Colors Of Hummingbirds Go 56% Beyond All Other Birds, Recent Research Finds

By D.C. Demetre •  Updated: 07/16/22 •  5 min read

The pigment variety in hummingbirds is more diverse than any other bird species on the planet, with an astounding range of colors of hummingbirds, new research confirms.

The pigment variety in hummingbirds is more diverse than any other bird species on the planet, with an astounding range of colors of hummingbirds, new research confirms.

Professor of ornithology Richard Prum spent many years investigating the molecules and nanostructures that bestow many bird species their rich colorful plumage, but none of it prepared him for what he found in hummingbirds.

“We knew that hummingbirds were colorful, but we never imagined that they would rival all the rest of the birds combined,”

said Yale University’s Prum.

In their latest work, Gabriela Venable, a former undergraduate student in Prum’s lab, collected data on the colors of light reflected off feathers of 1,600 samples of plumages from 114 species of hummingbirds. The researchers then compared this information to an existing dataset of colors found in the plumage of 111 other bird species, from penguins to parrots.

The researchers developed a way of understanding what colors birds see by using knowledge of their cognition. As a result, they were able to explain the diversity in avian plumage colors and found colors that are not visible to human eyes.

How Many Colors Can Hummingbirds See?

Hummingbirds have the ability to see a wide range of colors. They can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans. The majority of bird species have four types of color cones in their eyes sensitive to red, green, blue, and ultraviolet/violet colors. So birds can see all the colors visible to humans.

But they can also see many other colors that we cannot see, including ultraviolet and mixtures of ultraviolet with other hues, like ultraviolet-yellow and ultraviolet-green.

These colors are as different from yellow or green as purple is from blue or red. One of the ways that hummingbirds add to avian color diversity is by producing more of these combination colors than other birds.

More Plumage Colors

Photographs of colors of hummingbirds

Photographs of males of eight of the 114 hummingbirds analyzed, showing the incredible diversity of hummingbird plumage color, including saturated blues, greens, and purples. a Panterpes insignis, b Boissonneaua jardini, c Heliodoxa aurescens, d Lophornis ornatus, e Juliamyia julie, f Coeligena bonapartei, g Schistes geoffroyi, and h Atthis ellioti. Photos reproduced with permission of: a–f Glenn Bartley; g Wilmer Quiceno; h John Cahill.

The new study found that the diversity of bird-visible colors in hummingbird plumages outdoes the known diversity of colors found in the plumages of all other bird species combined, raising the total of known bird-visible plumage colors by 56%.

The colors revealed in the hummingbirds’ plumage include

They are most variable on the animals’ crowns and throats, which they show conspicuously in mating displays and social interactions.

What Colors Are Hummingbirds Attracted To?

Hummingbirds are attracted to the red and yellow end of the color spectrum. Research suggests that flower blossoms in these colors contain higher sucrose levels. So gardens with plants like wild columbine, bee balm, cardinal flower, royal catchfly, and Indian pink will bring lots of hummingbirds when they are in bloom.

“Tetrachromacy — having four color cone types — evolved in early vertebrates. This color vision system is the norm for birds, many fish and reptiles, and it almost certainly existed in dinosaurs. We think the ability to perceive many nonspectral colors is not just a feat of hummingbirds but a widespread feature of animal color vision,”

said Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor in the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, in 2020.

Nonspectral Colors

Hummingbirds Can See Nonspectral Colors Infographic

Hummingbirds and other animals with tetrachromacy are able to see “nonspectral” color combinations. These involve hues from widely separated parts of the color spectrum, rather than blends of neighboring colors like teal (blue-green) or yellow (green-red).

For humans, purple is the clearest example of a nonspectral color. Technically, purple is not in the rainbow: it arises when our blue (short-wave) and red (long-wave) cones are stimulated, but not green (medium-wave) cones.

While humans have just one nonspectral color — purple, birds can theoretically see up to five: purple, ultraviolet+red, ultraviolet+green, ultraviolet+yellow, and ultraviolet+purple.

Colors Of Hummingbirds Diversity

The utter magnitude of colors of hummingbirds’ plumage comes from nanostructures in their feather barbules, which are the smallest filaments that project from feather barbs.

Hummingbird colors male female: Female hummingbirds are less vibrant than males. They’re able to hide and remain unseen in their environment because of this, which reduces their chances of being targeted by predators.

Hummingbirds are one of the most color-diverse birds in the world. They have bright colors that shimmer and shine. The colors on their feathers are created by a special type of structure called melanosomes. When light hits these cells, they scatter it in different directions, creating an iridescent effect and reflecting different colors depending on their shape and size.

“Watching a single hummingbird is pretty extraordinary. But the combination of versatile optical structures and complex sexual displays make hummingbirds the most colorful bird family of all,”

Prum says.

References:

Venable, G.X., Gahm, K. & Prum, R.O. Hummingbird plumage color diversity exceeds the known gamut of all other birds. Commun Biol 5, 576 (2022).

Eliason, C.M., Maia, R., Parra, J.L. and Shawkey, M.D. (2020), Signal evolution and morphological complexity in hummingbirds (Aves: Trochilidae). Evolution, 74: 447-458. https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.13893

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