Birds of Many Colors

Ten years of posts about the natural history in the (global) backyard has featured a lot of birds — some local and some from more exotic places than just my actual backyard. One of the most pronounced characteristics of this unique and physiologically superior (in my estimation) taxonomic Class of Animals is their vibrant colors.

From vibrant red to intense violet purples, birds have dazzled us with their color combinations. Montage from the Cornell Lab article on “How Birds Make Colorful Feathers“. Also covered on this blog with posts on The Color of Birds: Pigments and The Color of Birds: Iridescence.

And because I am bored with our current snowy, monochromatic landscape, I’ve put together a collection of colorful birds from previous posts of 2012-2022.

PINKS

Carmine Bee-eater from Botswana
Pine Grosbeak from Sax-Zim bog, MN in winter.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Sucker Lake park in the summer.

REDS

Northern Cardinal in the backyard in winter
Painted Redstart from southern Arizona – spring
Scarlet Tanager in the backyard – summer

ORANGES

Altimira Oriole, southern Arizona in the spring. Many Oriole species are brilliant orange as well.
Black-headed Grosbeak from southeastern Arizona in spring.
American Robins really have orange breasts, not red ones.

YELLOWS

Western Tanager from Lake Tahoe, CA in the summer.
American Goldfinch male in the backyard in summer
Silver-throated Tanager from Costa Rica in winter
Blackburnian Warbler

GREENS

Peach-fronted Parakeets in the Pantanal of Brazil in fall.
Green Jay from southern Arizona in spring.
Scarlet-rumped Toucanet from Colombia, South America.

BLUES

Blue Grosbeak from Eden Prairie, MN in spring.
Eastern Bluebird at Tamarack Park, MN in spring.
Blue Jay

PURPLES

Agami Heron from the Brazilian Pantanal
Purple Martin males are such a dark violet color, they almost look black.

MANY-COLORED BIRDS — the real show-offs of the bird world

Painted Bunting from Galveston, TX in spring
Bay-headed Tanager from Costa Rica could just as well have been named Blue-breasted or Green-backed.
Last, but not least, the multi-colorful Wood Duck, found everywhere in North America.

Yellow + Blue = Green, right?

In human color vision, a combination of yellow and blue pigments creates various shades of green, as the reflected wavelengths from the surfaces stimulate cone photoreceptors in the retina to varying degrees.   So to our eyes, the xanthophyll pigment in the Blue and Gold Macaw’s head feathers that reflect yellow wavelengths combined with the air spaces in those same feathers that reflect blue wavelengths of light cause our eyes to see the feathers as green in bright light.

Abrupt changes in feather anatomy where some feathers deposit pigment and others have small air spaces with highly reflective particles in them create the color patterns in bird plumage.

Abrupt changes in feather anatomy where some feathers deposit pigment and others have small air spaces with highly reflective particles in them create the color patterns in bird plumage. (Photo taken at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in San Jose, CA)

But what does the bird see?

Birds have four types of cone photo-receptors (compared with the human three varieties), with the fourth type enabling them to detect much shorter wavelengths in the UV part of the spectrum.

There are striking differences between plumage coloration in UV light detected by birds and that seen by human photoreceptors in the visible part of our color spectrum.

There are striking differences between plumage coloration in UV light detected by birds and that seen by human photoreceptors in the visible part of our color spectrum.  From:  http://bucultureshock.com/imagination-ultraviolet-birds-part-3-of-4/.

Further, it appears that the coloration visible in the UV part of the spectrum may be of critical importance in signalling information about the fitness of an individual, just as the bright red coloration of a male cardinal signals its vigor and good health.

According to a new study from the University of York, Blue Tit mothers with bright blue patches on their head, strongly reflecting  UV light, were better mothers and reared more offspring.

According to a new study from the University of York, Blue Tit mothers with bright blue patches on their head, strongly reflecting UV light, were better mothers and reared more offspring than females with duller (UV reflective) crowns.

Female Fairywrens prefer the bright blue males and have more UV receptors in their eyes than other species whose plumage reflectances are in the (human) visible range.

Female Fairywrens (right) prefer the bright blue-bibbed males (left).  These birds have shifted their visual sensitivity to the UV range by including more UV receptors in their retina.  Study reported by researchers at Monash University (Melbourne) in 2012.

There’s a whole world of color out there that we are not able to see, and yet we make assumptions (and conclusions) about the various behaviors of birds and other animals, based on what we see.  Makes you wonder what we’re missing.

What color are you really?

What color are you really?