How Birds Use Colors and Patterns to Attract Mates and Avoid Predators

By 5 m read
How Birds Use Colors and Patterns to Attract Mates and Avoid Predators - Male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

If you’re looking for inspiration for a new fashion design, look no further…just study birds! Birds come in a mindboggling array of color patterns and designs that makes you wonder how nature and evolution got to this point.

Why are some species of male birds so much more colorful than females? But in other species, both sexes look identical? There are even a few exceptions (to prove the rule) where it’s the females that have the more colorful plumage.

So how does the color get into the feathers in the first place and how do birds actually see each other? There are so many interesting questions and not all of them have answers (yet). This is great news for us! We can just head outside and marvel at these beautiful creatures and make up our own questions and answers. We might even come up with something new that ornithology has overlooked!

How Do Birds See Color?

So let’s get started with some basic information. First of all, how do birds see color? Birds’ eyes can see both longer and shorter wavelengths of light than humans. They’re able to see colors that are invisible to us, including a portion of the UV (ultraviolet) spectrum. So we don’t really know how they see each other exactly.

How Do Feathers Get Their Color?

Melanin, molecules that are found in every mammal and give us our hair and skin color, is the primary color pigment. Birds with bright orange, yellow, and red colors are mostly produced thanks to carotenoids – these carbon chains are not produced by the birds, but instead have to be ingested by eating plants or eating something else that eats plants.

How Birds Use Colors and Patterns to Attract Mates and Avoid Predators - Feather from a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Feather from a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Light & Feathers

And now it gets complicated. When light interacts with feathers, one of four things can happen:

Reflection:  Light completely bounces off pure white feathers, resulting in a white appearance; or some feathers have properties that only reflect some wavelengths of light, resulting in a color (blue, e.g.)

Emission: Light is absorbed and pigment molecules convert the light to a different wavelength of light (color change).

Absorption: The feathers absorb all of the light and we end up with a color that appears black.

And finally, transmission: Light travels through the feather, bends, and exits on the other side. This creates an iridescent hue, changing the color by changing the angle of the light.

You have to watch this short video to really appreciate how this works:

Why Are Birds So Colorful?

Let’s look at coloring and pattern and what they might mean. Colors are thought to be mostly for mate attraction. But like every other animal, birds have to find a balance between showing off and hiding from predators to be evolutionarily successful. Maybe the reason birds are more colorful than most other animals (besides butterflies, e.g.) is because they can fly and are therefore harder to catch.

Another interesting thought about the showiness of male birds is this: the more colorful and elaborate feather appendices a male bird has, the less (up to none) time he will spend helping the brood…it would be too easy for predators to locate the nest. In species with the most colorful males, their female partners are the most drab looking.

Predator Avoidance

Besides mate attraction, bird colors and especially color patterns do have another very important function: Predator avoidance. One of the most common strategies to achieve this goal is crypsis: creating a pattern that blends in with the background. This especially goes for female ground nesters and most shorebirds.  

Another example is disruptive coloration: A striking eyeline, a bold black neckband, or large wing patches in a different color are thought to confuse a predator by visually breaking up the bird’s outline, therefore making it harder for the predator to see the “whole” bird.

How Birds Use Colors and Patterns to Attract Mates and Avoid Predators - Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

And finally, countershading: Having an overall darker top than underside makes it harder to be spotted by a predator. Think about it: If you look up at the light sky, it’s more difficult to see a bird that has a white or light-colored underside, and vice versa. This is very common in birds that spend time at sea and also in open-country species that have predators that hunt by sight.

Next time you go for a walk in the park or work in your backyard, take some time to study a bird. Look at the colors and patterns…come up with some questions about their function and post it here. Maybe we’ll discover something new in the avian world!

If you want to admire the effect of iridescent feathers, get yourself a hummingbird feeder, make your own hummingbird nectar, and wait for a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird to find it… and you’ll have a bird color show right in your own backyard!

Hummingbird Nectar

  • 1 part granulated pure cane sugar (aka regular white sugar)
  • 4 parts water

Bring to a boil, stir well, let cool, done.

Do not add food coloring. The hummingbirds will find your feeder. Only use regular white sugar.

Love birds? Read more of Erich’s articles about birds:

Have you noticed birds’ colors and patterns? Let us know in the comments below!

Do your friends enjoy great bird & nature articles too? Share this article with them and let us know what you all think by commenting below!

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