Red Feathers on Grey Parrots
Updated: Feb 9
Nancy J. Jacobs
Department of History, Brown University, Rhode Island, USA
Simon A. Tamungang
Department of Forestry and Wildlife Technology, University of Bamenda, Cameroon
The authors thank the Rachel Carson Center for an interdisciplinary writing fellowship awarded in 2018.
Among parrots, African Greys (Psittacus erithacus and P. timneh) are the best vocal learners. They have the sharpest of minds, but being grey, they are among the dullest to look at. In contrast to their ashy and white bodies, the bright red tails make quite an impression. The first color painting ever made of Grey Parrots was on the Cantino Planisphere, a navigational map of the world as Iberians knew it in 1502 (Fig.1). Illustrating the central African interior were grey birds who look a bit like doves, but the short red tails communicate the species.
Fig. 1 Detail from the Cantino Planisphere
Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantino_planisphere#/media/File:Cantino_planisphere_(1502).jpg
People have also used red feathers to communicate who they are. They flash through travelers’ descriptions of nineteenth-century Africa, often on hats. Some may have belonged to other birds, but a few writers identified them as parrot feathers. The hats of those with chiefly or royal status were especially feathered. A red feather may be awarded as a traditional medal to recognize distinction. In the southern part of Cameroon, they are worn strictly by traditional title owners (Fig. 2). Jacobs was told that red feathers are debonaire, but not everyone has the right to wear them.
Fig. 2 A Cameroonian Chief Wearing Red Feathers
Source: Simon Tamungang, PARROTPRO Photo Collection
Among Grey Parrots, both male and female sport red tail feathers, but the prevailing rule for humans is that only men may wear them.
Feathers may also have had medicinal and supernatural power; they can be a love charm or a curse. In some parts of Cameroon, a red feather is secretly placed under a cheating husband’s pillow to stop him from straying. Adherents of the Bwiti religion in Cameroon and Gabon place feathers prominently in sacred shrines and use them in their rituals. The parrot’s red tail feather marks male sexuality as well as the rising sun—both life forces. But red also is the color of blood, evoking death and suffering. The red feather is powerful because the parrot knows both birth and death. The anthropologist James Fernandez summarized the Bwiti understanding,
because it is the parrot who first flew the red path of birth and death from beginning to end. This is why his tail feathers are red. Also, he nests in the tallest trees, and particularly in those of red bark and wood. He nests at the final point where the soul, climbing the red path, leaves this world for the next. By placing his red tail feather in the ground and at the beginning, as it were, of the path of birth and death, the soul is reminded of the end of its journey.
In Bénin, an anthropologist who trained as Vodun practitioner received a single red feather with the instruction: “This will ward off jealousy, don’t lose it.” Once, his teacher used one to rinse his eyes with medicinal water, saying it would protect against blindness and death. Clearly, they are very powerful.
In Jacobs’s interviews in Cameroon, the word was that Nigerians, especially, were eager to acquire red feathers. Tamungang’s surveys on the parrot trade in the early 2000s indicated that trappers were very aware of the social and ritual value of tail feathers.  They can serve as markers for membership in an esoteric society, such as the Ékpè Leopard society in Nigeria. Ivor Miller photographed Isim Ékpè dancers wearing feathers and carrying them in their mouths in funerary rites (Fig. 3). Probably the extravagant puffs of headdresses are made of dyed chicken feathers, but Leopard society members prefer to use genuine African Grey feathers for those they carry in their mouths. They also decorate the arrow tips, making the phallic representation even more potent. Red feathers at a funeral communicate the continuation of life, even if they are only knock-offs of those from parrot tails.
Fig. 3 Red Feathers decorating Isim Ékpè, 2008
Source: Ivor Miller
Each parrot has 12 red tail feathers. A man in Cameroon showed off a handful (Fig. 4). Birds captured for the pet trade might be stripped of their feathers; but a bird with no tail may not fetch a good price in the export market. People keep captives and may harvest from them; feathers can regrow in three months. A nineteenth-century German traveler reported this practice, but also recorded: “Anyone who does this is not allowed to approach the bird for a while.” So, they covered its eyes to disguise the perpetrator.
Fig. 4 Grey Parrot feathers, Cameroon 2018
Source: David Jacobs
Tamungang’s surveys indicated that many hunters use guns to shoot parrots. Dead birds are useless for the pet trade, but bird parts are in demand. In 2012 a hunter was arrested with 1650 tail feathers, 13 live and 156 dead birds. There is little documentation, but one observer believed that trade in tail feathers had increased in the late twentieth century. Recent research on the “bushmeat” trade confirms that market hunting is an expanding modern phenomenon which has escalated beyond historic levels because of consumer demand and new technologies.
Fig. 5 Tail Feathers for Sale in Cameroon
Source: Simon Tamungang, PARROTPRO Photo Collection
Both species of Grey Parrots—P. erithacus with its scarlet tail in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Congo Basin and P. timneh with its maroon tail in far western Africa—are now endangered. The international pet trade and habitat destruction for export production are surely greater causes for the decline than the feather trade, but the trend is that the proportion of the red-tailed grey parrots in the wild will continue to shrink and those in cages will grow.
Greys are admired more for their vocal abilities than their plumage, but the red tail also attracts attention. Artists have considered the bird debonaire (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6 Jacques Barraband, “Le Perroquet Cendre”
Source: François Levaillant, Histoire Naturelle Des Perroquets Paris: Levrault, 1805, volume 2, plate 99
What does this flash of red mean to the parrots? Synthetic pigments unique to parrots—psittacofulvins—account for the brilliant scarlets, blues, and greens, pinks, and yellows of macaws, amazons, and cockatoos. African Greys have psittacofulvins, too, but can thank them only for the tails. In body plumage, Greys follow Gloger’s rule, that that bird species in humid zones go darker toward the equator. But the tail was not greyed out. If it’s an ecological adaptation, it’s contrary to whatever forces made the rest of the bird grey. Because both sexes have red tails, they haven’t evolved through female selective preference. Because Greys are cavity nesters, laying eggs in hollow trees, there’s no risk to a brooding female to flash some color. But why would they have red tails in the first place? The explanation may lie in the fact that color, too, is a means of communication. Greys, both male and female, are intensely social and obsessed with communicating with each other. These excellent vocalizers have found one more way to make themselves understood. Maybe to them, red tails are not so different from what they are to us: a love charm, a flash of style, a testimony to vibrancy (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7 African Grey Parrot Pet
Source: Papooga, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
 Georg August Schweinfurth and Ellen Elizabeth Frewer, The Heart of Africa: Travels and Adventures in Central Africa, 1868-1871 (London: S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873), frontispiece, 98. R. E. Dennett, At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, or Notes on the Kingly Office in West-Africa, by R.E. Dennett (London: Macmillan, 1906), 30. Alfred Burdon Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Etc. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890), 146. Suzanne Preston Blier, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, C. 1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2013), 320, 348.  Jacobs Interview with Etienne Sere at Dja Seohouam Village, 8 November, 2017; Interview at Komba-Tida village near Dja Faunal Reserve, 10 November 2017; R. S. Rattray, Religion & Art in Ashanti (Accra: Presbyterian Book Depot, 1959), 19.  James W. Fernandez, Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1982), 248-249, 252, 375, 496, 499.  Timothy R. Landry, Vodun: Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 78, 81.  Nigerian demand is also reported in Ghana: Gottlieb Dändliker, The Grey Parrot in Ghana: A Population Survey, a Contribution to the Biology of the Species, a Study of Its Commercial Exploitation and Management Recommendations (1992), 34.  On the PARROTPRO study, see Simon A. Tamungang et al., "Challenges and Conservation Implications of the Parrot Trade in Cameroon," International Journal of Biological and Chemical Sciences 10, no. 3 (2016).  K. S. Bobo and C. B. Ntum Wel, "Mammals and Birds for Cultural Purposes and Related Conservation Practices in the Korup Area, Cameroon," Life Sciences Leaflets 9 (2010): 232; K. S. Bobo, F. F. M. Aghomo, and B. C. Ntumwel, "Wildlife Use and the Role of Taboos in the Conservation of Wildlife around the Nkwende Hills Forest Reserve; South-West Cameroon," Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 11, no. 1 (2015): 15.  Ivor Miller, Personal communication to Jacobs, 16 November 2020. Ivor L. Miller, Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Stories and Cuba (2011), caption to plate 25.  Dändliker, The Grey Parrot in Ghana, 34-35.  G. Hartlaub, "Ornithologie Der Östlich-Äquatorialen Gebiete Africa’s: Nach Sammlungen Und Noten Von Dr. Emin Bey," Abhandlungen herausgegeben vom Naturwissenschaftlichen Verein zu Bremen 8 (1884): 211.  The PARROTPRO study found Thirteen percent (n=7) of 56 trappers surveyed used guns or catapults (slingshots). Questionnaire 1.03.  "Notorious African Grey Parrot Butcher Arrested Again," Cameroon Post, 26 March 2012, http://www.cameroonpostline.com/notorious-african-grey-parrot-butcher-arrested-again/.  Dändliker, The Grey Parrot in Ghana, 345.  Carolyn A. J. Robinson and Melissa J. Remis, "Hunters and Hunted in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve (Apds), Central African Republic," Anthropological Quarterly 87 (2014).  Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2017).