by social
complexity, Animal Cognition, Sept., 16 (5):755-64. doi:
10.1007/s10071-013-0609-z. Epub 2013 Feb 9.
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