Are Hummingbirds Color Blind?

Are Hummingbirds Color Blind?
Contrary to many beliefs, hummingbirds are far from being color blind. Hummingbirds see way more colors than humans could ever imagine due to their four-color cone types, which help them register UV lights. They can see ultraviolet green and ultraviolet red that are beyond the typical color spectrum perceived by humans. 

Hummingbirds see more colors than humans do outside of the typical color spectrum. Hummingbirds will use this skill when scanning their environment for abundant flowers and food sources. Here’s how hummingbirds’ vision works.

Hummingbird Color Vision

An assistant professor at Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, known as Mary Caswell Stoddard, says humans are basically color-blind compared to birds. While the human eye has three color cone types and can register red, green, and blue light, birds have four and can also note ultraviolet light, a birds vision may include a range of colors, such as ultraviolet and green or ultraviolet and red.

The new research showed that hummingbirds see various nonspectral colors and distinguish between pure ultraviolet and green or ultraviolet and red light mixtures. The birds’ visual system of 4 color cone types (tetrachromacy) evolved in early vertebrates, and the ability to see nonspectral colors may extend to many animals with color vision.

Scientists noticed that wild broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus) were especially successful in recognizing which color marks the sugar water.

Nonspectral Colors of Ultraviolet Light

The color spectrum people observe contains seven spectral colors (known as the acronym ROYGBIV):

  • red
  • orange
  • yellow
  • green
  • blue
  • indigo
  • violet

However, there’s an infinite number of colors on the color spectrum; only those are the colors humans can’t observe unless they’re created by mixing other colors (their wavelengths). For example, purple doesn’t appear on the color spectrum, but people can keep it since it activates humans’ blue cones. Then, there’s magenta, a mixture of blue and red, or teal, a combination of blue and green.

While humans share the natural setting with birds, people can’t see beyond the seven colors. On the other hand, birds see various nonspectral colors that don’t appear in visible light. Scientists from Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Colorado, the University of Maryland — College Park, and RMBL claim that the world of birds may look completely different than how it seems to people.

What Is a Hummingbird’s Favorite Color?

Many hummingbird enthusiasts know that these birds are attracted to specific plant colorsAdditionally, their favorite color is red, which is why most feeders have red perches. Still, there’s more to learn about their ability to notice colors.

This was precisely what Mary Stoddard, a Princeton University evolutionary biologist, and Harold Eyster, a Ph.D. student from the University of British Columbia (co-author of the study), and their team decided to test out in a new study. (The results are listed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

They’ve set up several bird feeders with LED tubes outside their laboratory. The feeders would change color based on what’s inside — sugar water or plain water. The hummingbirds quickly learned to associate one color with sugar water and the other with plain water.

This experiment included about 6,000 hummingbird visits to the feeders. Scientists noticed that wild broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus) were especially successful in recognizing which color marks the sugar water.

What Are Some Examples of Colors That Hummingbirds Might Not See?

What Are Some Examples of Colors That Hummingbirds Might Not See?

This research shows hummingbirds see all colors on the spectrum and more. To them, the world is packed with different colors than humans. However, more research needs to be done in the wild to confirm the current findings.

Is There a Connection Between the Color of a Bird’s Feathers and Its Vision?

Birds get their colorful feathers from carotenoids, melanins, and porphyrines. Carotenoids work with melanin to produce olive-green colors. Melanin alone creates black, reddish, browns, and yellow, and porphyrines produce greens and reds.

Additionally, melanin is also found in the bird’s eyes in two forms:

  • eumelanin
  • pheomelanin

While these give a specific color to the birds’ eyes, they also serve to effectively absorb infrared, UV, and visible light. That’s how melanin is responsible for feather coloration and partially responsible for the birds’ eyesight.

Hummingbirds Can See Many Colors

In reality, hummingbirds can see an abundance of colors people can’t catch. This vision helps them find food sources. One research showed hummingbirds have successfully determined which feeder contained sugar water and which had plain water just by observing the color.

Sarah Pearce

Sarah enjoys feeding hummingbirds in the warmer months, and a range of finches, woodpeckers, and cardinals in the cooler months. She enjoys researching and learning more about birds, gardening, and preserving food. She is learning how to maximize her small city backyard and is amazed at all the possibilities. She lives in southwestern Indiana with her family.

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