Parrots are often mistaken for mammals. They share several similar characteristics and are warm-blooded, which is a common trait of mammals. That being said, are parrots classified as birds or animals?
Parrots are classified as birds. They’re part of the aves class and the order Psittaciformes, which describes all species of parrot. However, they’re also vertebrates with bones and a spine. They share this in common with mammals, leading people to believe they’re animals and not birds.
There are many different parrot species globally, and they don’t all belong to the same family. To help you determine the difference between mammals and birds, we’ve put together this handy guide.
Are Parrots Considered Animals or Birds?
As stated above, parrots are not mammals. Their scientific clarification determines that they are in the aves class, meaning they are birds.
Live Science explains how parrots are members of the order Psittaciformes and the family Psittacidae. They’re also sometimes called Psittacines. The order includes 398 bird species and 92 genera, including cockatiels, parakeets, and macaws.
To be classified as a parrot, birds must have a curved beak, which is why they’re sometimes called hookbills. They must also have zygodactyl feet consisting of four toes on each foot, two of which point forward and two backward. Other key characteristics of parrots include:
- The uropygial gland, which is also known as the preen gland. This is a two-lobed gland found on the upper side of the tail and is used for grooming.
- Laterally placed eyes, which means they’re on either side of the parrot’s head.
- Feathers on the body. They are usually bright and colorful.
Within the Psittaciformes order, there are three different parrot superfamilies: Psittacoidea, Cacatuoidea, and Strigopoidea. The differences between them are as follows:
Psittacoidea is a parrot superfamily commonly known as the “true parrot.” There are around 350 species of parrot classified under this family. When you imagine a parrot, you’re likely to conjure up an image of a true parrot in your head.
True parrots are widespread and can be found in Australia, India, Southeast Asia, Mexico, South America, and eastwards across the Pacific Ocean. Notable parrot species include:
- Amazon parrots
- Grey parrots
True parrots are defined by their hook-billed beaks and colorful feathers. Most species are also herbivores. Psittacoidea parrots form monogamous pair bonds and mate for life.
They’re highly intelligent and possess a large cranial capacity. They’re also expert fliers and climbers and prefer to nest high up on tree branches.
The Cacatuoidea is another parrot family consisting of 21 cockatoo parrot species. They’re mainly found across Australasia, including the Philippines, Wallacea, New Guinea, Australia, and the Solomon Islands.
Prominent crests and curved bills characterize cockatoos. They’re not as colorful as true parrots and mostly appear white, grey, or black. Instead, color is often found in specks or patches on the chest, tail, or cheeks.
Cockatoos are a large parrot species, though the cockatiel is small compared to the rest of the family. It’s one of the easiest parrots to keep in captivity.
The Strigopoidea is a superfamily of New Zealand parrots. It only consists of three parrot gena, including the Nestor, Strigops, and the Nelepsittacus.
All species in the family come from New Zealand and can also be found in Norfolk Island, Phillip Island, and Chatham Island.
Unfortunately, the family has suffered significant extinction over the years. Human activity has a large part to play after settlers introduced invasive species, like pigs and possums, into the parrot’s habitats. The animals eat parrot eggs found on the ground, resulting in their decline.
Parrots in the Strigopoidea family don’t share common characteristics. Some have curved beaks, while others don’t. Similarly, some parrots are colorful, whereas others are plain.
Difference Between Mammals and Birds
We’ve established that parrots are not mammals, but it’s helpful to understand how to tell birds and mammals apart.
Mammals are a group of vertebrae animals with mammary glands, which females use to produce milk for their young. They also have fur or hair.
A mammal’s lower jaw connects directly to the skull. In contrast, parrots have a separate bone called a quadrate, with which the jaw articulates. Mammals also have 3 tiny bones that transmit sound waves across the middle ear.
Mammals give birth to live young as opposed to eggs.
Birds give birth to fertilized soft-shelled eggs that hatch. Parrots don’t nurse their young but feed them from their beak.
Instead of teeth, parrots have hooked beaks. Their digestive systems also work differently from a mammal. They can’t chew their food, so they swallow it whole.
Food gets stored in the crop until the parrot needs it for sustenance. Parrots will eat more than they need to for survival reasons. Once it enters the two-chambered stomach, food is pulverized and softened to move it through the body safely.
They also have powerful wings, which is one of the easiest and obvious ways to identify a bird.
In mammals, a muscular diaphragm keeps the lungs and heart separate from the abdominal cavity, and only the left aortic arch persists. In birds, the right arch persists. Birds are covered in feathers instead of fur and hair.
Similarities Between Birds and Mammals
While parrots are more closely linked to reptiles, they do share some common traits with mammals, which are described below:
Bones and Organs
The connecting link between birds and mammals is that they’re both vertebrates. This means they have backbones and skeleton systems that are comprised of bone. A parrot’s skeleton is lighter and hollower, allowing it to take flight and stay in the air.
The fact that both mammals and birds are vertebrates is one reason why parrots are often mistaken for mammals. Similarly, parrots have a four-chambered heart like mammals do. The National Science Foundation describes how the heart is similar between mammals and birds because it ensures the separation of low-pressure circulation to the lungs and high-pressure pumping into the rest of the body.
Parrots aren’t just hard-wired to flee from predators and breed. They’re also self-aware. They groom themselves and keep themselves clean and presentable. And not only do they groom, but they preen several times a day.
Like most mammals, parrots pair for life. They create a strong bond with another parrot and only breed with their chosen partner.
Similarly, parrots are also very protective of their young, keeping them safe from predators and other dangers. They actively take on the parent role, teaching their young how to forage and take care of themselves.
Parrots also show affection to humans. When kept as pets in captivity, they love interacting with their owners and cuddle up to those they trust. They will also attempt to groom their owners once the bond is built.
According to New Scientist, parrots are intelligent birds that are capable of complex cognition. The genes that help with their brain development are similar to the ones that humans developed, giving us our large brains.
Parrots don’t have a neocortex, which is what mammals have to distinguish between right and wrong. However, they have an enlarged brain circuit to make up for it.
As a result, parrots have the brain function to be trained by their owners. They play games and solve simple puzzles, undertaking cognitive tasks that the most intelligent mammals can do.
They can also communicate their desires, add, count, and subtract, and they understand the concept of zero. It’s suggested that a parrot’s cognitive abilities are only inferior to primates and humans.
Do Birds Sleep Like Mammals?
Birds and parrots sleep, but not as mammals do. Like mammals, they go through the non-rapid eye moment and rapid eye moment stages of sleep. But unlike mammals, a parrot’s sleep cycles are shorter.
Parrots also sleep with half of their brain awake. Known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep, it allows birds to watch out for predators while they’re at their most vulnerable. They can control how awake their brain is by opening or closing their eyes.
Parrots sleep in a range of different positions and will stand upright or hang upside down. As parrots slumber, their down feathers keep them warm by fluffing up and covering the body.
Did Mammals Evolve from Birds?
It is widely believed that birds first appeared in the fossil record 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, while mammals first appeared 225 million years ago in the Jurassic period.
Both birds and mammals evolved from amniotes, which are a clade of tetrapod vertebrates. Amniotes include synapsids (mammals) and sauropsids (reptiles and birds).
So, while mammals haven’t evolved from birds, they’ve both come from the same place. This has led to the similarities between them but also explains how they differ.
It’s easy to get mixed up between mammals, reptiles, and birds. However, once you know the finer details, it’s clear to see how parrots fall into the bird category.