Pied Bird Plumage

Plumage Coloration

Pied Kingfisher

Steve Garvie/Flickr/Used With Permission

What Is a Pied Bird?

(adjective) The term pied describes bird plumage that has large, contrasting patches of bold color, most often in black and white and with clear, distinct edges. While pied birds are typically black and white, the term may occasionally be used to describe any plumage colors that have similar large, bold patches of two or more colors in close to equal proportions.


(rhymes with ride, tied, fried, and cried)

Benefits of Pied Plumage

Pied plumage may seem bold and outstanding, which helps birds stand out. Pied coloration can actually be exceptional camouflage, however, helping pied birds stay safe and productive. The stark contrasts of color on pied feathers help break up a bird's shape and outline, which can distract and confuse predators similar to the mottled plumage of more traditionally camouflaged birds. Pied plumage can also help conceal a nesting or roosting bird, particularly in an area of dappled shade where dark and light patches are common. At the same time, pied plumage can also confuse prey so they do not see hungry birds as easily, allowing carnivorous birds to more easily and effectively hunt.

Pied coloration is especially effective for birds that hunt in the water, and many piscivorous birds have a type of pied plumage called countershaded coloration. This plumage is typically dark on the bird's upperparts, including the back, nape, crown, and the uppersides of the wings. The underparts, including the breast, abdomen, under the wings, and the undertail coverts, are lighter. With this pied pattern, the birds are better concealed when they are swimming or flying in a light sky above their prey, allowing them to strike with more surprise. At the same time, pied and countershaded birds are also better concealed from predators who may see the birds from above.

Pied Birds

Birds that have this distinct type of plumage often have "pied" in their common names, such as the pied avocet, pied heron, pied kingfisher, and pied flycatcher. This convention does not apply to every species with pied coloration, however. Many penguins, puffins, murres, and auks also have pied plumage but lack "pied" as part of their names. At times, "black-and-white" may be substituted for "pied" in a bird's descriptive name as well. The black-and-white warbler and the black-and-white bulbul, for example, both have pied plumage coloration even if they aren't named for it.

At times, the "pied" in a bird's name will refer only to a part of the bird that exhibits this coloration, such as the pied-billed grebe, which has a black-and-white bill but brownish plumage. Similarly, the Peruvian piedtail is a hummingbird that has a distinct black-and-white tail but iridescent green upperparts and rusty flanks.

Identifying Pied Birds

Pied plumage can be easy to identify because it is so stark and contrasts well to be easily seen, even at a distance or in poor viewing conditions. Noting the size and extent of markings, as well as the smooth or jagged texture of the edge between the colors can help determine which bird is which. As with any bird identification, it is also important to note other distinctive characteristics, such as additional colors, key field marks, bill size and shape, and other traits as well. The bird's behavior, sounds, and range can also be essential for proper identification.

Birders should take care not to confuse a typical pied plumage with abnormal coloration, however, such as albino or leucistic birds, that may also show large patches of white plumage. Melanistic birds may also seem pied, with much greater amounts of dark pigment in their plumage. With abnormal colors, however, the coloration is often less distinct and not as even as typical pied plumage. Abnormally colored birds are also much more rare and while they can flock with others of their species, they will stand out as unusual and different looking.

Many hybrid birds may also have similar coloration patterns with unusual patches of black and white plumage. The term pied, however, is usually only applied to a bird's normal coloration. Some domestic bird breeds, such as different types of chickens, ducks, or pigeons, may also be called pied due to their plumage coloration, but they are not distinct species and will not count on a life list or bird record.

Also Known As

Piebald, Bicolored