Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
A Writer's Primer on Parrots
By Jami Geimer
2002, Jami Geimer
are amazing birds, living jewels with the gift of communication with humans.
They are also among the most intelligent of birds, with certain individuals
functioning on a level similar to a three- to five-year-old human child. The
larger species of parrots are also among the longest-lived birds, many having
life expectancies as long as or longer than humans.
But even with all the awe and majesty that parrots command in real life,
it is only rarely that authors choose to place a parrot in their story, and
usually only those authors that have companion parrots of their own.
This overview of parrots and the things that make them tick should be
helpful to anyone who is interested in portraying these beautiful birds.
World parrots are found in South and Central America and include some of the
most popular species of parrots. Macaws
are the biggest of the large parrots, ranging from 20 to 40 inches in length for
the larger species, and are distinguished by their bare cheek patches striped
with lines of feathers. Amazons are the stereotypical "Pirate's
Parrot," mostly green with various bright markings on their faces and
wings. Smaller parrots found in South America include Caiques,
Pionus, Conures, and various types of parakeets.
Australia, farmers hunt some varieties of Cockatoos as pests.
However, in other countries
these lovely birds with moveable crests and pale coloring are
expensive and fairly rare pets. Eclectus
parrots, found on several islands in the South Pacific, are the easiest parrots
to visually determine gender with - the females are bright red with purple,
blue, and yellow markings and a black beak, while the males are green with red
and blue markings and a candy-orange beak.
Also found throughout Australia and Pacific islands, Lories and Lorikeets
are unique among parrots because their primary food source in the wild is
nectar. The most popular small
parrots, cockatiels and budgerigars (commonly called parakeets), are originally
from Australia's grasslands.
most famous parrots are the greys, known for their incredible intelligence and
speaking ability. Lovebirds,
named for their common pose of snuggling against a companion or mate, are also
native to Africa. Poicephalus
parrots are a group of small, quiet birds ranging along the western African
coast, colored with various shades of grey, green, and brown.
Ringneck parakeets round out the African species, ranging all the way to
Eastern Asia, so called for the black or grey ring of feathers around the neck
of most birds in that family.
the Wild Side
the wild, parrots spend most of their time foraging for food, covering large
areas during the day and returning to their nest or a common roost at night.
They are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever they can find.
Seeds, fruits, vegetables, and insects are all part of most parrots'
diet. Parrots are not neat eaters,
oftentimes taking one bite of an item and discarding the rest.
While this helps many plants spread their seeds in the wild, humans that
have companion parrots are not often amused at the apparent waste of food.
parrots form flocks when they are not in the breeding season, ranging anywhere
from a few individuals of a single species to large groups of several species.
These flocks feed and roost together, keeping watch for predators from
above and below. With their loud
voices, parrots can keep in vocal contact with each other over long distances.
Even companion parrots sometimes take the role of sentries, shrieking out
harsh alarm calls when they see an unknown person approaching their home.
parrots in the wild mate for life, even going through a mourning period if, for
some reason, they are separated from their mate.
When breeding season comes around, each pair finds a suitable nest site.
Larger birds prefer to nest in hollowed out tree trunks, often taking
over old nest sites and modifying them by chewing through the wood with their
strong beaks. Females lay a clutch
of one or two eggs (more for smaller birds), which are incubated for about a
month. When the chicks hatch, they
still need a lot development. Depending
on the size of the bird, eyes open and feathers start emerging on chicks
anywhere between a few days to few weeks after hatching.
Up until the time that the young birds take their first flight, the
parents take turns feeding the chicks by regurgitating their own meals.
birds may fledge within six or eight weeks of hatching, but the largest parrots
often need months. When the young
are ready to take their first flight, they often start to refuse feeding from
their parents in order to drop their weight to a level that can be supported on
their own. This is the start of the
weaning process: the chick generally starts attempting to eat on its own after
fledging, but may beg for "comfort" feeding from a parent from time to
time. Young macaws in
particular stay with their parents for an extended period of time after
fledging, occasionally soliciting feedings at one year of age or older.
parrots are not that far different from their wild cousins.
Importation bans started going into effect only about a decade ago, and
even domestic bred individuals are often less than five generations removed from
the wild. Many of the behaviors and
instincts that wild parrots exhibit are brought into the living room when
someone brings home a pet bird. The
domestication of parrots is in the earliest of stages, and most people don't
realize that their pet was designed to decorate the rainforest and not their
a parrot is purchased as a pet, the human (and their friends and family) become
that bird's "flock." Most
birds adjust to life with a family well, the process being easier when the
parrot is provided with a routine. The
human takes responsibility for providing a safe, healthy, and enriching
environment for the bird, which is not always as easy as it sounds.
Unfortunately, many birds are surrendered to rescues around the time they
reach sexual maturity because they begin to bite, scream, and display other
behaviors that evolved to aid a flying, roaming creature.
modern drive for speed and ease has led to development of "complete
diets" marketed towards parrot owners, generally some combination of
pellets and seed. While convenient, this is generally an insufficient diet and
the bird suffers for it - the feathers will be dry and dull. Some birds may even
become excessively aggressive on an inappropriate diet.
The current "suggested" diet consists of mostly pasta, cooked
grains, and raw vegetables, combined with small amounts of animal protein,
fruits, seeds, and nuts, fed several times a day (plus access to pellets in the
cage at any time).
when a varied and interesting diet is provided, parrots in captivity spend a lot
less time devoted to their food, mostly because it is provided for them in a
handy bowl and they don't have to roam the forest actively foraging for
sustenance. This frees up considerable time in the parrot's day to be
devoted to play. All birds in
captivity should be given some kind of toy, anything from branches and leaves
from their natural habitat to gnaw and climb on to odds and ends such as Q-tips
and paper towel tubes. Unfortunately,
many people won't give their birds toys "because the parrot destroys
them." Birds that are not
provided with enough outlets for their curiosity and energy may become nippy
when interacting with their family, or will go so far as to destroy their
feathers and possibly even mutilate their own skin for lack of something better
of the biggest draws to parrots is that they can communicate with us in our own
language. Parrots and many other
birds havethe potential to learn at least a few words or noises that they hear
on a regular basis, although some do pick things up after hearing them only
once. Birds most often will repeat
words that they perceive as contact calls - vocalizations that let them know
what the rest of their flock is doing. When
their flock is human, often these contact calls are fairly simple - their own
name, hello or goodbye, "what'ya doin."
Birds that live in households with children often imitate the contact
calls used within the family - the names of the family members and their other
pets, "come here," "dinner!"
Objects that use noises to contact us are also imitated - telephones,
microwaves, doorbells and even answering machines, just to name a few.
all parrots that learn to speak will learn to speak in context.
Most often they learn context the same way as a small child would, by
listening and observing people speaking and acting around them. Irene Pepperberg
and Alex, an African grey parrot, are currently doing research at MIT on the
acquisition of languages, studying the way that Alex learns to understand more
about how we learn. Alex not only
asks for specific objects or actions ("want shower" or "want
key"), but can also differentiate between different classes of objects and
even counts! When given a group of objects of differing sizes, shapes,
textures and colors, he will happily answer questions about the group of objects
- as long as he gets his almond as payment.
addition to being quite the elegant speakers, parrots learn tricks and actions
with great ease. Parrots remember what actions have gotten the most attention
in the past, and will often repeat them to get more attention.
When their human companions are aware of this, parrots are quite easy to
train - reward the behavior you like and want to see more often, and ignore what
you want your bird to stop doing.
can backfire on someone who is not aware that parrots live for the attention
reward, however. For example: when a bird screams, the owner always comes to
the bird and scolds him for being such a bad bird, complete with big facial
expression and wagging finger. Not only is the human responding to the screaming
as a contact call and therefore reinforcing the bird using it as such, but the
bird likely is reinforced by the dramatic "bad bird" display.
While it might sound like a simple training method and fairly easy to
follow, many people unintentionally reward and reinforce behaviors in their bird
that they find undesirable.
are a fun addition to any worldbuilding project.
They are most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical climates,
although they adapt to new environments so easily that they would also work in
more temperate climates. They have
evolved with strong hooked beaks designed to aid them in chewing wood for their
nesting sites, as well as allowing them to feed upon even the toughest fruits,
nuts, and seeds. Unlike humans,
parrots use their syrinxto form all words and sounds, a necessity as they don't
have lips to form words with.
in parrots is mostly an evolutionary device to allow them to hide from predators
by blending into their background. In
birds that are found in the rainforest and other areas with thick plant growth,
their body color will generally be solid. Markings,
if any, will show up in the inner wing feathers and on the tail, as those are
the least visible feathers when the parrot is being still.
Oftentimes these markings will be shown during courting or dominance
you need more specific information on individual species of parrots, check out http://www.parrot-lexicon.com
. Complete with photo references
for most species of birds, this is a great place to get information on parrots
in any given area of the world.
best sources for behavioral information would be individual owners.
There are many message boards online for parrot owners, and many are very
busy. A good starting point for
behavioral information are the message boards hosted at http://chats.upatsix.com