What is it about yellow? April 29, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: color yellow, goldfinches, quotes about yellow
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about the color yellow. I was over at Hawk’s Haven the other day visiting with our friend Ben and Silence Dogood and admiring their goldfinches, when I was suddenly struck by a thought. Lots of birds—goldfinches, of course, but also warblers, meadowlarks, parrots, blackbirds, orioles, tanagers, and so on—display that brilliant crayon-box yellow plumage. Insects also come in true yellow—bees (and the hover flies that mimic them), wasps, hornets, butterflies and caterpillars—and so do spiders, like the common orb-weaving garden spider. Snails, frogs, salamanders, snakes, and lizards also display true yellow. So, okay, why don’t mammals come in crayon-box yellow?
Some mammals are yellowish, of course. Leopards and Palomino horses come to mind. Cats can have yellow eyes. Humans can have blond hair. But there is no primary yellow in the mammalian world. Why? What advantage does the color yellow confer on other creatures that it doesn’t confer on us?
I can imagine that brilliant yellow might help birds and bugs blend in among the flowers, and it might help frogs and salamanders blend into a moist woodland floor or rotting log with its yellow fungi. Perhaps the yellow of stinging insects, poisonous snakes, and biting spiders could be seen by other creatures as a warning: Leave me alone or else! But I’d also think it would make birds like goldfinches more conspicuous, easy prey for predators like cats. Then again, the Hawk’s Haven outdoor cat population completely ignores the goldfinches swarming over the feeders, as though they didn’t even see them. And maybe they don’t! Cats don’t see color as we do, so perhaps yellow is invisible to them, or transformed into a muted grey, green, or brown that blends into the landscape.
Since I started wondering about all this, I’ve done a little research and made a few phone calls, but haven’t come up with any answers. I’m still no closer to understanding why field mice aren’t bright yellow or why our own skin isn’t brilliantly spotted or striped. Maybe some of you can help me out here!
Meanwhile, here’s a little entertainment in the form of some great yellow-related quotes:
“There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”—Vincent Van Gogh
“The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”—Randall Jarrell
“Silence is not always golden; sometimes it is yellow.”—Anonymous (Sorry, Silence! I’m sure he didn’t mean you.)
“Spending an evening on the World Wide Web is much like sitting down to a dinner of Cheetos, two hours later your fingers are yellow and you’re no longer hungry, but you haven’t been nourished.”—Clifford Stoll
And my all-time favorite:
“Any man can turn the sun into a yellow ball. Ah, but to turn a yellow ball into the sun!”—Pablo Picasso