Clothing Color and Birds

Bill Young

Some people have asked me whether the color of the clothing they wear to Monticello Park can affect the number of birds they are likely to see. After watching birders come to Monticello for many years, I am convinced that highly-skilled birders wearing bright colors see a lot of birds, and less-skilled birders who wear neutral-colored clothing see fewer birds. And highly-birders in neutral-colored clothing see just as many birds as when they are wearing bright colors, and less-skilled birder would not see fewer birds if they wore bright colors.

A lot of the controversy about birders and bright clothing has been fueled by an essay by Sheri Williamson in the book Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips from North America's Top Birders. She wrote about how someone wearing white clothing was scaring Eared Quetzals near a nest in Arizona, and when the clothing was removed, the birds relaxed. To suggest that because of this incident, no birder anywhere should wear white or bright clothing is to make a faulty generalization, or what is known in formal logic as a fallacy of defective induction. Looking for quetzals in a secluded area in Arizona has little similarity to looking for birds at an urban park such as Monticello. I have talked to some birders who claim that when they were in certain places, they are convinced that white clothing frightened birds. These instances usually occurred when they were alone. I believe them, but once again, the circumstances described have little similarity to the conditions at Monticello Park.

A major flaw in the "birds are frightened by bright colors" argument is that nature is filled with bright colors. Photos in the plant section of the MPNature website show flowers whose colors traverse the entire spectrum. Birds frightened by these colors would live in a state of perpetual terror, which is not the case. When a bird is flushed by a person wearing white clothing, one should not assume that the problem was caused by the clothing rather than by the large moving object who happened to be wearing white.

Movement is much more likely to frighten birds than the clothing one is wearing. Sudden movements can flush birds. In general, the larger the group you are in, the more movement and disturbance will be created, and the more likely a bird will be frightened. Also (and this is not good news for birders), the movement that seems to be most responsible for flushing birds is putting your binocular or camera up to your face. The reflection from the glass can flash into a bird's vision and startle it — what Ashley Bradford calls "the giant eye" peering at them. I often hear people complain, "I saw the bird, and just as I was putting up my binoculars, it flew."

Another bad habit (of which I am sometimes guilty) is pointing at a bird. If you spot a bird when you are in a group, a natural reaction is to show people where it is by pointing in the general direction of where you see it. Quickly raising your arm can frighten a bird. Surprisingly, I have found that talking, even in a loud voice, tends not to frighten birds.

In his book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Jon Young (no relation) explains how birds operate in a sensory world very different from humans. He says that your attitude and behavior toward birds is far more important than what you wear. I have copied a few paragraphs from his book that deal with the issue in more depth.

Also, the detergents you use to wash your clothing can have more of an effect on what birds see than the color of the clothing. Birds can see in the UV (ultraviolet) spectrum, and it is possible that clothing washed in certain types of detergent can leave a sheen on the fabric that can be seen by birds, but not by humans. The United States military has guidelines for the types of detergent that can be used to wash Army Combat Uniforms and Airman Battle Uniforms. Washing uniforms in detergents with optical brighteners can make members of the military more easily detectable by night vision equipment and in a low-light environments. A video on YouTube shows laundry detergent under UV light. Clothing colors that seem bright to humans might not look bright to birds, and colors that seem dull to humans might be very noticeable to birds.

In short, when you come to Monticello Park, wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. If you treat birds with respect and do not make quick movements, everything should be fine, regardless of what you are wearing.