The Behaviour of Wild Amazon Parrots
I think I’ll start with Amazon parrot stuff. The following is an article I wrote for “Companion Parrot Quarterly,” issue 71. Enjoy!
The Behavior of Wild Amazon Parrots
Amazon parrots (genus Amazona) can make enjoyable companions for people who appreciate them and understand their behavior. However, they are not necessarily easy parrots to keep and without proper care and training, they can start to become difficult for a variety of reasons. For example, some Amazon owners end up frustrated with their pets, because some Amazons vocalize loudly and excessively, and some will attack certain people and appear to love others. Some fiercely guard their cages, and the rare individual will tear out his own feathers for no apparent reason.
However, when examined in the context of the life Amazons have evolved to live, the reasons behind some of these behaviors will become apparent. For example, wild parrots must be noisy to communicate with other members of their foraging flock, and they are territorial during the breeding season because otherwise they would lose a nesting site to a competitor. This article is intended to introduce the reader to the behavior of wild Amazon parrots so they may better understand their own parrot’s inherently wild nature. Although I focus on one genus, much of the information presented here will also apply to other parrot types.
A Day in the Life of a Wild Amazon
Wild Amazons generally begin their days as the sun rises. At this time, they start calling loudly to each other. They then assemble into foraging flocks and begin their morning foraging expedition. A wild Amazon flock’s morning foraging trip may last for a few hours and can take them miles from thier night roost – up to seven kilometers in the case of Puerto Rican Amazons (Amazona vittata; Snyder et al., 1987). Amazons in the wild must travel long distances to search for food, as they feed primarily on seeds and fruit, and most plant species they eat from produce fruit at specific times of the year, and different patches of plants will often fruit at different times. Thus, sources of food are distributed in a patchy manner across the environment and can take effort to find. Lilac-crowned Amazons (Amazona finschi) must switch habitat types each year to cope with variable food availability (Renton, 2001). During the dry season (April and June) they forage in semi-deciduous woodland and during the rainy season, they migrate to and forage in strictly deciduous forests.
Wild Amazons generally eat a wide variety of food items. For example, Lilac-crowned Amazons eat food from at least 33 species of plants, and their diet includes 81.8% seed, 8.8% fruit, 6.6% insect larvae, and 2.9% bromeliad stems (Renton, 2001). Puerto Rican Amazons eat food from at least 60 plant species, and their diet consists primarily of seeds and fruits, although leaf buds and flowers are also included in their diet (Snyder et al., 1987). Most Amazons forage silently up in trees and rarely descend to the ground.
Although they must travel widely to find food, wild Amazon parrots are not active all day. During the afternoon, they nap and spend time quietly preening themselves and their mates. A second foraging expedition can occur during the late afternoon. As evening approaches (about five to seven pm), the Amazons will begin to assemble into large sleeping flocks. They become very noisy at this time to attract more members to the roost, which can end up containing a huge number of birds. For example, while Yellow-naped Amazons (Amazona ochrocephala auropalliata) forage in small groups, they will sleep in roosts containing up to 300 birds (Bradbury, 2003). Sleeping groups can get even larger than this – for instance, where they are common, roosts of Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica) can contain thousands of birds (Low, 2005).
Implications for Amazon Owners
When not nesting, wild Amazon parrots spend a great deal of time foraging or resting. Companion Amazons also need about 10 hours of sleep nightly, and those that don’t receive this can become tired and irritable. Many pet parrots also appreciate the chance to have a nap in the afternoon. In households where people stay up late, enabling the Amazon get enough sleep nightly may require that the parrot have a separate, small sleeping cage in a quiet room.
Recent research also suggests that the opportunity to forage naturally is important for pet parrots. For example, one study found that young, captive Orange-winged Amazons that were given the opportunity to forage for food in their enclosure were less likely to overpreen and destroy their feathers than birds that were given their food in a bowl (Meehan et al., 2003). All birds in the study were given a nutritious diet and were checked by a veterinarian to rule out physical causes for the feather destructive behaviors, which can sometimes be caused by illness or malnutrition. This study indicates that, in some cases, overpreening can be a displacement behavior, or one that takes the place of another natural, but unavailable, behavior that the parrot would normally do (such as foraging). This is not to say that all cases of feather plucking are the result of an impoverished environment, but that it may be a contributing factor in certain cases.
There are a variety of ways to give a pet parrot the opportunity to forage. Food can be placed in closed boxes or paper bags so the parrot has to work to get at it. At first, the parrot may have to see the food being placed in the container so he becomes more motivated to go after it. Food can also be presented in new or different ways beyond placing it in a bowl. For instance, slices of vegetables can be put on a blunt-edged skewer and hung in the cage, or pieces of kale or broccoli can be clipped up in different locations in a cage or on a play stand. Seeds can be spread on a clean surface for the parrot to search for, or pieces of dried fruit, nuts or seeds can be jammed between the scales of a clean pinecone. With some creativity, it need not be too difficult or expensive to give a parrot ways to have to “work” for his food.
Wild Amazon Vocalizations
Parrots are often expected to learn some of our language, so it’s only fair that parrot owners learn a bit of theirs, as wild parrots have very rich vocal repertoires of their own. Bradbury (2003) lists several different types of vocalizations noted in a study on White-fronted (Amazona albifrons) and Yellow-naped Amazons:
1) Loud Contact Call: This call is typically very loud and monotonous. In the wild, separated pairs use it to call to each other, foraging flocks use it to get assembled and parrots at a night roost use it to recruit other parrots to the roost. Many companion Amazons will use a loud contact call to keep in touch with their owners. Give your parrot a shout back if he pages you like this.
2) Soft Contact Call: Flocks of flying Amazons will call to each other softly, presumably to keep together.
3) Preflight Call: This brief call is given before a parrot takes off in flight.
4) Begging: This is crying vocalization given by very young parrots. A crouching posture and wing quivering typically accompany it. A newly adopted juvenile parrot, even if weaned, may resort to begging in a new home if he feels unsure of what to do. Soft food offered from a spoon or the fingers will help reassure the young parrot.
5) Pair Duets: Mated pairs of birds from many tropical species, from songbirds to parrots, duet with each other. In wild Amazons, males and females will vocalize together, often outside of the nest. These vocalizations presumably let other parrots know that a particular territory and nesting spot is taken.
6) Warbles: These are soft, highly variable noises produced by wild Amazons during rest periods. Their function is unknown, as Amazons will warble even while alone. Instead of warbling, many pet Amazons will practice human words and other sounds they have learned during rest periods.
7) Agonistic Protest: This is a high-pitched squawk or squeal produced by an angry parrot.
8 ) Distress Call: An injured or distressed parrot will produce this call.
9) Alarm Call: This is a loud, sharp cry given in response to a predator, such as a bird of prey. This will cause nearby birds to fly away. Flocks of Puerto Rican Amazons often contain sentinel birds that perch at a spot higher than the rest of the flock’s and continually scan the surrounding areas (Snyder et al., 1987). Generally, no specific bird always acts as a sentinel – one bird may be a sentinel one moment, and then another bird may take over at a different time or place.
10)Postcopulatory call: This specific vocalization has been heard in White-fronted Amazons. They have a specific call that is produced after mating.
There are likely other calls with different functions in other Amazon species. Captive Amazons can, of course, learn many additional calls from their environment. Vocalizations in parrots and other animals can be either innate (“hard wired”) or learned. Much of a parrot’s vocal repertoire, even in the wild, appears to be learned. Studies on the dialects that exist across the range of wild Amazons confirm this. Yellow-naped Amazons have different regional dialects or variations for several of their calls throughout their range in Central America (Wright and Dorin, 2001). Regional dialects have been observed in other Amazon species as well (Nottebohm, 1970; Kleeman and Gilandi, 2005). There are two possible reasons that Amazons may have regional dialects: 1) Movement of birds between dialects is limited so the populations eventually become genetically distinct. Therefore, the dialects are innate, or genetically determined. The dialects are not learned. 2) There is movement of birds between vocal dialects, so parrots are capable of learning new variants of a call after they have dispersed.
Wright et al. (2005) found that there was dispersal and gene flow between two Yellow-naped Amazon populations with different dialects. This indicates that the Amazons learn a new dialect after they have dispersed. Thus, wild Amazons are “open ended” in their learning. In other words, they can learn new vocal variants throughout life. This implies that, in human homes, older adult Amazons are capable of learning some new words and vocalizations as well. Most songbirds, on the other hand, tend to show “temporally restricted” learning, meaning that they can only learn new vocalizations during a sensitive period, usually early in life.
Although wild Amazon parrots roost and forage together in flocks, most literature on them notes that the fundamental, permanent social unit is the pair (Snyder et al., 1987; Bradbury, 2003). This is because, while the particular birds that an individual Amazon forages with during the day often changes, his mate will almost always be with him. Wild Amazons spend a lot of time with their mates, and preen them (typically on the head) during rest periods and sleep in close contact with them. They also tend to fly side by side with their mates while traveling.
This behavior could account for Amazon parrots’ general reputation for being one-person birds. Wild Amazons do feed and roost in flocks, but intimate contact and relations are typically limited to a parrot’s mate or young. Therefore, it may be unfair to expect a pet Amazon to act equally friendly to everyone in the family and strangers, as pet dogs often do, because many pet Amazons tend to choose a favorite person, just as they choose a favored mate in the wild.
This does not, however, mean that all pet Amazons can only be handled by one person. These flexible, intelligent birds are very capable of learning new behaviors, and most can learn to tolerate or even enjoy being handled by multiple people. Amazons that have been handled by many people since fledging are more likely to learn to accept handling from several different people. It is also possible, but sometimes difficult, to teach an established “one person” Amazon to accept handling by others. Ripley, my teenaged Red-lored Amazon, has clearly chosen my husband, Quentin, as her preferred person, because she always willingly steps up for him, but would sometimes strike at me if I put my hand too close to her. However, I’ve managed to teach her to step up on a hand-held perch from her cage, and to step onto my hand when she’s away from her cage, by using clicker training. We now have a good relationship with each other.
Advantages of Group Living
If Amazons prefer to interact closely with their mates, then why do they live in large flocks? There are a few potential factors that could account for the evolution of this behavior. First, since the foods that most Amazon parrots eat is scattered around the landscape, having more sets of “eyes” available to look for food ensures that large patches of edible food will be located more easily. However, since parrots flock even when food is very abundant (Snyder et al., 1987), there must be additional benefits of group living. Another potential benefit deals with the threat of predators. Amazons will let other members of the flock know if they spot a predator by vocalizing and flying away. A larger group means it’s more likely that predators will be spotted before they have a chance to strike. Additionally, if there are more birds in a flock, it becomes less likely that any particular member will become the target of a predator’s attack.
Aggression and Territorial Behaviors
Amazon parrots have a reputation for being aggressive, especially during the breeding season. Unfortunately, this often leads people to label them as “mean.” This is unfair because parrots in general never bite without reason, or out of spite. Wild Amazons rarely bite or attack each other, although they may get into minor squabbles over preferred perches or food patches. However, there is one exception to this general rule: wild Amazons will fiercely defend nest sites and will fight over them.
Wild Amazon parrots generally nest in very deep holes in old, large trees, although a few rare exceptions to this exist. For example, on Abaco, the Bahamas Amazon (Amazona leucocephala bahamensis) will nest in underground limestone caves (Low, 2005). When they nest in trees, Amazons do not create the holes from scratch, although they will enlarge existing tree holes by chewing on them. Male Amazons will often chew up the nest tree just outside of the nesting hole. Providing captive Amazon parrots with plenty of wood to chew on gives them an outlet for their drive to carve up the tree that their nest hole is situated in. Many Amazons like to chew wood year round, but many become more voracious in their chewing habits around the breeding season. I’ve noticed that Ripley is far more destructive during spring than in other seasons. Some Amazons will even try to tear up couches, walls or other furniture to make a “nest,” although Ripley does not do this.
Since suitable nest sites can be very scarce, wild Amazons will guard their nest sites from other parrots. Both sexes, but males in particular, are very territorial around the nest site just before and during the breeding season. The nest site may, however, be defended to a lesser degree year round. Puerto Rican Amazon pairs will visit their nest site from time to time during the year and will defend the area around it, which could range from just the tree it’s in, to a radius around it of up to three meters (Snyder et al., 1987).
These behaviors may possibly account for why some Amazons may be more difficult to handle around their cages, especially during breeding season. They aren’t trying to be mean – it’s simply in their nature to defend a nesting site by striking at or chasing intruders, and since most pet Amazons don’t have a nest, they guard the cage instead. Of course, many owners of Amazon parrots who have a strong bond with their pets can place their hands in the cage with no problems. When this isn’t possible, stick-training a parrot using lots of positive reinforcement (i.e. no chasing the bird with a stick!) can make him more manageable around his cage, particularly if he won’t let hands near him.
Amazon Parrot Body Language
Luckily for companion Amazon keepers, parrots do not bite without warning or reason. It may seem that way sometimes, but in such cases, the human likely did not catch the warning or the reason the animal bit may not be immediately obvious. Most animal species have certain ways of letting other animals know that they are likely to bite, so physical conflicts that could cause injury can be avoided. Disputes in wild parrots are usually resolved through vocalizations and posturing (the exceptions being fights over nests), and one parrot will generally give up fly away before a physical fight breaks out. Flying usually not an option for pet parrots, which often have their wings clipped. However, companion parrot owners can avoid bites by being aware of their parrot’s body language and not handling him if he’s clearly agitated.
The behaviors that indicate that an Amazon parrot is more likely to bite include eye pinning, tail flaring and nape feather erection. Eye pinning refers to the behavior where the bird rapidly expands and contracts the irises. Some Amazons pin their eyes when vocalizing or eating a favored food, so the context that the eye pinning is occurring must be considered to determine if the parrot is likely to bite. Some Amazons occasionally put on an impressive display where they strut, flare their tails and pin their eyes. This is a signal to stay back!
Courting and Sexual Behavior
Amazons mature between three and six years of age, depending on the species. This is when they attempt to find a mate. But since both sexes look the same, how do they tell each other apart? Well, although the sexes of most Amazon species (except the White-fronted and Yellow-lored [Amazona xantholora] Amazons) look identical to humans, they do not necessarily look identical to each other. This is because parrots can see wavelengths of light (in the near ultra-violet spectrum) that humans cannot. Using spectrometry, Santos et al. (2006) found that male and female Blue-fronted Amazons (Amazona aestiva) differ in the brightness and hue of the colors on their forehead, wing tips and alula. These differenes lie in wavelengths of light that parrots can see and humans cannot.
Wild Amazon parrots will “bow” to each other during the courtship phase. As breeding season approaches, the pair will start to spend more and more time around their nesting hole, and they will eventually start to sleep outside of it. They will also frequently duet loudly to each other near to it. Roosts of wild parrots tend to shrink as the breeding season approaches, because more parrots start to sleep near the nest hole (Cougill and Marsden, 2004). As breeding season approaches, the male will begin to regurgitate food frequently to the female. The female will ask for food by bobbing her head up and down (some pet parrots do this as well), and the male will reciprocate by feeding her. He will bring food up from the crop by bobbing his head rapidly and he will then deposit food directly into the female’s mouth. Some male Amazons will regurgitate food to their favorite humans if they do not have a parrot mate. This behavior is best ignored if it occurs.
A feeding often precedes copulation. During copulation, the male will perch beside the female, and with one foot on her back and one on the perch, he will bend his tail and place his vent under the female’s tail from the side. During cloacal contact, the male often fans one wing over the female’s back. This is the typical mating position for Neotropical parrots.
Once eggs are laid, the male will feed the female, since she must stay in the nest to incubate the eggs and cannot leave to forage. She will only leave the nest briefly to be fed by the male and to defecate. A few days after the eggs hatch (after 26-29 days for most Amazons), the male will begin to feed the babies as well. For the first few days of their life, the female will stay with the chicks, but soon she will start to leave the nest to forage with her mate for a portion of the day. Wild Amazon parrot chicks are usually ready to fledge after about two months, and once they have fledged, they do not return to the nest cavity. After fledging, chicks stay with their parents for a month or so, where they learn to find food and eat on their own. They will still beg food from and be fed by their parents for some time after fledging. They become fully integrated into adult flocks about one to three months after they have fledged (Low, 2005). After three years or so, they will start to search for a mate of their own.
Studying the behavior of wild parrots can help pet Amazon keepers understand the apparently quirky habits of the ones living in our living rooms. After all, they are still wild animals at heart. I would recommend that anyone interested in learning more about wild Amazons join the Amazona Society (http://amazonasociety.org/), which publishes a quarterly newsletter that often contains updates on studies on wild Amazons, along with great information on companion Amazons. It also organizes annual trips to areas where wild parrots can be observed. Rosemary Low’s book Amazon Parrots: Aviculture, Trade and Conservation also contains excellent information on Amazons in the wild. It can be hard to find, but it can be ordered here.
Bradbury, J. W. 2003. Vocal Communication in Wild Parrots. In: Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture and Individualized Societies. De Waal, F. B. M. & Tyack, P. L. (eds.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U. S. A.
Cougill, S., and Marsden, S. J. 2004. Variability in Roost Size in an Amazona parrot: Implications for Roost Monitoring. Journal of Field Ornithology 75: 67-73.
Low, Rosemary. 2005. Amazon Parrots: Aviculture, Trade and Conservation. DONA/Insignis Publications.
Kleeman, P. M. and Gilardi, J. D. 2005. Geographical Variation of St. Lucia Parrot Flight Vocalizations. Condor 107: 62-68.
Meehan, C.L., Millam, J.R. and Mench, J.A. 2003. Foraging Opportunity and Increased Physical Complexity Both Prevent and Reduce Psychogenic Feather Picking by Young Amazon Parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 80: 71-85.
Nottebohm, F. 1970. The Ontogeny of Bird Song. Science. 167: 950-956.
Renton, K. 2001. Lilac-crowned Parrot Diet and Food Resource Availability: Resource Tracking by a Parrot Seed Predator. Condor 103: 62-69.
Santos, S. I. C. O., Elward, B., and Lumeij, J. T. 2006. Sexual Dichromatism in the Blue-fronted Amazon Parrot (Amazona aestiva) Revealed by Multiple-Angle Spectrometry. Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 20: 8-14.
Snyder, N. F. R., Wiley, J. W., and Kepler, C. B. 1987. The Parrots of Luquillo: Natural History and Conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot. The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Wright, T., and Dorin, M. 2001. Pair Duets in the Yellow-naped Amazon (Psittaciformes: Amazona auropalliata): Responses to Playbacks of Different Dialects. Ethology 107: 111-124.
Wright, T. F., Rodriguez, A. M., and Fleischer, R. C. 2005. Vocal Dialects, Sex-biased Dispersal, and Microsatellite Population Structure in the parrot Amazona auropalliata. Molecular Ecology 14: 1197-1205.