The Front Range has just gotten its first snow of the season, the bright Autumn leaves have fallen, and the flowers have dried up and gone to seed. Consequently, it feels as if most of the color has been leached from the landscape. It sure is looking pretty brown and grey these days. Looking at the nearest pond or lake, however, shows that some animals haven’t gotten the memo about the new dress code.
Whether passing through or staying the Winter, this is the time to see ducks in Colorado. For most ducks, and a lot of other waterfowl too, Autumn signals the very beginning of the breeding season. That means it’s time for the males (known as drakes) to impress the ladies (hens) again. Kind of like bumming around in your favorite, worn-out old sweatpants before changing into nice clothes for a date, drakes look drab in the Summer when breeding season is over. This drab plumage is called their “eclipse” plumage. Because ducks molt their feathers all at once and are flightless for a period of time while they do it, this eclipse plumage may help camouflage them from predators while they’re vulnerable.
In Fall, the drakes regrow those beautiful jewel-like feathers that make them so striking. Have you ever noticed how a Mallard duck’s head looks black in some lights, but a gorgeous emerald in others, sometimes even blue? Or how a Bufflehead’s can look as black as ink or shimmer with purple and green tones like an oil slick? This irridescence is due not because the feathers are actually green or purple, but because of the structure of the feather itself. The feathers are composed of tiny little barbs that work to scatter rays of light like a prism. Different feathers have different structural combinations that reflect different colors. Almost all blue and green colors in birds are the result of this phenomenon.
Other ducks, like the Canvasback and the aptly named Redhead, have red heads that are due to those feathers containing pigments called carotenoids. Sunlight contains all colors, but when it shines on a Canvasback’s head, all colors in the light are absorbed except for the red, which is reflected. That means the feather is always red, no matter what the light is like. This is the same thing that makes an American Goldfinch yellow.
The drab brown of the hen is also due to pigmented color. Just like the pigment melanin influences the color of your skin and whether and how much you tan, melanin in a feather is responsible for brown and black colors. The more melanin a feather has, the darker it is and also the stronger it is. That’s why most birds that fly for long distances, including gulls and the otherwise entirely white Snow Goose, have black wing tips.
If the end of Daylight Savings is getting you down and you’re starting to feel the Winter doldrums, it might help to take a trip to your nearest park. These living ornaments don’t have to be taken down and boxed up when the holidays are over.