Why a crow might not appear to be ‘all black’

crow
VARIABLE APPEARANCE: An American Crow showing its glossy wings and tail and black lores. Art by David Sibley

It’s easy to say that a crow is “all black.” You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to know that all of a crow’s feathers are black. But a closer look reveals that, at any given moment, even though all of the crow’s feathers are the same color, they do not all look the same. This is partly because of body contours and real-world lighting effects and partly because the feathers on different parts of the body have different textures.

Imagine a jacket made of alternating strips of different fabrics: velvet, cotton, and silk. Even if all of the fabric was dyed to exactly the same color (for example, black), the distinctive textures would make the strips of different fabrics obvious. The different textures of feathers on a bird create similar effects.

In a typical landbird like a crow, the body feathers are always relatively soft and flexible, while the large feathers of the wings and tail are stronger, straighter, and stiffer. As a general rule, the body feathers have little or no gloss (with the notable exception of iridescent species like grackles and others). Wing and tail feathers, on the other hand, always have a slightly glossy sheen no matter the species or the color.

One small patch of feathers that is never glossy is the lores — the small area between the eye and the bill. Feathers there are tiny and upright, creating a fuzzy or bristly surface more like velvet. If those feathers are colored black, as they are on crows and many other species, they reflect no light at all and appear truly black. On crows and other black birds, the lores always appear solid black, in contrast with the slight sheen on the forehead and cheeks.

The broad pattern shown by the crow depicted above is common to many species of birds. Feathers on the lores are never glossy. Feathers on the head and underside are a little bit glossy, and feathers of the wings and tail are always subtly glossy. It’s easy to appreciate these differences on a crow or some other uniformly colored bird. It’s less obvious on, say, a sparrow, but feather texture still has a consistent effect on how we perceive the colors of the bird.

A version of this article was published in the September/October 2019 issue of BirdWatching.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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