Adding to the white, gray, and brown monotone colors of the winter landscape now, the resident birds also seem to be mostly shades of black, white, and gray or tan. In fact, many of them use black as a primary “color” of their plumage. Is black somehow advantageous to birds in the winter?
I usually feel warmer with a dark colored sweater or jacket on a cold day, and we know that black absorbs and holds radiant heat energy much better than other colors. So, do birds utilize their dark brown/black feathers to stay warm?
Some birds, like Turkey Vultures, Anhingas, Cormorants, and Roadrunners, do use their dark plumage to advantage to warm up on cold mornings, basking with their dark feathers spread widely apart so heat can reach the skin below.
However, wind ruffling the feathers of a crow reveals a flaw in the idea that their black feathers are used to keep them warm. Their feathers are only black right at their tips, and are white-gray underneath; in fact their skin is pale as well.
This seems more like an adaptation to avoid overheating in summer sun, than conserving heat in winter cold. In summer heat, black feather surfaces would heat rapidly, becoming warmer than the surrounding air, and would enable the bird to actually unload heat produced internally, reflected through the whitish underlayer of feathers to their outer surface. This helps explain how large-bodied, dark-feathered Ravens can survive in hot, arid environments as well.
Assistance in regulation of body temperature might be one explanation for why so many birds have black feathers or black-tipped feathers, but there are a host of other possible explanations, as well. One likely possibility is that the melanin pigment that colors the feather dark brown to black (depending on its concentration) binds to the keratin protein in the feathers and strengthens them and helps them resist wear.
During feather development, granules of melanin are deposited in the helical strands of keratin protein that make up the filaments that are in turn packaged into the barbs and barbules that make up the feather. Melanin-enriched keratin has been demonstrated to make feathers stiffer, more durable, and resistant to abrasion. The outer (primary) flight feathers are the propellers in the generation of powered flight, making it essential for them to be stiffer and wear-resistant.
But what are the benefits of black plumage patterns in all the other birds we see in the winter landscape? Is black important for thermoregulation, resistance to wear, cryptic camouflage, something else…?
Your thoughts? What about all those other mostly black birds: Red-winged Blackbirds, Pileated Woodpeckers, Puffins, Anis, Petrels, Auks, Grackles and Cowbirds, Coots, Moorhens, Frigatebirds, Starlings, and more. Why black?