Birds feathers: Migratory species may have paler plumage to help them keep cool

Overheating is a serious issue for birds flying long distances, and paler plumage that reflects more of the sun’s heat may be one of the ways they cope


6 December 2021

Thousands of migrating Snow Geese ( Chen caerulescens ) fly from a misty lake at sunrise in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA.; Shutterstock ID 546140620; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

Migrating snow geese at a misty lake in Pennsylvania

Delmas Lehman/Shutterstock

A study of nearly all of the 10,000 or so bird species has found that the further birds migrate, the paler their feathers tend to be. This is probably because it helps birds flying in sunlight to keep cool, says Kaspar Delhey at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany.

“The difference is small, but this is common when it comes to explaining variation in colouration across an entire class of vertebrates,” says Delhey. “Plumage colouration is extremely diverse and many factors can drive the evolution of colours, of which migration is but one.”

Several recent studies suggest that overheating is more of a problem for birds flying long distances than previously thought. For instance, sensors have shown that the body heat of migrating eider ducks can rise so high that they have to stop flying.

Another study found that some migrating birds fly much higher during the day than they do at night despite having to expend more energy to stay aloft in thinner air. This suggests that the heat of the sun makes them much more likely to overheat, and made Delhey and his colleagues wonder whether migrating birds have lighter plumage to help them cope.

The researchers used photos from the Handbook of the Birds of the World to rate the lightness of birds’ plumage from 0 to 100, treating males and females as separate species because coloration is so often different between the sexes. They found that short-distance migrants were significantly lighter than resident birds, and long-distance migrants were significantly lighter than short-distance migrants, even without controlling for factors such as body size or the environmental conditions where birds live.

One implication of these findings is that migrating birds are going to find it even harder to stay cool as the planet heats up. Rising temperatures may force darker species to fly only during the night while migrating, says Delhey, or to fly even higher during the day.

“These responses will probably entail costs, which may reduce individual survival, with potential negative consequences at the population level,” he says.

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.048

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