PITTSBURGH — Birds of every shape, size, and color surrounded the Tweetspeak team on February 21 at the National Aviary. With everything from parrots to condors and nearly everything in between, this place isn’t just for the birds (at least according to their sloth mascot, Wookie).
Everyone knows Flamingoes
While at the aviary, I spent most of my time in the wetlands observing both the Scarlet Ibis and the American Flamingo. My eye was automatically drawn to them, of course, because of their pink color. It isn’t every day you get to see a pink bird, let alone two in the same place. Naturally, I had several questions, with the first and most obvious being about their color.
But why are they pink?
As it turns out, their color comes from the pigments in the food they eat, which usually contains crabs and other crustaceans, small fish, and insects, among other things. For more of the science behind this interesting and distinctive coloring, I took a look at webexhibits.org.
Apparently, most of the food each bird eats is rich in carotenoids, which are a type of pigment that generally produce yellow, orange, and some red pigments. Once digested, these pigments break down in fats and grow into the feathers, which end up looking pink. You can see the same idea in effect when you cook shrimp or crabs, which start gray or greenish blue and turn reddish orange once cooked through. With a system like this, you could imagine that the healthier the bird, the brighter their color. This will help come mating season, as it is very easy to tell who was able to find the most food and is the healthiest.
In addition to these bright pink feathers, both the Flamingo and the Scarlet Ibis seem to also have black wing tips, if you can catch a glimpse. What a striking contrast there is between the pink bodies and black wing tips.
More than just pink
We talked about carotenoids earlier, which are a type of bichrome pigment. But there is another type of bichrome pigment called melanin (maybe you’ve heard of it?). This pigment is known to produce colors that are black, brown, gray, or otherwise generally dark. What’s interesting about feathers with lots of melanin in them is that they tend to be located on wingtips, if anywhere. They also are much stiffer and a lot harder to wear down than regular feathers.
All in all, it would seem that there is a whole lot going on behind the scenes to give these birds their distinctive color, making them attractive to other birds and humans alike.