Photo: Ed Scholes. Male superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) during a courtship display with a female (brown plumage). Researchers studied six species of birds of paradise and one close relative (the lesser melampitta Melampitta lugubris) with profoundly black plumage (pictured) or normal black plumage 

NEW RESEARCH HAS found that the black coloration of the male bird of paradise’s feathers is so dark that it creates the illusion that nearby coloured feathers are glowing, and that this helps to attract a mate.

Scientists from Yale University in the US used optical measurements to show that these black feather patches absorb up to 99.95 per cent of directly incident light: a percentage comparable to manmade ultra-black materials used in the lining of space telescopes.

In addition, microscopic structures of the wings resemble those designed by engineers to create ultra-black materials used to facilitate light absorption in solar panels.

This velvety black plumage is particularly important for the male bird of paradise during its mating display, as it is so dark it gives the illusion that adjacent patterns of colour glow brilliantly, an effect that is appreciated by females looking to breed.

The juxtaposition of darkest black and coloured feathers create to bird and human eyes what is essentially an evolved optical illusion.

Co-lead author Dakota McCoy, a Yale graduate now with the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, explained: “An apple looks red to us whether it is sitting in the bright sunlight or in the shade because all vertebrate eyes and brains have special wiring to adjust their perception of the world according to ambient light. Birds of paradise, with their super-black plumage, increase the brilliance of adjacent colours to our eyes, just as we perceive the red even though the apple is in the shade.”

Interestingly, the microstructures in the feathers of the bird of paradise not involved in mating display lack the characteristics of the ultra-black plumage.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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