a web page by Don Roberson
PARROTS Psittacidae
  • 329 species worldwide
  • DR personal total: 155 species (47%), 31 photo'd
The Parrots are a very large family of easily recognized birds, generally restricted to the tropics around the globe. They range from huge macaws, exemplified by the spectacular Scarlet Macaw of the Neotropics (above) to tiny parrotlets and lovebirds, represented here by a pair of Rosy-faced Lovebirds (left) from southwestern Africa. Parrots are a vast and interesting lot. It seems clear that they are distinct from other types of birds, and yet there has been much debate about their relationships. The most recent evidence tends to split the psittiformes into 3 or 4 families. For the moment, I follow here the approach used by Christidis & Boles (2008) and set out three families: the Nestoridae [three New Zealand parrots], the Cacatuidae [Cockatoos], and the rest of them here, in the Psitticidae. The division between cockatoos and the rest has been in place for a decade (e.g., Collar 1997), but the split of the New Zealand set is new. It may be that lories and lorikeets are a distinct lineage, but the parameters are not well resolved, so for now they are a subfamily (Loriinae). The remaining Psittacidae has 181 species in the Old World, and 148 species in the New World.

Some are among the most spectacular birds in the world, including the Hyacinth Macaw (above) of the Pantanal region of south-central South America. It is the world's largest parrot at 100 cm (~40") long and 1.7 kg (=3.75 lb) in weight, some 170 times heavier and twelve times longer than one of the New Guinea pygmy-parrots (Collar 1997). I don't have a photo of a pygmy-parrot, but the Colasisi of the Philippines (right, in a fine photo by Blake Matheson) is pretty small — although the pygmy-parrots are smaller still.

The Hyacinth Macaw feeds on the fruits of a small number of palms, and is quite local in the wild; fine articles on finding this wonderful bird in the Brazilian Pantanal are Ridgely (1983) and Whittingham et al. (1998). The Colasisi, a Philippine endemic, has a brush-tipped tongue adapted to eating nectar. Very few parrots in the Psitticinae assemblage have this adaptation.

It is the lorikeets and lories, often placed in a subfamily [Loriinae] and sometimes considered their own family (e.g., Clements 1991), that are known for their brush-tipped, nectar-feeding tongues. This Rainbow Lorikeet (left, in a great shot by Murray Lord) is feeding on flowers with that adaptation. There are 53 species in a dozen genera, all confined to Australasia, eastern Indonesia, or remote South Pacific islands. Some are abundant and widespread, like the Rainbow Lorikeet, but many others are scarce and local.

Other colorful small parrots in this region, by outside the Loriinae, include six species of pygmy-parrots (Micropsitta) — the smallest parrots in the world — found only in New Guinea and adjacent islands (the Moluccas to the Solomons); six species of fig-parrots in 3 genera, five of them restricted to New Guinea and adjacent islands (one barely reaches n.e. Australia) and the Guaiabero Bolbopsittacus lunulatus of the Philippines. One of the most ancient parrots may be Vulturine (Presquet's) Parrot Psittrichas fulgidus of New Guinea is in a monotypic tribe; it is a large and ungainly dark-headed, red-bellied parrot of the highlands, moving in small flocks, and is one of the highly sought-after species there by birders. It is often placed in its own subfamily or tribe.

Another tribe [Platycercini, according to Collar 1997] includes many of the famous Australasian parrots, including Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus from which the many varieties of pet "Budgies" have been bred. These are 37 species in 14 genera, and many are found in Australia's eucalyptus forest or the dry interior. Among these is the local Superb Parrot (right).

The famed Paradise Parrot Psephotus pucherrimus of interior eastern Australia, once bred in termite mounds. It apparently went extinct about the mid 20th century; there are photos of wild birds, adding to the poignancy. The Night Parrot Geopsittacus occidentalis of the arid interior has also been thought to be near extinction, but there is recent evidence that it still survives.

Fortunately, many Australasian parrots are common and widespread, such as Crimson Rosella (left) in eastern Australia. At places like O'Reilly's, in Lamington Nat'l Park, Queensland, or Badger Weir park in Victoria, these wild rosellas have become very tame and will eat out of your hand (below). At the latter spot, so will Australian King Parrot (below on the girl's left hand), a species that shows strong sexual dimorphism. King parrots are listed in the tribe Psittaculini by Collar (1997), among a wide variety of parrots: 66 species in a dozen genera in Africa and Asia. Among this diversity are nine species of racquet-tail (genus Prioniturus), ranging from the Philippines to the Moluccas, and 8 species of Agapornis lovebirds in Africa, plus one on Madagascar (Gray-headed Lovebird, inset below).

The tribe Psittaculini includes the genus Psittacula (14 species), represented here by the Rose-ringed Parakeet (left) which has a wide distribution from sub-Saharan Africa to se. China. Parrots in this genus have reached the remote islands in the Indian Ocean; two have gone extinct (in the Seychelles and on Rodrigues) but the Mauritius Parakeet P. echo continues to cling to existence. In November 1992 we saw 8 of 20 birds still left in the wild. There is a small captive breeding program underway that adds some hope for the species' survival. Also in this group is the famous African Gray Parrot (inset below) of the Congo Basin to west Africa. It is considered the best "talking" parrot of them all. In truly wild country, African Grays gather in communal roosts for the evening; up to 10,000 have been counted in a roost in Gabon (Collar 1997). Just imagine that sound!

While the Old World has two subfamilies and 7 tribes of parrots, at least as arranged by Collar (1997), the New World has but a single tribe in a single subfamily [the Arini] yet among these 148 species is an astonishing variety in size, shape, and behavior. About 30 species are in the widespread New World genus Amazona; these include some of the Neotropics commonest parrots and some of the world's rarest species. "Amazon" parrots are often kept as pets; indeed, in past centuries explorers coming upon previously undiscovered native inhabitants often found they kept pet parrots in their villages. At right Rita is holding a Blue-fronted (or Turquoise-fronted) Amazon which was a pet of a local family in the Brazilian Pantanal; they had found it as a baby fallen out of its nest hole and raised it to adulthood. Such parrots can live 20-30 years. The evening flight of wild Blue-fronts in the Pantanal is truly an impressive spectacle.


Other impressive spectacles are at the unique and local natural "salt licks" (salidas) that attract parrots early and late in the day to eroded cliff-faces along some South American rivers. This salt lick (above) — shot from a moving small boat on the Napo River, e. Ecuador — is full of the large, very pale-headed & pale-backed Mealy Parrots (with yellow tails); the small dark-green Blue-headed Parrots (with their all-blue heads); and the mid-sized medium-green Yellow-crowned Parrots (a few very similar Orange-winged Parrots were also present, but the photo is a bit too fuzzy to pick them out).

Man has had a long history of association with parrots. Obviously, keeping parrots as pets is a major hobby. Our fascination with parrots is not limited to their beauty and unique bill, but a number of species are good mimics and can be taught to "talk." The illegal trade in wild parrots has decimated some wonderful species. Spix's Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii became extinct in the wild when the last lonely male living in the wild in eastern Brazil disappeared in 2000. Fortunately, the trade in wild macaws is declining, and some populations are rebounding. Great Green Macaw (pair in flight, left), a Vulnerable species ranging patchily from Honduras to Ecuador, is now rebounding in eastern Costa Rica. Local naturalists are paying landowners to leave standing the huge wild almond (Dipteryx) trees where it nests, and have made poaching unfashionable. The macaws are responding with increased productivity.

Yet many species remain threatened by this commerce. The Red-and-blue Lory Eos histrio of islands north of Sulawesi is currently being "vacuumed" out of existence by a wild parrot trade. In one California-sized area of Bolivia, trappers in 1975-1984 essentially wiped out all large macaws. Collar (1997) has a fine summary of the impact on psittacines by illegal smuggling, plus the hope for the future with strengthened international laws and protocols.

In the Caribbean, four species of Amazon parrots are making comebacks as the island nations find that parrots bring in tourists. especially the four species in the Lesser Antilles: single species on St. Lucia and St. Vincent, and two on Dominica. The latter two are limited to the primeval forest on Mt. Diablotins, where the Red-necked Amazon (right) occurs at lower elevations while the rarer Imperial Amazon Amazona imperialis is up higher in the cloud forest. There are perhaps only 150 birds remaining, but the population is no longer in steep decline.

During our 1999 trip to Brazil, we also visited Rio Cristalino Lodge in the heart of the Amazon Basin. There we observed one of the newly described species of parrots — Kawall's or White-faced Amazon A. kawalli — which was only recognized as a different species in 1989. Along this rapidly-flowing blackwater stream it replaces Mealy Parrot, which is otherwise widespread in the steaming Amazon lowlands. And speaking of the newly-described Kawall's Parrot reminds me of Stap's (1991) book about the LSU expeditions by John O'Neill and the late, great Ted Parker to eastern Peru: A Parrot without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth. It tells a fascinating story of discovery, including a new parrotlet "without a name" on a 1985 adventure [eventually described to science as the Amazonian Parrotlet Nannopsittaca dachilleae (O'Neill et al. 1991)].

While my Neotropical parrot discussion has been dominated by macaws and big Amazona parrots, the New World tropics are full of a variety of parakeets, conures, and parrotlets. Parrots evolved in forests and remain closely linked to them today. Most species nest in hollow trees or old woodpecker holes (or the occasional cave in rocky habitat). A few species, though, both in the New World and in Australia, nest primarily in termite mounds (termitarias). The Peach-fronted Parakeet (left) is one of a pair using this huge arboreal termitaria in s. Brazil. These species have learned to dig their own nest holes into the (comparatively) soft substrate of the termite nest.

Most parrots pair for life, and form monogamous pair bonds. Courtship displays often include vocalizations and tail-fanning; the impressive Red-fan Parrot Deroptyus accipitrinus of the Amazon Basin has an erectile ruff that frames the head with bright red and blue bands.

Throughout the world's tropical forests, parrots amuse and amaze. One is often awe-struck by their beauty amidst a backdrop of jungle: check out this Blue-naped Parrot (right) on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. I can do little more here than encourage you to seek them out and to enjoy as harbingers of the wild.


Photos: The flying Scarlet Macaw Ara macao was at Rio Tigre, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. The pair of Peach-faced (Rosy-faced) Lovebird Agapornis roseicollis were at Spitzkoppe, Namibia, on 17 July 2005. The Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus was in the Brazilian Pantanal on 5 Aug 1999. Blake Matheson photographed the Colasisi (Philippine Hanging-Parrot) Loriculus philippensis on Mt. Katanglad, Mindanao, Philippines, in Dec 2005. Murray Lord photographed the Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus at Grafton, Australia, in Dec 2006. The Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii was in the Gulpa Forest Reserve, New South Wales, Australia, on 31 Dec 1997. The wild but very tame Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans was at O'Reilly's Guesthouse in Lamington Nat'l Park, Queensland, Australia, in Nov 1983. The girl feeding a Crimson Rosella and an Australian King Parrot Alisterus scapularis was at Badger Weir Park, Victoria, Australia, in Jan 1998. The Gray-headed Lovebird Agapornis canus was north of Tulear, sw. Madagascar, in Nov 1992. The Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri was at Bharatpur, India, on 19 Aug 1978. The African Gray Parrot Psittacus erithacus was over Belinga Rd., Gabon, in July 1996. Rita Carratello was making friends with a pet Blue-fronted Amazon Amazona aestiva in the Brazilian Pantanal in August 1999. Visiting the salt lick on the Napo River, e. Ecuador (near La Selva Lodge) in Apr 1992 were Blue-headed Parrots Pionus menstruus, Mealy Parrots Amazona farinosa, and Yellow-crowned Amazons A. ochrocephala. The Red-necked Amazon A. arausiaca was on Dominica, Lesser Antilles, on 24 Mar 2000. The nesting Peach-fronted Parakeet Aratinga aurea was in the Serra de Araras, Mato Grosso, Brazil, in Aug 1999. The Blue-naped Parrot Tanygnathus lucionensis was on Mindoro, Philippines, on 7 Dec 2005. All photos © Don Roberson, except the Colasisi © Blake Matheson and the Rainbow Lorikeet © Murray Lord, and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

Family book:
Forshaw, Joseph M., and William T. Cooper. 1973. Parrots of the World. 1st ed. Landsdowne Editions, Melbourne, Australia [a compact edition was published by T.F.H. Publications, Neptune, N.J., in 1977; it is actually the book reviewed here].

Family book: Rating
Juniper, Tony, and Mike Parr. 1997. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. Pica Press & Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

These two major family books were spaced essentially 25 years apart, and are good examples of the evolution of the "family book" in that period. The Forshaw & Cooper was a huge, oversized monograph well out of the price range of field birders; I have a "compact" edition published 4 years later. [Forshaw & Cooper have produced other tomes on birds of paradise and on kingfishers, the latter a six-volume $6,000 set.] Because of the size and the price, these books were actually aimed at book collectors -- not birders. I have never like the art, layout, or style of these vast pages with their profligate waste of white areas in the margins. The written information (by Forshaw) seemed out-of-date for many remote species when it came out, and that 1973 book I have is now almost useless when it comes to current distributional, status, or even basic biology topics for many species. [It is acknowledged that there is a new 3rd ed., published 1998, with much more up-to-date information – I have not scrutinized that text.] Yet the book did bring together quite a bit about all the parrots of the world – and had paintings of each – so was a "necessity" for anyone interested in world birding for many years. I never much liked the plates which lined up 4-6 species from widely separated regions on a single branch. One never got any feeling for the uniqueness of any particular bird, or its habitat. The artwork (by Cooper) was lovely – feather for feather – but the layout greatly diminished its impact.

The new family book by Juniper & Parr is another in the now well-known Pica Press style. Plates are bound together in one section; text (with range maps) in another. The information is, of course, much more up-to-date than the old Forshaw/Cooper (but still seemed about 5 years behind the times — the status of wild parrots is just changing too fast!). Yet the information is strictly bound into formal "sections" like "identification" and "voice" without any opening paragraph that summarizes just which niche that particular species fills, and that explains how it is identified. The plates are painted sometimes in "field guide" styles and sometimes in "mini-Cooper" style, that is, some five species of macaw from many different areas are lined up together on the same branch. Because we still lack good field guides for much of Brazil, Bolivia, central Africa, and other remote places, these books will fill a "field guide" niche for many observers. At this they are adequate (or even better than many guides), but as a worldwide "family book" the emphasis on "field guide" approach diminishes the impact of each unique bird. I have lots of little quibbles about layout, approach, and i.d. stuff in this book — so much so that I have only looked through friends' copies instead of acquiring my own.

Neither book is a "necessity" anymore. Nigel Collar's introductory text, the spectacular photos, and the fine field guide art in the parrot section of the Handbook of the Birds of the World seems superior to me. The text (Collar 1997) was as up-to-date as one could hope for the time, although all the books still lag behind on new information about birds like Kawall's Parrot, for example. The "field guide" art seems preferable to me to the "six species on one branch" layout, and the details in the written text of the species accounts appears more accurate than anywhere else. Equally important, the lavish and wonderful selection of photos finally gives one a real feeling of the specialness of these birds. There are photos of the last Spix's Macaw in the wild — along with the Blue-winged Macaw with which it was paired for some time — incredible powerful photos! If one needs to have details and art of all the world's parrots in one place, I recommend Collar (1997) over either of the separately published "family books."

Literature cited:

Christidis, L, and W.E. Boles. 2008. Systematics and taxonomy of Australian Birds. CSIRO Publ, Sydney.

Clements, J.F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

Collar, N.J. 1997. Family Psittacidae (Parrots), pp. 280-477 in del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, & J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 4. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

O'Neill, J.P., C.A. Munn, and I. Franke. 1991. Nannopsittaca dachilleae: a new species of parrotlet from eastern Peru. Auk 108: 225-229.

Ridgely, R.S. 1983. Hyacinth Macaw and Brazil's Pantanal. Birding 15: 179-185.

Stap, D. 1991. A Parrot without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Whittingham, M. J., A. F. Brown, A. Drewitt, and S. Rees. 1998. Finding Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Cotinga 10: 66-67.




  page created 8–14 May 2000, revised 18-20 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved