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South American parrots preserved the dialect of an extinct Indian tribe

Posted in Animals, Australia, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about parrots originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo, picture, image, illustrated

Sulphur-crested cockatoo

From as far back in history as we can go, primitive tribes have kept parrots as pets. The Ancient Greeks and Romans kept parrots, and when English seamen went out to the Spanish Main to harass ships from West Africa to the West Indies, a parrot became almost as great a prize to bring back as a pocketful of doubloons.

Parrots are related to pigeons on the one hand, and to cuckoos on the other. Yet they are unlike both of these in appearance. And they are so unlike all other birds that nobody has any difficulty in telling a parrot when he sees one. All have large heads, short necks, two toes in front and two behind, and they all have strong, hooked beaks.

As might be expected, because they are scattered all round the globe, the members of this family are known by many different names, such as parrots, cockatoos, parakeets, macaws, lovebirds, parrotlets and budgerigars, as well as many others. It would take too long to tell how one kind differs from another, there are more than 300 species, but in general, all parrots are brightly coloured, easily tamed, and can learn to talk. The range of sizes is large. Some, like the pygmy parrots of Papua, are no bigger than a sparrow, while the gaudy macaws of South America may be over three feet long. A good way to identify two of the more usual kinds is that cockatoos have erectile crests and parakeets usually have long, pointed tails.

Parrots live in trees in the tropics, where they feed on nuts, fruits or, like the budgerigar, come down in flocks to the grass to feed on seeds. The great black cockatoo of New Guinea and Northern Australia is the giant of the parrot family. Although not quite as long as the largest macaw, it has a bigger body. Its main claim to fame is that it has the largest beak of all parrots and can crack nuts that a man would find hard to break open with a hammer.

Cockatoos are Australian parrots, distinguished by their crests of long feathers which the birds can raise or lower. The best-known is the sulphur-crested cockatoo, about half the size of the black cockatoo and contrasting with it by its white plumage. This is one of the commonest cockatoos to be seen in zoos.

The Australian king parakeet is one of the most remarkable parakeets because the male has a brilliant green back and crimson front, whereas the female is more soberly clad, being mainly dark green. This difference between the sexes is taken still further in the eclectus parrot, which lives in Indonesia and in Queensland, Australia. The male is a bright green and the female is blue and red. They look like two different species.

Many of the Australian parakeets have red heads and fronts and have been called rosellas, meaning little roses. To add to the confusion of names, the eastern rosella is also called the mountain or red lowry. The Eastern aborigines say that the rosellas are the only birds they cannot eat. To indicate how tough these birds are, they say you must cook a stone axe with the bird, and when the axe is soft the rosella is tender enough to eat.

Australia has more than its fair share of the parrot family, including the budgerigar, which is found in its millions in the wild state. It is rivalled by South America, with its gaudy diversity of macaws, parakeets and parrots. One of these is widely distributed from Argentina northwards through Central America to Mexico, where it is known as the aztec parrot. It reminds us that King Montezuma of the Aztecs, the original inhabitants of Mexico, had one of the largest zoos ever seen – this was 500 years ago!

The other home of parrots is Africa. The best-known is the African grey parrot, often kept as a pet because it is a good talker. On the other side of the continent, in East Africa, is the masked lovebird, one of many different kinds of lovebirds found in Africa. They have been given this name from the way they perch close together, heads tilted, as if eternally kissing each other.

It is always said that no wild parrot ever mimics human speech. Yet years ago a traveller in the wilds of South America reported finding a colony of parrots speaking the dialect of a tribe of South American Indians that had died out.

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