How Do Birds Get Their Colors? - Owlcation - Education
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How Do Birds Get Their Colors?

At a very young age, Connie learned from her Grandma Pearl to observe and love backyard birds. She stills feeds and studies them every day.

Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak enjoys my special bird seed mix that contains fruit, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak enjoys my special bird seed mix that contains fruit, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

My two most memorable gifts were my first watch, because I have always been fascinated with the concept of time and how it surrounds and consumes us; and the industrial size box of 64 crayons! Later on Crayola bested themselves with an even larger size, which I was very fortunate to receive as a gift as well.

Colors, especially those emanating from the natural world, nurture and feed my creative soul. They determine in large part how I feel, whether it be happy on a sunny, green goddess day; or contemplative when the wind blows cold and grey.

Male Purple Finch proudly displays his light and dark raspberry colors.

Male Purple Finch proudly displays his light and dark raspberry colors.

Female Purple Finches are well-suited to blend in while on the nest or when foraging on the ground.  A male goldfinch shares the buffet, outfitted in his sunny yellow and black suit.

Female Purple Finches are well-suited to blend in while on the nest or when foraging on the ground. A male goldfinch shares the buffet, outfitted in his sunny yellow and black suit.

And so it is when I see nature’s dots and splashes of color, and her tricks of light and dark contrasts. The sky, trees, leaves, flowers and fruits of this Earth are food for my senses. But most of all, she has given me colorful, lively and musical birds.

Anyone who knows me, or has read my articles knows that I am passionate about wild birds; though it isn’t only because of their colors. There are many birds that lack bright and powerful hues and tints. It is the way nature has designed and used those colors to enhance their survival that evokes my appreciation. It is a well-known artistic principle that you cannot achieve depth of color, without the contrast or absence of color.

Females are generally brown, streaked or marked with low contrast colors so as to become nearly invisible to predators, thus protecting them so they can continue to produce offspring. And those offspring are protected in turn because of her colors, or lack thereof, and ability to blend in. Young fledglings often don’t carry bright colors until they have matured and mastered their gift of flight and escape.

So How Do Feathers Develop Their Colorations?

Pigment and how the feather is constructed determine the color of birds' feathers. The pigments come from just 3 different groups.

  1. Melanins which produce black, brown, rust and pale yellow
  2. Carotenoids that absorb blue light and turn it into red, orange and bright yellow
  3. Porphyrins which make pink, brown, green and rusty red

Nature's palette allows for mixing colors, so that some birds' colors are products of the combinations of two or more of the basic pigments.

Male Hairy Woodpecker displays his black and white feathers with just a splash of red:  An example of mixing melanin and carotenoids.

Male Hairy Woodpecker displays his black and white feathers with just a splash of red: An example of mixing melanin and carotenoids.

Melanins

Humans, animals and plants all have melanin present in different amounts and for different reasons:

In people, melanin determines the color of our skin, the iris of our eyes and the color of our hair.

In some plants, like fungi, it appears to protect the plant from the radiation produced by sunlight.

But melanin in birds occurs as tiny granules of color in the feathers as well as their skin. It serves to strengthen and protect the feathers from everyday wear and tear. If there is no pigmentation in the feathers, i.e. they are all white, there is very little strength. That is why most white birds have some black on their feathers, especially flight feathers that get the most use. Black feathers contain the most melanin and therefore maintain the most strength.

Northern Cardinals metabolize carotenoids to produce their beautiful red color.

Northern Cardinals metabolize carotenoids to produce their beautiful red color.

Carotenoids

Carotenoids in humans act as antioxidants. Orange-colored fresh fruits and vegetables contain the most carotenoids. When supplemented with avocado or avocado oil, they are readily absorbed and used to the utmost benefit in the human body to protect it against the harmful effects of free radicals.

When carotenoids are manufactured by plants, they serve to protect the plant from ultraviolet light or sun damage; plus they aid in the process of photosynthesis.

Birds that eat plants or things that have eaten plants that contain carotenoids will be red, orange or yellow. Combinations of melanin and carotenoids produce olive greens. Northern Cardinals, Purple Finches and Goldfinches are all examples of birds that metabolize carotenoids.

Studies have shown that female Northern Cardinals choose their mates based on depth of color: the darker the male, the better the carotenoid source; therefore, the stronger his genes and his food-finding abilities. Her offspring will be the best of the best, with the greatest chance of survival and the ability to find the best food sources, just like their papa.

Flamingos are pink because of the blue green algae and shrimp in their diet. As their liver breaks down the carotenoids, the molecules are sent to the skin, legs, beak and feathers of the bird.

Iridescent feathers of this gorgeous pheasant shine in the sun.

Iridescent feathers of this gorgeous pheasant shine in the sun.

Porphyrins

The third pigment is porphyrin, which comes from the modification of amino acids. One of the best-known substances created by the chemical processing of porphyrins is hemoglobin. If you were to shine an ultraviolet light on the feather of a ring-necked pheasant, it would produce a brilliant red flourescent color. That's the porphyrins at work; and they can be found in the chlorophyll of dark green plants, and the red blood cells in humans, animals and birds.

It is believed that porphyrins help regulate temperature, as they are found in the downy feathers on the brood patch in owls in particular. They are also present in birds' eggs that are left unattended as a rule for longer periods of time by the parents as they hunt. Presumably the porphyrins function to not only camouflage the eggs, but to help keep them warm until mom and pop reappear.

This male Ruby-throated Hummingbird's throat patch looks brilliant red here, but can look black when the light hits it at a different angle.

This male Ruby-throated Hummingbird's throat patch looks brilliant red here, but can look black when the light hits it at a different angle.

Same Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, but the light is hitting his throat patch at a different angle, and makes it look black.

Same Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, but the light is hitting his throat patch at a different angle, and makes it look black.

Feather Structure Also Determines Color

Besides pigmentation, feather construction also determines color. For instance, if you have ever seen the changing throat patch of a hummingbird, then you have witnessed structural color at work. Those particular feathers refract light because of their structure at the microscopic level. They are in effect 'unzipped'; their barbs are not woven tightly together, so they split light into the various colors we see, depending upon the angle at which we view them.

This prism effect is what gives certain birds their iridescent appearance. However, iridescent feathers are the weakest of all because of their ‘loosely woven’ structure. That’s why no bird has fully iridescent flight feathers. This iridescence shows up only where feathers are not stressed by flight.

Birds like indigo buntings and blue jays appear blue because of their feather structure. Unique cellular layers overlying the feathers reflect the light, which we then see as blue. In reality, the melanin pigment in the feather makes it brown. You can prove this if you find a blue feather and shine a light on it from behind.

Blue Jay feather, right side up looks blue with black stripes.

Blue Jay feather, right side up looks blue with black stripes.

Blue Jay feather, wrong side up looks brownish-black.

Blue Jay feather, wrong side up looks brownish-black.

Test Your Knowledge of the Sources of Bird Colors

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Northern Cardinals are red because:
    • Their feather structures reflect the light
    • Their diet includes carotenoids
  2. Blue Jays are blue because:
    • Porphyrins are at work
    • They have a cellular layer that reflects light so that it looks blue to us
  3. The black of crows' feathers comes from:
    • Melanins
    • Porphyrins
  4. Iridescent feathers are:
    • Strongest
    • Weakest
  5. Bright red fluorescence under ultraviolet light means:
    • The bird's diet is rich in carotenoids
    • Porphyrin pigment is present

Answer Key

  1. Their diet includes carotenoids
  2. They have a cellular layer that reflects light so that it looks blue to us
  3. Melanins
  4. Weakest
  5. Porphyrin pigment is present
Male Indigo Bunting foraging for seeds.  His cobalt blue color is due to a layer of cells that reflect the light.  Our eyes perceive this as blue, but the true color (brown) comes from melanin.

Male Indigo Bunting foraging for seeds. His cobalt blue color is due to a layer of cells that reflect the light. Our eyes perceive this as blue, but the true color (brown) comes from melanin.

Nature has given birds their unique colorations for different reasons: strength, protection from ultraviolet light and environmental stresses, camouflage, and the ability to entice the best mates to insure survival of the species. No matter what their color, or lack thereof, birds continue to be my source of inspiration and creativity, as well as a strong connection to the way nature works.

Sources: en.wikipedia.org; chemistry.about.com; Connie Smith (Grandma Pearl)

Your Comments Are Most Welcome

Fishy montage on May 23, 2016:

Good artical

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on October 05, 2013:

Jatinder, thank you for the kind compliments. Connecting with nature is treasured time well spent. If only we could convince the rest of the population of the importance of all animals and birds, this would be a much better world!

I enjoy your visits and comments, my friend ;) Pearl

Jatinder Joshi from Whitby, Ontario, Canada on October 04, 2013:

A lot of information on this hub that has been put up in a very interesting manner. I enjoyed learning more about how and why birds get their colours.

Your knowledge on the subject of birds is really worth emulating, now that I too am becoming a full time nature fan, like you have been since childhood.

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 26, 2013:

pstraubie, thank you! I'm so glad you liked this article. I think that we are a lot alike in a lot of ways--when it comes to nature, the Earth and all of our surroundings, we seem to be in agreement. It is so lovely to find a kindred spirit; and I have found a few on these wonderful Hubpages!

I always look forward to your caring and generous comments. What a sweet person you are! And thank you so much for all the Angels you have sent my way ;) Pearl

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 25, 2013:

"Colors, especially those emanating from the natural world, nurture and feed my creative soul. "

Wow...that is so true...for me too. We are so very blessed to live in our world filled with the palette of colors.

I learned so much from this article. I really truthfully had never thought about the way our lovely birds get their colors...but now, thanks to you, I know.

Thanks for sharing.

Angels are on the way ps

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 17, 2013:

Hi Deb! Thank you for your compliments. Coming from an avid and very knowledgeable 'birder' your high praise is much appreciated! You can tell that I love my birds, can't you?!

I'm so glad you stopped by, and that you enjoyed this article. Thanks a million, Deb!

Connie

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 16, 2013:

Great work, Connie, and a greater understanding has evolved for all! I just knew the basics and you tied in the rest.

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 16, 2013:

Dear Eddy, Thanks so much for visiting me and my birds here in New York State! I love this time of year--the migratory birds are coming back from the tropics and Mexico, and they are so colorful. That's what prompted me to write this.

As always your visits and your kind support are so appreciated, as are you, my wonderful friend

;) Pearl

Eiddwen from Wales on May 16, 2013:

Such an interesting hub and so so well informed.

You always put your all into each hub and never disappoint. Voted up,across and shared. Have a great day my dear friend.

Eddy.

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 15, 2013:

bravewarrior, I'm smiling all over myself! And chuckling out loud ;) Pearl

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 15, 2013:

Aww, shucks Pearl, I only call 'em as I see 'em!

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 15, 2013:

bravewarrior, thank you so much for your very supportive comments! You have given my writer's heart a swollen head!!

There was a lot of information to digest, and you only missed one question--I think that is great! I'm pleased you took the test, and that you enjoyed this article.

Speaking of colorful birds, I am hearing a blue bird but have not seen it long enough to snap a picture. Hopefully I will be able to do that soon. And there are orioles around in the woods, but again they elude my camera!

Your visits are very much appreciated, as are your encouraging comments. I value your friendship more than you know ;) Pearl

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 15, 2013:

Pearl, your hubs are always so interesting, informative and colorful, not to mention well-written. I always look forward to what you bring us.

BTW, I guess I was somewhat distracted. I scored 80% on the quiz - I missed the last one!

Connie Smith (author) from Southern Tier New York State on May 14, 2013:

Thank you Billy! I wish we lived closer, too. I'd love to see your bird visitors. I appreciate your praise, especially since it comes from a science guy! My hope is that this will interest a lot of people as it did me. As always you are first to the post, and I can count on you for great support and caring comments. Thank you my friend, for always being in my corner ;) Pearl

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 14, 2013:

Well, my friend, I'm willing to bet a great many readers did not know this information. Have taught science....well, yes, I knew. Great job of explaining the science behind bird colors, and wonderful pictures. I wish you lived closer to us so you could identify some of the birds that are visiting us. :)

Well done!

bill

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