Of all the subtle shades and tones of the natural world, one of the most dominant yet least recognized colors has to be buff. Located in virtually every terrestrial habitat and adorning multitudes of animals, buff is featured prominently in nature’s palette This soft, subtle color walks a fine line between yellow and brown, often complicated by hints of pink or gray. The word buff is often associated with leather, and the color, named for the appearance of undyed buffalo leather, shares this connection.
Popular among prize livestock breeders and parrot fanciers, buff serves a bird much better in sandy or grassy environments than it might in a cage. Were a constellation of cryptic colors assembled, this shade would be a shining star. While wild birds always appear in the buff, as it were, only a percentage of them actually appear buff. Yet, that number tallies larger than it sounds. The sixty or so different bird species that include this ubiquitous color in their common names represent just the tip of the yellow-brown plumage iceberg (not an attractive image, I know.)
Buff adorns bands, bars, bellies, breasts, bridles, brows, cheeks, chests, collars, crests, faces, fronts, heads, necks, rumps, shoulders, spots, streaks, tails, throats, vents, and wings. From owls and woodpeckers to sandpipers and rails to a handsome host of passerines, most bird families have some relatives daubed with buff. Some are simply buffy, including a Fish Owl in the Pacific Rim, a Pipit in Africa, and a Tuftedcheek in Central America. It’s enough to do a vivaceous vampire slayer proud.
Another tone closely related to buff is tawny. These two colors share a similar origin, as tawny descends from the Medieval Latin tannare, meaning to tan hides. I’ve most often heard this shade, also based on the brownish-yellow of tanned leather, used to describe the complexion of lions. However, tawny identifies plenty of birds as well, fabulous eagles and antpittas, frogmouths and piculets. This color, like buff, claims a Fish Owl and Pipit of its own, though the differences in coloration between the Buffy Fish Owl (Bubo ketupu) and Tawny Fish Owl (Bubo flavipes) seem so slight as to make one wonder why these birds aren’t named for more defining characteristics. All in all, more than forty different bird species bear adornment or appendages of this color, assuming their names are accurate.
The Australian or Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) has an interesting place in this discussion. Considering that this bird’s range is restricted to Australia and New Guinea, it seems odd that the kestrel might be named for the city or Nanjing, alternately Nanking, the capital of Jiangsu province in China. In fact, it is not, at least not directly. Nankeen also refers to a yellow or buff color, after a natural-colored Chinese cotton of the same color and name.
Bird coloration buffs probably already know that further terms describing yellow-brown abound. Tune in next week for some of the more improbable ones.