Reading Pete Thorpe’s post on the species of sunbirds that are being seen more regularly due to aloes beginning to flower made me marvel at the beautiful colours that birds show off and how these effects are created.
So I dived into the world of bird feathers and let me tell you it is not as straight forward as simply a ‘colourful’ and ‘not so colourful’ bird, but let me elaborate on the two most prominent ways that a bird’s plumage appears so appealing to the eye. The first is pigmentation and the second is the structure of the feather itself.
Most birds owe their spectacular colours to pigments in their feathers. The main pigments are melanin (responsible for browns, blacks and greys) and carotenoids (responsible for reds, yellows, oranges and other colourful hues). Of these pigments only melanin is produced by the body. The carotenoids are attained through the birds diet. This means that the intensity of a bird’s colouration can be an indicator of its health; whether it is not obtaining enough food or if its body is not performing at optimum to convert the carotenoids into pigments in the feathers.
The other eye-catching effect (present on fewer species of birds) is iridescence. This shimmering effect is due to the structure of the feather that determines whether light is reflected, scattered or absorbed. Each tiny barb on a feather is made up of layers. As light hits the feather, certain colours are reflected while others pass through. Depending on the viewer’s angle, the reflected colours are either amplified or cancelled out.
Probably the most iridescent birds we see at Londolozi belong to the Starling family. It is not uncommon for me to point out one of these birds to guests and as a result of it being a cloudy day or that the bird is sitting in the shade its plumage appears dull, which draws a rather subdued reaction (fair enough).
But it can be the very next day that I hear an exasperated gasp from my guests as the very same species of starling flies past us with the sunlight catching it, showing off its breath-taking iridescence. The disbelief on people’s faces when I explain to them that it was the same bird we had seen the previous day makes me chuckle.
On a more introspective level, when I feel rather dreary and dull during these uncertain times of lockdown I guess it’s important to remember that it is all a matter of perspective. It is not a matter of if, but when the sun comes out, it won’t be long before things look drastically different for all of us.
Filed under Birds Safari experience
Lovely blog Josh. Interesting information. We must all stay positive in this difficult times. The sun always shine again.
Hello Josh, Interesting article you have written about how birds get their colors. Birds are so beautiful! I have seen the beautiful Starling!
Is it alwayes the males who is colourful?
What spectacular birds! Thank you.
Thank you Josh. I agree when the sunlight catches the plumage of the starlings the effect is stunning. I always think of the starlings we have in England as being quite nondescript, perhaps we don’t see enough sun here? – or is it just the types you have at Londolozi?
Fascinating- who would have thought diet and physical well-being would contribute to the color and brightness of birds’ feathers. Thank you for this bit of continuing education.
Thanks for that information. We never really thought about how they get their colors! The example you gave about the Burchell’s Starling is perfect and your image showed additional colors that we never noticed! We have tons of photos of them and will see if we can find one with that much detail in perfect lighting. Thanks for the challenge! 😉
Josh, I saved Bush Shrike, and Great Spotted Cuckoo Chick🤗 to my pictures!
Some beautiful bird images. Interesting facts too. Thanks.
Hi Josh. What an interesting article. What an intricate and marvellous Designer / Artist made all these magnificent colours! I have always loved and greatly admired the colours on a Starling and could never understand why so many people don’t seem as exuberant about them as I am! We certainly have a fantastic Creator! Wendy M
Very informative Josh. I have actually wondered why the Cardinal (which are a striking red bird where I live) are sometimes bursting with color and sometimes a little dull, so I loved learning that. We also have a Common Grackle, which has a similar plumage to your Burchell’s Starling – it is spectacular in iridescence in the sunshine. Thanks!
Interesting post!! I’d really like to find out what kind of pigments and iridesense you’d find in the different species of birds of paradise!
While it is a given that Josh Attenborough comes from an amazing nature loving family, his blog today, about the various birds seen out and about at Londolozi birds is a Audubon rarity. – The up-close picture showing the Orange-breasted Bushshrike self expression is just precious! Next in line, the Malachite Kingfisher’s, and the Burchell’s Starling’s colors are just beautiful! Nothing you would see in the U.S.!
Fascinating, and I’ve found the same to be true about perceiving iridescence in birds coloration depending on perspective! Beautiful photography as well!!
Thanks for the interesting blog Josh
My name is Teresa and I’ve been following the Londolozzi blogs for awhile now.
My family and I were fortunate to stay and visit Londolozzi back in 2010, while attending the World Cup. Our time spent at Londolozzi was the highlight and a trip of a lifetime. Our tracker was Life, Rex was part our group as well. Such memories of the camp and wildlife, still bring me immense joy.
My question is, we saw amazing animals up close but there were some birds that I cannot recall their names! Small, very colorful.
Pink heads that also had various colours of turquoise and shades of blue. Also, some very vibrant birds of mostly blue shades.
Sorry, about my lack of description but I was wondering if you may be able to tell me the names of these beautiful birds.
Thank you for your time!