Brainerd, Minn. – My thoughts should have been on the cold weather as I walked the aisle of a local sporting goods store last week on a sunny but brutally cold morning. I was there to buy a pair of mittens with the index finger separate from the other three fingers, all the better to operate my chain saw while doing planned winter habitat improvement projects on my land.
Yet, as I passed the hunting clothing section I was amazed by the number of options available. There were patterns of every color. Some matched the trunks of trees, others had leaf and twigs imprinted on the pants, jackets, gloves and caps. There was camouflage clothing that matched snowy surroundings. There were camouflage patterns to suit any hunting encounter. The choices that catered to women had splashes of pink here and there.
My mind shifted to the outdoors. Many animals wear cryptic patterns all year, some blending themselves remarkably to their adjacent habitat.
The snowshoe hare is one example of an animal that changes its summer coat of brown to white to match its snowy surroundings, with the hope of helping its escape from the eyes of predators. Whitetailed jack rabbits do, too.
The weasel also transforms to white this time of year, and the change helps it as predator (hunting primarily mice and voles) and potential prey.
Perhaps the king of camouflage is the woodcock. Its mottled brown, gray, tan, and black plumage conceals it flawlessly on a dead-leaf forest floor. Even when a hunter approaches a dog on point — the dog’s position basically telling the hunter the location of the bird — woodcocks are extremely difficult to spot, their coloration broken into a jumble. When a woodcock is spotted, it can be hard to tell where the bird begins and ends. The feathers of ruffed grouse mask it nearly as well.
Some biologists call this form of animal camouflage disruptive coloration, where body colors appear as stripes, bars, bands, spots and twisty lines. Many members of the owl family are prime examples. Even a 3-foot tall great gray owl can virtually disappear if perched next to a tree trunk of a similar shade.
Think about it. Many creatures display disruptive coloration. Frogs, snakes and chipmunks come to mind. So do many species of sparrows that generally spend most of their time on the ground, their various shades of brown matching dead vegetation.
So how does this explain obvious creatures like male northern cardinals, scarlet tanagers, orioles and others? I don’t know. Mother Nature is a mad scientist.
Another variety of camouflage is known as countershading, in which an animal’s back is darker than its sides and undersides. Countershading turns up on mammals as large as deer and as small as mice. Many species of birds — and even fish — are colored in this manner.
Consider a whitetailed deer. Its coat is darker on its back but gradually gets lighter down the sides to an underbelly of white. The darker back counterbalances the natural shadowing effect. Without a visible shadow, the deer is better concealed. Human hunters and photographers can learn from camouflaged critters. The clothing of today speaks to that. Stroll down the aisle of a sporting goods store.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.