Parrots in the Land of Oz
What Do Parrots Find Sexy?

With plumage of intense and other-worldly colors, deployable regal crests, and behavior that ranges from coy to maniacal, parrots have little trouble attracting our attention. But what traits fare best for these birds when their goal is inspiring love in potential parrot mates? Is a parrot sexy in the eyes of other parrots because it is a good provider, attentive, talented, or beautiful?

Of the parrots’ many qualities, colorful plumage is surely its most spectacular: blue and gold; red and green; blue, yellow, green, orange, red. These brilliant colors are not just splashed on these birds; they’ve soaked right through. It would seem that the fantastically gorgeous plumage of parrots would be obvious sexual attractants for mates. But when the would-be mate is flying the same colors, how sexy is that? In fact, 75 percent of parrots species are classified as sexually monomorphic, which means that males and female resemble each other physically.

It turns out that it’s not just color but the intensity of feather color that can be a turn-on to a prospective mate. Color intensity signals good health, immunity, parental care abilities, and breeding success — all key things to know if you’re in the market for a mate. In a study of wild Burrowing Parrots in Patagonia, Argentina, researchers found that the more intensely red the abdominal feathers on the parrots were, the better was their success in breeding.

Color intensity is a physical characteristic that we, as humans, can observe. But research shows that while male and females parrots of the same species look similar to us — they look different to each other. A parrot’s highly sensitive tetrachromatic avian eye can see the entire UV spectrum, while we only perceive light in the near-ultraviolet spectrum. So there’s a whole world of fluorescent color that a parrot’s eyes can visualize that our humans eyes just can’t.

Budgerigars have yellow fluorescent plumage on their crowns and cheeks. To determine if the fluorescent patches are used in courtship displays, researchers covered the crown feathers of male and female birds with sunscreen, limiting their ability to absorb UV light. Other male and female budgies spent more time courting “glowing” companions, ignoring those with dulled feathers. What the study showed was that the more a suitor glowed, the more alluring it was to a prospective budgie mate.

But don’t get the wrong idea: in the parrot world, mating is not based on looks alone. Some parrots appreciate “talent” or showmanship in a mate. In the kakapo’s mating system, the males go to a prominent location, such as a hilltop, and create a courtship area known as a lek, or a group of bowl-like indentations dug in the ground. When the males gather, they compete for the best spots, and then begin calling for the females. The male mating call is a very loud, low booming sound that can be heard for several miles. The booming goes on all night, every night, for as long as several months. At the same time, the males spread their wings and do a hopping dance. When females show up, they pick out the best boomers and hoppers for one blissful night of mating.

It should come as no surprise that music can woo a female. A good, strong singing voice in the bird world indicates good health, strong immunity, and a successful partner. But a study of budgerigars found that while a female appreciates vocal abilities, she actually prefers to mate with a male who sounds like her.

Glowing plumage, fancy moves, and a beautiful singing voice go a long way toward attracting a mate, but nothing says sexy to parrots like regurgitation. Though sometimes used as a reward for sex, many parrot species use food regurgitation as a part of the courtship ritual. Parrot couples exchange food, and thus information, on the quality of mate. A healthy amount of regurgitation tells the female that the courter can provide for her and her brood if she decides to choose him.

Those vibrant colors, beautiful voices, and fancy crests may all look like mere adornments to us, but to a parrot, they’re clues about a potential mate’s overall fitness, genetic superiority, and superior traits for survival. Just like with humans, in the parrot world, “sexy” takes many forms.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.