African greys have bright red tails, which are instantly recognizable against their light grey plumage.
Despite the old fable that tells the story of how African greys got their tails from red flowers, their tail color is the result of evolution.
African grey parrots have red tails due to red and yellow-causing pigments called psittacofulvins.
Congo African grey parrots have bright red tails, while Timneh African greys have a maroon-colored tail. Their tails keep predators away, defend territory, warn of danger, and assist with finding a mate.
Their tails have helped African greys to survive and evolve, and they remain an essential part of their survival today—the brighter the colors of the tail feathers, the healthier the parrot.
Why Do African Greys Have Red Tails
As mentioned, African grey parrots get their red tail feathers due to unique pigments called psittacofulvins.
As explained by Current Biology, these pigments are yellow and red and give each parrot its bright and colorful plumage. Because African grey parrots have several red pigments, they’re deposited in the tail, creating a vivid coloration.
These pigments are likely responsible for the survival of the African grey for the following reasons:
Warn Predators Away
According to Science Daily, African greys use their red tails to flash their predators away.
While African greys aren’t poisonous, the red coloration mimics danger, discouraging would-be predators from killing and eating them.
Also, red serves as a warning to the rest of the flock. If an African grey parrot senses danger, it uses its red tail feathers to advise other parrots to stay away and seek safety.
African greys largely live in the trees of moist lowland forests. They also make the following areas their home:
- Forest edges
- Gallery forests
- Wooded savannahs
They tend to roost in trees that sit over water, giving them easy access to food and hydration. They set up homes in tree holes where they’re sheltered from the elements.
As a result, there’s stiff competition from other African greys for the best territory. To defend it, African greys use their brightly-colored tail, which serves as a warning to other rival parrots.
Attract A Mate
The brighter the plumage, the more likely an African grey is to attract a breeding partner.
In sexual reproduction, red is a sign of quality. Scientists believe that red feathers show that the parrot can produce superior offspring. Bright tail feathers also signify that the African grey is healthy and devoid of conditions that can affect its reproductive abilities.
Female African greys prefer brighter feathers, which males show off as part of their mating ritual. If the male African grey’s tail feathers are dull or low in quality, the female is more likely to reject them.
While most African grey parrots’ tails look the same to humans, parrots perceive a broader range of colors and can see a wider spectrum of red shades, enabling them to determine which parrots are worth breeding with.
African grey parrots are monogamous and only mate with one companion at a time. So, they need to select their partners wisely for the best chances of mating success.
Do All African Greys Have Red Tails?
There are two types of African grey parrots – the Congo and the Timneh. As described by VCA Hospitals, Congo parrots are the larger of the two and have a bright red tail, while Timneh parrots have maroon tail feathers.
Both parrots are grey, but Congo African greys have a lighter plumage than Timneh African greys, which are a darker shade of grey with a distinctive V shape on the chest.
African grey parrots may not have a red tail for the following reasons:
Feathers aren’t permanent. As African grey parrots age, they go through a molting process, causing them to shed their old feathers and grow new ones.
The molting process affects the feather structure, sometimes causing the follicles to become damaged. As a result, not all tail feathers grow back. Also, they may become a much lighter shade of red or a different color altogether.
Feather plucking only happens in captivity and is a sign of inadequate environmental conditions. This includes:
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Lack of mental stimulation
- Dirty cage
- Predatory pets
- Too much noise
MSD Vet Manual explains that feather plucking can be due to disease, parasites, and allergies.
When parrots pluck out their tail feathers, new ones begin to grow almost immediately. It takes approximately four weeks for feathers to grow back, and they don’t always retain their old coloration.
If the feather structure is damaged during the plucking process, the feathers that are growing back will be affected. As well as the color, the pattern could be affected, making the tail look different altogether.
Vitamin deficiencies, particularly vitamin A, causes feather discoloration, affecting the tail feathers. The deficiency also makes the feathers appear dull and lackluster.
Bacterial and fungal infections can affect the color of an African grey parrot’s feathers. According to Behavioral Ecology, numerous bacteria inhabit feathers, and some can degrade the feathers, affecting the color.
Feather cysts also affect feather follicles. As a result, feathers can’t grow through the follicle as before, changing the feather’s color.
African Grey Parrot Red-Factor Mutations
While red-factor mutations are rare, some occur naturally and create red feathers that appear on random parts of the African greys’ plumage.
However, while mutations are responsible for certain colorations, don’t mistake them for feather plucking, which also causes random red coloration. That’s because the plucked feathers can grow back red rather than grey.
Red-factor mutations cause the following colorations:
Red Around Eyes
African greys usually have a patch of bare white skin around their eyes. While feather mutations more commonly occur around the chest and neck, affected parrots sometimes develop a light red coloration around their eyes. It looks like a light pink more than a bright red and contrasts with the tail.
Red Feathers On Neck
It’s uncommon to see African grey parrots with red feathers around their neck. However, it can happen due to a rare mutation. Depending on how many red-causing psittacofulvins the parrot has, some feathers naturally grow through red around the neck.
Random red feathers on the neck are also a sign of damaged follicles. If a red feather appears on its own as a single feather, it’s because the follicle has changed somehow, causing the feather to grow through abnormally.
Red Feathers On Chest
The F2 pied mutation results in the African grey parrot developing a red band of feathers across the chest. The color varies in shade and can appear as a light pink or deeper, brighter red.
This mutation is seen in wild parrots, though it can also be replicated through extensive breeding programs. Because of this rare genetic abnormality, the F2 pied mutation pushes the price up of African grey parrots.