Black-capped lory a colourful creation

By Bec Crew | February 26, 2014

This native PNG parrot is distinguished by its black head.

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Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

REMARKABLY BRIGHT, BUT distinguished by its bold black crown, the black-capped lory (Lorius lory) is an exercise in natural colour blocking. With red plumage running across its cheeks and throat, then down into a dark blue chest capped with green and bronze wings, its flashy feather patterns end in a gorgeous golden tail.

At home in the humid forests, wooded swamps, and open woodland of Papua New Guinea, the western Papuan Islands, and Indonesia, black-capped lories are usually found in pairs or small groups if they’re not forming parties of 10 or more to feed in flowing trees.

The species was first described in 1751 by English naturalist and ornithologist George Edwards, and has for centuries been considered an excellent pet. It was particularly popular in Britain around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; collectors were enchanted by its willingness to learn several languages and welcome each day with a “good morning!” and a song.

Ever wondered why parrots are so incredibly colourful? Most birds can’t synthesise their own reds, oranges and yellows, which are known as carotenoid-based pigments, so they have to get the pigments from their diet. This means a bird’s colouring can be a good indication of its health and the quality of its diet.

Flamingoes are a great example of this. Parrots, on the other hand, are the only birds that can produce their own bright reds, oranges and yellows, which means healthy or sick, male or female, they all look pretty much the same. So what purpose could their colouring have if it’s not for visual communication?

In 2010, a study led by Edward H. Burtt, Jr from Ohio Wesleyan University in the US tested the reaction of parrot plumage to a number of feather-eating microbes that preyed on birds from salty or humid environments. The team found that while white feathers degraded quickly when exposed to the bacteria, black, blue, green and red feathers were significantly more resistant. Red pigment was found to be especially resistant, which is perhaps why it’s such an important part of the plumage that decorates our the parrot species in our region.