Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why Are Colorful Birds Colorful?

One bird watcher I met many years ago says he got started in birding because he asked a simple question ("What's that black bird with red wings?") and was surprised by the answer provided to him by a local National Audubon Society Member: "Why, that's a Red-winged Blackbird." If only identifying all birds were so easy! However, case in point, once people begin studying birds, they often ask us what makes colorful birds colorful. This article will address this question. Most colors in birds can be boiled down into about 13 basic colors, including black, white, yellow, red, blue, and green. Given that many bird species exhibit a variety of colors in combination with one another, and recognizing that there are over 9,000 species of birds in the world, one can begin to appreciate the patience needed to identify birds by sight alone. The color we see in birds is visible to us because: (1) the bird's feathers contain pigments; and/or (2) the structure of the bird's feathers is refracting light back to our eyes.