Tapiragem and Feather Color Alteration on Live Parrots by the Peoples of Amazonia


I n the beginning, there was nothing. The gods hid the colors in the trees, animals and earth, and kept to themselves the spell of tapiragem of the birds. All was dark. Then, in a

flash there was Kuar, the sun, and Iae, the moon, and in those gods' wisdom, they gave the future of the world to man so that in living in it he would come to respect and protect it. Thus, the painting of the skin gives man life, color, joy and a reason to live; and when man learned to change the color of feathers, a little of the incomparable beauty of the birds left the sky. While the dream of man to fly would not be fulfilled, man flew in spirit to the home of the gods, and the gods put their faith in man."

From an Amazon legend

I became interested in how one can change the color of a parrot's feathers two decades ago after I purchased a female Black-headed Caique (Pionites melanocephalus2) as a mate for one of my breeders. In that era, before DNA sexing, her owner had mistakenly named her Jose and she was selling her because she had started to bite. I was happy to get her because she had also begun to lay eggs and I knew her sex with certainty. When I purchased her, she was different from any other caique I had ever seen because she had patches of yellow feathers scattered among her body coverts. At first, I thought this might be a pied mutation, but after six months in my possession, and the completion of her annual molt, all her feathers grew back in their normal green color. From this experience, it was clear to me that there were ways to alter parrot feather color other than by mutation. I became fascinated when I read in Helmut Sick's Birds of Brazil (30) that the indigenous peoples of that country use both diet and a process called tapiragem to alter the color of a parrot's feathers.


Tapiragem, or alternatively tapirage, is a term derived from the Creoles of the Guianas (34, 35), and is a method used by the natives of South America to alter the color of individual feathers on living parrots, usually Amazons (5) and macaws (30).

 There is controversy whether it actually works and if it does how (5). For the many Indians across South America who practice tapiragem there is no doubt that it does. The reason they practice tapiragem is to produce the colored feathers, particularly pleasing yellow ones that they highly value for use in their feather artwork. The feathers they usually chose to alter are the longer ones on the wings or tail (38). In general, the method involves plucking out the bird's feathers and vigorously rubbing a compound onto the skin and into the feather follicle. Some reports say they directly instill the compound into the feather follicle (21) and seal it in with wax (20, 21). After the treatment, the affected feathers grow back with a color anywhere from a brilliant yellow to orange to red; some say they grow in yellow with flecks or tinge of red. The main difference in the practice from tribe to tribe is the compound used to induce the color change (Table 1). The compound can be a plant dye; frog or toad derived blood, skin, or skin excretion; the fat of a fish; the fat of the Pink River Porpoise; or other concoction. Once induced, practitioners claim the feathers continue to grow in with the same color, and their owners harvest them whenever they grow back. In Brazil, they call these birds "contrafeitos" or counterfeits because early European visitors thought the natives were selling them in place of rarer species (5, 6, 20, 30). The exact method each Indian practitioner uses is a strongly held secret that he zealously guards (34).

History of tapiragem

Early on, explorers and naturalists noted that the Indians were practicing tapiragem3• Soares de Souza (32), one of the earliest explorers of Brazil, noted it as early as 1587. Pernety (24) in 1771, Spix & Martius (33) in 1824, and Humboldt & Bonplandt in 1862 (9) all made mention of the practice. Both La Condamine (10) in 1745 and Le Vaillant (11) in 1801 mentioned it, but they both doubted whether tapiragem could actually alter feather color. Alfred Wallace (38), the co-discoverer of the concept of evolution, on an expedition up the Rio Negro observed the practice and wrote in 1853 about its use in making the Indian coronets:

"The feathers are entirely from the shoulder 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 colours of the feathers of many birds.

They pluck out those they wish to paint and in the fresh wound inoculate with the milky secretion from the skin of a small frog or toad. When the feathers grow again they are of brilliant yellow or orange colour, without any mixture of blue or green, as in the original state of the bird; 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 part with it."

With this long history, one cannot easily dismiss tapiragem, and its origins clearly antedate the arrival of Europeans.

Tribal Origins

The practice of tapiragem was once wide spread and is probably still practiced among the tribes in South America reaching from the Guianas at least as far south as the Gran Chaco region of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina (Table 2). One speculation is that the Indians discovered the process when they tried to cure wounds on their pet birds (21). Because the practice was more prevalent north of the Amazon River, Metraux (19, 21) thought tapiragem probably originated and spread from the northern Arawak tribes to the rest of Amazonia. However, its practice was so wide spread before Europeans arrived, there is little to support this. Thus, it is possible that it arose independently in several places in South America. Supporting this is the fact Wallace reported that it arose independently on the other side of the world in Malaya (39) where diffusion of the practice from South America would have been highly unlikely.




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