Brilliant red with enamel-black wings and tailóyouíd think a bird colored this way would stand out in the landscape like a sore thumb. Especially since he sings constantly and loudly this time of year.Nevertheless, the scarlet tanager is seldom noticed by the uninitiated. Like many other brightly colored birds, scarlet tanagers stay high in the trees, concealing themselves from everyone except the other scarlet tanagers that the malesí spectacular colors and loud songs are designed to drive away.
If youíd like to see a scarlet tanager, tune yourself into his sounds. The song is distinctive, described by Birds of North America Online as a burry ìquerit, queer, queery, querit, queer.î Birders often say it sounds like a Scotch robin. Female scarlet tanagers sing a similar tune, but shorter, softer and less harsh. Equally distinctive are the tanagersí callsóa loud, hoarse ìchip-churrî uttered by both sexes.
Follow the sounds to their sources and youíll find the brilliantly hued males, usually singing from midway up or high in the trees, sometimes on exposed perches, other times hidden within thick foliage. With luck, youíll also find the females, dressed in camouflage suits of olive green above, olive yellow below, with brighter yellow under the chin and tail.
Scarlet tanagersí colors, like those of cardinals, are created by pigments known as carotenoidsóthe same sort of chemicals that color carrots and butter. Carotenoids reflect light so that we see it as red, orange or yellow. But the feathers of many other colorful birds get their hues from other sources.
Feathers of some birds contain melanins or porphyrins, other types of pigment. Others get their colors by scattering light. Bluebirds and other birds that appear blue actually have no blue pigment in their feather-sóif you ground bluebird feathers to powder, it would be drab brown. Scientists believe that birds see more color than we do in each otherís feathersómany feathers reflect ultraviolet light, which birds can see but we canít.
When youíre looking at birds, notice the arrangement of colors on their bodies. Youíll find, for example, that most birds have dark wings and tail-só the dark feathers are colored by melanin, which strengthens feathers. Melanin coloration in wings and tails helps those important feathers wear better, according to John K. Terres in his Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.
Mottling and striping helps birds blend with the background, camouflaging them from predators. Ground-feeding sparrows and sandpipers have pale bellies that counterbalance the effect of their shadows so they donít stand out in sharp relief. Spots and bands interrupt color patterns on killdeer and plover, helping them blend with the stony surfaces where they nest.
Ptarmigans are white in winter to blend with snow, brown in summer to blend with earthóand Terres says male rock ptarmigans stay white later in spring than the females, making males more conspicuous to divert predatorsí attention away from the females and keep nests safe.
To learn more about bird feathers, try the Cornell Lab of Ornithologyís All About Birds site, www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAbou tBirdsóclick on Learn About Birds to find a whole section on feathers and plumages plus an educatorís guide and a home bird study course. Indoors or outdoors, birds provide not only beauty but fascinating insights into the complexities of nature.
o Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.