Feb 22 2013

What Color Is A Scarlet Ibis…Really?

Published by at 7:30 am under Tenth Page

What color is a scarlet ibis? (original photo by tj on Wikimedia Commons)

The scarlet ibis looks bright orange-red to us but that's not what the ibis sees.

Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light.  This trait was discovered by accident and largely ignored until we figured out that most birds have ultraviolet-reflectant feathers.   This opened up a whole new view of plumage.

Above is my poor attempt at showing what this looks like.  Instead of orange-red the ibis appears purplish to himself and other birds -- more purple than I can show.  For an awesome photo of what birds actually look like click here and scroll down to see three views of a cockatiel.

When the ultraviolet colors came to light we uncovered many surprises.  The axillary feathers of northern saw-whet owls are UV-reflectant. Who knew their armpits were so flashy!  The brightness fades in older feathers so bird banders use UV light to age the owls.  Here's a saw-whet UV photo linked from Washington College's Chester River Field Research Center where they band the owls.  (Click on the photo to read more.)

The world of birds is far more colorful than we imagine.

A scarlet ibis does not look scarlet to an ibis.  Really.


Scarlet ibis photo by tj on Wikimedia Commons, retouched by Kate St. John to attempt ultraviolet shades. Click on the image to see the original.
Northern saw-whet UV axillary feathering by Washington College, Chesterfield River Research Center, Northern saw-whet monitoring.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 100 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

One response so far

One Response to “What Color Is A Scarlet Ibis…Really?”

  1. kcon 22 Feb 2013 at 10:57 am

    I like the examples in your links. Boy would it be cool to walk through a field of wildflowers with bee vision or to be a bird on a bright sunny day in the spring. How trippy. It’s like good macro-photography revealing worlds of which we are largely unaware.

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