A feather of a different color

A photograph of a mallard male has sat on my desk waiting for my thoughts and observations … apparently for a few years.

The iridescence on his head is obvious in the picture, what I felt made him so spectacularly special. I have tried many times since to get more pictures but the birds aren’t that willing to be shot.

The green head of a mallard isn’t the result of green pigment but occurs when a “transparent yellow layer over the blue-producing cells marks, or modifies, the blue and thus produces green.”

Or, if you really want to know: “Iridescent colors are produced by differential reflection of wavelengths from highly modified barbules of the feathers that are rotated so that a flat surface faces the incoming light. The detailed structure of the barbule reflects some wavelengths and absorbs others, and the reflected wavelength changes with the angle of reflection.” (Stanford: Color of Birds)

Having the mallard in hand (so to speak) I stupidly (YES!) was considering it unique. Well, this is penned in February and there isn’t a heck of a lot of iridescence around. (I bought a cookie tin just for the colors and enjoy this with a childlike wonder which never evaporates.)

Trouble is, I’ve been ignoring all those similarly colored birds who will frequent the area soon. (I hope.) Ducks (many types in fact) and those marvelous hummingbirds. I see them even closer and more often, hardly deserving to be forgotten. And another I hadn’t considered is the grackle. His colors are blue-black but that shimmering sheen is there nonetheless.

Unless you have time to spare or can navigate the web more adeptly than I, don’t check for the iridescent paints. Of course they exist. Even automobiles may sport such hues. It’s not difficult — just one lead leads to another, mostly a long index. Earlier I’d found a place that even listed Sherwin-Williams paints by numbers that could be mixed to approximate the mallard and others. And of course sites offer paints for model builders. My carver didn’t bother — and that’s never bothered me a whit.

I should also give the briefest nod to “pearlescence,” a relative, which reflects most or all of white alone. These can be found as well in car paints.

My world is increasing by the moment when I realize how much is colored by iridescence. Compact discs shine because of it. It’s possible on finger nails. Oil spills. Heavens yes! and gasoline floating on water (where we’d obviously not wished to see it).

Butterflies, beetles, some bugs. Even tropical fish and seashells.

But let’s get back to the birds: “Iridescence, or ‘interference’ colors, of feathers are the effect of a thinly laminated structure in the barbules. This structure interferes with light rays striking the feathers from different angles, thus scattering them and presenting to the observer the brilliant greens, purples, and reds, especially in the plumage of hummingbirds. The wings of many kinds of ducks have a patch of iridescent feathers, called the speculum; the plumage of grackles and other birds, including the peacock, is more or less iridescent. Iridescent colors are made more brilliant by underlying pigment colors of the feather, but are essentially independent of pigments” (The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of American Birds, 1980).

And to continue: “Colors of feathers help in many ways. Those with dark pigments (black, brown, gray) wear better than white ones, and certain birds, though not all, have dark-colored wing and tail feathers, which are subjected to greater wear. Colors of birds’ feathers may help to promote health and bodily comfort. Dark feathers absorb light and heat rays and conserve energy in cool weather; pale ones, especially of birds that live in deserts, serve, in part, to reflect the light and heat rays, thus insulating the birds’ bodies against too much heat and light. The pale feathers also help them to blend with the pale or white desert sand, thus making them less noticeable to predators.”

Off the subject (perhaps) but I’m always open to new thoughts.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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