The Evolution of Bird Color Guides and Identification

The Evolution of Bird Color Guides and Identification

With its three-color receptors, the human eye can distinguish over a million colors. An LCD television can produce over one billion colors. And Sherwin Williams, a paint manufacturer, makes about 1700 colors. And someone has to name them.

Until the 17th century, there was no word for the color orange, so orange-colored things were described as red. Hence, today, we call orange-breasted robins robin red-breast and women with henna-colored hair redheads; red pandas and red foxes are not red but orangish. Benjamin Moore lists 3500 colors of paint.  Really. When I look at all the paint samples on little cards in a rack at a hardware store, it’s stupefying. There’s only dark blue, light blue, and in-between to me.  

The Evolution of Bird Color Guides and Identification

Birds have four color receptors in their eyes; the fourth one sees ultraviolet (UV). If we can see 2500 colors, birds might be able to see 4000. We don’t really know. Maybe birds see various shades of blue as just blue. Ornithologists are still working on that. But we do know that being able to see UV makes a big difference.  For example, the blue cap of the male Eurasian Blue Tit reflects UV, and the female’s does not. We can’t tell the sexes apart, but these birds can.

A fairly large proportion of scientific names contain color descriptions. What better way to describe the various portions of a bird than to use colors? The color description often comes as a prefix, describing a part of the organism. For example, in Empidonax flaviventris, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, flavi- means yellow and ventris belly. The Black-capped Chickadee’s scientific name is Poecile  atricapilla, Poecile from the Greek meaning “unknown small bird”, and atricapilla from the Latin meaning “black-haired” from atra, “black” and capilla, “hair of the  head.” Leucocephalis means “white head”, caerulescens means “bluish”, and fusca, “dusky.” You can get all the definitions of the scientific names of birds from the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names or, for more interesting reading, my book, Latin for Bird Lovers, available from many online booksellers. 

In the world of nature, there are endless shades of colors, and color charts before the mid-19th century were crude and limited. The names of colors were  inconsistent or meaningless, like “elephant’s breath.” But color charts began to improve and Charles Darwin cataloged thousands of specimens from his trip on the  HMS Beagle by consulting Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, written in 1821  and containing 108 colors along with examples of where they could be found in nature.  Robert Ridgway, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution, published A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists in 1912, which designates 186 colors for birds. There have been dozens more since, increasingly accurate and larger in scope. In 2013, Gunther Kohler of the Seckenburg Museum in Germany published the Color Catalog for Field Biologists with 300 hues and patterns like blotches,  specks, and mottling. The Royal Horticultural Society (1915) has one of the best color guides for over 900 nature colors and is one of today’s standard texts.

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