Conservation // 5 min Read

Why So Blue?

Written by Aaron Palmieri

Aug 10, 2020

Calm, graceful, reliable, wise, inspiring. While all of these words can be associated with someone in every person’s life, they are also associated with the color blue.

The 2020 Pantone color of the year, classic blue is a calming, familiar hue that instills comfort, confidence, and connection. And while it's widely used in interior decorating - painting interior spaces blue is believed to stimulate the mind and increase productivity - this vibrant color isn't as common in the natural world as you might think.

Sure, shades of blue can be found in a variety of natural features: the ocean, sky, gemstones, plants, and even a few animals. However, the majority of animals and plants that appear blue don’t actually contain the color. These organisms have developed some unique features that use the physics of light to create this beautiful color.

Today we're focusing on birds that are adorned with blue and how their feathers are the reason for this almost optical illusion.

There are a variety of our feathered friends that have blue patterning. At Palmetto Bluff we see it in bluebirds, blue jays, buntings, swallows, and blue grosbeaks. Let us start with blue jays. When light hits their body, the structure of the feathers allows all color wavelengths to be absorbed except for blue, which is reflected back and gives them their blue appearance. However, if you were to hold a blue feather between you and a light source, the light transmits through the plume, and because it is not reflecting back to your eyes, it will look gray or brown.

Structural plumage is truly fascinating, but not every bird relies on it for flashy displays. The vibrant red of cardinals is based solely on pigment, whereas female painted buntings use a combination of blue feather structure and yellow pigment to create their lovely green coloration. Birds are one of the most vibrant groups of animals thanks to these two realms of color, and I encourage you to spend more time watching birds and consider what is influencing their vibrant plumage.