Color Me Vermilion
As far as color terms go, vermilion is a winner, reeking of exoticism and antiquity. As fine as this color feels tripping off the tongue, it’s even easier on the eyes. Vermilion refers to a specific shade of reddish-orange washed with ashy gray, reminiscent of an overripe beefsteak tomato. This is the pigment derived from cinnabar, which is both the natural ore of mercury and another word worth working into conversation whenever possible. It’s also a shade with strong associations to certain birds, though the species varies depending on where you live.
In China, the Vermilion Bird is not biological at all, but astrological. The Vermilion (or Red) Bird of the South is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations, symbolic of fire and summer. This spiritually endowed archetype is linked for obvious reasons to the immortal Phoenix.
To find authentic avians clad in cinnabar, visit the New World. For most American birders, vermilion means only one bird; Pyrocephalus rubinus, the Vermilion Flycatcher, has to be one of the most beloved birds throughout a range that includes an abundance of powerhouses. This terrific tyrant flycatcher extends from southwestern North America to northern South America, presenting eye-popping scarlet from tall grasses and tree branches. In Venezuela and Colombia, the term may also call to mind the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus), whose name appears redundant from a chromatic perspective, as we’ll someday discuss. From Colombia around the western hump through Peru also appears another brilliant red bird, the Vermilion Tanager. Taxonomy trivia buffs may appreciate learning that Calochaetes coccineus is the only member of the genus Calochaetes, though a species this spectacular deserves similarly attractive kin.
Vermilion is considered a shade of both red and orange and while those august authorities behind the English names of the world’s birds waxed most eloquent when it came to describing the former in feathers, they showed a lamentable lack of imagination when denoting the latter. Orange may paint the plumage of hundreds of birds, but when referenced at all, it is usually addressed without sentiment or style. Africa boasts an Orange Bishop, Ground Thrush, River Francolin, and Weaver. The Orange Chat, Dove, Oriole, and Bullfinch dwell in Australia, Fiji, Mexico, and the Indian subcontinent respectively. Also found across the world are birds known for the orange coloration adorning their backs, bands, bellies, bills, breasts, brows, cheeks, chins, collars, crests, crowns, ears, flanks, feet, fronts, heads, necks, spots, throats, tufts, and wings.
One original orange avian name is that of the Orangequit. Ironically, Euneornis campestris, an endemic songbird of Jamaica, is mostly midnight blue, but its tale is told by the vermilion vehemence of its orange throat patch.