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14th May 2019 - How do birds get their colour?

When you are in your back garden, local forest or along the Solent coast, hopefully there will be an array of weird and wonderful birds to keep you company as you go about your day.

Birds across the world vary in a vast number of ways.  Take the illustrious wren, it's one of the UK's smallest birds that is blessed with a chatty, beautiful call.  Then we have the regal grey heron, long legged, sharp of beak, yet a lot less chatty than the diminutive wren.  However, what these two splendours of the bird world do have in common, is that they both have their own unique markings, colour and plumage.

The colour of each bird is very important, and our feathered friends rely on it for a host of reasons.  Without individual plumage, identification, sex recognition and breeding condition would be very challenging.  Alongside their song, colours on birds are also significant for signalling and social status. 

Colouration of plumage occurs through pigments in the feather that are manufactured in cells or obtained by the food the bird has eaten.  The main colouring agent is melanin, which can be black, brown, chestnut-red or yellow in colour.  The amount of each colour of melanin present, determines the shade and intensity of the feathers.

Additionally, iridescent blue and green feathers, such as those seen on kingfishers, occur as the light reflects on the bird's complex feathers.  These are different from the pigmentation process and are known as structural colours.  So many birds plumage is often a combination of pigmentation and the structural colour.

Next time you spot goldfinch playing in the trees or starlings hopping along the lawn, see if any colour differences leap out at you and marvel at natures colours in all their glory.