1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Parrot

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PARROT (according to Skeat, from Fr. Perrot or Pierrot, the diminutive of the proper name Pierre[1]), the name given generally to a large and very natural group of birds, which for more than a score of centuries have attracted attention, not only from their gaudy plumage, but, at first and chiefly, it would seem, from the readiness with which many of them learn to imitate the sounds they hear, repeating the words and even phrases of human speech with a fidelity that is often astonishing. It is said that no representation of any parrot appears in Egyptian art, nor does any reference to a bird of the kind occur in the Bible, whence it has been concluded that neither painters nor writers had any knowledge of it. Aristotle is commonly supposed to be the first author who mentions a parrot; but this is an error, for nearly a century earlier Ctesias in his Indica (cap. 3),[2] under the name of βίττακος (Bittacus), so neatly described a bird which could speak an “Indian” language—naturally, as he seems to have thought—or Greek—if it had been taught so to do—about as big as a sparrow-hawk (Hierax), with a purple face and a black beard, otherwise blue-green (cyaneus) and vermilion in colour, so that there cannot be much risk in declaring that he must have had before him a male example of what is now commonly known as the Blossom-headed parakeet, and to ornithologists as Palaeornis cyanocephalus, an inhabitant of many parts of India. After Ctesias comes Aristotle's ψιττάκη {Psittace), which Sundevall supposes him to have described only from hearsay. There can be no doubt that the Indian conquests of Alexander were the means of making the parrot better known in Europe, and it is in reference to this fact that another Eastern species of Palaeornis now bears the name of P. alexandri, though from the localities it inhabits it could hardly have had anything to do with the Macedonian hero. That Africa had parrots does not seem to have been discovered by the ancients till long after, as Pliny tells us (vi. 29) that they were first met with beyond the limits of Upper Egypt by explorers employed by Nero. These birds, highly prized from the first, reprobated by the moralist, and celebrated by more than one classical poet, in the course of time were brought in great numbers to Rome, and ministered in various ways to the luxury of the age. Not only were they lodged in cages of tortoise-shell and ivory, with silver wires, but they were professedly esteemed as delicacies for the table, and one emperor is said to have fed his lions upon them! With the decline of the Roman Empire the demand for parrots in Europe lessened, and so the supply dwindled, yet all knowledge of them was not wholly lost, and they are occasionally mentioned by one writer or another until in the 15th century began that career of geographical discovery which has since proceeded uninterruptedly. This immediately brought with it the knowledge of many more forms of these birds than had ever before been seen. Yet so numerous is the group that even now new species of parrots are not uncommonly recognized.

The home of the vast majority of parrot-forms is unquestionably within the tropics, but the popular belief that parrots are tropical birds only is a great mistake. In North America the Carolina parakeet, Conurus carolinensis, at the beginning of the 19th century used to range in summer as high as the shores of lakes Erie and Ontario—a latitude equal to the south of France; and even much later it reached, according to trustworthy information, the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi, though now its limits have been so much curtailed that its occurrence in any but the Gulf States is doubtful. In South America, at least four species are found in Chile or the La Plata region, and one, Conurus patagonus, is pretty common on the bleak coast of the Strait of Magellan. In Africa it is true that no species is known to extend to within some ten degrees of the tropic of Cancer; but Pionias robustus inhabits territories lying quite as far to the southward of the tropic of Capricorn. In India the northern range of the group is only bounded by the slopes of the Himalaya, and farther to the eastward parrots are not only abundant over the whole of the Malay Archipelago, as well as Australia and Tasmania, but two very well-defined families are peculiar to New Zealand and its adjacent islands (see Kakapo and Nestor). No parrot has recently inhabited the Palaearctic Region,[3] and but one (the Conurus carolinensis, just mentioned) probably belongs to the Nearctic; nor are parrots represented by many different forms in either the Ethiopian or the Indian Regions. In continental Asia the distribution of parrots is rather remarkable. None extend farther to the westward than the valley of the Indus,[4] which, considering the nature of the country in Baluchistan and Afghanistan, is perhaps intelligible enough; but it is not so easy to understand why none are found either in Cochin China or China proper; and they are also wanting in the Philippine Islands, which is the more remarkable and instructive when we find how abundant they are in the groups a little farther to the southward. Indeed, A. R. Wallace has well remarked that the portion of the earth's surface which contains the largest number of parrots, in proportion to its area, is undoubtedly that covered by the islands extending from Celebes to the Solomon group. “The area of these islands is probably not one-fifteenth of that of the four tropical regions, yet they contain from one-fifth to one fourth of all the known parrots” (Geogr. Distr. Animals, ii. 330). He goes on to observe also that in this area are found many of the most remarkable forms—all the red Lories, the great cockatoos, the pigmy Nasiternae and other singularities. In South America the species of parrots, though numerically nearly as abundant, are far less diversified in form, and all of them seem capable of being referred to two, or, at most, three sections. The species that has the widest range, and that by far, is the common Ring-necked Parakeet, Palaeornis torquatus, a well-known cage-bird which is found from the mouth of the Gambia across Africa to the coast of the Red Sea, as well as throughout the whole of India, Ceylon and Burmah to Tenasserim.[5] On the other hand, there are plenty of cases of parrots which are restricted to an extremely small area—often an island of insignificant size, as Conurus xantholaemus, confined to the island of St Thomas in the Antilles, and Palaeornis exsul to that of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean—to say nothing of the remarkable instance of Nestor productus (see Nestor).

The systematic treatment of this very natural group of birds has long been a subject of much difficulty. A few systematists, among whom C. L. Bonaparte was chief, placed them at the top of the class, conceiving that they were the analogues of the Primates among mammals. T. H. Huxley recognized the Psittacomorphae as forming one of the principal groups of Carinate birds, and they are now generally regarded as forming a suborder Psittaci of the Cuculiform birds (see Bird). Owing to the erroneous number of forms and the close similarities of structure, the subdivision of the group has presented great difficulties. Buffon was unaware of the existence of some of the most remarkable forms of the group, in particular of Strigops and Nestor; but he began by making two great divisions of those that he did know, separating the parrots of the Old World from the parrots of the New, and subdividing each of these divisions into various sections somewhat in accordance with the names they had received in popular language—a practice he followed on many other occasions, for it seems to have been with him a belief that there is more truth in the discrimination of the unlearned than the scientific are apt to allow. In 1867–1868 Dr O. Finsch published at Leiden an elaborate monograph of the parrots,[6] regarding them as a family, in which he admitted 26 genera, forming 5 subfamilies: (1) that composed of Strigops (Kakapo), only; (2) that containing the crested forms or cockatoos; (3) one which he named Sittacinae, comprising all the long-tailed species—a somewhat heterogeneous assemblage, made up of Macaws (q.v.) and what are commonly known as parakeets; (4) the parrots proper with short tails; and (5) the so-called “brush-tongued” parrots, consisting of the Lories (q.v.) and Nestors (q.v.). In 1874 A. H. Garrod communicated to the Zoological Society the results of his dissection of examples of 82 species of parrots, which had lived in its gardens, and these results were published in its Proceedings for that year (pp. 586–598, pls. 70, 71). Summarily expressed, Garrod's scheme was to divide the parrots into two families, Palaeornithidae and Psittacidae, assigning to the former three subfamilies, Palaeornithinae, Cacatuinae and Stringopinae, and to the latter four, Arinae, Pyrrhurinae, Platycercinae and Chrysotinae. That each of these sections, except the Cacatuinae, is artificial any regard to osteology would show. In the Journal für Ornithologie for 1881 A. Reichenow published a Conspectus Psittacorum, founded, as several others[7] have been, on external characters only. He makes 9 families of the group, and recognizes 45 genera, and 442 species, besides subspecies. His grouping is generally very different from Garrod's, but displays as much artificiality: for instance, Nestor is referred to the family which is otherwise composed of the cockatoos.

The system now generally accepted is based on a combination of external and anatomical characters, and is due to Count T. Salvadori (Cat. Birds, Brit. Mus. XX., 1891), and H. F. Gadow (Bronn's Thier-Reich, Aves, 1893). About 80 genera with more than 500 species are recognized, divided into the family Psittacidae with the subfamilies Stringopinae, Psittacinae and Cacatuinae, and the family Trichoglossidae with the subfamilies Cyclopsittacinae, Loriinae and Nestorinae.

The headquarters of parrots are in the Australian Region and the Malay countries; they are abundant in South America; in Africa and India the number of forms is relatively small; in Europe and North Asia there are none now alive, in North America only one. Parrots are gregarious and usually feed and roost in companies, but are at least temporarily monogamous. Most climb and walk well; the flight is powerful but low and undulating in most. The food is varied but chiefly vegetable, whilst parrots are alone amongst birds in holding the food in the claws. The usual cry is harsh and discordant, but many softer notes are employed. A large number of forms learn in captivity to talk and whistle, the well-known red-tailed grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) of tropical Africa being pre-eminent. The eggs are laid usually in holes in trees, rocks, or the ground, no lining being formed. The larger species produce one to three, the smaller as many as twelve, the colour being dull white. The young when hatched are naked and helpless.  (A. N.) 

  1. “Parakeet” (in Shakespeare, 1 Hen. IV. ii. 3, 88, “Paraquito”) is said by the same authority to be from the Spanish Periquito or Perroqueto, a small Parrot, diminutive of Perico, a Parrot, which again may be a diminutive from Pedro, the proper name. Parakeet (spelt in various ways in English) is usually applied to the smaller kinds of Parrots, especially those which have long tails, not as Perroquet in French, which is used as a general term for all Parrots, Perruche, or sometimes Perriche, being the ordinary name for what we call Parakeet. The old English “Popinjay” and the old French Papegaut have almost passed out of use, but the German Papagei and Italian Papagaio still continue in vogue. These names can be traced to the Arabic Babagbā; but the source of that word is unknown. The Anglo-Saxon name of the Parret, a river in Somerset, is Pedreda or Pedrida, which at first sight looks as if it had to do with the proper name, Petrus; but Skeat believes there is no connexion between them—the latter portion of the word being rið, a stream.
  2. The passage seems to have escaped the notice of all naturalists except W. J. Broderip, who mentioned it in his article “Psittacidae,” in the Penny Cyclopaedia (xix. 83).
  3. A few remains of a Parrot have been recognized from the Miocene of the Allier in France, by A. Milne-Edwards (Ois. Foss. France, vol. ii. p. 525, pl. cc.), and are said by him to show the greatest resemblance to the common Grey Parrot of Africa, Psittacus erithacus, through having also some affinity to the Ring-necked Parakeet of the same country, Palaeornis torquatus. He refers them, however, to the same genus as the former, under the name of Psittacus verreauxi.
  4. The statements that have been made, and even repeated by writers of authority, as to the occurrence of “a green parrot” in Syria (Chesney, Exped. Survey Euphrates and Tigris, ii. 443, 537) and of a parrot in Turkestan (Jour. As. Soc. Bengal, viii. 1007) originated with gentlemen who had no ornithological knowledge, and are evidently erroneous.
  5. It is right to state, however, that the African examples of this bird are said to be distinguishable from the Asiatic by their somewhat shorter wings and weaker bill, and hence they are considered by some authorities to form a distinct species or subspecies, P. docilis; but in thus regarding them the difference of locality seems to have influenced opinion, and without that difference they would scarcely have been separated, for in many other groups of birds distinctions so slight are regarded as barely evidence of local races.
  6. Die Papageien, monographisch bearbeitet.
  7. Such, for instance, as Kuhl's treatise with the same title, which appeared in 1820, and Wagler's Monographia Psittacorum, published in 1832—both good of their kind and time.