NOTE: This page considers South American parrots (subfamily Arinae) other than macaws. Learn about macaws.
The 150 species of short-tailed parrots (i.e., excepting macaws) share a similar morphology: stocky bodies
with short grasping claws, short tail, and most notably a short blunt down curved bill. Many of these species
are not spectacularly colored, although some bear bright features on the head or wings. Most variation among
these species is on size and shape.
The sexes are usually alike, whereas many other birds are sexually dimorphic. Also setting parrots apart is their complex social
Parrots are social and squawk loudly, communicating primarily by sound, which carries great distances
through the thick jungle vegetation.
Significant taxonomic groups include parakeets (Aratinga, Pyrrhura and Brotogeris),
parrotlets (Forpus, Touit) and Amazon parrots (Amazona).
Among the most striking parrots of Amazonia is the hawk-headed parrot (Deroptyus accipitrinus). It
has a ring of feathers around its neck. During displays, when excited or angry, it raises the feathers to
present a ruff of feathers that increases the apparent size of the head.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Parrots are distributed worldwide, primarily in the Southern hemisphere and throughout tropical and
subtropical regions. They reach their greatest species diversity in South America, followed by Oceania
(Australia and Indonesia) and Africa. Species vary widely in distribution. The rarest tend to have very
limited distribution, restricted to a few known locations.
The short-tailed parrots of the Americas are mostly restricted to the Neotropics. Diversity is highest in
lowland regions but some species' habitat extends to high mountain areas, as far as the tree line.
FEEDING AND DIET
The parrot's bill is its key to unlocking food sources inaccessible to other animals. The upper mandible is
hinged, allowing a greater range of motion than the bills of other birds. This additional motion allows the
bird to climb with its bill by grasping branches, as well as using its claws. Such skill enables them to
perform acrobatic feats that endear them to those that love these birds. (Photo of macaw skull.)
The lower jaw is heavily muscled, unlike mammals whose jaw muscles extend down from the skull. The powerful
muscles provide the nut crunching power needed to break open hard nuts and seeds.
Most parrots also eat fruit. In captivity, parrots are fed a variety of seeds such as sunflowers, millet
and buckwheat. However, these do not provide enough calcium, so the diet is supplemented with cuttlebone or
In Amazonia, wild parrots congregate on exposed riverbanks to consume clay. Perhaps this provides them
"natural" vitamins. Another idea is that the clay helps detoxify harmful substances ingested in the diet.
While a number of parrot species mate for life, others are a bit more flexible in their marital habits.
Pairing may take place for just a few years, or even a season. Nests are usually in treeholes, while some
species prefer to hollow out a termite nest. Only a handful of species build nests of twigs.
The clutch is usually one or two eggs, up to four in smaller species such as parakeets. Eggs incubate for
three or more weeks. Parrot parents invariably dote on their young, carefully tending the hatchlings.
However, in the wild, it is usually the first to hatch that gets most attention, and food, so only rarely
do all the hatchlings fledge.
Fledging is an occasion of great importance to parents and babies. It is their first step (or flight) into
the wide world, like your first day in school or a teenager going to college for the first time. However,
for the parrot family it is a matter of life and death. For the adults, it is a culmination of their hard
work building the nest, fending off predators and constantly feeding the young. For the fledging, it is do
or die, literally. As they launch themselves forth, they risk falling to the forest floor where snakes and
cats lie in wait.
If the young bird makes it back to the nest, they will hang around as they slowly learn the skills needed
to survive in the forest. The parent will continue to feed its offspring for up to a year. Age to maturity
varies among species. Smaller species mature more quickly, within two or three years. Older species may
take five years or more.
On the roll call of endangered species, parrots are among the best represented. Parrots are intelligent,
long-lived, playful and loyal creatures, making them a delight to bird lovers. Although most pet animals
are captive-bred, thousands of parrots are still wild-caught, perpetuating the trade.
Just as serious a threat is habitat destruction. Some parrots adapt well to human settlement, even cities
and suburbs. However, to preserve the diversity of parrots, conservationists and resource managers must
focus on habitat conservation as the bottom line.