Hummingbird Colors: Why Hummingbirds Are the Rainbows of the Bird World

Hummingbird Colors: Why Hummingbirds Are the Rainbows of the Bird World

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

Hummingbirds are some of the most unique and beautiful birds in the world. They come in many different iridescent colors. Standard hummingbird colors are green and blue, but hummingbirds can be copper, bronze, rainbow, red, and even purple, which is a rare color in most birds. In fact, researchers at Yale University just found out that hummingbirds are more colorful than all other bird species combined. 

A Rainbow of Feathers

In late June 2022, Yale ecologists (environmental scientists) and ornithologists (scientists who study birds) published a study about hummingbird colors. The scientists used an instrument called a spectrometer to measure the different wavelengths of light that the hummingbird feathers reflected. They analyzed colors from 114 different hummingbird species and compared them to 111 other bird species. These other species were highly varied, including birds from parrots to penguins. The researchers were even able to detect ultraviolet shades in the feathers, which hummingbirds can see but humans can’t. This means that hummingbirds are even more colorful than we already know. 

Most of the colors that the researchers detected were various shades of green, blue, and purple. There were even colors that humans can’t see, such as ultraviolet, ultraviolet-green, and ultraviolet-yellow. Among birds, many of these shades only exist in hummingbirds. It’s very hard to imagine a color that isn’t brown, gray, white, black, or part of the rainbow, but such colors do exist, and they’re as different from visible colors as purple is from yellow. 

The Structure of Hummingbird Feathers

The colors of hummingbird feathers come from tiny nanostructures in their feather barbules. Barbules are the smallest filaments on a feather. This is similar to the nanostructures in butterfly wings, peacock tails, and mother of pearl shells, which all produce iridescence. 

The Reason for Colorful Feathers

Why do hummingbirds have such colorful feathers? Birds, especially male birds, often have colorful feathers to attract mates. The researchers found that most of the color diversity in hummingbirds occurs on the head and throat, which are important areas in hummingbirds for sexual selection. The least colorful parts of hummingbirds are the wings and undersides of tails. Female hummingbirds tend to have duller feathers than males. Usually, only males have iridescent feathers on their throats. One of the most famous hummingbirds, the ruby-throated hummingbird, is known for its green-and-white feathers and red throat. However, only the male has a red throat, and the female is just green-and-white. 

The velvet-purple coronet, a hummingbird native to Colombia and Ecuador, is the most colorful hummingbird species, which makes it the most colorful bird in the world. The male has an iridescent blue-purple body, blue-green wings, a black head, and a purple-blue forehead. It’s unsurprising that the most colorful bird lives in South America because this continent has the largest diversity of birds in the world. 

The giant hummingbird, a large brown hummingbird native to the Andes Mountains of western South America, is the least colorful hummingbird. It’s the largest hummingbird in the world and has mainly melanin (a brown or black pigment) in its feathers. The male and female of this species both look the same. 

The Previously Most Colorful Bird

Before scientists discovered just how colorful hummingbirds are, the Papuan lorikeet was considered the most colorful bird in the world. This parrot is native to the island of New Guinea. It has a red body, green wings and tail, blue-and-black nape, a blue spot on its lower back, and yellow on its tail. The male has a yellow back. 

The Jewels of the Bird World

Hummingbirds are often called the jewels of the bird world for their colorful, iridescent feathers. Hummingbirds live in the Americas from Canada to Patagonia, but the greatest diversity of species occurs in the tropical cloud forests of South America. This is unsurprising because tropical forests tend to have the highest biodiversity on land, and South America is the most biodiverse continent. Many hummingbird species of South America are endangered and only live in certain small regions. The vast variation in hummingbird coloration is a testament to nature’s uniqueness and design. 

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

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