Most parrots start flying (fledging) after 10-12 weeks. It may take larger parrot species longer to develop sufficient strength to take to the air, while some smaller species may start flying slightly earlier.
Wild parrots gain flight techniques from their parents. Learning to fly is gradual, so a parrot won’t immediately soar to its full potential. A parrot’s first few flights will be short and near the ground.
How Does a Parrot Fly?
The science of parrots’ flight can be explained through Newtonian physics.
The flapping of a parrot’s wings is called acceleration (a.) This creates mass in the air (m), which raises the parrot. This defiance of gravity creates force (ma).
A parrot in the air won’t always actively flap its wings to create force. Once the parrot has achieved flight, The Royal Society explains how it can spread its wings and glide by using the wind or hovering.
Various parts of the anatomy play a role in the ability to take to the sky and remain airborne.
The wings – specifically, the feathers on the wings – are crucial to a parrot’s ability to fly.
The feathers on a parrot’s wings are called primary feathers, and these are complemented by secondary feathers, which are located on the inner wings.
The primary feathers, which are made of keratin, provide a parrot with the ability to take to the air when force is generated. Feathers are so closely connected that they work with the wind to keep them airborne.
If a parrot’s wings are clipped, it’ll be the primary feathers that are cut. These feathers molt and regrow periodically to overcome wear and tear caused by regular flight.
The secondary feathers on a parrot’s wings are also important to flight, as they help them maintain height by trapping air. A parrot can fly without secondary feathers but with less control and coordination.
A parrot utilizes the tail in flight to lift the body and retain balance.
This is essential as the wings are slightly ahead of the center of gravity. The tail helps a parrot maintain direction or steer and creates wind resistance when it wants to land.
A parrot’s breastbone, sometimes called a keel or carina, is critical to avian flight. This bone is an anchor for the muscles of the wings, enabling the parrot to take off.
The skeleton aids in flight once achieved. Parrots have light and hollow bones that ensure they can remain airborne and glide when carried by the wind.
A parrot relies on its legs to take off for flight. Most parrots will give a short hop ahead of taking to the air, using the strong muscles in the legs to gain enough altitude to commence flight. The strong leg muscles of a parrot can also withstand air pressure.
While a parrot is in the air, it doesn’t need to use its legs, so they’ll remain static throughout the flight, only being utilized when the parrot needs to land again.
A parrot’s heart has 4 chambers, which can beat up to 800 times per minute while flying. This means parrots have a high metabolic rate, constantly regenerating the energy required to sustain flight.
Lungs and Air Sacs
Parrots have a high metabolic rate, especially when flying, requiring a constant supply of oxygen. To provide this, parrots have air sacs attached to their lungs.
While in the air, parrots take in air through their nares.
This oxygen is purified by the nasal cavities, filtering out dust and the unwanted matter before moving to the trachea and syrinx. Here, oxygen is transported to the lungs and air sacs.
In one breath, the parrot exhales air from the lungs. While the body waits for a fresh supply of oxygen, air stored in the air sacs is used to breathe.
This is why parrots can constantly remain in the air without losing breath.
Why Do Parrots Fly?
Wild parrots fly for various reasons, frequently related to survival. These include:
- Fleeing from a threat, such as a predator or extreme weather.
- Searching for food or water or responding to a parrot’s call announcing its discovery.
- Looking for a new breeding partner during the mating season.
- Migrating during the winter to escape a cold climate.
Parrots also fly for fun and exercise, as it’s important to their health and well-being.
Can All Parrots Fly?
The only species of flightless parrot is the kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus), which is native to New Zealand.
They’re known as the owl parrot, as the kākāpō resembles this nocturnal bird of prey, albeit with considerably more colorful plumage.
Kākāpō grows to around 25 inches and weighs up to 9 pounds at full maturity. This makes the kākāpō the heaviest of all parrot species.
This weight and shorter wings mean the kākāpō remains on the ground and can’t fly.
The kākāpō is a critically endangered species, with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation claiming that less than 250 of these parrots are still alive today. All kākāpō live on 2 islands.
What Time of Day Do Parrots Fly?
Wild parrots only fly during daylight hours, but why don’t parrots fly at night? One key reason is that parrots have limited vision in darkness, which makes flying dangerous.
Except for the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis,) a critically endangered species native to Australia, parrots are diurnal. This means parrots usually sleep through the night, waking at dawn.
This lifestyle is also safer for wild parrots. As parrots nest in tree cavities, they’re safe from mammalian predators. Other birds, especially eagles, falcons, and hawks, are the main threat to parrots.
This doesn’t mean a parrot will never fly at night. If the bird’s life is in danger, it’ll fly to escape a threat. Parrots occasionally fly at night during migration to avoid prolonged sun exposure.
How Do Parrots Change Direction When Flying?
While a parrot is in the air, it uses its wings and tail to change direction.
While the wings and tail are outstretched and unmoving, the parrot will continue to glide forward in a straight line. If the parrot needs to turn, it tilts its wings.
For example, a flying parrot that needs to turn left will tilt its wings in this direction. The same applies if a parrot needs to steer to the right.
If the parrot wants to move closer to the ground, it’ll lift the tailbone back to create more wind resistance. This will slow the bird’s path and lead to a steady descent.
The parrot will then glide and hover until it reaches a safe height.
How Long Can Parrots Fly For?
If a parrot has a reliable source of food and water nearby, it’s unlikely to travel too far. Larger parrots like cockatoos, Amazons, and macaws may travel up to 10-30 miles searching for food.
The longest journey is made by the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), which migrates back and forth (187 miles) between Australia and Tasmania twice a year during migration.
The question is, how do parrots fly for so long?
Aside from using their air sacs, parrots glide for as much of their journey as possible. The stronger the wind behind a parrot, the further it can travel without the risk of growing exhausted.
Parrots will stop and rest if they’re too tired to continue flying. A parrot fleeing a predator will put as much distance between itself and the threat as possible before halting to catch its breath.
How High Do Parrots Like to Fly?
Usually, parrots fly around 500 feet above the ground. This keeps them safe from land-dwelling threats and provides access to trees but avoids airspace populated by birds of prey.
Raptors are often found 10,000 to 15,000 feet above the ground.
During migration, parrots will fly higher. Parrots can fly as high as 5,000 feet from the ground during these seasons because they’re keen to cover more ground faster to reach their destination.
According to the Journal of Ornithology, parrots move faster with a strong wind behind them. The parrot will encounter less wind resistance by soaring above trees and tall buildings.
How Fast Do Parrots Fly?
The average cruising speed of a parrot is 20-30 mph.
This is the top speed of certain parrots, such as cockatoos, considered among the slowest. Other parrots, including macaws and African greys, can reach a top speed closer to 50 mph.
The Public Library of Science explains that a parrot’s size and body mass won’t directly influence travel velocity. The speed of a parrot depends on the species, wind velocity, and reason for flight.
Parrots escaping a predator will move faster than one looking for exercise and recreation. Migrating parrots will move steadily to conserve energy and reach their eventual destination.
Do Parrots Fly Alone or in Flocks?
Wild parrots are rarely found alone, whether roosting or in flight. It’s common to see a flock of parrots taking to the air together in their natural habitat.
This behavior is partly because there’s safety in numbers. A single parrot can be picked off by a predator, while a group is likelier to be avoided.
Traveling together also means that parrots are likelier to spot a threat and warn each other, and the flock can even combine to defend each other.
Parrots also travel in groups because they have a shared common goal.
The flock will all be migrating to warmer terrain or heeding a call that food and water have been found. Animal Cognition confirms that parrots share resources with other flock members.