Ask the Naturalist – How do Birds get Their Colors?

Friday, April 18, 2008 - by Kyle Waggener, Chattanooga Nature Center
<i>Cardinal ... a.k.a. Redbird</i>
Cardinal ... a.k.a. Redbird

Colors in birds usually come from pigments. Pigments absorb certain colors and reflect others - the reflected colors are what we see. Pigments can be divided into several groups: melanins, carotenoids, porphyrins and psittacins. Some colors are caused by the “nanosturcture” of the feathers and produce an “optical illusion.”

The most common type of pigment is melanin. Most brown, black, gray and some yellow colors are produced by melanin. Melanin is very strong and is made up of chemicals found in the bird’s body. Some birds have black wingtips to prevent wear on their flight feathers.

Carotenoid pigments come from birds’ diets. These pigments reflect red, yellow or orange colors. Male Northern Cardinals’ bright red color comes from eating different seeds and berries (mostly from Flowering Dogwood berries). The carotenoids are stored in the cardinal’s liver and then moves into their bloodstream during their molting process and are deposited in their new feathers as they start to grow. So a bad season of Dogwood berries might mike a male Cardinal less attractive to the ladies next year.

Porphyrins are very rare and are only found in a few groups of birds. This group of pigments gives African birds called turacos their green and red colors. Porphyrins also give owls and nightjars (Whip-poor-wills and Nighthawks) their reddish-brown feathers.

Psittacins are only found in parrots and produce their bright red, yellow and orange colors.

There are no blue pigments in any birds in the world. So why do Eastern bluebirds and Indigo Buntings look so brilliant? The answer is the sub-microscopic structure of the bird’s feathers. There is a central layer of cells with melanin in them surrounded by a “cloudy” layer that scatters the light waves in such a way that they interact with each other in a process called “constructive interference” causing the light to look blue when it reaches our eyes. If you were to look an Indigo Bunting in the shade it looks gray compared to when it’s out in full sunlight. White, most green colors and the throat patch or “gorget” found on hummingbirds also comes from feather structure.

Be on the lookout for many brilliantly colored birds that can be found at the Nature Center especially during the spring migration and mating season.

<i>Whippoorwill</i>
Whippoorwill

Fairy Trail Garden Opens, A Wildlife Haven For People And Pollinators

20 Veterans Participate In Local Wounded Warrior Hunt

TWRA Requests Public Input For 2022-23 Waterfowl And Other Migratory Bird Hunting Seasons


Lookout Mountain volunteer, Jimmy Campbell, is announcing the completion of a new park, Fairy Trail Garden, located on Whitt Road across from the Carter Soccer Field in Lookout Mountain, Ga. ... (click for more)

A group of about 20 veterans gathered Sunday Monday and Tuesday for fun, food, fellowship, friendship and a managed deer Wounded Warrior hunt at the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant. ... (click for more)

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is soliciting comments for its 2022-23 waterfowl and other migratory bird hunting regulations, including sandhill cranes. This is an opportunity for the ... (click for more)



Outdoors

Fairy Trail Garden Opens, A Wildlife Haven For People And Pollinators

Lookout Mountain volunteer, Jimmy Campbell, is announcing the completion of a new park, Fairy Trail Garden, located on Whitt Road across from the Carter Soccer Field in Lookout Mountain, Ga. "Fairy Trail Garden is an inviting pollinator and wildlife haven that beckons to each of us to slow down, look deeply into the natural world around us and let nature work her magic," officials ... (click for more)

20 Veterans Participate In Local Wounded Warrior Hunt

A group of about 20 veterans gathered Sunday Monday and Tuesday for fun, food, fellowship, friendship and a managed deer Wounded Warrior hunt at the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant. Volunteers from TWRA, Highland Sportsman’s Club, Safari Club International local chapter and a host of others from Cleveland State College, Volkswagen and Hamilton County Parks participated ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Hamilton County Has 4 More Virus Deaths And 63 New Cases; Number Of ICU Patients Continues To Drop

The Hamilton County Health Department reported four more coronavirus deaths on Monday and 63 new positive cases, down from 109 on Friday. The total number of cases in the county now stands at 63,358. The death total is at 642. It is reported the deaths were all men; three white and one race not determined; two age 51-60 and two age 61-70. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations ... (click for more)

Daisy Madison To Retire As City's Chief Financial Officer After Nearly 20 Years

Daisy Madison, the city’s longtime chief financial officer, will conclude her distinguished career at City Hall this year as she begins her transition into retirement, she told senior staff Monday. Ms. Madison was hired as deputy chief finance officer in 1992 by former mayor Gene Roberts. She served with distinction under a succession of mayors, including Jon Kinsey, Bob Corker, ... (click for more)

Opinion

Tennessee Fans Hit A New Low - And Response

Tennessee Vols fans hit a new low at the end of the UTK vs Ole Miss last evening. Maybe Lane Kiffin did us wrong when he left Knoxville for his dream team back in 2009, however, the crass and repulsive behavior of a large number of Tennessee fans didn’t reflect on Kiffin, it reflected on the great state of Tennessee. Has society really reduced itself to believing that reducing ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: It’s Kiffin With Class

I’m 72 years old and after a lifetime of watching college football – more times than not from up real close – even I was shocked that the University of Tennessee showed a such a marked lack of class at the end of Saturday night’s 31-26 chaotic loss to a now-13 th ranked Ole Miss. In the waning minutes of what would have been a glorious college football game, a gutsy final drive ... (click for more)