Birds need to keep themselves protected from predators and one of the most effective ways of keeping hidden in plain sight is to use camouflage. There are several ways that birds effectively hide, and in this article, we look at what these are.
Birds use camouflage to remain hidden from predators and prey. Many species use concealing colours to blend in with their surroundings, while others use disruptive patterns such as stripes or spots to break up the shape of their bodies.
There are a few different types of camouflage but all of these involve disguising themselves in some way. Disguise is when a bird imitates the environment around them to effectively blend in, making it hard for predators to spot them.
Camouflage is used as a means of defence but also a way for predatory birds to keep hidden before catching their prey. Camouflage is as essential in staying hidden from predators as it is to stay hidden from prey.
Many birds are hard to spot in their natural habitat as the colours on their plumage match the environment they live in. Blending into trees, the earth, soil, or grass is the most effective way to stop a predator from noticing them.
Concealment camouflage is most prevalent in groundbirds and their colours often match the soil or substrate around them. Groundbirds are generally sedentary and many do not move more than a mile or so from where they were born.
In areas where the landscape doesn’t change much during the seasons, the colours on the ground stay the same. This allows groundbirds to camouflage themselves all year round without having to worry that their feathers are going to be a different colour to their surroundings.
Some ground birds take this a step further by laying flat with their wings outspread, motionless on the ground. This makes them extremely hard for many predators to see, especially those that do not have good colour vision.
The colour of tree-dwelling birds often blends into the bark and branches of trees making them hard to see, even when we look for them. Sometimes it is only the movement of their heads that gives them away. Even when looking through binoculars I sometimes have a hard time seeing some of the well-camouflaged birds in my area.
Concealment camouflage works best for birds that live in areas where the seasons do not make much difference to the surrounding areas. In Autumn, for example, the leaves will change colour from green or brown to reddish-purple.
As birds cannot change the colour of their plumage whenever they need to, birds that live in these areas often have a camouflage that matches all of these. However, this camouflage is not as good as it is for birds that only live in habitats that don’t change colour, such as deserts.
While not very common in birds as it is in some animals, there are birds that will disguise themselves. Disguise is when the bird looks like another animal or object. While insects such as stick insects look like sticks, birds such as the African Scops-owl blend in by looking like part of the tree. Ptarmigans and Snow bunting can blend into their snowy surrounding with their white plumage.
Animals such as zebras, cheetahs, and tigers use spots or stripes on their bodies. As with these other animals, many birds display also disruptive patterning on their plumage.
Patterns on the plumage help birds camouflage themselves from predators. The patterns effectively break up the outline of the body so that they can blend into their habitat better. These patterns help to make the bird invisible to animals that only have black and white vision.
While the bird is not moving, disruptive patterns are one of the best ways to camouflage themselves. Many predators rely on seeing the shape of the bird to distinguish what they are, and this is extremely difficult when a good disruptive pattern is used.
Disruptive patterns are also used for predatory birds and some owls and raptors use this strategy to keep themselves hidden before swooping down on their prey.
Black and white Auks use their colours to their advantage when fishing. The underside of Auks are generally white and this stops them from being visible to fish that look up from underwater. This is similar to the patterns seen on killer whales and many dolphins.
Why are some birds brightly coloured?
It should be noted that not all birds try to camouflage themselves and rely on other methods instead. Many birds are brightly coloured and do not blend into their surroundings at all. While this may seem strange, nature is very fond of making highly poisonous or toxic animals brightly coloured.
While many birds like to use camouflage to hide, others remain conspicuous to their surroundings and to predators.
Although there are no poisonous birds, toxic birds such as hoopoes, red warbler, pitohius, and ifritas all have bright colours. This shows predators that these are likely to be toxic.
Birds in tropical areas are often bright green and these colours help them to blend into the lush green leaves on the surrounding trees.
While other brightly coloured birds such as toucans aren’t toxic, predators will think twice about feeding on them because of the risk involved.
How do birds camouflage their nests?
In order for the next generation to succeed, birds need to protect their nests and their eggs. One way that they do this is by camouflaging them.
Birds, especially ground-nesting birds, will often hide their nests and eggs using soil or vegetation such as leaves to help them blend in. Because many groundbirds are highly camouflaged, when they sit on the nest they often contribute to the concealment. When they leave the nest, the dirt from their undersides and feet is often left on the eggs, further hiding them.
How do chicks use camouflage?
Hiding the chicks in the nest is normally the hardest thing for a bird to do. Most chicks can be noisy, especially when hungry, and this can attract a lot of attention from predators looking for an easy meal.
Chicks will hide when they notice a predator in the vicinity and often their plumage will have the same patterns as their parents. By laying low and still in the nest, their shadows will be less noticeable and harder for a predator to spot. When the adult is tending to the nest, then their camouflage helps to conceal the chicks.