The Noisy and Colorful Parakeets from the Indian Subcontinent

March 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Parakeets are an integral part of the Indian subcontinent as well known and highly celebrated avifauna members down the ages. Although commonly misidentified as ‘parrots’ all the members of the parrot family reported from the Indian subcontinent are actually ‘parakeets’ and not true parrots, with the exception of the Vernal Hanging Parrot (Indian Lorikeet). The distinctive calls of the parakeets are reminiscent of both the Indian wild as well characteristic of the resident feral populations in several cities and towns of the continent. The parakeets have been closely associated with the art, culture, literature, language, ethnicity and history of the land in a colorful and interwoven mosaic. The close association of the different parakeet species to the subcontinent life and culture represent a kaleidoscope of people, culture and a vast array of noisy, colorful and majestic species of birds closely integrated together. Several parakeet species from the subcontinent have also been introduced in other countries on different continents; and like their native habitats have been successful in establishing feral populations in their new homes overseas.

The parakeets belong to the Order Psittaciformes, Superfamily-Psittacoidea, Family-Psittaculidae; Sub family-Psittaculinae and the genus Psittacula. True parrots (such as Macaws, Parrots and African Grey Parrot) belong to the Superfamily-Psittacoidea, Family-Psittacidae; while Cockatoos belong to the Super Family-Cacatuoidea and Family-Cacatuidae and are then placed under different sub-families and sub genera. There is a third group of parrots called the New Zealand Parrots belonging to the Super Family-Strigopoidea. Leaving aside all the taxonomic jargon, we can simply mention that both parakeets and parrots belong to the same family but are then separated morphologically, genetically and geographically.

Parrots are represented by over 350 species and over 80 genera across the planet but they are most well know in the regions of Central and South America, Africa and Australasia. The parakeets (often called the lesser parrots) are smaller in size compared to the true parrots; and are more common in Australia and the Indian subcontinent. The most popular and well known parakeet in the world is the Australian budgerigar or the famous budgie or the keet (Melopsittacus undulates Shaw) and is reported to be one of the most common pets, following dogs and cats.

There are 11 parakeets reported from the Indian subcontinent (please see the table below) and the 12th one is suspected to be a hybrid (Intermediate Parakeet or Rothschild’s Parakeet). Only one hanging parrot species is reported from the region (Vernal Hanging Parrot or Indian Lorikeet). All the 11 parakeets belong to different species under the same genus ; with the Vernal Hanging Parrot or Indian Lorikeet that belongs to the genus Loriculus. Many of the parakeets have different sub species occupying different geographical regions. They vary in size between 14 cm (Vernal Hanging Parrot or Indian Lorikeet), the smallest of the Indian parakeets, to as big as the Alexandrine parakeet (53 cm) and the Nicobar parakeet (61 cm). The Nicobar parakeet is the largest reported parakeet. Other members are intermediate in lengths between these two extremes but are all above 35 cm on average.


Juvenile Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria Linnaeus). Photo credit: Manorma Sharma

The Long-tailed Parakeet, the Malabar Parakeet and the Nicobar parakeet are reported to be endemic to their localities in the subcontinent. Majority of the parakeet species are sexually dimorphic and often the juvenile and sub-adults differ in coloration and plumage from the adult members. Most of these species are known by various vernacular names in the ethnically and linguistically diverse subcontinent and often similar name (s) from different regions may or may not represent same species. The parakeets are extremely popular as pets in most parts of the subcontinent; and hence an important point of concern for their successful conservation. The Rose-Ringed Parakeet is one of the most common species seen as pets in home across the region. But according to TRAFFIC (India) eight out of 12 parakeet species has been commonly seen in the Indian pet markets during their survey, indicating that ~67% of the species reported form the region has been seriously impacted by poaching, illegal capture and pet trade.

Rose-ringed parakeet or Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri Scopoli). Photo credit-Manorma Sharma.

Commonly known Indian subcontinent species are mentioned below:

English name Scientific name Length (cm) IUCN Status Sexual dimorphism Distribution
Alexandrine Parakeet or Parrot or Large Indian Parakeet  Psittacula eupatria Linnaeus 53 LC, SC-IV Yes Indian subcontinent & SE Asia
Blossom-headed Parakeet  Psittacula roseate Biswas 36 LC, SC-IV Yes NE India & SE Asia
Lord Derby’s Parakeet or Derbyan Parakeet  Psittacula derbiana Fraser NT, SC-I, PART-III Yes NE India (Arunachal Pradesh) & limited distribution southern China
Grey-headed Parakeet or Humes Parakeet or Finsch’s Parakeet  Psittacula finschii Humes 36 LC, SC-IV No NE India & SE Asia
Intermediate Parakeet or Rothschild’s Parakeet (?)  Psittacula intermedia Rothschild 36 (?) ? Yes Never seen or officially reported in the wild and is believed to be most plausibly a hybrid between Slaty- & Plum headed Parakeets with considerable variations among different specimens. Could be generated under some captive breeding. Some unconfirmed reports highlights on Sub-Himalayan distribution (?)
Long-tailed Parakeet or Rosy or Red Cheeked Parakeet  Psittacula longicauda Boddaert 47 NT, SC-IV Yes Andaman & Nicobar islands (India), restricted localities of SE Asia (parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore)*
Malabar Parakeet or Blue Winged Parakeet  Psittacula columboides Vigors 38 LC, SC-IV Yes Western Ghats (India)*
Nicobar Parakeet or Blyth’s Parakeet  Psittacula caniceps Blyth 61 NT, SC-IV Yes Nicobar islands (India)* ; largest among the parakeets
Plum-headed Parakeet  Psittacula cyanocephala Linnaeus 36 LC, SC-IV Yes Indian subcontinent*
Red-breasted Parakeet or Mustached Parakeet  Psittacula alexandri Linnaeus 38 LC, SC-IV Yes Indian subcontinent
Rose-ringed Parakeet or Ring-necked Parakeet  Psittacula krameri Scopoli 42 LC, SC-IV Yes Indian subcontinent & Africa
Slaty-headed Parakeet or Himalayan Parakeet Psittacula himalayana Lesson 41 LC, SC-IV Yes The Himalayas; across the subcontinent; demonstrate altitudinal migration pattern
Vernal Hanging Parrot or Indian Lorikeet (Sub Family-Agapornithinae) Loriculus vernalis Spartman 14 LC, SC-IV No Indian subcontinent & SE Asia

 

NT: Near Threatened; LC: Least Concerned; ?: Doubtful status;  *: Endemic species; SC: Schedule III & IV under Indian Wildlife Act (1972), Protected Species


Map on the Indian Sub-Continent

The diet of the parakeets usually include seeds, nuts and wild fruits, cereal grains, pigeon peas, buds and flowers, orchard fruits and other plant parts; rarely insects and worms. They are also found to flock in huge numbers along edges of river beds eating mud to supplement their diet with mineral elements. They usually like nesting in the cavities of old trees or in natural or artificial holes or cavities of old and abandoned towers, chimneys and buildings, abandoned farm houses and factories etc. They live in the wild as dedicated pairs and are fiercely territorial in nature. Both parents take part in rearing their chicks and are known to be devoted parents. Most commonly observed courtship behaviors noticed in different parakeet species varies between courtship feeding, rubbing of bills, sitting closely with the partner and head bobbing and other related behaviors. The young hatch after an incubation period of about 20-40 days and fledge between 4-10 weeks depending on the species concerned. Each clutch again varies between 2-8 eggs depending on the species of the parakeet.

The eggs laid by all the parakeets are white in color. Fledglings are usually old enough to leave the protection of their nest before the onset of monsoon. Chicks are usually monomorphic and show their dimorphic plumage on adulthood depending upon their species. The males usually have brighter spots, patches, marks and rings compared to the female of the species exhibiting dimorphism. Most parakeets make affectionate and adorable pets. However, many species are aggressive and could bite when disturbed, threatened, irritated and provoked in self defense. In addition to humans; other predators of the parakeet eggs and chicks include snakes, monitor lizards, mongoose, civets, monkeys and birds of prey. Feral populations of different parakeet species have been well established in different cities, municipalities and towns of the subcontinent and the species have successfully adapted to the urban environment.

In the rural areas of the subcontinents often giant flocks of different parakeets are considered as pests and attack fruit gardens and orchards causing huge financial damages by foraging on both ripe and immature fruits and flowers. However, under Indian Wildlife Act (1972) all the parrots are protected species and could not be killed and hunted under Indian laws. The life expectancy in the wild varies between 6-12 years depending upon species; while in captivity and in the zoological gardens and aviaries they have been reported to live for almost 30-40 years or even more. Breeding the Indian parakeets in captivity is not greatly successful and hence the pet trade has been a detrimental factor causing illegal capture and sale of different species; the most popular being the Indian Rose-ringed Parakeet. But other species are also observed in the illegal pet markets in great numbers. Few species being capable of mimicking human speech and have been highly endured as popular pets causing further damages to their natural population dynamics. Chicks are often trapped for the purpose of illegal trade on pets and are responsible for their high mortality.

Often housed in small cages with poor diet and poor access to fresh water and sunlight have cased the deaths of several parakeets in confinement. Transportation after capture over long distances also results in high mortality rates. Furthermore, poor sanitation of the cages, insufficient diet, over crowding, diseases and exhaustion kills a large number of the captured parakeets even before they are sold; and many die off soon after reaching their end consumer due to too much care (over care) or total negligence and lack of training and necessary knowledge in managing, rearing and handling caged parakeets.

In addition to the anthropogenic pressures in the form of poaching, hunting and capture; the parakeets are also impacted by rapid degradation of their natural habitats, devegetation, habitat fragmentation, forest fires and pollution. Stringent monitoring and surveillance of the illegal pet markets by both government and non-government organizations will be absolutely important along with raising awareness and education among the general public  for successful and long term conservation of the beautiful parrot species of the subcontinent.


©TRAFFIC (India). Published with kind permission of TRAFFIC (India) for the purpose of education and awareness. The poster is available at: http://www.wwfindia.org/?6900/TRAFFIC-helps-to-claw-back-illegal-parrot-trade-in-India

Article submitted by: Saikat Kumar Basu

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