Why are birds colorful?

Colorful feathers serve lots of different purposes:

  • They are used to attract possible mates.
  • Colors and patterns help birds identify their own species.
  • Colors can help birds hide from predators by camouflaging them.
  • Colors are used to attract attention when courting (ie: courtship displays).
  • Colors are used to attract attention when trying to distract predators.

For example, when Killdeer see a predator near their nest, they pretend to be hurt and flop around with their wing extended. Under their wing is a patch of rusty red color (it looks like it might be bleeding). They trick predators into following them away from their nest because they’ll be easier to catch and then they quickly fly away!

Color and/patterns confuse predators. For example, one study found more Peregrine Falcons

Pigeons preening in a puddle
Colorful pigeons in a puddle. (Photo © Becci Ginden-Clarke)
were less able to catch pigeons that had a white patch on their rump than pigeons that did not have the white patch. The white color confused the falcons!

Interesting Note:

Odd-colored birds of a species get picked-off more easily by predators. In general, if a predator spots a bird that stands out from the rest, they will try to catch it more often than the birds that blend in.

Did you know?

The red or yellow color of a male House Finch comes from pigments that it gets in its food.

Male House Finch
(Photo © Adam Bender)
The more pigment in the food, the redder the male. Females prefer to mate with the reddest male they can find.

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