What colour is a Blue Jay?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 October 2018

Charles Darwin clearly took his job as naturalist on the 5-year-long (1831-36) Beagle voyage quite seriously. Based on his own detailed accounts, he took every opportunity to explore extensively wherever they made landfall, collecting, describing and preserving all manner of plants and animals to take back to experts in England. These specimens and sightings eventually provided myriad examples that he used in his 11 famous books developing his ideas about natural selection, but were also the basis for formal descriptions of new species, and illustrations in publications by several of his correspondents [1].

Some of Werner’s blues in Syme (1821)

Because many of the species that Darwin collected were new to science, he was careful to record colours, especially those that might fade on specimens of fish and invertebrates preserved in ‘spirits’. To do this, he was keen to use a method that would allow him to record colours in a way that could be understood by others and reproduced accurately by artists reading his notes years later. For many of Darwin’s descriptions in his field notes, he used the colour swatches and names in Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours by Patrick Syme published in 1821.

We know that Darwin used that colour guide because The Reverend Leonard Jenyns, in the introduction to his 1842 volume on the fishes of Darwin’s Beagle Voyage, says: The colours, in the great majority of instances, were, fortunately, noticed by Mr. Darwin in the recent state [i.e. ‘fresh’]. The nomenclature employed by him for the purpose is that of Patrick Syme; and he informs me, that a comparison was always made with the book in hand, previous to the exact colour in any case being noted. [2]

Bird specimens—usually study skins—don’t often change much in colour because the pigments and feather nanostructures that created those colours are relatively stable over even centuries of careful preservation. Thus, Darwin used Werner’s Nomenclature for birds mainly when describing their soft parts (beaks, eyes, feet).

Abraham Gottlob Werner was a German geologist and mineralogist who worked at the Freiberg  Mining Academy in the late 1700s. In 1774, he published the first-ever textbook of mineralogy, and in that book presented a method for identifying minerals by their ‘key characteristics’, reminiscent of the ‘key characteristics’ of birds outlined by Ray and Willughby a century earlier [3]. For minerals, Werner considered those key characteristics to be colour and lustre, and he gave ‘formal’ names and descriptions to about 65 colours [4] that he thought would be useful for identifying different minerals.

An example of Syme’s botanical art, an apple tree

Patrick Syme, an art teacher and botanical artist, learned about Werner’s method from Robert Jameson, the professor of natural history at Edinburgh University. Jameson had studied with Werner and matched Werner’s colour descriptions with actual minerals. Syme used Jameson’s work as a starting point for his book, adding more than 40 colour swatches, names and descriptions to Werner’s original set, and identifying animals, vegetables and minerals that matched each colour swatch [5], as well as describing each colour in terms of other colours in Werner’s nomenclature. In all, 61 of the 110 colours are matched to birds. Here are three entries (COLOUR NAME description examples):

  • YELLOWISH WHITE snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey Egret; Hawthorn Blossom; Chalk and Tripoli
  • DUCK GREEN emerald green, with a little indigo blue, much gamboge yellow, and a little carmine red Neck of Mallard; Upper Disk of Yew Leaves; Ceylonite
  • AURORA RED tile red, with a little arterial blood red, and a slight tinge of carmine red Vent converts [sic] of Pied Wood-Pecker; Red on the Naked Apple; Red Orpiment

NewWernersEarlier this year, the Natural History Museum (UK) and the Smithsonian Institution (USA) published a facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature, claiming on the partial dust jacket that this was “The book Charles Darwin used to describe colours in nature on his HMS Beagle Voyage” and that “This charming facsimile edition is the perfect gift for artists and scientists alike”. I teach about Darwin, so I bought one [6]. I am, however, a little disappointed with this book, for two reasons.

First, to make this reprint the publishers have apparently “drawn upon both the 1814 and the 1821 editions to create this newest volume, in which our primary objectives have been not only to reintroduce one of the world’s first systemic [sic] taxonomy [sic] of colors—108 in total—but also to achieve as close a match as possible between our color swatches and those in the original editions.” [7]. To my eye, the attempt to match colours here is an utter failure—in far too many instances at least two of the colour swatches on any page are indistinguishable either to my eye or to my colorimetric instruments. The publishers’ claim to ‘close approximations’ is simply not correct, as an examination of online versions of the 1821 volume will reveal [8]. Looking at any of the online versions will give you a better feel for Darwin’s experience with this book.

I assume that Syme had his books hand-coloured with water colours as was the usual practice in the early 1800s. Those colours often do change with time, but they do not have to, as many bird books from that era still have clear and vibrant colours even today. Syme was an artist so I expect that he was very careful to ensure that the copies of his book showed accurate and consistent colours in every copy, otherwise his book would not have been very useful. Darwin presumably had a relatively new copy of the 1821 edition with him on the Beagle [9]—surely he would not have bothered trying to use this new facsimile edition as the colour swatches are not readily distinguishable from one another.

My second disappointment is with the purple prose of the introductory note by the publishers, two pages describing the original book and how (they think) Darwin must have used it. They say, for example that “Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s writing”. Precision, maybe, but there are not many who find Darwin’s writing to be generally lyrical [10]. Most important, though, Darwin did not actually use Werner’s nomenclature in his ‘writing’ as it does not appear in any of his books. I expect that Darwin saw no need to use the technical terms for colours in his general descriptions of animals and plants in books intended for a popular audience, even though he used them in his notes accompanying collected specimens [11]. When describing the Rough-faced Shag (Phalacrocorax carunculatus), for example, Darwin wrote (with Werner’s colour names in quotes): Cormorant: skin round eyes “Campanula blue” cockles at base of upper mandible “saffron & gamboge yellow”.— Mark between eyes & corner of mouth “orpiment orange”. [12]. Thus the publishers’ claim that “At some points the great naturalist seemed to draw almost painterly pleasure from the fastidiousness of the Werner taxonomy…” [7] seems largely to have been written to entice the unsuspecting reader into buying the book.

Unlike the old joke “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?”, the title of this essay is a serious question. It is not enough to say that a Blue Jay is blue—we ornithologists want to know exactly what kind of blue. Blue Jays, Bluebirds, Blue Tits, Blue Swallows, and Blue Mockingbirds, for example, are all different shades of blue [13].

Using my copy of this new facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature with its faulty colour renditions, I would say that a Blue Jay is Ultramarine Blue, but using the copy at Darwin online or the reconstructed colour swatches here, I think the bast match is Indigo Blue. Berlin Blue is described by Syme as matching the ‘Wing Feathers of Jay’ referring to the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), and different from most of the plumage of the Blue Jay, but very similar to the colour of its secondaries.

Blue (L) and Eurasian Jays (R) with some of the properly colour-matched blue swatches in Syme’s (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Ornithologists have played a large part in the categorization and naming of colours for the past 350 years. This should not really be too surprising as birds are colourful, their colour vision is fairly similar to ours [14], and we use colours to distinguish among species, subspecies, sexes, ages and the health of birds. Birds probably use colours in a similar fashion.


  • Birkhead T (2018) The wonderful Mr Willughby. The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Gould J (1838) Birds. Part 3 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Jenyns L (1842) Fish. Part 4 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Keynes R, editor (2000) Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.
  • Syme P (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with additions, arranged so as to render it highly useful to the arts and sciences, particularly zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and morbid anatomy. Annexed to which are examples selected from well-known objects in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Second edition. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and T. Cadell.
  • Werner AG (1874) Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien. [Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils]. Leipzig: Crusius.


  1. publications based on Darwin’s specimens and observations: see, for example, Jenyns (1842) and Gould (1838)
  2. Jenyns quotation: see Jenyns 1842 page x (Introduction)
  3. key characteristics: these were an important innovation in ornithology, introduced in Ray (1676 and 1678); see Birkhead (2018)
  4. Werner’s colours: Syme (1821) is not perfectly clear on which colours were Werner’s and which ones he added. At least 64 were definitely Werner’s but there may have been as many as 68 shown in Syme’s book.
  5. animals, vegetables, minerals: most of the 110 colour swatches have examples from at least two of these groups but there are many blanks in Syme’s tables, presumably because he could not find a close match, which is surprising for birds at least.
  6. buying a copy of the new edition of Werner’s Nomenclature: the partial dust jacket lists it at $14.95 US, ISBN 978-1-58834-62-6
  7. quotation about the facsimile edition: this is from the last paragraph of ‘A Note on the New Edition’ at the front of this reprint. Who writes this stuff? ‘Systemic’ usually refers to the body—I think they meant ‘systematic’; ‘taxonomy’ should be plural; and there are 110 swatches in this book, not 108.
  8. online versions: there are copies of the original 1821 version here and here, and a wonderful website by Nicholas Rougeux about the book and its colours here. On that site, Rougeux has some very nice posters for sale, and provides a downloadable database of information on all of the colours in Syme’s book, including his best estimate of the hex code for each colour
  9. Darwin’s Beagle copy: Darwin online implies that this is the copy now in the Huntington Library and available here online
  10. Darwin’s writing lyrical: to be sure, Darwin occasionally crafted some wonderful turns of phrase, but for the most part his books are detailed, descriptive and heavy going by today’s standards.
  11. absence of Werner nomenclature in Darwin’s books: to determine this I searched for 20 of the 110 colour names in Syme’s book, using the Darwin online search engine, as well as searching for “Werner” and “Syme”. The only times that those words appeared in anything written by Darwin were in his zoology notes and specimen lists (see Keynes 2000).
  12. Darwin’s description of cormorant: see page 396, entry 1756 in Keynes (2000)
  13. shades of blue: I am using the word ‘shade’ here to encompass the three more technical terms—hue, chroma, brightness—to describe a colour
  14. bird colour vision similar to ours: although birds see colours into the ultraviolet and can probably distinguish more colours than we can, their colour vision is more similar to ours than is the colour vision of virtually any other animal, save some primates

IMAGES: Syme’s apple painting and the European Jay photo from Wikimedia Commons; Blue Jay by Bruce Lyon; Syme’s book cover, photo by the author; Syme’s book contents from Darwin online and Nicholas Rougeux’s website

One thought on “What colour is a Blue Jay?

  1. naming or describing colors can be endlessly disturbing. My wife has a collection of books on Color, and ornithologists have struggled with this problem for generations. While Frank Smithe’s ‘Naturalists Color Guide” (AMNH, 1974) is a useful standard, there are still many unanswered question. A recent “How Red is Dragon’s Blood? in ‘Smithsonian’ (2014) still ponders some of these questions. WE may never get to the end of this particular rainbow.


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