Why do green parrots have no green feather pigments and why are their feathers different from other bird feathers?

Why do green parrots have no green feather pigments and why are their feathers different from other bird feathers?

Hi Mitch

I recently inherited a Yellow Naped Amazon and love her to pieces, but not being a bird person previously, I could use some advice. He is guessed to be about 50 years old, actually, I was told that Rhoda is a female but, she has never laid eggs so they say she is a he!

No matter, I have noticed some of his feathers have black coloring on them. Is it true that could be caused by him not getting enough sunlight? His cage is in front of a window, but the window has a sun screen on it. What is needed to provide “sun” for him in his cage? I would also like to purchase a “Happy Hut” for him but I need to know what size I should order. 

Thanks for any help you can give me and I welcome any advice!

Ginger Oliveira

Hi Ginger

Congrats on the inheritance – first off should you want to determine the sex of your Zon you can do so here with an easy DNA test for $18.

As for the feathers, I’d start by saying if your bird has not been to an avian vet I would strongly advocate a trip to confirm the overall wellness of your bird. That said the color of a parrot’s feathers is not so straightforward.

Feather color is affected not only by the birds diet and DNA but by who’s eyeballs are perceiving the color(s) For example if the bird doesn’t have a healthy sheen to it, what you might be seeing is a dark blue but the appearance of blue light-scattering is diminished thus the blue may look muted (black).

 It also could be because you’re not seeing the feathers in the correct light and so with the following warning – science lesson ahead – we will try to figure this out for you.

Centuries ago (or so it seems) my youngest daughter who’s hair was a never ending explosion of red curls found herself in an elevator with me. She was four. As we were descending, the elevator stopped and a woman entered the soon to be vertically moving cubicle. Before making the turn to face the front of the elevator which apparently is a rule, she looked at my daughter and said: “oh a carrot top”

Alix looked her straight in the eye and with as much indignation as a four-year-old could muster, she set the record straight by exclaiming “carrots are green on top!” We all see life through a different lens.

 Feathers are considered integumentary structures (organ systems that protect the body from various kinds of damage, such as loss of water or abrasion from outside) which include hair, scales, feathers, hooves, and nails all found in vertebrates. We mere mortals have to rely on complex man-made things like clothing to even begin to mimic the performance of feathers which includes flight.

They promised me a personal jet pack in the 60s. I even watched some knucklehead fly one from the balcony at McCormick Place for some event in my youth. Come on – you’d trade in your not-so-smart-phone for a jet pack in a New York minute? 

 Feathers enable birds to fly. They provide insulation against the elements. Add waterproofing the list, not to mention that for many species mate selection is based upon feather quality

 Feathered factoid: someone who studies feathers for living practices “Plumology.”

You need two things to create the incredible colors of parrot feathers. Pigments and a certain micro structural arrangement must exist within the feathers tissues (it’s a light reflection thing that you’ll learn about shortly). 

Pigment colorization in birds comes from three groups: carotenoids, melanins, and porphyrins. Birds (non-parrots) metabolisms are not able to produce the carotenoid molecule. These molecules come from what a bird eats. 

Feathered factoid: Pigments have been found to help boost a bird’s immune system and provide antioxidants. 

Parrots and parakeets represent a little less than 8% (about 700 species is our final guess) of the 9000 to 10,000 species of birds on the planet (take that – dog). So it should be no surprise that parrot feathers have their own class of feather pigments called psittacofulvins. 

These parrot-centric pigments are like the carotenoids found in most bird species. They provide the reds, oranges or yellows. Because you won’t find psittacofulvins in a parrot’s blood it is assumed that these pigments are actually synthesized along with feather growth within the follicular tissue.

anatomy of a bird’s feather 

Unlike the color of flamingos feathers which are determined by their diet such as shrimp (which is also why shrimp turn pink when boiled) and algae both high in carotenoids, parrot feather color is unaffected by said carotenoids. 

Using cool science gadgets like liquid chromatography to look at red feathers on almost 4 dozen species of feathered parrots, researchers discovered that all red feather parrots use the same suite of five psittacofulvins for the red color in their feathers. If a particular species had a higher concentration of psittacofulvins it had redder feathers.

Speaking of redder, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. If you really want to show your commitment as a caged bird breeders go to the bank today and cash in your kid’s college funds because for a mere $100,000 you could tell the world that “red is the new grey” Click here to see this beauty in your home by the end of the week

This is where hybridizing feather color runs off the rails.

red factor African grey parrot

File under please stop screwing with mother nature.

Walk down the hair color aisle in any big box store and you’ll see a mind-numbing rainbow of available hair colors. The manufacturers of these hair colors may have taken a cue from parrots because red parrot feathers alone occupy a huge range of the color spectrum.

 You’ll find light pink feathers in Rose Breasted and Major Mitchell Cockatoos having a counterpoint of the deepest of red feathers on Lorikeets. All on the same continent. Something tells me there’s an evolutionary correlation here.

Which begs the question – if the majority of parrots are green where is the green pigment coming from? Surprisingly there is no green pigment in parrot feathers. Although a bird’s green feathers appear to be green they are only harboring red and yellow pigments (no orange).

 This is where the aforementioned melanins come into play. Melanins determine the lightness or darkness of feather color. Melanin pigment colors are black and brown which turns up and down the shades of a particular color.

 How many times in the history of the universe has a child asked a parent “why is the sky blue?”

“It’s because of something called the Tyndall effect Johnny.”

“Thanks dad, what’s for lunch?” Really that’s all you had to tell your inquisitive youngster? They already knew the answer because every kid now has access to google but they asked the question just to annoy you – FYI.

 The Tyndall effect occurs when the shortest wavelengths of visible light being blue get scattered broadly across the atmosphere making the sky appear to be blue. Light reflecting off the feather structure is perceived by the combination of feather structure and internal chemistry aka psittacine pigments aka (parrot) carotenoids or psittacofulvine’s and the “perceived” feather color is attributable to the Tyndall effect.

Remember ….”microstructuralangement must exist within the feathers tissues?” That’s the structure to disburse the colors (via light) that you perceive the feather feather colors as. 

Speaking of blue, a blue parrot like a Hyacinth macaw has no psittacin which is what makes it blue. And that porphyrines thing – the third factor. In birds other than parrots, porphyrines help generate red, brown, green and even pink in a number of birds.

Fischer turaco (Tauraco fischeri). Wildlife animal.

Unlike parrots, porphyrines make
Turacos (a group of African birds – above) green as an example.

we need to move on – end science lesson

 It’s good that you want to find proper lighting for your bird. Sunlight is more important to birds than most cage bird keepers realize You can find our birdcage lighting solutions category here.

 Windows can be good news bad news for parrots. The good news is the light that they allow in the activity to help keep things interesting for the bird. Sunlight is good for birds but the light coming in through any glass window filters out all the UVA and UVB which may be helpful to your birds overall well-being.

Assuming you live in North America the changing of seasons & daylight savings time can wreak havoc with a South American bird’s physiological stature. This is why we like to see full spectrum lighting on a timer for every caged bird.

 The downside(s) to the window thing is the problem with predatory birds (hawks, falcons) flying by – your bird may see and does not understand the concept of glass. Self-destructive behavior like feather plucking could be triggered by the unwarranted stress.

Further, parrots being prey animals, feel far more secure when the cage is against one or preferably two walls.

peaches senegal parrot in new cage

 The Happy Hut thing

I would suggest you hold off on this for now until you get to know your bird a bit better. What we don’t want to do is encourage brooding activity. But we do want to encourage his socialization with you as opposed to hiding out in its own little tent.

 Amazons are highly socialized animals and really enjoy engaging conversation.

 Hope that helps

 written by mitch rezman
approved by catherine tobsing

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Mitch Rezman

He's handled a 1000 birds of numerous species when they visited monthly birdie brunches in the old Portage Park (Chicago, IL) facility. The one with the parrot playground. Mitch has written and published more than 1100 articles on captive bird care. He's met with the majority of  CEO's and business owners for most brands in the pet bird space and does so on a regular basis. He also constantly interacts with avian veterinarians and influencers globally.

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