Australian King parrot Alisterus scapularis, copyright Carole Riley.

Belongs within: Psittaculidae.

A king among parrots
Published 28 June 2011
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.

Systematics of Alisterus
<==Alisterus Mathews 1911 [Alisterini]B94
    |--A. amboinensisJT12
    |    |--A. a. amboinensisRN72
    |    |--A. a. buruensisRN72
    |    |--A. a. dorsalisRN72
    |    |--A. a. hypophoniusRN72
    |    `--A. a. sulaensisRN72
    `--+--*A. scapularis (Lichtenstein 1816)C38, JT12, C38 [=Psittacus scapularisC38; incl. *A. cyanopygiusC38]
       |    |--A. s. scapularisC38
       |    `--A. s. minor Mathews 1911C38
       `--A. chloropterusJT12
            |--A. c. chloropterusRN72
            |--A. c. callopterusRN72
            |--A. c. moszkowskiiRN72
            `--A. c. wilhelminaeRN72

Hybrid: A. insignissimus Gould 1874 [A. scapularis × Aprosmictus erythropterus]C38

*Type species of generic name indicated


[B94] Bock, W. J. 1994. History and nomenclature of avian family-group names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 222: 1–281.

[C38] Cayley, N. W. 1938. Australian Parrots: Their Habits in the Field and Aviary. Angus & Robertson Limited.

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

[JT12] Jetz, W., G. H. Thomas, J. B. Joy, K. Hartmann & A. Ø. Mooers. 2012. The global diversity of birds in space and time. Nature 491: 444–448.

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

[RN72] Rutgers, A., & K. A. Norris (eds.) 1972. Encyclopaedia of Aviculture vol. 2. Blandford Press: London.

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