Why Parrots Bite: A Theory.

I had a thought about why parrotlets and lovebirds can be perceived as so nippy.

Many of us know already how parrots use the angle of their feathers to communicate. For example, a ruffling of the feathers on the back of the head, or lifting of those at the upper back, can mean a bird is irritated and ready to bite. Humans are verbal communicators, but birds are not; they are incredibly adept at reading and signalling with body language – and we, their owners, often fail to read it.

But something struck me today as I was playing with one of my pacific parrotlet’s feathers.

A straight-on view.

I was poking through my flight feather collection from both birds, but quickly noticed that Ptak’s are nowhere near as vibrant as they are on him. He is a vividly plumed little thing, iridescent in some lights. You might describe some of his feathers as bold, others as electric… Off the bird, however, they seem quite dull.

But then I rotated the feather a little – and even photos don’t quite describe it.

Same feather.

But different light – so I turned it some more.

Every angle produced a different colour.
And again.

So what if – as with eclectus parrots – parrotlets use the angle of their feathers to change the light and colour? Maybe I’m behind the times here, but I’ve never found anything on parrotlets communicating that way, and it would help explain their apparent ‘bipolar’ natures.

The thing is, though, I only noticed this particular feather’s iridescence when right under a bright light; in ordinary circumstances, it’s just a dull grey flight feather. Even Ptak’s colouring changes drastically under good light. I’d suspect that most houses don’t have lights bright enough to notice any changes if our parrots were signalling before they chomped down.


Talking about bites, it’s important to remember that your bird is not at fault if you get bitten, you are: you failed to see its signals. But maybe that’s a bit harder than we previously thought.

I remember also from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds documentary that birds see in ultra violet; what appears dull to us is vivid to them. So just how important is light and colour to parrotlets, especially compared to feather angle and body language? Why is there not so much more info out there?

Anyone know of any articles on parrots and light communication, or am I on the wrong track entirely? I’m no ornithologist, unfortunately.

Thoughts, please!


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