Parrots can work their way along branches by using their beaks to swing their body – a newly identified form of avian motion that has been dubbed “beakiation”.
Parrots have a few ways of getting around: flying, walking and even climbing. A previous study found that they can use their heads to propel themselves upwards while they are climbing.
“Parrots represent this really great model species to look at how animals tackle unexpected situations, because they have both the cleverness and the anatomical flexibility to solve problems in fun ways,” says Edwin Dickinson at the New York Institute of Technology.
To see whether parrots use their heads to move in other ways than climbing, Dickinson and his colleagues built an apparatus consisting of a wooden plank attached to the ceiling, under which they mounted a force-sensing plate and a branch-like runway.
They unleashed four rosy-faced lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) on the set-up and observed how these small parrots navigated it. Each employed a similar technique: first they would grab onto the runway with their beak, and then they would pivot the rest of their body around this point of contact, allowing their feet to grasp further along the runway. They would then extend their beak forward again – repeating the process until they reached the end.
Using their beaks to support their weight keeps the parrots stable and reduces their chances of falling, says team member Michael Granatosky, also at the New York Institute of Technology.
However, the team also found that beakiation was quite a slow way of getting around. Parrots might use it only when they need stability, such as when they are traversing dense foliage or thin branches and vines, says Granatosky. “They might be foraging for a specific food item or escaping from something.”
This is the first time that this behaviour has been documented by researchers, says team member Melody Young, also at the New York Institute of Technology. “It just goes to show there’s an incredible amount of diversity out there that we just need to go out and observe.”