Hummingbirds stand out from other birds due to their colourful plumage, especially on the crest, throat and rectrices (tail). Males of the species that frequent open areas are usually more brightly coloured than those that live in forested environments. Colours are a valuable clue in the identification of species.
Hummingbirds stand out from other birds due to their colourful plumage, especially on the crest, throat and rectrices (tail). Males of the species that frequent open areas are usually more brightly coloured than those that live in forested environments. Colours are a valuable clue in the identification of species.

© Musée de la nature et des sciences de Sherbrooke 2007. All rights reserved.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

Credit: Jack Lizard

© Jack Lizard


The best way to observe hummingbirds is to place yourself with your back to the sun. Depending on the angle of the light hitting their feathers, they will seem to shimmer when they face you, but appear dark and lacklustre when the birds turn around. This effect, called iridescence, is the same one observed with soap bubbles or oil lying in a thin layer on the surface of water. Colouration is usually linked to pigmentation. Iridescence is a physical phenomenon caused by platelets distributed in a more or less homogeneous manner in the feather barbules of hummingbirds.

To see a video of a blue-crowned Woodnymph and Long-billed Starthroat with bright colours and iridescence, follow this link.
The best way to observe hummingbirds is to place yourself with your back to the sun. Depending on the angle of the light hitting their feathers, they will seem to shimmer when they face you, but appear dark and lacklustre when the birds turn around. This effect, called iridescence, is the same one observed with soap bubbles or oil lying in a thin layer on the surface of water. Colouration is usually linked to pigmentation. Iridescence is a physical phenomenon caused by platelets distributed in a more or less homogeneous manner in the feather barbules of hummingbirds.

To see a video of a blue-crowned Woodnymph and Long-billed Starthroat with bright colours and iridescence, follow this link.

© Musée de la nature et des sciences de Sherbrooke 2007. All rights reserved.

Iridescence is a physical phenomenon of interference which occurs when light penetrates two thin structures with different reflective properties. The platelets located on the bird’s barbules are only about 2.5 microns in length and 0.2 microns thick, and are filled with air. The thickness of the platelets and volume of air each contains influences the path of light creating different colours ranging from red, at one end of the spectrum, to blue at the opposite end. Also, depending on the viewing angle, the hummingbird’s throat may appear golden-coloured to one bird-watcher and black to another who is just a few feet away.

To see an interactive diagram about how iridescence works, follow this link.
Iridescence is a physical phenomenon of interference which occurs when light penetrates two thin structures with different reflective properties. The platelets located on the bird’s barbules are only about 2.5 microns in length and 0.2 microns thick, and are filled with air. The thickness of the platelets and volume of air each contains influences the path of light creating different colours ranging from red, at one end of the spectrum, to blue at the opposite end. Also, depending on the viewing angle, the hummingbird’s throat may appear golden-coloured to one bird-watcher and black to another who is just a few feet away.

To see an interactive diagram about how iridescence works, follow this link.

© Musée de la nature et des sciences de Sherbrooke 2007. All rights reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • underline some of the colours found on hummingbirds
  • define what is iridescence

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