How to make color from a feather / by Chris Maynard

 Turaco feather soluble

Turaco feather soluble

There is a kind of bird from Africa that you can make color from its feathers. I read on the internet that the Turaco's feather pigment is water soluble. It is hard to believe since this bird lives in tropical forests where I could just picture its feathers dripping red and green in a rainstorm. So I took one of their beautifully red-colored wing feathers (shed at a zoo) and put it in a glass of water to leave overnight. Actually, it wasn’t that simple because these (and most) feather surface structures repel water. This feather just popped up to float on the surface. So I squeezed and kneaded the feather until the surface tension broke and the water finally soaked into the feather.  Next morning I checked on the cup and found the water to be perfectly clear. Hmmmm. This feather’s red pigment is the only red feather color known to be copper based. The bird’s green pigment, also copper based, is the only know true green chemical pigment in birds—the greens of most birds being a combination of yellow carotene-type pigments and blue surface structures.

Then I added a small amount of dish soap to the cup and immediately red started coming out of the feather into the water. After about an hour, the feather turned a light grey color and the water looked like cherry juice. I did soak a green feather in soapy water but the green remained in the feather and the water clear. The next step is to evaporate most of the water and see if I can make a watercolor to use in a background for a shadowbox using these feathers.