Colours of Wildlife: Violet Turaco

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Violet Turaco

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Violet turaco by Willem

I’ve already featured three turacos in this column: the Grey Go-Away Bird, the Knysna Turaco and the Purplecrested Turaco. All of those are birds occurring in South Africa. The one I feature today is the Violet Turaco, Musophaga violacea, a species which does not occur naturally in South Africa, instead being native to west-tropical Africa. Still, I have seen it! This species is popular in captivity and I’ve seen one in a large aviary here in Polokwane. It is a strikingly beautiful bird with its deep purple body, yellow bill-shield, red crest and brilliant crimson flight feathers.

This species is also sometimes known as the Violet Plantain Eater. ‘Plantains’ are bananas that are not eaten ripe and raw as fruit, but cooked while still green and eaten as a vegetable. Plaintains are still food staples in some regions of Central America, Africa and Asia. The scientific name of this species means ‘violaceous banana-eater’. Yet, this species does not really eat green (or ripe) bananas! It will eat smaller fruits, preferring (as practically all turacos do) figs, or will snip of fresh leaves and buds with its strong bill. The name ‘plantain eater’ is no longer used much for this species but today is mainly used for two other species belonging to the genus Crinifer, which resemble the Grey Go-Away Bird. They don’t eat bananas either!

The Violet Turaco is most closely related to Ross’s Turaco, Musophaga rossae, which is a slightly more impressive species being larger and having a longer, brighter red crest. It is much rarer in captivity, though. Together these two constitute the purple turacos, separated into their own genus Musophaga. They differ from all other species in the deep purplish or bluish feathers of their bodies. But like all other turacos, they have the green pigment turacoverdin, a substance only found in the turaco order. In their case the deep purple or blue colour of the body feathers masks the green pigment so that it cannot be seen. Although I cannot find specific information, the body coloration is probably due to the common dark pigment melanin found in many birds, together with structural elements of the feathers creating a bluish or purplish iridescence.

But the other pigment unique to turacos, the brilliant red turacin, is clearly present in the gorgeously crimson flight feathers of the wings. These can only be appreciated when the turaco spreads its wings and flies. When the wings are folded the blue feathers of the upper hindwing (technically named the tertials) overlie the flight feathers so you can’t see them; in my painting you can see a small patch of flight feathers still sticking out. Turacos don’t fly much, preferring to clamber, hop and run around tree branches, but will spread their wings for a quick flutter or glide from one tree to the next, giving only a brief glimpse of their lovely wing colours. These flashes of colour, just like with the Arum lily frogs could serve to confuse potential predators.

Like I said, this species is often kept in captivity. Turacos easily become tame and are engaging and affectionate pets, not to mention their exquisite beauty and soft, fluffy feathers. In captivity they live long, reaching the age of thirty years or more. I always prefer it that birds should live in their natural habitats, but turacos at least seem to adjust to people very well. In nature they are social, often living in small groups, probably all fairly closely related. The violet turaco has been seen to engage in cooperative breeding in captivity, the older children helping their mom to raise the new kids.

The natural range of this species stretches from Senegal and the Gambia in West Africa to the Central African Republic in the East. It inhabits riverside forest and patches of well-developed woodland in more open savannah. In a few places, including Johannesburg in South Africa, escaped birds have managed to form small populations and might soon start new colonies. The call of the violet turaco is a typical harsh, guttural cawing.

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