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by Sally Blanchard

This is the original (and updated) version of my first article for Bird Talk Magazine that was printed in November of 1988.

A Glimpse at What Parrots do in their Natural Environments Can Help Us Better Understand and Care for Our Companions
    Learning a few facts about the habits of wild parrots can enable us to better understand the behavior and needs of our companion parrots. The legal importation of wild-caught parrots stopped in 1992 but many imported parrots are still in our homes and have adapted to lives in our living rooms. However, the majority of companion parrots have been domestically-raised. However, they are genetically the same as their wild cousins. Even those bred in captivity have instinctual behaviors that parallel those of their wild counterparts. Let’s consider the “average” wild parrot. Of course, each species of parrot has some variations in habitat, food preferences, and behavior that distinguish it from other species, but for the sake of simplicity, I will discuss habits that seem to be common to many different species.

Hello Sunrise
    At sunrise in the rain forest, our “generic” parrot awakens stretches and looks around making quiet vocalizations to his group in the flock. The flock could consist of only a few birds or it could contain more than a hundred birds spread over several trees. Suddenly the screeching and squawking starts. This cacophony is the call to the flock and means, “Let’s get going. It’s time for breakfast!” Many of our companion parrots will also let the world know that it is breakfast time when the sun comes up or when they hear that their human flock is awake.  If I want to sleep past sunrise, I have to cover my Amazon, Paco so that I can control her sunrise communications.
    Parrots often fly many miles to find and consume for food. Their flight is straight with duck-like wing beats and their squawking can be heard long before one sees them and long after they have flown out of sight. They have to work for their food and this process of finding and manipulating food is called foraging.

Not Only Seed ... Not Only Pellets!
    The feeding grounds can be any place that has a good food source including trees or shrubs laden with fruits, nuts, or fresh seeds, budding leaves or flowers, an agricultural field (which makes them unpopular with farmers) or an area infested with insects. Parrots will eat just about anything edible they come across while foraging for food.  Many parrots, although essentially vegetarians, are opportunistic omnivores and will take advantage of any and all food sources. They are not predators, but most hook bills enjoy a tasty grub or insect now and then. Some parrots have been observed robbing eggs from other bird’s nests and picking at the remains of animals left by predators. Their diet also changes according to what is available in nature, and most wild parrots are quite adaptable in their food sources. There are no sunflower seed or pellet trees in the wild and parrots did not evolve to eat such a narrow diet. Our companion parrots need a varied, nutritionally sound, psychologically healthy diet consisting of vegetables, grains and fruits. 
    Our average wild parrot is a social diner.  He feeds most of the morning surrounded by his flock. Some play goes on during this period of time even in older birds. These play behaviors can include passing food back and forth, squabbling, playing tug-of-war with leaves and branches and enjoying the sheer pleasure of shredding and ripping everything apart. Rain forest parrots have a symbiotic relationship with their habitat. It provides them with abundant food and, in turn, their sloppy eating habits help plant the seeds for future generations of plants that will be consumed by the parrots’ descendents.  Feeding and play are two important considerations in bonding, both in the wild and our homes. Feeding your companion parrot when you eat is one of the best ways to get him to eat new and more nutritious foods.

    In the wild, parrots are curious and inquisitive. They are attracted to food and rip apart objects on the basis of color, shape and texture. Parrots have exceptional color vision and see colors that we may not even know exist.  To get your companion parrot to eat new foods change the color, shape, and texture of them. (The colored pellets are a bogus gimmick and can actually be harmful to your parrots.) Fresh food with vibrant colors are best for parrots! Carrots, for example, can be served raw or cooked, mashed, grated, pureed, sliced, diced, whole, in strips and in any other form that comes to mind.  
    Provide foods that also double of toys, or require your parrot to manipulate them in some way before they eat them.  These include, but are not limited to, nuts in the shell, coconut pieces still attached to the shell, pine cones, safe flowers and leaf buds, carrot sticks, cooked sweet potatoes with the skin on, chunks of pomegranate, peas and beans in the pod, corn on the cob, berries, and broad leaf greens. These are just a few examples of activity foods that make your parrot work for his supper.
    During their active hours, parrots are constantly on the move, searching and exploring. The acrobatics and contortions a parrot will perform for that out of reach food tidbit are legendary. Place food in the cage or on the play gym environment where your parrot has to stretch and work to get them. Keep dangerous items out of your parrot’s reach.
    In the wild, parrots work for their food and fly long distances every day. In contrast, our companion parrots get very little exercise. To keep them both physically and mentally healthy, it is critically important to provide toys, exercise and intellectual stimulation.  When you introduce new toys to them, play along with them.  
    Even mated parrots in the wild use play objects (what we call toys) as a part of their bonding. Provide safe toys that are colorful, make noise, and/or provide something to chew on or rip apart. Safe hanging chain, toys, and swings can help to provide important exercise.

Siesta Time
    Most birds, including parrots are most active in the mornings but tuck themselves in for a siesta in the early afternoon when the sun is the hottest. Our companion parrots often have inactive perieods during the day that involve their siesta time. During this time, itis often as if the parrots have placed a 'Do not Disturb" sign on their cages. After their nap, they will head out to forage for a few hours until the sun starts to get lower in the sky. Then they will head to their roosts where they spend the night. Most companion parrots will wind down when the sun starts to go down and will be or want to be "in bed" before the sun goes down.  There are exceptions since some parrots are crepuscular (active at dusk) or even nocturnal (active in the dark). These include cockatoos, Patagonian conures, and great-billed parrots. Parrots also will adjust to our hours and if we stay up past dark, they often like to keep us company. I would rather see parrots get attention from people in the evening than go without quality attention when their human flock works.    
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