You might be surprised to find out that parrots aren’t really green or blue or many of the striking colours that they seem to wear. The only pigments that parrots really have are red and yellow. Parrots also have melanin in their feathers, which creates what we perceive as light and dark. The combination of the yellow, red and the amount of melanin in the feathers creates patterns on the feather which are then refracted by light, much like a prism. When light hits the feathers some of the pigments absorb it and some reflect it – humans see the reflected light as different colours, depending on the wavelengths of light.
Feathers are made of keratin the same material that comprises their beaks (as well as our fingernails and rhino horns), and are over 90 % protein.
Contour feathers: These are the feathers that cover your parrot’s body and include the flight feathers and the tail feathers.
Flight feathers: The wing is composed of 20 flight feathers: 10 primary flight feathers (the long feathers ate the end of the wing) and 10 secondary flight feathers (closer to the body). Also called remiges.
Tail feathers: Called retrices.
Semiplume: The semplume feathers occur underneath the contour feathers and help with insulation.
Filoplume: These hairlike feathers have a long shaft with a few barbs at the end, They are ‘sensory’ feathers used to help the bird feel the positions of its other feathers.
Bristles: The stiff, tiny feathers around your parrot’s beak, nares and eyes.
Down: The undercoat of fluffy feathers beneath the contour feathers are called the down feathers. These help a great deal with insulation.
Powder down: The powder down feather is closest to the skin and crumbles during preening, resulting in a white, powdery substance that spreads throughout the feathers and helps with insulation, waterproofing and keeping the feathers clean. This powder is why many people with allergies may choose not to have a parrot.
Basic components of a feather:
Quill: The hollow end of the feather (where it enters the follicle). - calamus.
Shaft: What looks like the feather’s long stem. – rachis.
Barb: The thin strands emanating from the shaft.
Barbules: Very tiny structures emanating from the barbs. Down feathers do not have barbules and therefore aren’t neatly zipped like the contour feathers.
Barbicels: Miniscule hooks attached to the barbules that keep the barbs together to form the feather. There are about 30 million barbicels on one feather.
The pin feathers and very new feathers that have just emerged from the sheath of protective keratin still have a blood supply and will bleed if injured or broken. In a thick tail or wing feather you can see the blood supply clearly.
If a feather bleeds you can pull it straight out from the root with one slow, methodical tug with a Needle-nose plier. This will stop the bleeding immediately. If you can’t pull it out then you can try and stop the bleeding with regular baking flour or corn-starch applied directly to the wound, in most cases you will have to see a vet to pull the feather.
Several illnesses can affect feather quality. If you notice bald patches on your bird (excluding the crest of a cockatoo and cockatiel), feather bleeding and torn and ragged feathers then it is good to consult with an avian veterinarian.
Self-mutilation (feather plucking and chewing) is common in some species of parrots, including African Greys, Cockatoos, Eclectus and others, generally occurring due to illness, confinement, unhappiness or fear. Often a parrot will pick his feathers over an area that is irritated due to an illness or parasite. Sometimes a bird may become very unhappy with the housing or circumstances and will begin a nervous habit of plucking at the feathers, either removing them from the skin or chewing them off. It is an ugly habit and is difficult to correct.
Fluffing and ruffling:
Parrots will perform a quick ruffle to release tension like we stretch our backs. They also fluff their feathers after preening so that all of the particles of dirt they removed will fall away. This is when the fine dust of powder can be seen best especially in a grey, a cockatoo or a cockatiel. A parrot that stays fluffed for a long period may be chilled or not feeling well.