Hummingbirds Have The Most Colorful Plumage Of All Known Birds

A little birdie told us that hummingbirds are the prettiest of all the birds.


Dr. Beccy Corkill


Dr. Beccy Corkill

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Beccy is a custom content producer who holds a PhD in Biological Science, a Master’s in Parasites and Disease Vectors, and a Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Forensic Science.

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Golden bellied hummingbird
“Is it me, am I the drama?” – Golden-bellied starfrontle. Image credit: Glenn Bartley.

Do you think that a peacock has the most colorful plumage? Well, think again. Scientists have found that hummingbirds may have the most colorful plumage in all the land, says a study published in Communications Biology

The scientists collected over 1,600 reflectance spectra from 114 different species of hummingbirds, and the team calculated the variety of the colors found on a hummingbird plumage.


They compared the hummingbird data to previously published work on the variety of colors in other birds, including parrots, finches, penguins, and quetzals. They found that the variety of plumage colors in hummingbirds equals or exceeds the previous estimates for the variety of colors in plumage of all bird species. In fact, they found that 84.5 percent of the total variety of colors identified in the plumage of all birds were also found in hummingbirds.   

The fiery-throated hummingbird.
The fiery-throated hummingbird. Image Credit: Glenn Bartley 

It is no surprise as hummingbirds are very pretty birds and come in a range of looks, and even scientists find it difficult to distinguish their favorite bird.

 “I have so many favorites in terms of how colorful they are (for example Costa's and Fiery-throated hummingbirds),” Gabriela Venable, lead author of the study told IFLScience.

Emerald-bellied puffleg hummingbird.
Emerald-bellied puffleg hummingbird. Image Credit: Juan Camilo Diaz/Shutterstock.Com

“That being said, my favorite hummingbird in terms of wacky appearances is the Emerald-bellied puffleg. This species as well as other pufflegs have very fluffy boot-like feathers around their feet, which are presumed to exist because of sexual selection. In other words, female pufflegs like fluffy feet and that brings me a lot of joy,” Venable said.


Interestingly enough, the team compared how these plumage patches would appear to other birds and hummingbirds themselves; a bird’s eye view if you will. The greatest variety of the colors were located on the throats and the top of the heads of the birds, which is often used in social interactions and mating displays.

Tufted coquette
The colors tend to be located on the head or chest – Tufted coquette. Image Credit: Glenn Bartley

When questioned on why hummingbirds may have evolved for this fantastic coloring, Venable explained: “Hummingbird plumage coloration has undergone a long history of sexual and social selection. They use their plumage during mating displays and other social interactions. Additionally, they have shown rapid species radiation with over 330 species having evolved in the past 22 million years."

The wide variety of colors has also evolved because the mechanism for producing the color is so versatile. 

“They use barbule structural color involving layers of melanosomes within hummingbird feather filaments that, when combined in varying thicknesses, produce a diverse range of colours. This type of barbule structural color appears to be unique in part because hummingbird melanosomes are unusually disc-shaped and hollow, which allows for the creation of very saturated colors.” Venable told IFLScience. 

feather under a microscope
Quetzal feather under a microscope. The green in a quetzal's feather is created by barbule structural color, the same coloration mechanism that hummingbirds largely use. Image Credit: Gabriela Venable

“Thus, hummingbirds can create an unusual diversity of saturated single peak colors, such as saturated blues and greens. Additionally, hummingbird barbule structural coloration has several components that allow for the creation of spectra with multiple peaks, leading to spectra of different color combinations, like true purple (red + blue) and UV-green (UV+green). With multi-peak spectra the ability to create new and different colors is greatly increased, allowing for a more versatile evolution of novel colors.”

Now the color diversity in other clades of birds is now being investigated and they hope to do some microscopy on some of the stranger colors that they found in hummingbirds. 


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