Parrots: Psittaciformes

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PARROTS: Psittaciformes



The family Psittacidae contains more than 300 species of birds. Parrots usually have brightly colored plumage (feathers). Most have green feathers, and many parrots are blue, red, and yellow. The parrots range in length from the 3.5-inch (9-centimeter) red-breasted pygmy parrot to the 3.3-foot (1-meter) hyacinth macaw.

Parrots have large heads, short necks, and curved beaks. They use their hooked beaks to crack nuts and grab branches. Birds use their beaks and feet to pick up food and carry it their mouths. Parrots have zygodactyl (zye-guh-DACK-tuhl) feet; two toes on each foot face forward and two face backward.


Most parrots live in the Southern Hemisphere, the portion of Earth south of the equator. This range includes the continents of South America, Australia, and Africa. Parrots also live in Central American countries including Belize, as well as countries including Mexico, New Zealand, New Guinea, India, and Afghanistan.


Parrots are tree-dwellers that live in various habitats. They live in rainforests where heavy rainfall throughout the year produces an abundance of trees and plants. In deciduous forests, parrots live in trees that shed leaves. Parrots also nest in coniferous forests where evergreen trees don't shed leaves. Some birds also live in grasslands, where there are few trees.


Parrots eat seeds and fruit. Lorikeets also eat pollen and nectar. The amount eaten varies with the bird's size.


Parrot behavior varies by species. A group of birds may form a flock. Birds in the flock often pair up. Some parrots are active in the day and sleep in trees at night. Other birds are nocturnal, active at night.

Most parrots are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus) and pair up for life. Birds often breed in cavities, nests located in the hollow part of trees. Usually, only the female broods, staying with the eggs until they hatch. Females of most species lay four to eight white eggs. They hatch in eighteen to twenty days.

Parrots are thought to be intelligent. In the wild, they screech or scream to warn the flock of danger from predators like eagles and falcons.

Cage birds (birds in captivity) often imitate the words of the people they live with, and some tamed parrots live to age of eighty or longer.


Parrots have been popular as cage birds since ancient times. While there is still a demand for parrots as pets, birds in the wild are sometimes considered pests because flocks of birds may ruin crops.


The gray parrot is the most talkative bird in the parrot family. These domesticated parrots are intelligent. They imitate sounds, something that usually doesn't happen in the wild where birds chatter with other parrots. Scientists believe that cage birds repeat human words when kept without other parrots as companions.


About one-third of parrot species face danger of extinction, with species dying out as habitat is lost because of human development. Extinct species include the Carolina parakeet, the only parrot that lived naturally in the United States.


Physical characteristics: The rose-ringed parakeet has green feathers, black feet, and a red beak with a black band around it. The rose ring is the black-and-red collar around the bird's neck. Birds measure
15.7 inches (40 centimeters) from their heads to their tails. They weigh from 4.1 to 4.9 ounces (116 to 139 grams).

Geographic range: Rose-ringed parakeets live naturally in the African countries of Sudan, Mauritania, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. In Asia, they range in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China. Parakeets have been introduced into countries including the United States and England.

Habitat: Rose-ringed parakeets are adaptive, able to adjust to living conditions in a range of countries. They live in deciduous forests, grassland, and rainforests. In addition to their natural habitats, parakeet populations grew in the United States and England after caged birds escaped or were released by people.

Diet: Parakeets eat seeds, grain, flowers, fruit, nectar, and berries.

Behavior and reproduction: Rose-ringed parakeets are semi-nomadic, traveling to find food. They usually travel in a small flock, but some food sources can attract a flock of thousands of birds.

Parakeets are monogamous. The female selects the nest location and lines it with wood chips. The nest may be in a hole in a tree or one in a house wall. The hen lays a clutch of three to four eggs. They hatch in twenty-two days and are cared for by both parents.

Rose-ringed parakeets and people: Rose-ringed parakeets are valued as cage birds. In the wild, they are sometimes considered pests because they destroy crops while trying to feed.

Conservation status: Rose-ringed parakeets are not in danger of extinction. ∎


Physical characteristics: The coloring of male and female eclectus parrots is so different that they were once thought to be two different species. The female bird has red and blue feathers and a black bill. The male has green plumage and a yellow bill. All eclectus parrots have feathers of a smooth texture that have been compared to silk. The birds are 16.5 inches (42 centimeters) in length and weigh
0.9 to 1.2 pounds (440 to 660 grams).

Geographic range: Eclectus parrots live in Indonesia in Moluccas, Sumba Island, the Tanimbar Islands, Aru Islands, Biak Island, and Irian Jaya. They also range in the South Pacific in New Guinea and nearby islands, the Solomon Islands, Admiralty Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and the Cape York Peninsula in Australia.

Habitat: In the rainforest, eclectus parrots often live in tall trees with nests located 72 feet (22 meters) or more from the ground. The birds also live in trees in grassland.

Diet: Eclectus parrots eat nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, and nectar.

Behavior and reproduction: Eclectus parrots are monogamous and are believed to breed year-round. However, they are thought to mate mostly between August and January. Birds are group-oriented, and there may be four nests in a tree. The parrots are cooperative breeders, parents are helped by other birds. The assistants are thought to be offspring or adult relatives of the expectant parents. The female has a clutch of two eggs that hatch in twenty-six days.

Eclectus parrots and people: Eclectus parrots are popular cage birds. While people in their native lands sometimes keep them as pets, some people are upset when wild parrots steal their fruit.

Conservation status: Due to concern that populations will decline, a permit is required to remove eclectus parrots from their natural habitat. A CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora) permit is needed to import the parrots. ∎


Physical characteristics: The African gray parrot's plumage consists of various shades of gray. Tail feathers are red. Birds are 13 inches (33 centimeters) from head to tail and weigh up to 0.8 pounds (407 grams).

Geographic range: Gray parrots are found in western Africa in coastal countries including Sierra Leone, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. Birds also range inland in central and east Africa.

Habitat: Parrots make their nests in tree holes, sometimes choosing locations abandoned by birds like woodpeckers. The parrots live in evergreen forests and other wooded areas.

Diet: Parrots eat seeds, fruit, nuts, and berries. Birds usually pick their food from the trees. They sometimes land on the ground and eat dirt or tiny rocks. This helps the parrots digest their food.

Behavior and reproduction: Gray parrots are social birds. They travel during the day in pairs or small groups. At dusk, a large group of birds meets at one spot. This large flock will chatter and then roost, resting for the night. When the sun rises, pairs and groups fly away to eat. Birds often take a midday break and then feed again.

Gray parrots are monogamous. When they breed is based on where the birds are. Parrots in western Africa breed from November to April. The breeding season in eastern Africa is during June and July. In the Congo River basin, birds breed from July through December.

The female lays two to three eggs. Sometimes there is a clutch of four eggs. In the wild, eggs hatch in twenty-one days. The incubation period for cage birds is thirty days.

Gray parrots and people: The gray is an extremely popular cage bird because it can learn many words.

Conservation status: Populations are declining in some areas as smugglers steal birds and habitats are destroyed, but the gray parrot is not currently in danger of extinction. ∎


Physical characteristics: Scarlet macaws are colorful birds. The macaw's head, tail, and much of its body is red. Wings are blue, green, and yellow. Birds measure 33 inches (85 centimeters) from head to tail. The tail accounts for most of the length. Macaws weigh from 2.1 to 2.2 pounds (1.06 to 1.12 kilograms).

Geographic range: Scarlet macaws are found in southern Mexico and in Central American countries including Guatemala and Costa Rica. They also range in northwestern South American countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

Habitat: Macaws live in evergreen, coniferous forests and other wooded areas like deciduous forests.

Diet: Macaws eat berries, seeds, fruit, nuts, and flowers. After eating, macaws join other birds at riverbanks. There the birds eat mineralized clay. Scientists think that birds do this to stop the effect of being poisoned by unripe fruit and other dangerous plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Macaws travel in pairs and fly close to each other. Pairs may be part of a family group or a flock of up to twenty birds. Birds look for food during the day and roost in trees at night.

Birds in the north nest in March and April. The season lasts from October through March in the south. Females usually lay one or two eggs. Sometimes there is a clutch of four eggs.

Scarlet macaws and people: While macaws screech to keep humans away, people want to own these colorful birds. Macaws are also hunted for food or for their feathers.

Conservation status: Scarlet macaw populations are declining as habitat is destroyed when trees are cut down. Smuggling also reduces the population. In 2003, poachers armed with guns followed biologists in a Guatemala reserve, an area set aside to protect species. The poachers stole macaw eggs, knowing there is a demand for the birds. ∎


Physical characteristics: The bird named for the rainbow has an orange beak and red, yellow, green, and blue feathers. Body color varies by location. Some birds have blue and purple heads and green feather collars around their necks. Lorikeets measure 10 inches (26 centimeters) from head to tail. The birds weigh from 3.5 to 5.8 ounces (100 to 167 grams).

Unlike other members of the parrot family, the lorikeet can't open seeds with its beak. The lorikeet has a pointed bill and a "brush-tipped" tongue. The brush is made of tiny hairs on the tongue. This allows the lorikeet to eat pollen and nectar.

Geographic range: Rainbow lorikeets live in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, and South Pacific islands including the Papuan Islands.

Habitat: Rainbow lorikeets live in wooded areas where flowers grow. Habitats include rainforests thick with trees, grasslands where there are few trees, and people's gardens.

Diet: Rainbow lorikeets use their brush-tipped tongues to get nectar, the liquid in flowers that bees turn into honey. The birds also eat pollen, which also comes from flowers. Birds also eat fruit, berries, grain, leaf buds, insect larvae (LAR-vee), and some seeds. They feed in the wild and from feeders in people's gardens.

Behavior and reproduction: The lorikeets travel in pairs, family groups, and flocks. Rainbows are monogamous and breed from October to January. The months when birds mate vary by region. Nests are built in a hollow tree limb where the female lays from two to three eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs until they hatch in about twenty-five days.

Rainbow lorikeets and people: Rainbow lorikeets are popular cage birds. However, in the wild they can damage crops because an abundant food source could attract hundreds of birds.

Conservation status: Rainbow lorikeets are not at risk of extinction. ∎



Freud, Arthur. The Complete Parrot. New York: Howell Book House, 1995.

Rauzon, Mark. Parrots Around the World. New York: Franklin Watts, 2001.

Wade, Nicholas, ed. The New York Times Book of Birds. New York: The Lyons Press, 2001.


Greij, Eldon. "Bird Brain: Feats Performed by One African Grey Parrot Raise Questions About How Much All Birds Think." Birder's World 17, no. 6 (Dec 2003): 76.

"Maybe What Polly Wants is a New Toy." Science News 164, no. 5 (August 2, 2003): 78.

Myers, Jack. "Parrots That Eat Dirt: Why Do They Do It?" Highlights for Children 56, no. 12 (Dec 2001): 12.

Smith, Dottie. "Parrot Talk." Fun For Kidz 2, no. 2 (March–April 2003): 34.

Web sites:

Brightsmith, Don. "What Eats Parrots?" Duke University. (accessed on April 23, 2004).

"Rainbow Lorikeets." San Francisco Zoo. (accessed on April 26, 2004).

Triveldi, Brian. "Poachers and Fires Menace Endangered Parrots." (accessed on April 27, 2004).