For a long time now I’ve wanted to document a phenomenon that I’ve observed many times: the way that some birds change color when they move from the light into the dark. I’m sure you’ve noticed this before, in the vibrance of a peacock’s tail that turns to black when the bird moves into the shade. But have you ever thought about why some feathers change color with changing light, while others don’t?
It turns out that there is more than one explanation for feather color. Some feathers are colored because of the pigments they contain. Pigments are molecules that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others; the wavelengths that are reflected are detected by our eyes and interpreted by our brain as color. There are three groups of pigments that occur in feathers, each of which contributes certain colors to a bird’s plumage: (1) melanins–responsible for pale yellows, dark browns, and blacks; (2) porphyrins–producing reds, pinks, browns, and greens; (3) carotenoids–contributing bright yellows and oranges. Pigments can work in concert, too, as when melanins and carotenoids combine to produce olive-green.
Pigment molecules are independent from the underlying structure of a feather. It turns out that the structure itself can produce color. For example, the blue in the feathers of Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) is due to scattering of light by tiny air pockets in the feathers. When sunlight strikes the filament of a feather, the blue wavelengths are refracted back into the atmosphere where they can be picked up by our retinas, and the other wavelengths are absorbed by a layer of melanin at the base of the filament (which is why we don’t see them).
A second kind of structural color is iridescence. This is due to the microscopic structure of the feather’s barbules. These barbules act like prisms, refracting light as it hits the feather. The appearance of the light (brighter or darker) changes as the angle of viewing changes.
My favorite example of iridescence in birds is in the hummingbirds. These ornithological gems flit about so rapidly that it can be hard to get a good look at them, but their brilliant colors are stunning. This afternoon I was finally able to take a series of photographs that show how minute changes in a hummer’s posture can change its coloration. This male Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) posed very nicely and allowed me to snap off a series of photos. In this series of photos I have edited them only to crop them to the same size and center the bird in each one. I have made no adjustments to color or saturation.
And to drive home just how brilliant that pink head is, here’s a shot of the same bird, this time on the opposite side of the feeder.
Anybody who says pink isn’t a masculine color has obviously never seen a male Anna’s hummingbird in full sun!
2 thoughts on “Birds of a feather”
You just answered a series of questions that have floated in my head for decades. Thank you!
You are most welcome!