The Macaws are blushing with emotion!

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It seems that blushing is not unique to humans… I would like to share with you here a study carried out by a team of French researchers on the emotionality of Macaws at Beauval Zoo!

You are aware that part of the cheeks and around the eyes of the Blue and Yellow Macaw (Ara Ararauna) is devoid of feathers… And perhaps you have already noticed a certain reddening of these areas… Well, researchers decided to look into it a little more and noticed that white skin tended to redden during the different interactions of individuals with each other!

About the experience

The experiment was directed by Aline BERTIN, researcher at INRA. The main objective of the study was to deepen visual communication in parrots. Indeed, we still have a lot to learn about them! In addition, this is much more difficult than in primates, which themselves have facial muscles allowing expressions more easily objectified.

To do so, the research team photographed and filmed 5 birds during all of their movements and interactions. The team focused in particular on three elements:

  • the position of the feathers on the top of the head
  • the position of the neck feathers
  • the position of the feathers on the cheeks

10 sessions were conducted with each randomly selected bird. The individual was then transported a few meters to an empty aviary equipped with a familiar perch and a camcorder. All the birds, five in number, were used to being handled, especially for daily training and weighing.

Each session consisted of two phases:

  1. A phase of mutual interaction : the healer actively interacts with the bird by looking at it and talking to it
  2. A control phase : the healer was present but did not interact with the individual. In particular, by turning his back to him.

This second phase notably made it possible to observe whether the birds expressed ‘research behavior’ towards humans. For example, if the bird tried to grab the clothes of the keeper with its beak or its legs, if it tried to make any contact …

About the results

Some photographs to start:

in A) you have the target zone which corresponds to the zone which was observed for the interpretation of the sessions. This is therefore the area used to estimate the presence or absence of reddening.

In B) you have a photograph where the jury considered the blush present in the target area.

Finally, in C) here is a case where no observer has judged a blush present in the target zone.

(Photographs A.Beraud)

The study therefore reveals several elements:

  • The feathers of the head, neck and cheeks were more frequently disheveled during activity that does not require locomotion, that is, during chewing, maintenance, social interactions, rest.
  • The crown feathers were more often erect during direct interactions with healers than during phases without mutual interactions.
  • In addition, a significant proportion of ‘naive’ observers of the experiment (jury of 4 people) judged a difference in coloration, with the presence of reddening, between the moments of mutual interactions (phase 1) and the moments without interactions (phase 2)

So, this experiment highlights the presence of significant variations in facial displays and bare skin color of Macaws, depending on the social background and bird activity.

In addition, the blush had already been reported in 12 different avian orders. However, it was until now closely linked to the blood flow to vascularized tissues, without any well-defined origin or function. (Negro JJ, Sarasola JH, Farinas F, Zorrilla I, Function and occurrence of facial blushing in birds). The reasons for the reddening of parrots had therefore not been formally identified, however, this study here allows in particular to question ourselves on the understanding that we could develop regarding the sensitivity of birds.

Alice Bertin therefore wishes to address the issue of keeping this type of animal and in particular the conditions of captivity. She underlines: “It does not shock anyone to see parrots in pet stores in a cage, when you no longer see primates. There is a delay… “

Many unknowns remain today concerning the emotivity of parrots and the expression of their sensitivity, much more difficult to characterize in comparison with other animals such as primates.

This applied knowledge makes it possible to question the captivity of our parrots, to help improve their conditions of detention and, as far as possible, to define indicators of well-being.

Each piece of information, experience, however brief or complex it may be, brings a brick to the building. Soon, perhaps, we will be able to define various indicators of positive emotions for our Macaws in order to make their captivity much sweeter.

Reference

Aline Bertin, 2018, Facial display and blushing: Means of visual communication in blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara Ararauna), article available online: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal .pone.0201762, accessed 05/27/21

Coline Burlet and Morgane Virapin © – May 2021

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