Juan F. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. Dr. Masello was hooked.
Today, Dr. 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,” Dr. Masello said, “are inspirational.”
Dr. 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 A. Toft and Timothy F. Wright. Others have been reported in journals or demonstrated through online videos, which have gone viral or deserve to.
Dr. 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, Dr. 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,” Dr. Wright said. “It destroys the seed. It goes right in through the fruit and eats the plant baby.”
Or the entire herbaceous brood. Researchers have found that when a flock of parrots alights on a fruiting tree, a veritable seed massacre can ensue.
In one study of canary-winged parakeets foraging on the seeds of shaving-brush trees in the Cerrado tropical savanna of central Brazil, scientists determined that the birds destroyed 66 percent to 100 percent of each tree’s fruit in a matter of days. Not a single whole seed could be found on the ground.
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 nine 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, Dr. 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.”
Residents of Los Angeles County may spot enclaves of more than a dozen different feral parrots, including lilac-crowned Amazons, rose-ringed parakeets, macaws and cockatiels. Why some parrots thrive in anthropocentric landscapes while others are on the cusp of oblivion has yet to be determined.
Researchers propose that many of the parrot’s signature traits evolved to meet the challenge of seed predation and exploiting a resource that plants do everything in their power to defend.
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 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,” Dr. 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,” Dr. 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, Dr. 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,” Dr. Wright said, adding, “Vocal similarity is very important for maintaining social relationships,” in parrots as in humans.
Dr. Wright said that captive parrots’ renowned talent for promiscuous vocal mimicry — of human speech, a multipart car alarm, a cat’s meow — is probably a byproduct of an innate desire to parrot its own kind.
“It’s extremely rare to find mimicry of other species in wild parrots,” he said. He also suggested that the ability of some parrots in captivity to move to a musical beat may be an offshoot of vocal mimicry, a generalized motor pattern geared toward synchrony playing out in body or voice.
The most celebrated dancing parrot is Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo with a trademarked name whose YouTube dance performances to Queen, Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys have been viewed some 15 million times.
Always Trying Something New
Researchers are still getting a bead on parrot intelligence, and they are repeatedly surprised by each new display of it.
Dr. Pepperberg and her collaborators have shown that African grey parrots have exceptional number skills: Alex could deduce the proper order of numbers up to 8, add three small numbers together and even had a zerolike concept — “skills equivalent to those of a four-and-a-half-year-old child,” Dr. Pepperberg said.
Dr. Auersperg and her co-workers have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are more geared toward solving technical tasks. Alternately using their bills and feet, the birds can systematically make their way through a lock with five different complex mechanisms on it. Should they discover that one of the steps can be skipped en route to opening a chamber with a nut inside, they skip it the next time around.
And in an act of ingenuity that Dr. Auersperg called “sensational” for an animal not known to use tools in the wild, a cockatoo named Figaro one day started carefully chipping at the edge of a larch wood frame until he had formed a long, slender pole, which he then wielded in his bill like a hockey stick to knock out pebbles and nuts hidden under boxes.
“It took him 20 minutes to make his first tool,” Dr. Auersperg said. “After that, he could do it in less than five minutes.”
Other cockatoos that watched Figaro build his tool and then retrieve his nut reward were soon chipping at scraps of wood and batting out nuts.
Figaro didn’t stop there. Soon he was using sticks to draw patterns in the sand, Dr. Auersperg said.
Yes, a cockatoo can doodle, too.