Parrots use their beak as a third leg when climbing

WHe loves to climb, and will sometimes be happy with an extra foot or an extra hand. Unfortunately, nature does not intend this. However, parrots know how to help themselves in other ways and use their beaks as well as their feet when climbing. However, it is not yet clear whether the bird is only using it to attach itself or whether it is also using its beak to get ahead. Scientists led by Melody Young and Edwin Dickinson of the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury recently discovered that parrots can actually use their heads and beaks as a third leg.

They used six rose heads (aGabornis Rosicolis). This small parrot, which is also popular as a pet, inhabits many biotopes in its southwest African habitat, from dry forests and savannas to semi-deserts. His climbing skills are not only useful in tree branches, where there are seeds and fruits to harvest. These skills are also required in the nest that the pink-necked lovebird builds in rock crevices, or as tenants in the massive collective nests of weavers.

To watch the parrots climb, Young and his colleagues put their feathered subjects through a hand plate that can be positioned at different angles. At a 45-degree angle, the birds that were going up began grooming with their tails and sometimes using their beaks as well. When they had to climb vertically, they always used their tails and beaks to help them wherever they went.

The tail only serves as a support

On their way up, the parrots were not only photographed, but also passed gauges that recorded exactly how much force the feet, tail, and beak exerted on the ground – and in what direction. As the related analyzes showed, the tail served as a support only, as expected. On the other hand, the bird pushed its beak hard as if it were its legs in order to move forward. The beak also stabilized the parrot’s pose with equal force (“Proceedings of the Royal Society B”). The head and beak did almost the same job as the leg.


Ringed parrots can be seen climbing in some German cities, such as here in Heidelberg.
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Photo: dpa

When the parrot climbs a vertical wall, its head and beak join the regular rhythm of its hind legs. This way there is never a single point of contact with the wall, but always at least two at the same time. While the head and beak work against gravity, they not only propel the budgie forward on its way up. It also prevents the bird from tipping over backwards. In terms of their body weight, parrots hold on to their “third leg” just as forcefully as humans or monkeys climb with their arms.

strong neck muscles

Experience has shown that parrot beaks can gnaw hard, for example cracking hard nuts. Providing muscle for this purpose, birds can also easily prevent themselves from falling off a climbing wall. In order to move forward there, however, neck muscles are required. So it can be assumed that these muscles are significantly stronger relative to body weight than, for example, the neck muscles of a human being.

Woodpeckers, wall crawlers, and many other birds can also climb vertical tree trunks or rocks seemingly without any effort. But apart from parrots, there is no other bird that uses its head and beak as an extra leg. How parrots were able to incorporate these body parts into the rhythm of their legs’ movement remains an open question. Perhaps, Young and colleagues suspect, it was not necessary to develop entirely new connections between nerves and muscles. It is usual for birds to move the head in the rhythm of a step.

This is especially noticeable with pigeons: when he walks around, he shakes his head. As a result, your eyes temporarily take a fixed position in space. Perhaps this is useful because it is difficult to accurately capture movements in the environment as you move and the field of view moves accordingly. It is possible that parrots have modified their usual head gesture in such a way that the head and beak are in perfect harmony with their legs.

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