Temperature tolerance in parrots: highs and lows
By Tony Silva
During the current cold snap across the US, I am receiving countless emails, phone calls, and messages. The questions invariably consist of one of various versions of the following: What is the lowest temperature that my parrot can withstand? The general perception is that parrots are solely tropical and that they will sicken or perish if the temperature drops even slightly. In truth, parrots are extremely tolerant of cold. Several species occupy paramo highlands, extreme parts of the northern or southern hemispheres, and isolated locations where freezing temperatures are common.
More tropical species also display a great degree of cold tolerance. In general, all parrot species have shown that they can adapt to living in frigid conditions if the exposure to cold is gradual so that they can molt into winter feathers. You cannot take a bird living in a warm house and suddenly expose it to frigid conditions. That can prove detrimental.
The sub-Antarctic island of Antipodes is inhabited by a parakeet—Cyanoramphus unicolor. It is the largest of the kakarikis. It has adapted to living in an area where summer temperatures average 10°C (51°F) and the winter temperature can drop below 4°C (40°F). That this species can tolerate wet, wind, and cold is expected, given its evolutionary adaptation. But cold tolerance is also seen in tropical species. The Double Yellow-headed Amazon, Amazona oratrix comes from Mexico’s Atlantic coast, where the average winter temperature is 15°C (60°F). It would seem to be the epitome of a tropical species, but in Stuttgart, Germany there is a feral flock that is growing and thriving. It started with a singleton in 1984 and today numbers more than 50 individuals.
These individuals experience snow, cold, and an average temperature of 0°C (33°F) in January, the coldest month. Ring-neck Parakeets Psittacula krameri, Quaker Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus and other species thrive across frigid Europe, including the United Kingdom, and also parts of the US north. I have seen Quaker Parakeets in Chicago on a January day where the wind-chill was a blistering -22°C (-9°F) in Chicago’s Hyde Park. They survived that winter and many others and today represent a growing flock. Across Europe, from Russia to the UK, I have seen parrots of all species in outdoors aviaries, even though they had access to a heated shelter. One observation vividly comes to mind. I was wearing a parka, gloves, hat, and scarf. The macaws were playing in the snow oblivious to the cold. Another involved walking across a huge aviary belonging to Kaj Herse in Denmark. The aviary contained Australian cockatoos, parrots, and parakeets. The aviary offered no heat yet even the small Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus thrived.
The above establishes that parrots can be cold tolerant. The question then is what are the parameters to keep birds safe on cool days. Here is my list:
1) They need to have food and water. Fat rich foods are important, as they help the body generate heat.
2) They need to have protection from wet and wind. Outdoors a nesting box can offer protection for overnight drops in temperatures. Simple plastic sheets can add further protection; the aviary or cage can be wrapped in sheets of plastic. If the temperature will drop beyond a critical level, a heat lamp or heated room will be necessary. Indoors a blanket or towels can help.
3) The concern level should start when the temperature drops below 15°C (60°F). Birds that are acclimated to living outdoors will develop a thicker under down that will allow them to survive far more cold, including freezing weather; in such a climate they need protection for their feet to prevent frost bite. This can come in the form of a heated perch. The exposed facial skin on macaws, birds that are plucked, which are elderly or infirm must have access to a heated shelter (warmed to 15°C) in winter.
4) Wooden perches are best, as plastic and metal can chill or freeze, causing toe necrosis and loss.
5) Never should a bird showing signs of cold stress be left outdoors. They should be brought into a warm room immediately. Cold stress includes extremely ruffled feathers, inactivity, lack of feeding, and shivering. On touch, the birds will feel cold.
Heat tolerance, like with cold, also has a threshold. Species from the equator can tolerate a lot more heat than those from areas far north or south of the equator. The Slender-billed Conure Enicognathus leptorhynchus is found in Chile’s temperate forests. It has a very thick feathering. They dislike it when in summer the mercury begins to climb. Mine bathe in a bowl to which I have added ice cubes during Miami’s strong summer heat. The birds will bathe several times daily if ice water is provided. Kakarikis (Cyanoramphus sp.) also show discomfort in very warm weather. When I kept this species, I was forced to bring them indoors into an air-conditioned room because they were absolutely miserable outdoors. In winter, on a chilly rainy January, they were bathing. That day the mercury read 6°C (43°F)—an unusually cool day for Miami.
The conditions for parrots surviving the heat are several:
1) Shade must be available. The bird must be able to sit in the shade. The food and water must also be in the shade.
2) Metal perches should be avoided, as they can become excessively hot.
3) There must be good airflow; stagnant air can make it intolerable.
4) Fresh, cool water must be available for bathing and drinking. A fog mister can help the birds stay cool during the hottest part of the day. Multiple 15 minutes run of a mister during the hottest part of the day can make it more tolerable for the birds.
5) Fatty or carbohydrate foods should be limited, as they will merely contribute towards obesity. In summer we feed some fruit, which normally is offered in very limited quantity to the birds; their diet is rich in vegetables.
6) Discomfort for most species is evident above 40°C (104°F), which is the parrot’s average core body temperature. Panting, holding the wings away from the body, perching on the aviary floor in traditional walk-in aviaries, and inactivity suggest that the birds will need to be cooled.
The goal of the aviculturist is to provide the best conditions for the birds. Ensuring that they are neither too cold nor too hot is the task of many across the globe. Both forms of stress can contribute to illness and even death.
If you would like to learn more about cold and heat tolerance please refer to my book Psittaculture, which is available from:
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