Colors in Nature:
Colors in nature are of many types; The vibrant colors of the sunset, the deep blue color of the sea the amazing colors of a rainbow. These colors are an outcome of natural phenomenon. For example a rainbow forms when sunlight refracts through tiny water droplets into its constituent seven colors. We have all marvelled at the deep blue seas or the lush green forests or the ripe red fruits.
Who has created these colors and why? We shouldn’t just marvel at these wondrous colors but try and understand their meaning. Recently when discussing the amazing camouflage of a particular bird, a few poems came to mind. One of these was
Tiger, tiger, burning bright. In the forests of the night,. What immortal hand or eye. Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? – William Blake
Another one was by Salil Kulkarni:
चिमुकल्या चोचीमध्ये आभाळाचे गाणे, मातीतल्या कणसाला मोतीयाचे दाणे ……… देते कोण , देते कोण
So it got me to thinking about what could be the reason for the various colors and combinations in nature. There are many colors to be found in birds animals and plants. A significant part of the functionality of a particular color in a plant or animal actually goes towards camouflage or to blend into the surroundings. Another use of colors is to help attract mates or for the purpose of propogation and procreation. Let us see examples of these.
When I first started going into the wild and saw a tiger, I used to wonder how the tiger managed to catch anything as It was so bright and orange. It was only years later, in Bandhavgarh when I saw a tiger stalking its prey, that I saw how effective its camouflage is. tigers have an orange color with vertical black stripes. This helps the tiger blend into the grass and hence it can easily approach unsuspecting prey. Tigers usually hunt in the early morning or late night when their fiery orange color becomes a dull rust color. The vertical black stripes resemble the rustling of tall grass and its cautious stalk helps it to blend in. We can see in the photo below, how effortlessly a tiger blends into the surrounding grass. I actually saw this tiger approach to within 30 feet of its prey using its excellent camouflage. This is an example of using colors for hunting.
Similarly, hunting birds like eagles often have white or buff underwings. This helps them to blend into the bright sky glow, when seen from the ground. Here we can clearly see that this Osprey has white underwings and dark overwings. The white underwings help it to blend into the sky as seen from the water.
A number of hunters use this kind of camouflage to hunt. This phenomena is especially prevalent in skulking hunters (hunters that don’t chase down their prey, but let the prey come to them), like this spider. Even in a closeup photo, its very difficult to make out the spider against the bark.
Another example of blending in must be the kingfishers. Most kingfishers are bluish/greenish in color to help them achieve camouflage whilst perched low over the water.
Note: White Breasted Kingfisher (bottom left) image by Mr Kishor Gumaste
However, the prey are not entirely defenceless. The use the same adaptation to color to hide from their hunters. Years ago while cataloguing my images for a book on Indian birds, I had started arranging the images as per habitat, i.e. grasslands, forest, waterbirds etc. It suddenly dawned on me that the birds inhabiting a particular habitat actually have very similar color profiles.
Grassland and scrubland birds like zitting cisticolla, larks, pipits, coursers etc usually have a dun/buff colored body. This helps them blend into the surroundings. This is particularly important because their main predators are birds of prey like hawks and kestrels. These predators hunt by spotting their prey from high in the sky and then swooping down on them. Grasslands are vast tracts of land with little or no cover to hide behind or trees to shelter in. A high flying predator can see vast areas of grasslands for the tiniest sign of prey. So it is very important for grassland birds to be inconspicuous and to blend into the surroundings.
Similarly there are some ground dwelling birds like nightjars and sandgrouses etc who usually sit on the ground and also lay eggs on the ground. They not only use color to blend in, but in fact, their pattern is such that it actually works as a camouflage. The sandgrouse and nightjars are so confident about their camouflage that you can usually approach them quite closely and almost touch them before they take off.
Yellow wattled lapwings are an interesting study. Its basically a dull brown bird
which lays eggs (also dull brown)on open grounds,
has chicks which are dull brown,
When threatened, the mother moves in one direction and uses its yellow wattles to attract attention, while the chick moves quietly in another direction and scampers into the dull grassy undergrowth and plays dead. This chick did not move even when we were almost in touching distance.
This is a classic example of using color to avoid predators. What is interesting that this color adaptation occurs throughout the life cycle i.e. eggs, chicks, adults upto the bright yellow wattles on the beak that are used to attract predators away from chicks.
Note: Photographing of nesting birds, nests and chicks is very strongly discouraged in wildlife photography as it sometimes leads to abandoning of the nest/chicks by the mother. These photos have been recorded for educational purposes.
This camouflage is not restricted to only small birds like nightjars and sandgrouse. Even large birds like floricans (which are around 2-3 feet high) have excellent camouflage capabilities and it often impossible to locate them until you approach very close and the birds fly away.
I remember a trail we had taken in kaziranga national Park. We were atop elephants looking for rhinos in tall elephant grass. Towards the end of the grassland, we came to an area which was the habitat for a bird called Bengal Florican. The Bengal florican is a highly endangered bird, around 2.5-3 feet tall. So it should be easy to spot this bird. We were a group of 7-8 elephants alongwith experienced mahuts and other nature lovers. Everyone was trying hard to spot a Bengal Florican but no one could see even one. Suddenly, a flock of 7-8 Floricans took to the air almost at our feet when we got too close!!!
Colors in birds are also used to attract mates and for procreation. In fact this is one of the main uses of colors in animals and plants. Flowers have specific colors which we can see. But they also emit colors in wavelengths which are invisible to the human eye but are very attractive to bugs and bees. These bugs and bees then land on the flower to suck nectar and the pollen sticks to their bodies. When they visit the next flower, the pollen is transferred and thus begins the process of pollination. Many flowers have specific shape which only certain types of birds and bees can pollinate. The colors and scents of these flowers are tuned to attract only those particular bids and bees.
The myriads of shapes and colors of flowers found on the Kas plateau helps to showcase this aspect clearly
Male forest birds usually have very bright colors whereas the female is somewhat dull in color. The male makes itself very attractive and easier to find in the dense thick forest so that it can attract a mate. But this bright color also makes it more vulnerable to attack from predators. The female on the other hand (who has to take care of the chicks and is very vulnerable while sitting on the nest) is usually dull in color so that she can camouflage herself and be more difficult to find for predators. This is easily seen in Malabar Trogon where the male is a bright red and the female is a dullish orange-brown
Of course, the oriental dwarf kingfisher has so many vibrant colors that its difficult to decipher what its exact pupose could be.
We all know that red berries are sweet and delicious but green berries are sour and not appetising. This is yet another practical purpose of colors in nature. Seeds are usually spread and propagated when birds eat the berries and the seeds are ejected out at some other place by the bird. But, when the seeds are young, they are not mature enough to propagate. At this time, the berry surrounding the seed is a dull green in color and is not attractive to birds. As soon as the seeds are mature enough, the berry around the seed starts to soften, develop sweet odor and starts getting an attractive color like red color. Birds are immediately attracted to this red berry. They eat the berry and eject the seeds at some other place and the whole cycle of propagation starts again.
We all know that there are many colors in nature but until now, we probably haven’t stopped to think of the reason behind a particular color, whether it has a purpose. But there are many colors in nature which have a purpose. This purpose is usually for propagation or for hiding from prey/predators. These colors are also used for procreation. It is important, whilst rambling in nature, to understand the concept and design behind the colors, hues, patterns and shapes which are found in nature. So next time you see a colourful bird, insect or plant, try to imagine why it has such a beautiful color, shape or pattern and you will discover some amazing things of nature and begin to have a slight understanding of the grand design which is nature.
देते कोण , देते कोण………
Girish Vaze @ 2014