In the animal kingdom, camouflage is a key strategy to survive and breed by disguising one’s location, blending in, appearing as something one is not like a leaf or twig, melting into the background of colors and textures of plants and trees in order to avoid being eaten or increase the chance of getting a meal by sneaking up on the unwary. In the pecking order of lunch, one can be both predator and prey.
Over millennia, camouflage has become so diverse, complex, and widespread from moths to deer, insects to tigers, birds to turtles, chameleons to butterflies. Most interesting to me is active camouflage, changing colors and patterns to merge into a particular surrounding or changing colors with the season.
One bitingly cold March, I decided to hook up with a small group of birdwatchers for a weekend field trip in the Highlands of Scotland. Our prize was a kind of grouse called the ptarmigan. Ptarmigan comes from the Gaelic, tàrmachan, for “grumbler” or “croaker,” a reminder of the ptarmigan’s grouchy voice.
This bird is gray-brown in all seasons (melding in with boulders and crags perfectly); but when the snow starts to fall, it turns a glistening white, except for its firehouse-red eyebrows. To maintain their color camouflage and evade foxes and other hunters, ptarmigans molt their feathers three times a year. These birds don’t sit out in the elements overnight but burrow into the snow. So, spotting a ptarmigan is a tall challenge.
Wouldn’t you know it when we had about given up and ready to head off to a local pub, our leader spotted one perched on a boulder backlit by the fading sunlight! We stayed glued to the spot with our binoculars, until the bird scurried down to its cozy snow cave for the night.
I’ve wondered how this bird would fare with global warming and melting glaciers. I’ve wondered about us, how we use camouflage, how we try to disguise ourselves, even from ourselves.