Yeeurgh, dear readers.
My day was pretty cool, stuff was done, roads were driven on, nature was seen, sweat was sweated (116°F outisde!!!!). I actually had a pretty awesome day, but I’m too gosh-darned lazy to summon up my memories of it to type about, so I’m going to talk about something totally different today.
I happen to be totally and completely in love with parrots and as such, have educated myself to some degree regarding their behaviour, physiology, habitat, general ecology etc. This is, of course, amateur research, as I’m not far enough advanced in school to get to learn about parrots there. One question that I get asked an awful lots is this: What exactly is a parrot? The short answer is any bird belonging to the order Psittaciformes, in the class Aves, infraclass Neognathae. Generally, this answer is completely unsatisfactory to the person who originally inquired, and they’re likely to be inclined to call me a smart-ass. So I’m going to go into a little more basic detail that will allow you, dear readers, to instantly recognize whether any given bird is a parrot. This will be done as a series, to prevent me from having to exert any creative effort for a little while.
The first image that pops into most people’s minds when they hear the word ‘parrot’ is the blue-and-gold macaw, Ara ararauna, and it’s easy to see why. Not only are their colours striking and memorable, but they are probably the most common macaw in captivity, and have been featured in numerous movies. They are the quintessential pirate parrot; in fact, the pirate Cotton uses one as his surrogate voice in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Besides the beautiful plumage, one of the first things that people notice about these lovely birds is their beak, and this happens to be one of the key factors in deciding whether or not a bird of unknown classification is in fact a parrot. The beak is also known as the bill, and the upper and lower halves are referred to as the upper and lower mandibles. If you see a bird that has an oversized upper mandible that curves downward into a point, that’s one check for “Parrot”. These strong-looking bills are essentially a third foot or hand for most parrots; they explore new objects with them, manipulate and grasp objects with them, use them for support and occasionally self-defense. A parrot’s beak is one of its most versatile tools, and they are meticulously maintained by any self-respecting psittacine.
There’s actually quite a lot of structural variety between different parrot species. The lower mandible of cockatoos dips in the front and forms points on either side, and the hyacinth macaw (the world’s largest parrot) Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, has one of the most formidable beaks you’ll ever see.
This over-the-top weapon makes more sense when you consider that in the wild their diet consists of macademia nuts, brazil nuts, and even coconuts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Pesquet’s, or Vulturine Parrot Psittrichas fulgidus. This beak is long and narrow, looking positively primeval. The diet of this species consists largely of fruit and nectar of figs, and the long bill and bare head are thought to be an adaptation to keep the parrot’s head from getting gooky.
The upper mandible of parrots is actually not fixed to their skull; it’s highly mobile, and this actually adds to the force that the mandible can exert on whatever hapless nut is destined for dinner. The lower mandible is also mobile, and as you’ve seen in the pictures shown, is shorter than the upper mandible. It’s usually shaped like a little scoop, and is often used for that purpose (i.e. drinking), but is also used as either a rock or a hard place. It rests against the inside of the upper mandible, and when an obstacle impedes this natural order, great powers are brought to bear on it. I used to look after a hyacinth macaw, and he used to use his lower mandible to delicately scrape off layers of flesh from apple slices, until only the skin was left (and subsequently discarded).
Beaks are normally kept sharp by a behaviour equivalent to a parrot purring: beak grinding, a.k.a. one of the most adorable things you’ll ever see.
These beaks are composed of keratin, the same stuff that our fingernails and hair are made out of. In addition, like our keratinous protrusions, parrot beaks are also continually growing, and as such need constant maintenance to keep it in optimal shape and condition. If something is knocked even a little out of alignment, the beak can grow into the wrong shape, resulting in a painful condition known as malocclusion. The same condition affects any other animal with continually growing teeth, including rodents and lagomorphs. It is especially crippling in parrots, as the beak is not only used for feeding, but for preening, moving around, and reinforcing social bonds. A whole host of conditions can potentially attack the beak, including various vitamin deficiencies, and many infectious diseases. Probably the best known beak affliction is Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). PBFD is caused by a nasty virus, and as you may have gathered, ravages the feathers and beaks of parrots of all types, and does so by attacking the cells that are responsible for the growth of new tissue. The effects that this has on the beak in particular are necrosis, overgrowth, and cracking and peeling, which lower the drawbridge for all sorts of nasty secondary infections to set in; this often leads to death. It’s a really tragic disease, and is so contagious and feared that if a bird is found to have contracted it, it’s immediately euthanized and all other birds that have recently come into contact with the ex-parrot must also be tested for the dread disease.
Thus concludes my short summary of the best multitool known to science. I’m so very tired that it’s likely I won’t remember this in the morning, but I sincerely hope that it’s been coherent enough to follow.