Evolution has meant that the parrots’ skeletal systems have adapted to allow them to fly and forage.
On average, parrots have 13 to 25 bones, depending on their species. They have fewer bones than mammals because their bodies need to be light enough to allow them to lift off and take flight.
Many of their bones are fused together to ensure they’re strong and lightweight. Parrots have backbones, so they’re classified as vertebrates.
In many ways, parrots’ bones are similar to our own, but they have additional adaptations that suit their specific requirements, allowing them to survive and thrive as a species.
How Many Bones Do Parrots Have?
Parrots don’t have as many bones as humans. As mentioned, while the exact number varies between species, most parrots have between 13 to 25 bones. Smaller parrots tend to have fewer bones.
Parrots have fewer bones than mammals and other animals because they’re fused together, ensuring that they’re light enough for flying. Lighter bones enable parrots to regulate their weight more efficiently.
Parrot Skeleton System
A parrot’s skeleton is similar to a human’s, as it contains similar bones. However, the bones are shaped differently to suit a parrot’s specific survival requirements.
As mentioned, parrots need a light musculoskeletal system in order for them to stay in the air. The main components of a parrot’s skeleton are as follows:
A parrot has a large cranium that protects its brain. It’s made up of 5 prominent bones, including:
- Frontal, which is the top of the head.
- Parietal, which is the back of the head.
- Premaxillary and nasal; both consist of the top beak.
- Mandible, which is the lower part of the beak.
Interestingly, the skull usually weighs about 1% of a parrot’s total body weight. This is light compared to the rest of the body because parrots don’t have heavy jaws, jaw muscles, or teeth like mammals. While the beak looks heavy, it’s made from keratin, which is a relatively lightweight material.
A ring of tiny bones surrounds the eyes, called the sclerotic eye-ring. This is a characteristic that parrots share with reptiles.
Parrots can move their upper beaks independently of their skull. This is known as cranial kinesis, allowing them to crack open and eat awkwardly-shaped items like shelled nuts.
However, this is thought to be because of the skull’s design rather than an adaptive evolutionary feature. Nonetheless, it gives parrots a better chance of survival in the wild.
Parrots have 10 cervical vertebrae in their neck, allowing them to turn their heads almost 180 degrees. Interestingly, parrots have more bones in their neck than most animals, keeping them stable while flying, landing, and taking off.
Compared to the rigidness of the body, a parrot’s neck is very mobile. That’s because they need to be able to see dangers from all angles. Parrots also use their flexible necks to preen hard-to-reach feathers.
Unlike other vertebrates, parrots have fused collarbones and a keeled breastbone. The breastbone is the primary attachment site for the flight muscles, providing power and strength, enabling parrots to fly.
The rib bones connect the parrot’s back with the sternum. Each rib is connected to the adjoining rib by a smaller bone, which acts as a hooked extension, overlapping the ribs behind to strengthen the entire system.
Together, this is called the uncinate process. This is exclusive to birds and provides additional support. As described by Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, the process is integral to the mechanics of ventilation.
Parrots are vertebrates, which means they have a backbone. Similar to the neck, parrots have more bones in their spine than other animals. Many of the bones are fused, so they can’t bend.
The skeletal system also protects the major organs. The vertebral column consists of 5 sections of vertebrae, including:
- Cervical. This is the neck.
- Trunk. This is usually fused to the notarium, which is located on the shoulder. It braces the chest against force that the wings generate.
- Synsacrum. This vertebra is located on the back and fused to the pelvis.
- Caudal. This enables parrots to control the movement of their feathers while flying. The region is similar to the coccyx.
- Pygostyle. This is the short tail section that supports the tail feathers.
To ensure parrots remain in the air while flying, their skeletons are lighter than their entire plumage. When you consider how little feathers weigh, this is an impressive weight-saving feature.
A parrot’s wing structure is similar to a human’s arm and hand. The wings allow parrots to fly, giving them lift. The forelimbs consist of the:
- Shoulder, including the humerus.
- Forearm, including the ulna and radius.
- Hand, including the finger bones.
When it comes to the fingers, the first and fifth are missing, while the second finger is fused to the third. Similarly, the phalanges of the third and fourth digits are connected to the primary flight feathers.
Parrots have similar leg bones to humans. The main bones consist of the:
- Femur. This is known as the thigh bone.
- Fibula. This is a long, thin bone found in the lower leg. It’s shorter than a mammal’s fibula.
- Tibiotarsus (tibia). This is a large bone between the femur and tibiotarsus.
- Tarsometatarsus (tarsus). This is a bone found exclusively in the lower legs of birds and is formed from the fusion of several other bones.
It also surprises people to discover that parrots have knees. That’s because they’re usually covered up by feathers and appear long and straight. The knee bone is called the patella, sitting above the cnemial crest. This is a crest-like ridge at the front of the head of the tibia.
Parrots have ankles. However, the ankle bone is commonly mistaken for the knee as it sits relatively high up on the leg.
Parrots have zygodactyl feet, meaning that they have 4 toes. Two toes face backward, and two toes face forward.
The Royal Society Publishing explains how parrots have relative phalanx lengths. A single, distally inserted tendon operates them on each toe.
The hallux, or big toe, has 2 phalanges. Phalanges are the parts between joints, much like toe segments. The first digit also has a metatarsal.
The second digit has 3 phalanges, while the third has 4 phalanges. Finally, digit four has five phalanges. Then, each digit has a further phalange on the end consisting of the claw. Similarly, all digits have an underlying bone. Their unique feet allow parrots to:
- Clamp their toes around branches and perches, holding the parrot in place.
- Use their feet like hands, holding onto things.
- Climb vertically up trees, anchoring onto surfaces to prevent them from falling.
- Remain in place for long periods without tiring.
- Grab, tear, and eat food.
Parrots’ feet bones are some of the strongest in their body as they hold parrots upright when they’re sleeping. They’re also an essential part of a parrot’s survival, particularly in the wild, where conditions vary wildly.
Do Parrots Have Strong Bones?
As described by Science Daily, parrots’ bones are hollow and lightweight to offset the high energy expenditure needed for flying. However, while they look delicate, parrots’ bones weigh just as much as mammal bones. That’s because their bones are dense, making them strong.
Though parrots’ bones are strong, they’ve undergone several evolutionary weight-saving adaptations, making them better-suited for flying. Adaptations include:
- High bone density.
- A reduction in the number of bones.
- The fusion of certain bones.
- Changes in bone shape.
Bone tissue also contributes to bone strength and stiffness. They’re also supported by large muscles that can handle the heavy weight of the bones.
Not only are parrots’ bones strong, but they also have internal struts that crisscross, adding strength while allowing parrots to absorb more oxygen while in the air. This provides them with much-needed energy.
Unfortunately, because parrots have such dense bones, they shatter and splinter when they break. In the wild, this usually results in death, especially as the parrot can’t flee from larger predators.
Do Parrots Have A Bone In Their Tongue?
A parrot’s tongue looks very similar to our own, albeit much longer. They’re thick, fleshy, and lightly colored, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re the same.
While some species have different tongues for different feeding methods, all tongues are similar in that they have 5 bones, which are collectively known as the hyoid apparatus. These 5 bones are the:
The hyoid apparatus is responsible for the following tongue functions:
- Grasping and holding onto things
- Keeping the tongue anchored in place
- Expanding and contracting the tongue
- Making the tongue rigid and flexible
According to Acta Biomater, the paraglossal is a forked bone, which causes the tongue to be Y-shaped, long, and indented at the end. More specifically, it’s the bone that enables parrots to anchor their tongue and keep food in place.
Parrots use their tongues to manipulate their food, putting it into the prime position for swallowing. As a result, the tongue has similar functionality to a human finger.
What Are Common Parrot Bone Problems?
Because parrots’ bones are strong and hollow, they cause huge problems when they break or fracture. Similarly, if parrots lack vitamins and minerals from their diet, they’re more prone to bone-related diseases, such as:
As described by MSD Veterinary Manual, birds commonly break bones and experience fractures. They’re also prone to joint dislocations. Some bones are part of the bird’s respiratory system. As a result, they’re filled with air, making bone fractures difficult to treat.
Similarly, parrot bones contain high levels of calcium, which is more likely to cause multiple fractures in one area if the bone breaks.
While fractures are a problem for parrots, they’re becoming easier to treat as science and technology advances. Bird bones heal quickly, so sometimes stabilizing the bones is all that’s required for them to heal properly. For more severe breaks, the parrot will need surgery or implanted supports.
Osteomyelitis is a painful inflammatory condition likened to arthritis that affects the bones of parrots.
It’s commonly caused by a primary bacterial infection or a secondary infection due to another issue elsewhere in the body. Similarly, bacteria can get in through open wounds. Symptoms of osteomyelitis include:
- Localized bone pain
- Anorexia because of the pain
- Hot, swollen skin
- Reduced movement of the affected body part
Parrots with the infection need antibiotics to prevent it from entering the bloodstream. If it does, osteomyelitis becomes life-threatening. Unfortunately, when osteomyelitis is coupled with bone breaks or fractures, the bones have more difficulty healing.
While not strictly a bone disorder, calcium deficiencies seriously affect the bones, causing them to become brittle. Parrots are prone to calcium deficiencies, which they lack from their diet, especially when they’re on a seed-based diet. Parrots need calcium to:
- Prevent hypocalcemia (calcium deficiency disease)
- Prevent self-destructive behaviors, such as feather mutilation
- Make eggshells healthy and strong
- Prevent muscle contractions
- Reduce muscle pain
- Improve balance and coordination
- Lower the risk of heart disease
- Lower cholesterol
African grey parrots are most likely to have a calcium deficiency. Parrots with a severe shortage may suddenly fall off their perch or develop random and sudden convulsions. Calcium supplements and cuttlebones are beneficial.
Rickets are the result of a calcium deficiency. The condition is also caused by a lack of vitamin D and phosphorous. It causes soft, rubbery bones and beaks and commonly affects younger parrots. Signs include:
- Resting while squatting
- Poor growth
- Soft bones and beak
- Weight loss
When the condition becomes advanced, parrots lose the ability to walk and stand because the bones become too weak. Adding calcium and other minerals can aid recovery, and exposing the parrot to sunlight is also recommended.
What To Do If A Parrot Has A Broken Bone
Parrots are most likely to break bones due to an accident. This could include falling off their perch or being accidentally stepped on by their owner. This is more likely to happen with smaller parrots, such as budgies.
When parrots experience a broken bone, they lose the ability to use the affected body part. Similarly, you’ll notice extreme changes in their behavior due to the pain and distress the broken bone causes.
As a result, you must consider a broken bone an emergency and take the parrot to an avian vet. Don’t leave it to get better on its own, as a parrot might lose full use of its limb. As mentioned, a vet will undertake these treatments:
- Splinting. This could last for a month or more, depending on the severity of the break.
- Surgery. Vets will stabilize the break or fracture using surgical implants.
- Physiotherapy. Parrots must undergo physical therapy to loosen the muscles and joints around the broken bone.
Flying enables parrots to seek out new habitats, find food, and flee from predators. Weight-saving adaptations have replaced many bones to accommodate the day-to-day needs of parrots. So, the parrots’ advanced musculoskeletal system is fundamental to their survival in the wild.