Iridescent feathers may seem rare and uncommon, but there are more birds with reflective feathers than you might expect. Purposes of iridescent feathers vary, many believe they can aid in attracting mates, camouflage, or to flash a warning. In this article, we’ve highlighted 15 North American birds with iridescent feathers.
15 Birds with Iridescent Feathers
What is iridescence? An iridescent object gives off a lustrous, pearly sheen when held in the light. Sometimes the colors seen in the sheen can change or display a rainbow as you hold the object in the light at different angles. Like an oil slick, or an opal.
Nanoscales inside the birds feathers have evolved to have the perfect structure to amplify and reflect certain wavelengths of light. Interestingly, the structures that allow that iridescence don’t look exactly the same in all birds. Their shape and form can vary from species to species. Scientists are still studying the complex makeup of these feathers, and if you are interested there is a good article here from Princeton researchers.
But we won’t get too technical here. Let’s just take a look at 15 birds that have evolved these beautiful, iridescent feathers.
1. Rock Pigeon
Scientific name: Columba livia
Rock Pigeons have adapted to human development since as early as the 1600s. They putter through town squares, nest on window ledges, and take advantage of food offerings from strangers.
Males and females share an iridescent purple-and-green patch on their necks. It can be seen even in low light, giving them a delicate aura against the glow of streetlamps.
2. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Scientific name: Archilochus colubris
Hummingbirds are a great example of birds with iridescent feathers, as most have them not only on their back and head, but also on the males colorful throat patch. The ruby-throated hummingbirds sports metallic green body feathers, and males have a red gorget. Depending on how the light hits it, it can look bright ruby-red, or nearly black. Males can lift and adjust these feathers to “flash” color at competing males and prospective mates.
This tiny hummingbird is the Eastern United States’ only breeding hummingbird species. They are only a resident in the spring and summer. As soon as colder weather arrives, they migrates down the central corridor of the US south into Mexico.
3. Common Grackle
Scientific name: Quiscalus quiscula
Black shiny feathers give way to more colorful hues when this opportunistic bird hops into the sun. Male Common Grackles often look solid black when in shadow or low lighting. However once the sun hits, you can see their iridescent quality with feathers that reflect a metallic sheen of blue, purple, emerald green and gold.
Spot them year-round in the Eastern United States. Populations live well into Canada in the spring and summer.
4. Black-chinned Hummingbird
Scientific name: Archilochus alexandri
The male black-chinned hummingbird’s gorget is so dark that it looks black to most viewers, hence their name. However the surprise happens when sunlight hits at the perfect angle – what’s that, a flash of violet purple? This hummingbird is black-chinned no more.
Populations spend the spring and summer in the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and California. They migrate throughout the area on their journey to winter in western Mexico. If you live in this area, you can host them for a day or two by offering homemade nectar in a hummingbird feeder.
5. European Starling
Scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris
The metallic call of a European Starling is one of the easiest to recognize calls for the beginning birder. This bird is not native to the United States; it was introduced in the nineteenth century and later spread across the continent.
Males and females share the same coloring. Often appearing black with gold speckles from a distance, in the light you can see they have a very metallic sheen of purple and green. In the winter, they molt into a more dull feathers that don’t shine quite so brightly, appearing more brown with white spots and a dark bill.
6. Black-billed Magpie
Scientific name: Pica hudsonia
Entertaining and intelligent, the Black-billed Magpie is a year-round inhabitant of many parts of the western and central U.S. and Canada, all the way through Alaska. Males and females have similar royal blue, black, and white plumage. The blue, which colors the inner half of their wings and tail, is iridescent in the right light with hints of greens and purple.
Black-billed Magpies might stop by platform feeders, but you’re more likely to see them perched on a power line or fencepost on a walk through a rural area.
7. Anna’s Hummingbird
Scientific name: Calypte anna
Most male hummingbirds have an iridescent gorget, or throat patch, which reflects sunlight and helps them attract mates. Anna’s Hummingbird is no different in this respect. Females and males both have iridescent green feathers along their back, but the male sports a colorful face. Bright iridescent pink feathers adorn their throat and forehead, but in the shadow their face can look dark.
To attract females, they buzz around to let the sunlight catch their face, then dive up to 130 feet, ending in a loud squeak. They love to visit feeders and will regularly defend their source of nectar.
8. Wood Duck
Scientific name: Aix sponsa
Arguably one of the most beautiful ducks there is, the male wood duck is an explosion of colors. Even their red eye and orange beak add color to their maroon and tan body. Their rounded, crested head almost has the appearance of a helmet, with iridescent green feathers that reflect gold and purple. Iridescent blue and green adorn their wing feathers too. While females are mostly plain, they aren’t completely left out with small patches of iridescent feathers on their wings.
Find the wood duck in swamps, marshes and ponds in the eastern United States, but also California and the pacific northwest.
9. Tree Swallow
Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor
The tree swallow is a common summer visitor to much of the northern half of the U.S., and spends the winter along the southern coast and points south. Find them swooping and gliding above fields and meadows, catching insects in the air.
Their throat and belly are pure white. Iridescent feathers cover their head and back, often appear blue-green or blue-purple. Tree swallows often use the same birdhouses as bluebirds.
10. Purple Martin
Scientific name: Progne subis
The Eastern United States is full of Purple Martin birdhouse complexes. These indigo swallows have almost entirely adopted human-made nest boxes as their nesting preference, making it easy to observe and study them.
Males can look quite dark, but the sun will reveal they are a deep, iridescent purple. Females have a little purple coloring, but are much duller and have a gray chest instead of purple.
They won’t stop at birdfeeders, but they may soar around your yard looking for insects.
11. Northern Shoveler
Scientific name: Spatula clypeata
Certainly the attribute that sticks out the most for this duck is it’s large, shovel-like bill. This common duck spends the winter along both U.S. coasts as well as the southern half of the country. In the summer you may find them breeding around the Great Lakes or in northern states such as the Dakota’s, Montana and Wyoming.
Males sport an iridescent deep green head, wing patch and rump feathers. This sticks out against their rusty colored sides and white chest. But this is only their breeding plumage, and during the non-breeding season males loose these bright colors for an overall warm brown.
12. Purple Gallinule
Scientific name: Porphyrio martinica
The male Purple Gallinule is a vibrant combination of iridescent purple, blue, and green. His beak is a pop of scarlet and his legs are mustard-yellow. Their huge, dexterous feet help them navigate among lily pads and shallow swamp waters. Florida is the best place to see them year-round, but they can also be found in the far southeastern U.S. during the spring and summer.
Scientific name: Anas platyrhynchos
The male Mallard might be one of the most recognizable species of waterfowl. This green-headed duck lives throughout the United States. They dwell in wild ponds and swamps as well as city parks and suburban wetlands. Just remember – if you do feed them, try iceberg lettuce, not bread.
Males sport the iconic iridescent green head that gleams in the sun. Both males and females have a hidden iridescent blue-purple patch along the back of their wing, only visible in flight.
14. Rufous Hummingbird
Scientific name: Selasphorus rufus
Most hummingbirds are green and white with a pop of color. Not this hummingbird. The Rufous Hummingbird is an explosion of copper, green and white. Males have a metallic orange gorget that flashes brightly in the sun, and their iridescent head and back feathers are green with a golden shift.
They spend warm months in the Pacific Northwest, then migrate south to Mexico. Attract them to your backyard with a typical hummingbird feeder.
15. White-faced Ibis
Scientific name: Plegadis chihi
This graceful water bird is a colorful feast for the eyes. It has a bright red eye, pink legs, and iridescent bronze, green, and plum purple wing feathers. Native to wetlands in the western United States and Mexico, it breeds in the north and winters in the Baja peninsula and Gulf Coast.
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.