Understanding Feather Pigment

The macaw is one of the brightest and most stunning of all birds. But if you’ve ever seen a macaw parrot with blue feathers, did you know those feathers are what is called “not a true pigment?”

Pigment generally comes from the mineral kingdom, it’s part of that mineral structure, but blue feathers do not fit into that structure. It’s not because they don’t fluoresce, it’s because if you hold one of those feathers up to the sky, it’s black! Or brown. Or grey.

Our bird Isla is all blue, a Hyacinth Macaw, but if you pull back those blue feathers and look underneath, she’s truly a black bird.

There’s a group in Peru that is trying to figure out whether this has something to do with protection. So when a big blue macaw flies, from below it looks like a black bird and not a gorgeous colorful one. Perhaps this is a survival issue?

With macaws, some of their tail feathers could be red, yellow, blue, but if you brush them up and look in the light, only the blue turns black. There is no pigment there, none.

Look at Isla’s feather above. On the left is its natural blue color, on the right, the very same feather is being held up to the sky. And the reason it’s not blue is that it has no pigment.