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BIRDING 101
LESSON 2: BRIGHT COLORS
AND STANDING OUT


There are two different coloring patterns of birds -- those that promote conspicuousness (scientific term: phaneric) and those promoting concealment (cryptic). Lesson 3 will discuss the second type -- cryptic or camouflage coloration. Let's talk here about the brighter patterns.

Has your breath ever been taken away by the striking colors of a bird? We may be somewhat blind to the many subtle colors and patterns surrounding us but we still react when we see the glowing throat of a Broad-tailed Hummingbird or the brilliant color pattern of a Western Tanager.

As a photographer I've always been conscious of color. With computer images now offered to us everywhere in an unbelievable array of colors, I've become even more aware of color. I know that all of the colors seen in photos are produced by combinations of red, green, and blue. I don't know how computers mix colors but, I do know that however they may do it, the colors seen in feathers are more varied and impressive than those in either computer images or color photographs.

For instance, neither computers nor photos can display structural colors. Some of the brightest blues and greens seen in feathers are structural colors, or colors produced by an effect called Tyndall scattering. We see this effect in Scrub Jays, kingfishers and many other birds. The creation of blue by Tyndall scattering depends on two factors: a light scattering surface layer and, a black background. Scrub Jay feathers, for example, are really black but contain millions of tiny reflectors. Structural green is produced when light passes through a yellow filter before reaching the Tyndall scattering layer. This same scattering makes the sky look blue to us on a clear day, instead the black of deep space. Wow!

Have you ever looked at a magpie and seen their basic black take on a sheen of iridescence? Have you ever watched in amazement as a drake Mallard's head changed from green to purple and back to green again? Have you ever asked, what causes this? Keep reading, because I'm going to tell you.


Birds in peak condition build up extra keratin on their feathers. Most light passes through the keratin. However, in bright sunlight, some light reflects off the surface in two different wavelengths vibrating in opposite directions. This reflection produces a false hue known as interference color. This phenomenon serves a useful purpose for birds. A male Ring-necked Pheasant, for example, is dark and well camouflaged as he skulks through the underbrush avoiding predators. But his brilliance is striking as he walks out into full sunlight ready to impress female pheasants (and us birders).

Color affects courtship and mating. Many male birds take on bright colors during the courtship season. Bright colors and color patterns signal to the female that the displaying male is in good condition and likely to produce healthy offspring. But the male's bright color is dangerous as well as exciting. A brightly colored male will have a better chance of attracting a mate but will be more visible to predators.

Territorial defense is affected by color and color patterns. For many territorial birds, attack on an intruder is automatic if certain visual clues are present. The brightness of the colors is often related to the intensity of the attack. In experiments, females of a species that were dyed the colors of males were driven from the males territory, and males whose feathers were painted a drab color could often enter another male's territory and not be attacked. The down side of this last is that a male with shabby feathers would probably lose control of a prime territory and not attract a mate.

Color affects juvenile feeding. The hungry nestling with the brightest colored gape will often get a bigger share of the food brought in by the parents. The relationship between adults and their offspring is often based on color and color pattern recognition. Many adult gulls, for example, have a bright orange spot on the bill. When the parents bring food to the young, the young peck on the orange spot stimulating the parent to regurgitate food.

I'm reminded that, just a few thousand years ago, human hunter-gatherers learned through dances and rituals to align their behavior with wild animals. For stalking prey and avoiding predators, costumes and body painting were designed to blend in with the surroundings. For courtship and celebrations, costumes were brightly colored and often outlandish. This "educational system" allowed our ancestors to learn the necessities of survival. Modern educational systems don't teach us much about survival but we still dress in bright colors and patterns to stand out in a crowd, especially during courtship.


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