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What is it about yellow? April 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

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     



1. ceecee - April 29, 2008

Well goodness, I can’t think of a single intelligent thing to say on the matter. Now I will have to spend my time with Google this morning. :0)

Ha!!! Well, clearly I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, either! Please let us know what you find out!

2. ceecee - April 29, 2008

Oh my, Google and I found it in less than 10 minutes. I won’t spoil it by printing the article, but by adding a link for others to read once they’ve added their two-cents worth.
Thank you though, for food for thought. I love something that makes me think and research. Keeps the brain young!

Wow, CeeCee, that was a great article–thanks for the link! (Though I know that dogs at least can see red, green and brown, not just black and white.) Loved the cute little marsupial, too! Insects can apparently see UV colors, so their color world is much richer than ours, but of course they have to filter visual info through all those lenses, so what they actually “see” is quite different. Vision is such a fascinating thing!

3. Barbee' - April 29, 2008

Having a father and son who are color blind makes me even more sensitive to the thoughts of color. Color blind they are, but they can see yellow and blue. Those come through, but red, brown, green are lost. Yes, vision is fascinating and wonderful thing. Just the concept of seeing color is wonderous and makes the idea of not being able to see it even more interesting.

Ack, I’d hate to lose red–it’s my favorite! I had a color-blind friend in college who said those colors looked like a sickening shade of yellow-grey. I recalled his remark the first time I saw the Sandia Mountains–suddenly I understood the shade he was talking about!

4. Jacqueline - April 29, 2008

I love the color yellow…just something about it!

Me, too, Jacqueline! It’s so cheering!

5. Cinj - April 30, 2008

Yellow is such a cheerful color. I guess I really don’t have anything intelligent to say about it either. 🙂

Ha!!! Well, you’re in good company… Maybe with yellow, simple enjoyment is good enough!

6. kate - May 3, 2008

Good question and I am quite taken with goldfinches – seeing my first ones ever today. My friend was over and we were standing in the garden watching the pond. In flew several goldfinches along with what we thought were purple finches (who could easily have been house finches). They are fearless creatures – the robin who seems to have claimed the pond for his own sent the finches off a few times.

I like the quote from Picasso too …

Yes, goldfinches are a delight. I’m so glad they’ve discovered your garden! As for the Picasso quote, I’ve always thought it epitomized the creative process. Though when I take up my beloved watercolors, sing, or play the guitar, I’m one of the ones who can turn the sun into a yellow ball, when I create a poem, I turn a yellow ball into the sun. And except for the ecstacy of pure thought, I know of no greater joy.

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