I never stop learning at the San Diego Zoo. It is one of the best things about working here! I am constantly challenged to learn more about the birds I work with, the exhibits I work in, and how I can take better care of both. Sometimes I learn technical skills like how to install a mister system that can be utilized to give the birds a bath. Or I can read up on tips to successfully breed red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea. Many times I learn from simply observing the birds go about their daily routines.
A few days ago, I was doing an end-of-the-day check on the blue-crowned hanging parrots Loriculus galgulus just up the hill from the tiger exhibit. As I was getting a head count, one of the birds caught my eye. It looked like one of the adorable little females had done something to her primary feathers. It seemed as if she had lost some of the barbules at the tips of her long, green feathers; it made her back look spiky. She was perched on a palm frond, chewing on a leaflet, and didn’t seem to be concerned with her odd feathers. After a few moments, she quickly flicked her head back to preen the spiky feathers and then returned to her chewing. A few more moments, another quick flick and preen, and back to the frond.
It was after the third or fourth flick that I started to suspect what the tiny parrot was doing. My first reaction was that I must be imagining it—she surely wasn’t doing what I thought she was doing, was she? I had never heard of such a behavior, and I couldn’t believe she was being so smart…so efficient.
I crouched down in front of the exhibit to get the best vantage possible. I stopped watching her quick flicks, chewing, and preening, and instead focused on her spiky back. With a quick movement, the female turned her head, preened, and went back to her work. But there was a new spiky green “feather” in her back!
She wasn’t preening broken feathers after all! She was snipping little bits off the palm frond, sticking the cuttings onto her back, and using her feathers to hold them in place! I knew these little parrots lined their nests with strips of plant material, but I had never envisioned them using their back feathers as a type of backpack. With only one trip from her nest, this female was able to bring back over half a dozen strips to her nest instead of the paltry one strip she could’ve brought back if she had carried it in her beak.
This behavior has been documented before, but it is not something seen on a regular basis. Indeed, after eight years working with birds, I had never even heard of it. It makes me excited to find out what other tricks these birds have up their sleeves…er, feathers.
Mike Grue is a senior bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Sing, Song.