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Leaving dragons a little aside, a memory came to my mind when I researched about mythological/folk creatures that fly and remembered a very peculiar one: the Firebird. It's basically a glowing bird and it fascinated me! I want a bird like that for my world, a bird that many characters can have as a pet. But I don't want the creature to be magical and as realistic as possible. Is it possible for a bird to glow?

Basically, what I have in mind is: the bird is carnivorous, it feeds on insects. It has feathers in shades of yellow, red and orange. The bird is able to emit light rays through its feathers. The bird is diurnal, but the mating ritual is at night, the ritual is to fly through the night sky and sparkle. The bird chooses when it will emit light. The bird is monogamous, so the feathers will gradually be replaced by normal feathers after the bird finds its partner(well, in some species it's like that, in others the feathers are permanent as some insects are attracted to light, so it's a good hunting tactic). Bioluminescence is autogenic, that is, the bird itself produces it and not a bacterium it eats.

Note: I used google to translate so maybe "shimmering" is wrong. In Portuguese, "cintilante" means something that emits light in short intervals of time. In other words, my bird can glow and go out whenever it wants to create a light show, it doesn't just glow, it fluctuates between glowing and going out.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you mean glowing, not shimmering, which involves reflected light. Peacocks do a pretty good job of shimmering. But the fundamental problem is that feathers, like hair, are no longer living. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 28 '21 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Could you have a moon that reflects ultraviolet during mating season, then this is absorbed and converted to visible light, "glow/shimmering" the bird, or does the bird need to generate the light chemically? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Nov 28 '21 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ You need to chemically generate light, this information is in the post, just read it. $\endgroup$ Nov 28 '21 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ I used google to translate so maybe "shimmering" is wrong. In Portuguese, "cintilante" means something that emits light in short intervals of time. In other words, my bird can glow and go out whenever it wants to create a light show, it doesn't just glow, it fluctuates between glowing and going out. $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 1:13
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I think you could achieve what you want if your bird had bioluminescence skin cells — either generally bioluminescent across its body or specialized bioluminescent cells around feather follicles — and then had feathers that acted as optical fibers. Feathers are already hollow structures, so the latter isn't an unreasonable evolute. This would provide a flexible system. The bioluminescent cells could be turned on or off individually or as a whole; the construction of a given feather could change the color of the light, as in iridescence; and the fluffing or splaying of feathers could create static or moving patterns and displays.

Think of a peacock, but where light was generated at the base of the feather and guided up the feather's hollow interior to burst out at the tip. Very cool image...

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"Is it possible?" Is this biology? :)

  • Chemiluminescence is an appealing, biological approach, but as mentioned, there is an issue getting nutrients to the feathers. It would be possible to embed a very durable implementation of luciferase enzymes of various colors in the feather and then have the bird secrete a solution of luciferin and hydrogen peroxide, with which it proudly preens its nighttime plumage. Each feather would shine with its innate color pattern, giving the precise impression of a daytime coloration (though the colors produced could be very different)

  • Fluorescence could work also. The feathers absorb UV light and emit visible frequencies. Like with a black light, but by relying on natural fluorescent pigment embedded in feathers with a variable ultrastructure and blocking pigments, hopefully it doesn't look so garish. Where does the UV come from? Well, we give the bird a powerful UVA-emitting luciferase in its skin... (That and a lot of melanocytes!)

  • That leaves a huge variety of weirder options. The feather matrix (equivalent of the bottom of a hair follicle) generates light, and the shaft and barbs of the feather works as a fiber optic system. Or the barbs generate piezoelectricity during flight and discharge it abruptly in colorful sparks. Or the bird dusts its feathers in microbes left over after the evaporation of phosphorescent epiphytic pools in the trees. Or maybe they invented Christmas tree lights. :) You have options here.

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I'll freely admit that I don't have too much of an idea how shimmering could be achieved. I know that many birds have a gland (preen gland) near the base of their tail that secrets oil. This oil is then gathered by its beak and rubbed all over to help their wings maintain a waterproof layer. If you just want a shiny bird you could just give it more reflective oil to go on its bright colored feathers.

Tying into that, maybe the bird does only have highly reflective feathers and is smart enough to know how they interact with light sources. This is why mating displays, where the shiniest bird gets the prize, take place on a night with very bright moonlight. That also could be part of the reason they easily interact with humans. After all, humans are the species best at making light (campfires to stadium lights) and we like smart birds that eat insects. Of course we'd make them pets.

The other idea I have is that the bird keeps bioluminescent bacteria in the base of its feathers. I don't really know about this symbiotic relationship developing outside of a marine environment except for a weird time in the civil war when soldiers' wounds got infected with bioluminescent bacteria because they had been laying in a cold swamp ("Angel's glow" at the battle of Shiloh) but it seems plausible enough. Not sure how the birds could turn off the glow once it starts except for maybe arranging their flight feathers to cover the glowing down feathers. Oh, this could have the benefit that the birds have a lower body temperature to keep the bacteria alive and this resulted in the cultural rumor that they are fire proof. They wouldn't actually be but it could be a superstition that translates to symbolism like flags or coats-of-arms.

Actually, maybe their preen gland could could contain sets of chemicals that, when combined, create luminescence. Chemically induced bioluminescence is what fire flies use except they combine the chemicals in a internal organ while your birds could be applying the chemicals like self-made make up. Again, this doesn't provide for an easy on/off but its another idea that could be built on.

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Fiber optic feather

Bio luminosity is a well known feature that is often used in gene studies to have something cool to show off. Put the bio luminosity of jelly fish or the like into a rabbit or something. If you have that, you might be able to use this with fiber optics.

I can’t find the right name, but there's some decorative lamps that are just a bundle of fiber optics. You might find what I mean if you search for 'fiber optic fountain light'. The idea is simple. The light travels along a fiber. The light bounces on the edge of the fiber, losing nearly no light. Upon reaching the end, the light can disperse 'normally' in all directions.

Apply this to feathers. Some bio luminous material will fire light into the feather or feather strand. The colour can be changed by the bio luminous material or the shade of the feather strand. The use of this can be communication, confusion of enemies or threatening displays. This can evolve even further for mating and the like. This can make the edges of the feathers pulse and change shades for a more fire like display.

This isn't without problems. I don't know how bright bio luminosity is, but I think it isn't very strong. You might have to handwave a much stronger bio luminous light. In addition, the bio luminosity can work ok if shining directly into the strands, but that might be difficult with how a feather is build. If you put the bio luminous material in the feathers they still need a direct connection to the body as well as a way to close this off and reject it if the feather needs to be removed.

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The uropyal/preening gland is an absolute necessity of life-style for the water birds in particular (to waterproof their plumage) but is present in all birds. And in all flying birds, preening is a necessity.

It may just happens that, in the firebird case, the preening gland secretes not only pheromones but a chemiluminescent compound during courtship period. Flying high and all shimmering is the particular way of demonstrating a good health and fitness for the firebird - I mean, preening does have the secondary function to

send sexual signals to potential mates because plumage colouration (which can be altered by the act of preening) can reliably reflect the health or "quality" of its bearer... In some species, preen oil is used to cosmetically colour the plumage. During the breeding season, the preen oil of the great white pelican becomes red-orange, imparting a pink flush to the bird's plumage. The preen oil of several gull and tern species, including Ross's gull, contains a pink colourant which does the same. The heads of these birds typically show little pink, because of the difficulty of reaching those areas with preen oil. The yellow feathers of the great hornbill are also cosmetically coloured during preening. The preen oil of the Bohemian waxwing increases the UV reflectance of its feathers. Ritualised preening is used in courtship displays by several species, particularly ducks; such preening is typically designed to draw attention to a modified structure (such as the sail-shaped secondaries of the drake mandarin duck) or distinctive colour (such as the speculum) on the bird. Mallards of both sexes will lift a wing so that the brightly coloured speculum is showing, then will place their bill behind the speculum as if preening it.


The downsize of being "on fire while being high with love" during mating season - it makes the firebirds easy to spot by predators, this is probably why the firebird is all extinct in real world life.

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As far as I can tell, mature feathers don't usually have blood vessels. It could be that the firebird's glowy feathers do in fact retain their blood vessels that let them deliver hormones and oxygen into the feather. The hormones would presumably be related to the desire to mate.

These hormones in turn trigger the production and oxidation of the appropriate sort of luciferases in the feather's shaft, and the optical properties of the barbs make it seem the whole feather is glowing.

This would work particularly well as a mating ritual because the extra oxygen consumption means that the bird with the best light show also has the best aerobic endurance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ouch for plucked feathers though, and then there's the bleeding... $\endgroup$
    – Lemming
    Nov 27 '21 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ Would the bioluminescence be in accordance with the colors of the feathers? $\endgroup$ Nov 27 '21 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding feathers, I updated the post. $\endgroup$ Nov 27 '21 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @WizardKing I imagine the glow would be in the feather's color. If the feather produces barbs of a given color, why not luciferases. And you can probably handwave the exact chemical composition of the luciferases away. $\endgroup$
    – HAEM
    Nov 27 '21 at 15:02

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