“The bird swam swiftly and gracefully toward the Magic Isle, and as it drew nearer its gorgeously colored plumage astonished them. The feathers were of many hues of glistening greens and blues and purples, and it had a yellow head with a red plume, and pink, white and violet in its tail.” L. Frank Baum, The Magic of Oz
Christmas colors surround us before and during this holiday season. But if we observe birds we can see those typical colors and more, throughout the year. Have we ever thought how birds exhibit a variety of colors? Evidently Frank Baum did.
Composed of chemical compounds, natural pigments exist in certain feather parts. These pigments absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others.
Of the three groupings of feather pigments, we know two of them, melanin and carotenoids. Melanin gives us our skin, eye, and hair color. In birds, melanins form grays, blacks, and earth tones. Bird body feathers can have two kinds of melanin. One type produces gray, black and dark brown colors while the other yields tans, reddish browns and some yellows. Both types can be on the same bird.
And now here’s something new for us…a specific soil bacteria lives in plumage and secretes an enzyme to breakdown the feathers! Melanin helps black feathers resist that bacterial enzyme. Plus melanin absorbs sunshine and helps with thermoregulation.
Carotenoids are common in our red, yellow, and orangey fruit and vegetables we eat. In our feathered friends, carotenoids provide bright yellows, reds, oranges, and specific blues and greens. However, they’re not the producer of the greens in parrots. Parrots create some of their own colors from special pigments in their growing feathers.
Birds’ diets provide the carotenoids whether birds dine on plants or from organisms that eat plants. Carotenoids can be changed into fat droplets in cells of growing feathers. When these fats dissolve, they stay within the feathers. These pigments are also stored in egg yolks, body fat, and preen glands of birds.
The third group of pigments isn’t as common as the first two groups. Porphyrins create specific bright brown and green feathers and even a distinctive magenta. However, porphyrins are similar chemically to hemoglobin and liver bile pigments!
Wouldn’t it be nice if we only needed to know about those three pigment categories? Mixtures of pigments generate different shades and hues.
But wait, there is so much more and it deals with microstructures of the feathers themselves.
For example, white feathers lack any melanin pigments. Teeny feather structures *(measured in nanometers) equally scatter all wavelengths of light. We see “white”. But if only a few wavelengths are involved, only certain hues such as blue or red are seen and are non-iridescent. Even tiny air pockets in the feathers impact what is reflected.
I think all of us have seen the flashy red iridescence of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Layers of melanin generate iridescence depending upon the angle of light. According to scientists, these structural colors result from incident light. Often the pigments and those feather structures work together.
What a complex subject! I’ve not even mentioned ultraviolet colors that birds can see but we can’t. I didn’t include the main building block of feathers is keratin, a protein also found in our fingernails. For example a human hair is about 1,000 times thicker than one keratin layer on a feather part It will take a “Wizard of Odds” to assimilate all the research about bird coloring.
By now, we’ve learned science is neither black nor white (pun intended).
MAY YOUR HEART BE LIGHT AS A FEATHER THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON!
*nanometer = 1/10,000,000 of a centimeter
DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on details about this species. Here are my resources: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/feathers, Ornithology, 3rd edition, National Geographic Bird Coloration
Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo
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