What Makes Hummingbird Feathers So Shimmery?
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A hummingbird feather is so colorful and iridescent. These birds sparkle in the sunlight. Find out what makes their feathers look so spectacular.
The Beauty of a Hummingbird Feather
When the sun hits it just right, a male ruby-throated hummingbird’s throat is a beautiful iridescent red. His vibrant green head glows, too! And, of course, ruby-throats aren’t the only hummingbirds with pretty feathers. Learn about the science that makes a hummingbird feather look so colorful and vibrant.
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John Schewy, author of The Hummingbird Handbook, writes, “Hummers vary tremendously in the color and arrangement of their iridescent parts. Even among the handful of hummingbird species that are widespread in the United States, the array of colors is impressive. The male Allen’s and rufous hummers have blazing red-orange throats. The beautiful male Anna’s hummer has an incredible iridescent magenta throat, face and crown. And the closely related Costa’s hummingbird, whose neck feathers taper into long mustache-like points on each side, has a head wrapped in royal purple.”
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Hummingbird Feather Colors
Birds & Blooms reader Cheryl Curtiss asks, “I read that hummingbird feathers are not the bright colors we see. Can you explain this?”
Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman explain. “It’s true. When we look at an Anna’s or ruby-throated hummingbird, for example, we’re not really seeing green pigment on their back feathers or red pigment on their throat feathers. Instead, those are structural colors. The feather itself is just dull and dark, but it’s covered with transparent layers of particular shapes that operate like a prism. They bend the light and reflect back only certain colors. This is why the colors can seem to change, too. Those red throat feathers may look orange, gold or even green, depending on the angle of the light.”
Birds & Blooms reader Steven Hogan asks, “Why do ruby-throated hummingbird feathers appear black sometimes?”
Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “The beautiful iridescent colors of some hummingbird feathers have a surprising source. The feather itself may be a dull blackish color, but it’s covered with a thin layer of clear cells that are structured to reflect light only in certain ways, as a prism does. Light striking the feather from just the right angle reflects back brilliant red, violet or green, depending on the species. The color can shift as the angle changes, which is why a ruby-throated’s neck sometimes may look gold or greenish. But without direct lighting, those feathers simply look black.
What are the colorful patches on their necks? John Schewy writes, “With just a turn of the head, a hummingbird explodes in iridescent radiance. Its gorget (the patch of colorful feathers covering its throat) instantly blazes in shades that span the color spectrum, depending on the species. These dazzling colors come from the feather structure rather than pigmentation. Each iridescent hummingbird feather has tiny spikes that are densely packed with many layers of microscopic structures filled with air bubbles.”
These structures reflect light, says Bob Sundstrom, a science advisor for BirdNote, “creating color in the manner of sun glinting off an oily film on water.”
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