why are parrots colorful

How Do Parrots Get Their Colors?

Parrots are known for their vibrant colors. However, as beautiful as parrots are, their coloration is actually essential to their survival and evolution.

Parrots have a unique set of pigments called psittacofulvins, which turn their feathers yellow, red, and green. A parrot’s blue feathers are created primarily by light refraction. Parrots have a bright plumage for mating, protecting their territory, communicating, and camouflaging themselves.

Without their feathers, parrots are vulnerable to predation and attack from other territorial birds. Similarly, feather dullness or discoloration signifies a health condition, alerting owners that their parrot needs treatment. 

What Makes Parrots So Brightly Colored?

Parrots are one of the most colorful bird species in the world. Unlike other birds, who get their pigmentation from dietary carotenoids, parrots get their coloration for a different reason.

As explained by Current Biology, parrots get their bright yellow, red, and green feathers from a group of unique pigments called psittacofulvins. The same pigments are responsible for a parrot’s orange and pink feathers.

Parrots synthesize these pigments at the feathers’ follicles, giving each species distinctive coloration and feather patterning. Purple and blue feathers aren’t caused by psittacofulvins. Instead, they’re created by light refraction.

When white light hits a blue or purple feather, it bounces off the microscopic layers found within it. As a result, the red and yellow wavelengths cancel each other out. At the same time, blue light wavelengths reflect into the eye, creating the feather’s blue, purple, or violet appearance.

While parrots don’t get their coloration through their diet, a study by Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology found high levels of carotenoids in the blood of the parrots they studied, which appeared at the same time as feather growth. This suggests that parrots can use carotenoids for feather pigmentation but avoid depositing them into the feathers.

Why Are Parrots Colorful?

Parrots don’t have colorful feathers for aesthetic reasons. Their coloration is essential to their survival. As a result, parrots have bright plumage for the following reasons:

Mating

Most male parrots are more colorful than females.  As described by Scientific American, this is due to natural selection. Females prefer brightly colored males and are more likely to choose them as mates.

During the mating season, males attract female parrots by showing off their bright plumage. Colors are also a way for females to determine the health of their mates.

Males with dull feathers are more likely to have a health condition. Similarly, poor feather quality is sometimes the result of parasites, which female parrots prefer to avoid.

Color also signifies immunity, parental abilities, and breeding success. While some parrots look similar to the human eye with their patterns and colors, parrots can see the entire UV spectrum.

This means they can see a broader range of fluorescent colors that we can’t see, giving them a greater view of their mate’s overall mating potential.

why are parrots brightly colored?

Territory

Parrots compete with other birds for territory, which they need to feed, mate, protect themselves from predators, and raise their young. Parrots choose sites that offer food, water, and shelter. As a result, the best territory is attractive to other birds, who will attack the dominant to gain ownership.

By showing off their flashy, vibrant colors, parrots exert dominance over a particular area when they need to defend it. This is part of a visual display, which includes puffing up feathers, tail flicking, and wing spanning.

Alongside the parrot’s brightly-colored plumage, this behavior warns other birds of its strength, discouraging them from attacking. Without territory, parrots are at risk of predation and starvation, so this ritual is crucial for their survival.

Communication

Feather colors work as a communication tool between parrots, owners, and other animals. For example, some parrots with red feathers use them as a warning to flash predators away.

Parrots that live in colonies also use their colors to alert their kin that danger is nearby, giving them a chance to escape from predators or other harm.

Parrots also blush to communicate with other parrots or their owners. Like feather coloration, blushing is caused by psittacofulvins that give the cheeks a rosy pink glow. Blushing indicates:

  • Excitement
  • Playfulness
  • Sexual maturity
  • Anger
  • Fear

Because their feathers usually cover up a parrot’s cheeks, we can’t always see this color change. As a result, parrots will fluff the feathers on their face, neck, and nape at the same time as blushing to communicate.

Feeding

It’s thought that parrots use color to determine when to feed their young. A parrot’s eggs hatch at different rates. Parrot incubation takes 24-28 days, but it can be as little as 18 days. As a result, the chicks vary in size and age.

As they’re growing quickly, older chicks require more food than newborns. Therefore, parent parrots use the brightness of the color around their chick’s open mouths and head feathers to determine which one needs the most nourishment.

Discolored or dull feathers indicate that the chicks are malnourished and allow parents to choose the weaker parrots for priority feeding.

Camouflage

While you’d think that parrots would be vulnerable because of their noticeable feathers, they’re actually good at camouflaging them.

Many parrot species live in the rainforest, where brightly-colored fauna and flora are abundant. There is also a range of colorful fruits and berries that grow on trees and brushes. As a result, parrots with kaleidoscopic plumage can blend in with their bright surroundings.

Similarly, feathers and bold patterns disrupt a parrot’s body’s outline, preventing them from being seen. All parrots need is one color to blend into their environment, and a predator’s eyes will become confused. The benefit of this is that parrots can hide away and protect themselves from predators, of which there are many in the wild.

What Are The Most Colorful Parrots In The World?

All parrots are known for their bright and colorful feathers, but some are more vibrant than others. Parrots with the most colorful plumage include:

Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaws are one of the most distinctive parrots, with bright red feathers on their head and shoulders, yellow on their back and mid-wing feathers, and blue on the wing tips and tail. They have bare facial skin and yellow eyes. When they extend their wings, their entire body looks like a rainbow, particularly if you look at them from the back.

Eclectus Parrot

The Eclectus parrot is a sexually dimorphic species, meaning that males and females differ in color. You can tell the sex of your parrot just by looking at its coloration.

Male Eclectus parrots are mostly bright green with red and blue patches under the wings and tail. In contrast, female Eclectus parrots are mainly red, with blue-purple feathers around the chest and wings.

Sun Conure

Sun conures boast a kaleidoscope of colors, ranging from red, yellow, and orange to blue, green, and purple. They also have a black beak and feet, with white patches around the eyes.

They develop their full plumage when they’re around one year old. In the early stages, the feathers start off as olive before changing to a yellow-orange mixture after six months. Male and female sun conures have the same coloration.

Blue-And-Gold Macaw

As their name suggests, blue-and-gold macaws are a mixture of blue and yellow. The head is mostly green, while the neck and chest are bright yellow. The rest of the body is primarily blue and varies in shade depending on the bird.

Blue-and-gold macaws also have a striking stripe pattern around the eyes, which looks like a zebra’s markings. Their beaks are black, large, and sharp. Like sun conures, female and male blue-and-gold macaws are barely distinguishable from each other.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth macaws have vivid cobalt blue plumage. They have large black eyes with a yellow ring around the pupils. The same yellow also appears around the beak.

The hyacinth macaw is also the world’s largest parrot, reaching 40 inches in length with a wingspan of 4 feet. Males and females look the same, though females have a slenderer build.

Does Parrot Discoloration Mean That Something’s Wrong?

A healthy parrot’s feathers should be vibrant and well-formed. In most cases, any color change is temporary. Once an issue has gone, your parrot’s feathers should return to their standard shade. Discoloration occurs because:

most colorful parrots in the world

Damaged Follicles

Feather discoloration is commonly caused by follicle damage, either through feather plucking or injury. Feathers grow from follicles that are located throughout the body. Parrots can move their feathers through the muscles and ligaments that are attached to them. Sometimes, they accidentally break their feathers while grooming, damaging the follicles.

Similarly, jagged feathers don’t always lay properly, irritating the parrot. As a result, the parrot will pull the feather out to get relief. Because of the follicle damage, not all feathers grow back with the same coloration they had before, appearing duller in color or changing color completely.

Vitamin A Deficiency

According to Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, vitamin A is one of the most common deficiencies captive parrots face. A noticeable sign of a vitamin A deficiency is the loss of feather coloration, making them appear dull, lifeless, and lacking quality. However, too much vitamin A can affect a parrot’s feather coloration.

Malnourishment

As mentioned, dull or discolored feathers are an indication of malnutrition. Many parrots develop stress bars when they’re malnourished. These appear as dark, horizontal lines that show across the parrot’s body.

When stress bars appear, it’s because the parrot was malnourished or stressed when the feather was developing, affecting the pigmentation. Deficiencies of these nutrients and minerals contribute to poor feather coloration:

  • Calcium
  • Protein
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Magnesium

If you notice any changes or can see that the coloration of the feathers is becoming dull or faded, there might be a health issue that needs addressing. Parrots can’t tell their owners when they’re unwell, but feather quality and sudden color changes are easy ways for us to determine that treatment or changes are necessary.