Distribution of unique red feather pigments in parrots

Kevin McGraw, Mary C. Nogare

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


In many birds, red, orange and yellow feathers are coloured by carotenoid pigments, but parrots are an exception. For over a century, biochemists have known that parrots use an unusual set of pigments to produce their rainbow of plumage colours, but their biochemical identity has remained elusive until recently. Here, we use high-performance liquid chromatography to survey the pigments present in the red feathers of 44 species of parrots representing each of the three psittaciform families. We found that all species used the same suite of five polyenal lipochromes (or psittacofulvins) to colour their plumage red, indicating that this unique system of pigmentation is remarkably conserved evolutionarily in parrots. Species with redder feathers had higher concentrations of psittacofulvins in their plumage, but neither feather colouration nor historical relatedness predicted the ratios in which the different pigments appeared. These polyenes were absent from blood at the time when birds were replacing their colourful feathers, suggesting that parrots do not acquire red plumage pigments from the diet, but instead manufacture them endogenously at growing feathers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)38-43
Number of pages6
JournalBiology letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 22 2005


  • Plumage colouration
  • Psittaciformes
  • Psittacofulvins
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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