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.