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Six Things Birds Feathers Do

bird feather anatomy

Feathers are an amazing invention.   They are the defining feature in what makes a bird a bird.  They are so effective it seems a shame more animals have not adopted their use.

One of the things that makes feathers so great, is their combination of strength and light weight.  An interlocking system of barbs, barbules and barbicels help create the strength.

Different feathers have different uses.  Flight feathers are long and strong.  Contour feathers cover the body in feather tracts.  Down feathers lack the hard center vein of a flight feather and are soft and warm.

Bird feather parts are:

  • Hollow shaft, calamus
  • Downy barbs
  • afterfeather
  • Vane
  • Rachis


  • Barbule
  • Barb


  • Hooklets
  • Barbule
  • Barb



Here are 6 Things feathers do for the bird.

1. Insulators:
Feathers keep the birds warm in cold weather.  They can be “puffed up” on especially cold days to provide additional insulation.

2.  Nesting material:
Feathers, often down feathers, are used for lining the nest.  They form a soft, warm protective cushion for the newly hatched young.

3.  Flight:
The shape of the feathers on a wing create an air foil allowing the birds to fly.  Control of the shape of the flight and tail feathers allow the bird to control their flight.

4.  Showing off:
The often brilliant colors of male birds are used to attract a mate.

5. Camouflage:
Females of many bird species have very subdued colors, ideal for sitting, undetected, on a nest.

Many bird species, such as gulls and shorebirds use a trick called “countershading.”  Countershading is a color pattern in which the animal is darker on the top and lighter on the underside of the body.  This makes the birds difficult to spot from the air, helping to protect it from flying predators.

Many animal species exhibit countershading,

6.  Waterproofing:
The interlocking structure of feathers makes them very effective in shedding water.   The phrase “like water off a duck’s back” pretty well describes the situation.

Some species use an oil or powder down to help condition the feathers and as an aid to waterproofing.

Read next: The Most Amazing Bird Statistics and Facts

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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