Blue-and-Yellow Macaws Turn Pink to Communicate, but What Are They Saying?

By Jessica Boddy on at

Do you ever get so excited about something that your whole face starts to turn red? Well, it seems that blue-and-yellow macaws do the same thing, according to new research — though the exact reason they go red in the face is still unknown.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who handle parrots regularly, but it’s the first step in a line of study that could identify just what macaws are trying to communicate by acting this way.

“It’s about time somebody studied this,” parrot expert and comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who wasn’t involved with the new study, told Gizmodo. “It’s clear these behaviours mean something, otherwise the birds wouldn’t engage in them.”

Study author Aline Bertin, an ethologist at the University of Tours in France, said she first heard about these blushing macaws from a zoo employee they’d been working with for other research. She was surprised when she saw it for herself.

“We witnessed these very rapid changes in skin colour when the birds were surprised by sudden events, or when their familiar caretaker approached or talked to them,” Bertin told Gizmodo. “It was very amazing for us to see this.”

Bertin and her colleagues wanted to understand why the birds blush, so they set up an experiment. They observed five blue-and-yellow macaws that were raised in captivity in a French zoo as their familiar caretakers either looked at and talked to them, or stood in the room and ignored them.

The birds blushed and also ruffled the feathers on their heads significantly more often when the caretakers engaged with them, according to the study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

The fact that macaws blush to communicate isn’t surprising — parrots are outrageously smart and emotional birds that can count, add and subtract, and make and use tools. It’s only natural that they have a wide range of behaviours to express their deep cognitive and emotional capacity.

“Parrots are considered to have primate-like cognitive capacities and are thus mainly studied for their intelligence and their vocal communication capacities,” Bertin said. “But far less is known about their subjective feelings and their capacity to communicate their emotions.”

Other birds blush, too. Some vultures do so when competing for food as a sign of aggression, and the crested caracara blushes when it is excited or stressed.

Researchers were very cautious about interpreting the meaning of the macaws’ blushing behaviour, since the sample size was so small. Pepperberg also noted that the birds used in the study were all quite young — none had reached sexual maturity, which might play a part in how or why they blush.

Still, Pepperberg said the study is a necessary first step in studying this behaviour. It’s useful to know if blushing does indicate sexual attraction or aggression, for example.

“If this is an aggressive response, then people who are handling these birds need to be aware so they can treat them right and back off,” Pepperberg told Gizmodo. “If birds are inappropriately treating the caretakers as sexual objects, imprinting on humans, it’s bad for conservation because they wouldn’t mate with other birds.”

Bertin plans to continue this line of study and identify exactly why blue-and-yellow macaws blush. She wants to study more macaws and observe them in their natural habitats. “Plenty remains to be done,” she said. [PLOS ONE]

Image: Arielle Beraud