Otago University scientists shine light on parrot plumage

How parrots get their brightly coloured feathers has puzzled people for years - but now Otago scientists have come up with an explanation.

For many birds, diet affects the colour of their plumage. But parrots use a technique called 'colour tuning' to stand out.

"Parrots are really interesting compared to most other birds," says Otago University PhD student Jonathan Barnsley.

"So most birds get their pigments from their food, so flamingos for example it comes from the food that they eat."

Researchers from Otago University were keen to find out just how parrots create their multi-coloured plumage. This study looked at the plumage of the yellow-naped amazon parrot.

Researchers illuminated the feathers using laser light, and analysed their structure on a computer. It revealed parrot plumages use a form of 'colour tuning' to create their hues.

"The pigments themselves are actually more yellow or orange, but when they're on the feather they form different arrangements," Mr Barnsley says.

"And that results in pinks and reds and all sorts of wonderful oranges and yellows."

He says nature takes very simple ingredients, with the magic in how they all mix together.

The idea could have much wider potential outside of the perch.

"If we as scientists can control that and use that in devices like solar cells or light emitting diodes," Mr Barnsley says.

The next step is studying whether other parrot species have the same pigment switch and translating that trick to real-world applications.