Trying to ensure a future for the world’s parrots - Veterinary Practice
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Trying to ensure a future for the world’s parrots

Dr ERIKA SULLIVAN visited sanctuaries in Canada and the USA which work to help species threatened by extinction

LAST spring I had two unexpected visits to parrot sanctuaries. Since my avian rotation in school, I developed a special fondness for these intellectual, charismatic birds.

Parrots, known as psittacines, are composed of almost 370 species in the order Psittaciformes. These birds have strong beaks, clawed feet, and many mimic human speech and learn tricks. Although these traits attract humans to keep them as pets, many of their natural behaviours also contribute to their demise in captivity.

While many still breed parrots in captivity, illegal capture and trade for the pet market exists. I was naïve to how many parrot sanctuaries exist with feathers seeking refuge.

Feather facts

Parrots are found on all tropical and subtropical continents, with some preferring cooler temperate regions. Humans have introduced parrots to temperate climates where stable populations have established in the United States and Spain.

Some parrots are fully sedentary or migratory, and few live a nomadic lifestyle in the wild. They range in size from under 10g and 8cm in length, to over 4kg (e.g. the kakapo) and 1m (e.g. macaws).

They use their strong curved upper bills to crack open shells and strong tongues to manipulate seeds and nuts. Their bills are keratinised containing touch receptors known as the bill tip organ, allowing for skillful manipulations. Parrots have a wide field of vision and strong feet with sharp claws used for climbing and manipulating food.

Unlike other birds, sexual dimorphism reflected in their plumage is uncommon, with the eclectus parrot being an exception, where the males are green and the females are red.

In the wild, parrots eat seeds, fruit, nectar, pollen and insects. Many species consume clay as a mineral source, which also acts as an adsorbent to bind toxins from the gastrointestinal tract. Lories and Lorikeets have special tongues with brush tips allowing them to efficiently collect nectar and pollens, while larger species prey on animals like larvae, snails, and even sheep.

It is extremely difficult in captivity to mimic the feeding behaviour and food variety that a parrot would seek in the wild.

Parrots can mimic human speech and some extrapolate meaning from simple sentences, making them the most intelligent of birds. Parrots don’t have vocal cords and sound is accomplished by exhaling air across their bifurcated trachea.

Amazon parrots are notorious for imitating speech; while the kea is known for using tools and solving puzzles. Foraging behaviour is learned from parents and play forms a large part of their learning, and scientists have even proven that a lack of stimuli can retard development.


Parrots remain popular pets due to their sociable nature, intelligence, bright colours, and ability to talk. Parrots in the pet trade may be wild caught or captive bred. In areas without native parrots they are often captive bred; however, their popularity as pets continues to feed a thriving, illegal trade in birds, resulting in many species threatened by extinction.

Species kept as pets include conures, macaws, Amazons, cockatoos, African greys, lovebirds, cockatiels, budgerigars, eclectus, and parakeets. Each species varies in temperament, noise, talking ability, needed care, and their personality is influenced by the environment in which they were raised.

When choosing a pet, most people don’t understand that parrots require enormous amounts of attention and stimulation to thrive; as well they require feeding, grooming, veterinary care, training, environmental enrichment, and social interaction for optimal health.

They have long life-spans with small parrots living 15-20 years and larger parrots up to 80 years. They can be loud, destructive, and require a lot of space, and often it is because of their longevity and intellect that many end up at shelters and sanctuaries.

Polly wants a home

I travelled to British Columbia and found the World Parrot Refuge, a shelter that offers parrots “a home for life”. Birds here come in all shapes and sizes and have moderate amounts of space to live in.

With over 700 parrots from 60 different species, mostly in cages, these birds lack social attention and a loving home. Many of the birds have health concerns, such as beak disease and feather-plucking, a behavioural condition associated with stress.

Many humans cannot provide enough time, space, money and attention to parrots, and the recycled birds here proved that.

One month later I stumbled upon the San Diego Bird Rescue. Their mission to “save one beak at a time” educates the public on the do’s and don’ts of owning birds.

The birds come from families that can no longer keep them, and once health checked by an avian veterinarian, the birds are socialised and placed up for adoption.

They strive to find “forever homes” for birds by pairing the appropriate bird with the lifestyle of the new owner. They perform public outreach in Balboa Park with the birds to educate citizens on the responsibilities and issues behind owning a bird. I was very impressed with their efforts and dedication to these birds!

Humans have complicated relationships with parrots. While many seek their companionship as pets, others reap financial rewards by propagating pets through their illegal capture and trade of birds from the wild.

Many species are threatened by extinction from the pet trade, habitat loss, predation by introduced species, and hunting for food and feather.

While some parrots are confined in zoos, others benefit local populations with bird watching acting as a form of ecotourism, which is an agreeable way to appreciate parrots in their natural habitat, when a life-long commitment to pets cannot be guaranteed.

And if one has the time, energy and resources to share life with a companion parrot, adopting and giving a bird a second chance is rewarding, and also ensures that one day parrots in the wild will still exist!

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