This is an article I wrote for Jetwings in their March 2007 issue. They were having a Holi/Colours special and I thought it would be a nice idea to include some colourful birds.
Birds of a feather
By Sheetal Vyas
India is the land of colours, we hear all the time. There is colour in our culture, our traditions, our clothes. Even nature is colourful in India. We have vivid landscapes, flowers in rich, deep hues and getting to the point of this article, birds in every hue.
The Indian subcontinent offers a rich variety of bird species. Making up about 13% of the world’s species, there are close to 1300 species found here. They are everywhere: out in the open grasslands, in our forests, our water bodies and our gardens, feathered bipeds are plentiful and varied. Birds come in an astonishing range, some with wing-spans the size of a tall man, some no bigger than a fist. What’s more, they come in an impressive array of colours – iridescent blues and purples, greens that shock the eye, and yellows to out-dazzle gold.
What is the point of so much colour in birds? Well, the answer is complex, and the subject is still being studied. However, the primary reason appears to be communication. Colour announces species and sex as well as status and health of an individual. In birds, as with so many other forms of life, the male of the species is often more beautiful, more ornate. The female, Nature seems to tell us, simply needs to be; it is the male who is put to the trouble of being attractive. Quite opposite the state of human affairs but of course, that is a different story.
If we were to start cycling through the most colourful birds of our country, first honourable mention must necessarily go to India’s National Bird, Indian Peafowl. Symbolising vanity through the ages, the peacock is a truly exquisite bird. The male, which can be as big as 230 cm from tip to tip, sports a long neck of a most brilliant turquoise-tinged blue, with a royal crest on the head. The tail is a long affair, trailing back lavishly, made up of predominantly green feathers, each with an ‘eye’, a concentric pattern of yellows, blue and black. Scientists use words like structure and interference to explain precisely why this graceful bird shimmers as it does, but that doesn’t take away our delight at such beauty. Oh, the peacock knows it’s beautiful. If you are lucky, it will sometimes choose to wow you by bringing up that remarkable tail in a breathtaking fan and dance… slight movements back and forth, and a delicate frisson calculated to catch the light over its iridescent feathers. Once seen, never forgotten.
Nowhere as widespread as peafowl, but equally spectacular is the Himalayan Monal. The pheasant family is known for colour and glorious plumage, and the National Bird of Nepal is one of the more vivid examples. Sometimes called ‘the bird of nine colours’, the adult male is a live colour palette and sports a metallic bronze-green and purple with crimson and yellow on the neck, green on the shoulder, white on the rump with a bright cinnamon tail. A hardy bird that can be seen at heights up to 4500 m!
You’ll have to go the Himalayan belt to see Monal in the flesh, but there are other colourful birds that will come to you. If you’re fond of the colour green, there are the ubiquitous parakeets, the shrillest visitors to any garden. The commonest of these, the Rose-ringed Parakeet – Tota to you – is a darling of a bird. Fruit-eaters, they are, and if you have a guava or mango tree, they’re sure to turn up in some numbers squawking and shrieking companiably. There is another greenish bird that is capable of setting up an equal din – the Common Tailorbird. A charming little fellow with green upper body, rufous head and a perky upright tail, this warbler is a notable nest-maker. If you keep an ear cocked for a persistent cheeeup, this one is easy. Giving these ones a run for their green are the leafbirds and the green pigeons.
If green blends into the foliage, orioles have a yellow that will stop you in your tracks. The field guides call it golden and verily, as beautiful as a sunbeam. When people see their first oriole, there is often a feeling of disbelief; that we should not only share space with something as glorious as this, but actually get to see it! Also among the yellows are the weavers, commonly-found sunbirds and the beautiful ioras.
Then there are the blues and the purples. If you drive by the countryside, and glance at the wires, be sure to look out for this flash of cerulean blue. Chances are it will be a White-throated Kingfisher. As it sits, it is the white throat and distinctive beak that draws the eye, but as it lifts! the blue is breathtaking. The Indian Roller is another that’s dullish at rest but it is stunning in flight, shades of azure glinting in the sunlight. In fact, in Andhra Pradesh it is considered auspicious to see the Roller during Dussera, and it is often captured and brought around in cages so that the populace can see them. A list of bluish birds is incomplete without mention of the Verditer Flycatcher and the very common Purple Moorhen.
Moving now inevitably to the reds and oranges. Along moist reeds and grasses in many parts of India, you might chance upon the Red Munia. In breeding, during the monsoons, the male takes on a dramatic red stippled with brown and white; unfortunately, its bright colour also makes it a very popular cage bird. There is also a smallish forest bird found mainly in Indian hills that redefines the colour red – the Scarlet Minivet. The male of this one is so spectacular, it hurts the eye. Cousins Small Minivets are found all over the country, and if they’re a more diluted red, they have the most interesting shades of orange thrown into the mix.
Of course, colour isn’t the only interesting aspect of birds: there are sober-coloured birds that are as fascinating. Still, the colourful ones lend the glamour; they reel us in, dazzling us and luring us into their world, inviting us to see if we will, what bustling activity lies behind the romance. And with watching birds, starting is all it takes to keep going.
What causes the colour?
Bird colour is caused by two systems that work together – chemicals and structure. By chemicals, we mean pigments that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. Melanins, carotenoids, and more rarely porphyrins are deposited in the feather and are responsible for most bird colour. Parrots, easily the most brightly coloured of all bird families, have a pigment all to themselves: psittacins, which they manufacture to colour their plumes.
Curiously though, no pigment ever turned feathers blue – that is all the work of the structure of the feather. Structure is what makes up a feather, small branches called barbs and barbules that scatter reflected light. Green is even more special, in fact one of the most complex colours birds produce, because it combines blue structural colour overlaid with yellow cortical pigment.
Iridescence, the rainbow effect, is again because of structure, where the barbules in the feather are arranged like reflectors, spaced and shaped so cleverly to give off an array of hues. And you thought colour was easy!