What Do You Know About Parrots?

By Scott Shalaway
AMONG the letters and e-mails I receive each week, many ask for help identifying an unfamiliar bird. It usually takes just a minute to reply. But last week I was stumped by a Pittsburgh reader.

She sent me a digital photo of a parrot she had photographed last year at the National Aviary (www.aviary.org). “I have not been able to identify it. Can you help?” she asked.

I glanced at the photo and drew a complete blank. The bird had a red face, green body and dark streaks on its breast. Of the 356 species of parrots in the world, I’ve seen maybe 20 on various trips to Mexico, Ecuador and Panama, so I’m hardly an expert.

But since I have a copy of “Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide” by Joseph Forshaw (2006, Princeton University Press), I felt confident. I carefully browsed the book’s 120 color plates, but couldn’t come up with a match. So I consulted the real experts.

I forwarded the original e-mail to the National Aviary and asked if someone could help me. Within an hour I had an answer. Erin Estel, manager of animal programs, identified the mystery bird as Goldie’s lorikeet, a small parrot found in the highlands of New Guinea.

Though I had found an answer for the reader’s question, I now had more questions about parrots, so I spent the rest of the day reading about them.

Parrots are most familiar as cage birds–budgerigars, cockatiels, cockatoos, lovebirds, African grays, macaws–but I’m not promoting them as pets. They are beautiful, intelligent and long-lived, but they can also be loud, obnoxious, moody and belligerent. It takes a special person to commit to a bird that can live for decades.

Of the world’s 356 extant species, 123–more than a third–are near-threatened or endangered. The pet trade is just one cause for their imperiled status, and today most cage birds are hatched in captivity. Many parrots have also been persecuted as agricultural pests, and for their feathers and meat.

Though most parrots are found in the tropics and subtropics, the poster bird for parrot conservation was once abundant throughout most of the eastern and midwestern United States. The Carolina Parakeet was about the size of a Mourning Dove. It had a green body, yellow head and reddish-orange forehead and cheeks. Read “The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird” by Noel Snyder (2004, Princeton University Press) for the story of its life and demise.

The last captive Carolina Parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918; wild birds persisted in the southeast until the 1930s. The Carolina Parakeet has long been considered extinct, but in light of recent reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers being seen in Arkansas and Florida, who knows? In many ways, conservation is a science of hope.

A critically endangered parrot that lives only in captivity is Spix’s Macaw, which historically occurred in northeastern Brazil. Its story is splendidly told by Tony Juniper in “Spix’s Macaw: the Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird” (2002, Atria Books).

Until I began this brief review of the parrot world, I associated these birds with bright, gaudy plumages. And many species are marked by splashes of yellows, reds, oranges, blues and greens. But a half dozen species of cockatoos are black or charcoal gray, and many other parrots are surprisingly dull. The lack of bright colors on New Zealand’s Kakapo, another species that’s extinct in the wild, might be explained by its nocturnal habits. It’s also unique in that it’s the largest parrot in the world (males weigh up to 6 1/2 pounds) and flightless.

Another parrot that might be familiar to some readers is the Rainbow Lorikeet. Some zoos (San Diego, San Francisco, Albuquerque and Tampa, to name a few) maintain walk-in aviaries where visitors can purchase cups of nectar to hand-feed these stunning birds. This spring the Good Zoo in Wheeling, WV, will open a lorikeet exhibit that is certain to attract big crowds.

For a broader array of parrots and hundreds of birds from around the world, a trip to Pittsburgh’s National Aviary is a must.--Pittsburgh Post Gazette