To the bafflement of birders, yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus) sometimes sport red or orange wing feathers.
Scientists have suggested that the birds, which inhabit eastern North America, might be products of genetic variation affecting the carotenoid pigments that produce their flight-feather colors. Alternatively, the birds might be hybrids from mixing with a subspecies that lives in the west, red-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus cafer). Despite decades of study, no clear-cut explanation has emerged.
It turns out that diet may be to blame. Jocelyn Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada and her colleagues tested the red flight feathers from two yellow-shafted flickers and found traces of rhodoxanthin, a deep red pigment found in plants, and a potential metabolite. This suggests that the birds’ bodies break down rhodoxanthin — a clue that the pigment enters the body through food. Spectral and biochemical tests of feathers from museum collections also point to rhodoxanthin and suggest that the pigment may mess with yellow carotenoid production as well.
Yellow-shafted flickers probably pick up the red pigment when they eat berries from invasive honeysuckle plants, which contain the ruby pigment and produce similar red hues in other birds, the researchers write October 12 in The Auk. The plants also happen to produce berries just around the time that flickers molt their flight feathers.