Bird Camouflage - Color and Defense

Camouflaged Bird
Photo © Laurel F/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

Many birds have evolved extensive camouflage to protect themselves from predators. Birders who understand camouflaged birds can learn to see these feathered phantoms even when the birds blend into the surroundings.

Why Birds Are Camouflaged

Camouflage serves one purpose for birds: self-defense. Plumage, colors, and markings that break up the outline of a bird and help it blend into its environment can help keep the bird safe from predators. With more than 10,000 bird species in the world, it is remarkable how many have developed some type of camouflage, and while not all birds are camouflaged equally, they all benefit from its protection.

Birds That Use the Most Camouflage

There are four types of birds that are the most heavily camouflaged:

  • Daytime Roosting Birds: Birds that roost during the day and are more active at night often have heavily camouflaged plumage to protect them from the day's active predators. Owls, nighthawks, and nightjars are all primarily nocturnal and have developed strongly camouflaged plumage for daytime protection when they are less alert and more vulnerable.
  • Nesting Females: In species where the female does most of the incubation and care of young chicks, she is often far more heavily camouflaged than the male. This is true of many types of ducks, as well as for warblers and other songbirds. The female's camouflage helps her blend in with the nest surroundings so she can stay protected without abandoning her young.
  • Juveniles: When first hatched and before they are fully mature, most juvenile birds have camouflaged plumage that may resemble the look of an adult female. Since juvenile birds are vulnerable in the nest and do not initially fly well, this camouflage gives them a slight edge over predators until they are grown enough to avoid danger more successfully.
  • Ground Foragers: Birds that regularly forage on the ground where they may be more susceptible to predators often have more camouflaged plumage. This includes many shorebirds, game birds, sparrows, thrashers and brown thrushes that have evolved different colors and markings for protection in their preferred habitat.

Types of Bird Camouflage

Regardless of the reason why a bird needs to be camouflaged, there are three types of camouflage protection they may have.

  • Color Camouflage: The colors of a bird's plumage are its first camouflage defense. Shades of brown, buff, rust, black, olive, gray and white can help a bird blend into its surroundings effectively. Many bird species have developed specific colors that match their habitats in different seasons or different geographic regions. The sanderling, for example, has mottled brown plumage and white underparts that excellently camouflage it on beaches, while the pure white plumage of the snowy owl is perfect for its snowy habitat.
  • Marking Camouflage: A bird's markings both help it blend into its surroundings and break up its outline to make it more difficult to see. Spots, stripes, streaks, mottling or other patterns can all be effective camouflage. For example, the heavily mottled plumage of the common nighthawk closely resembles the bark it roosts on, and the spotted underparts of the hermit thrush mimic the leaf litter it forages in.
  • Posture Camouflage: In addition to physical characteristics that serve as camouflage, many birds have developed behaviors that help enhance their ability to disappear. How a bird stands or roosts can be effective camouflage. The American bittern, for example, extends its striped neck with its bill pointing skyward to resemble a reed, and nighthawks and nightjars roost low to branches to resemble lumps of bark. Not only can this behavior protect birds from predators, but it can also help them become predators themselves when unsuspecting prey does not see past the disguise and ventures too close.

    In addition to being camouflaged through plumage colors and markings as well as posture and behavior, birds have developed other means of protective camouflage. Many birds use different nesting materials to camouflage their nests, even decorating their nests to help conceal them. The eggs themselves may also have markings to stay camouflaged so they are hard for predators to find even if the parents are not nearby.

    Not All Birds Are Camouflaged

    Even the most novice birder can recognize that not all birds are camouflaged. The brilliant red plumage of male northern cardinals or the bright gorgets on male hummingbirds, for example, are designed to stand out rather than blend in. In many dimorphic bird species, males sacrifice the defensive benefits of camouflage in order to stand out to potential mates for better breeding success. Even among those birds with spectacular breeding plumage, many species have non-breeding plumages with more nondescript, safer shades. Male American goldfinches' dull winter plumage or male indigo buntings' mottled, scruffy winter look are examples of non-breeding camouflage.

    Seeing Past the Camouflage

    Birders who understand the different ways birds can be camouflaged are better equipped to see past those natural disguises to spot the birds more clearly. Good optics are essential for distinguishing birds from their background, and watching for signs of movement or birding by ear can help birders learn where to find even the most heavily camouflaged birds. Once you have learned about bird camouflage and how to work around it, you will be amazed at how many birds you can now see clearly.