The Color Orange in the Bird World

The color orange could never be accused of subtly. A warm color, bright and vivid, orange takes on many cultural associations. The color of road work signs and traffic cones, it promotes visibility and denotes danger. There is a reason prison jumpsuits and hunting camouflage are orange. But it also makes us think of sunny days and sweet fruit. Around this time of year, it also makes us think of pumpkins and Halloween.

Coloring in the bird world is thought to have evolved to both encourage mating and promote survival through camouflage. Females of many species are duller in color to protect them from predators and promote the survival of the species. Along the same lines, the males of many species have developed very bright coloring to attract females to mate with them. Feather colors are created one of two ways, through pigment or light refraction from the physical structure of the feathers. Some multicolored birds have both occurring at the same time.

It is easy to see that orange occurring in the bird world is also about visibility. While we often associate the brightest feathers with exotic habitats, we can still find evidence of orange in our own backyards. The Baltimore Oriole serves as the primary example. While the male is much brighter, both the male and female Baltimore Orioles are primarily orange. Orange may be a color that attracts them to more than just prospective mates, as they are also known to eat oranges and be attracted to orange-colored feeders.

An orange belly is a prominent feature of another backyard regular, the American Robin. Though not as bright a shade of orange as found on the Baltimore Oriole, the rusty-orange of the Robin certainly attracts the eye. Female Robins often have paler bellies than their mates, but both males and females demand attention. The Robin’s rusty belly not only differentiates it from other Thrushes, but is its most distinctive feature.

The Barn Swallow demonstrates still another shade of orange found in plumage. He sports a peachy orange belly, reminiscent of a creamiscle, which contrasts with the darker blue of his back and wings.

Thinking about birds in relation to their color allows for a new perspective. Understanding the purpose of their coloring allows us to appreciate it for more than just aesthetic beauty. Nature has certainly provides us with a wide and varied palette to enjoy.

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