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The Parrot Family: Care and behaviour


The parrot family (psittaciformes) includes a wide range of birds from different continents, such as budgies and cockatiels, both parakeet species from Australia, lovebirds and African Grey parrots from Africa, and Macaws from Latin America. This family has a number of characteristics in common, like strong beaks, and big heads. Parrots are social birds, and need company, ideally, the company of their own kind, though parrots from some species can form strong bonds with humans.

Parrots are also intelligent birds, and skilled mimics. Even the smaller parakeets, like budgies, can learn to say a few words and whistle some tunes. One of my cockatiels learnt to imitate the telephone so well he fooled me several times into thinking the phone was really ringing. He would also wolf whistle, and do a very good imitation of me shouting 'get down' (to the cats), as well as creaking like one of my doors, long after it had been oiled and no longer creaked. The ability of African Grey parrots to talk was mentioned by the Ancient Greeks, and they have the greatest ability to develop a repertoire. The best results for all species come from birds trained young, though African Greys seem to need little training, they just love being mimics.

Parrot behaviour

Parrots aren't truly domesticated creatures in the same way that cats, dogs and rabbits are, even if the parrots are captive-born and tame. Domesticated animals have undergone selective breeding for a long time, to make them an easy fit with humans, and their behaviour undergoes subtle changes with each generation, compared with their wild ancestors. Parrots, however, haven't been selectively bred for long enough for these changes to happen. Their natural behaviour is that of a parrot in the wild, and they tend to be more easily stressed than truly domesticated animals, especially if they're kept in a very unnatural environment of a small, bare cage with no companion. This is especially true for the larger parrots, which are also more likely to be kept in an unnatural environment, though budgies and cockatiels have been bred for enough generations to become partly domesticated.

Wild parrots live in groups which include couples and their young. Parrots like to spend time with their mates, even outside the breeding season. The youngsters learn both from their parents, and from the group as a whole. Their parents show them how to find food, and the youngsters learn social skills as they grow up within the group. Today, parrots bought in Europe are captive-born, because it's no longer legal to import wild parrots. Captive-born parrots  have the social skills that their owners have allowed them to learn. Ideally, parrots should be able to get on with their own species, and with humans. This means that they need both contact with other parrots, and interaction with humans, as youngsters. Parrots separated from their own kind too young will have difficulty getting on with other parrots as adults, and if they haven't been handled much by humans as youngsters, they'll also tend to be difficult to handle as adults, and may be scared of humans, sometimes biting to defend themselves if you try to get too close. You need a lot of patience to convince such a parrot to trust you. 

Parrots form bonds with one another, which can last decades. They form close bonds with their mates, and can have what we'd call 'friendships'. Not all birds do this, chickens, for example, like being in groups, but don't develop such strong bonds with individual birds in the group. Parrots like to choose their friends. This means that you can't just put two parrots together and expect them to be happy. They need to get to know one another, and there's no guarantee they'll get on in the long run. Buying two or more birds from a good breeder, who has been able to assess whether they are compatible, is one solution. A good breeder will allow youngsters to spend time with their parents, learning how to be parrots, rather than selling them as soon as they're fledged.

Rescues will sometimes let you foster a potential companion for a bird you already own. Introductions between parrots are more successful if the birds have been near one another, and have shown friendly interest rather than aggressive body language, before they're allowed together. Introductions also tend to work better if the birds have plenty of space when they are finally allowed together. Incompatibility is especially likely if the parrots have very different life experiences, and one or both have been separated  from other parrots since they were very young. 

Parrots that have been raised with humans, and no contact with their own kind, tend to view humans as their 'family'. However, parrots also pick and choose which humans they want to interact with, and can behave very well with one member of a human family, and badly (for example, biting and even dive-bombing) with others. This is especially likely in the breeding season with a parrot that identifies with humans, because a parrot may select one person as its mate, and treat other humans as potential rivals. It's normal behaviour for a hormonal parrot living in an abnormal situation. You can make this behaviour more predictable by giving your parrot as much access to natural light as possible.Light quality and hours of light affect hormone levels, which are more likely to be disrupted and unpredictable if the parrots live under artificial light. You can also distract the parrot when it shows signs of wanting to attack someone. Parrots that manage to breed with their own kind will also attack if you appear to threaten their young, and again it's normal behaviour, with a simple solution, respect their nests.

Researchers have long been fascinated by parrots' linguistic skills. They not only 'talk' to one another, but can learn some human language- Some parrots can understand the meaning of some words, and basic concepts, like 'wait', and even put words together to express what they want. Both parrots and zebra finches have been studied extensively by researchers trying to understand language. Parrots have a far more sophisticated understanding of language than do zebra finches. However, the species of parrots that have these skills also tend to be the more demanding species, which means that if you want to 'talk' to your parrot, you have to put a lot of effort in right from when the bird is a youngster. Irene Pepperberg's African Grey, Alex, became world famous, and his skills were remarkable. However, she was funded to spend time with her parrot, and most adult humans are unable to spend as much time with their parrots as she could!

Like many humans, parrots like playing, and playing with your parrot is an enjoyable way to teach words and phrases. You can say the name of a toy when you offer it to the parrot, for example, and see whether the parrot learns that the word has a meaning.

There are many books on training parrots, usually using methods based on rewarding the parrot for doing what you want. It's worth thinking about whether what you want to parrot to do fits with its natural behaviour. Parrots are social birds, and will learn to talk as a way of interacting with you, especially if they have no other parrot to interact with. However, what they most like doing at dawn and dusk is flying around and foraging, so if you give them a chance to do this, in a safe room with food in strategic locations, they'll be calmer and more content, and more likely to settle for a quiet time with you after letting off some steam.

Differences between parrot species

It's worth doing some in-depth research on the behaviour of a particular parrot species in the wild , if you want to understand the birds needs in captivity. All parrots learn from their parents how to forage, for example, but African Greys tend to be dependent on their parents for longer than most species. This means that captive African Greys are likely to be more stressed if separated from their parents at an age when some other species can be happily independent.

Parrot size varies from smaller species, like budgies, cockatiels and lovebirds, to large and very large species like cockatoos, African Greys, Amazons and macaws. The larger species obviously need more room if you keep several parrots, and they're generally a much bigger commitment.

All parrots are social birds, but some species are more peaceful than others. Some parrots tend not to get on with strangers, though they can live together happily with birds they've known since they were youngsters. Budgies and cockatiels live in groups of up to several hundred in their natural habitat. They can be kept in groups if you have enough room, whereas lovebirds are best kept in pairs.

There are people who recommend keeping some species, such as African Greys, as single birds, but generally, parrots thrive better if they have the company of their own kind. This may not always be practical. You may have a parrot which has spent too long away from other parrots to be able to relate to its own species, and it's not always easy to find a suitable companion for older birds. However, parrots should only be kept singly if you're prepared to devote a lot of time to your bird. They can suffer from loneliness and boredom if left alone too long, and can develop serious behavioural problems, like continual screeching, making continual repetitive swaying movements, and feather plucking. Some species are especially prone to feather plucking when they're upset or bored, and this applies especially to cockatoos and African Greys. Providing toys and interesting features in the cage can help to alleviate boredom when you need to leave your parrot alone.

Some species are particularly musical, like cockatiels and cockatoos. They often respond to human music by bobbing in time, and even dancing. However, both cockatiels and cockatoos can be extremely noisy, which may cause problems if you have neighbours who hear a lot of what goes in in your house. Macaws and Amazons can also be very noisy, especially if they're bored and alone.

Parrots also vary in terms of how well they can learn to imitate human speech. Irene Pepperberg's. work with Alex the parrot made African Greys famous, and they tend to be the best talkers, though Amazons and cockatoos can also be excellent mimics. Senegals and lovebirds tend not to imitate humans much, preferring to talk to one another.

All parrots can bite when they're upset, overexcited, or hormonal, but some, like cockatoos and macaws, can inflict very nasty injuries, so they aren't really safe around children. You have to learn to understand their body language to predict a bite, and be careful about letting them near your face..  

The lifespan of parrots varies a lot, for example, budgies live from five to 10 years, cockatiels from between 10-15 years, lovebirds from 15-20 years, while some larger species can live to be over 80 years old, so all parrots are a long-term commitment, but the larger parrots are a very long-term commitment indeed.

Parrots vary in terms of diet, with some needing more fresh fruit than others, and a few species, like Lories, living on nectar, so some species are much easier to feed than others.

There are guides to the different species and types of parrot, but they can't really prepare you for handling birds and understanding their body language. Many parrots end up in specialised rescue centres, where workers have built up expertise in caring for them. One way to learn about parrots is to volunteer as a helper in a parrot rescue centre, where you can learn both from the humans who've built up expertise, and from the parrots themselves.


The size of the cage or aviary affects the relationships of the birds kept inside it. Birds are more likely to bully or be bullied if they don't have enough room. Cages should always be big enough for the bird to move around comfortably and extend its wings fully, if you just keep one bird, and to allow the inhabitants space away from each other, if you keep more than one. Cages should be rectangular, not round - as birds don't generally feel safe or comfortable in round cages.

Perches provided with the cage are generally smooth dowel of the same diameters so should be replaced by natural branches, such as hazelnut, fruit trees or willow, of differing sizes, as they would find in the wild. They need a regular perch which fits their feet, allowing them to perch comfortably without overlapping toes, or struggling to hold on to too thick branches. Avoid poisonous woods like yew, horsechestnut and buckthorn. Parrots need to gnaw, and also enjoy exploring objects by gnawing them, so their perches and other objects they are likely to chew have to be non-toxic.

The cage should be positioned away from the telephone, radio or TV. Remote control switches also emit sound waves that are unpleasant to birds. One cause of feather plucking is lack of sleep from too much noise and artificial light at night time. If you like to watch TV or listen to music for several hours after dusk, your parrot needs to be in a separate room which is quiet and dark, to get some peace away from you!

Parrots like to feel safe, and if you put the cage alongside a wall, they feel less exposed. The cage should also be out of the sun to avoid overheating, but give your parrot access to sunshine by letting it out every day, or keep it in an aviary where it has access to both sun and shade.

A climbing tree placed next to the cage will be much appreciated by your bird. You can make a climbing tree using tree branches set into a large log, and placed in a tub filled first with gravel and topped up with bird sand. If the tub is wide enough it will catch any droppings and bits of tree branches, which can then be easily scooped out. Toys are also important for parrots to alleviate boredom. You can buy toys, like swings, at pet shops, but birds may be just as happy amusing themselves with household objects like wooden curtain rings or empty wooden cotton reels, and fresh natural branches. You can rotate your birds' toys to combat boredom - and leave the radio on to entertain your birds when you go out! 

Parrots enjoy bathing, and need to bathe when they're moulting. They may spray your room with water, due to energetic bathing. You can buy purpose built bath houses at pet shops, with surrounds to keep most of the water in. Some parrots enjoy being sprayed gently with lukewarm water from a plant spray bottle. Don't add anything to the water - it could harm your bird.

You need to clean food and water dishes every day. All uneaten fresh food should be removed at least once, and preferably twice a day. The sand at the bottom of the cage should be changed at least twice a week, and the entire cage should be cleaned at least once a month using just plain water. Check with your vet for safe products if you need to disinfect the cage, for example, if you have a new arrival. Let your parrot out while you clean the cage - you'll put your bird under less stress, and be less likely to be bitten.

Parrots kept in cages rather than aviaries benefit from being allowed to fly free in a safe room every day. Some people trim their parrots' wings for extra control, but not being able to fly is likely to stress your parrot. Either provide an aviary which is big enough to allow parrots to fly, or make a room safe for your parrot. Kitchens are not usually safe places for parrots, nor are bathrooms - parrots have been known to fall into toilets. Living rooms can contain many hazards. Remember that parrots are curious, and like to investigate by chewing. Parrots will of course leave droppings wherever they perch, shed feathers, and damage perches, regardless of whether they are tree branches you have given them, or wooden curtain poles. Open bookshelves are also favourite places, and your birds may try to strip all the spines off your books. They may also rip off your wallpaper! They're more likely to do this if you aren't paying them attention, so, once they settle after their first flight round the room, it's worth calling them for a titbit before they think of getting up to mischief.

Parrots are also less likely to damage your possessions if you give them some toys they can play with or chew, in the living room, and encourage them to use those toys by playing with them too, or offering them titbits. You can give parrots improvised toys, like cardboard boxes, and rope swings. A designated 'play area' will be more attractive if it also offers opportunities for foraging, so you can scatter and hide food for parrots to find.

Some parrots are just too 'wild' to be allowed out regularly, and may try to fly through closed windows. You can give your birds safe space to fly and protect your possessions by building an indoor aviary using ready made panels, or you can buy purpose built indoor aviaries. You may want an aviary to house more than one parrot. Parrots kept in the same aviary may develop closer bonds with each other than with humans, though you can offset this by taking them out singly to play with, so you develop a relationship with each bird.


Commercial bird seed for parrots depends on the species, and may contain millet, oats, sunflower seeds and wheat kernels. Pellets are also available. The seed mix or pellets comprise the basic staple diet, which needs to be supplemented with fresh food. Sprouted seeds are appreciated, and parrots should be given fresh greens or fruit every day, but not directly from the fridge. Suitable fresh food includes tomatoes, apples, mango and cherries. You can also find chickweed growing wild in Britain, and birds appreciate this. You need to read up on the requirements of your particular parrot species, since their need for fresh food varies, but generally it's important that all fresh food is in good condition. If you wouldn't eat it, don't offer it to your parrot!

Parrots may try eating human food, but some foods, like avocado, chocolate, and dairy products are not good for them. Some house plants are also poisonous, as are some plants found outside, like Virginia creeper.

Parrots also need a mineral stone or cuttlefish bone, and they like to nibble at spray millet. They may eat some of the sand at the bottom of the cage to aid digestion, so if you use sandpaper sheets to line cage base, they will need a small dish of sand or special bird grit. Remove seed husks twice a day to allow the bird to get to the whole seeds. Fresh drinking water should always be available and should be replaced at least twice a day.


You can help keep your bird fit by keeping the cage clean, making sure your parrot has fresh food every day, giving it baths at least twice a week, making sure it isn't bored, and having it checked by a vet at least once a year for parasites or other problems. Feather plucking is a common problem, which may be linked to poor nutrition, skin complaints, not being able to bathe, or boredom. If you have more than one parrot, keep them apart if one appears to be bullying the other.

It's very important to quarantine a new arrival if you already have one or more parrots. Psittacosis is a fairly common infection among parrots, which can be transmitted to humans. It causes breathing problems and weight loss in parrots, and fever, cough and muscle pain in humans. You need to wash your hands after handling new arrivals, both for your own safety, and that of other parrots. Allow new arrivals time to settle down quietly and get used to their new surroundings. You can leave a low wattage bulb on for the first few nights, so that if any noises startle your new bird, it's less likely to damage itself by fluttering its wings against the bars of the cage.


Parrots vary in terms of the strength of their beaks, and some of the larger varieties can cause serious damage to human fingers. Even smaller parrots can damage children's fingers, so it isn't safe to leave younger children and parrots alone together. Anyone taking on one of the larger parrots would be well advised to visit an experienced parrot owner first, to get to know parrot body language. Parrots give signs that they are under stress and about to nip, and it takes some experience to interpret parrot body language. A flared tail might mean your parrot is overexcited, and a hiss may mean that your parrot feels under threat. Parrots sometimes bite their owners when a stranger appears. It's not clear why, though this could be displaced aggression. If your parrot does this, it's sensible to put it in its cage before you let someone in the house, and let the parrot come out in its own time.

Parrots may also bite if you pick them up to put them to bed. If every time you pick up your parrot, it's to do something the parrot doesn't like, then biting is more likely. You can put a titbit in the cages and wait until the parrot goes in of its own accord to feed, then shut the door, as well as giving the parrot a titbit when you pick it up, then letting it go free again.

Some cage designs allow you to replenish food and water without putting your hand inside, and such designs are preferable if you have a very nervous bird, especially if it could give you a nasty bite! Talk to your parrot softly, and offer it treats, so it comes to associate you with pleasant experiences. Let the bird come to you, rather than trying to catch it. Eventually you should be able to tempt your bird onto your hand by first holding a treat in your fingers. Don't be surprised if your parrot initially pecks at your hand - it is just testing to see if there is a negative reaction, so try not to jerk your hand.

Try to get your bird hand tame before allowing it to fly free in the room, otherwise you may not be able to get it back into the cage! If you can't catch the bird quickly, just leave the cage door open with some special treats inside. Parrots usually return to their cages of their own accord, whereas you could harm the bird and your bond with it if you try a mad chase round the room.

Your parrot may be apprehensive when you first open the cage door, but the urge to fly soon outweighs this apprehensiveness. After this, the cage door should be opened at the same time everyday - to allow the bird to fly or just perch on its climbing tree or on top of its cage - or wherever else it prefers to sit. Try to do this in the daytime, since parrots are diurnal. If you keep to the same timetable, you should find the parrot will put itself to bed.

Parrots may annoy their owners and neighbours by screaming, so check whether you plan to buy a noisy species, if you have thin walls! Most parrots are quite noisy at dawn and dusk, when they're most active in the wild, so to curb screaming, let you parrot be active, preferably flying and foraging, and if flying isn't possible, some toys with hidden food will keep your parrot occupied.

Singly kept parrots may also scream to get attention because they're lonely, or because no-one can hear them above the TV. Your parrot will think it fun if you shout back, and will probably scream some more. Try acknowledging its call, then walking away, and returning as soon as the parrot is quiet. If your parrot screams for attention, and you always respond by instantly making a big fuss of your pet, you may encourage your parrot to scream. However, parrots are more likely to scream for attention if they don't have a regular schedule for interacting with you. if you think ahead, and plan regular activities for your parrot at times when it's most likely to be active, your parrot is likely to be quieter.


Parrots need peace and quiet if they're to breed successfully. This is difficult to achieve in the average living room, so if you want to breed parrots, you need to think in terms of an aviary. Talk to experienced breeders, and you can pick up a lot of tips. An experienced breeder can tell you whether your parrot is suitable for breeding, and the signs to look for to pick the best time. Parrots wanting a mate will often become more bitey than usual, and screech more.

Generally, parrots nest in cavities, like crevices and holes in tree trunks, and will happily use nest boxes. Lovebirds like to build their own nests. Larger parrots don't breed every year, and may lay only one or two eggs, and you need a lot of expertise in creating the right conditions if you want them to breed.

It's worth thinking about the decision to breed, because it's likely to affect the bond you have with your birds, and you may not easily find homes for the offspring some of the more common species, such as cockatiels. Breeding does, however, give you a chance to tame and train the young birds, to develop their wonderful abilities as mimics.

Article by Gillian Harvey and Alison Lever

See also:

Reviews of books on the parrot family, including accounts of Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex, her African Grey

News and research, Birds, general, including behaviour

News and research, Birds, health, disease and physiology

Further reading:

Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, Schwarzenberger F. (2014) Social isolation shortens telomeres in African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE, 9(4): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093839.

Colbert-White EN1, Covington MA, Fragaszy DM. (2011) Social context influences the vocalizations of a home-raised African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). J Comp Psychol. 2011 May;125(2):175-84. doi: 10.1037/a0022097.

Emery, Nathan J. (2006). Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence. Philosophical Transacations of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 361 (1465): 23–43.

Koepke AE, Gray SL, Pepperberg IM. (2015) Delayed gratification: A grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) will wait for a better reward. J Comp Psychol. 2015 Nov;129(4):339-46. doi: 10.1037/a0039553. Epub 2015 Jul 27.

Péron, F.; Rat-Fischer, L.; Lalot, M.; Nagle, L.; Bovet, D. (2011). Cooperative problem solving in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus)". Animal Cognition. 14 (4): 545–553.

Reimer J, Maia CM, Santos EF. (2016) Environmental Enrichments for a Group of Captive Macaws: Low Interaction Does Not Mean Low Behavioral Changes. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2016 Oct-Dec;19(4):385-95. doi: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1175944. Epub 2016 May 2.

Spierings MJ(1), Ten Cate C .,(2016) Budgerigars and zebra finches differ in how they generalize in an artificial grammar learning experiment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jul 5;113(27):E3977-84. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1600483113. Epub 2016 Jun 20