Colouring up: macaws blush to communicate


Researchers show that parrot language is more complicated than previously thought. Kelly Wong reports.


Flushed with emotion: a blushing blue-and-yellow macaw.
Flushed with emotion: a blushing blue-and-yellow macaw.
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The large New World parrots known as macaws are known to be incredibly talkative, but it turns out they also communicate visually by blushing and ruffling their head feathers.

Researchers led by Aline Bertin from the Universite de Tours in France describe the facial display cues in the journal PLOS ONE.

Macaws have complex social lives to match their colourful, intelligent personalities. In the recently published study, the authors studied five hand-reared captive blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara ararauna) interacting with each other as well as their human caretakers.

The researchers observed feather positions – sleeked down or ruffled up – on the birds’ crown, nape and cheek. They also assessed blushing on the bare skin portion of the macaw’s cheek.

In general, head feather ruffling was more commonly observed when the birds were standing still, such as during social interactions and resting periods indicating a relaxed, calm state.

Crown feather ruffling and blushing were seen most often when a human caretaker was actively interacting with a parrot by talking and maintaining eye contact. Cheek ruffling was observed only when the birds were interacting with other macaws.

Bertin and colleagues conclude that head feather ruffling is associated with states of lower arousal and positive social interactions.

Due to large lighting variation in the aviaries, the researchers were unable to analyse blushing when the birds were in their social group.

“Blushing may not be a characteristic unique to humans,” the authors write. “The featherless cheek of the blue-and-yellow macaw parrot reveals rapid skin colour changes in situations associated with emotion.

“On a practical level, parrots are popular companion animals, with millions of parrots being kept as pets, and understanding visual communication in parrots may help to assess their well-being in captive conditions.”

  1. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201762
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