Countershading helps birds hide from predators

Have you ever noticed that many of our backyard birds including juncos, titmice, mockingbirds, and a whole host of others are dark on top and a lighter shade on the underside? This contrast is known as “countershading.” The coloring can vary from shades of brown, gray, and black above with buff, light gray, and white below.

In nature, everything has a purpose and the purpose of countershading has to do with concealing the bird from predators. In the case of the Slate-colored Junco, for instance, the two-tone countershading breaks up the outline of the bird’s body as a sort of camouflage to help it blend into its surroundings. The top half of the junco is dark so when seen from above (perhaps by a hungry hawk), it blends in with the darker ground; when seen from below, the bird’s white belly blends in with the lighter coloring of the sky.

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Slate-colored Junco

Even when viewed from the side, the two-tone coloring of the Tufted Titmouse disrupts the bird’s outline, helping to conceal it from predators.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Many hawks including the Red-tailed Hawk receive benefit from countershading. Although hawks are at the top of the food chain and so have few natural predators, other predatory birds, such as bigger hawks and eagles, will steal a kill from the Red-tail if they get a chance. Just as countershading helps conceal smaller birds from predators, it helps the Red-tail escape detection by competitors while he finishes his meal.

Photo by US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

Red-tailed Hawk. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

It’s interesting to look at the physical characteristics of birds not just from the standpoint of beauty, but from the perspective of how these traits help them to survive. When we understand that a bird’s coloring can help to attract a mate or avoid detection by a predator, it becomes clear that beauty is indeed as beauty does.

Nature is man’s teacher. She unfolds her treasures to his search, unseals his eye, illumes his mind, and purifies his heart; an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence.” ~ Alfred Billings Street.

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14 thoughts on “Countershading helps birds hide from predators

  1. Great post, Jo Ann. I tend to think of countershading more when I think of fish (they have predators coming at them from above and below), but you’re right, it works just as well in birds. Breaking up your outline is crucial for camouflage. That’s why some owls have ‘ears’, It helps them blend into the trunk of a tree when they’re standing next to it.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely post and great images. Happy holidays!

    • Countershading is also used on fighter planes and bombers where stealth comes into play. Didn’t know that about owls’ ears. I always enjoy and learn from your comments, Heather. I hope you have a wonderful holiday as well!

  2. That was a great post about birds you probably none a lot than me I like the hawk pic we have a hawk that is are schooling the upper school so it is very cool merry christmas see you on Christmas 🎅🎅🎄🎄🎅🎄🎅🎄🎅🎄

  3. I love the quote from Alfred Billings Street – nature surely is our teacher. We just have to watch and learn; he is so, so right.
    Informative post and great pics, thanks for sharing.

    • I learn when I do research for my blog, as I’m sure you do too. I’m not a winter person, but I’m trying to get out everyday to see what’s going on around the farm. I’m always glad when someone finds my posts informative – that means I’m succeeding in what I’m trying to do. 🙂

  4. I enjoy finding foot prints that I can’t identify. Rabbit tracks are my favorite. Kiana sniffs out places where the deer sleep and then rolls around in that area. Some of the little things that break up a snowy, cold season here in Minnesota.

    • If we ever get any snow here (only one light snow last year), Bill and I look for tracks and try to imagine what’s going on. It’s especially fun if you can find a place where there’s not a lot of foot traffic; sometimes the tracks will tell a kind of “story.”

  5. Nice post! I am familiar with countershading through my illustration. So many times I have bemoaned this feature…it makes the critters look so much flatter (especially on paper) – with the light parts on bottom which would be in shade, and the dark parts on top in full light. But, that’s the whole point, right? It helps the animals disappear…as if they have less volume. Hard on us artists, though!

  6. That’s exactly right, Denise. The contrasting tones do make them look flat. The thought I had in doing this post was that the birds are evolving to be better survivors, while the predators are evolving to be better predators at the same time. It’s a high stakes game.

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