Being a Colorblind Birder
By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern
Can you picture the flaming orange throat of a Blackburnian Warbler? The vibrant rufous on a Hermit Thrush’s tail? The purple iridescence on a Lesser Scaup’s head? These are all sights a color deficient birder like myself will never be able to experience, or at least fully appreciate.
Colorblindness confuses many people. Often times when I tell someone about my colorblindness, their response is usually somewhere along the lines of, “so you can’t see any color at all?” Of course, like any decent troll, I tell them, “no, I see in black and white.”
But that’s a lie (or a bit of deadpan humor). Colorblindess, or more accurately, color deficiency, is not necessarily the total loss of color vision. There are many types of colorblindness, monochromacy (total color loss) included, that are caused by a faulty or absent cone cell in the retina. Since the cone cell in my eye that senses red light is malformed, I have Protanomaly and have a hard time distinguishing reds in other colors. For instance, what most people see as purple, I see as dark blue; pinks appear diffused and grayish; oranges are yellowish; and rufous is a light brown. Reds (e.g. scarlet) themselves are only less vibrant to me.
To illustrate what I see, I have added this comparison collage of a Hermit Thrush. Since I’m the colorblind one, please understand that the photo may not be 100% accurate.
So how does colorblindess affect my birding? To be perfectly honest, it’s not much of a crutch. Regarding North American birds, the only genera I really have trouble with are Cathartes, Icterus, and Selasphorus. As I commented earlier, I have difficulty seeing rufous, which is one of the most reliable ways to differentiate Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds or Hermit and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. So how do I get around these problems? Other field marks and assistance from other birders. For example, Hermit and Gray-cheeked Thrushes can be distinguished by the density of the spotting on their chest and Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds can be differentiated by the shape of their tail feathers when extended. However, if I cannot see the chest of a Cathartes thrush, or if a Selasphorus hummingbird doesn’t extend its tail, I won’t be able to identify them as I should be. This is when I have to seek aid from my normal vision friends, who can help me identify the birds properly.
In the end, I do feel like I’m missing out on something, but it doesn’t affect my desire to find or identify birds. As amazing as birds would be in normal color, I don’t mind seeing them the way I do. Still, for those of you who are not color deficient, don’t take your ability for granted. Appreciate birds to the fullest!