Quirks & Quarks

The mystery of the red feather

Berries make Yellow-shafted flickers turn red

The Yellow-shafted flicker is a type of woodpecker found in eastern Canada and the northeast United States. In recent years, this predominantly yellow bird has been seen sporting a few red feathers. This was first thought to be a result of interbreeding with its western cousin, the Red-shafted flicker, as that has been known to occur. However, a new study by Dr. Jocelyn Hudon, the Curator of Ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, found that a specific addition to diet is responsible for the red feathers. The Yellow-shafted flicker acquires the pigment rhodoxanthin, which supplies red to the feathers, from eating the red berries of the honeysuckle plant. The colour change is not permanent, but may have an impact on mate selection because flickers, like many birds, use colour to signal fitness. 

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