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Proper Birding Attire

Dear Bird Folks,

Our local birding group is putting together a birder’s code of ethics. One item that has caused some debate is a dress code for bird watchers. No, we are not so Fascist as to require birders to wear tuxedos or evening dresses. We would just like to know if we should advise against wearing bright colours in the field. Would wearing, say red, be scary or threatening to a bright red bird?

-Chris, Victoria, Australia


Brilliant Chris,

I love your idea of the tuxes and evening dresses for birders. Believe me, most birders could use a fashion upgrade and a mirror. The birders that I know look as if they had found their outfits at a really bad yard sale. I know you weren’t actually suggesting evening dresses, but I think you should go with it. Australia could be on the verge of something big. Finally, people would be impressed with bird watchers instead of weirded out by them. What have you got to lose? That Vegemite thing isn’t catching on. I say give formal birding a go.

Interesting about your birding group being concerned about their colors. Don’t worry about being a Fascist. It seems fascism isn’t as out of style as it used to be. Your question about the best colors for birding is a tough one because we don’t really know how birds see colors. They see colors fine, better than we do, but the problem is we aren’t sure exactly what colors the birds are seeing.

When it comes to a bird’s senses, hearing and vision do the bulk of the work. It is thought that a bird’s sense of taste is poorly developed, which is a lucky thing for them considering their diet. Imagine waking up each day facing a meal of a fresh worms? Although it’s probably better than facing a jar of Vegemite. And since taste and smell are related, it stands to reason that, with few exceptions, a bird’s sense of smell is poor also. It’s pretty hard to sniff the air when you don’t have a nose. Beak holes just can’t get the job done.

A bird’s eyes on the other hand are the best. They see stuff that we would never see without the help of overpriced binoculars. Some birds can see and catch minute, almost invisible insects, while others can see small prey several miles away. There is even one bird species with eyes so powerful that it can read the last few lines on a rental agreement. Now that’s impressive.

Testing birds for distance vision is one thing, but testing them for color separation is a bit more complicated. Scientists feel that a bird’s ability to see a greater assortment of colors causes them to see things differently than we see them. A dull red may be a fiery red when seen through the eyes of a bird. And it gets even more complicated. Not only are birds able to see a much broader spectrum of colors, they are also able to see ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light has a short wave length that is invisible to humans, but totally visible to some birds, allowing them to see more than we can. That would also explain why their nests are often decorated with black light posters.

Because of all this we can’t assume a bird will be upset by a particular color. Would wearing a bright red jacket be threatening to a red bird? Maybe. But we would only know for sure after testing different shades, on different fabric, in different light, at different times of the year, on the same species. And, if you were to wear blue instead you might not upset the red birds, but what about the blue colored birds? Would they be upset? Would wearing yellow bother yellow birds? If clothing color was the key to birding, then you would need a different outfit for every species. Having that many clothes would be impossible, unless you were my wife or Elton John.

Without knowing for sure which colors are the best for each situation, it is safer to go with neutral colors. Nature photographers recommend beige, khaki or dull green. Camouflage would also be a good choice. However, seeing a van full of birders dressed in camo could be upsetting to area residents who might think some kind of weird invasion was taking place.

I know of no scientific studies on bright red clothes Chris. Even so, I’d say stick with the dull clothes. They are time tested. Those old safari boys, in their khaki outfits, seemed to know what they were doing. Your other option would be to do your birding naked. If you do, just remember to wear a lot of sunscreen, because if your skin is pasty-pale like mine, you’ll be back to that bright red issue again.