(This was originally published in the March, 1996 issue of the Horned Lark, the quarterly newsletter of the Kansas Ornithological Society.) The following article was a response by the author to a question asked on the Internet discussion group BIRDCHAT. The question was, "What is the best color clothing to wear while birdwatching". The author is a Ph. D. graduate student in ornithology and a regular contributor to BIRDCHAT. This article is adapted and edited from his response and he has graciously allowed it to be shared with the Horned Lark readers. Thank you Byron! - editor
What color should I wear while birding? This question has been considered before by birders and professional field ornithologists. This question has been speculated upon, but never answered satisfactorally. Some of the responses posted by others have been good. The reason there is no adequate answer to this question is because we (humans) do not understand the perceptual world of any non-human animal. In fact, we frequently have a tough time understanding the preceptual world of humans different from ourselves. For example, it is hard to imaging what being blind, or even color blind, is like if you have normal vision. It may even be harder to imagine how other sensory modalities can be enhanced over our normal experience. Blind humans "switch" to their sense of hearing and can percieve their surroundings better with their ears than can sighted people. Dogs place a lot of importance on their sense of smell and make olfactory maps as well as visual maps. It is exactly this line of thinking that lead me to work on sensory systems in birds to begin with. While studying avian ecology and behavior I realized that many of the questions I wished to answer concerning communication in birds could not be properly addressed until we understood the visual perceptual world of birds. We still do not have this understanding, but we are slowly getting there.
Birds see color, i.e., they have color vision. Their color vision is not only good, but it is actually better than our own. These two definitive statements describe what vision researchers are pretty sure is true - however, at the highest levels of scientific rigor they have not been firmly established. Up until the early 1970s it was widely thought that birds had trichromatic (3 photoreceptor) color vision comparable to that of humans, or perhaps a bit inferior to ours. Then, around 1972, it was discovered that birds can see light in the near-ultraviolet (uv) range and series of new studies began. Today it is widely accepted that the avian eye, not the human eye, is the quintessential color vision system It is now believed that birds see more colors (hues) than we do and the colors also appear more saturated to birds than do ours to us. They are able to do this because they have four (or more!) cones and pigmented oil droplets in those photorecpetors. Whereas we have short, middle and long (also called blue, green, & red, respectively) cones, they not only have short, middle, and long cones, but also a uv cone.
When we talk about what colors we wear (or *should* wear) in the field, we assume these colors look the same to birds as they do to us. This assumption may not always be correct. Birds probably do see colors similar to the way we see them, but they are most likely never exactly the same, and may indeed be quite different. To clarify, a flower that is red to us is probably also red to most diurnal birds, but is probably seen by them as a different hue of red. If the flower (or other object) reflecting the red light is also reflecting uv light, the color (hue) seen by birds will almost certainly be different than anything we see. Those of you interested in studying this further can see my message on tetrachromacy posted to BirdChat several weeks ago (contact the editor if you would like to see this reference). Imagine you are standing in a forest or field looking at a bird that is, say, thirty yards away. What are you thinking? Most birders will be thinking about getting the correct ID, or may be trying to record a description (in memory or in writing) of an observed behavior. Either way, the birder is treating the bird as an object; i.e., you are over here looking at something over there. I call this the "aquarium syndrome" because the bird is viewed just like a goldfish in a bowl, something in another world to be looked *at*. That other world is not understood by the observer, who is not a part of it.
When I teach birdwatching I try to get students to think about how the world looks from the bird's point of view. That is, get into the aquarium with the fish and try to understand what it is like to be in the aquarium looking out into the room. With the bird that is thirty yards away try to get a piece of your mind transported into the bird's head then, through the bird's eyes, look from its perch back at yourself. From its vantage point what would be the view? This exercise isn't restricted to colors of birders' clothing but is something to develop into a general practice -- do this anytime you are in the field. Birds are living entities and possess highly developed brains. Like you, they experience life and have individual perceptions. It is fun to not only see birds, but to see the birds' world. You then feel a closer communion with them.
Ok, you ask, so what is that world like? Again, no human knows. My best guess is that birds see colors slightly differently than we do in most cases and signifcantly different in some cases. Further, I assume colors appear even more saturated to birds than they do to us. Following these assumptions, earth tones should appear more natural to birds than bright colors that are not part of their normal environment. Since most of my birding is well away from human activity, I wear subdued earth tones except for dark blue jeans. Bright colors not only make us more conspicuous, but they amplify all our movements. For example, if you are wearing a white shirt with long sleeves and you move your arms that movement will be magnified against a natural background. Any other color that stands out against the background will have the same effect. The effect will be greater yet if the white also reflects uv.
Having said that, I must recall some bird photographers I saw in Florida a couple of years ago who were wearing bright yellow parkas. [I forget their names, but I believe they are well known.] I overheard a woman ask these photographers why they were wearing such bright colors and they replied that the yellow was the best color they found to permit them close approach to the birds. This makes no sense based on what I know of bird color vision. What I think is happening is this: the photographers were at the water's edge photographing long-legged waders. Yellow permitted close approach because it contrasted highly with the background. The birds were able to clearly see all their movements and with minimal vigil could know when to move away from threatening actions. Camo clothing in such situations increase the degree of uncertainty of the intention of each movement visible to the birds.
While this might work at a beach that gets a high number of human visitors, I don't think it would work in the woods. Bright yellows, hunter orange vests, and other conspicuous objects are not normally part of such environments, and so are novel items to forest birds. Many birds are understandibly neophobic (wary of anything new). A well-known exception is small patches of red. As has been pointed out, a red hat can actually attract hummingbirds if the wearer is sitting still. The key is to sit still, a skill rarely employed by most birders. An alternative for fidgety birders is to cary a hankerchief-sized piece of red cloth and to hang it on a limb when in hummer country. Just about any red object will work. In the Arizona desert I hang a red hummer feeder from my pick-up truck - I can stop just about anywhere in suitable habitat and attract hummers in a few minutes.
It was observed that aside from bird photographers few birders wear camo clothing. I hypothesize this is related to the fact that few birders ever sit still for any length of time. These are hunting techniques. Apart from the list-and-run activity which generally defines competitive birding, in which time for sitting is not allotted, birders today tend to regard hunters as their enemies. And no one wants to look and behave like their enemy. This is really unfortunate because hunting has much to teach birders about how to stalk their quarry. Many other hunting techniques can be employed as well that I never see birders use. You don't have to kill the animal in order to find these techniques valuable, as bird and nature photographers know. If a birder is to sit and/or move slowly, I think camo is very effective. The Florida photographers who were wearing yellow were constantly moving, an important point. Hawkwatchers who man a station all day long would benefit from wearing cryptic clothing and restricting their movements.
I also always wear a hat, a baseball cap, so I can hide my face and eyes from birds. If you are a nice morsel for a predator, as most birds are, you are in constant danger of predation. You know you are in trouble if a predator has focused his stare on you. Think about the last time you noticed someone staring at you in a singles bar (Fatal Attraction)! Or on a bus, or at any other public place. You feel more comfortable when you look around and there are no eyes looking at you. This is the case for birds also - they look to see who is looking back. They know to watch for peering eyes and the ones that are still alive are good at it. The bird on a branch looking back at you is looking at your eyes to see what you are up to. It is no coincidence that our eyes are our best birding tools, and we go to great lengths to enhance them with fancy optics. The bill of the baseball cap provides a shield (an ultra-mini blind) by which I can hide my eyes and break up the outline of my face. I frequently turn my head and body away, looking off to the side of the bird, and then peek out from under my cap in a Princes Di fashion to try to sneak a candid camera view - another hunting tip. The point of this is that no matter what color clothing you have, if your big ole round face is sticking out like a neon sign then you've failed to pay attention to the part of you most that has the most salience to birds.
So, to summarize my answers: Avoid anything that reflects in the UV. Avoid bright colors as a general rule. You may wish to experiment with your own success in wearing bright colors in situations similar to that of the Florida photographers. Avoid wearing white. Do wear camo and subdued colors that match natural surroundings, especially when you intend to sit still. Sitting still means not only that you are seated, but also that you make yourself appear as small as possible and your arms and head are also still. Restrict your body movements at all times. Keep this in mind when hawkwatching, too. When you do move, move slowly and smoothly. Avoid jerky and fast movements. Disrupt the outline of your face and eyes. Hide your eyes as much as possible. Use your peripheral vision to sneak peeks. Never stare at a bird unless it is some species that is known to accept stares, e.g., eagles. Look off to the side of the bird about 30 degrees and pan across to 30 degrees on the other side of it, stopping only long enough to capture a look. Then look away, and do it again. Learn "intention" movements and stop for a while if the bird is behaving as if it might fly. After it settles down, pan again. Too many birders see intention movements then think they have to get a good look before the bird is gone. They don't realize that in doing so they are actually pushing the bird to fly. Learn to be patient. We take up birding because we want to stop to smell the roses, then we get so caught up in list-and-run birding we still never take time to smell the roses. Birdwatching is the activity that encourages us to use our time to look closely at birds for more than their field marks.