Field of Science

A King among Parrots

Moluccan King parrot Alisterus amboinensis, photographed by Helsinki***.

For today's post, I'm looking at the King parrots of the genus Alisterus. There are three recognised species in this genus: the Australian King parrot Alisterus scapularis of eastern Australia, the green-winged or Papuan King parrot A. chloropterus of central and eastern New Guinea, and the Amboina or Moluccan King parrot A. amboinensis of eastern Indonesia and western Papua. However, each species is divided into subspecies, and some subspecies are quite distinct from each other. For instance, Alisterus scapularis shows distinct sexual dimorphism: the male has a bright red head and breast while the female has a green head and breast. In A. amboinensis, both sexes have red heads. In A. chloropterus, the nominate subspecies has a green-headed female like that of A. scapularis, but the northwesternmost subspecies A. chloropterus moszkowskii has a red-headed female like that of A. amboinensis (Forshaw & Knight 2010). In relation to other parrots, Alisterus belongs to the tribe Psittaculini that extends into eastern and southern Asia and the Mascarenes, among which it forms a clade with the other Australian genera Aprosmictus and Polytelis (Mayr 2010) (and hybrids have even been recorded between A. scapularis and species of these two genera—Rutgers & Norris 1972).

Female (left) and male Australian King parrot Alisterus scapularis, photographed by Peter Firminger.

You might be wondering why, among an entire order of particularly regal birds, it is this particular genus that is honoured with the title of 'King' (I know I certainly did). As it turns out, the reason appears to be that Alisterus is not, properly speaking, the 'king of parrots', but 'King's parrot', named after Philip Gidley King, governor of New South Wales from 1800 to 1806 ('Stentoreus' 2004; I might as well also point out for the benefit of those not familiar with Australian history that the original 'New South Wales' was considerably larger than the current state by that name, taking in the entire eastern seaboard of Australia).

Papuan King parrot Alisterus chloropterus, photographed by Mehd Halaouate.

King parrots are generalist feeders on fruit and seeds, which has not always endeared them to horticulturalists. They nest in deep holes in hollow trees: while the entrance to an Alisterus scapularis nest may be more than nine metres high, the actual nest may be nearly at ground level (Rutgers & Norris 1972). They lay 3-6 eggs between October and December.


Forshaw, J. M., & F. Knight. 2010. Parrots of the World. Princeton University Press.

Mayr, G. 2010. Parrot interrelationships—morphology and the new molecular phylogenies. Emu 110: 348-357.

Rutgers, A., & K. A. Norris. 1972. Encyclopaedia of Aviculture vol. 2. Blandford Press: London.


  1. I believe that in Rosemary Low's 'Encyclopedia of Lories' it is also mentioned that an *Alisterus* species has hybridised with *Trichoglossus haematodus*. Unfortunately, I don't have the book with me here so I can't check.
    Such a hybrid might not be nearly as surprising as it might seem, as nowadays it's well-established that lories are nested deeply within the 'Indo-Pacific clade' of parrots (though note that this clade excludes *Nestor*,*Strigops*,cockatoos and *Psittrichas* while it includes African *Agapornis*).

    The position of *Alisterus, *Aprosmictus* and *Polytelis* within the psittaculine part of this clade was not all that clear cut in the past either. They have at times been linked to platycercines though that was before cladistics or molecular phylogeny.

    Interestingly enough, the very platycercine *Prosopeia* were often considered 'king parrots' too. Forshaw does this in 'Parrots of the world', for example. In a field guide to Australian birds, I even saw the cockatiel (very much a cockatoo!) classified as a 'polytelitid'. Yes, this author employed a very unorthodox parrot classification that included families Polytelitidae, Platycercidae and Opopsittidae. Paradoxically, psittaculines *Geoffroyus* and *Eclectus* were placed in Psittacidae!

  2. 'Platycercines' as a whole seem to be having a hard time of it lately: other genera such as Melopsittacus have also been placed elsewhere, so the 'true platycercines' represent an ever-dwindling circle of taxa. It's not really surprising that parrot classification has been such a minefield, though. Despite their apparent flashiness, parrots are generally a rather conservative group of birds, with few really obvious outliers: Nestor, Strigops, Psittrichas and the cockatoos are probably the most morphologically distinctive parrots.

    In terms of hybrids, IIRC Rutgers & Norris (1972) refer to a report of a budgerigar x cockatiel hybrid, albeit with more than a little scepticism.


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