Being Red

I’ve a fondness for dark-colored birds; those with brown or black feathers: crows,

Brilliant vermilion on the Downy's nape - photo by Kip Ladage

Black Oystercatchers, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Downy Woodpeckers. I’m not saying my favorite birds are without colorful pigments. The oyster catcher has those crazy pink legs, the crows an iridescence that guilds its feathers with threads of blue and violet. And, let’s not forget the vermillion nape of the woodpecker.

In early fall the male’s red stripe is brilliantly red.  It may be fresh plumage or it could be the indirect light of the low-sitting sun; whatever the reason it makes each sighting a moment for rapt attention. This is the kind of red that flamed wars and conquest as cochineal became much sought after in Central and South America. It’s the kind of red that led cinnabar to be valued highly in China and ancient Rome.  

This "ugly" mass produces the beautiful cochineal red - photo from Wikipedia

If you’re not familiar with cochineal, you should be. It’s a tiny insect parasite, Dactylopius coccus, that lives on cacti in sere regions of the new world. It produces carminic acid which is extracted from its body and eggs and used to produce carmine dye  –  a red dye used for dyeing fabrics but also as a food dye and cosmetic coloring. Yes, if you’ve eaten red M & M’s, you’ve ingested cochineal. Granted, not all cultures value this red dye: vegans and vegetarians generally choose to avoid it, as do Muslims, and some Jews. Still it can not be denied that the color produced by this little insect is spectacular.

Cinnabar too has its pros and cons. This highly valued and ancient pigment, also known as vermilion, was regarded as the color of life. In truth the production of vermilion dye is fairly toxic: mercuric sulfide. Today, the pigment which defined “Chinese red” is produced through less toxic means but the color is still spectacular.

So, how is it that through the trick of light bending texture the humble Downy Woodpecker possesses this esteemed color: no toxicity, no wars necessary? The answer to that rhetorical question is really just a reminder that we humans, try as we might, can only wish we knew nature’s secrets. We are capable of producing great beauty, as evidenced in many arts, but rarely come close to the splendor produced by something as simple and complex as a bird’s feather.


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