Here’s How to Feed the Eclectus Parrot in Human Care

(from Q2 2017 issue of In Your Flock pet bird magazine)

With Dr. Rob Marshall

Owners of Eclectus parrots (Eclectus roratus) know these precious birds have different dietary needs than have African greys (Psittacus erithacus), cockatoos (Cacatuidae), conures (Aratinga/Pyrrhura) or other parrots. One of the well-known reasons for the specialized diet conversation is the “different” gastro-intestinal system Eclectus parrots have when compared to other psittacines. Rob Marshall B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc. (Avian Health) at Carlingford Animal Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, shared the key features of Eclectus digestion:

Eclectus parrot pet bird magazine
Rocco Jr is a two-year-old Eclectus. His meals consist of 80 percent fresh vegetables and fruit, and 20 percent mix of high quality pellets, seed mix and nut treats. The chopped mix his owner, Sarah Juarez, has made for him here includes apples, pears, blueberries, spinach, kale, grapes, strawberries, sweet peppers, Serrano peppers, home grown sprouts, mellon, chia, hulled hemp, bee pollen granules, and Volkman Eclectus mix. Photo courtesy Sarah Juarez
  • a large crop size
  • a wide thoracic esophagus
  • a highly elastic and spacious proventriculus, which allows food much time to linger in it
  • short food-passage time in the gizzard
  • rapid movement of food through the small intestine after leaving the gizzard, and
  • highly regulated crop emptying.

Gastric function is key to healthy digestion in these parrots, so we’ll take a look at the physical and chemical disintegration of food as it goes through the three stages of protein digestion. This will show the science behind the field observations supporting Marshall’s recommendations for feeding the Eclectus in human care.

As Branson Ritchie, DVM, PhD, Dipl ABVP, Dipl ECAMS, professor at UGA® College of Veterinary Medicine, Georgia, shared with the audience at Ziggy’s Haven Bird Sanctuary, Inverness, Florida, April 2, 2017, observing the wild population of a given parrot species offers the perfect clues for feeding that species in human care. “The best thing you can do for your bird is look at where it occurs naturally, and supplement its high-quality food with foods from that habitat,” Ritchie counseled us.

Marshall’s research of wild Eclectus offers valuable observations of behavior that not only reveal tips for what to feed the Eclectus in human care, the observations also reveal tips for how to offer these foods. It all makes even more sense when we look inside the bird.

Inside the Ekkie

First, Marshall points out, food goes through the cephalic phase. As food enters the proventriculus from the crop, the proventriculus fills with peptic enzymes to help break down protein molecules before sending food to the gizzard. One of Marshall’s presentations shows Pepsin and food filling the proventriculus together.

Second, Marshall points out, food goes through the gastric phase. As food enters the ventriculus—also called the gizzard or hind stomach—the ventriculus fills with hydrochloric acid (HCL) to denature the protein bonds in the food.

One of the intriguing habits Marshall and his colleagues witnessed in the field, and something Eclectus parrot owners have commented on, is the manner in which these parrots consume seeds. The astute owner will notice the Eclectus spending considerable time munching and crunching seeds and arils before consuming them.

Marshall explained to In Your Flock magazine readers what we’re seeing: “They break the seed into smaller pieces, better exposing them to stomach acids, which reduces the workload of the gizzard. The gizzard in Eclectus is prone to overload because it has evolved on a soft food wild diet of fruit pulp.”

Third, food goes through the intestinal phase. Fast transit time and advanced protein digestion indicate a healthy digestive system. Marshall pointed out: “In clinical practice, functional digestive problems are encountered far more frequently in Eclectus than other parrot species.”

watery droppings Eclectus parrot
This picture shows watery droppings from a female Eclectus. Photo courtesy Editor Sandy Lender

Eclectus parrot owners can tell their birds may be experiencing digestive problems when they see the typical health clues. Look for changes in droppings and dropping consistency. If the first morning dropping has bubbles and/or extra water, it’s time to make a veterinary appointment. Marshall states that feather stress bars, feather discoloration and feather loss are signs of chronic digestive dysfunction. If your Eclectus parrot is plucking and barbering his or her feathers, don’t assume the problem is mere stress or boredom. Look at digestive health. Take your bird to the vet and discuss real Eclectus dietary needs.

“Ninety-five percent of feather destruction behaviors in Eclectus have a physical base,” Marshall shared with In Your Flock. “Digestion dysfunction is the most common cause of feather destruction. This must be identified and resolved in the early stages before the destructive actions become habituated. They become habituated largely because the owners tell the birds to stop picking when they see the self-destruct, which causes an attention-seeking behavioral problem. Habituation occurs in birds that are sedentary and lack exercise so their focus is on feather picking, which becomes a habit. Therefore, the feather destruction problem has physical and behavioral aspects. Even so, the feather destruction behavior will persist if the underlying physical cause is not attended to. These behaviors are definitely not related to boredom or misdirected foraging behavior.”

Let’s look to the field research that both Ritchie and Marshall put a high value on to see naturally occurring foraging behavior, and to learn more about the wild population’s dietary practices.

Wild Ekkie Life

Eclectus Parrot Female
Bobo’s age is unknown, but her recent history is complex. She has recently discovered the tastiness of a chopped vegetable mix with fruit diced on top. She also enjoys pesticide-free hibiscus flowers. Photo courtesy Sandy Lender

The family tree is the focal point of Eclectus life with the female showing an urgent need to protect the nest. She will stay at the nest site while a group of males goes out to forage twice a day, and return with food for her. While studying Eclectus in the wild, Marshall and colleagues investigated the wild diet and feeding habits of a family group of three males and one female of the Australian subspecies (E. roratus macgillivray) found in the lowland rainforests of Iron Range on Cape York Peninsular, Australia.

They observed the three males leave the family’s Kajoolaboo tree (Tetrameles nudiflora) together at first light to forage along the Claudie River. One broke away from the mini group to forage near the shoreline while the other two flew ahead. All three returned within a reasonable timespan of one another to the family tree. In the afternoon, all three went foraging together again. The next morning, at first light, they were off again, soaring into the forest canopy to find breakfast.

Marshall states this wild feeding behavior is highly regular, intermittent and offers enhanced protein digestion for the Eclectus parrot’s unique digestive system. For healthy digestion, these birds in human care must follow a similar morning and afternoon mealtime routine.

He told In Your Flock: “In the wild, Eclectus will fill their crops with food over a period of an hour or so in the morning. They eat on an empty stomach. The food eaten during this time will fill up the stomach and stretch it to capacity, which is critical to the gastric secretion of Hydrochloric acid and pepsin. In the evening, the crop and stomach have emptied of food and the same process of digestion follows according to the principles of gastric secretion. Ultimately, this produces a fast transit time of food through the gut, which underpins their healthy digestive function.”

Where owners often go wrong, Marshall pointed out, is in feeding foods that “reduce the rate of food passage through the gut, which predisposes Eclectus to many complicated digestion disorders.”

parrot magazine definitions

“In our study, Eclectus parrots were seen eating succulent pulp from the fruit of Salacia chinensis and Leea indica. The textural qualities, water and nutrient content of these fruits are typical of canopy foods eaten by Eclectus parrots, which make up the bulk of their natural diet.” (See Sidebar “Wild Diet” at the end of this article.)

In our homes, Marshall pointed out, “Eclectus parrots are commonly fed according to granivory, which explains their high incidence of diet-induced digestive problems. Such problems are averted and remedied by adopting feeding schedules that better suit a digestion model weighted towards frugivory.”

Marshall told In Your Flock readers: “Cultivated fruits lack the nutritional richness of rainforest fruits. Therefore, we move towards cooked vegetables as a source of nutrients, and these are cooked to provide the functional requirements for healthy digestion in Eclectus. The foundation vegetables for Eclectus are cooked butternut pumpkin (squash), sweet potato, boiled rice and cooked legumes. On top of these we place fleshy commercially grown papaya, mango, passionfruit, pomegranate, kiwi fruit and dragonfruit. But these are sources of vitamins and microminerals rather than major nutrients and functional foods.

“In addition, you can add green beans, kale, carrot, and corn as foraging foods.”



During Dr. Rob Marshall’s observations of the Eclectus family in September through November 2015, he and colleagues started with an unpublished list of 17 fruits that researcher Sarah Legge at Iron Range National Park on Cape York, Australia, had observed in the park between December 1996 and November 2003. During the study, Marshall and colleagues confirmed the use of 15 of those original 17 fruits, plus 13 plant parts that could be added to the list. In a paper presented to the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Marshall lists the following confirmed Eclectus foods:

Fruits with soft, fleshy skin

Canarium spp.

Black Sassafrass (Cinnamonum olivieri)

Cissus pentaclada

Cissus repens

Ficus spp.

Leea indica

Mackinlaya confuse

Acid Drop (Melodorum leichhardtii)

Lime berry (Micromelum minutum)

Solitaire Palm (Ptychosperma elegans)

Lolly Vine (Salacia chinensis)

Damson Plum (Terminalia sericocarpa)

Watery Rose-apple (Syzygium aqueum)

Lilly Pilly (Syzigium luehmannii)

Lady Apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)


Fruits that contain seeds surrounded by aril

Golden Guinea tree (Dillenia alata)

Tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides)

Buttonwoods (Glochidion spp.)

Fire Vine (Tetracera nordtiana)

Brittlewood (Claoxylon spp.)

Northern Tamarind (Diploglottis diphyllosteia)


Fruits containing edible seeds

Black wattle (Acacia meloanoxylon)

Pink Ash (Alphitonia petrei)

White Ash (Alphitonia whitei)

Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa)

Hopbush (Dodonea lanceolata var. subsessifolia)

Grewia (Grewia papuana)

Native Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstomera archeriana)

Blush Macaranga (Macaranga tanarius)

Macaranga (Macaranga involcrata)

Celerywood (Polyscias elegans)

Cape Tamarind (Toechima daemelianum)


The Plucking Series — Part 6

Winston’s Awesome Blood

By Sandy Lender

boing eclectus In Your Flock parrot magazine
Winston hangs out on one of the boings at In Your Flock magazine headquarters at the beginning of the fifth week of our case study.

Thursday of last week, Winston returned to the vet to “try again” for a blood draw to do a complete blood count (CBC). In great news, he handled the visit very well. The vet was able to draw blood more easily than four weeks ago. Winston’s skin is nicely pink again. His body condition has improved. Where the vet considered him a 6.5 out of 9 on a body condition score four weeks ago, he’s closer to a healthy 5 now.

Winston’s vet called Monday morning to report on what the CBC revealed. More great news! White cell count is normal. Platelet count is normal. No parasitic indications. No cell tearing. Every indication is that Winston is “remarkably healthy.”

Factor in the nice-n-easy weight loss while he’s increasing his movement, and we’re on the right track.

Eclectus at In Your Flock magazine
Bobo is one of Winston’s friends here at In Your Flock headquarters. She takes a turn climbing on the playgym here.

Getting Winston’s weight under control was an extra facet of this case study. Our goal is to help him stop the feather-destructive behavior. Sunday morning’s weigh-in showed him at 508 to 509 grams, so he held steady for the week.

At this time, he’s still receiving Bird Hemp by Hemp Well on his food once a day, and I’m not seeing a significant change in his plucking habit yet. This is only the fifth week using the hemp oil. I’m relieved to see no increase in plucking as his food portions have been “messed with.” But we’ll need to watch and wait and see how his exercise, portion control, Bird Hemp regimen, and tender loving care carry him through the spring and into the summer. We’ll check back in on Winston in a few weeks.

The Plucking Series — Part 4

Here’s What We’re Doing for Winston

By Sandy Lender

Eclectus feather plucking breakfast week 4
Winston’s Week 4 breakfast example shows one dish of fresh veggies and two dishes of dry pellets that get spread around different locations in his cage.

Before we dive into this week’s update on Winston the Eclectus, I want to invite readers to share in the comments below their experiences with their feather-plucking birds. The point of this case study is to share information and educate one another on practices that have helped our birds. In the second post of this case study, titled “What Winston and I Have Tried So Far,” I listed the host of methods we’ve tried to date to interrupt his feather destructive habit. At that time, I began a new method.

Winston has just begun Week 4 of taking a new product called Bird Hemp by Hemp Well, Auburn Hills, Michigan. It is designed to calm his desire to munch on his feathers or skin. During Global Pet Expo (GPE) in Orlando in 2017, there were a handful of vendors promoting hemp-related products to help calm pets and alleviate anxiety. At GPE this year, you couldn’t turn around without seeing a banner or flyer for a company promoting a help-related product. They were everywhere. Those products were designed to calm dogs and cats. To use the products with birds, you have to scale down doses and do funky math. I’m not good with funky math. Luckily, the folks at Hemp Well have already scaled one of their products (with a second coming online soon) for pet birds.

I’m including information about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the Q2 issue of In Your Flock, along with information on what does and does not cause a psychoactive effect in a pet. Rest assured, I’m not offering Winston a magic carpet ride. What I’m giving him is a fighting chance to calm anxiety if anxiety is the reason he continues this plucking habit. His veterinarian has read the information and is cool with watching these results as well.

As I shared in Post 3, “What’s Inside Winston,” the poor guy has some fat to lose. I’ve got him exercising and moving around more than usual on a daily basis. Winston Exercising Week4 He’s gone from 518 grams to 514 grams now, which is the right direction. A friend who came over Saturday commented that he has more green feathers on his chest than the last time she saw him. I’m not counting feathers, but I am noticing fewer feathers on the bottom of the cage during “poop tray liner change” each morning. That’s also the right direction.

Eclectus feather plucking belly comparison
Winston has lost 4 grams in four weeks, and seems to have at least slowed the feather destructive activity.

I’d like to hear/read what other bird owners have tried successfully, and what you have tried without success. You can share openly in the comments below, or you can contact me privately at publisher at inyourflock dot com to share ideas and methods.

Debunk Sprouting Myths

by Leslie Moran

Editor’s Note: It’s a fact that Slimy Crop is a diagnosable condition your avian vet can help you resolve if you have failed to sprout properly. Let’s start a discussion of not only good sprouting habits, but also which seeds—not necessarily beans—are best for sprouting by reading Moran’s good information here first, and then sharing a logical and professional discussion afterward. It will be great to share knowledge with the group!

sprouting sprouts parrot magazine
Sprouts with tails; photo courtesy Leslie Moran

A bird owner named Marilyn said her avian veterinarian told her to never feed sprouts to any parrot. “She hates them because she has treated so many birds who got bacterial infections from eating sprouts,” Marilyn shared. This is only one of the sweeping generalizations commonly made about feeding sprouts to parrots.

When taking a poll of why people are feeding sprouts to their birds each of these avian caretakers expressed an understanding of the relationship between the food and health. People have told me they want to feed their birds healthier, more nutritious foods because they want them to be healthier and happier birds with beautiful feathers.

To discuss this topic let’s first dispel two common myths and explain the benefits sprouts offer to a bird’s diet and overall health.

False: “It’s dangerous to feed sprouts to parrots because the birds will get bacterial and fungal infections from them.”

True: There can be dangers associated with low quality, poorly formulated sprouting blends that have been improperly grown. Those dangers can include birds getting bacterial or fungal infections. To avoid this common pitfall and have your birds be able to safely receive the nutritional benefits of sprouts you must be able to recognize the components of a quality sprouting blend. The best sprouting blend for your birds is one that is certified organic, has been formulated with a compatible germination and growth rate, and provides complete protein. Let’s look at these three components.

I recommend selecting certified organic foods for birds; such foods contain more nutrition and are grown in a manner that supports life on this earth while being free of the harmful pesticides, fungicides and nitrogen fertilizers that pollute our planet. The report, Pesticides and Human Health, by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) documents these chemicals as causing myriad health problems and diseases. Certified organic bird foods can be made from human-grade quality ingredients; look for this on the label.

For germination, timing is critical. When you plant a garden, do each of the different plants germinate and grow at the same rate? Of course not. Each seed species requires a slightly different set of conditions that causes it to germinate and burst forth growing into a flowering plant.

When sprouting for your birds you’ll want to use a sprouting blend that has been formulated so it has a compatible germination and growth rate. This ensures your sprouts can safely grow for two to three days to reach optimum nutrition levels.

If you see a sprouting blend composed of mainly seeds and grains, such as millet, niger (nyjer), flax, wheat, barley, sunflower and safflower seeds, be forewarned. These types of blends often instruct you to soak and then feed them. In my experience these directions are given because these blends will not grow for two to three days to reach optimum nutrition levels. Commonly, this is the case because the ingredients have such diverse growing needs they quickly become a dangerous moldy mess.

Even blends that add a token garbanzo bean (chick pea) or a few lentils cannot be trusted to have compatible germination and growth rates. To get around these dangers, some people feed individual sprouted foods or make their own blends. These solutions eliminate the concerns of bacteria and mold developing from incompatible germination and growth rates; however, they fall short in providing adequate, wholesome avian nutrition because they lack complete protein.

Proteins are essential to life. Every living organism is composed of protein. Proteins are the primary building blocks for muscles, blood, skin, feathers, nails and vital internal organs. They are also essential for proper growth and development, and they fuel the body’s ability to form and regulate hormones, enzymes and antibodies. Proteins are responsible for every life-sustaining biochemical process in the body. However, too much protein from the wrong sources can cause problems.

In the published paper, “Estimated nutrient content of diets commonly fed to pet birds,” by L. Hess, DVM, G. Mauldin, DVM, MS, and K Rosenthal, DVM, MSc, the authors reported that 80 percent of the birds in the study consumed less crude protein than recommended for basic body maintenance. With protein being vital for the good health of our birds, concerned caretakers must start feeding plant-based foods that provide complete protein.

False: “…soaked seeds are more nutritious than sprouted seeds.”

True: There is no health or nutritional benefit from feeding soaked seeds or other foods intended for sprouting in non-sprouted form. Scientific documentation clearly shows that feeding soaked seed is nutritionally inferior to feeding sprouts that have been grown for several days. In my work I have witnessed that feeding soaked seeds produces the same results as feeding dry seeds. I teach my clients to wean their birds off all dry seeds, or to limit them to less than 5 percent of all foods fed.

Let’s explore this myth by describing the differences among soaking, germination, and sprouting.

  • Soaking is the process of putting any sproutable food—seeds, grains, legumes or nuts—in water for a period of time. When a seed is soaked it absorbs water. This triggers biochemical reactions inside the seed and germination begins.
  • Germination is the process through which a plant begins its growth and development from a seed. During this phase biochemical reactions inside the seed are just beginning.
  • Sprouting occurs after the seed is soaked, has begun to germinate and is allowed to grow. Sprouting is the process of cultivating a garden in a jar, or other sprouting container, over a period of several days.

The best way to ensure your birds receive advanced avian nutrition from the sprouts you are feeding them is to get a blend that will grow for two to three days. Because soaking and germination begins the process, sprouting—growing the food for a period of days—is where we see nutrition levels reach their peak.

Value the Nutrition

If there was ever an avian superfood, properly grown sprouts are it. Soaking and germination initiates the process where life-enhancing biochemical changes occur to a sprout while it grows.

According to Brian Clement, Ph.D., LNC, in the book Living Foods for Optimum Health, germination results when seeds, grains, legumes and nuts are soaked in water. Water removes certain metabolic inhibitors that protect the seed from bacterial growth while also preserving it during its dormant state. During germination the seed springs into life, increasing its nutritional value and digestibility.

In the landmark study “Nutritional improvement of cereals by sprouting,” J. Chavan and S.S. Kadam discovered, “Sprouting grains causes increased activities of hydrolytic enzymes, improvements in the contents of total proteins, fat, certain essential amino acids, total sugars, B-complex vitamins, and a decrease in dry matter, starch and anti-nutrients. Improvements in amino acid composition, B-complex vitamins, sugars, protein and starch digestibility, and decrease in phytates and protease inhibitors are the metabolic effects of the sprouting process.”

During the sprouting process protein levels increase over growing time. Vitamins are created and levels multiply with growth.

According to Isabel Shipard in the book How Can I Grow and Use Sprouts as Living Food?, “Vitamins, by nature, are very perishable. The fresher foods are when eaten, the higher the vitamin content. The vitamin content of some sproutable foods can increase by up to 20 times their original value after several days of sprouting. When mung bean sprouts are compared to the dry legumes, the sprouts have B vitamin increases, of — B1(thiamine) up 285%, B2 (riboflavin) up 515%, and B3 (niacin) up 256%. When compared with mature vegetable plants, sprouts can yield vitamin contents 30 times higher than vegetables.”

When barley was soaked, germinated and allowed to grow, the longer the grain grew, the higher the vitamin levels. Certain vitamins such as alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin-E) and beta-carotene (Vitamin-A precursor) are produced during the growth process. See Chart.

Vitamin C is nearly nonexistent in dry grains. In P.L. Finney’s study vitamin C levels in sprouted foods, with three to five days of growth, ranged between 9 mg and 326 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of sprouts, depending upon the food being sprouted.

These studies provide the necessary evidence that sprouts are more nutritious than soaked seeds.

Anecdotally, since birds joined my family in 1997, I have been using my background in holistic nutrition, which began in the 1970s, to establish the best way to use food as medicine for them. My life’s work has led me to make some life-affirming decisions about what makes up proper nutrition for parrots and finches. In my experience a properly formulated, certified organic sprouting blend that contains complete protein and can be grown for two to three days is the ideal foundational food for these birds.

I’ve poured over sprouting data accumulated by the scientific research community spanning the past four decades and the researchers have reached a conclusion: The consensus across the board is that foods that are soaked, germinated and allowed to grow for a period of time become more nutrient-dense the longer they grow. And, we’re seeing positive clinical results; health improves in parrots and finches following my feeding guidelines.

Avian malnutrition is a vital topic for everyone who owns and cares for birds. It’s essential that accurate and responsible information be presented on all aspects of balanced and wholesome avian nutrition.

Sprout a PDD Discussion

Due to the superior nutritional content of a sprouting blend that meets the criteria discussed in this article, I believe this food is ideal for birds that have been diagnosed with Proventricular Dilitation Disease (PDD). Properly grown sprouts provide an easily digested form of protein because the amino acids are broken down into their key components making them easier to digest. All minerals present become chelated making them easier to assimilate. Sprouts contain the highest amounts of life-giving enzymes, more than any other fresh food, are rich in antioxidants and contain something no other food has—life force energy. Sprouts are alive up until the moment they are eaten. Other fresh foods stop being alive the moment they are harvested.

Research has linked under-nutrition and malnutrition to compromised immune systems. A poor functioning immune system is at the root of birds contracting illness from disease-causing pathogens. The best way to strengthen and build a healthy and proper functioning immune system is through the foods that are fed to and eaten by our birds.

Parrot Magazine Leslie Moran
Author Leslie Moran

Leslie Moran’s passion is using food as medicine for creating health and wellness in parrots. Moran shares her knowledge and newsworthy results in using food, nutrition and holistic healthcare for maintaining or restoring avian health and wellness. Her book The Compete Guide to Successful Sprouting for Parrots provides insight into the essential elements of her avian nutrition plan. Moran writes, teaches and provides consultations from her facility in Northern Nevada.

sprouting parrots
From left to right, a rice, buckwheat, wheat, adzuki bean, mung bean and lentil sprout at three days of growth; photo courtesy Leslie Moran

Olfactory Enrichment

by Robin Shewokis

Editor’s Note: this article is from a 2013 edition of In Your Flock pet bird magazine. Notice that Robin is NOT talking about essential oils. In Your Flock parrot magazine does NOT recommend using essential oils near birds.

For many years I wrestled with whether or not it was a waste of time to offer parrots olfactory enrichment. I was told that scents were dangerous for parrots and not to even consider offering scent enrichment.

I took my wonderings to the research desk and started hunting for scientific studies and evidence that would support either the ideas of most or my hopes that olfactory enrichment was another way to stimulate our parrots in captivity. My research didn’t take long as the information was slim to non-existent. There was plenty of information about vultures and sea birds and their senses of smell but very little on parrots. In preparing to write this article I looked to science once again.

The research that I found before was still about it for scientific studies. In “Olfactory Discrimination in Yellow-backed Chattering Lories Lorius garrulous flavopalliatus: first demonstration of olfaction in Psittaciformes” by T.J. Roper 2003 it states that these lories were able to discriminate artificial nectar from water and were able to use plant odor cues to differentiate foods. This made me hopeful. In a study by Julie Hagelin, “Observations on the olfactory ability of the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus,” the critically endangered parrot of New Zealand it was concluded that by offering a male kakapo three bins that could potentially contain food the bird was able to identify the food bins by scent. The kakapo used olfactory cues to forage. Again, there was hope. My other research lists parrots as very low on the olfactory food chain but they do indeed have olfactory receptors that allow them to differentiate scents.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence I did have one personal experience several years ago that keeps my hopes alive. On a trip to New Zealand, after presenting at the Auckland Zoo I had the opportunity to see and interact with a native parrot species, the kaka. While interacting with the bird we were told by the keeper that the bird responded to scent enrichment. I was able to observe the bird engaging in olfactory enrichment with myself and Barbara Heidenreich of Good Bird, Inc. The kaka would place its nares on our hair or skin, audibly inhale, and then preen. It did this several times with both of us. This experience fed my need to pursue olfactory enrichment options for captive parrots.

With these new bits of information in hand I began thinking of ways to present scent enrichment that was both safe and enriching. In all my work I try to get to the heart of what the bird does in the wild. Although our birds are mostly captive bred they are not that far removed from their wild counterparts.

A key element in creating any enrichment offering is safety. We want to enrich our parrots but we need to be sure that we are doing it safely. With the latest trend toward offering essential oils it is crucial that you are aware of safety. 

Natural food items can be used as olfactory enrichment. You can rub a chili pepper on a perch or toy. This may be olfactory and/or tactile, as the bird may taste the scent as well. If you have a bird that is reluctant to play with toys, you may be able to lure her to play by rubbing a strong scented food item on the surface of a toy. Be sure you are using scents that are pure and bird safe when using this option.

Take some of your bird interaction time and do some experiments of your own. The next time you create a great foraging opportunity for your parrot put a food item inside that has a strong scent. Create an identical opportunity that has a food item with no discernible scent. Be sure that your parrot doesn’t watch you create the foraging item or that you don’t give him any cues. They’re pretty tricky that way! Present both choices to your bird and see which one he goes for first. Make sure to make the opportunities equally accessible and attractive visually. Try this several times and see what your results are. Send an e-mail to me with your results at Maybe the next time I’m asked to write an article on olfactory enrichment I’ll be citing your research!

Robin Shewokis, a board member of IAATE, is the owner of The Leather Elves, which started as a family business that creates enrichment for companion parrots. After working with several facilities that housed collections of parrots Shewokis realized there was a need for enrichment targeting other species. Since then Shewokis has consulted at zoos in the United States, Canada, Holland and New Zealand. She has spoken at numerous parrot clubs and conducted workshops that help companion bird owners and aviculturists create a stimulating captive environment.

Construct Enrichment Goals, Part 1

by Robin Shewokis

from a 2013 edition of In Your Flock pet bird magazine

In the parrot-human relationship that takes place in our homes, zoos, aviaries, veterinary waiting rooms or sanctuaries, the human has a great responsibility to provide what the parrot is missing by being in human care. We want to make the birds we’re responsible for “happy.” We can observe a parrot interacting with elements within its environment, but we can’t actually observe it being happy. We strive to make the bird happy—and that’s a good goal.

Start by knowing your bird. What would your bird’s species be doing in the wild? Research and learn its wild traits in general and use those traits and behaviors as the base of knowledge when building an enrichment program for your bird. Think of your knowledge as a triangle with the tip pointed down. The wide base is the general knowledge of the species’ quirks. Then move down the triangle narrowing the behaviors, traits, likes and quirks to your bird at the “tip.”

For instance, Amazons (Amazona) and Eclectus come from different regions of the world, but have similar behaviors. Both species are arboreal foragers. The Amazon parrot is typically found in the upper levels of the canopy. The Eclectus also hangs out in the upper regions of the rainforest.

If you’re designing a dietary enrichment device for an Amazon or Eclectus parrot, you might put food in a small paper bag and hang the bag from the top of the bird’s cage. This will encourage the parrot’s natural behavior of foraging in the canopy.

If you determine that your Amazon dislikes foraging in the “treetop,” you could present the device in another way that still offers your bird exercise and activity. This is where knowing your particular bird is important. It’s the tip of the upside-down triangle that helps you decide what to offer your bird.

When offering enrichment devices, remember that nothing has to be permanent. You have options just as your bird should have options. By giving your bird enrichment opportunities, you put choices back in for your birds. In the next article, we’ll take a closer look at the types of enrichment and specific ideas you can try.

Editor’s Note: An Example—In the wild, cockatiels spend time foraging on the ground. They eat a variety of grass seeds. To that end, I suggest setting up a natural grass carpet section with cockatiel food sprinkled upon it as a foraging/feeding station. The staff at In Your Flock companion parrot magazine bought a 1-foot-wide strip of plastic grass carpet at the local Home Depot hardware store for about $8. They cut a square to place in the floor of CoCo the Cockatiel’s cage. With a few river pebbles ($3 for the bag; a few cents’ worth for this station) on top of the square, CoCo can pick her seed treats out of the grass and pebbles in a natural foraging action.  Check out the pre-cut, washable Foraging Green at The Leather Elves.

Robin Shewokis is the proprietor of The Leather Elves parrot enrichment toy company and works with parrot groups and zoos/animal facilities both in the United States and abroad teaching people how to enrich the lives of the animals in their care.

The Purest Air for Your Bird

RabbitAir In Your Flock Parrot Magazine
RabbitAir A2 Filter

By Erica Wrightson

Air quality is always a hot topic of conversation, though rarely in the context of our pets and how it affects their health. Birds in particular have highly delicate immune systems and efficient respiratory systems—they are affected deeply and quickly when pollutants enter the environment—so pristine air is key for our feathered friends living indoors. In the wild, birds have the freedom to breathe fresh air, but in our homes they can be exposed to a plethora of toxins that can be harmful to their health.

The spectrum of harmful products in the home can be surprising to those of us who don’t suffer from our own allergies and sensitivities. Pollutants produced from off gassing from new furniture and carpets; wood stoves, heaters, and hair dryers; Teflon from nonstick pans and irons; tobacco products; aerosols from hairspray, deodorant, and perfume; incense, scented candles, and air fresheners all contaminate living spaces and should be filtered out to protect sensitive birds. For those of us who suffer from allergies and asthma, it might not be a surprise that the contamination goes both ways; dander and keratin powder from bird feathers can irritate our lungs. It’s important to rid the air of pollutants produced by both human and animal lifestyles.

Removing these invisible toxins can seem daunting. Using fewer harmful cleaning products and vacuuming and dusting the home more often can definitely help reduce them. For a more permanent solution, install an unobtrusive always-running machine in your home to monitor the air quality. Air purifiers, particularly those with HEPA filtration systems, are an accurate and sustainable way to achieve clean air indoors. Without putting additional chemicals and deodorizers into the air, purifiers like those made by Los Angeles–based Rabbit Air take in the dander and volatile organic compounds and leave the pure stuff for the birds. Rabbit Air Purifiers are incredibly quiet—even while hard at work day and night checking and correcting the air quality, they won’t disturb your bird. Their HEPA filters remove extremely tiny particles—even the finest dander—and can be cleaned or replaced easily for convenient maintenance.

Creating a safe and healthy environment for your pets naturally means a healthy home for you, too. Eliminating the particles and fumes produced by our daily lives in the home is a simple and manageable step towards a better life. For more information about Rabbit Air Purifiers, particularly those tailored to bird owners, visit RabbitAir.

For another article on air purification benefits, visit Jen’s Reviews.

How to Feed Your Baby Bird

Feeding Your New Grey Baby Doesn’t Have to be Scary

by Jean Pattison

Editor’s Note: Not all members of the avian community feel it’s appropriate to bring a new bird into your life before it’s weaned/fledged/eating solid food. Whatever the circumstances may be that have brought a very young bird into your life, there’s no judgment here. Congratulations on this extraordinary experience with a young and precious life! Let’s now learn from an extraordinary woman’s decades of experience in hand-feeding baby parrots so we all know how to do it right.

African Grey Jean Pattison Illustration Airway OpenHand-feeding a baby parrot was one of the scariest things I have ever done.

I grew up in the city of Chicago, but I spent my summers on my grandparent’s farm. My granddad taught me so much about animals, the love and respect he showed was a big influence in my life. He would come in and tell me “I have something to show you” and he would take my hand and we would go out to the pasture, or barn, or hedgerow. He would sit with me and taught me to be very still and just watch. I watched barn swallows build nest, and fed their young, I saw tadpoles hatching, and mommy bunny uncover her babies and get in their nest to feed. When my granddad came in and said, “Give me your hand, I have something to show you”, I knew I was about to see a miracle. The one thing I wanted more than anything was to raise a baby bird, but my grandparents always told me, “If you take it away from its parents, it will die. You just can’t do that”. One day I found a baby bird had fallen from a nest and I snuck it into the house and tried to feed it. It of course died and broke my heart, and I cried and cried. Naturally I had to confess, with all that crying after all. I also felt I disappointed my grandparents.

I wanted a farm when I grew up, but chances of that happening years later wasn’t something I could ever see happening. Well, many years later here I am, a farmer. Not with cows and pigs, but parrots.

My first bird was a Jenday conure. I had purchased her from a little hobby breeder close to my home. I went and visited a few times a week. The woman was meticulous with cleanliness, and sanitizing everything. I watched her syringe feed the tiny chick. She would tell my how easy it was to aspirate, and how everything had to be perfect, and how fragile they were. Such a scary experience. I was always worried something would go wrong if she made one tiny mistake.

I had my first pair of Senegals go to nest, and I asked her to feed them for me when I took them from the parents. I was so scared when I took the chicks from their nest; I was shaking like a leaf. I kept hearing my grandparent’s warnings about taking baby birds from the parents.

My dream was to have a pair of greys. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”. Anyway, this breeder also fed those babies for me, and a few clutches after that. As I obtained more pairs of greys, my best friend opened a bird only store, so she took over the hand-feeding. I now had to take chicks and drive them for over an hour away. More stress.

Five years later, having never fed a chick, my best friend was closing her store and no more hand-feeding. I thought I was going to faint. I had about 30 baby African greys coming into the nursery in about two weeks. Her answer to me was, “that’s why I am giving you a two week notice, but I will be there if you need me”, and she was, as well as many other breeders when I needed them. In the late evening I gathered my 30 some babies into my nursery. They had been fed by the parents and would be hungry in the morning, as well as me getting good nights sleep. I threw up most of the night terrified at my daunting task, so very little sleep. In the morning I mixed food, got syringes ready. The babies were hungry and they pumped like crazy, but with my shaking so bad, it was hit or miss. It took me three hours and multiple making of new food trying to keep it warm, but I did it.

Fast forward 34 years, and 100s of babies through those years, I sure learned a lot in a very short time especially dealing with only the African parrots. Many things with that many of a single species quickly falls into place. I must note, all my chicks are parent-fed in outside aviaries, so they have a pretty well developed immune system. They are completely different than dealing with incubator hatched chicks.

handfeeding instrumentsSince I learned to feed with a syringe, this is what I still use. I have used every other instrument available since I started, as distasteful as they may seem.

I had taken a Q-tip with a bit of warm water to clean a chick’s mouth. While doing so, I found I had to hold on to it. There seemed to be a pulling motion trying to pull it out of my fingers. I kind of played with the experience and found that if I relaxed it a bit, it felt like the bird would swallow it while the chick was pumping. When a chick pumps the head rapidly bobs up and down. This motion works in unison with the parent’s pumping while they are feeding the chick.

So what have I learned?

  1. Baby birds are not nearly as fragile as we all think, and they are very resilient!
  2. The opening of a parrot’s airway is in their tongue, and not in the back of their throat.
  3. Lots of other things, maybe for another article some day.
African Grey Parrot Papillae Airway
Note the papillae inside the bird’s mouth. These are the little points on each side of the back of the mouth. Learn to look at these and know what they should look like in your species of bird. Many health issues can be seen by how healthy the papillae are. Next time you visit your veterinarian, ask her to show them to you and what to look for.

When a bird is breathing through the nares (nostrils), the tongue is resting against the roof of the mouth. Air is traveling through the nares, through the hole in the tongue, to the trachea in the throat, (not the back of the mouth), and then into the internal airways.

When a chick has its mouth open and starts to pump the hole in the tongue closes and anything beyond that point is like a funnel to the esophagus. A hand-feeder in reality can feed from the left or right or even in the middle. Most have learned the bird’s left to bird’s right method, and it is an easy, comfortable position anyway. Many hand-feeders feeding day ones or macaws will often feed from both sides to prevent any beak misalignment. With day ones, hand-feeders will stretch their necks straight and insert a small feeding tip and go right down the middle into the esophagus. But, even tiny day one babies pump and while pumping the airway is closed so food can be just drizzled into their mouths.

So, when we use any of the instruments that go into the crop, we are not working around a maze of trachea and esophagus. Once past the closed hole in the tongue, the rest is open to any food or object inserted, leading to the crop. If someone uses latex or catheter tubing, or metal gavage, once the baby starts to pump its head the object slides right in, or is pulled in. There is nothing forceful using this technique. The pulling motion is more muscle contractions than it is actual swallowing. After all how could a bird “swallow” a Q-tip?

If you ever decide to hand-feed find a mentor and DON’T be scared.

The Thinking Parrot—Part 2

Hypotheses and Experiments in Parrot Communication

by CB Buckley

In Part 1, I covered different kinds of gesturing and other non-verbal communication by parrots. I also documented specific instances of how parrots use deceit, which is considered to be one of the scientific measures of intelligence. Some of the advanced examples of parrot communication included parrots sharing information with one-another and made-up games using vocalizations.

We still have trouble interpreting parrot behavior because not only are birds complex creatures, but they relate to things differently than we humans do. Even so, there is a lot about the way any brain is organized to give us some hints. We look for similarities where we can recognize the impetus for the actions we observe.

The focus of this Part 2 article is to correlate what we observe in our parrots with how their brains might be processing information. In other words…why is my parrot doing that?


Pattern recognition and pattern matching is a central part of parrot cognition. Parrots’ detailed pattern recognition ability allows them to stay safe by recognizing when there’s been any change in their environment. One small change may mean the presence of predators, and puts them on high alert. This instinct is what causes the fear of change that we experience in our homes.

One can see parrot vocalizations that are triggered by environmental events appear to be tied to pattern recognition. Many people have posted videos and described how their parrots will say, “Hello,” or recite conversations whenever the phone rings. When we pick up keys, our African grey (Psittacus erithacus) has learned the door is about to open, so she now makes a door sound every time keys jingle.

I’ve observed that once parrots have learned a pattern, they actually compete with each other to be the first to sound-off when an event occurs. Like kids (“Me-me-me! I saw it first!”), the “clever” one who first recognizes one of those patterns will scream in excitement. Conure parrots are surely quick to notice (and loudly announce) “suspicious” activity. They have been described as the “security alarm” of the jungle.

It is commonly accepted that other animals, such as feline cubs, will play pouncing and wrestling games as a precursor to becoming accomplished hunters. Similarly, the bird vocalization “competitions” would help parrots hone their skills for keeping an eye on their environment, for recognizing signs that certain events are about to happen, and for their reaction time in spotting and warning the flock of the impending danger.

Recent findings by Comins and Gentner, indicate that the mechanism for pattern recognition is also what allows for human speech development. Therefore, it’s not surprising the two would go together in parrots.


I’m sure you’ve seen how parrots often resemble hyperactive kids. While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a problem in modern human society, scientists have postulated how it would have been an advantage for early man…and very likely an advantage for parrots in the wild. In other words, ADHD would be a good survival trait.

There has already been a precedent set where researchers have found a correlation between parrot Feather-picking Disorder and human Trichotillomania (obsessive hair-pulling). And, there may be other similar traits that are normally part of the parrot psyche.

Similarly, I have seen an intriguing parallel between parrot mimicking and a Tourette-like tic. One of the symptoms of Tourette syndrome is involuntary verbal outbursts—usually triggered by a strong emotion when thinking about specific things. That corresponds to an already well-established relationship, in which it is common knowledge how parrots tend to prefer to mimic sounds they associate with high emotion.

With African greys in particular, it seems they “say” what they are thinking. When we enter the kitchen, our grey (Bobo) will be getting excited about meal time and make the sound associated with food preparation—the microwave beep. She thinks about it and the sound comes out. When eager for a snack, she may also spontaneously run through some phrases parroting-style that she associates with having acquired treats or food in the past. Furthermore, I have overheard her quietly making the microwave sound to herself when it gets close to dinnertime.

  • There are additional incidents not related to food where we’ve seen the same kind of vocalizations.
  • The grey will say out loud, “Bobo walk,” as she plods across the floor.
  • The grey will say, “No bite,” as she is reaching for a forbidden object.
  • The conures cannot help but “announce” their nefarious activity if they fly over to an area designated as “off.”

Observing African greys is most helpful due to their being able to articulate speech and sounds well enough that we can attempt to follow their trains of thought. Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s subject, Alex the Grey, would interrupt his work sessions with unrelated comments and phrases. However, his “off-topic” antics were not random—they had to do with his mind wandering to other activities that he was thinking about: “Wanna go back,” “Wanna nut,” “Wanna go eat dinner.”


There is another kind of “parroting” activity many people have witnessed. Parrots will recite out loud a bunch of their known (and sometimes new) speech and sounds—often adjacent to their sleep time.  Being prey, parrots may not be able to afford the luxury of a full, deep REM sleep (REM allows the mammalian brain to organize and store experiences). So, I am proposing a hypothesis that parrots may do the REM equivalent in a wakeful state, manifesting those vocalizations. Whether my particular hypotheses are correct or not, we need to allow for the possibility that what appears to be random parroting really has purpose in the mind of the parrot.


Parrots not only sing, but they dance—which is considered rare among animals. Could an awareness of beats help with counting and numbers? It’s very curious the way my Nanday conure (who likes to dance to music) keeps a beat and expresses numbers. She has an obsession with number series and patterns. She loves to play a “number game” with me.

When the Nanday was a baby, she used to start with a solitary squeak and then wait until I replied with a similar squeak (best as I could). She would then increment to two squeaks and wait for my two-squeak reply. This would continue in perfect sequence up to around seven.

I was fascinated to learn that a similar numerical progression was documented in a paper about the caws of wild crows.  At the time I first noticed it with my Nanday, I was not familiar with Miller’s Law, which theorizes a cut-off of seven for the human brain.

Yet, as she got older, the Nanday would do many more squeaks than seven. She arrived at her select number of squeaks by incorporating a beat sequence. It’s not quite counting…it’s specific patterns of multiple squeaks/squawks, like a drum-beat pattern.

This is a lot more difficult to capture on video without interrupting her. I did record an example of how she leads this game and the sound patterns. In that video, she was using clicks rather than notes/chirps. You can view the reference video here. “Parrot Uses Beat Pattern to Count—FlyChomperFly Research Series: DANCE SYMBOLS COUNTING Game”

An owner of a Timneh Grey reported that her parrot also plays a complex-tone game with her. In that case, it’s not a counting game, but a “match this sound” game—where if the human doesn’t get the sound right, the grey will precisely repeat it for her. So, it’s clearly not just random squawks—it’s an intentional, interactive game.

I wonder if these games could give insight into how parrots organize numbers? Determining how birds go about organizing numbers (sans language) has been researched by several scientists without conclusive results.


There is a notable pattern to parrot brain information processing that I’ve observed.  While parrots can whistle or sing songs, they universally tend to do so in segments.  A human child capable of singing a whole song, will do the same thing.  But a parrot will pause longer between stanzas, and may even abandon the song completely.

We could assume that parrots have less memory capacity for storing longer strings of information. Alternatively, there could be some restrictions in the way their brain retrieves the information—possibly shorter “packets” of data—to give them quicker response times (a survival benefit). Given how the ability to hold more information at a time has been linked to higher general intelligence in human brains, I am thinking it could be one of the factors limiting parrots’ cognitive skills.

My other hypothesis is that a parrot’s lack of continuity could also be due to their brain “interrupts” (similar to how interrupts work in a computer). Because parrots are prey, they need to be constantly on the alert for predators. They cannot afford to take their minds off of their environment for more than a short interval, or it could be fatal. They probably have to constantly interrupt their thought processes in order to check the area for danger—before returning back to their original task (if ever).

I have experimented and found that my Jenday conure cannot keep her eyes focused on any activity for longer than about six seconds. No matter how engrossed she is with the object or activity, her eyes will automatically avert to check the environment about every six seconds. We humans have the luxury of being able to focus without having to watch our backside every few seconds.

Scientists now have evidence that some of our human attention-deficit tendencies are a throwback to when early humans were living in more dangerous situations.  A parrot’s lack of long-term focus doesn’t mean the bird is less intelligent.  However, it becomes a disadvantage when trying to concentrate on something long enough to puzzle out an intricate problem.  Having removed constant threats could be a reason we are able to see some incredible aptitudes with our domestically bred parrots.


Scientists have had limited success in proving language syntax usage by non-humans. Arguably, the most successful are probably dolphins. In spite of Alex the Grey not being trained in language syntax, Pepperberg documented how he continued to insert new nouns into a syntactically proper sentence in order to express his “wants.” In a 2013 study, Kaufman, Colbert-White and Burgess were able to statistically confirm that an African grey was parsing out individual words from learned phrases and incorporating them into novel yet appropriate context (“contextual substitutability”), maintaining correct syntax.

When our grey, Bobo, was a baby, we had talked to her in fairly short phrases such as, “Gimme a kiss,” “Let’s go for a walk,” and “Good girl, Bobo.” Yet, she did not memorize the exact phrases as just symbols or units. She understood they were made up of individual words—apparently recognized which were the actionable words—as she ended up stripping out the unneeded words similar to a two-year-old. “Good girl, Bobo” became “Bobo Good.” Yet, it’s not just rearranging words, because she never says, “Girl good,” or “Girl Bobo,” or any other odd combination.

That same grey has also demonstrated that she understood the verb “go” was a separate word, and ostensibly where it belonged in the sentence.

She says to us, “Bobo go walk” or “Bobo walk.”

(She uses this as a statement while she walks on the floor or as a request when she wants to go somewhere.)

The most overt is that she decided a proper sentence would be, “Bobo go kiss.” (She then kisses us.)

We would never use “go” in that way—she assuredly would never have heard us speak that phrase. And, she doesn’t randomly add “go” or any other words to sentences. Plus, she has never shuffled the other words (i.e. she never said “Go walk Bobo,” or “Kiss Bobo go,” or any other weird verb placement). She decided hers were the right phrases.

The key is that while “Bobo go kiss” isn’t a proper English sentence structure, it does make perfect sense based on what the bird knew of the syntax of other English sentences where “go” is used. Again, this is common with talking parrots.

Virginia Bush, who has an Avian Cognition forum, has similarly noted how her African grey’s use of language includes creative adjustments based on his interpretation of the meaning or syntax:

One summer day a couple years ago, I had one problem after another…I ended up saying “Oh good grief!” time after time after time, as I dealt with these ongoing difficulties. Well, Chaucer was watching and listening to all this, and a couple days later I heard him say “Oh… grief!” — in exactly my tone of voice, except he left out “good.” He said this a good many times, always leaving out “good.” And then I heard him say, many times, first “Oh bad grief!” — and then “Oh awful grief!” Chaucer corrected my nonsensical expression of exasperation and disgust so that it made sense. Chaucer now uses “Oh awful grief” himself in annoying situations.

Virginia Bush is also an English-as-Second-Language (ESL) instructor. She confirms that parrots make errors that would seem logical for someone unfamiliar with English—especially the odd anomalies in conjugation:

…while apparently talking about flying on our screened-in porch the day before. He very distinctly said ‘flied’ instead of ‘flew’,” “You flied on the porch”–referring to himself… (he doesn’t understand pronouns)

While not clinically tested, those examples should provide adequate evidence that some parrots possess the capability to comprehend and apply language syntax on some level.


Lots of animals respond to nicknames. The only thing unique about parrots is that by having speech, they can give themselves nicknames. And they do!

It is common for parrots to use truncated versions of their own names, portmanteaus of their names with other words, or even to use completely different words as nicknames for themselves. My own grey has, at times, shortened her name from “Bobo” (two syllables) to “Bobe/Bub” or “Bo” (one syllable).


I am presenting proof that Congo African grey parrots (probably other parrots too) are sensitive to something as subtle as voice inflection. It’s very possible other species are too, but we have specific evidence of it with an adult female grey parrot. It is very rare for this parrot to speak out of context, but when she is nervous or particularly excited, she will blurt out phrases. It’s similar to the way dogs get excited over an anticipated activity; it mostly happens when she is excited to get a food treat.

Normally, we will ask a question such as, “Are you a good girl?” She will then answer in-context with, “Yes,” or with something like, “Bobo good girl.” But, when she gets into that excited state, she will answer “yes” to any question we ask her—even a question we’re sure she doesn’t understand because it’s composed of words she’s never heard before. Note that when asked a question under those circumstances, she doesn’t answer, “Good” or “I love you” or “bye-bye”—just, “Yes.” You can see an example of this at the reference video here. “Talking Parrot Experiment—FlyChomperFly Research Series: VOICE INFLECTION Understood!”


There are also crucial observations, which may not happen in a clinical setting, but will contribute new perspectives and awareness. There are situations where a behavior has never been witnessed and is unknown, or when the evidence of one lone behavior can contradict, validate, or enhance current wisdom. Those are when just a video can be as valuable as a research study. It’s why I’ve worked so hard to document my observations on video.

As you can see, observations such as these are vital for understanding our companion birds. Observe and document your birds—it’s more than just for memories.

CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misinformation. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She documents her approach on her YouTube channel FlyChomperFly.

The Thinking Parrot — Part 1

Observations of Parrot Communication

by CB Buckley

The subject of vocal mimicry and animal communication is still in an early-research stage. In the past couple of decades, there have been some major shifts in the field, along with several very recent significant discoveries regarding birds in particular. Avian communication has been an uphill battle for some researchers, especially Irene Pepperberg of The Alex Foundation, who put in a lot of hard work on long-term projects. These researchers were bucking existing dogma (based on scientific “facts”) that birds couldn’t possibly have any real intelligence.

Now, there are new findings on a regular basis, confirming what every parrot owner knows: Parrots are incredibly smart.


Scientists have been reluctant to accept and give meanings to animal body-language or behavior because there is usually disagreement over the interpretation. Speech is much more specific. A talking animal with adequate communication skills resolves much of the problem. That is the reason parrots have become an important ambassador for animal communication.

But again, language isn’t absolute. Speech is such a key to the human experience that we humans can be overly speech-centric. It’s bad enough trying to get two humans, using words, to not talk past each-other; how do we confirm an interpretation of a non-verbal form of communication?

Animals can be even more subtle in their communications than scientists had thought previously. If the animal doesn’t/cannot verbalize it, we can overlook the message they are transmitting. For instance, after millennia of co-existence with dogs, we have just lately become enlightened about canine body language. Tail-wagging dogs, who superficially seemed to all be acting similarly, are actually communicating quite different intents to their doggie contacts—just by wagging their tails to the right vs. wagging to the left.

Typically, our experience comes from us humans trying to communicate with our companion animals. Some of the most famous animals who have communicated with human scientists used non-verbal methods:

Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, chimpanzees, were two of the first to communicate using ASL (American Sign Language)

Koko, the gorilla, also uses sign language—reported to know about 1,000 signs and understand about 2,000 verbal words

Kanzi, the bonobo, uses symbols to communicate about 600 words

Ake, a bottle-nosed dolphin, understands gestures

Phoenix, a bottle-nosed dolphin, comprehends an “acoustic language”


Among several more recent findings regarding non-verbal animal communication was evidence of referential gestures by ravens. A referential gesture (directing an observer’s attention to something—aka “pointing”) is considered a high-level activity and a key developmental phase linked to speech in humans. As of 2012, referential gesturing other than by humans has only been scientifically confirmed in great apes and those ravens.

A referential gesture can also be done by manipulating an object in order to draw an observer’s attention to it with a specific purpose in mind. I recorded several instances of the parrot equivalent to object gesturing that was described in the raven research study.

In a clear demonstration of this, an African grey parrot has attempted to express her wishes by presenting an object, then uses speech, and finally resorts to a blatant referential gesture in order to make her point (via beak). You can watch the video at flychomperfly. “Parrot Beak Makes a Point—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

In another case, an adult female African grey parrot is attempting to entice (cross-species) a timid Severe Macaw parrot to play with a toy ball. The apprehensive macaw understands that his participation is being solicited as he goes out of his way to avoid even eye contact with the other bird. You can watch the video here. “Macaw Doesn’t Want to Play—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

The most fascinating referential gestures I’ve seen my birds do, is when the conures go through a bunch of zany (subtle and not-so-subtle) theatrics to lure one another with a tempting toy. Their mischievous gestures get the desired effect. Watch an example of this here. “Smart Parrots Playing ‘Keep-Away’!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

Simple interactions that we engage in every day with our parrots are often a form of referential gesturing and cross-species communication. Probably the most familiar, not-so-subtle gesture would be the (in)famous parrot “no thank-you”—aka the “beak-push.”

Many people with companion parrots have experienced their birds coming over and putting their heads down for a head scritch.  That is a gesture and certainly qualifies as non-verbal communication (“A scritch, please—right here”). I have recorded a Jenday who tries so hard to get a Nanday to preen her. Of course, the Nanday takes full advantage of the opportunity. Watch that interaction here. “Funny Parrots say “Preen Here”—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”


I have witnessed parrots spontaneously using symbolic gesturing and play-acting to communicate to other parrots or humans. I call it “birdie charades.” It’s a bit like modeling and observational learning, but used specifically as a means of communication.

In an example, one of our conures will flap her wings when she wants her buddy to fly over and join her. It’s definitely not random flapping—in fact, it’s really awkward as she signals the other bird when she’s inside my shirt.

A highly advanced example I observed was when a Jenday tried to coax a Sun conure into a sleeping tent by jumping in-and-out of it and then squawking at the other bird. She did this three times. That seemed quite clear to us humans. When the other conure was still wary of entering, the Jenday grabbed him by the beak and pulled him in. At that point, it was blatantly clear the gestures were absolutely intentional. There are many highly compelling anecdotal accounts of chickens, dogs and other animals using symbolic gestures.


Although parrots are indeed tricksters, I have witnessed that they also use vocalizations for cooperation and altruism. Chimpanzees are known to alert one-another when they have found a good food source, and I have documented how all my birds (cross-species) use a common call to announce a “goodie” to the rest of the flock. Plus, my parrots are not only different species; they are a mix of both “Old World” (African) and “New World” (South American) parrots. Despite that, they will share the good news with one-another when they encounter something they consider to be excellent—it can be some special food, a cool toy, or a nice bath. You can watch an example of this here. “Parrots Sharing—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CROSS SPECIES VOCALS Altrusitic”


Parrots not only use vocalizations and referential gestures to communicate. We’ve seen them take it to the next level: deception. Lots of animals will use vocalizations, body language, and other means of tactical deception. However, referential gestures as deception are more rare.

I’m sure many of you have probably (unfortunately) experienced how a bird will put his head down to “ask” for the scritch…you reach out, and…Gotcha! A bite instead. We know that parrots will indeed use a gesture as a decoy—an intentionally fake gesture. With my flock, deception is usually used in play. Here are some bluffs that my birds have done frequently:

  • Referential gestures:  present an object as a lure and then snatch it away just as the other bird tries to grab for it (as shown in the video above)
  • Vocalizations:  use calls as a decoy to try to fake out another bird into thinking there is something interesting, when nothing is there; watch an example here. “Parrots Tell Lies!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: GESTURES AND SOUND FOR DECEIT”


Why do birds mimic? Specific motivations for mimicking by parrots in particular have been an enigma for researchers. Research published by Mukta Chakraborty et al., has now revealed that the brains of those birds that are the best mimics (i.e. parrots) also have specialized brain development. They found it goes back to a common ancestor of both parrots and the kea, 29 million years ago.

We don’t know yet the mechanics of the evolution, but scientists have shown that parrots recognize each other by unique calls (“vocal labeling”). According to Thorsten Balsby et al. it may have been to allow members of complex dynamic flocks to identify specific individuals, and communicate directly with one-another.

Since 1972, it has been observed that in the wild, Amazons and other birds will sing long duets in what are called “antiphonal duets” or songs. Listen to an example of the wild Amazon song duet here. Michael D. Schindlinger, Harvard University

Curiously, my flock also sings those “duets.”

Motivation for the songs eluded researchers, who have proposed theories related to mating, alerting, specific messages, territorial aggression, settling down, conflicts or cooperation between pairs, etc. Having witnessed my birds creating their own song, I was fortunate to gain an insight into the song structure.

My birds would experiment with sounds and series of sounds—could be parts of contact calls, trills, whistles, environmental sounds, etc. When one of them found a phrase they liked, it went to the top of their “hit music chart”—they sang it over and over. As they came up with additional “fave” sounds, they built those into their original song. Multiple birds contributed to it; the song was a group effort…and evolved over time as they embellished it. Even having built it up together, each bird will sing their own rendition of it—adding or subtracting parts in an ad-lib fashion.

Here is how my flock’s song evolved:

  • First, a male Sun and a female Jendaya conure made up their own song, each adding to it their own “stanzas.”
  • They then taught the song to a female Nanday and a female African grey, who added their own “stanzas.”
  • The Nanday and grey then taught the song to my current female Jenday, who never met the original authors.
  • I recorded the Nanday singing solo, followed by the grey singing solo…and then the Nanday and grey singing it as a cross-species duet. The grey is off-camera in another room for the duet. You can watch here. “Amazing Cross-Species Parrot Song—FlyChomperFly Research Series: ANTIPHONAL DUET”

The birds shown in the videos are all females, so the individual renditions are not based on gender or sexual pair-bonds. No actions were ever instigated by the song except for joining in on the song.  It is clearly a social activity, and the energy of the song changes according to their motivation. I suspect the Amazon pairs in the wild would draw from existing songs, which they would customize to make their own.

My flock sings it within sight of one another and as a solo, so in addition to it being a contact-call song, they sing it for relaxation (like we hum a song), or just for fun. Based on these observations, parrots apparently engage in social activities that are not directly related to survival.


Humans with flighted parrots will also participate in flock contact-calling. It is a natural social interaction that is especially valuable to those who freefly their parrots outside. Being grounded, a human’s primary means of contact with their flying birds is vocal calls, and parrots willingly integrate their humans into their contact call routine.

While many contact calls are taught from human-to-parrot, some of the parrots have initiated the role of teaching the human their own call. My first Jenday did that with me.

People with non-flighted birds may also have experienced a form of contact call. Many parrots will say or make sounds that they “expect” us to learn and understand. They may invent a unique call that indicates they are hungry, want to be moved or want to go to sleep. Our grey made up her own whistle sound to tell us she was ready to have the lights turned off. This vocalization differs in a very special way from the parrot duet—in that the parrot is soliciting and expecting not just a vocal response, but an actionable response from the recipient of their sounds. If you ever joked about feeling like you’re being trained by your bird, then this kind of interaction is a valid example that could scientifically qualify as your parrot intentionally training you.


While the parrot antiphonal duet is more like a pop song for my flock, it also (as described) functions as a form of contact call when they join in from remote locations. And now, my parrots have transformed part of their song into a contact call “game.”

I am presenting an extraordinary development regarding the antiphonal song. Embedded in my flock’s song are some groupings of sounds we might consider “choruses.” One short chorus in particular has evolved into a popular riff for them that is the birdie equivalent of the human Shave-and-a-Haircut-2Bits. (For those of you who do not remember that bit, it’s where one person or instrument starts a musical phrase, and then another person or instrument “answers” with the ending.) Here is an example of a bird participating in the human version. (Hahn’s Macaw (Maya) singing “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits”)

My flock has taken a chorus from their antiphonal song and invented their own unique birdie couplet. They have turned it into a cross-species vocalization game, where one of them randomly starts, then the others jump in to answer. I have recorded the elements of the game:

  • First, several instances of the chorus as it originally appeared embedded within their antiphonal song—we hear both parts (start and finish) from the same bird—so it can be easily recognized as a stand-alone.
  • Then, the parrots singing it as a call-and-response vocal game.  Note how part of the game at times is to see how quickly they can recognize and answer when one of them starts it.

As an experiment, I tried to join the game—even though my “squawking” was done with a “human accent.” I was amazed to find how readily they accepted anyone joining in. You can observe the game for yourself here. “Parrot Singing Game—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CALL RESPONSE (Shave-and-a-Haircut mode)”

What species survival benefits have humans gained from challenging ourselves to produce art or music? Why would highly intelligent parrots be different? Such mental stimulation from social activities may benefit the brain and should not be discounted when evaluating motivations for parrot behavior. In other words, what a parrot does isn’t always based on strict instincts, the environment or his primary survival needs.

Many people claim their parrots do things “just for fun.” It surely seems they do. We’ll explore this further in the second part of this article.

CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misconceptions. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She demonstrates her approach on her YouTube channel, FlyChomperFly.