While reading Tim Birkhead's book, A Brand-New Bird, about canary breeding in interwar Germany... Yes, I read some weird and obscure stuff sometimes. But this was interesting. And hey, I'm not the birder of this blog. ... about canary breeding in interwar Germany, I came across the following passage:
There was yet another example of men changing the colors of birds' feathers that Reich probably knew about and related to Duncker. This was the trick of enhancing the color of parrots by anointing them with frogs.This sounded kind of silly to me, like the set-up to a Monty Python skit, God help us, and Birkhead admitted this as he continued:
The very notion sounds preposterous, and it is easy to imagine Duncker dismissing Reich's story as apocryphal. But Reich assured him that since no less an authority than Comte de Buffon had described it, it must be true. Buffon's description in his 1790s encyclopedia of what he called the "artificial parrot" probably came from Dom Pernetty's account of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's voyage of discovery to South America in the 1760s. Pernetty described one particular parrot thus:Birkhead states that the mutagenic properties of alkaloids the frog secretes are responsible for the color change. This really startled me when I first read it. Directed mutagenesis by a Stone Age South American people? Hmm. (Unfortunately the reference he gives does not go into the biochemistry of the process.) I wanted to learn more. Of course, this subject turned out to be really obscure. But I managed to track down a reference to the practice in Reina and Kensinger's The Gift of Birds: Featherwork of Native South American Peoples:all its plumage, especially the head, neck, back and belly is sprinkled with feathers, some of them yellow like daffodil, or yellow like lemon, some others carmine red or crimson red, mixed with feathers either more or less dark green, or bright blue especially around ears. This type of plumage is due in part to nature and in part to the art. When the bird is very young, and has only got its feather-sheaths grown out after the down feathers, sheaths are plucked in several points, and instead is immediately inserted a sort of poison, like liqueur. Feathers that grow after the sheaths then become yellow or red, instead of green as they should have been naturally.Duncker and Reich almost certainly dismissed this as nonsense and of no possible relevance to their own work. But as unlikely as it seems, the color changes in these parrots were not only genuine, but genetic in nature. The liqueur came from a frog -- one of the colorful but highly toxic dart poison frogs, azure blue with gold stripes -- aptly known as the dyeing frog Dentrobates tinctorius.
In addition, some groups of South Amerindians practiced a method (tapirage) by which they could change the natural color of birds into more intense hues.I wasn't able to track down Metraux's original paper (although I happened to already have two books by him, one on Haitian voodoo and the other on Easter Island). Incidentally, if anyone wants to send me a .pdf of it, the reference is Volume 34, Number 8 of the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, pages 252-255, 1944. Now that I had additional confirmation that this practice existed, as well as a plausible (though still unverified) mechanism, I still was left with the question: why? Not why would native Amazonians want colorful feathers -- fashion, trade, and nookie all seem like likely motives to me -- but why would they rub a frog's secretions on a parrot to get new colors? I came up with two naive theories. The first was that since these peoples used frog toxins as poisons, they decided to smear them on a plucked live parrot. That didn't make much sense. A plucked bird ain't going nowhere. Neither did the other one: since the frog was blue, maybe they tried rubbing the color off on a plucked parrot. The main problem here was, it had the clever peoples of the Amazon acting like Beavis and Butthead at a pet shop. I found the clue in Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. He gives several native South American myths on how birds gained their colors: Caduveo:The Tupinamba knew how to modify the natural color of the feathers of living birds; they defeathered a certain species of green parrots and coated their bodies with the blood of a toad. The new feathers which appeared had a red or yellow hue. This technology which the French Guiana creoles called "tapirage" was practiced not only by all the Indians of that colony, but also by those of British Guiana and Venezuela. This process, which seems to have been more common north of the Amazon, was nonetheless carried out to the south: Martius observed it among the Mundurucu and others. Roth and Nordenskiold [list] Macusi, Galibi, Wapisiana, Puinave, Achagua, Pomeroon, Uaupes, Mojo and Huanyam. [Metraux adds:] Paressi, Bororo, Mbaya, Guana, Cocama and Omagua. [Some groups -- Puinave, Omagua and Cocama -- change color of green parrots by making them eat fish fat.] (Metraux 1928:149)Tapirage did not harm the bird, but was one more reason for domestication.
Three children used to play in front of the hut until past midnight. The father and mother paid no attention to them. One night when they were playing -- it was very late -- an earthenware pot descended from the sky; it was lavishly decorated and full of flowers. The children saw the flowers and wanted to take them, but as soon as they put out their arms, the flowers retreated to the other side of the pot, with the result that the children had to climb in the pot to reach them. The pot started to rise into the air. When she saw what was happening, the mother just managed to grab the leg of one of her children. The leg broke, and from the wound flowed a lake of blood in which most of the birds (whose plumage was at the time uniformly white) dipped either all or some of their feathers, thus acquiring the different-colored plumage they have today.Arawak:
Men and birds joined forces to destroy the huge watersnake, which dragged all living creatures down to his lair. But the attackers took fright and cried off, one after the other, offering as their excuse that they could only fight on dry land. Finally, the duckler was brave enough to dive into the water; he inflicted a fatal wound on the monster which was at the bottom, coiled around the roots of an enormous tree. Uttering terrible cries, the men succeeded in bringing the snake out of the water, where they killed it and removed its skin. The duckler claimed the skin as the price of its victory. The Indian chiefs said ironically, "By all means! Just take it away!" "With pleasure!" replied the duckler as it signaled to the other birds. Together they swooped down and, each one taking a piece of the skin in its beak, flew off with it. The Indians were annoyed and angry and, from then on, became the enemies of birds. The birds retired to a quiet spot in order to share the skin. They agreed that each one should keep the part that was in its own beak. The skin was made up of marvelous colors -- red, yellow, green, black, and white -- and had markings such as no one had ever seen before. As soon as each bird was provided with the part to which it was entitled, the miracle happened: until that time all birds had had dingy plumage, but now suddenly they became white, yellow, and blue... The parrots were covered in green and red, and the macaws with red, purple, and gilded feathers, such as had never before been seen. The duckler, to which all the credit was due, was left with the head, which was black. But it said it was good enough for an old bird.Mataco:
The old woman was a wild bee of the moro-moro species. She put the trickster into a deep sleep, and blocked all the orifices of his body -- mouth, nostrils, eyes, armpits, penis, and anus -- with wax; and she also smeared over the spaces between his fingers and toes. When the demiurge awoke, he realized he was swelling up in a dangerous manner. The birds (who were at that time men) came to his aid and tried to open the apertures with axes -- that is, with their beaks -- but the wax was too hard. Only a very small woodpecker succeeded in breaking through it. The demiurge's blood spurted through the hole and stained the birds with beautiful red colors, all except the crow, which was soiled by the dirt that blew out from the anus.Shipaya:
The other brother summoned the warriors and ordered them to shoot arrows at the moon and kill it. Only the armadillo succeeded in wounding it. The moon's blood was of all colors, and men and women were bespattered with it. The women wiped themselves with an upward movement, so they came under the moon's influence. The men, however, wiped themselves clean with a downward movement. The birds bathed in the different colored pools, and each species thus acquired its characteristic plumage.Parintintin:
Together, and in order to attract attention to themselves, uttering loud cries, they flew over the village square, in the center of which Ipanitegue was busy making an arrow. The two birds swooped down on him, attacking him with beak and claw, and carried him off, one holding him by the head, the other by the legs. The Indians fired arrows which wounded only the victim. An attempt to hold him back by pulling the thread that had unwound from his arrow met with no success, for the arrow broke at once. In the square was a pool of blood, full of pieces of intestine and brain. The eagles took their prey to the eyrie and invited all the birds to the feast, on condition that each agreed to be "tattooed". They painted the macaw with the blood. The beak and wing tips of the mutum were smeared with brain, the beak of the tangara-hu with blood, the feathers of the parrot and the parakeet with bile, the egret's feathers with brain, too. The breast of the surucua-hu and the neck of the jacu-pemun-hu were smeared with the blood... Thus all the birds, great and small, were tattooed; some had a red beak or red feathers; other had green or white feathers; because all colors were present in the blood, bile, and brain of the old man who had been murdered. As for the flesh, the birds ate it.And finally, the previously mentioned Mundurucu:
The eagle invited all the birds to eat the terrapin, whose shell had first to be broken. The toucan had a try, and its beak became flattened, whence its present shape; the woodpecker succeeded. Then the birds painted themselves with the red blood, the blue fluid from the gallbladder, and the yellow fat. The toucan smeared blue all around its eyes, and yellow on the end of its tail, and a band of yellow across its breast. It also put a dab of blood on its tail. The woodpecker painted its head red; the pipira daubed itself all over with blue. The mutum stained its legs and its beak with blood, and in order to deprive the galsa of the animal dyes, it suggested that it should use white clay. The galsa did as the mutum suggested, but when the mutum's turn came, it flew away. The galsa could only catch the tip of its tail, which has remained white to this day.Perhaps overkill, but I think that these myths make a pretty strong case that native South Americans believed that animal secretions could change a bird's plumage, under some circumstances. The innovative step to tapirage then would become, in my opinion, much less difficult. Wow, that was weird and obscure.