Seeking Color In The US

Ornithologist Richard Prum

Maggie OwensComment

If you've been following our trip, you'll know that a while back we visited an ostrich farm in Solvang, California. Because we're a blog focusing on color, we wondered what colors an ostrich could see and what an ostrich's favorite color could be. 

Well, when we reached out to a couple of bird experts, let's just say we were really cock-blocked by the ornithology community (a cock is a bird so you can't come down on me for swearing, mom). No one responded. Damn you, bird scientists! Just because you study animals that can fly doesn't mean you get to look down on the rest of us! 

Well, our luck has finally changed. Yale's own Dr. Richard Prum graciously (and quite punctually, I must say) responded to our questions. Lesson learned: next time you have a question, ask the guy from Yale. His responses are below. 

Can ostriches see color: 

"Yes, ostrich and all other birds see in color, and they see much BETTER than we do. Birds see in the UV, which is not just beyond blue. This means they see a whole new dimension of colors we cannot imagine like UV-yellow and UV-green. And they have these in their plumages too."

Why do birds see so much better than us? 

"Mammals spent >100 million years crawling around in the dark trying to keep from being eaten by dinosaurs. During that time, our ancestors lost the great, complex color visual system that had evolved in fishes. Then Old World monkeys reevolved a sort of retrofit version of color vision, which we have. So, our color vision is basically a secondary hardware patch instead of a well designed system.

Tough for us, but great for birds!"

What is your favorite color: 

Oh easy! Blue! Blue in bird feathers and skin is a structural color. That is, it is not made by pigments (basically dyes) like most other colors. It is made by optical scattering of light from nanostructures in the feathers. The size of the structure determines the wavelength. We have spent a lot of work studying the physics, the development, and the evolution of blue colors in birds.”

So we'd like to extend a major thank you to Dr. Richard O. Prum for answering our questions so thoughtfully and proving that people who study birds are people too. And colorful people at that!