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How did birds become so colourful? Find out

The public can help scientists study how the colours in bird plumages evolved.

Researchers have photographed 35,000 bird specimens from the Museum's collection and taken over 210,000 images. The public can now help analyse the data on each picture in a new citizen science initiative called Project Plumage.

Birds and colour

There are around 10,000 living species of bird. They represent a vast range of feather colours and patterns - and the research team plan to photograph them all. This project will help map the colours of every living species of bird in the world.

Dr Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield, who is leading the project, explains its aims:

'Animal colour can have many functions from attracting mates to camouflage. When we think about the diversity of birds, colour is one of the most striking features.

'We want to learn more about how this diversity came to be and test how the evolution of different colours leads to the origin of new species.'

The colourful wing of a macaw

How you can take part

Anyone can help the team by visiting the Project Plumage website, looking at a bird image and marking up the areas of colour on its body. No prior knowledge or training is needed and each image only takes a couple of minutes to complete.

Lucy Robinson, the Museum's Citizen Science Programme Manager, is excited by the collaboration, and the prospect of people all over the world being involved.

She says, 'This project gives people a special opportunity to see and work on bird collections that are not on public display, making new discoveries and real contributions to advancing our knowledge of the natural world.'

Life in ultraviolet

The plumage of many bird species reflects light in the ultraviolet (UV) range, beyond what the human eye can detect.

Birds can see UV light, so this has a big impact on how birds see each other. To take account of this, the researchers have photographed each bird in both human-visible light and UV.

An image of a bird taken in human visible light The same bird imaged in ultraviolet light

A successful collaboration

Project Plumage is the second collaboration between the Sheffield team, the Museum and the public. The Mark My Bird project is looking at the evolution of bird bills by analysing 3D scans with the help of citizen scientists. Earlier this year, its first results were published in the science journal Nature.

The Museum's bird skin collection, housed at Tring, has almost 750,000 specimens, representing about 95% of the world's 10,000 species. The researchers have so far photographed over 7,000 species but aim to image them all.

The Nicobar pigeon is renowned for its bright plumage

The team will make the project data freely available to everyone. Dr Thomas explains, 'We are really excited about Project Plumage and the new discoveries that will emerge from the hundreds of thousands of images.

'The data we collect will be added to the Museum's open access Data Portal. So we hope that the data we collect will add to the value of the museum collections as well as a new perspective on the diversity of birds themselves.'