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Color Blind?


Nov 12, 2018

Color is critically important to birds.

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For some, color is for camouflage. For others, it is used to attract the right mate. Even baby birds use color to get their needs met. The inside of many baby birds’ mouths is bright red, a visual cue for the parents to feed them. As the babies grow and become independent, the color becomes more subdued.

Among many species, Such as House Finches and Scarlet Tanagers, the males that have the brightest feathers seem to be most successful at attracting mates. But among flickers it seems that color is irrelevant, at least when it comes to mating. Flickers come in three distinct colorations: Red-shafted in the west, Yellow-shafted in the east and Gilded in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, southeastern California, and Mexico.

Taxonomists continue to debate over whether or not these represent three species (or two or one!), but the lady flickers have already resolved the issue to their satisfaction. They are philosophically, if not physiologically, color blind. The vibrant red or yellow feather shafts that have given the birds their separate species status for years seem to have no effect on female flickers with regard to their desire to breed, their choice of mate or the success of their offspring when they hybridize. The females may have other less superficial standards for choosing a mate. Or maybe it’s just that bright is bright; whether it’s red, yellow of anything in between.