Hello, Yellow

Sunshine in feathered form

Bronwen Scott

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Female olive-backed sunbird perched on a spike of palm frond against a blue sky. She is looking down.
Female Olive-backed Sunbird, North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott.

I planned to photograph a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis) as a reference for a drawing. The male was far too flighty, so I concentrated on the female while she perched on an emerging palm frond. This saved me from having to reproduce the iridescence of the male’s fancy bib — shades of purple and blue created entirely by tricks of the light. But I hadn’t thought about the yellow. How would I capture that brilliant yellow?

The colour comes from carotenoids in the feathers. Carotenoids are nearly ubiquitous in living organisms — they make pumpkins orange and egg yolks yellow, they are found in young leaves and dying leaves, and they protect cells from oxidative stress. But they do not create just one shade of yellow. The pigments range from a pale lemon wash to deep orange and beyond.

In 1774, geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner put together a list of mineral colours as part of his work Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien. Over following years, the list of colours was translated, reworked and expanded into Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with Additions, arranged so as to render it highly useful to the Arts and Sciences. The definitive version of Werner’s reference was that of botanical artist Patrick Syme, who added hand-painted samples of colour. Each was was accompanied by an example of its occurrence in an animal, plant and mineral.

Published it in 1814, Werner’s Nomenclature was used by scientists all over the world. Darwin took a copy with him on the voyage of HMS Beagle.

When describing an octopus observed in rock pools in the Cape Verde Islands, Darwin referred to colours listed in the book.

The colour, examined more carefully, was a French grey, with numerous minute spots of bright yellow: the former of these varied in intensity; the latter entirely disappeared and appeared again by turns. These changes were effected in such a manner that clouds, varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut-brown…

French grey, according to Syme is ‘nearly the steel grey of Werner, without the lustre…greyish white, with a slight tinge of black and carmine red’. It is the colour of the breast of the Pied Wagtail. Hyacinth red ‘is scarlet red, with lemon yellow and a minute…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com