Does Your Bird Use Light to Communicate?

Otto's "I see a threat!!!!" pose.

When I took on Otto (my musk lorikeet), I was expecting major behavioural problems. He was a re-homing case, which is very different from a rescue. He came to me because he didn’t fit in with his family and their lifestyle. He had serious behavioural issues and was inflicting some pretty serious injuries on his humans. They’d dealt with his health issues, they’d bought vet-recommended training courses but he was still completely unreadable and dangerous. He’d attack for no apparent reason and he would be in it until the death of his victim or himself.

It didn’t take long for me to see what his previous owners had meant about him being an attack bird. I made the mistake of blowing my nose while he was nearby. Apparently all tissues must die and so must any person who dares touch one. Despite this, it took less than 3 weeks for Otto to become the cuddliest member of my flock. At his old house, it took 2 people to get Otto to return to his cage, toilet training was unheard of and Otto definitely wasn’t finger trained. I used the Birdtricks basic taming and tricks methods to turn him around very quickly but there was a reason beyond lifestyle and training for why it worked for me and didn’t for his previous owners. To an outsider, it looked like Otto and I had a telepathic bond that allowed me to read his body language, but in reality I was aware of how Otto was using light to communicate with me.


Pepi. Note the shade of green is bright but consistent. He is alert, but still approachable.

Eclectus parrots, lorikeets and the other fluorescent birds tend to use light to communicate with you, before they’ll give you the clear body language that we’re accustomed to seeing from other species of parrot. They are still quite capable of raising feathers, lunging towards people and all those other warning signs that indicate something has irritated them.  That said, if you’re getting those sorts of physical behaviors, then you have already missed the early signs that the bird would have been giving you. Missing early indicators of irritation can really lead to problems because most fluorescents are lightning fast when aggravated. They can move through a whole range of signals extremely quickly, so you want to catch the first sign in order to have the time to react and prevent undesirable behaviour from escalating.

Pepi asking for a cuddle. His whole body is an almost consistent darker shade of green.

One wild example of light communication can be seen in the Australian budgerigar. Studies show that female budgies will judge their potential mates by the quality of their fluorescent display. Budgies puff out their fluorescent cheek feathers in order to catch and reflect UV light. The brighter the display, the healthier the bird appears and therefore the more desirable he seems as a quality potential mate. The display isn’t just to attract females though; it also serves to warn off other potential suitors. The tougher bird becomes almost too bright to look at in order to communicate his toughness to any competition. This may be well known in scientific circles, but for some reason we don’t often take this knowledge and apply it to our companion birds that have fluorescent feathers.

So what are we looking for in our companion birds? Basically these birds can change the angle of their feathers by the smallest amount and change the amount of UV light that they reflect when they do so. To our eyes, it ranges from a subtle colour change, to an extreme change of brightness.

Note the difference in colour between neck and wing. He's getting annoyed but isn't mad yet.

Note the colour difference is there plus his shoulder feathers are raised. He's mad - run away!!!

In my male eclectus, Pepi’s case, this is most obvious with his neck and head. He is uniformly an almost dull dark green when he’s calm. When he is aggravated his neck and head progressively become a brighter and lighter shade of green. I know I’ve exceeded his tolerance threshold when his shoulder feathers stand up; then he’ll nail me if he gets the chance. Hopefully I have picked up on the colour change before that happens! This isn’t his only colour signal though. When he has perceived a threat he stretches his neck to make it look longer (and him taller) and his whole body becomes a brilliant shade of green.

Pepi sees a threat. Note the long neck and consistent bright colour. The brighter the colour the bigger the perceived threat.

In contrast, Otto’s colour changes are a lot subtler. Like Pepi, the extended neck and general increase of brightness are a signal that he perceives a threat. However, Otto’s emotional state is highlighted by a very subtle all over change in brightness. He is quite dull in colour when he is calm and wants a cuddle, he becomes just slightly lighter in colour when he wants to play and slightly brighter again when he is not in the mood to be handled. It isn’t difficult to see why people have issues with unexpected bites from lorikeets. His “don’t touch me” pose is often identical to his “I want to play” pose – often the only difference is the slight change in his colour. Just to make it that little bit more difficult, the more sunlight he is in, the brighter he will appear. So you also have to be aware of what the changes look like under different types of lighting.  Unfortunately, us stupid humans are attracted to pretty bright birds and tend to stick our fingers out saying “Aren’t you beautiful?” I suspect this is why all of my lorikeets can clearly say “OWWWW!”

Otto asking to come out for a cuddle...

Otto asking to play...

Otto ready to bite! He wants to run around on his own.

There’s one more implication to this. If we can draw conclusions about our birds’ state from their colour, it is likely they’re drawing similar conclusions based on our colour. There is a reason that I wear a lot of black or dull colours around my birds (and why I laugh without explaining, when my mother wears hot pink around them). I don’t want to accidentally give my birds the impression that I’m annoyed with them and that I want them dead because I actually like my nose attached where it is!

In the meantime, Otto and I are continuing to get to know each other. I don’t think he is ever going to tolerate the presence of a nearby tissue box (all tissues are evil and need to die), but we’re working out each other’s signals. To their credit, his previous owners came to the difficult conclusion that Otto’s personality didn’t suit their lifestyle, so even if they did get the training and his signals right – he still wasn’t going to fit in with them. Apparently a bird that likes to turn somersaults on your computer keyboard doesn’t blend well with writing a thesis, but I can honestly say, he’s a real asset when you’re writing about birds!!!!

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

1 comment

Doyle H. McNelly

My dear, dear darling Quaker, Lady Lorene, does definitely change her colors…, i know, it’s changes obviously with her moods/emotions/etc. You all are such a wonderful wealth of extremely helpful information. Lady Lorene has always been a bit of a grouch in the mornings (4.5 Yrs. of age, now). But not always. This morning, her head and body colors told me that she was not in the best of moods…, minimum hugs and kisses. Thank You All So Very Much, Doyle H. McNelly

Doyle H. McNelly

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