Adventures in parroting

Carrie J. Sidener and her Quaker parrot, Simon.

Walk up to Simon’s giant cage on any given day and you’ll find a ring of expensive, organic pellets scattered around its base.

These little balls of smashed-together fruits and vegetables roll under the buffet and work their way into the cracks in the hardwood floor. A pile collects in the tray under the wire floor parrot cage manufacturers seem to believe should catch all a parrot manages to waste — a laughable notion to anyone who lives with a feathered companion.

Between the pellets, shreds of apple skins, chunks of broccoli and tumbleweeds of spent feathers, sweeping the room my little green Quaker parrot calls home is a frequent affair.

Simon is not the messiest eater of the parrots I’ve lived with, but he can hold his own.

A contributor to Forbes, who goes by the handle GrrlScientist, wrote of a recent study that looks at why parrots waste such high amounts of food.

You might think the pet parrots, such as little Simon, waste food because it’s plentiful. He’s secure in knowing that another bowl will come like clockwork, once he gets me up and out of bed in the morning.

But his wild counterparts don’t have a groggy, uncaffeinated woman wandering down the stairs each morning, muttering, “All right, all right. I’m on it.”

Yet, they too drop astronomical amounts of food when they eat.

“Wasting edible food just doesn’t make sense, so why do parrots squander this important resource?” GrrlScientist wrote.

Conservation biologist and ecologist Esther Sebastián-González, a postdoctoral fellow at Miguel Hernández University in Spain, was a member of a team that developed several hypotheses to explain such waste. Their ideas fell into two categories: accidental and intentional.

Accidental food waste might happen because the parrot’s eyes were bigger than their stomachs (I can relate), or getting into an argument with another parrot (not a problem for Simon), or unfamiliarity with the food item.

Intentionally wasting food could be due to unripe fruits, buggy vegetables or it just doesn’t have enough calories.

To figure out if any of these theories panned out, Sebastián-González first learned which foods most often were wasted (fruits and seeds). The food waste, they learned, happened no matter the time of year.

“Whether these parrots were wild, feral or naturalized, living in their native ranges or in new areas where people had introduced them, food rained down from the tree tops when parrots were present,” GrrlScientist wrote. “Parrots squandered food throughout the entire year, regardless of whether it was their breeding season or not. Further, parrots are equal opportunity food wasters: although they mainly dumped seeds and fruits, they also dropped flowers, leaves, twigs, stems, sprouts, parasites and bark.”

Some parrots, GrrlScientist wrote, dropped as much as 80% of the seeds and all the fruits they picked up.

All this dropped food helps out the other creatures — in Simon’s case that would be his dog friends. It also helps the plants themselves as their seeds get scattered much farther than otherwise could take place.

“Our best bet is that they are doing it to get better crops and during a longer time,” Sebastián-González elaborated in an email to GrrlScientist. “In horticulture, it is widely known that large high-quality fruits can be obtained through fruit and flower pruning. Also, fruit and flower pruning reduce gaps between fructifications or reduce biennial bearing, so fruits are available for longer time periods. We could not test this, but hopefully we can do it in the future.”

That is a considerable amount of planning. Think that little bird brain isn’t capable of such consideration of his future? Several studies suggest they indeed can and do plan for the future.

GrrlScientist isn’t so sure though. She thinks there’s some other benefit to such waste.

Simon obviously isn’t planting the seeds of his future here. A better crop of apples isn’t going to spring from the floorboards of my home.

I’ve grown accustomed to the food ring around his cage, but now he’s turned into a couch potato. When we settle in for some Netflix, Simon flies back to his cage, grabs a bunch of pellets and flies back to his favorite chair to eat in front of the television.

Now I have to vacuum food out of the chair along with floorboards. Oh well, he’s too cute to be upset about a little extra housework.

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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