Kebari & Fly Tying

The Brightest White Feather

There is a story bouncing through the media cycle right now that has birding enthusiasts excited. This headline may have passed by in your news feed and you missed it. Look again, it’s a fly fishing thing.

“Eurasian Woodcocks have the brightest white feathers ever measured”

Recently, a team of researchers led by an Imperial College London scientist, were interested in the reflective properties of bird feathers. It is suggested that the reflected light from feathers may be part of a signaling and mode of communication for some birds.

Chart published by Journal of The Royal Society Interface – Research by Jamie Dunning, Anvay Patil, Liliana D’Alba, Alexander L. Bond, Gerben Debruyn, Ali Dhinojwala, Matthew Shawkey and Lukas Jenni. Photos by Serge Santiago and Jean-Lou Zimmermann.

Lead researcher Jamie Dunning, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: “Bird enthusiasts have long known that woodcocks have these intense white patches, but just how white they are and how they function has remained a mystery. From an ecological perspective the intensity of the reflectance from these feathers makes sense – they need to hoover up all the light available in a very dimly lit environment, under the woodland canopy at night.” (

The Brightest White Feather - Jason Sparks - Tenkara Angler - Eurasian Woodcock
Eurasian Woodcook: © Ian Davies eBird S23811341 Macaulay Library ML 42407851

The Eurasian Woodcock is primarily mottled brown, but it has patches of white feathers on the underside of its tail. This means it only shows these patches when raising its tail or during courtship display flights. The mainly brown Eurasian Woodcock uses its bright white tail feathers to communicate in semi-darkness, reflecting 30% more light than any other known bird. 

The Brightest White Feather - Jason Sparks - Tenkara Angler - Eurasian Woodcock Flight
A Eurasian Woodcock in flight, showing the white tips of its tail feathers. Photo by Jean-Lou Zimmermann

The backends of the small birds (Scolopax rusticola) sport highly reflective white tips that are only visible from beneath during flight (pictured above) or when males fan their tail feathers on the ground as part of mating displays. When researchers used a spectrometer to measure how much light these feathers reflected, they found the white tips reflect up to 55% of light—far more than any other feathers ever recorded. The full scientific research post can be seen here: Biorvix. org

The Fly Fishing Connection

As someone who likes to sit at a vise for several hours tying up many more flies than I’ll ever need, I’m often thinking about the attributes of the materials I am tying with. We take into consideration the flexible quills, lengths of barbs, fullness of a feather and of course the coloring. We have natural browns, greens, blacks, greys and whites in our bins. I’m sharing right now that I have never considered the “reflectiveness” of a feather, at least not in those terms. Now I’ll be thinking about that a bit the next time I’m tying something that is white or iridescent.

Now I’m wondering what that increased reflectiveness might do in the water. Hey now, we might be onto something. I could always use some help seeing my flies in dark light or murky water conditions. Bet the fish would appreciate the beacon attractor as well.

I doubt this will turn into a fad-based explosion like the feather hair extensions from 15 years ago that put a serious run of dry fly hackles. There still will be some interest from some with a lean toward fly craft to chase down some of the brightest most reflective white feathers ever identified. Here is a quick link to get you started on your search: The Feather Shop- UK

The Brightest White Feather - Jason Sparks - Tenkara Angler - Fly Tying Feathers
Photo by The Feather Shop UK

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