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The Feathers

The Colours of Feathers

Birds have good eyesight and colour is important to them. A bird gets its beautiful or cryptic coloration from its feathers. Feathers in turn get their colours in two ways. Firstly, coloured pigments can be present in the Keratin. These can be firstly melanins which range from black to light tan and also produce grays. Melanins are usually Eumelanin and Phaeomelanin. Secondly carotenoids such as lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, astaxanthin, rhodoxanthin and canthaxanthin which make for reds, oranges and yellows. A third group of pigments consist of Porphyrins. These are mostly brown in colour (Coproporphyrin III) but can also be red, uroprophyrin, or green, Turacoverdin.

Birds can manufacture melanins in their own bodies but can only acquire carotenoids through their food. Flamingos are a fine example of this; if they do not get the right molecules in their diet, which occur naturally in their wild diet, then they lose their stunning pink colouration. Early zoos had great problems keeping their flamingos coloured before this was understood.

Birds, of course, exhibit a much greater range of colours than blacks, browns, reds, oranges and yellows. The blues, greens and other iridescent variations arise from the physical presence of minute structures on the surface of the feathers which reflect only one wavelength of light. This creation of colour via refraction or light is not unique to birds, some fruits and insects such as the Morpho butterfly use physical microstructure to reflect selective wavelengths as well. Blue and White are normally a structural colour as is green, though green may often be a mixture of structural and pigmental iridescence.

Abrasion plumage: when we look at a bird we see usually only the tips of the contour feathers. These tips can be a different colour to the rest of the feathers. Because feathers get worn away at the tips this can cause a bird's plumage to change colour as the feathers age. Many passerines use this method to have one plumage in winter and a more colourful one in spring. They gradually acquire their breeding plumage through abrasive wearing away of the dull or cryptically coloured tips to reveal the brighter plumage beneath. Snow buntings and Chaffinches are two good examples of this.

Most information on this page was contributed by EarthLife.

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Last updated: 01 January 2003