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NMSU biology professor publishes ?Parrots of the Wild? as part of mentor?s legacy

With their tight social relationships, long lives and big brains, New Mexico State University biology professor Tim Wright considers parrots to be the most human of all birds.

?Parrots of the Wild? book cover
Tim Wright, NMSU professor of biology, recently co-authored ?Parrots of the Wild,? a book exploring the lives and history of wild parrots. (Courtesy photo)

?There?s a reason that they can be such charming pets: they have a lot of characteristics that we think of as human,? Wright said. ?They?re particularly intelligent ? they have advanced cognitive abilities, they?re capable of learning vocalizations and of mimicking our vocalizations. They also tend to have very tight social bonds.?

These captivating qualities led Wright to spend the last 20 years studying this fascinating group of birds, and, more recently, to co-author ?Parrots of the Wild,? a book exploring the lives and history of wild parrots.

The book, released this month, was the brainchild of late co-author Catherine Toft, a professor emerita in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis, who hosted Wright in her lab during an extended research visit to the school. Toft, who was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after completing the first draft of the book, requested Wright take over the final steps toward publication.

?It was a tremendous honor,? Wright said. ?I knew it was going to be a very exciting book in that it was trying to meet twin goals; It was trying to be a real scientific work ? it was synthesizing a lot of what was known from field studies about parrots, as well as laboratory studies of their behavior, sensory capacities and cognitive abilities ? yet also making it accessible to the public.?

To achieve this balance, the authors worked to put this compilation of scientific work into language that a general audience could appreciate and understand. On top of that, the book is interspersed with a vast collection of brightly colored photographs of wild parrots.

Section topics include: the evolutionary history of parrots, parrot feeding habits, social behavior, mating systems and conservation.

The first chapter explores how parrots came to evolve from a single ancestral species into the more than 350 species that exist today, while the last chapter brings in new data to explore parrot endangerment and conservation efforts.

?Parrots are actually one of the most endangered groups of birds,? Wright said. ?Some of that is due to loss of habitat ? that?s one of the very characteristic things people do is cut down forests for agriculture or other reasons, and that can hurt parrots. The other main reason for endangerment is capture for the pet trade, which has decimated some species.?

Though the book shares gripping accounts of parrot endangerment, it is balanced with conservation success stories. Aiding in these efforts is the World Parrot Trust, a prominent world parrot conservation organization and recipient of the book?s proceeds.

?I think Cathy?s hope was to show people who are fascinated by parrots as captive animals, what wild parrots were like,? Wright said. ?It might help them be better pet owners, be more considerate and perhaps to do a better job of preserving wild parrot populations.?

While there is still much to learn about how parrots live in the wild, Wright explained that the glimpses we do have share similarities with, and could even offer insight into, our own species.

?I think that some of the aspects of parrot ecology ? the way they move through the environment, the way they communicate to help each other find food, that sort of thing ? is instructive for thinking about human evolution, as social, large-brained, communicative animals,? Wright said.

For more information on ?Parrots of the Wild,? listen to a podcast of Wright discussing the book with the World Parrot Trust: https://s3.amazonaws.com/wpt_podcasts/twright/Dr+Tim+Wright+Parrots+of+the+Wild.mp3

To purchase the book, visit http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520239258 or http://www.amazon.com/Parrots-Wild-Natural-History-Captivating/dp/0520239253.