Coloration of Parrots and its Role in Natural Selection
A Zoological Perspective

by David T. Longo

Longo�s Aviaries Inc.
Meaford, Ontario, Canada

Evolution is a trial and error process where species that develop in a manner that allows them to hide from predators in their natural environment survive while those that attract attention due to coloration die off very quickly. Therefore we see very few colorful mutations in the wild that are more common in captivity. From my observations and studies over the past decade, when we discuss coloration and its role in natural selection there are a couple of guidelines to remember. The larger the parrots, the higher up on the food chain they are hence the less predators they have. This allows them more opportunity for advertising colours for courting purposes and for successful propagation of future generations. The smaller the species, the more coloration will intensify in areas that are displayed during courtship. I will give you an example, areas under the wings and around the vent that are typically concealed and thus helping to hide the bird when they are perched and more vulnerable. Knowing this, I will briefly discuss the role colors and advertising them plays in the parrot family and how it affects parrots as a prey species. The importance of coloration and how it works, the role colours and advertising plays in the parrot family and animal kingdom and how it affects parrots as a whole.

One small family of parrots from South America that show a great example of advertising colours for courting is the Pionus parrots. These little ones because of their size cannot promote coloring all over their bodies otherwise they would be seen by majority of their predators and would risk their existence. What the Pionus have done to compensate is only show colours where is adequately required. This family has a feature not many other families of parrots have. In all 8 species, their vent area are bright red or bright pink. They all use this technique to incorporate into their courting rituals. If observed, in the males' courting dance they briefly display their vents to the females when turned the opposite way. This is their way of interpreting "Look at me and of course, look at my reproductive area. You will not find a better specimen to breed with than I."

If Macaws are looked at from largest to smallest, the colour will slowly decrease from areas of less significance, to not risk being exposed to predators. Hyacinthines, Buffons', Militaries, Green-winged, Scarlets, Blue & Gold, Blue-Throated all have the most contrasting coloration because they are the largest members of this family. As you move down the ladder to the Red-Fronted, Blue-Headed, Yellow-Collared, Illiger's, Red-Bellied, Severe, then the Nobles and Hahn's, the colour intensity slowly decreases. One similarity I did find in a few of the miniature macaws is that they have the same technique of advertisement as the Pionus. Red-Bellied, Illiger's and Severe Macaws also have more intense promotion of the lower chest and vent area but use a darker burgundy red instead. The general observation is they are more camouflaged for the arboreal life and expose themselves in the open grasslands less than the larger macaws to avoid predators from overhead. The concluding thought for this theory is that it helps each individual species to succeed at what is was designed for. In more general terms "To do what it takes to survive as a species." Also, the smaller they are, the higher the nest production to maximize seasonal offspring to further newer genetic blood for future successful generations. As a rule in the animal kingdom, the smaller the organism is in its habitat, the more offspring will be produced in one season to make sure a small percentage will make it throughout life's challenges, barriers, and predators be able to reproduce again in the future. I believe when it comes to certain species like Sun Conures is that conures in general are very prolific. Approximately 65% of the 20 most commonly available conures which are paired off to breed will successfully raise young therefore significantly justifies their dominance in coloration in certain anatomical regions. In one way or another, the contrasting colour always plays a role in reproduction. Golden, Sun and and other colorful conures� geographical regions or areas other than the rainforest canopy shows there is less susceptibility for nest predation. Conures with less coloration show that their colour is controlled so their predatory rate deemed on that species does not increase. Again, the lack of coloration signifies the need for more camouflage.

In the Genus Amazona, the majority of species all have some form of red on their tails, this is a very important part of their courtship display rituals. When the males do get exited or set the mood, we all know the first behaviour to watch for is the dilating pupils that may or may not catch the opposite sex' eyes. Following this, the wings open halfway and display the colours in the wings with the tail completely fanned out. The males will bow (respectively) and display the colours that they have worked all year to keep in prime shape! Every moment I see birds in my aviaries display to the hens, my first reaction is to stop dead in my tracks grab a pen and paper and sit quietly, try not to disturb and watch. I must say I find them very impressive.

Cockatoos in their natural habitat lack the abundance of natural predators and need for camouflage so this has allowed them to evolve with more contrasting tones to their environment. Also due to the availability of food, there is such an overwhelming population of them that it is non-significant if the colour intensity is present or not. If one, two or ten thousand a year are lost due to certain natural circumstances, it will not jeopardize the species' population. Rose-Breasted Cockatoos as an example are in an overwhelming abundance. Whether or not there are thousands lost a year it will not affect the new projeny every season. The Cockatoos, or any flocking birds that are in abundance all have individual goals. These goals are to look exactly like all the others which makes it so confusing to predators that they have to resort to prey on the old, weak diseased the one who succumbs to the loss of energy or strength. That energy will then be converted to a new energy source to the predator. This brings us to understand Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution: "Survival of the Fittest."

The main reason parrots' population are lacking in their geographical regions presently is not because of the colour differences or they do not breed enough, or are being smuggled out of their habitat. Mother Nature establishes an equilibrium so all species that have evolved and continue to develop and co-exist. The reason they are now not flourishing is mainly because Homo sapien are constantly damaging the habitats of other existing organisms. This causes less and less nesting areas to be available. Each pair of amazons or macaws needs at least approximately 5-10 acres to comfortably own or call their territory to find a cavity in a tree to breed. Because my main interest is presently in the Neo-Tropical, Central and South American species of parrots, I used some of the examples listed here. In addition to the lack of nesting areas prime feeding grounds are being destroyed and if food is not abundant parrots do not go to nest. The Glaucous Macaw is a prime example of this, an example that did not have their anatomy�s colour affect their demise. The Yatay palm was believed to take up a great percentage of the Glaucous� diet. As the trees came with less existence, the birds slowly succumbed. The sad part is they only recently have been last sighted in the field less than 70 years ago.

I will be examining the evolutionary effects of colour on certain other pacific regional species of psittacines over the coming years and will continually be working on new papers on these topics.

Dave T. Longo
Longo's Aviaries Inc.
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