By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Despite their name, parrotlets are truly parrots. They are related to the larger, green Amazon parrots and have the Amazon’s big personality packed into a small frame. As any parrotlet owner will tell you, parrotlets have the temperament of a large parrot in a small bird’s body.
At less than six inches from head to tail tip, they are, in fact, the smallest parrots kept as pets. Although they are closer in size to parakeets and lovebirds, they are actually smaller and more compact-looking than parakeets (also called budgerigars) and have much shorter tails.
Although there are many species of parrotlet, the most popular species kept as a pet is the Pacific parrotlet. These birds live in the wild in Central and South America and in Mexico. They have bright green feathers; males have a stripe of dark blue feathers behind their eyes and on their backs and wings, while females either have no blue feathers or a paler blue or green streak behind their eyes. As compared to males, females have darker green feathers on their backs and wings with lighter green feathers on their faces. Color mutations of the Pacific parrotlet may be blue, darker green, yellow, white, and other shades.
The other species of parrotlet commonly kept as a pet is the green-rumped parrotlet, which is smaller than the Pacific parrotlet and a little shier and less active. Males have blue feathers on their wings, while females do not. Males have dark blue primary (outermost) wing feathers, while their secondary (innermost) wing feathers are turquoise. Females have a patch of yellow feathers between their eyes, above their beaks. Green-rumped parrotlets are the only species of parrotlet that does not have blue on their backs.
What are Parrotlets Like as Pets?
Parrotlets can be great as first birds for families with elementary school-aged or older children or for individuals wanting a pet bird. They are active but not overly loud or squawky, so they can be kept in apartments or in homes with noise-sensitive neighbors. With enough repetition, they can learn to speak a few words, although they are not as prolific speakers as larger parrots. They also will respond to their names and recognize their owners by sight and sound. They can be taught to perform simple tricks like hanging upside down from an owner’s finger.
Males and females can both be affectionate, playful companions. Both require daily handling to socialize and acclimate. They can be hand-tamed and are very interactive. In fact, many parrotlet owners will tell you that their birds enjoy hiding in their shirt pockets or scarves, or riding around on their shoulders. When trained, they are adorable but are definitely strong-willed and will let their owners know if they have an opinion on something. They can be territorial around their cages, and if they are not handled often enough, they can be nippy, moody, and aggressive. Therefore, they are not ideal for families with babies or young children.
Parrotlet owners who want to bond closely with their birds should have only one parrotlet, as pairs housed together are more likely to bond to each other than to human caretakers. However, for people who have limited time to interact with their parrotlets, having two may be the best choice, as they generally like to live in opposite sex pairs and should not be housed with other bird species. Remember, if you do have a male with a female, be prepared for breeding and babies!
What Do Parrotlets Eat?
Like other parrots, parrotlets should have a base diet of appropriate-sized, commercially available bird pellets, with a small amount of finely chopped fruits and vegetables. They should also have access to a cuttle bone as a calcium source, particularly if a female is egg-laying, and they can have occasional treats of cooked egg, pasta, and, very rarely, seed.
Of course, they need fresh water daily and should never be fed food that has contacted a person’s mouth due to the risk of infection with a human’s oral yeast and bacteria.
How Are Parrotlets Housed?
Parrotlets may be housed in cages suitable for parakeets or lovebirds with bar spacing narrow enough (1/4”) to prevent escapes. The larger the cage, the better. Like other birds, they need a food bowl for dry food, another for vegetables and fruit, and a third for water. Many enjoy bathing in their water dishes.
Since they love to chew on things, they should be provided with a rotation of shreddable toys made of natural fiber rope, leather, and soft wood to keep them stimulated. They also enjoy swings and appropriate-sized, interactive toys.
The cage should be kept in fairly high-traffic area of the house where they will get a chance to interact with people often, but never in the kitchen where they might be exposed to toxic fumes from cooking or from non-stick pans (which, when heated, emit an odorless, colorless gas that kills birds instantly when they inhale it). They also need to be in an area where they can get uninterrupted sleep. In addition, many love to be bathed with a gentle mist of water from a plant sprayer and will spread out their wings and vocalize when they are misted.
Do Parrotlets Need Medical Care?
All birds, regardless of their size, should be examined by a veterinarian just after they are adopted or purchased to help ensure they are healthy, and then annually after that to help them stay healthy. A bird-savvy veterinarian will do a thorough physical examination and check both blood and stool samples to rule-out any health problems. The veterinarian also should review the bird’s housing and feeding requirements, as well as discuss its behavioral needs.
In general, parrotlets are hardy little birds that don’t typically get specific diseases; they live, on average, 8-12 years but are reported to live into their 20s in captivity.
Their curious and fearless nature and small size can get them into trouble from being stepped on, caught in tight spaces, or grabbed by inquisitive cats and dogs. Thus, owners should be sure to supervise them at all times when they are out of their cages.
Where Can Parrotlets Be Purchased?
Parrotlets may be purchased from pet stores or breeders, or adopted from bird rescue organizations. Hand-fed (as opposed to parent-fed) babies may be more docile.
Before anyone interested in owning a parrotlet takes one home, he or she should speak to a breeder or veterinarian who is knowledgeable about these birds to see whether a parrotlet is truly right for his or her lifestyle. Individuals should consider whether they have the time, space, and finances available to care properly for one of these energetic little birds. If the answer is yes, these animated, entertaining creatures can make wonderful companions for many years.