The Color of the Name

Top Photo: A green anole shows off its dewlap on fence in Butterfly House Garden.

Certain animals are named for their color, or at least the color of a prominent feature of their feathers, scales, or fur.

Here’s several local birds and a lizard which meet the criterion.

Green anoles are bright green.

It’s obvious why the green anole is called what it’s called, it’s green. But check out the pink dewlap this lizard sometimes displays as a territorial warning to other male anoles or as a come-on to females in the area.

Pink dewlap meant for rivals and potential mates.

By the way, green anoles can change from bright green to brown and shades in between.

The green anole here has just molted, shedding its old skin for new growth beneath. Green anoles, as do many lizards, may eat their molted dead skin.

The anole eats its shed skin.

Brown is a common color in nature, though not everything that’s brown is named for its color. The brown thrasher, though, is named for the rich shades of brown it displays. It’s brown over most of its upper side, and various lighter shades elsewhere.

Rich brown feathers of brown thrasher.
Tan belly and breast streaked with black.

Green herons are named for the green color of the feathers on their backs. In fact they were once called green-backed herons. But the color of the back doesn’t always show as green. Blue and yellow make green. In my opinion, there’s more blue than yellow in the back of a green heron. It leans towards blue.

Two green herons share the wetlands.

I believe, though, the colors of the feathers are a product of refraction, they’re structural colors and not of pigment origin. It matters greatly what kind of light and from what angle you view them as to what color they appear. Most field guides to birds state green herons’ backs are greenish, or blue-green or simply green. But it’s confusing to people who see the bird for the first time and wonder, “where’s the green?

Seen in good light, coming from over your shoulder and shining on the subject, you can actually see some green. Even so, I think the color is more blue than green. Maybe Aegean blue, or RAF blue, maybe even sapphire blue, or even mermaid blue. The perspective from which you’re viewing the bird matters greatly in what color you see.

When you have to explain to someone who’s seeing the bird for the first time that the name is green heron but it’s not really green, there’s something wrong. The naming of this bird needs rethinking.

What color do you see on the back of this green heron.
Stretching out in the sun.

The bird’s crest too, can be blue or green.

If you stare long enough at this heron’s crest you’re likely to see green and blue.

And finally another bird named for the color of the feathers on a particular part of its body, this time, the wings. The feathers of a red-shouldered hawk’s upper wing coverts from the body out to the “wrist” are reddish. When the bird perches and the wings are brought in to its sides these feathers sometimes show up as red “shoulders.” However, it’s more easily seen on the open wing.

Red-shouldered hawk’s “shoulders.” Red is barely visible.
This bird with it wings spread wide displays the “red shoulders” that gives the bird its name.

By the way, two red-shouldereds in immature plumage were seen well off the nest this past week. We’re likely to see them soaring with their parents above our outdoor areas soon. Keep an eye out.

1 response to The Color of the Name

  1. Carol Henderson says:

    Fantastic photos! I agree with you about the Green Heron. I have seen them at the museum once and did not detect any green.

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