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David Sibley: How reflected light gives birds their most vivid plumage

A House Wren’s gray and brown feather absorbs light and looks drab and inconspicuous. An American Goldfinch’s feather, by contrast, is designed to reflect light and be as bright as possible. Art by David Allen Sibley.
A House Wren’s gray and brown feather absorbs light and looks drab and inconspicuous. An American Goldfinch’s feather, by contrast, is designed to reflect light and be as bright as possible. Art by David Allen Sibley.

The brilliant yellow, orange, and red that you seen on many birds are not just for decoration; the colors send an important message about the health of each individual.

The colors are products of pigments known as carotenoids, which a bird gains from its diet and uses in its immune system. Consequently, a bird showing off bright yellow or red plumage is sending a message that it is healthy and eating well.

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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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