Birds have excellent color vision and can see colors on the visible spectrum that humans cannot. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, for example, allows them to spot colors and patterns on plants and other birds that are otherwise invisible to us. This means that certain colors that appeal strongly to birds would not necessarily catch a human’s eye. When choosing colors and designs to attract birds, it helps to understand a bit about avian visual perception.
How do birds see color?
Birds have four types of color cones in their eyes, compared to only three in human eyes. Along with red, green and blue cones for detecting those colors, birds have a fourth cone type sensitive to ultraviolet and violet light. They also have oil droplets of different colors filtering the light entering each cone, which allows them to distinguish even more shades across the color spectrum.
These adaptations allow birds to see a wider range of colors than humans can. Birds can see differences between colors that appear identical to us. Conversely, some colors stand out vividly to them while barely catching our attention. Understanding what makes certain colors pop for birds gives us insight into choosing bird feeders, houses, and other objects designed to appeal to our feathered friends.
Bright colors attract birds
In general, birds gravitate toward more vivid shades. While muted earth tones and pastels blend into the background for us, brighter versions of colors are what stick out to birds. Shades that seem almost neon or garish to our eyes will catch birds’ attention.
For example, a bluebird house or feeder painted in a very intense sky blue or purple will stand out boldly against green foliage. Similarly, an object dyed sunflower-bright yellow or cardinal-red will call to birds from a distance. Riotous rainbow colors will also attract curiosity and interest.
Bright plumage serves purposes like attracting a mate, so birds naturally respond to vivid colors. Muted shades camouflage and help something disappear, which is ineffective for intentionally luring birds close.
Red attracts hummingbirds
Hummingbirds aggressively defend their feeding territories. They are easily alarmed by unfamiliar objects that suddenly appear in those zones. However, studies show that hummingbirds react less fearfully to novel red-colored objects near their feeders.
Researchers placed various brightly colored sticks and strings around hummingbird feeders. The hummingbirds consistently tolerated red items nearer to the feeders compared to shades like blue and yellow. They apparently associated the color red with nectar sources like the blooms they feed on. This color helps flagged added feeders as invitations rather than threats.
Orange and yellow for orioles
Orioles and their relatives like tanagers seek out fruit and nectar from flowers and trees. They spot red blooms and fruit readily, but also gravitate toward orange and yellow food sources. Feeders and houses sporting strong orange and yellow hues will attract these birds.
In particular, bright oranges and yellows that contrast strongly with surrounding green leaves especially appeal to orioles and tanagers. If you want to draw these birds to a new feeding station, paint it a bright tangerine or daffodil shade that really catches the eye.
Purple martins like purple housing
One species notoriously choosey about its nesting sites is the purple martin. Colonies of these birds selectively move into tiered housing humans provide for them. Research shows martins pick deep blue-purple painted houses much more often than those painted other colors.
Light blue houses were acceptable too, but pale green ones held little appeal. Interestingly, even humans easily distinguish the purple houses preferred by martins from drab green ones. The bold purple shade stands out more to birds and people both.
Blue jays wary of red feeders
While red is an inviting color for hummingbirds, it doesn’t appeal to all species. Blue jays react warily and fearfully toward red items introduced near their feeding areas. Red signifies a potential threat rather than a treat.
However, blue jays happily accept novel blue-painted feeding stations. Blue is a color of safety for them, matching their own plumage. They will also cautiously approach new yellow feeders. Just avoid red around these birds.
Goldfinches love yellow
The color preferences of American goldfinches are no mystery. These birds sport bright yellow and black plumage in the summer. They are naturally drawn to large patches of yellow flowers when seeking seeds and nesting materials.
When offering food and housing for goldfinches, yellow is clearly the color that will attract them best. Vivid yellow feeders and nest boxes in open areas near brush and fields will likely draw visits from them.
Neutral colors work too
While bright, intense shades attract the most avian attention, neutral browns and grays can also work perfectly fine. Most birds will readily explore and utilize new feeders and houses no matter their color.
The key is placing them thoughtfully: near trees and shrubs that provide cover, spaced apart from territories claimed by territorial species, and with a clear approach path for the birds. Color will help them spot the new additions right away.
Avoid reflecting ultraviolet light
One consideration beyond color for attracting birds is avoiding surfaces that reflect ultraviolet light. Windows and metal objects can appear to glow and shimmer under UV light thanks to this reflective quality. This confuses and frightens birds.
If your feeder or house has shiny metal components, paint them with a matte color to reduce UV reflectivity. Position items so glass windows are not reflecting onto them as well. This helps create a welcoming environment.
Observe what works in your conditions
The bird species present in your specific area, the density of natural food sources,layout and plantings in your yard, and other factors will all influence what feeders and houses attract birds. The colors birds prefer could vary slightly by region too.
Try different colors side by side and take notes on what receives more visits and interest. Be ready to repaint and adapt if your first choices don’t seem to appeal to the local birds. Let their actual use patterns guide you.
Use multiple colors to attract more species
Rather than picking one winning color for your entire yard, consider offering a diversity of feeders and nesting boxes in various colors. Position them around your property to create zones welcoming different species.
For example, set up a red feeder for hummingbirds, purple and yellow ones for orioles, blue for jays, a yellow nest box for goldfinches, etc. This variety will broaden the types of birds frequenting your yard.
Color isn’t everything
While paint color impacts bird attraction, it is just one factor among many. Food, adjacent cover, competition from other birds, and protection from predators also greatly affect how much feeders and houses get used.
Don’t expect that painting something purple or red will guarantee martins and hummingbirds will immediately appear. Make sure you provide the right food sources, tree and shrub cover, properly constructed houses, suitable locations, and exclusion of larger aggressive species too.
By understanding the exceptional color vision birds possess, we can choose colors purposefully to catch their eyes and attract their interest. Vivid chromatic shades tend to work best to draw birds’ attention from a distance. Different species also prefer different colors in some cases.
Watching your feeders and nesting sites and experimenting with intensity and hue will reveal which shades work best to bring birds in to your unique environment. Use this knowledge thoughtfully when designing your landscaping and decorations to create a naturally vibrant and welcoming yard for your avian visitors.