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Easy meat for the lorikeet

Some bird lovers and academics are shocked and baffled by rainbow lorikeets eating meat rather than their normal vegetarian diet

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Published: 14 April 2015 (GMT+10)

“Meat-eating rainbow lorikeets puzzle bird experts” proclaimed the recent news headline.1 Rainbow lorikeets are a beautiful Australian parrot species (Trichoglossus haematodus), which have been known as solely feeding on fruit, seeds, nectar, and pollen. Their numbers in the wild have surged in recent years, much to the consternation of fruit growers (as rainbow lorikeets “can decimate an orchard in three days”2), but much to the delight of backyard bird watchers in south-east Queensland, who have taken to leaving food out for them and other bird species, so as to be able to admire them feeding up close.

However, that’s where things have apparently taken a shocking turn. For some years a property owner north of Brisbane has set up feeding stations for the local birdlife. He puts out seeds for vegetarian birds like lorikeets, galahs and king parrots, while carnivorous birds such as kookaburras, magpies, butcher birds and currawongs are catered for too, with minced meat (in the form sold in shops specifically as pet food). Here’s an extract from a news report of a university research study which has been monitoring the site:

“The behaviour of a population of rainbow lorikeets who frequent a backyard feeding station on a property north of Brisbane has left bird experts baffled. The lorikeets are eating meat and Griffith University’s Professor Darryl Jones is shocked.

“Professor Jones, who is researching the impact of backyard feeding on bird populations, said lorikeets usually eat nectar and pollen which they obtain from native plants and shrubs.

‘I have researched what birds feed on all around the world,’ Professor Jones said. ‘I’m up to date with all the kinds of crazy things that birds are eating all over Australia. ‘To see a lorikeet eating meat astonishes me completely. I have never heard of such a thing before’.”

Others, too, are surprised. Wildlife carer Fran Sanders has been looking after native animals and birds in the Brisbane area for 25 years, and has never previously seen or heard of lorikeets eating meat. “I’m absolutely amazed and horrified,” she said. “They’re not meat eaters, that’s for sure. It’s incredible, I’m just so stunned.”

Actually, this is no recent aberration. The property owner, Bill, explained that it was about seven years ago when he first noticed the lorikeets eating meat, and they have been eating it ever since. He remembers that initially, the rainbow lorikeets appreciated the seeds he’d put out for them on the feeder trays, but then, once they’d tried the meat and evidently liked it, they not only sought out the meat in preference to the vegetarian offering, but they even began aggressively trying to exclude other birds from accessing it! “At first they went for the seed but then they started chasing the other birds away from the meat, which surprised me,” Bill recalls.

Professor Jones said the availability of food on the property and in the surrounding area made the lorikeet’s decision to eat meat all the more mystifying. “It makes no sense at all,” he said.

However, this is not the first time a parrot has routinely turned to eating meat—the kea of New Zealand is infamous for its history of carnivory.3 And there have been numerous other modern-day examples of other birds and creatures traditionally regarded as being exclusively vegetarian which suddenly adopted very different dietary behaviour, often to the surprise and shock of observers; e.g. the ‘Vampire Finches’ of the Galápagos (and other online examples hyperlinked under ‘Related articles’ below). What’s more, every kind of animal and bird today that eats meat, was in fact originally vegetarian. They’ve all made the switch from a 100% vegetarian diet at some point in history. The Bible’s eyewitness account of history tells us that it can only have happened in the intervening years since the Fall, about 6,000 years ago, because before that, all creatures had been given “every green plant for food” by their Creator, God. It was truly a “very good” world, just as God said, in which there was no death, no pain, no suffering, no carnivory.

So the Aussie lorikeets availing themselves of ‘easy meat’ is really just another symptom of the fact that we now live in a fallen world. When seen in that light, much of the ‘puzzle’ surely disappears.

References and notes

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this article come from the following reference and the ABC News website front page linking to it: Watson, M., Rainbow lorikeets eating meat leaves bird experts astonished, abc.net.au, 23 March 2015. Return to text.
  2. ABC Gardening Australia fact sheet: Growing lychee trees, abc.net.au, 28 March 2009. Return to text.
  3. Weston, P., The kea: clever, clownish and … carnivorous?!, Creation 27(1):28-32, 2005; creation.com/Air-attack. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Kathleen B.
Yes, this is right. I feed meat to my backyard birds, such as Magpies, Butcher birds, Kookaburras, Aussie minas, and the Lorikeets very quickly adapted to eating the meat too. They also are given grain bread but many still seem to prefer the meat & jealously keep other Lorikeets away from it.
Wayne O.
I heard a radio report about this incident and some commentary from talk-back listeners.

It seems it is not an isolated incident and has happened with Rainbow Lorikeets eating meat put out by residents in the Sydney region as well.

I have seen the species eating bread with butter on it.
John B.
No surprise at all. As an aviculturalist I have known for years that rainbows & other lorikeets love insects, caterpillars etc. They will tear open wasp nests to get the grubs & will hoe into suet & dogfood. Ganggangs will pounce upon any mouse that shows himself to them & gleefully consume it . For many years it has been noted that spice finches feed on dried pulverized roadkill. So as I said, no surprise at all, scientists are just a little tardy in catching up. In our fallen world opportunism is a useful trait.
Carole G.
This article did not surprise me. Our Quaker parakeet (a "vegetarian" ) prefers chicken to rice when allowed to select food we are eating. Years ago in Houston, Texas we had a budgerigar (parakeet) which enjoyed chicken tamales. We have said that these birds simply hadn't read the books which told them what they were supposed to eat.

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