What did we learn from hours in the canopy watching wild parrots eat and hours in the lab testing the nutritional components of those foods? First, let’s talk about specialists and genera lists. While there are really interesting parrots in the ‘specialist’ category – species like the Red-bellied, Lear’s and Hyacinth Macaws (Orthopsittaca manilata, Anodorhynchus leari and A. hyacinthinus), which eat just one or two types of foods, they are generally the exception. The vast majority of parrots studied to date are the latter. They eat a highly diverse diet including all plant parts like seeds, fruits, and nectar, but also flowers themselves, buds, bark, wood, and leaves. Many species venture beyond the plant kingdom, consuming insects and their larvae, and in some cases aquatic snails. There is even a New Zealand parakeet that has been observed pulling seabird chicks from their underground burrows and eating them live!
For Peruvian parrots of all sorts, we found that nearly all species eat a wide variety of foods, but mostly seeds in varying stages of ripeness. Not surprisingly, the parrots preferred plant parts that are high in protein and fat. What impressed us however, was just how rich some of these foods were when tested back in the lab, some nearing 50 per cent protein and some over 50 per cent fat, which is getting into pine nut territory!
The other piece of this puzzle we found intriguing was just how impervious these birds were to chemicals in their food items, which are generally quite toxic to other birds and mammals. We tested various aspects of toxicity and found that parrots eat high quality foods whether they tested high in these toxicity measures or not. It turns out this diverse group of parrots comprises a marauding bunch of seed predators, flying miles around the rainforest and eating pretty much every nutritious seed or fruit they can sink their powerful beaks into. But aside from their role as consummate seed predators, how does this knowledge help us better provide for our parrots back home?
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