Site Directory.

September 13, 2008 1 comment

Hello, and welcome to my site! This blog is primarily about parrots, and contains several articles I have written for various parrot magazines, primarily Parrots. A couple things were also written specifically for this blog, and I also post interesting news stories about parrots and other birds as I find them.

Please click HERE if you would like to go to a directory of the site with a list of all the posts I’ve made.  There are articles about wild parrots, caring for captive parrots, and parrot behavior, along with news articles about parrots.

Click this link to read more about me and my animals:  About the Author

Wings

Peggy, my Jenday Conure

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Australia Trip: Lakefield and Musgrave Area

April 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Today, I’ll post more of the pictures I took on my Australia trip. These ones are from the Musgrave and Lakefield area in northern Queensland.

Red winged Parrot

Red-winged Parrot

The above parrot is a young Red-winged Parrot from Lakefield National Park. The adult males and females of this species are not difficult to tall apart, as the males have bright red and black wings, while the females have green wings with a bit of red on them. Young males look like females until they are about two.

Galahs 3

Rose-breasted Cockatoos

These Galahs (or Rose-breasted Cockatoos) were in a pasture close to the Musgrave Roadhouse. A large flock also foraged on the grass airplane runway there as well. There were probably a few hundred of them around. Galahs are quite common around agricultural areas in Australia, as they feed on grains and will drink out of livestock watering holes.

Galahs

Rose-breasted Cockatoos (Galahs)

As the sun started to set, numerous Galahs would gather in the trees to roost together. They all call to each other, making this a rather noisy affair.

Galahs 2

Rose-breasted Cockatoos (Galahs)

More Galahs.

Sulphur crested cockat

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were common where ever I went. I saw this one at Archer River, near the roadhouse. These cockatoos seem pretty flexible in their eating habits and would feed on the ground or in trees. Throughout this trip, most sulphurs I saw were alone or in pairs, but they can occur in very large flocks.

The other parrots I saw in this area included Rainbow Lorikeets, Golden-shouldered Parrots, and Pale-headed Rosellas. My camera wasn’t working the day I saw those, which is unfortunate, because I got some very good views of the Golden-shouldered Parrots. They are beautiful birds – the males are turquoise and crimson, with golden feathers on the bend of the wings, with the females being green and turquoise. Unlike most other parrot species, they do not nest in tree hollows, but instead nest in termite mounds. They are an endangered species, with about 1,300 individuals let in the world.

Nankeen Kestrel

Nankeen Kestrel

Termite mounds in Australia can be quite large. The above photo shows a Nankeen Kestrel perched atop a termite mound

Rainbow Bee Eater

Rainbow Bee-eater

This is one of my favorites of the bird pictures I took in Australia. This is a Rainbow Bee-eater, and they were quite common in Lakefield National Park. As the name suggests, they do indeed eat bees (along with other flying insects),

Rainbow Bee Eater 3

Rainbow Bee-eater

Rainbow Bee-eaters forage by waiting on a perch for insects to fly by. They will then fly out, capture an insect, and fly back to the perch to consume it. They will rub the stingers off of bees or wasps before consuming them.

Owl Finches

Quite a few finches that are commonly kept as pets can be found in Australia. The above photo shows a pair of Owl Finches getting a drink of water.

Star Finches

These are Star Finches. The birding group I was with came across a flock of about 50 of them. They were in some shrubs around a small, shallow pond, with all the birds seemingly taking turns to go down to get water.

Rainbow Bee Eater and Black throated Finch

We also found these Black-throated Finches (AKA Parson Finches) around the same pond. Note the bee-eater on the left as well.

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Rainbow Lorikeets, birds of Cairns (Australia), and Twitter

March 5, 2018 Leave a comment

Today’s post features photos of the birds I saw while I was in Cairns, Australia. I primarily birded around the botanical gardens and the waterfront area (Cairns Esplanade).

Also, if you have a twitter account, you can follow me at: https://twitter.com/Ft_Mc_Biologist

I primarily plan to post wildlife pictures I have taken, many of which will feature parrots.

Rainbow Lorikeets were very common in the Cairns area. They were usually present in groups and they are very colorful, active and noisy. There’s a group of trees downtown they like to roost in,  and as the sun sets, hundreds of them gather in these trees and make an incredible amount of noise.

I saw the above birds downtown. They stayed upside down like that for a while and beak sparred with each other.

Lorikeets consume a lot of nectar and the bird above is licking nectar off of some flowers. Lorikeets have long, brushy tongues that allow them to maximize the amount of nectar they can get, and that allow them to reach deep into long flowers.

A lot of nectar-feeding birds simply lap up nectar and pollen without destroying flowers. Lorikeets, on the other hand, can be destructive at times. I took the above photo at the Cairns Botanic Garden. This mess was created by a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets feeding on flowers in a tall tree. The bird on the ground picking through the mess is an Australian Brush Turkey.

Here’s one of the lorikeets that was contributing to the mess. These birds were quite high up so the pictures I took of them aren’t great. Rainbow Lorikeets were (I think) the only bird I saw every day on my trip to Australia.

There’s a large group of Spectacled Flying Foxes (fruit bats) that roosts downtown in Cairns as well. They take off at night to feed on fruit, and gather in the roost tree to sleep during the day.

The below slide show contains more pictures of land-based wildlife I took while I was in Cairns:

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Below are photos of shorebirds and other water birds. The pictures are primarily from the Cairns Esplanade, but there are a few lakes at the botanic gardens that have a lot of birds around them. If you are in the Cairns area and like birds, you can’t go wrong by spending some time at the Esplanade. There are numerous shorebirds along the beach (especially in the early morning), and birds are abundant in the woodsy parks in the area as well. I managed to spend most of the day there, wandering around watching the birds.

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Photos from Kakadu National Park

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Here are a few slideshows of photos I took while I was in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia in September 2017.

This first slideshow contains photos I took at the Yellow Water Billabong on a boat ride with Yellow Water Cruises. I took two cruises (one in the late afternoon and one in the early morning), and they were definitely worth it. There is an abundance of bird life around the billabong, and Saltwater Crocodiles were quite common. I also saw a couple of snakes and several Agile Wallabies. A boat cruise is a good way to see waterbirds and reptiles in the park, as it is generally unsafe to hike near water in northern Australia due to the presence of Saltwater Crocodiles. These crocodiles can be aggressive and will attack (and sometimes kill and consume) people. I did go hiking in Kakadu, but avoided going near the water.

Crocodile Munch

Beware of crocodiles!

Click through the slideshow to see the wildlife of the Yellow Water Billabong!

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The Asian Water Buffalo in the park are not native and were introduced to the park in the 1880s so they could be hunted. The feral pigs are not native either, and they can unfortunately be quite destructive. Park authorities periodically conduct culls of them, but as they (pigs) are quite fecund, there are still a lot of them around.

The Comb-crested Jacanas display some rather unusual behaviours. Most bird species are monogamous or polygynous (where one male mates with several females). However, jacanas are polyandrous, as females will mate with multiple males, and males incubate the eggs. The young are fairly independent when they hatch, but they do stick around with the male for a while after hatching as he will protect them and guide them to foraging areas.

Magpie Geese also have an unusual mating system. Rather than being strictly monogamous like most geese, breeding trios are common in this species, where one male will pair with two females. The females and male will share the nest and care of the young. I should note that Magpie Geese are in a different family (Anseranatiade) than other geese (which are in the family Anatidae). The Magpie Goose lineage appears to be very old, although only one species remains in the family.

The below slideshow shows pictures I took on various walks in the park. The bush fire pictured was near the town of Jabiru. The Aboriginal people of Australia sometimes intentionally start such bush fires to manage vegetation. This is something they have done for millennia, and it is something they still do. There are numerous reasons for this practice. For example, it can encourage new vegetation growth which attracts grazing animals that can be easily hunted.

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Kakadu is also known for its Aboriginal Rock art. Some rock art sites are off-limits to visitors, while other sites are easily accessed and can be viewed by visitors. I took pictures of rock art, as well as the informational signs about it. The Warradjan Cultural Centre in Kakadu has a lot of information on the rock art and other aspects of the culture and history of the Aboriginal people of the region.

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Next up will be pictures of birds from Cairns, with a focus on Rainbow Lorikeets. I saw numerous Rainbow Lorikeets in Kakadu, but didn’t get any good pictures.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

I have five hours to kill at an airport, so I am updating my blog! Merry Christmas everyone!

Today, I will write about the Red-tailed Black Cockatoos I saw in Kakadu National Park, Australia, in September, 2017. I headed to Australia primarily to go birdwatching and see other wildlife, and my trip covered Cairns, the Cape York Peninsula, and Kakadu National Park. Two black cockatoo species (Black Palms and Red-tailed Blacks) were on my target list of animals to see and I managed to see both. Finding them was extremely thrilling!

Range

Range of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. Map based on http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=22684744

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banskii) are impressive and charismatic birds. They are big (about 60 cm tall), are very loud, and have large, powerful beaks. Like all other black cockatoos, they are extremely rare in aviculture outside of Australia, and as a result the price for a single bird in North America can be very high ($14 000 or more).

Red tailed Black

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo photographed in Kakadu National Park.

Wild red-tailed blacks have a large and fragmented range in Australia. There are five subspecies: C. b. banksii (Bank’s Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. macrorhynchus (Northern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. samueli (Inland Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. graptogyne (South-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo) and C. b. naso (Forest Red-tailed Black Cockatoo). The birds I saw in Kakadu were Northern Red-tailed Blacks.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo

A Northern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo photographed in Kakadu National Park. The lack of bright red in the tail indicates this is a female or a young male.

The various subspecies differ in their foraging habits, beak sizes, female colour patterns, and conservation statuses. Overall, red-tails are not globally endangered and are listed by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as “Least Concern.” However, some populations are faring better than others. The South-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo is rare (< 1000 birds exist in the wild) and is considered endangered in Australia. Additionally, Bank’s Red-tailed Black Cockatoos are declining in the southern portion of their range (northern Queensland).

Red tailed black cockatoos2

A family group of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos foraging in Kakadu National Park.

Adult male and female red-tailed blacks can be differentiated based on their tail colours: males have bright red panels on their tails while females have orange or pale yellow-orange stripes on their tails. Males younger than about four years look like females. The birds pictured above appeared to be an adult male and female with their offspring. I often saw red-tailed blacks in Kakadu in groups of three, which were most likely to be a breeding pair and their offspring. Red-tails usually only fledge one chick each time they breed, although two is a possibility. Even when I found a loose flock of about thirty or forty red-tails in a grove of trees, many birds were perched together in groups of three (see photo below).

Red Tailed Black Family

Three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos. An adult male (note the solid red in the tail) is on the left.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos were common in Kakadu. They seemed to be comfortable foraging or resting up in trees, as well as foraging on the ground. I saw a few groups foraging on the ground in recently-burned forests (maybe they like toasted seeds?). Most birds I saw were present as pairs, trios, or in small flocks of up to ~40 birds. Active birds were generally quite loud and called frequently, so they were hard to miss. However, birds resting in trees were fairly quiet. Although the flocks of red-tails I saw weren’t huge, flocks can at times contain hundreds of birds, especially where food is abundant (such as at peanut farm plantations).

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo3

A Red-tailed Black Cockatoo foraging in a recently-burned open forest.

Red Tailed Black pair

Male (left) and Female (right) Red-tailed Black Cockatoos seen in Kakadu National Park.

During the hottest part of the day (it got to 40 C while I was in Kakadu), Red-tailed Black Cockatoos spend a lot of time resting in trees. I certainly couldn’t blame them – some birds I saw were panting and clearing feeling the heat. I also saw several red-tailed blacks drinking from a muddy, shallow billabong during the middle of the day. It was the dry season when I visited Kakadu, and most groups of cockatoos I found were close to a water source.

Red Tailed Black Getting Drink

Three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos getting a drink of water.

Overall, I saw three cockatoo species in Kakadu: Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, and Bare-eyed Cockatoos. Galahs (Rose-breasted Cockatoos) also occur in Kakadu, although I didn’t see any while I was there. I did, however, see a large flock of them at the Musgrave Roadhouse, on the Cape York Peninsula.

Galahs 3

Galahs (Rose-breasted Cockatoos) photographed near the Musgrave Roadhouse in northeastern Australia.

 

Galahs 2

Galahs in the Musgrave area of northeastern Australia.

 

I will share more of my wildlife photos from Kakadu in my next post. If you’d like more information on Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, please see the below links:

More Information

Conservation of South-eastern red-tailed black-cockatoo Calyptorhynchus banksii graptogyne

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Recovery Plan

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Information from the World Parrot Trust

Recordings of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

 

Bare-eyed Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park

November 9, 2017 1 comment

I took a trip to Australia this September (2017), primarily to view birds and other wildlife. I spent time on the Cape York Peninsula (which is the peninsula on the northeast corner of the continent), the city of Cairns, and Kakadu National Park, which is in the Northern Territory. I took a lot of photos, which I am going to start sharing here.

I’ll start with photos I took in Kakadu, the location of which is shown in the map below:

kakadu

I was there during the middle of September, which is the dry season in northern Australia. It was also hot (up to 39 C) while I was there, and some of the waterbodies in the park were dried up. However, much of the park is more accessible during the dry season, as roads won’t be blocked by floodwater.

I explored the park on my own in a rented vehicle I picked up in Darwin. My first stop in the park was at the Aurora Kakadu Lodge, so I could pick up a park pass and have a look at the birds on the hotel grounds. Some sprinklers were on, which attracted all sorts of birds, including a large flock of Bare-eyed Cockatoos (Cacatua sanguinea). The birds were attracted to the sprinkler water, as well as the nice green grass and plants being watered by it.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos

Bare-eyed Cockatoos playing in a sprinkler at Kakadu National Park.

These Bare-eyed Cockatoos were among some of the most amusing wild birds I have ever watched. In that way, they reminded me of the keas I saw about ten years ago in New Zealand. The Bare-eyed Cockatoos were very playful and would wrestle each other like puppies, tackling each other and rolling on their backs, all the while squealing with apparent delight. I’ve seen many pet lories, caiques, and cockatoos act that way, but it was interesting seeing wild birds play like that. Cockatoos even have beaks that are shaped in a way that makes them look like they are smiling, so they can be very charming animals,

Corellas playing

Wild Bare-eyed Cockatoos playing under a sprinkler.

Corella

No, he’s not dead – he (she?) had been knocked over by another bird and got back up shortly after I took this picture.

Corellas

Bare-eyed Cockatoos

I took some video of these birds as well:

Bare-eyed Cockatoos (also called “Little Corellas”) were quite common throughout the park, both around lodges/camping areas and in wilderness areas. I saw several around the Cooinda Lodge, which is where I stayed while I was in Kakadu. They typically occurred in flocks of at least a few dozen birds, and sometimes a few Sulphur-crested Cockatoos would be associated with them. Bare-eyed Cockatoo flocks can number in the thousands, especially in agricultural areas.

Mixed cockatoos

A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (foreground) and two Bare-eyed Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park.

I noticed that the wild Australian Bare-eyed Cockatoos I saw were a bit bigger than most of the captive ones I have seen in Canada. The reason is that most Bare-eyed Cockatoos in North America are the descendants of birds that were originally caught on the island of New Guinea. The Bare-eyed Cockatoos that occur on New Guinea (subspecies Cacatua sanguinea transfreta) are generally a bit smaller than the Australian ones.

corella map

Bare-eyed Cockatoo Range. Orange shows where they are native and purple shows where they were introduced. Map from http://www.iucnredlist.org/

Although they can be active and playful, during the hottest times of the day, Bare-eyed Cockatoos (and many other birds) will usually rest in trees, preferably in the shade. I saw many flocks of resting cockatoos in trees, and on very hot days they would sometimes be panting. They usually rested in woodlands close to a source of water.

Corella tree 3

Unless there’s a nice, cooling sprinkler around, many cockatoos spent time resting during the hottest part of the day.

Corellas 2

A pair of Bare-eyed Cockatoos. The bird on the right was panting, as it was about 39 C outside.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos usually forage on the ground but will sometimes feed in trees, and they will eat a variety of grass seeds (grains), nuts, fruits, berries, roots, and insect larvae. They will eat a variety of crop plants, and can be very common in agricultural areas.

Corellas Grazing

Bare-eyed Cockatoos foraging on the ground.

Corella 2

A Bare-eyed Cockatoo forages in a tree.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos were the most common parrot species that I saw in Kakadu. The other common cockatoo species I saw, the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, will be the subject of my next post.

 

A Rose-crowned Conure

October 2, 2016 4 comments

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I got a new parrot in December, 2015. He’s a four-year-old Rose-crowned Conure, a species that is somewhat uncommon in North America. His name is Patrick Perry, although my husband and I usually call him by his nickname “Dip.”

patrick-perry

Dip, the Rose-crowned Conure

Rose-crowned Conures are in the genus Pyrrhura (Pyrrhura rhodocephala), and are thus closely related to Green-cheeked and Maroon-bellied Conures. Rose crowns differ in appearance from the most common Pyrrhuras found as pets as they don’t have any tan or grey feathers on the breast and they have white beaks. They are largely green with a red cap on the head, red cheeks,  a red tail, and some red feathers on the chest and belly. Their flight feathers are blue (although Dip has a few white primary flight feathers) and they have white primary coverts, which can be seen on the bend of the wing when the bird is at rest (see picture below).

 

dipper

Dip at a parrot show. This picture shows his white primary covers (at the top of the wing). It also shows his three white primary flight feathers, which are supposed to be blue. I’m not sure why he has those white feathers, as he’s healthy and eats a healthful diet.

 

Juvenile Rose-crowned Conures frequently have less red on the head than adults. Some books on wild birds state that juveniles lack red on the head or have very little of it there (e.g. Forshaw 2010); however, many captive-bred juveniles have quite a bit of red on the head. Juveniles may also have some bluish feathers on the crown and blue (instead of white) primary coverts.

Because Rose-crowned Conures are uncommon in captivity in Canada, Dip is often mistaken for other species. He is most frequently thought to be a Cherry-headed Conure (Psittacara erythrogenys), as both species are red and green with white beaks. However, the Rose-crowned Conure is smaller and has some red on the chest that the cherry heads lack.

The Rose-crowned Conure (AKA Rose-crowned Parakeet) has a rather small range in the wild and is the only Pyrrhura species found in its range. They occur in forested montane areas of northwestern Venezuela (see map below) at elevations of 800 – 3400 m (although they are most common at 1500 – 2500 m). Because they appear to be common in their range, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists them as a species of “Least Concern,” meaning that they do not appear to be endangered or at risk of becoming endangered. However, there is little data available on this species’ population status or behavior in the wild.

rosecrown

The range of the Rose-crowned Conure (shown in orange). Image from: http://www.iucnredlist.org

In the wild and outside of the breeding season, Rose-crowned Conures occur in flocks of approximately 10 to 30 birds, although many small flocks may congregate together at sleeping roosts during the evening. Most breeding parrots stay in pairs during the breeding season; however, one species of Pyrrhura (the El Oro Conure, Pyrrhua orcesi) has a cooperative breeding system, where a breeding pairs’ relatives (or occasionally unrelated birds) may help them with raising young. The ‘helper’ birds in El Oro Conures will feed the breeding pair’s chicks. However, there is little information available on the breeding behavior of Rose-crowned Conures in the wild so I cannot say if they breed as pairs or if pairs receive help from other birds.

Pyrrhuras are often said to be among the more quiet parrot types. Certainly, Dip is nowhere near as loud as my Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Blue and Gold Macaw, or Red-lored Amazon. He does make some noise though. He gives off a lot of typical parrot squawks, and he is a very talented whistler. He is also quite talented at mimicking the other parrots. For example, Chiku, my Green-cheeked Conure mix, often says his name and Dip can mimic that perfectly. If I hear “Chiku! Chiku!” sounds from the bird room, I generally cannot tell if it’s Dip or Chiku (or both) making them. Dip can also mimic some of the quieter sounds that Ripley (my Red-lored Amazon) makes.

Dip eats Tropican pellets supplemented with some fresh foods. He particularly enjoys corn, peas, berries, sunflower seeds, and walnuts. I got to pick a lot of wild blueberries this summer and he particularly enjoyed those.

Dip is a very active parrot who loves to climb and chew on wood and cardboard. He lacked a tail when I got him, and his flight feathers were quite short. However, his tail grew back and his flight feathers have molted out and grown back. He likes to fly and his favourite landing spot appears to be the top of my head.

*Do you have a Rose-crowned Conure? Tell me about him/her in the comments!

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Pyrrhura rhodocephala. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22685877A39028964. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22685877A39028964.en. Downloaded on 02 October 2016.

Forshaw, J. M.  1977. Parrots of the World. T. F. H. Publications: Neptune, NJ.

Forshaw, J. M.  2010.  Parrots of the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Juniper, T., and Parr, M.  1998.  Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT.

Klauke, N., Segelbacher, G., and Schaefer, H. M. 2013. Reproductive success depends on the quality of helpers in the endangered, cooperative El Oro Parakeet (Pyrrhura orcesi). Molecular Ecology 22:2011-2027.

Low, R.  2013. Pyrrhura Parakeets (Conures): Aviculture, Natural History, Conservation. INSiGNIS Publications: Mansfield, Notts, UK.

 

 

Fascinating Feathers – Structure, Function and Care

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment
(NOTE: Here is an article about feathers that I wrote for ‘Parrots’ magazine).

Feathers are the defining feature of birds. Today, all birds and only birds have feathers. Feathers are versatile structures that allow birds to fly, provide them with lightweight insulation and protection, and can be used for communication. Feathers also give birds their color and much of their beauty and grace. Let’s examine these fascinating and unique structures in detail.

Feather Construction

Feathers are composed primarily of a protein called beta (β) keratin. Keratin proteins are found in the skin, scales, and hair of many animals. However, there are structural variations among different types of keratin. The β keratin molecules found in bird feathers are shaped like pleated sheets while the alpha (α) keratin molecules found in mammal skin and hair are helix (spiral) shaped. However, bird β keratin is quite similar to the β keratin found in reptile skin. β keratin is also found in bird claws, scales, and beaks, but the β keratin found in feathers is more elastic than other types of β keratin.

Mature feathers lack a blood supply and are therefore ‘dead’ structures that cannot be naturally repaired if damaged. Newly-growing feathers, however, are living structures with a blood supply, and as such are sometimes referred to as “blood feathers.” However, as a growing feather matures, the blood supply in it will start to recede. In large, shed parrot feathers, it is frequently possible to see remnants of the blood vessels that supplied the feather with blood as it was growing. These remnants (called ‘pulp caps’) will be present as thin bands that stretch across the inside of the hollow shaft of the feather.

New, growing feathers are coated in a waxy sheath that will flake off as the feather matures. Birds remove these sheaths by preening, but because birds cannot preen their own heads, single birds that do not have a partner to preen them may retain the sheaths on their head feathers a little longer than normal. Many parrot owners will preen pin feathers on their birds’ heads, but only do this when the sheaths are dry and flake off easily.

PHOTO3

The bands seen in the quill of this Blue and Gold Macaw feather are called “pulp caps.” They are the remnants of the blood vessels that supplied the feather with nutrients while it was growing.

As feathers can become worn through daily wear and tear, they are molted and regrown at periodic intervals. As parrots kept in captivity will experience different patterns of light and dark and may be fed different diets, the timing of the molt can vary among captive parrots. A parrot that has not undergone a molt for a long time (i.e. over a year) may have quite a bit of damage on the tips of its feathers. There may also be some black or brownish marks on the feathers, especially at the tips.

As feathers are made primarily of protein, parrots need sufficient protein in their diets to grow strong, healthy feathers. Pelleted diets generally contain sufficient protein (and amino acids), as can mixtures of grains, cooked beans, peas, quinoa and corn.

Feather Types

There are several types of feathers on a parrot, which include contour feathers, down feathers, semiplumes, bristles, and filoplumes. Within some of these major categories are different subtypes which have distinctive structures and functions.

Contour Feathers

Most of the feathers that are visible on an adult parrot are contour feathers. These include the tail feathers (also called “remiges”), the flight feathers (also called “retrices”), and the outer (visible and usually coloured) feathers on the head and body. The contour feathers have several functions. The flight feathers allow the bird to fly and the tail feathers help the bird control its flight path. Contour feathers also provide some insulation and waterproofing, protect the body from dust and debris, and can play an important role in communication. For example, cockatoos have erectile crests on their heads that they can raise and lower in order to express anger, surprise, or excitement. Hawk-headed parrots also have a ‘headdress’ of feathers on their heads they can erect. Even parrots without such specialized feathers can erect the contour feathers on their heads and napes if agitated or alarmed. Additionally, many parrots will fan out their tail feathers if alarmed or excited.

Contour feathers are the most structurally complex feathers on a parrot. They are composed of a long, central shaft that has a flat ‘vane’ on either side, except at the base. The base of the central shaft is hollow and will lack a vane. This part of the shaft is called the ‘calamus.’ The upper part of the central shaft, which has a vane on both sides, is called the rachis.

If you take a shed feather and pull the vane apart, you will see that there are many thin, hair-like structures branching off of the rachis. These are called barbs. Many contour feathers have two types of barbs, which are called plumulaceous barbs and pennaceous barbs. Plumulaceous barbs are located near the base of the feather and are white, loose, and soft. Some flight feathers have few or no plumulaceous barbs. Pennaceous barbs are located above the plumulaceous barbs and are firmer. In the pictures of blue and gold macaw feathers accompanying this article, the pennaceous bars are blue.

feathers2

Blue and Gold Macaw body contour feathers. The fluffy barbs at the base are called plumulaceous barbs and the stiffer blue ones are called pennaceous barbs.

The structure of pennaceous barbs is quite complex. Each barb will have a central shaft called a ramus. Each ramus will then have two rows of structures branching off of them called barbules. These will appear as ‘fuzz’ on the ramus to the naked eye. The ends of the barbules on one side may be covered in little hooks called barbicels. The barbicels can neatly wrap around the barbules on the barbs above. When all of these little hooks are wrapped around the barbules above them, the feather will have a very smooth and neat appearance. However, when a bird goes about its daily activities, the hooks can become dislodged from the barbules.

feather thing

Above: The ramus of a Red-lored Amazon flight feather, as seen under a light microscope. It has numerous barbules branching off of it, the tips of which are covered in barbicels (the hook-like structures)

Birds can restore the structure of their feathers by preening. When preening, a bird will run his feathers through his beak and this will rehook the barbs on the feathers back together. You can try this with a shed contour feather – pull the barbs apart and see if you can “zip” them back together with your fingers.

Remiges and Retrices

The remiges (tail feathers) and retrices (flight feathers) are the largest and stiffest feathers on a parrot and they provide little insulation but are critical for flight. They differ from other feathers in that they are generally attached to bones, instead of being anchored in the skin.

The primary flight feathers (the flight feathers at the end of the wing) provide forward thrust when a bird flaps its wings downward. These feathers are attached to a bird’s manus (‘hand’) bones and the bones of its second digit. Parrots have ten primary feathers. The secondary flight feathers are also critical for flight and they help provide a great deal of lift. These feathers attach to the ulna (“arm bone”) of the wing. Most parrots will have ten secondary feathers but this number varies from 8-14.

The primary and secondary flight feathers differ from contour feathers on the body in being asymmetrical, as the leading vane will be narrower than the trailing vane. Both primaries and secondaries are asymmetrical, but the primary flight feathers are typically longer and more pointed than the secondary flight feathers.

Parrots have twelve retrices (tail flight feathers), which also have asymmetrical vanes. The central retrices are attached to the tail bone (pygostyle). Tail feathers play an important role in steering and braking.

Down Feathers

Underneath the contour feathers are down feathers. They provide lightweight and effective insulation and they are white and have a simpler structure than contour feathers. They either lack a central rachis, or have a very short one. If there is a rachis, the barbs will be much longer than it. The barbs can have small projections on them, but they do not hook together the way pennaceous barbs on a contour feather can.

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A down feather from a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, as seen under a microscope.

Cockatoos, African gray parrots, and Mealy Amazons also produce large numbers of specialized down feathers called powder down feathers. A few other groups of birds, including herons, also produce powder down feathers. The barbs of powder down feathers slowly disintegrate over time and produce a white talcum-like powder that will coat the bird’s feathers. Unlike other types of feather, powder down feathers grow continuously and are not molted.

Semiplumes

There are feathers that appear to be intermediate between a down and a contour feather. These are called semiplumes. Unlike down feathers, they have a central rachis, but the barbs are white and fluffy, like the barbs on down feathers. They are usually hidden underneath the surface contour feathers and likely help with insulation.

Filoplumes and Bristles

Filoplumes are inconspicuous feathers that are hard to see and are somewhat hair-like in appearance. They are composed of a central shaft with a few short barbs at the top. They are associated with contour feathers, especially those on the wings and tail. They have a sensory function and monitor the movements of the contour feathers. When feathers associated with filoplumes move, the filoplumes move too. Because filoplumes have many sensory cells at their bases, their movement allows the bird to sense movement in his feathers.

Bristles are also simple in structure. They are short and have a central shaft with a few barbs at the base. On parrots, they are often located around the eye and nostrils where they presumably have a protective function and keep debris out.

Preening and the Preen Gland

Parrots spend a lot of time preening their feathers in order to keep them smooth and clean. A small gland just above the base of the tail also plays an important role in preening. This gland (the uropygial, or “preen” gland) secretes a mixture of chemicals, including waxes, fatty acids, fat, and water. When parrots preen, they often nibble at the preen gland (to get preen gland oil on the beak) and then rub their beaks along their feathers. That applies the preen gland oil to the feathers. They may also rub their heads against the gland and then rub their heads on the feathers.

It is not completely clear what the function of preen gland oil is (particularly in parrots), although it generally appears to help with waterproofing feathers and maintaining their elasticity. In addition, the preen gland oil of chickens contains vitamin D precursors, and many books and articles on birds state that when ultraviolet light hits these precursors after they are spread on feathers, they are converted to vitamin D, which the bird can then ingest as it preens. Thus, preen gland oil may provide a vitamin D supplement. However, some parrots, including Amazons and Hyacinth Macaws, lack preen glands but do not generally suffer from vitamin D deficiencies.

Parrots preen themselves to maintain the integrity of their feathers, and they also need baths or showers to keep their feathers clean and healthy. Some birds prefer showers, and such birds should be sprayed with water a few times per week. Others may prefer to bath, and such birds should be offered bowls of water for bathing purposes. If a parrot really enjoys water, it’s fine to bath or shower him or her every day if desired.

Conclusion

Feathers are beautiful and complex structures. They provide our parrots with warmth, help them to communicate, protect them from debris, and allow them to fly. Because feathers are so important, they are molted and regrown as they become worn. They also require maintenance, which parrots provide through preening and bathing. You can help your parrot have healthy feathers by providing him or her with a healthful diet and periodic baths or showers.
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