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Why lighting conditions can throw birders a curveball

lighting conditions
A Common Tern angling toward the viewer catches the bright sunlight (left), but if it turns slightly away from us, the near side of the body is thrown into shadow (right). Art by David Sibley

One of the primary clues we use to identify birds is color, and the color we perceive is entirely dependent on lighting. The challenge of color perception is not limited to bird identification, of course, and we are constantly making adjustments (mostly subconscious) to determine the color of the things we see around us. Bird identification simply brings this challenge to the forefront. 

Most of the time, we do a good job of adjusting to lighting conditions, and we can recognize a color, for example, the particular shade of yellow of a male American Goldfinch, whether the bird is in bright sun, or deep shade, or the warm glow of sunset. We can do this because we judge colors relative to the colors around them, and the overall lighting of a scene tells us what to expect. It can take some time to “recalibrate” our color perception, but once we’ve adjusted to the current conditions, we can see a goldfinch and say, “ah, yes, the typical yellow color.”

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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), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). 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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