No characteristic better embodies the majesty and diversity of birds than their ostentatious display of color. They flaunt a rainbow of hues in endless combinations to serve a variety of purposes. For New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise, color is an aphrodisiac. At first glance, the male Superb Bird-of-Paradise appears to be an unremarkably monochromatic creature—until it meets a female. Then it transforms, spreading its neck feathers wide to display a cape the lusty shade of black velvet. Feathers on its crown and breast shield flash iridescent aquamarine as the male performs its courtship dance, bouncing across a tree branch like a kernel of heating popcorn.
For the Common Potoo, color is not a fashion statement but a defense. Its mottled brown-and-silver plumage and penchant for perching in the shape of a broken tree branch offer expert camouflage from predators. To facilitate feeding, Gouldian Finches are born with luminous nodules on the sides of their beaks that look like blue pearls, and the insides of their mouths are patterned bright yellow with black-and-white polka dots.
The birds of Africa’s Lake Victoria region represent many of the color types that characterize birds. The burnt sienna of the African Paradise-Flycatcher’s tail and the black on its head are a result of melanin, the same pigment that gives humans our own coloring. In addition to adding coloration, melanin strengthens feathers, which is why white birds like the Wandering Albatross have black wings and wingtips, the places where air currents cause the greatest wear and tear.
The iridescence on the neck and back of the Superb Starling comes not from pigment, but from structural color. The starling’s outer feathers are constructed in a way that refracts light like myriad prisms, making the bird appear to shimmer. The eponymous coloring of the Lilac-breasted Roller results from a different kind of structural color, created when woven microstructures in the feathers, called barbs and barbules, reflect only the shorter wavelengths of light like blue and violet.
The primary colors that lend their name to the Red-and-yellow Barbet are derived from a class of pigments called carotenoids that the bird absorbs in its diet. These are the same compounds that turn flamingos’ feathers pink. As a member of the family Musophagidae, the Hartlaub’s Turaco displays pigmentation unique in the bird world. Birds have no green pigmentation; in most cases, verdant plumage is a combination of yellow carotenoids and blue structural color. Turacos are an exception, displaying a green, copper-based pigment called turacoverdin that they absorb in their herbivorous diet. The flash of red on the Hartlaub’s underwings comes from turacin, another copper-based pigment unique to the family.
To manage this rainbow, I developed my own avian Pantone chart. Every time I had to make a new color, I’d create and name a custom mix of latex interior house paint. Some, like Flamingo Pink, were so unique I used them only once. Others proved to be more common. Cassowary Black, the color of the undercoat and back of the Southern Cassowary, was a thin, almost transparent, deep indigo that was useful for shading just about everywhere. I used Hornbill Yellow—that sunburst hue on the beak, tail, and neck of the Great Hornbill—for birds including the Eurasian Golden Oriole, the sulfur of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, and the eye of the Saddle-billed Stork. In total, the 51 colors I mixed (plus two stock colors) accounted for about 90 percent of the mural. For the finishing touches, I used a rainbow of 13 Golden Fluid Acrylics paints (shown above).
The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years
About the authors: Jane Kim is a visual artist and former Bartels Science Illustrator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In addition to the Wall of Birds, she has created large-scale public installations for the Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution, and Yosemite National Park. She cofounded Ink Dwell, an art studio with a mission to inspire people to love and protect the earth, with author and journalist Thayer Walker.
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