Are parrots mammals? This is a very common question because parrots behave like mammals. You will find out in this article why parrots resemble actions as that of mammals, and at the same time, you will know why people deem them as such. Is it their brains? Physiology? All that and more will be discussed in this reading.
The answer might surprise you but parrots are not mammals. In fact, they belong to a class called “Aves” meaning “birds.” This can be confusing because this class belongs to a phylum called “Chordata,” and under this phylum, “Mammalia” (mammals) can also be found.
What is so interesting is the fact that birds and mammals have a lot in common. Meaning, it is not just about their physiology, but it also has a lot to do with how they evolved through the years. This is the reason why parrots are misconstrued as being evolved mammals.
Why Parrots are Not Mammals
In order to have a deeper understanding of why parrots are not mammals, we have to go back to the primary definition of mammals. So mammals are those which have mammary glands. Specifically for females, they use these mammary glands in order to produce milk to nurse their young.
They also have hair and fur. Further, they have a region in their brain which is called a neocortex. Lastly, they also have three middle ear bones.
All of these characteristics distinguish mammals from birds. But the characteristic that makes it confusing is the fact that mammals are also vertebrates. This means, that they have backbones. The same goes for parrots, right?
The scientific term for species that have this characteristic is Chordata, and under this phylum, both mammals and birds are categorized. The classification looks like this:
Chordata (species with backbones or notochords)
- Agnatha: lampreys or jawless fish
- Amphibia: salamanders, newts, toads, and frogs
- Aves: birds
- Chondrichthyes: fishes with skeletons made of cartilage, like rays and sharks
- Mammalia: mammals
- Osteichthyes: fishes with skeletons that are bony
- Reptilia: snakes, lizards, reptiles, crocodiles, and turtles
Moreover, there are other classifications for each class of the Chordata. But as you can see, birds are just classified under this phylum because they have backbones.
We can understand why this can cause confusion due to the fact that parrots behave as any other mammal. But the easiest way to determine if a species is a mammal is if that species give birth to live young.
In the case of the parrots, they do not. They still reproduce through the fertilization of an egg. At the same time, the female parrot does not nurse its young.
General Classification of Parrots
Parrots are also called “psittacines” and this term can be used for over 393 bird species and 92 genera which are usually found in tropical and subtropical areas. They also make up an order called Psittaciformes.
Under the Psittaciformes order, there are also three major superfamilies and these are Psittacoidea (true parrots), Cacatuoidea (cockatoos), and Strigopoidea (New Zealand parrots). Let us discuss each superfamily briefly.
Psittacidae (“True” parrots)
They are approximately 350 species under this superfamily. Their characteristics are that their bills are hooked, they are colorful, and most of them are herbivores. Usually, they are found in Polynesia, Australia, Southeast Asia, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and Mexico.
Some examples are budgerigar, grey parrot, Amazon parrots, Eclectus, lorikeets, conures, and macaws.
This superfamily includes 21 parrot species. Their characteristics are having curved bills, prominent crests, plumage is less colorful (grey or black), and they tend to be larger parrots (with the exception of the cockatiel).
They are usually found in Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands
Further, they are also omnivores. Some examples are the red-tailed black cockatoo, Carnaby’s black cockatoo, white cockatoo, and the salmon-crested cockatoo.
Strigopoidea (New Zealand parrots)
This superfamily only has three genera of parrots and these are the Nestor, Strigops, and the Nelepsittacus. All of these parrots are endemic to New Zealand. Also, some were found in Norfolk Island, Phillip Island, and Chatham Island.
Their characteristics are not set because some also have curved bills while others do not.
At the same time, they can also be colorful or plain. Some examples are the kaka, kea, kakapo, and unfortunately, the now extinct, Norfolk kaka and Chatham kaka.
The ones we discussed are just the general order and the three superfamilies, but definitely, there are more species to be discussed under these superfamilies. One thing is for sure, all of these species are not mammals.
Unique “Mammal-like” Characteristics of Parrots
Let us now move on as to why people often mistake parrots as mammals. First off, they have certain behaviors that resemble what mammals do. Second, they are extremely intuitive so one might think that their brain is highly developed. Let us discuss each factor.
Parrots have the tendency to be self-aware. They know that survival is not all that matters. In some studies, parrots have been found to groom themselves not just for feather maintenance, but also to look presentable.
At the same time, there are a lot of studies around parrots regarding their show of affection towards other parrots and humans. We show you 5 parrots that are known to be the most affectionate parrots here!
They are also known to be protective when it comes to their hatchlings and they actively take on the parent role in teaching their hatchlings to fly and how to properly eat food.
There are also some species that treat their pair as their “significant other.” This means that a female or male parrot will just bond with a single parrot and that will be their pair for life. However, it is not as romantic as you think. We explain why here!
This behavior is shown through the parrot sharing its food, letting the other parrot eat first, grooming them, and also singing or dancing for them. Especially watching a dancing parrot is extremely funny! Here are 10 facts about why they dance!
Advanced Brain Functions
As we have mentioned earlier, mammals have a neocortex which is essential for advanced brain functions like making decisions and knowing right from wrong. However, parrots do not have a neocortex.
But still, they can do a lot of cognitive tasks which are only unique to primates and humans, and this fact makes parrots unique. Based on new research, it was found that parrots have an enlarged brain circuit which makes up for the fact that they do not have a neocortex.
Therefore, they are able to understand object permanence, build tools, act based on their own thoughts, and are able to learn expressions and vocal learning.
According to a scientist from the University of Alberta, there is a part of the brain called medial spiriform nucleus (SpM) which does the same role as that of a pontine nuclei in primates.
Parrots also have pontine nuclei, but they are significantly smaller than mammals, but they have a regular-sized SpM which also helps with their cognitive functions.
The biggest difference between the cognitive functions of a parrot and a mammal is the reaction time. For a parrot, it is simply black and white or a yes and no. They do not have the inherent capability to stop and think about the possible consequences of their actions.
It is only through rigorous training that they can do so.
Can a parrot express emotion? It can only express emotions that have something to do with their survival like when they are hungry, hurt, or tired. However, there are trained parrots that are known to express to their human if they are happy or sad, however, it is still unconfirmed if they actually feel these emotions.
Are parrots descendants of reptiles? No, parrots belong to the Aves class which is different from the Reptilia class that reptiles belong to. But what is unique is that birds have the same respiratory system as that of some reptiles.