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James Alcock
Elliot the Cockatoo

For the last fortnight social media has been a flutter with one question – “is it blue and black, or white and gold”? And although the answer is clearly white and gold, regardless of what the original dress claims, this question has generated mass interest. This could partly be because we as humans are a very visual species. But how would the dress appear to a bird, for example the parrot family?

Generally people have the capacity to see colour, allowed by different combinations of green-red and yellow-blue light received by the human eye. This extremely basic summary describes trichromaticism, the trait of having three channels within the eye to perceive colour. Parrots though are known as tetrachromatic, meaning that have four channels available to them, and that they can see colours in the ultraviolet spectrum!

The vision of most birds far exceeds that of ours, which could reflect the fact that some of their other senses are so much poorer. A birds’ sense of smell is terribly poor, in fact there are only a few species that are believed to have a highly developed sense of smell at all, including some types of vulture, kiwi, and petrel. How does being so visual help a bird?

It helps in many ways. The world of colour allows for parrots to identify if fruit or plants are ready for eating, it allows birds like the peacock to attract a mate, it allows camouflage to either hide from predators or ambush prey, and can even act as a cue for young chicks to signal to parents they are ready to be fed. Many birds are much more colourful then we give them credit for, we just don’t register it.

At Bird Show, as a way of developing my own training skill-base, I have taught one of our Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, named Derwent, to select only yellow tokens when given the choice of yellow and red. Although I’m a fair way off, the ultimate goal is to compete against one another playing ‘Connect-4’. This may sound silly but it requires Derwent to undertake both cognitive and physical tasks to achieve a goal, and therefore provides him with a novel stimulus.

If Derwent were to weigh in on the debate I bet he’d probably throw a curve-ball and suggest he sees colours similar to the sky above Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve. 

- Bird Show Keeper, Brendan Host

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