As fall arrives in Missouri, the landscape transforms. Slowly, the bright green foliage of summer morphs into shades of yellow, red, and orange that dot our woodlands. Many birds trade in their brilliant feathers for more subdued seasonal attire. Winter raptors and their drab plumage are not far behind.
During spring, you may spend an entire morning fishing the river and never notice the young fawn in the nearby bottomland forest. Its spots blend perfectly with the sun-dappled shade. Come November that same fawn will no longer be dressed in spots, but instead will be sporting a new coat of autumn brown.
This is nature’s kaleidoscope — always changing with the calendar.
Outdoor excursions with young children provide endless discoveries. You can even make a game out of locating colorful hidden wonders. It’s hard to beat the excitement of a kindergartener who has just come across a walking stick insect that looks and acts like a brown twig or a preschooler watching carefully for a camouflaged tree frog to make its next move.
Children can ask some tough questions about nature. Why do some birds have bright feathers, while others are so brown? Where did that green grasshopper escape to in the yard? Why does that lizard have a blue belly? Colors found in nature can have many purposes. The top three are attraction, warning, and camouflage.
Most of Missouri’s native wildflowers need animals for pollination. Bees, butterflies, and birds are visual creatures that are often attracted to colors. For example, some blossoms capture the attention of hummingbirds more than others.
Flowers, such as wild columbine, trumpet creeper, and cardinal flower, are well adapted both in color and structure to gain the attention they need for pollination. All three of these plants have flame-orange or red, tubular blossoms that act as magnets for the ruby-throated hummingbirds found in Missouri.
The hummingbirds themselves also display special coloration. Each male hummingbird is adorned with an iridescent shimmering throat patch called a “gorget.” Female hummingbirds are dull in comparison and do not have these colorful throat patches. When a new hummingbird arrives on the scene at a backyard feeder or flower patch, it is evident to all the other hummingbirds if it’s a male rival or a visiting female.
Males of many bird species use colorful plumage to attract mates. Bright-yellow American goldfinches, brilliant-blue indigo buntings, and cherry-red northern cardinals are some of the more familiar species. As a general rule, most male songbirds are more noticeable in the spring. This is especially true of migrating Neotropical birds, such as warblers.
In autumn, sometimes it’s hard to tell male birds from their female mates. Those same male goldfinches are dressed more drably when they investigate the thistle seed at your feeder in the fall.
In our everyday lives, we encounter many warning signs, from red traffic lights and orange construction cones to yellow caution ribbon and bright neon-colored flags. All of these are used to get our attention in order to keep us safe. Similarly, in nature, the colors yellow, orange, and red often serve to warn creatures. This type of warning by toxic animals is known as “aposematic coloration.”
In southern Missouri, large, black-bodied centipedes display red heads and yellow legs to warn others of their toxins, which they can deliver via fangs and bodily secretions. Found in localized woodland populations, this species is a formidable foe for its prey, which may include amphibians, insects, and even tiny mammals.
Some creatures just look like dangerous or toxic animals to avoid being eaten. The viceroy butterfly is a good imitator of the monarch butterfly. Birds that have attempted to eat a monarch, and later became ill, do not do so a second time. When those birds encounter a viceroy, which looks almost identical to the monarch, they avoid it. They are not aware the viceroy is a separate species without toxin. There are not as many viceroys as there are monarchs, which means a greater chance of birds learning this lesson before encountering a viceroy.
Another distinct coloration that signals warning is the well-known black-and-white pattern of skunks. All creatures recognize the skunk as an animal to be left alone. In Missouri, there are two species — the familiar striped skunk and the rarely seen eastern spotted skunk.
While many creatures use colors to gain attention or signal caution, others prefer to go unnoticed. These animals use camouflage, a form of cryptic coloration, to prevent predators from discovering them. Predators also rely on camouflage to hide and sneak up on their prey. There are different forms of camouflage in nature.
Female birds of all sorts, from cardinals and indigo buntings to wild turkeys, sit quietly upon their earth colored nests. Their brown plumage allows them to blend in with their nest and surroundings, keeping them hidden. Young are usually dressed in shades of brown as well to help them disappear into nearby vegetation once they leave the nest.
With their unique camouflage and behavior, American bitterns do a disappearing act among cattails and other vegetation found along the water’s edge. When a threat approaches, the bittern freezes, beak up, revealing a long, thin, brown-and-tan striped neck. Suddenly, it looks just like the surrounding reeds and grasses. This color pattern not only protects them from predator detection, but also helps them to secretly approach their favorite prey — fish.
This same type of disguise works well with other animals that use leaf litter for cover. Many reptiles, amphibians, and insects blend into their surroundings. Rust-colored copperhead snakes and light-brown fence lizards are two such examples. Green katydids and grasshoppers also quickly escape into a sea of grass when approached by predators or curious children.
One of the best camouflage artists is the gray tree frog. With its ability to blend in with the bark it is resting upon, this Houdini of the amphibian world disappears into the background. It gives off its distinctive trill, but from where? During the night hours, the frogs wait for insects to come along. What appears to be just another piece of tree bark quickly flicks out a sticky, pink tongue to devour yet another meal. The insect never knew what hit it!
Insects such as walking sticks and caterpillars are great fun for kids. Giant swallowtail caterpillars look, well, like bird droppings, and who wants to mess with that? It foils many predators that would like to eat a nice, juicy caterpillar. Other caterpillars disguise themselves with large spots that look like eyes.
The larva of the tiger swallowtail butterfly looks ferocious with its green skin and fake eyes. Missouri creeks hold many disguised and camouflaged animals, including green frogs that hide among aquatic vegetation, and fish, such as mottled and banded sculpins, that are patterned to look like stones.
Fish often use a form of camouflage known as counter shading to confuse predators and escape capture. Catfish are good examples. In counter shading, the top of the fish is colored similar to that of the stream bed below. To creatures peering into the water, the fish blends in with a dark background. For underwater predators looking up from the bottom, the fish’s underside is lighter in color to disappear into the bright, clear sky above.
Occasionally, colors show up in nature and attract the wrong type of attention. Two examples are that of albinism and melanism. Albinism is a lack of pigment, which causes animals to be white or nearly white. Melanism is the opposite. There is too much pigment present, and the animal is very dark. A white deer in the middle of a brown autumn forest is an easy target for predators. Likewise, a dark-colored animal in a group of its otherwise light-colored kin is likely to stand out. Seeing these animals is a rare treat.
More information about color in nature can be found in our online field guide at mdc.mo.gov/node/73 or at any of Missouri’s conservation nature centers. Pick up publications on topics such as Missouri’s trees, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and more. You may wish to take part in a naturalist-led program or stroll along one of the many hiking trails to discover more of nature’s kaleidoscope. For a list of events in your area, visit mdc.mo.gov/events.