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Pocket-Size Parrot Fun
By: Sandee L. Molenda, C.A.S.
Whoever said good things come in small packages must have been talking about parrotlets (pronounced "parrot-let" little parrot). With their wonderfully outgoing personalities, adorable-size, colorful plumage, comical behavior and quiet voice, parrotlets are quickly becoming one of the most sought-after small pet parrots. Less than six inches in length, be assured that parrotlets are true parrots, with all of the virtues and some of the vices.
There are many seven species of parrotlets with only five being readily found in the United States. Many of these species have subspecies including the Pacific, Green Rump, Mexican, Spectacle and Blue Wing. It is important to remember when discussing subspecies, the United States cut off the important of all parrotlet species in 1992. That means these parrotlets have been domestically bred for almost 15 years and that few, if any, pure subspecies of any parrotlet still exists. Breeders have managed to keep the population healthy genetically but, unfortunately, most of the subspecies have been commingled and are called 'generic'. This does NOT mean they are hybrids, which is the breeding of two different species. But that the subspecies have been interbred in order to keep from inbreeding or line breeding to continue the species.
While there are seven species of parrotlets, only three are usually kept as pets. These hand-fed parrotlets often become completely devoted companions who enjoy spending time with their owners. They can learn to talk and are quite comical either playing with toys or amusing their owners with acrobatics such as hanging by their beaks and toes. Unlike many large parrots, they have no problem entertaining themselves all day with their toys while their owner is at work or school. But when the owner returns, they will chirp welcome greetings and expect to come out to ride around in a pocket or hide in their owner's hair.
Identification of Parrotlet Species
The most often-seen parrotlet is the Pacific or Celestial (Forpus coelestis). It originates in Peru and Equador. Approximately five and one-half inches in length and 28 grams, these olive green birds have pink beaks and legs. As with all parrotlets, they are sexually dimorphic. Males have dark cobalt wings, backs, rumps and streak behind the eye. Females are various shades of green with no blue and an emerald green eye streak.
There is one subspecies, the lucida Pacific parrotlet (Forpus coelestis lucida) where the females have blue rumps and eye streaks and, sometimes, wings although it is not as dark blue as the males. Males of this subspecies have silver gray backs and wings as well an eye streak that completely encircles the back of the head. This subspecies is found in Columbia. You can learn more about the lucida Pacific subspecies by reading our article entitled "The Lost Lucida".
There are several color mutations of Pacific parrotlets now available although they are very expensive compared to normal green birds. Currently, there are blue, cobalt blue, yellow (both American and European varieties), fallow, lutino, albino, white (also American and European), olive or dark factor green and blue-fallow (blue with red eyes). All of these mutations have proved to be recessive and none are sex-linked, including the lutinos. We a listing of color mutations and their descriptions as well as other articles on color mutation parrotlets including their care and breeding on our site at "Color Mutations".
The Pacific parrotlet is the most popular species of parrotlet kept as pets. Most Pacifics have a well-deserved reputation for being feisty and bold. They are very much 'a large parrot personality in a small parrot body.' They are the most fearless of the parrotlets and can be very stubborn and strong-willed at times. They have very engaging personalities and can also be the most loving and devoted to their owners. As with all parrots, they need to be taught limits and understand their relationship with their owners. Pacific parrotlets, especially males, often learn to speak. While most only learn a few words or phrases there are others than literally know hundreds of words. They have very high pitched but easily understood voices.
Green Rump Parrotlets
Slightly smaller and bright apple green, Green Rump (Forpus passerinus) parrotlets range from 18-28 grams (depending on the subspecies) and from three and a half to four and a half inches. As with Pacifics, Green Rumps have pink feet and beaks. Male Green Rumps have dark cobalt blue and bright turquoise on their wings but no blue on the back or rump (except on one subspecies). Females have bright yellow on their faces between their eyes. The amount of yellow on their face denotes the subspecies.
In addition to the nominate, there are four subspecies of Green Rumps. Forpus passerinus viridissimus, is found on the islands of Trinidad and Jamaica as well as northern Venezuela to northern Columbia. The males are emerald green and have more cobalt blue on their wings than turquoise. Females are also emerald and have a great deal of yellow between their eyes, which often covers half their face. Males also have a very round, protruding forehead.
Another subspecies found in this country is Forpus passerinus deliciosus. Native to northern Brazil along the banks of the Amazon, this subspecies is the smallest weighing only 18 grams. Bright apple green, the males are the only Green Rumps to have a light turquoise-blue wash of color over their rumps. In addition to being very tiny, females also have more yellow on their faces than in the nominate but not as much as in viridissimus.
A dilute color mutation with dark eyes is available in Europe and possibly in the United States. There is also a cinnamon color mutation that has more yellow than the dilute and ruby red eyes.
The male Forpus passerinus cyanophanes, native to northern Columbia, has more dark blue feathers on the upper wing than the nominate. This forms a patch of color that can be seen when the wing is folded. The female is indistinguishable from the nominate. This parrotlet is not believed to have been imported into the United States.
Forpus passerinus cyanochlorus is found only near the upper Branco River in northern Brazil. The males are very similar to the nominate, however, the females are a much lighter shade of yellow-green. This parrotlet is also not believed to be in the United States.
Green Rumps generally have more reserved and shy personalities than most Pacifics. They can be easily intimidated or frightened by new things and take a while to adjust to new situations. They usually take a few days or even weeks to settle into their new surroundings but with a little patience and time, they can become wonderful members of the family. Green Rumps can also learn to speak but they are generally not as vocal as Pacifics or Spectacles.
Spectacle (Forpus conspicillatus) parrotlets are the most recent entry into the pet market. Unavailable before 1992, several pair were imported and through a successful breeding cooperative sponsored by the International Parrotlet Society, there are now hundreds of these beautiful little parrotlets available as pets. Spectacles are close to Green Rump size weighing about 25 grams and less than five inches in length. They are also very dark green, especially the males. Both males and females have pink beaks and legs. Males have beautiful violet-blue wings, backs, rumps and rings around both eyes (makes the birds look like they are wearing spectacles, hence the name). Females are also dark green and have emerald eye rings.
Forpus conspicillatus metae is found in central Columbia and western Venezuela. The males have bright green heads with yellow-green faces and throats. The eye ring is a thin partial line of blue feathers. Females have more yellow overall than in the nominate.
Found in south western Columbia, Forpus conspicillatus caucae, can be identified by its large, heavy beak. Also, the blue plumage of the males is lighter and less violet than in the nominate.
These tiny gems have very outgoing personalities but not as much of a stubborn streak as their Pacific cousins. Unlike most Green Rumps, they are not shy and are very inquisitive and curious. They also seem to be one of the talkers of the parrotlets with both males and females often learning to imitate human speech.
Blue Wing Parrotlets
Of the rarer parrotlets, Blue Wings (Forpus xanthopterygius) are the most wide spread. Blue Wings are larger than the previously described birds, weighing 35 grams or more and close to five and one-half inches in length. Males and females have gray beaks and legs. Males have blue violet wings, backs and rumps. Females have light green yellow faces. Blue Wings have slightly larger eyes than other parrotlets and tend to be nervous, flighty birds (even when hand-fed). Blue Wings can also be difficult to get to breed, often taking six months or more before producing eggs.
Forpus xanthopterygius flavissimus is native to northeastern Brazil. Generally paler green with yellow green under-parts, both males and females possess bright yellow faces and cheeks. The Parrotlet Ranch was the first in the United States to breed this beautiful subspecies and holds a First Breeding Award from the Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors. In fact, one of these parrotlets was exhibited for only the second year and has already become a Grand Champion.
Native to eastern Bolivia and central Peru, Forpus xanthopterygius flavescens, has plumage is which is lighter and more yellow than the nominate. The blue on the males in also lighter. Both males and females have bright yellow on their face, cheeks, forehead and throats, which is quite prominent. There are none of this subspecies in the United States.
Found in northeastern Peru, southeastern Columbia and northeastern Brazil, Forpus xanthopterygius crassirostris, males have gray violet primary coverts and secondaries are dark violet blue. Females are smaller than the nominate and are more green. The upper beak is compressed laterally in the middle, which is prominent in both sexes.
Only found in two locations along the Amazon River in north eastern Brazil, Forpus xanthopterygius olallae, are dark green birds with the males’ rumps and wings being darker blue than in the nominate.
The male Forpus xanthopterygius spengeli, native to the coastal region of northern Columbia, can be distinguished from the nominate by the dark turquoise blue rumps. The primary coverts are violet blue with the secondaries being dark turquoise. Females have more yellow on the forehead.
There is a blue color mutation of the Blue Wing parrotlet. It is rare but available in the United States. The coloring is much more deep, true blue than that of the blue color mutation Pacific.
Mexican (Forpus cyanopygius) parrotlets are also on the large size being five and one-half inches and approximately 40 grams. Mexicans are bright green and males have gorgeous bright turquoise wings, backs and rumps. Both males and females have gray beaks and legs but females' beaks do not turn gray until they are in breeding condition. Mexican parrotlets are an enigma in the world of parrotlets. They are the only species that can be bred in a colony. Unlike the others, they have a set breeding season (usually spring and summer). They are the most Northerly-found as most species come from Central and South American. They only produce one clutch a year; sometimes every other year and never double clutch while the other species produce multiple clutches per year.
One subspecies, Forpus cyanopygius pallidus, is found from southeastern Sonora to northwestern Mexico. In both males and females the plumage is lighter green with a gray tinge and the under parts are more yellow than in the nominate.
Forpus cyanopygius insularis is found only on two of the Tres Marias Islands and are believed to be greatly endangered. A dark green head, back and wings as well as blue-green under-parts identify this subspecies. The face is yellow-green and the males’ rumps and wings are darker turquoise than in the nominate and they have blue on their chests. The parrotlet has only been seen on a couple of islands and is rapidly disappearing.
Of all the species, Mexicans are the ones in most need of being bred in captivity. They live in an area of Mexico that is being harmed by habitat destruction and are often smuggled both of which are devastating the wild population. Unfortunately, very few people are breeding these parrotlets. Even so, the International Parrotlet Society is sponsoring a breeding cooperative to encourage people to breed these magnificent parrotlets and save them from extinction.
Yellow Face Parrotlets
Although only found in one valley in Peru, Yellow Face, (Forpus xanthops) are regularly bred in Europe and are in much less danger of disappearing than Mexican parrotlets. However, there are only a handful in the United States. Yellow Face are the largest of the parrotlets weighing 50 grams and close to six inches in length. They are similar in markings to Pacifics, but both males and females have blue on the wings, backs, rumps and eye streaks. In males, it is deep, dark blue violet and in females it is lighter and brighter blue. Both males and females have bright yellow faces which includes the forehead, cheeks, chin and continues down the chest to the belly. Yellow Face have a black stripe on the top of the upper beak which is very prominent.
Never imported in the United States and rare even in Europe, Sclater's (Forpus sclateri) parrotlets are reported to be dark forest green. Males have deep blue that is darker than the cobalt in male Pacifics. The females are lighter than the males with yellow under parts and a yellow green face but still are darker than other female parrotlets. Both males and females have a black upper beak.
There is only one subspecies of Sclater’s parrotlets, Forpus sclateri eidos. Native to western Guyana, Venezuela, Brazil and Columbia, the males are lighter green and have lighter blue than in the nominate. The females are also lighter green with more yellow, especially on the breast.
Housing Your Pet
Minimum cage side is 18" x18"x18" with maximum bar spacing be 1/2"- 5/8". Parrotlets do best in a cage that is longer than it is tall so it will accommodate a large amount of perches and toys. Make sure to place them where they can be easily removed for cleaning or replacing . They should also not be placed over food or water containers so their droppings do not soil their food and water. Natural non-toxix, non-sprayed wood branches are better than dowels but a wide variety of perches should be utilized. Some parrotlets may not stick their heads into a covered dish so avoid dishes with hoods on them. A cage that has a grate on the bottom will keep curious beaks away from droppings, stale food and other debris.
Parrotlets love to play with all kinds of toys. Toys made of leather, rawhide, wood and rope are much appreciated. They also like things that move. All parrotlets should be given a swing and many will sleep there at night. They will also spend hours untying knots, chewing on beads and attacking bells. Many people like to provide their birds with soft cloth toys such as Happy Huts™ or Birdie Buddies™ when they are young so they have something with which to cuddle and sleep. However, they should be removed after the parrotlet is six months old or undesirable behavior may occur. Make sure all toys are safe with welded chains and made from non-toxic materials. Also, parrotlets have strong jaws and beaks so make sure the toys can take the pounding. Buy toys made for cockatiels or small parrots such as conures to insure safety and durability.
Being very active birds, parrotlets require a lot of food for their size. They eat more than lovebirds and cockatiels so be generous with the food. The bird seed company Volkman's makes a mix specifically for parrotlets which is based on the mix we have fed at The Parrotlet Ranch for years. It is called "Parrotlet Super" and may be obtained a local pet shops, feed stores or directly from the company. Parrotlets can also eat a good-quality small hookbill or cockatiel seed mix with sunflower or a pellet diet instead of seeds. Breeding pair, however, should be fed seeds at least several times a week if on pellets.
Whether fed seeds or pellets, parrotlets still require fresh fruits, vegetables and greens every day. They should eat wholegrain breads, cooked legumes, root vegetables and grains, sprouted seed and high protein foods such as hard-cooked eggs with the shell. Fresh water, mineral block and cuttlebone should be available at all times.
Vitamins can be sprinkled on the fruits and vegetables several times a week. Breeders should also be supplemented with powdered calcium. Parrotlets on a pelleted diet should NOT be fed vitamins as this can cause health problems. Also, there have been reports of color mutation parrotlets have high uric acid levels as well as kidney problems such as calcification of kidneys in parrotlets fed primarily pelleted diets. . It is believed there is nothing wrong with the pellets, but due to the mutation, the parrotlets may metabolize these foods improperly. We have an article on our site about this condition and its possible causes on our site at "Pellets and Mutations".
Parrotlets as Pets
A single parrotlet makes the best pet and avoids problems such as jealousy and aggression. Many people feel because they are at work or school all day their parrotlet may become 'lonely' and would appreciate another parrotlet companion. Unfortunately, "share" is not a word generally known in the parrotlet vocabulary so keeping two together usually results in fighting and problems between them especially if a new one is introduced after the first one has established its territory. They often become jealous and combative with the new parrotlet or utterly ignore it. It often results in the owner having to house them separately.
This is not to say it is not possible to keep more than one parrotlet (I coined the phrase "Parrotlets are like potato chips, one is never enough.") but only if the owner wants another parrotlet not because they think their parrotlet wants another parrotlet. There is better success of the two parrotlets enjoying each other if they are both obtained at the same time and played with by the owner one on one daily. Unlike budgies, they will not bond with each other. Also, get two parrotlets of the same sex. Either two males or two females can co-habitat but avoid male/female as there is a possibility of breeding. Of course, if kept in separate cages, this should not be a problem.
Parrotlets do not bond with the person who hand-feeds them but the person they spend the most time with between the ages of six and twelve weeks but older parrotlets can make excellent pets as well. Many older parrotlets make great companions and seem to be grateful for being given a chance. Its best to buy a parrotlet from a breeder who handles and socializes their birds rather than just feeds them and puts them back with little or no interaction.
A parrotlet life span is believed to be around 15 to 20 years but no one knows for sure. Very few people breeding parrotlets today were around that long ago so it is hard to say. Among the 'old timers', many of us have had parrotlets this long that were either imported before the ban or have been raised in our aviaries. Mutation Pacifics have an even shorter track record as most of them were not available until about the mid-1990's. Parrotlets are rather hardy birds and if well-fed, kept clean and not exposed to other birds, parrotlets should live to a ripe old age. Unfortunately, most meet their demise by accidents so its important to always keep the parrotlet's wings clipped and not allow them to walk around on the floor. Also, do not take them outside unless they are in a cage as they can fly even with clipped wings.
Parrotlets are very smart and can be taught to do a variety of tricks as well as talk. I know several parrotlets that have a vocabulary of more than 100 words and a few that speak more than one language! Males seem to be more frequent talkers than females but females have been known to speak as well. The best talking parrotlets have owners that talk to them regularly rather than for a few minutes each day. Although formal training sessions of 10 minutes several times a day will help as well. Parrotlets seem to watch the mouth, tongue and lips of the person talking and this is best accomplished with one-on-one interaction.
It is true that parrotlets can be territorial and can be especially defensive with their cage. In the wild, parrotlets nest up to 200 yards away from other birds and will take over an entire tree by fighting off other birds or other animals in defense of their 'home'. So, being protective of their cage is normal and can be controlled with proper training. All parrots test your limits and parrotlets are no exception. They must be taught what is acceptable behavior using gentle behavior modification techniques and not with anger or physical threats. NEVER HIT A PARROTLET as it can easily be injured or even killed. They also learn nothing but to fear you. Generally speaking, most become very bonded and want to be with their human as soon as they arrive home.
There are some excellent books available on parrotlet behavior including two we have written ourselves. The Parrotlet Handbook which we wrote to give to our clients that took home our parrotlets and needed good basic information on identification, caging, training, diet, behavior and even breeding. The second, All About Parrotlets has most of the information of The Parrotlet Handbook but much more about diet, behavior, training, showing (exhibiting) and breeding. We also have two more books in the works, one completely devoted to parrotlets as pets and an expanded updated version of All About Parrotlets.
Books about general parrot behavior and training are also very helpful to parrotlet owners. Especially if one is having a particular behavior problem or is trying to teach their parrotlet tricks. Parrotlets are very smart and are just like any other type of large parrot, only tiny. They can learn in the same manner as their larger cousins.
It is also true that parrotlets can be defensive with other animals and other birds much larger than themselves. It is very important to keep the parrotlet away from other animals as most will not tolerate a strong nip on the nose or feet. This does not mean the parrotlet has to be the only animal in the house, but species segregation is very important. Parrotlets should not be able to have physical contact with other birds or animals no matter how 'gentle' the parrotlet or other animal. They can live in harmony if they are kept away from one another and not allowed physical access.
Parrotlets are not for everyone but if you are looking for a parrot with plenty of personality but cannot eat the dining room table, consider a parrotlet. You will have a delightful pet whose comical antics will keep you entertained and devoted companionship for many years to come.
International Parrotlet Society
The International Parrotlet Society was founded in 1992 to educate its members and the public on proper parrotlet care, breeding, conservation and exhibition as well as promote and support conservation and veterinary research.
IPS members receive wonderful benefits such as a beautiful, full-color bi-monthly journal, a free Breeder Directory, attend meetings, receive exhibition awards, participation in the Parrotlet Placement Program and cooperative breeding programs, contact with other knowledgeable parrotlet owners, breeders, researchers, conservationists and veterinarians and obtain IPS-issued traceable bands. Dues are $25 per year US $30 International. Contact:
International Parrotlet Society
PO Box 2428
Santa Cruz, CA 95063-2428