Adventures in parroting

Carrie J. Sidener and her Quaker parrot, Simon.

Over the two years since I adopted Simon, we have fallen into a comfortable routine.

We share breakfast in the mornings and, at least once a week, I have to wash my little green Quaker parrot’s poo from my shoulder before I leave the house.

What he does when I’m not home is anyone’s guess. But when I return, he’s eager to escape the confines of his cage — it’s really more of a swanky bird condo with more square inches in cage space than I have square footage in my house.

When I return home, he comes out to steal parts of my salad and spend the evening watching television and begging for head scratches.

According to Smithsonian.com, parrots are the fourth favorite pet in the United States (behind dogs, cats and fish). About 14 million birds are kept as pets in this country by people charmed by their quirky personalities and antics.

“Pet parrots can be incredible if demanding friends, but for people more accustomed to fluffy mammalian companions, they can present some unexpected challenges,” Michelle Z. Donahue writes for the Smithsonian. “The long-lived, intelligent and highly social birds need especially high amounts of attention and enrichment, or else they can pick up bad habits and find themselves bored and stressed to the point where they pluck out their own feathers.”

Simon suffered some of that stress. When I adopted him, he had chewed his chest feathers to nubs. For the most part, he’s stopped the practice but he is so attuned to my feelings and moods that when I went through a stressful period recently, I saw its affects in him.

Parrots are such smart and odd little creatures that Donahue gathered several interesting facts about these inquisitive birds. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Parrots use tools. Donahue cites a University of York and University of St. Andrews study noting captive vasa parrots used date pits and pebbles to pulverize cockle shells. The shell powder then was ingested by the male parrots, and regurgitated to their mates before the baby-making commenced.

2. Parrots are zygodactyls, meaning they have four toes, two of which face forward and two backward — like two opposable thumbs. It gives them great climbing skills and, coupled with their beaks, the ability to crack open some really tough nuts.

3. Parrots are omnivorous. Donahue notes parrots will eat just about anything from fruits and seeds to insects and meat. I can attest that Simon pretty much will eat whatever I am eating and even if I try to give him just the healthiest of what’s on my plate, he always thinks what I have is much better. I don’t know how he feels about meat, because we haven’t gone down that path, but he loves eggs and might just fight you for them.

4. About one-third of the world’s parrots are in danger of extinction. Donahue noted the destruction of habitats, coupled with persistent poaching for the pet trade, has landed a number of these species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. A 2015 study found that logging in Ghana decimated 99 percent of the country’s African grey population.

5. A parrot’s taste buds mostly are found on the roof of their beaks, though they have some glands in the back of their throat. Parrots have about 300 taste buds compared to the 10,000 in a human mouth, Donahue notes. But don’t think having so few taste buds means Simon is any less picky than your average 3-year-old child.

6. The smallest parrot, the buff-faced pygmy, weighs an ounce and is about the size of one of my fingers. The longest is the hyacinth macaw, measuring about 3.5 feet from head to tail. The heaviest is New Zealand’s flightless kakapo, which weighs as much as nine pounds — about the weight of the average house cat. For comparison, Simon weighs about 107 grams, or less than a quarter of a pound.

7. Colorful parrot plumage contains antibacterial pigments. The beautiful reds, yellows and greens in a parrot’s plumage contain Psittacofulvins, a bacteria-resistant pigment that only parrots are known to produce. In 2011, researchers exposed different colored feathers to damaging bacteria strains and found the pigments protected those feathers.

8. The parrot who holds the world records for talking knew more than 1,700 words. The 1995 Guinness Book of World Records bestowed the honor to Puck, a blue parakeet, who demonstrated his knowledge of 1,728 words.

Simon isn’t that much of a talker so I don’t think he will steal that record from Puck. Most days, though, I think he knows a lot more than he’s willing to reveal.

Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

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