The Marvel of Bird Feathers

“Fine feathers, they say, make fine birds.”

This quote from 18th century Irish poet Isaac John Bickerstaff reminds me of the feeling of wonder I get when finding a bird feather, examining the complex structure, the beautiful colors, and patterns.

A bird feather is a marvel in so many ways. While touching feathers is okay, some feathers are federally protected under The Migratory Treaty Act of 1918. The treaty protects migratory birds and prohibits taking, capturing, selling, and transporting any protected bird species. It is recommended people wash their hands after touching a feather just to be safe.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” -Emily Dickinson

Birds are not the only creatures on earth that can fly, but they are the only one with feathers and hollow bones that make them lightweight and yet still strong.

Since before recorded time, humankind has envied the flight of birds. We sometimes dream of flying, or to be “free as a bird.” Numerous famous inventors, from DaVinci to the Wright Brothers worked on the invention of flying machines throughout the ages to fulfill this dream.

Feathers Have Many Uses

There are 23 recognized ways birds use their feathers including flight. Feathers are used to keep warm by trapping pockets of air to conserve body heat. They also protect birds from wind, moisture, and sun. Feathers keep water out and the interlocking barbs, combined with a special coating that is either oily or waxy, make a shield that makes water run off. “Like water off a duck’s back.” Water birds’ downy feathers use trapped air to help them float and keep them warm in cold water. Some birds, such as grouse, have feet covered in feathers that, like snowshoes, increase the size of their feet. This keeps them from sinking into snow. Many predator birds, especially owls, have face feathers that simulate radar dishes, channeling sound into their ears to enable them to locate prey more accurately in the dark. One use common to most birds is lining their nests with feathers to keep their eggs warm and provide soft padding.

Different Feathers for Different Jobs

Because feathers do so many jobs, birds require more than one type of feather. Some of them are long and strong for flying and steering. Others are soft and fuzzy and are very good for keeping the bird warm. Humans have caught on to this natural wonder and have learned to use such soft feathers in our clothing and bedding to help keep us warm. The down comforter on your bed or the down-filled jacket you wear when it is cold outside are filled with these soft, downy feathers.

The feathers we see the most often are tail and flight feathers. At first glance they may seem the same, but they are actually different. Tail feathers are balanced left and right of the center. Flight feathers have a wider and narrower side. This makes them better for flying because they can cut through the air with very little resistance.

Other types of feathers are specific to the body of the bird. Downy feathers are great insulation and keeping warm. Semiplume feathers also help to keep birds warm and help water birds float. Bristle feathers are found around the eyes and nostrils, and for some birds that like to catch flying insects they can be seen around their mouths. Filoplume feathers are found around the tail and flight feathers. They are thought to be used to sense when the flight feathers need to be maintained.

No matter the type of feather, they all have similar parts. The diagram here shows all the parts that you might find. Not all feathers have all the parts. For example, downy feathers are missing the stiff barbs and vane. You will also see that flight feathers have very few or no downy barbs.

Feather Anatomy

Here it gets a bit technical. The parts of a feather you can see with your unaided eye are the rachis, vane, after feather, barbs, downy barbs, and the hollow shaft. Beyond your naked eye there are also tiny parts, called barbules and hooklets, that help hold the barbs together and give the feather its shape.

Feather Color

Many bird feathers have amazing colors, but they are very different than what you and I might see on the walls in our house or school because a bird’s feather’s colors are made by bending light. This is what creates the iridescence we see in hummingbirds, swallows, and grackles. Iridescent things have some interesting characteristics. One is as the angle in which you view the bird changes, it can actually change the colors you perceive.

What Are Feathers Made Of?

The same material that makes up your nails and hair is what makes up bird feathers – keratin. Keratin is a very strong and yet lightweight material that is perfect for birds, keeping them light but strong for flight. Birds’ beaks and talons are also made of keratin.

Bird feathers truly are a marvel of engineering, beauty, diverse use, and flight!