Unlocking the Mysteries of Feather Colors

Most first-time bird owners seeking their first pet will be primarily attracted to the striking colors that a number of bird species enjoy, even if they ultimately choose to go with the species that makes the easiest pet. Many birds are highly sought after due to their appealing colors the striking diversity of coloring is of the utmost benefit when it comes to identifying wild birds through a pair of binoculars. But what is it that makes these delightful creatures come in so many inspiring colors? How do they go from ‘drab to fab’ in just a difference of gender? Let us investigate the mystery.

Research now tells us that there is more to bird color than meets the eye. It would seem that every bird color is produced by the interaction between a structural and a chemical coloring system. The chemical aspect of a birds coloring is based on a palette of pigments, while the structural aspect comes from the way that reflected light is scattered. The intricate way that feather‘s layers are carefully arranged in a birds plumage will ensure that these two elements combine and so produce the often bright and vibrant colors that we see. Most of us have played with a bird’s feather and are aware of how small branches (barbs) grow out of a central shaft. These barbs, in turn, have even smaller branches called barbules which lie in flat, overlapping rows and are held together with miniscule hook-like structures. The bird regularly zips up these barbules and makes his feathers look smooth. It is these barbs and barbules which mainly provide the structural element of a birds coloring. However, this is not the only structural aspect involved.

Another aspect one needs to consider is what is known as the ‘cloudy zone’. This is a spongy layer that is sometimes found between the core and the cortex. These zones are usually found in birds whose feather cores and cortex’s are devoid of pigment. In this instance, color is created when convoluted air cavities found in the spongy layer scatter light in much the same way as a prism does. The result is often vivid color and yet the bird often does not actually have any pigment in its feathers!

The chemical aspect can usually be found in the core or cortex of the feather. These are the parts of a feather where you will find pigment. This is something that we more commonly associate with color and we may already know that pigment works by absorbing certain light wavelengths and reflecting others with the reflected wavelengths providing us with the colors we see around us. Only four types of pigments are found in feathers and only two of the four – melanins and carotenoids – are common. Melanins are responsible for browns, blacks, grays and some yellows, while carotenoids produce yellow, red and orange feathers. While birds are usually born with Melanins, they gain various carotenoids from the plants that they eat. The pigment is then taken from the liver, by the blood, to the feather follicle where it will emerge with the development of a new feather. This is why the color of a song bird usually deepens when berries are richer in color and more readily available.

There are of course many other aspects to bird coloring, but it is simply far too much to mention here. However, learning even this simple little bit will no doubt get you wondering exactly what facets of bird coloring have created the beautiful colors of the next winged creature you see.