Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tapirage: Plucking of Macaw Parrot Feathers by Amazon Natives

First observed by European explorers in the Seventeenth Century, Tapirage is a traditional method used throughout the Amazon to alter feather color on Macaws by repeatedly plucking green or blue feathers, and applying various substances to the parrot skin. New feathers reportedly will grow back yellow-orange, sometimes with red or pinkish areas near the vein. Identification of these feathers is done visually, but it is not always easy to tell, especially in cases where the color has faded.   

In some of the feathers believed to be the result of tapirage, the reddish coloration occurs in a stripe-like pattern. In other cases, the tapirage feathers also show irregular areas where the feather is blue or green (on one side of the vein, or in some cases the yellow feather has a green rachis with surrounding green areas.

The leading publication on tapirage is in French, published in 1928: Une découverte biologique des Indiens de l'Amérique du Sud: la décoloration artificielle des plumes sur les oiseaux vivants, written by Alfred Métraux.

There are many early European accounts of tapirage written over the past three hundred years. This one is from A. R. Wallace, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, published in London in 1853:

"They were all completely furnished with their feather ornaments, and I now saw for the first time the head-dress, or acangatara, which they value highly.This consists of a coronet of red and yellow feathers disposed in regular rows, and firmly attached to a strong woven or plaited band. The feathers are entirely from the shoulders of the great red macaw, but they are not those that the bird naturally possesses, for these Indians have a curious art by which they change the coIours of the feathers of many birds.They pluck out those they wish to paint, and in the freshwound inoculate with the milky secretion from the skin of a small frog or toad. When the feathers grow again they are of a brilliant yellow or orange colour, without any mixture of blue or green, as in the natural state of the bird ; and on the new plumage being again plucked out, it is said always to come of the same colour without any fresh operation. The feathers are renewed but slowly, and it requires a great number of them to make a coronet, so we see the reason why the owner esteems it so highly, and only in the greatest necessity will part with it."

It appears that Wallace is describing a Greenwing (Red and Green) macaw, or a Scarlet macaw. There are many other descriptions of tapirage, similar to this, throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Most are not very descriptive about the type of macaw, although all of them reference plucking blue or green  feathers and rubbing the exposed skin with various substances (sometimes a frog poison - there are also references to certain fats, tree resins, and dyes being used on the bird's skin). It also seems likely they were plucking large areas of feathers at once, and used parrots that were kept in small aviaries at each village.

After reading these historical accounts of the practice of tapirage, all we can think is the natives of the Amazon had some very angry parrots on their hands!

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