Parrots of Sri Lanka
There are 353 species of parrots in the world. They are in two groups, the true parrots in the family Psittacidae and the cocatoos in the family Cacatuidae.
The shape of the beak, which is curved, characterizes these birds. In both types the upper mandible has a certain flexibility to enable it to crack the seeds and nuts, which form a large part of their diet. These birds when perched are always erect.
Though both types are popular caged birds, the cockatoos are more popular than the parrots as caged pets, since they vary in size and since most of these species are colourful.
Some of these caged birds, kept as pets, have been released or have escaped and have now formed feral populations. Some of these increasing flocks can be a threat to the ecosystems in which they have adapted themselves. This threat is mainly because they will compete and use up the food resources available to the local birds.
The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) has made the sale of all wild caught parrot species illegal. The highly endangered species are on the list made by CITES in Appendix 1 and all other species are on CITES list Appendix 2 and are considered vulnerable.
CITES is an international convention, which has been signed by over 100 countries, designed to prevent the international trade of various species in order to stop their indiscriminate trade and to help conserve these species. Sri Lanka too is a signatory to this convention.
In Sri Lanka there are five species of parrots. They belong to the order Psittaciformes and Family Psittacidae. Of the five species, four are long-tailed birds and called parakeets. The fifth parrot is called a lorikeet. The lorikeet is a smaller bird and has a short tail.
The parrots found in Sri Lanka are mostly green in colour. This helps them to blend with the leaves of the trees in which they move about. Parrots are fairly stout birds with hooked beaks. Parrots feed on grain, nuts, buds of flowers nectar from flowers and fruit.
Most species of parrots move about in flocks and are very noisy in flight and also as they go about looking for food. These flocks could be the bane of paddy farmers when they descend on a paddy field and eat up the ripening paddy seed. They are also a problem in the early stages of the cultivation when they get to the ground and eat the seed paddy as soon as it is sown in the field.
Since parrots are pretty birds, they are very popular as caged pets. The added attraction is that parrots can imitate the human voice and are seen as being able to talk. Some species of birds learn all kinds of vocalizations like singing and imitating sounds including the human voice.
The ability to learn to make these vocalizations differ in different species of birds. Some birds have to learn these vocalizations in a short period. This is soon after birth. However, other birds are able to pick up these vocalizations throughout their lives.
Birds can make two types of vocalizations. They are both calls and songs. Birds’ singing is different to birds imitating sounds. The songs that each species of birds sing is a tune that is specific to that species. Young birds hold the information required to produce a crude song in their genes.
The crude song they sing becomes the plastic or perfect song only after listening to their adults singing in their environment. Only parasitic birds like the cuckoos need not hear the adult birds to produce a perfect song.
In most instances it is the male bird that sings. Male birds sing to attract females to mate and breed. They also sing to make other males aware of their territory and warn them to keep away. They also sing to show how bold and aggressive they are.
Parrots have zygodactyle feet in which two toes point forward and two backward. These feet help the bird to perch and climb amongst the branches. Very often it also uses its hooked beak as well to help climb up. The parrots feet are also used to hold its food whilst biting it off.
Parrots generally nest in the holes in trees made by some other bird. The eggs are pure white and mostly spherical in shape. The young are naked and blind at birth. However they soon get a covering of soft down. [WL]
The blossom-headed or plum-headed parakeet (psittacula cyanocephala) is called panu girawa and rosa girawa in Sinhala and Kili in Tamil. This bird is resident in Sri Lanka and is found only in India and Bangladesh. It is a very pretty bird with its beautifully coloured head
I am not sure why such a beautiful bird is called a panu (worm) girawa in Sinhala. This bird does not consume worms and insects since it is not able to collect them due to the shape of its beak. However, caged birds have nested in shallow holes they excavate in the ground. They may be doing this in the wild as well and earlier some Sinhalese, probably villagers, may have observed this and given the bird this name.
The plum-head is a little smaller than a mynah but has a long tail. The male has a red head the back of which is a purple blue. It has a small stripe on its chin and a narrow black collar. It also has a small red patch on its wings. The female has a gray head. Both sexes have yellow upper mandibles and a darker lower mandible.
Plum-head parakeets seem to be the most common parrot in the hills going up to about 3,500 feet. It is rarely seen in the dry zone. Small flocks of these birds move about noisily looking for food.
They quite often raid cultivations of maize (Zea mays), kurukkan (Elusine coracana) and paddy (Oryza sativa). They waste a lot of grain by breaking the ear, eating a bit off it and dropping the rest onto the ground. These parrots use a communal roost outside the breeding season. The pairs disperse during the breeding season.
The breeding season is from February to May but there seems to be a second season later in the year between August and October. The nest is a small hole in a tree either a natural cavity or a nest hole that has been excavated and previously used by a barbet or woodpecker.
The preference is for a hole high up in a dead tree. The hole is loosely lined with pieces of wood. Around four eggs are laid. As mentioned above some caged birds have dug shallow holes in the ground to lay the two to four eggs that form the clutch that is laid.
Layard’s parakeet or Emerald-collared parakeet (Psittacula calthorpe) is called alu girawa in Sinhala and Kili in Tamil. The layard’s parakeet is endemic to this country. This bird is named after the British naturalist Edgar Leopold Layard.
This beautiful bird is about the size of a mynah. It has a black line just above the green collar that separates the bluish gray head from the back, which is of the same colour. The long tail is light blue. The female lacks the distinctive black line round the neck.
The Layard’s parakeet is found mainly in the hill country up to about 5000 feet. However at times it has been observed at an elevation of 6000 feet. It is also seen down at sea level sometimes in some parts of the wet zone having descended from the hills. It is a forest bird but it prefers the periphery of the forests. It is also found in cleared patches and home gardens.
It is fairly common in its habitat. It flies fast and is quite adept at avoiding the trees in its flight path. The flight is always accompanied by an irritating screeching sound. This is an arboreal bird that descends to the ground very rarely unlike the blossom-headed and the rose-ringed parrots.
Layard’s parrot nests in the holes in large trees. The breeding season is during the early part of the year, from January to May. Two to three white eggs are laid. Like in the other species the nestlings are born blind and naked. Once the breeding season is over the pair joins small flocks and goes foraging for food.
Mr. G.P. Jinadasa of Shetna Poultry Farm in Gampola was one of the first to breed Layard’s parakeets in captivity. He is a keen aviculturalist and had a variety of birds in his aviary.
The Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) is called Rana Girawa in Sinhala and Kili in Tamil. A resident in this country, this bird is found in the jungles of the dry zone lowlands and the coastal areas but not seen in the hills. Some times a few birds are seen in Colombo but these may be birds that have escaped from captivity.
This bird is about the size of a mynah but has a longer tail. Only the male has the black and pink ring round its neck. The male also has a hazy blue colour on its head.
Large flocks of this species can be seen from time to time. They fly at a higher elevation than most other parrots. These flocks and also individual birds, do a lot of damage to paddy and maize cultivations biting into many ears but not completely eating the seed there. It flies onto the next ear and does the same thing. This increases the crop losses incurred by the farmer.
This species has an interesting courtship display. The male puffs itself and struts about on a branch. It gets to the female, which is perched at the end of the branch and stands very erect near her. The male then lifts one of its legs as high as possible as if in salute. He then regurgitates some food, which he feeds to the female who accepts it. This performance is repeated a couple of times.
As in most of other species of parrots the nest is a hole in a tree trunk or a disused hole that a woodpecker has excavated and used. Two or three pure white eggs are laid. The young are naked and blind at birth but soon get a coating of down.
Here too the numbers of this bird are affected adversely since nestlings continue to be taken to satisfy the pet trade. Flocks of Rose-ringed parakeets are found in and around London and in some cities in the Netherlands. The largest flock is in Surrey where there are a couple of thousands of these birds. These birds are descendents of caged birds that have escaped. They have adapted very well to their new environment and seem to have bred profusely.
My father at some point of time had all the five species of parrots found in Sri Lanka in his large aviaries. He even had some parrots that he had brought from the Malabar Hills, which he bred. In the 1960s, there were few restrictions on the import and export of birds and animals.
I remember that one of the rose-ringed parrots that he had was a Lutino. Lutinos are parrots that are completely yellow instead of the normal green of the other parrots. Lutinos are not common but not unusual either. I have, however, not encountered a lutino in the wild. You get lutinos amongst the budgerigars, which belong to the parrot family, as well.
Ceylon large parakeet
Ceylon large parakeet or Alexandrine parakeet (Psitticula eupatria) is called Labu Girawa in Sinhala and Periya Kili in Tamil. Named after the legendary Alexander the Great of India. This bird is also found in India.
This resident bird is the largest amongst our parrots. It is a little smaller than a crow but has a long tail. The tail feathers are graded and of different lengths.
Only the males have a ring round their necks, the front half of the circle being black and the back half pink. The males of Rose-ringed parakeet also have a similar coloured ring but the large parakeet has a much bigger beak and is also bigger in size. Also both sexes of the large parakeet have a red patch on the wings.
This species is found in the low country dry zone and is not seen in the hill country but is seen infrequently in the wet zone. It prefers to frequent jungle tanks and chenas near jungles. Its presence, in some areas, where it was seen in large numbers has now diminished. Some birds of this species are seen in Colombo. They are caged birds that have either escaped or let off.
Since this bird is popular as a caged bird, its nests are raided regularly and the chicks taken. As soon as they are old enough they are sold as pets. This unchecked extraction from their habitat no doubt has had an adverse effect on the population of this bird, which seems to be rare now. The reduction of its jungle habitat is also another reason for the reduction of its numbers.
Small flocks of this bird are seen flying fast making a screeching noise. These birds pair off for life and at breeding time the pairs move out of the flock to nest. The rest of the time they remain with the flock foraging for food. They also roost in communal roosting trees. Coconut trees are also popular roosting trees.
The nest hole is a natural cavity in a tree trunk. There is a long breeding season, which extends from November to May. Again coconut trees are popular. They also use the holes excavated by woodpeckers. A few pieces or chips of wood make up the nest on which the eggs are laid. Generally two eggs are laid. The chicks are naked and blind at birth as the chicks of other parrots.
The Ceylon Lorikeet
The Ceylon lorikeet (Lorriculus beryllinus) is called gira malichcha or pol girawa in Sinhala and kanni kili in Tamil. The lorikeet is endemic to the island.
The lorikeets can hang from a branch with their head downwards when foraging for food. They are known as hanging parrots or bat parrots. They also sleep at night hanging down from a twig that generally has leaves, which afford it some cover from predators. The adult male has a red crown, rump and beak. It has an orange colour on it’s back.
This is not a gregarious bird. It does not move about in large flocks as parakeets do but is normally seen alone, in pairs or in small flocks. Gregarious means prefers to stay in groups rather than alone. This small bird is about the size of a house sparrow.
Lorikeets are found all over the hills up to about 4000 feet. It is found in certain parts of the wet zone but is extremely rare in the dry zone. They are now not seen in the numbers as in these were thirty or so years ago. The pet trade has had an adverse effect on their populations.
These birds move about a lot looking for their food which consists of small seeds, juicy fruits, the nectar of flowers and the liquid extracted from palm trees. The Lorikeet is strictly arboreal and never descends to the ground.
It hangs upside down to consume nectar from amongst the fruits, seeds and berries. It has a suitable beak adaptation for drawing nectar. It is also partial to toddy when it is still in a pot on a Kitul tree (Caryota urens). Most birds get intoxicated as a result and are easily caught. Some even fall into the pot and drown. When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s the streets of Kandy had many lorikeets brought in for sale. Now the numbers have dropped drastically.
G.M. Henry says that these birds have a very interesting courtship display. The male struts along the perch with a jerky gait and short hops, beak held high, blue throat feathers puffed out, tail spread – altogether an embodiment of conceit and self-importance, all the while, he utters a little squeaky warble interspersed with twits.
The female sits at the end of this same branch. These birds nest in holes in the trunks of trees. The Lorikeet, being a small bird, can also nest in holes in the branches of trees.
The nest hole is much deeper than those in which parakeets nest. The female collects a number of strips of leaves and lays them at the bottom of the nest. Two or three, which seems to be the norm for parakeets and lorikeets, are laid. Here too the young are naked and blind at birth.