While the term mantle refers generally to a bird's back, more detailed ornithological texts may consider the mantle only the upper part of the back rather than the entire length from the neck to the rump. For most birders, however, the term mantle is understood to refer to the overall back, with emphasis close to the bird's neck where more of the back is visible and not covered by the wings. Many times the overall color or markings of the mantle will blend with the bird's scapulars, wings or rump, but close examination of feather size and orientation can distinguish the boundaries of the mantle. That intimate of examination is often only possible, however, if the bird is held in the hand, as in when a bird is being banded or an injured bird is being rehabilitated.
One human definition of a mantle is a cloak, stole or shawl – picturing that article of clothing can help define a bird's mantle. A shawl is worn across the shoulders and down the back, often falling to a point, and that is just the shape of a bird's mantle.
How Birds Use Their Mantles
A bird's mantle can be a key part of their anatomy and useful for many things. On some birds, the mantle is a distinct color that is prominently displayed for courtship or to demonstrate aggression, or even just instrumental for birds to recognize others of the same species. Birds may also turn their back toward the sun and raise their feathers to allow sunlight to reach their skin when sunning, which helps regulate body temperature and warm the bird on cold days, since the mantle is a broad part of the body and can absorb more sunlight and warmth.
Many birds of prey also practice mantling, where they hunch over their prey to conceal it from other raptors, scavengers or predators. This position, with the wings drooped, shoulders hunched and neck dropped, is when the mantle is most visible.
The Mantle as a Field Mark
Birders can use the mantle as a key field mark for many species. Not only is the color of the mantle important for proper bird identification, but there may be field marks such as streaks, bars, stripes, spots, flecks, scallops or other markings on the mantle that can distinguish between species. The size, color and arrangement of the markings can be useful for identification, as well as how much the mantle contrasts with the adjacent edges of the nape, wings or rump.
For some species, the mantle is such a diagnostic field mark that it becomes part of the bird's name, such as the crimson-mantled woodpecker, yellow-mantled weaver, golden mantled racquet-tail, red-backed thrush, chestnut-backed chickadee and the orange-backed troupial.
Also Known As:
Back, Upper Back
Photo – Marsh Wren © nigel