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 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 from danger. They also use their chick’s feather coloration to determine whether the bird is low in nutrients. 

Parrots need their feathers for several vital reasons. Without them, they’re vulnerable to predation and attack from other territorial parrots. 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 already mentioned and explained further 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 feather follicles, giving each species its distinctive coloration and feather patterning.

On the other hand, 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 beholder’s 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 purposely 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 a bright plumage for the following reasons:

Mating

Most male parrots are more colorful than females.  As described by Scientific American, this is because of natural selection. Females prefer bright colors in males and are more likely to choose them as a mate.

During 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 potential 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 potential 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 also 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, caregivers, 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 typically 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 typically takes 24-28 days, but it can be as early as 18 days. As a result, the chicks vary significantly 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 excellent 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 species, 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 the bird from the back.

Scarlet macaws are large birds that need plenty of exercise and a large cage. If they get bored or stressed, they’re prone to feather plucking, causing discoloration and bald patches that don’t always grow back.

Eclectus Parrot

The Eclectus parrot is a sexually dimorphic species, meaning males and females differ in color. You can tell the sex of your bird 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. 

Eclectus parrots are less prone to feather plucking, but they tap their toes and flip their wings when something’s wrong.

Sun Conure

As one of the most vibrant parrot species, 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 of life, the feathers start off as olive before changing to a yellow-orange mixture at six months.

Both male and female sun conures have the same coloration. To sex them, they must undergo a procedure or genetic test.

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 individual 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.

Some owners believe that male macaws have a flatter head, whereas females have a narrower beak. However, these aren’t the most accurate ways to distinguish the parrots.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth macaws are recognized by their 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.

Today, the parrot species is rare after being ruthlessly hunted by indigenous tribes for its meat and feathers. However, it’s now protected by international law to boost the numbers living in the wild.

Does Parrot Discoloration Mean That Something’s Wrong?

A healthy parrot’s feathers should be vibrant and well-formed. Discoloration isn’t normal and signifies that something’s wrong with your bird.

In most cases, the color change is temporary. Once the underlying issue has been treated, your parrot’s feathers should return to their standard shade. Discoloration occurs for the following reasons:

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 your parrot’s 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

As described by Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, vitamin A is one of the most common deficiencies captive parrots face. Without it, a parrot’s immune system can’t function effectively, leaving it vulnerable to health problems. Vitamin A deficiencies also cause:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Painful abscesses and legions
  • Excessive mucus within the oral cavity
  • Sinus infections
  • Scaly, flaky feet
  • Thickened skin
  • White plaques in the mouth and on the tongue

Another noticeable sign of a vitamin A deficiency is the loss of feather coloration, making them appear dull, lifeless, and lacking quality.

Similarly, over-supplementation of vitamin A can also affect your parrot’s feather coloration. To solve the problem, try to reduce the number of daily supplements you feed your bird.

Malnourishment

As already 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 can appear anywhere across the parrot’s body.

When stress bars appear, it’s because the parrot was malnourished or stressed when the feather was growing and developing, affecting the pigmentation.

Deficiencies of the following nutrients and minerals also contribute to poor feather coloration:

  • Calcium
  • Protein
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Magnesium

Malnourishment leads to a range of health issues, including obesity, fatty liver disease, and heart problems, so you must improve the diet to prevent your parrot from getting sick and get the feathers back to their usual color.

Keep a close eye on your parrot’s coloration. If you notice any changes or see that the coloration is becoming dull or faded, there might be a health issue that needs addressing.

Parrots can’t tell us when they’re unwell, but feather quality and color changes are obvious ways for us to get them help when they need it.