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Extraordinary Acrobats

Parrots magazine 160

Extraordinary Acrobats

Robert Alison tells us how many parrot species can display some amazing acrobatics.

They can dangle themselves upside-down, confidently yet precariously, grasping the most spindly branchlets, often with only one foot, while deftly plucking seeds or small fruit.  Such gymnastic feats are most often performed by smaller-bodied species, but even the largest cockatoos and macaws suspend themselves, seemingly hazardously, from tiny boughs on occasion.

Their dexterity under such circumstances is truly amazing, the culmination of developing adaptive behaviours that allow them to exploit food resources which might be otherwise unavailable to them. Acrobatic abilities are so fundamental to the psittacids that some species eventually incorporated acrobatic movements into courtship and pair-bond maintenance displays.

Intricate and elaborate psittacid feats of balance and acrobatic prowess are apparently of very ancient origin. The necessary ‘zygodactyl’ foot structure, suitable torso-metatarsus and tendon arrangements were present in ancient fossil psittacids found in Europe and dating to roughly 15-13.5 million years ago. Researchers have confirmed other fossil psitacids, dating to 110-150 million years ago, also had the necessary foot structures, and some of them were very similar to modern Polytelis parakeets.

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