Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pygmy Parrots: Pint-sized Peculiarities

Dare I say it? Pygmy parrots pack a punch of perceived peculiarities! Well I'm glad I got that out of the way, I thought I would pop from such perturbation!

Pygmy Parrots are birds that are true to their name, they are small. When I say small I mean a bird that is 67% the size of a Pacific Parrotlet, the smallest of the pygmy species come in at an 8.4 cm while the Pacific Parrotlet is a big 12.5 cm! That's like comparing the average teen to an adult in height, the kid may be getting closer to adulthood but there are some major differences between the two. The same goes for the pygmies and parrotlets as they are petite and green, but take a closer look and you'll find so many different peculiarities it'll either get you begging to learn more about these little known gems, or  it'll make your head spin.

Size: The size for the average pygmy parrot is 9 to 10 cm. The species clocking in at this length include the Yellow-capped, Geelvink, Meek's, Finsch's and Red-breasted Pygmy. But the smallest, and the world record holder, is the Buff-faced Pygmy Parrot at 8.4 cm.

Four of the six Pygmy species and distribution
Click to enlarge
These birds inhabit wet and lowland habitats like mangroves and some dry tropical forests on and around New Guinea and it's island chains. One bird, the Red-breasted, inhabits higher in the Montane region. Many island species within a genus tend to have diverged from a very recent common ancestor. Ancestor birds tend to come from a single source like a group originating from a large mass of land, an island or continent for example. In this case you can think of Darwin's finches, which are still undergoing rapid change and variability even today. They have evolved  a variability of charicteristics like long beaks for prodding and pulling, shorter and tougher ones for cracking and so on.
What we see happening in both our parrots and the finches is known as Allopatric Speciation, a very cool and observable phenomenon. This would explain why we have a total of 6 island species but a whopping concentration of 26 subspecies of pygmy parrots! Where else can you find that many subspecies in one place if not on island regions? Well, mountains oceans and probably some others too, you just need some kind of barrier for speciation to take place. Lets take a break from all the scientific terminology and find out what these little buggers eat!

red-breasted pygmy parrot
Male Red-breasted Pygmy Parrot

Okay, so these guys are known as the world's smallest parrot and they have a whopping 26 subspecies found in only one area of the entire planet! But before today a lot of you probably did not know much about this amazing little bird. But if we had it as a common pet everyone would know it's name, so why don't we have them as pets? One reason is because of their super-specialized and very odd diet. These birds feast on lichens as well as taking insects, fungus, larvae, fruit and small seeds. Let me quote Forshaw about how the Buff-faced Pygmy goes about eating lichens. Video of a bird feeding.
Near Port Moresby I watched a pair feeding in a tall tree standing in secondary growth. When first noticed they were climbing about on the face of the trunk, frequently stopping to feed on lichen. The feet were spread far apart and were at a 45* angle to the body. The projecting tail-shafts were in contact with the trunk only at their tips and there was no pressure on the tail feathers to spread them against the surface of the trunk; in other words, when feeding the parrots were using their stiffened tail feathers for support, although this was not at all obvious at first glance. While nibbling at the lichen they paused every two or three seconds to lean back from the trunk and, turning their heads right around, surveyed behind them as if aware of exposure to predators. They moved in all directions over the trunk and branches, even descending head first and upside-down on the undersides of lateral branches. Head movements were very rapid, but the birds’ progress over the branches was without the jerky motions so characteristic of treecreepers, nuthatches and sittellas. 
The other reason why we don't see them in captivity is because of their very different nesting habits from other parrots. Like most of our birds in captivity they are cavity nesters but the surprise comes in when you find out who it is they nest with; Termites! I find this the most fascinating and, in the long term, perhaps the most dangerous way for a species to survive. This kind of symbiotic reliance the parrot and termite have is known as Coevolution  and the birds are found living in only active termite nests year round.
When you think about coevolution think about hummingbirds like the Swordbill. This bird's bill is as long as its body due to it's reliance on certain passion flower species. It's handy when you are the only bird in town that can eat from a big flower, but if the flower disappears too quickly that bill costs a lot of energy to maintain if you don't use it. So you either adapt or go extinct, fortunately for the Swordbill it still can eat from other flowers and has even been seen at nectar feeders. This is the same idea with the Pygmy parrots, but they do not look as flexible evolutionay-wise as the hummingbird because they seem to rely solely on the termites for a nest. Could this be for hygienic protection? Do the termites benefit at all? If they don't then it is not coevolution. No one seems to know the answers yet. But if the termites leave the forest so do the pygmies.

Special Evolved Features
Created by the author
So pygmies show many peculiarities that few people know about. But their amazing adaptability to their environment is enough to get anyones head to spin, a parrot? Are you sure that's what it is? Yup. And that makes it even more amazing. Species like this can only stay around to help educate people about the amazing feats of nature if they are preserved in the wild for future generations. As educated parrot owners the preservation of wild birds puts itself on our shoulders. We need to keep learning and participating in the animal community to keep it alive. What is "it"? The birds, amazing feats of nature, or the curious animal community? I leave that to you to decide.

Copyright 2011
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Forshaw's Parrots of the World 1978 ed.
Parrots of the World 2010 ed.
World Parrot Trust
Internet Bird Collection
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