Open Close

Birds of a Feather

Feathers are a defining feature of birds. They provide insulation from cold and heat, repel water, protect sensitive skin and allow for flight. In addition, feather colouration is useful for camouflage as well as to communicate dominance and attract mates. For most birders, it is the primary method used to identify birds.

Feather patterns can create very effective camouflage. These patterns can include the very common streaky brown plumages found in various habitats, but also the black and white patterns of woodpeckers (which spend a lot of time on tree trunks) and olive green patterns of birds that feed in tree canopies.

Birds of the same species in different geographic regions may have lighter or darker colouring. Song sparrows here, for example, are darker than song sparrows in central Canada. The general pattern is that more heavily pigmented forms of a species are found in more humid environments. This pattern is codified as Gloger’s rule, named after the German zoologist C.L. Gloger. A possible explanation for this pattern, is that this trait has been selected for because darker individuals in a more humid environment are less visible to predators compared with dark birds in a drier environment, such as a desert or grassland. A competing theory is that darker feathers contain more of the pigment melanin and are therefore more resistant to degradation by bacteria and mites, both of which prefer humid environments. Whatever the selection pressure, the pattern holds for the vast majority (around 90 per cent) of North American bird species.

Some species, such as the killdeer, have bold markings that break up the normal outline of a bird and thus aid in camouflage. Many shorebirds are darker coloured above and lighter coloured below. This creates a counter-shading effect, which makes the individual look flat, and therefore, predators have a difficult time knowing the distance between them and their quarry.

In some birds, the males and females are similar in colour year round. In others, the differences are stark, especially at this time of year when the mating season for many bird species is close at hand. For these birds, it is the males that are the gaudy showoffs. The discrepancy in colouration between male and female ducks is particularly distinctive and is a good indicator of how household duties are shared. Female ducks incubate the eggs and raise the young. The bright, beautifully coloured plumage of the males is an advertisement to attract mates and a warning to challengers. Mr. Darwin noticed that such characteristics increased a male’s risk of being predated upon, so how was it that this tendency to showiness persisted and lead to bizarre adornments (taken to a bit of an extreme in the male peacock) in some species? The answer he settled on was that sexual selection might lead to a shorter life, but the more adorned or colourful males sire more offspring. Evidence that the cost of showiness is high can be noted in the fact that the bright plumage for many species goes drabber out of the mating season.

Feather colours are produced by the pigments — melanin for yellows, browns, greys and blacks, and caratonoides for oranges and reds. (Iridescence by contrast, for example on a mallard head or a hummingbirds throat, is produced by the refraction of light caused by the structure of the feather barbules. The feathers takes on a different colour in different lights and angles of observation.) A recent news study illustrates the role of some foods in the production of pigments. The northern flicker of eastern North America has yellow under the tail and underwings and has yellow shafts on its primary feathers. The ones in the west are red. There is a zone where hybrids exists, but a lot of flickers in the east, away from the hybrid zone, are now showing red colouration. After a lot of sleuthing, it was discovered that the flickers have taken to feeding on the berries of the introduced and now naturalized and abundant Japanese honeysuckle, which is affecting the tail and wing colouration. Similar colour changes have been noted in cedar waxwings and Baltimore orioles. The question now is how will the presence of this new plant influence territorial behaviour and mate attraction?

The colouration of birds serves purposes that benefit the individual. In regards to feather colouration and its relation to mate attraction, perhaps one could (cautiously) presume that birds can appreciate the beauty of colours. That we find the same colours aesthetically pleasing is perhaps a more challenging thought. That birds and humans can distinguish (and perhaps appreciate) the same colours reflects that we see colour in the same way.


Jay Rastogi is a naturalist, horticulturist and educator living in Yellow Point. ecoforestry [at] gmail [dot] com


About the author: Angie

1 comment

  1. Joan says:

    Enjoyed reading of your various types of bird-buddies. Am looking for info about quail. I have a twice daily visitation who eat about 40 lbs of Birdseed a month…this is Penticton….Two years ago there were around 400 who visited the backyard autumn through summer The neighbours hate it because the Quail spend nights and rainy days in their hedges, and quite spoil the symmetry in just a couple of years.
    This week one neighbour had all his backyard shrubbery removed to make way for more poolside amenities. Sure discombobulated the poor quail when they came home to roost.
    I notice my two cats are interested, but make no attempt to catch them. The biggest cat seems to take great pleasure in lying directly on the pile of seeds, but comes away as soon as he’s called in. Too lazy or too well-fed for quail to whet the appetite. Actually they have more fun chasing flies and bees.
    Someone was wondering what a group of quail is called. Am sure you know it is “Covey”….CUV-ey.
    They are quite entertaining birds (I know…”Get a life!”). I noticed three males chasing one smallish female last summer. She was not just being coy. She could join the “MeToo” movement! At one point she spied three small rocks forming a bit of a sanctuary and dove toward it. Too small a to do more than hide her head. she seemed to suddenly remember that her tail end was raised and unprotected, and she quickly
    jammed it to the ground. In a moment she was being pursued again.
    We were listening to a quail give the characteristic call…”That’s a female” said my husband. “Really?”
    “Can’t you hear? She’s saying “CUT THAT OUT! CUT THAT OUT!” No accent on any syllable. (It was actually a male quail). A few years later the call has changed…”ROBER’TO, ROBER’TO” Must have come up from Mexico. Alls ya gotta do (as some Albertans say) is watch.
    Another thing I noticed: In the summer the months the males run behind the females. In the winter the female run behind the male. Of course I can’t tell one from other males–or females from one another, but the way they travel in twos, I think they can tell. Lucky you..I won’t go on about their many other idiosyncrasies.

Leave a comment

All fields marked (*) are required

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.