Pretty in Pink: How Birds Make Pink

Friday, 28 July 2023

  • Estimated reading time 1 minute

These Australian birds were pretty in pink long before Barbie, but how do they do it?

Birds have some of the brightest and most varied plumage in the animal kingdom, and pink is undoubtedly one of the most striking colours of all, but not all pinks are created equal and there are different ways birds produce these magnificent hues.

The breast of the male Pink Robin is a brilliant fuchsia due to pigments called Carotenoids, which are consumed through the birds diet and deposited into its feathers. This pigment found in plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria, gives many birds their coloured plumage. You may have heard that flamingos are pink due to the shrimp they eat. This is true in the sense that both shrimp and flamingos appear pink due to the Carotenoids in the algae they consume.

Pink Robin by David Adam

Parrots on the other hand, like the iconic Galah and Pink Cockatoo, produce yellow, pink, red, and orange hues due to pigments called Psittacofulvins, which are unique only to parrots and found nowhere else in nature. Unlike Carotenoids, this pigment is manufactured in-house by the bird itself. Porphyrins are another type of pigment manufactured in-house that produce pinks, reds, and browns in some birds such as pigeons and owls.

Galah in grass
Galah by Olivia Congdon

Some birds also produce coloured plumage through light refraction in which light scatters when interacting with the feather structure itself, producing blues, violets and iridescent sheens. In this way, the male Satin Bowerbird appears an iridescent violet-blue to the naked eye, despite being uniformly black in its adult plumage.