The Coloring and Camouflage of Parrots

Have you ever wondered why parrots, being prey animals, are so brightly colored?  How is a brilliantly colored macaw supposed to blend into the green background of the rainforest canopy?

Have you ever casually looked into your bird’s cage as you were passing by to find him gone? You try to hold down that feeling of panic as you frantically search the cage with your eyes. And then there he is, right where he was when your eyes looked in that direction a minute ago and saw nothing.

Camouflage is a very complex science, and it seems to sometimes dismiss logic. The very feature that makes a parrot stand out in the animal world: its coloring, is the same one that helps keep it hidden from the eyes of a hungry predator.

Parrots, and many other animals, use pattern and color variation as a means of camouflage. The purpose for bold patterns and vivid colors is to disrupt the outline of an animal’s body.

As the predator’s eyes follow the contours of the what they believe to be the body of the prey, a color or pattern change will draw the eye sharply to the left or right, disrupting the image. Some brightly colored parrots tend to have green, yellow or blue undersides that blend into the scenery in the dim forest lighting from below, and rely on this pattern and color disruption for safety from above.

In fact, everything about a parrot’s coloring is completely deceiving. Many vibrantly colored feathers do not actually contain what appears to be their predominant color at all, but are instead the product of a trick of lighting. Some colors absorb light, others reflect it, and by making use of the Tyndall effect, which is an illusion created using light, the same illusion that makes the sky appear blue when it is not, parrots have evolved to host the coloring that makes it safest in it’s natural habitat.

Given that most are tree dwellers, it makes sense that the majority of parrots are green, or mostly green. Or are they?  In the book Parrots: A Natural History, authors John Sparks and Tony Soper say: “‘Parrot green’ is produced with the help of a yellow pigment. This is laid down in the surface layers of the feathers and interacts with Tyndall blue to produce the illusion of green. If the yellow pigment is artificially removed, …the feathers turn blue.”

If you were to take one of the back feathers of your blue and gold macaw and hold it up to different angles of direct lighting, you will notice that at certain angles, it is distinctly brown, not blue. Green, blue and purple feathers actually contain none of these colors at all.

For anyone interested in the origins and nature of parrots, the above mentioned book is a great read, and much of the the information in this post came from within its pages.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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