Readers of my recent disquisition of the color buff may have been surprised to learn of so many terms for yellow-brown in the English language. Equally astonishing, you may agree, is the abundance of options for describing brownish-yellow. But linguistic specificity allows for clarity of expression. Why say “happy” when you’re actually feeling blissful, blithe, chipper, convivial, ecstatic, elated, exultant, jolly, jubilant, merry, playful, satisfied, thrilled, or tickled? In the same vein, why describe a bird as brownish-yellow, as dismal a depiction as one could find, when you could instead call it fulvous?
Fulvous, from the Latin fulvus, identifies a particularly luminous brown or, if you approach it from the other end of the spectrum, a swarthy butterscotch yellow. The color itself comes across as more beautiful than a mix of brown and yellow has a right to be, with undertones of gold and a caramel finish. The word, on the other hand, feels fleshy, incongruous, more suited to characterizing the coloration of extraterrestrial lifeforms or squid-mouthed elder gods from the ocean depths than to describing avian hues. But admittedly, fulvous is a fun word to say.
One of our finest and most far-flung fulvous feathered friends is the Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor), a noisy species of waterfowl that can be found in tropical regions across the world. Africa also boasts a Fulvous Babbler, Asia a Fulvous Parrotbill. Central America is home to the Fulvous Owl while much further south dwells both a Shrike-Tanager and Wren in this shade. At or below the equinoctial live birds with bellies, breasts, chests, chins, crests, dots, heads, and vents feathered in fulvous.
In a world with as improbable a word as fulvous, the related term, fuscous seems excessive. But don’t hold that against the Fuscous Flycatcher (Cnemotriccus fuscatus) of South America or Fuscous Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fuscus) of Australia. Both of these drab birds are daubed with the dusky melange of brown, gray, and yellow that fuscous describes.
Rounding out the three Fs of brownish-yellow is fawn, the color of dewy-eyed baby deer. The color fawn may technically show a bit lighter than fulvous, but has been applied indiscriminately to birds ranging from buff to brown. An interesting note about fawn is that, whenever it appears in the common names of avian species, it almost always decribes the bird’s frontage. We’ve got Bowerbirds, Brilliants, Tanagers, Thrushes, Waxbills, Whistlers, and Wrens with fawn breasts, but only one other species, the Fawn-colored Lark (Mirafra africanoides) of Africa, with this color acknowledged anywhere else in its anatomy. A fun fawn fact indeed!