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Clay eating Parrots

Clay eating Parrots

Southeastern Peru is home to some of the most beautiful species of birds in the world. One of the most commonly found species is the parrot, which are of dozens of beautiful colours and sizes. All of these parrots have a very interesting habit – they gather on open cliff faces and eat clay. The Colorado cliff face in the Western Amazonian Basin actually sees more than 18 species of parrot gathering on a daily basis.

The Tambopata Macaw Project is a research project that specializes in ornithology and bird behavior – which has spent more than 15 years recording the behaviour and tendencies of the indigenous parrot population of South America. One of their main objectives was to get to the bottom of this peculiar habit displayed by all the parrots in the region. Their paper collates findings amounting to more than 20,000 hours over a span of 13 years.

The Two Main Hypotheses Presented

There are actually two highly probable explanations as to why these parrots gather daily to get their daily fix of clay. The act of intentionally consuming clay and soil is known as geophagy, and scientists have developed two theories as to why parrots do it. The first theory is that clay is a natural detox element and the second is that clay contains vital nutrients that their usual diet lacks.

Clay As a Detox Method

One of the major theories is that parrots consume clay because it is a well-known natural detox material. When food sources are in short supply, parrots have to resort to plants that may be toxic. Eating these toxic seeds of Hura crepitans, or sandbox tree, can be really harmful. Having clay on a regular basis helps birds to protect themselves from the toxins. Some research has shown that clay binds to these toxins and actually prevents them from reaching the bloodstream of the birds. Some of the parakeets also seem to negate the toxins by consuming large quantities of flowers and fruit along with clay.

Clay As a Nutrient Source

Parrots primarily have a plant-based diet and even though their diet is complete, it lacks some of the necessary nutrients. The second major hypothesis is that parrots have clay because it is rich in various nutrients that are essential to their diet – which they can’t obtain elsewhere. The research showed that geophagy is prevalent especially in areas where the soil is rich in sodium – which is important for nerve function.

Which Hypothesis Was Actually Correct?

To test both the hypotheses, the research team observed and collected findings for over a decade. They didn’t come up with any evidence to support the detox hypothesis. Actually, it was discovered that parrots actually ate more clay when food was plentiful. The analysis of the data did point towards the fact that parrots treated clay as a form of nutritional supplement. The data collected was very clear and to-the-point.

Nine species of parrot were studied in particular and for each one, geophagy peaked during the breeding season. It was especially prominent during the time where the parents fed the new baby birds. The scientists explained that this is a period of nutritional stress – especially for female parrots – and that the clay helped the birds to stay healthy and satiated. As sodium is missing from their diet, they have it directly from the rich source.

Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Scarlet Macaws and Parrots at the clay lick Pic credit: Brian Ralphs (Creative Commons)

Geophagy in other species

Parrots and macaws aren’t the only species that practice geophagy on a large scale. Research has shown that elephants, bats and several primates are also known to practice geophagy regularly. Some researchers have discovered that even pregnant women sometimes get the urge to practice geophagy. The Peruvian government has also been working in close conjunction with research teams to preserve the clay licks and cliffs – so that the parrot population can be protected and preserved.

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