Colourful, cheeky and invisible – the rainbow lorikeet

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I’ve been delving into some of the fascinating posts about African wildlife on the wildlifetv blog, and found a couple about camouflage. The first, about the impala, gives some interesting facts (yes, you know I’m a sucker for interesting facts) about how they use their camouflage to avoid being seen, and a trickier protection: the ‘follow me’ stripes on the animals’ rumps allow animals in a a fleeing herd to follow one another stay together, but this also means that any one animal has a good chance that there’ll be one between it and the predator. A case of “I don’t have to run faster than it, I just have to run faster than you”.

The second is a series of photos of animals hiding in plain sight. I found this one fascinating, as I really had trouble seeing two of the animals (in my own defence, I was using a small laptop in a dark room: once I got
back in my office with a large screen and a window, I found them). And here is where the lorikeets come in.

Rainbow lorikeet (trichoglossus haematodus). Image by fir0002flagstaffotos, licensed under Creative Commons.
Rainbow lorikeet (trichoglossus haematodus). Image by fir0002flagstaffotos, licensed under Creative Commons.

Rainbow lorikeets are, as you can see above, brightly coloured. In fact, their species name, haematodus, comes from the Latin word for blood, and is a reference to the rich red on the breast of the male (the female has more orange mottling into the red, as you can see above). They’re a member of the genus trichoglossus, which means “hairy tongue”, and the lorikeets do indeed have a brush-tipped tongue, which they use for extracting pollen and nectar from flowers.

You can find a great set of photos of lorikeets here – you’ll notice that they’re fairly bright, and if you check out this YouTube video, you’ll notice that they’re loud as well. In fact a flock of lorikeets feeding can be deafening – they shriek and squawk and chatter constantly, sometimes perching at the bouncing tips of branches or hanging upside down in order to reach a tasty flower, and then the whole flock will depart suddenly, shrieking cheerfully as they go.

So how can they be invisible? The Australian landscape is hardly composed of vivid reds, greens, yellows, and blues: in fact, if you had to pick one colour to describe Australia, it would be brown. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but a visitor could be forgiven for thinking Australian flora was composed using Essence of Drab.

But somehow, you can have a tree full of lorikeets and not be able to see a single bird. You can hear them, of course, but the birds manage to completely disappear in the grey-green, thin-leaved trees. Clearly, there must be an evolutionary advantage to being so colourful, given that the harsh sun does create diverse patterns of light and shade in the foliage.

Fortunately, these little charmers are quite plentiful, since they’re found just about everywhere there are flowering plants. And there’s nothing quite as cheery as having a flock of lorikeets feeding on a lilly pilly or red flowering gum in the backyard – it’s like having your own comedy troupe.

[Featured image: Rainbow lorikeets with open wings, Brisbane. This file originally posted to Flickr by Snowmanradio and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]


  1. hanging upside down in order to reach a tasty flower
    If you ask me, the International Space Station needs more lorikeets. The absence of gravity would not bother them at all.

  2. Too true, Herr Doktor. One can never have too many lorikeets, and then the space station would be a Multi-Species Space Station rather than merely International.

    And it would be fascinating to study the physics of lorikeet flight in zero gravity, although it might take the poor wee things a while to work out that a vigorous flip of the wings will send them into the ceiling.

  3. It’s hard to imagine how those stunning birds could be so ‘discreet’ in their habitat; it would be interesting to see in person.
    Thank you very much for linking to our blog, it’s an honour to be recognised on such a reputable blog as yours. I’m glad you liked the posts, the camouflaged animal pictures make for a fun game, I’d love to have more to try and solve!

    1. Glad you think we’re reputable, Nick, and I really like your blog – it’s clear that you love the animals, and you provide lots of fascinating details about them. Those camouflaged animals are incredible: the giraffe is so big, but it just disappears into the tree.

      Yes, it is hard to imagine how the lorikeets disappear. It’s something to do with the patterns of light and shade: their upper surface is green, so they blend in from above, while the lower surface somehow blends with the patches of shade and flowers or fruit. They’re very fond of fruit, so they can often be found in palm trees or fruit trees, and they blend so well that you can hear them but never see them until they fly.

  4. Rainbow lorikeets are, as you can see above, brightly coloured

    Evolution had a new box of crayons that day, and was keen to try them all out.

    1. Whereas sparrows were done after evolution had used up all her pretty crayons and was reduced to the melted scraps.

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