Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Bird Color Conundrum - Red, Brown, and Everything In Between

It seems like everywhere we turn, a reddish-brownish bird is there looking back at us. Birds with this relatively drab coloration are in no short supply, and scientists have concocted a somewhat ridiculous list of colors to describe these earth-tones.  While birding you may have wondered, what color is rufescent, anyway?  How is the coloration of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron different from that of a Rufous Hummingbird?  We are here to help answer these questions that have plagued the birding world for decades.
So, without further ado, we'll unveil a handy run-down of these colors.
Let’s start with the easy ones:

Red- Everyone knows this color. No description necessary.
Example: Red-capped Manakin, Red-rumped Cacique, Red-tailed Hawk, the list goes on…

Red-capped Manakins, Costa Rica.  Their heads are just red - no flamboyant adjectives required.

Brown- Yeah. The color you get from mixing all the colors.
Example: Brown Jay, Brown Thrasher, etc.

Now things get a little more tricky...

Crimson- It’s basically just red. Sometimes described as a “deep” red.
Example: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Crimson Rosella

Vermilion- Red. It’s red.  Bright red.
Example: Vermilion Flycatcher

Ruddy- Often described as a "healthy red," more brownish.
Example: Ruddy Shelduck, Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone- Sunset Beach, NC.

Cinnamon- Reddish brown, more brown than red - like the spice.  
Example: Cinnamon Teal, Cinnamon Hummingbird

Reddish- Sort of red, hence the addition of the "-ish".
Example: Reddish Egret

Ferruginous- This one is an iron red; a rusty brown-red.
Example: Ferruginous Hawk, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl

Rusty- The color of oxidized Iron; ferruginous.
Example: Rusty Blackbird

Buff - A very light brown, often a "wash".
Example: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Washington Co. NC

Chestnut- A deep, deep brown. Rich, smooth, chestnut...
Example: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Chestnut-sided Warbler

Bay- The color used to describe a brown horse; so it's brown.  But a reddish brown, closely allied with chestnut.
Example: Bay-breasted Warbler, Bay-headed Tanager

Tawny- An odd mixture of brown, tan, and orange.  Sounds like a good name for a cat.
Example: Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Tawny Owl

Fulvous- Reddish-yellowish-brownish.  The full spectrum of reds and browns, mashed into one über-color.
Example: Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Rufous- Yet another reddish-brown.  There are over 160 bird species with Rufous in their name.
Example: Rufous Hummingbird, Rufous Antpitta.

Rufous Hummingbird- Raleigh, NC

Rufescent- Those bird-naming fiends decided there were too many Rufous birds, so they made up a new word, one that sounds like it's glowing.
Example: Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Bronzed/Bronzy- Resembling the metal Bronze, golden-brown.
Example:  Bronzed Cowbird, Bronzy Hermit

Brassy- Resembling the metal Brass.  They like these metals.
Example: Brassy-breasted Tanager

Russet- Potato brown, but more of a purplish-brown, maybe like those purple potatoes... I like those... Example: Russet-throated Puffbird, Russet Sparrow

Hepatic- Literally means "pertaining to the liver", so it's liver-colored - a deep, slightly brownish, red.  This may be the only useful thing I learned in Anatomy this year.
Example: Hepatic Tanager

Ochraceous- Ochre-colored. Nobody knows what the hell ochre is, so this probably isn't helpful.
Example: Ochraceous Wren

Coppery- Like the metal Copper, brownish-reddish-gold.  But not quite the color of Copper, so they added that -y on the end.
Example: Coppery-headed Emerald

Hopefully this was helpful for y'all to figure out your colors. Too bad we weren't taught "ochraceous" in kindergarten - that would have been useful.
We here at The Birder's Conundrum know that it is very important to know the colors of birds, so we will being doing more posts about bird colors. Coming soon we will have all of the azures, plumbeouses, violaceouses, and more.

All photos by Lucas Bobay


  1. We learned about ochre in second grade, as it was written on tempera tube. In K we were still confused, some called it light brown, other considered it dark yellow.

  2. Ochre is a mineral and pigment made of hydrated iron oxide and the colors made with this pigment are usually a "light brownish-yellow" ( Without the "hydrated" part, you get back to a ferruginous color!