Being a half-baked bird watcher, I’ve spent a lot of time working out the patterns and color details of many of our feathered friends. It’s the basis for their identification: the plumage tells us who they are. Tells them, too.
It’s pretty much the same with people. Wear a button down shirt and a tie? You probably immediately recognize and won’t interact much with someone whose baggie, below-the-knee, waist-challenged pants are barely hanging on. He probably feels the same about you. Pants suits, leggins, Carhartts, blazers, Patagonia are all examples of plumage in humans that tell a lot about the person inside. That’s often the main idea.
Biologists call this "signaling" and humans do it with abandon. No words are necessary -- our plumage will steer others toward us or away. Time, money, and energy are saved. Life goes on. The same thing occurs in a tropical forest or on a coral reef where the many brilliant, colorful critters might as well be wearing Kuhl, Gucci, North Face or Eileen Fisher.
Bikers have plumages, too. The first thing to notice is that bikers and artists have a lot in common: they both wear a lot of basic black. I’ve been to my share of art openings and more than a few motorcycle events. You just don’t see a lot of beige, green or blue. It’s black.
Many motorcyclists also have a thing for cattle. If you see a place that serves barbeque, you’ll see a lot of motorcycles. Not only do they eat beef, but they also wear it. But just in Black. True, there are a few colored leather garments for women, even the odd pink Jacket, but the men and most women wear black. It’s been that way for decades. Black leather jacket, denim jeans, black boots. Helmet and gloves may be optional, but if they’re worn, they’re black, too. This plumage signals several realities. Basic black indicates a classically oriented biker. S/he is no Johnny (Jenny)-come-lately, loves riding, and may also have attitude. They may only wave at others with the same plumage, largely ignore riders on European or Japanese brands, and often disdain "cages" (automobiles), although a truck bearing decals of the rider’s motobrand is OK. They may ride in small to large groups of similarly plumed riders. Like geese, they often navigate in a strict formation. There might be some chrome on the motorcycles, but the bikes are probably mostly black, too. Occasionally the rider or the bike sports a skull or possibly some vintage WWI or WWII insignia. If you were in doubt about "attitude" before, these accessories to the basic plumage confirm your suspicions. And did I mention that the bikes are often loud?
Another common plumage is worn by those who travel further. These folks are frequently on relatively quiet, sleek-looking bikes with a lot of luggage. There may be a passenger, and, if so, she (usually) is plumed just as he is. Basic black is less common on these riders, and, increasingly, day-glow yellow may be seen. This has nothing to do with intergroup displays, but is instead a strong visual signal to predators (distracted drivers) meant to attract the driver’s attention. This "touring" group plumage often differs from the Traditionalist’s by being made of thick nylon and not cow skin. Helmets are less commonly black, often being white, yellow, or silver.
A final plumage, appearing among a subset of sport biker riders (the high revving things where the rider is canted forward), gets back to cowhide. This time it’s leather stem-to-stern: a whole suit. Interestingly, the suit is rarely black. The suit plumage may also connote attitude: "I ride on the track." Since these people adore speed, the abrasion-resistant suit it meant to leave some skin on the rider in case of a crash. The suits are expensive, and only festoon a rider with adequate cash flow. Most of the rest of the sport bike riders (being young and penurious) wear little more than a helmet, shirt and jeans -- it’s cheaper and cooler (in both senses of the word).
And there you have it. You’re now equipped to interpret the signals emanating from the various rider plumages. There is one local exception, however. He, and we know him to be a he, wears nothing but a helmet and boots. He’s been seen in Marlboro several times, and on Rt. 9 at least once. If we have some Indian summer this fall, I’m hoping he’ll make an appearance so any lingering visitors have a more complete Vermont experience. This rider’s plumage is pale pink, an uncommon color indeed. It turns blue with decreasing temperature. I’m not entirely sure what it signals (it is not a molt as in birds), but I do know that I’ll be riding later into the fall than he will.
Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife and cat.