Saturday, August 25, 2012

Parrots in History: Amazon Indian Practices to Change Parrot Feather Color

As early as the Seventeenth Century, European explorers in South America discovered that Amazonian Indians developed techniques to change the color of parrot feathers from natural colors, mostly green and blue, to colors considered more desirable by the Indians, primarily yellow, or orange. These parrot feathers were highly desired for use in headdresses, leggings, and other ornamentation. To create this color change, Amazonian Indians plucked feathers from live parrots to induce change in feather coloring. This practice was studied by an early Twentieth Century Swiss scholar and explorer Alfred Métraux. His research was published in 1928 in the Journal of the Society of the Americas, Volume 20, under the title:

Une découverte biologique des Indiens de l'Amérique du Sud : la décoloration artificielle des plumes sur les oiseaux vivants

A Biological Discovery of South American Indians: Artificially Recoloring Feathers on Live Birds

(Note: The translation from the French text is mine, and any faults with the translation are mine alone.)

Alfred Métraux

Observed by European explorers, this traditional method was used throughout the Amazon to alter feather color on parrots by repeatedly plucking green or blue feathers, and applying various substances to the parrot skin. New feathers reportedly grew back yellow-orange, sometimes with red or pinkish areas near the vein. In some of the feathers the reddish coloration occurred in a stripe-like pattern. In other cases, the feathers showed 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 shaft with surrounding green areas. We wrote about this Amazonian Indian tradition in an earlier blog post.

According to Alfred Métraux, the presence of flocks of parrots in the vicinity of the Indian tribes allowed them to be plucked and provided the raw material for crowns, caps, collars, and leggings. The Tupi Indians of Brazil were not content to pluck the feathers of captured birds. They attempted to change the color of the living birds’ natural plumage. The Tupi Indians coated the feathers with frog’s blood to make green feathers grow yellow.

Changing feather colors increased their value and price, either for sale or use in their festivals. Tupi Indians caught live toads which they stung repeatedly with thorns. The toads were cooked in a pot with chili pepper and red dust called chica, creating a varnish. The Indians tore feathers off of parrots and applied the varnish by inserting the tip of a stick in the feather holes in the skin. The parrot did not cease to suffer for several days. After some time the parrot resumed growing feathers, so beautiful they were a subject of admiration to see the beauty and elegance with which they grew. We noticed red spots on the feathers on a yellow background.

South of the Amazon this practice of plucking was rare, found only among the Arawak Indians.  Alfred Métraux quoted a Seventeenth Century report:

The Indians tear the tail feathers and wing feathers of blue parrots, apply in the wounds of the skin toad juice and cover with wax. This way, they manage to regrow feathers with a bright red color they never lose.

The Bororo Indians rubbed the birds they plucked with the sap of a tree.

For the Indians of Guyane, one of the most flattering colors in the eyes of men and women is yellow. There are not enough parrots in this country whose feathers can meet their needs. They discovered the art of turning green feathers into yellow:

They take a live parrot and tear feathers they want to become yellow. After plucking they apply a plant root dye which has the color saffron. They rub the dye hard with their fingers, almost like they wanted to bring out the blood. As feathers regrow, any new green feathers are plucked again and the process restarted. With this technique they manage to make them all yellow.

The Puinav Indians to color parrots in yellow made them eat the fat of fish common to the region. This fat is yellow. The feathers of the parrot that feeds on the fat gets smudged yellow and eventually takes on this color.

Alfred Métraux quoted Alfred Russell Wallace’s 1892 account of life among South American Indians:

They pluck the birds they want to dye, and the fresh wounds are inoculated with a milky secretion of small frog or toad. When the feathers grow back they are bright yellow or orange, without any mixture of blue or green which is the natural coloring of the bird. If the new plumage is torn it is said to regrow in the same color without needing to redo the operation. The feathers are renewed but slowly and it takes a large number to make a tiara, which is why the possession of such finery is such a big deal.

An historical tradition or not, we would call this practice animal cruelty. Unfortunately this tradition of plucking parrot feathers among South American Indians is not confined to the dark reaches of the historical past, but continues to this day, and is the object of continuing study by researchers.

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