You can find almost any color of the rainbow among the birds-of-paradise. Males advertise themselves with color—often several vivid colors combined—while females have brownish plumage whose main purpose is camouflage. This video explores the range of colors, two of the main ways birds produce colors, and how males display them to maximum effect.
Color: and the Birds-of-Paradise
One of the striking things about the New Guinea footage that we see is that it’s just green, except for the birds, which pop.
So how is that realized in your time in the forest?
The very second species of Bird-of-Paradise I saw was Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise.
And I can remember I was sitting on the edge of the court, it was muddy and brown and green all around and I’m hiding.
Finally, the male came down and he landed on the court about six or seven feet away from where I was sitting.
That moment when he just showed up there and had this incredible yellow on the back of his neck and yellow-orange on his wings, and he turned and he caught the light and I saw this iridescent blue wires curling behind his tail, and it was, that’s it, that’s what this bird is meant to do, is to show those colors.
The thing that’s most impressive to me about color in Birds-of-Paradise is not just that they’re colorful but it’s really about the wide variety of combinations of color and the different types of color.
They have every shade of brown. You have off-whites and then you have stark, stark bright-white.
You have all the different kinds of pigmented color, the yellows and reds, and oranges.
And then you have the whole range of structural colors from the blues to the more traditional greens and then all the iridescent blues and greens, and then iridescent reds and oranges as well.
When you step back and look at them all, you see not just a rainbow of colors among the whole family, but that they’re used in such different ways; whether it’s from the colors of feathers on the sides of the body to the colors inside of the mouth or even the skin on top of the head.
It’s just something that you don’t see quite as diverse in any other set of birds.
Most people know, that when you’re walking out through a forest and you have a closed canopy of leaves, that it’s pretty dark.
And so a lot of the species that display on the ground or low in the forest, they’re looking for a natural light gap that existed before they started displaying there.
A tree fell nearby, got a nice opening, and then typically what they would do is then choose a display site and then open it up even more by pruning leaves, inviting more light in and making the colors that they do have, show up better to the female.
Looking at a lot of Birds-of-Paradise, a handful really stand out in that it’s the color that you see first as opposed to the shape.
In Astrapia, it really is more about the shape. You’re seeing the… this long-tail bird that looks mostly black, and that’s because it’s got this set of really incredible colors but they’re iridescent colors and unless you’re in the right place you don’t see them as color.
So that’s not one that stands out as “Oh, there’s this incredibly colorful bird up in the tree.”
Whereas the Paradisaeas or the King Bird-of-Paradise and its relatives like the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise and Wilson’s, your first visual impression of them when you see them is color.
Wow, that’s red or look at that blue on the head or that yellow on the neck. Or the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, you know, it’s not the wires that you see first; it’s the incredible yellow spot that’s up on top of a pole. Even when it’s just this tiny little thing that you’re looking at from a boat in the middle of a river, and there’s this sea of green and there’s this one little branch sticking up out of the forest and on top of it is something artificially yellow that’s stuck on there. And you put your binoculars on and you realize that’s a bird, that’s a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise.
It’s only when you look at them up close that you see that there’s other things going on.
There’s other subtle colors. Oh, look, he’s also got wires, he’s using that in the behavior.
But there’s no doubt that, that color stands out in the forest.
And that’s certainly the purpose of it, that females are attracted to that color, as something that can be seen from any perspective, from both close-up and quite far.
Whereas lots of these other ornaments that have iridescent colors or unusual shapes to them, they don’t work from far away, they’re really meant to work only up-close.
What is iridescent? What does that mean compared to regular?
Iridescent colors is colors that aren’t always the same. Meaning you look at it from one perspective and it might look like one color and it could be intense and bright, and then you look at it shifted just a little bit from another perspective and now it’s either a different color or perhaps it’s no color at all.
It just looks black.
And so it’s the property of, of having color that’s produced by the structure inside the feather itself. It’s not just color inherent in it, it’s not just pigments in there, and that changes depending on how you’re looking at it.
Is black always no color or is black sometimes a precision-tuned instrument?
In many Birds-of-Paradise, black is clearly as much of a purposeful object that’s been selected for to be something as any color is. I think that’s most clear in the species that aren’t just black but they’re velvet black in that all the light goes in and almost nothing comes back out.
Rarely do you see this ultra-black without some other color that’s being accentuated on top of it. And I like to think of this as the guy in the jewelry store who’s going to show you the diamond and he pulls out this nice black piece of velvet cloth to lay the jewels on because it makes them look that much more extraordinary.
And often in Birds-of-Paradise, you’ll have this real intense patch of iridescent feathers surrounded by that velvet black.
And the contrast between the two couldn’t be any more extreme.
That’s really cool.
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Ribbon-tailed Astrapia: Now You See It…
Iridescent colors are really cool because they have this “now you see it, now you don’t” quality to them.
When light hits the feather, only certain colors get reflected back out and these colors are only visible from certain angles.
See intense color one moment and then no color or black the next.
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia is a great example of this, of how iridescence transforms an otherwise black-looking bird into a vibrantly colored one.
In example after example, you can see as he’s turning his head, color appears and then disappears. Some cases it goes from just barely green to intensely green. In other cases, like his cheeks, it goes from looking entirely black to blue and green in the rainbow.
I find it quite extraordinary how at one moment, this is one of the most colorful birds I’ve ever seen but if you look at him the wrong way you wouldn’t know that at all.
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Iridescent feathers appear black or dull one moment, then flash into glittering color as light hits them at just the right angle. The colors are produced as the feather’s microscopic structure reflects some colors while eliminating others. The Ribbon-tailed Astrapia presents an outstanding example of how iridescence can transform the look of a bird almost instantly.
Magnificent Riflebird Directional Color
The importance of directionality in these iridescent colors is really well illustrated in the Magnificent Riflebird, where the male has these intensely iridescent feathers along his chin and throat, and upper breasts.
It can really only be seen from certain perspectives.
And the female, in order to see this color at its best, has to be right in front of them.
What’s cool is that the male has chosen a display site that’s a thin narrow horizontal vine.
Because of the nature of the vine, the female really has no choice but to be in the proper spot to see that intense color so his whole display is really designed to project that incredible color right where the female’s going to be.
Maybe the most striking example of this, of the importance of directionality, comes at the end of the riflebird’s display.
When the male is pointing his head upwards, he maintains that incredibly iridescent blue color on his chin but then he moves the feathers from his upper breast in a wave of black.
It’s this change in that angle of the feathers that causes it to go from this blue color to black as he moves them up.
The effect is really quite stunning.
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Iridescence can be seen only when light hits feathers at just the right angle. By adjusting where they are relative to their audience, males can “turn on” their bright colors. Magnificent Riflebirds seem to use this feature with particular precision, even choosing display sites that put their audience in exactly the right place to see the show in the best light.
Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise A Full Spectrum
There’s one species that really comes to mind as a fantastic example of all the remarkable attributes of color shown in all the birds-of-paradise.
And this is the wilson’s bird-of-paradise.
If we look at Wilson’s in a still photograph, we’re struck right away with the incredible variety and intensities of colors that we see.
You can see he’s got all the primary colors right there.
He’s got this incredible blue head. And those aren’t feathers. That’s actually all bare skin.
And that blue color of the skin, that’s not pigment, that’s structural color, unlike anything else seen in other birds-of-paradise.
That color is made from the proteins inside the skin and how they’re arranged.
And you see this bright yellow that’s on the nape and neck, and the crimson red that’s down the middle of the back and also on the coverts of the wings.
These red and yellow feathers are a great example of pigment-based colors.
Unlike the structural colors they’re always looking bright red and bright yellow from
nearly every vantage point.
And then there on the tail he’s got these two curlicue handlebar mustache looking tail
When you catch them in the right light sometimes they look incredibly blue, incredibly shiny.
This is a good example of that kind of structural coloration that makes intense iridescent.
Now if you were to look at them from the underside, there’s even a better example of that now you see it, now you don’t trick of iridescence on this brilliant emerald green breast shield.
A lot of times it just looks black.
But when he gets it lined up, like he does when he’s in his courtship display to the female, it’s this intense bright green color.
It’s really extraordinary.
Even the legs on wilson’s are pretty spectacular.
It’s another example of structural color in the skin that makes those legs so blue.
They have the same kind of structural blue coloration as his head does.
But yet perhaps the most hidden feature of color on this bird that becomes obvious in some video is that the inside of his mouth is also colored.
And you know, of course, all of these colors that you see in all of these feathers and in the skin are the result of generations of females having selected for males that have them.
And all of them are used and utilized by the males in the context of his courtship display.
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The male Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise sports more colors than any other bird in the family. Each splash of color has a story. Yellows and reds are paintlike pigments. Blues and greens are created by the interaction of light and the microscopic structure of feathers and skin. By whatever mechanism they are produced, the combined result is one of the most colorful animals on the planet.
Dive into the Colorful Birds-of-Paradise World
Learn how color works, and the ways birds-of-paradise exploit the properties of light to develop bright colors on their feathers, skin, and even inside their mouths.