Parrots and mammals share similar characteristics. This can create confusion over their scientific classification.
Parrots aren’t mammals, they’re birds. Parrots are part of the aves class and the order Psittaciformes, which defines all parrot species. However, they’re also vertebrates with bones and a spine. They share this in common with mammals, leading people to believe that parrots are mammals and not birds.
There are many different parrot species globally, and they don’t all belong to the same family. To determine the difference between mammals and birds, let’s take a more in-depth look.
Are Parrots Considered Animals or Birds?
Parrots’ scientific classification determines that they’re in the aves class, meaning that they’re birds. Live Science explains how parrots are members of the order Psittaciformes and the family Psittacidae.
They’re 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 4 toes on each foot, 2 of which point forward and 2 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 that the eyes are on either side of the parrot’s head.
- Feathers on the body, which are usually bright and colorful.
Within the Psittaciformes order, there are 3 different parrot superfamilies: Psittacoidea, Cacatuoidea, and Strigopoidea.
Here are the differences between them:
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 have 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:
Hook-billed beaks and colorful feathers define true parrots. Most species are also herbivores. Psittacoidea parrots usually 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, preferring to nest high up on tree cavities.
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.
The Strigopoidea is a superfamily of New Zealand parrots.
It only consists of 3 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 reduced in number over the years. Human activity played a large part as 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 aren’t mammals, but it’s useful 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 and don’t lay eggs.
Birds give birth to fertilized soft-shelled eggs that hatch. Parrots don’t nurse their young but regurgitate food from their crops.
Instead of teeth, parrots have hooked beaks. Their digestive systems also work differently from mammals. They can’t chew their food, so they swallow it whole.
Food is stored in the crop until the parrot needs it for sustenance. Parrots will eat more than they need to for survival. Once it enters the two-chambered stomach, food is pulverized and softened to move it through the body.
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, not fur and hair.
Similarities Between Birds and Mammals
While parrots are more closely linked to reptiles and even dinosaurs, 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 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 hardwired to flee from predators and breed. They’re also self-aware. They groom themselves and keep themselves clean and presentable. Not only do they groom, but they preen several times a day.
Like most mammals, many parrots pair for life, forming a strong bond with another parrot and only breed with their chosen partner. Not all parrots are monogamous, though.
Similarly, parrots are also 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 care for 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 clever birds that are capable of complex cognition. The genes that assist with brain development are similar to those 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 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 their bodies.
Did Mammals Evolve from Birds?
It’s 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 confuse mammals, reptiles, and birds. However, once you know the finer details of their classification, it’s clear how parrots fall into the bird category.