Juan Masello never intended to study wild parrots. Twenty years ago, as a graduate student visiting the northernmost province of Patagonia in Argentina, he planned to write his dissertation on colony formation among seabirds.
But when he asked around for flocks of, say, cormorants or storm petrels, a park warden told him he was out of luck.
“He said, ‘This is the only part of Patagonia with no seabird colonies,’” recalled Masello, a principal investigator in animal ecology and systematics at Justus Liebig University in Germany. Might the young scientist be interested in seeing a large colony of parrots instead?
The sight that greeted Masello was “amazing” and “incredible,” he said. “It was almost beyond words.”
On a 160-foot-high sandstone cliff that stretched some seven miles along the Atlantic coast, tens of thousands of pairs of burrowing parrots had used their powerful bills to dig holes — their nests — deep into the rock face.
And when breeding season began not long afterward, the sky around the cliffs erupted into a raucous carnival of parrot: 150,000 crow-size, polychromed aeronauts with olive backsides, turquoise wings, white epaulets and bright red belly patches ringed in gold. Masello was hooked.
Today, Masello’s hands are covered with bite scars. He has had four operations to repair a broken knee, a broken nose — “the little accidents you get from working with parrots,” he said. Still, he has no regrets.
“Their astonishing beauty and intelligence,” Masello said, “are inspirational.”
Masello is one of a small but unabashedly enthusiastic circle of researchers who study Psittaciformes, the avian order that includes parrots, parakeets, macaws and cockatoos. For all their visual splash and cartoon familiarity, parrots have long been given scientific short shrift in favor of more amenable subjects like, say, zebra finches or blue tits.
But through a mix of rugged and sometimes risky field work, laboratory studies and a willingness to shrug off the frequent loss of expensive tracking equipment, researchers are gaining insights into the lives, minds and startling appetites of parrots.
No, Polly doesn’t want your Triscuits. Got any fig trees to savage?
Parrot partisans say the birds easily rival the great apes and dolphins in all-around braininess and resourcefulness, and may be the only animals apart from humans capable of dancing to the beat.
“We call them feathered primates,” said Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition at Harvard and is renowned for her research with Alex and other African grey parrots.
“They’re very good colleagues,” said Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who studies the Goffin’s cockatoo of Indonesia.
Many of the recent discoveries are described in a new book, Parrots of the Wild: A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating Birds, by Catherine Toft and Timothy Wright. Others have been reported in journals or demonstrated through online videos, which have gone viral or deserve to.
Auersperg and her colleagues have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are among the most spontaneously inventive toolmakers ever described, and that the birds can learn how to fashion the latest food-fetching device after just a single viewing of a master cockatoo at work.
Studying the yellow-naped Amazon of Costa Rica, Wright and his colleagues have discovered that different populations of the parrot communicate with one another in distinct dialects that remain stable over decades, like human languages. Just as with people, young parrots can easily master multiple dialects while their elders can’t or won’t bother to do likewise.
A recent DNA analysis showed that parrots were closely related to falcons, a finding that dovetails with field studies of parrots’ often merciless dietary habits.
While falcons are predators in the conventional sense, hunting and devouring other animals, parrots turn out to be no less bloodthirsty in their approach to feasting on plants. Forget about symbiosis or some happy tit-for-tat between flora and this particular fauna.
Parrots pooh-pooh the fruit pulp and home in on the seeds, crushing the casings to extract the plant embryos and the cache of fats and proteins intended to help those embryos germinate.
“A parrot is a plant carnivore,” Wright said. “It destroys the seed. It goes right in through the fruit and eats the plant baby.”
FLEXIBLE AND IMPERVIOUS
The psittacines are a midsize club of about 360 species, ranging in size from the pygmy parrots of New Guinea, which are smaller than house sparrows, to the bulky, flightless kakapos of New Zealand, which can weigh up to 9 pounds.
Most parrots live in the tropics or subtropics, where a mix of habitat loss and the depredations of the international pet trade now threaten a third of all species with extinction, Masello said.
At the same time, some parrot species are proving flexible to the point of invasiveness.
“Monk parakeets from South America are doing nicely in New York City,” said Leo Joseph, a parrot expert and director of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra. “Peach-faced lovebirds from Africa are well-established in Arizona.”
The parrot’s muscular jaw and huge bill — specially hinged to allow top and bottom to move independently, up and down and from side to side — can crack open even the toughest and woodiest shells. The curved points of the bill act rather like lobster picks, ideal for scooping out seed meat.
Parrots can similarly clip apart leg bands, satellite holsters and other animal-tracking devices, which is one reason most researchers have avoided them.
Another demand of granivory, or seed predation, is the power to withstand the many defensive chemicals that plants pack into their genetic hope chests. Researchers have lately gathered evidence that a drive to detoxify could explain why parrots often converge on clay flats and start nibbling at the ground.
In laboratory experiments at the University of California-Davis, scientists fed orange-winged parrots small doses of quinidine, a potentially toxic alkaloid, and followed with what they called a “chaser” of Peruvian clay. The researchers found that the clay served a doubly salubrious purpose, first by directly binding to the poison and helping to flush it from the body, and then by stimulating the production of a mucus shield in the gut.
Paradoxically, scientists said, the pursuit of toxic prey may be linked to the parrot’s exceptional longevity. The difficult diet probably selected for a tough constitution, with top-flight immune and DNA repair systems, and tough things tend to last.
In addition, the ingested toxins may well have an antimicrobial, anti-parasitic effect, helping parrots to fend off disease.
However they manage, parrots can live a half century or longer: the record-holder among Moluccan cockatoos, for example, is 92, and a very lucky kakapo might make it to 120.
A GIFT OF THE GAB
Yet seed hunting’s greatest evolutionary effect on parrothood may well have been psychosocial, transforming the birds into brainy schmoozers.
Fruiting trees are a patchy and unpredictable resource, and parrots often fly many miles a day in quest of food. Under such circumstances, searching in groups turns out to be more efficient than solitary hunting, especially when group members can trade tips on promising leads.
“That can mean the development of a social system, as well as the neurological capacity to share information,” Joseph said. The vocal capacity, too: parrots call to one another continually, squawkishly, over long distances and short.
“They are communicating to each other all the time,” Masello said. “Every day, after working in the colony and climbing up the cliffs, I’m much more tired from the noise than from the climbing.”
The calls may be as much about asserting group identity as exchanging hunting tips. Seeking to understand why the yellow-naped Amazons in northern Costa Rica had a different call from those living 18 miles to the south, Wright’s team tried moving several parrots from one site to the other.
The youngest parrot quickly mastered the dialect of its new home and began flocking with the locals. The older transplants, however, failed to become adept bilingualists and never quite fit in. Instead, they associated with each other.
“They formed a little immigrant enclave,” Wright said, adding, “Vocal similarity is very important for maintaining social relationships,” in parrots as in humans.
Scott Saulters wasn’t sure if his film had just taken one of the two top prizes at a recent film competition. Although Saulters has been in Taiwan for 15 years and is proficient in Mandarin, the award ceremony for the inaugural “Bi Tian Iann” (眯電影) short film contest was conducted entirely in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), a language he can’t speak. “I thought I heard it, but I didn’t want to look too excited,” he says. Despite his limited command of the tongue, Saulter’s entry, Wu Yu Tzu (烏魚子, mullet roe), took first place in the amateur category of the
The Taiwan of yesteryear was dominated in whole or in part by the Dutch, Spanish, Qing Empire and Japanese. But is the Taiwanese name for a popular edible fish derived from the Portuguese language? Cheng Wei-chung (鄭維中), an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History, says yes. The fish in question is the narrow-barred Spanish mackerel, which was listed in early 18th century Qing local gazetteers as Taiwanese specialities alongside milk fish and mullet, according to Cheng’s paper, “Mullet, narrow-barred Spanish mackerel and milkfish: Multiple contextual developments of three certified seafood specilaities in Taiwan, from the
Since its launch in 2014, the Taiwan Season has increasingly become a “must-see” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. So, when this year’s three-week Fringe became an early casualty of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Chen Pin-chuan (陳斌全) was determined that the Taiwan Season must continue in some form. Chen, director of the Cultural Division of the Taipei Representative Office in the UK, says that he and Taiwan Season curator and producer Yeh Jih-wen (葉紀紋) had been thinking of ways of growing and adding value to the season anyway. The crisis and the cancellation of the live performances brought those ideas forward as
I didn’t expect to spend more than three minutes out of my car, yet the sun was so brutal I put on my hat before approaching the seawall. Beimen (北門) is the flattest and most sun-baked part of Tainan. It lacks trees and people. In wintertime, the weather is often delightful. It wasn’t yet mid-morning in the hot season, however, and I felt like a leaf shriveling in the desert. Atop the seawall but facing inland, I could see dozens of the rectangular ponds which account for a significant percentage of Beimen’s “land” area. Some, no doubt, were dug to produce