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Like Humans, Some Birds Blush to Communicate

Blue-and-yellow macaws are capable of the feathered equivalents of facial expressions, new research shows

Blue-and-yellow macaws are capable of blushing (left). (Arielle Beraud / University of Tours)
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Humans have uniquely expressive faces: We laugh, we cry, we flush with feeling. Now, scientists report in the journal PLOS ONE that blue-and-yellow macaws may join us in this elite club of emoting—at least, when it comes to blushing.

Parrots are known for being clever and chatty—they’re even adept enough to make their own tools and occasionally nose their way into human-made contraptions like cars. Their curiosity and moxie are what make them excellent pets (or, to others, a constant nuisance). So, it should come as no surprise that they have their own veritable repertoire of communication tools. On the whole, birds are no strangers to blushing: A diverse set of avian species from vultures to crested caracaras have been known to go red in the face, and parrot owners often attest to the phenomenon in their pets. But the motivations behind this behavior still elude researchers.

To zero in on why macaw faces flush, a group of scientists led by ethologist Aline Bertin of the University of Tours in France studied five captive blue-and-yellow macaws as they interacted with each other and their human caretakers.

The researchers were amazed to see that human attention seemed to prompt blushing in these brightly plumed birds, reports Jessica Boddy at Gizmodo. The blushing died down, however, when the caretakers—whom the macaws interacted with on a regular basis—turned their backs and ignored the parrots. Social contact with humans and other birds also increased the birds’ propensity to ruffle the feathers on the tops of their heads.

Just like facial expressions can be indicative of a human’s emotional state, bird blushing could convey well-being, the researchers say. It’s a subtler form of expression than, say, smiling as humans do, but it’s actually fairly impressive considering these macaws aren’t equipped with the same facial muscles we are, as reported by Forbes. And their intelligence and capacity for affection make them far less prickly than they may look. “Parrots are considered to have primate-like cognitive capacities,” Bertin explained to Boddy.

Moving forward, Bertin and her colleagues believe their work opens the door to further investigation. Because only five captive parrots were studied, it’s difficult to extrapolate, especially considering how different conditions are between an aviary and these parrots’ natural environment in the South American tropics. The birds also showed different feather ruffling patterns when interacting with each other than with their human companions. And the team still doesn’t know the full extent of how other macaws respond to blushing, feather ruffling, and other possible expressions of emotion.

Still, as parrot expert and comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who wasn’t involved with the new study, explained in an interview with Gizmodo, “It’s clear these behaviors mean something. Otherwise the birds wouldn’t engage in them.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Digital Editor at PBS NOVA and Story Collider producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine.

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