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Feather Mystery Solved

October 17, 2016

The berries of invasive honeysuckle plants are causing birds in eastern North America to change color.

Transcript

Pigments consumed in the berries of invasive honeysuckles are causing unusual red coloration in the feathers of Northern Flickers. C Hansen

Pigments in invasive bush honeysuckle plants are causing unusual red coloration in the feathers of Northern Flickers. (C. Hansen)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

A flicker of mystery. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In eastern North America, woodpeckers called Northern flickers flash yellow-tinted wing feathers while in flight. But according to ornithologist Jocelyn Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum, up to a third of eastern flickers have orange or red wing feathers.

JOCELYN HUDON (Royal Alberta Museum):

So this has been a bit of an enigma for a number of years.

HIRSHON:

But now, Hudon and his colleagues report in The Auk: Ornithological Advances that they’ve solved the mystery. The birds have been eating the berries of invasive bush honeysuckle plants, which contain a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin.

HUDON:

The flickers are ingesting the pigments in late July, early August.

HIRSHON:

That corresponds perfectly with the formation of new flight feathers. Hudon says rhodoxanthin has also been detected in four other bird species, and altered feather coloration could affect mating success. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Susanne Bard