Birds are one of the easiest animals to recognize. They have beaks, and most species fly, but another feature separates birds from all other animals: feathers!
No matter how big, small, or exotic, all birds have feathers. In fact, feathers are such a basic part of being a bird, without plumes, no wild bird would survive for more than a day. This unique feature is vital for flight, staying warm, attracting a mate, hiding from predators, finding food, and more.
How exactly do feathers help birds? What are they made of, and how do they grow? See answers to these and other questions about bird feathers in this article!
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Parts of Bird Feathers
A feather is made of several distinct parts, each with its own purpose.
- Calamus – The calamus is the quill or lower shaft of a bird feather. It is hollow and acts as an “anchor” by attaching the feather to the bird’s skin or to its bones.
- Rachis – The rachis is the hard, solid, central part of a bird feather that extends from near the base of the feather all the way to the tip. Another, more common term for the rachis is the feather shaft. It determines how long a feather is, and acts as a feather’s main structure or “backbone”.
- Barbs – These are slender strands that extend from each side of a feather’s rachis and help provide further structure. Since they are hair-like and connect with each other, the best way to inspect barbs is with a microscope.
- Barbules – Take a magnified look at the barbs on a feather, and you’ll see lots of small hair-like structures growing out of them at an angle. These are the barbules and each are tipped with tiny hooks that connect them with the barbules on adjacent barbs.
- Vane – These are the “sides” of a feather.
- Afterfeather – The afterfeathers are the fluffy plumes near a feather’s base.
There are different types of feathers, each with their own special purpose. For example, wing feathers are stiff, windproof, and have a narrower vane on the leading edge of the feather. These structures help with flight and keep airflow from twisting the feather.
Tail feathers are straight and usually have vanes of the same width. They also tend to be flat, stiff, and are made of tightly interlocked barbs.
While wing and tail feathers are connected to a bird’s bones, most contour feathers are connected to its skin. These small, rounded feathers are softer than wing and tail feathers, and help give birds their aerodynamic shape. They also overlap with each other like shingles to keep birds warm and shed water.
Related: Anatomy of birds
Contour feathers also commonly help with camouflage or show bright colors. Semiplumes are another type of feather that can show color on their tips. However, the rest of this small feather is hidden underneath other feathers. They have short rachis and are mostly made of fluffy, hook-less barbs that help insulate the bird.
“Down” is the other type of insulating feather. These small, fluffy feathers are also hidden, lay close to a bird’s body, is “down” and are made of several soft, fluffy, hook-less barbs.
How Do Birds Use Their Feathers?
Feathers are vital for keeping a bird warm. Even in hot, humid, tropical regions, birds still need insulating feathers. Although their feathers are different and more adapted to warm temperatures, they still need them to stay warm when temperatures drop during the night.
As with other birds, down and semiplume feathers create hundreds of small air pockets that trap and keep warm air near their bodies.
In cold regions, insulating feathers are one of the main reasons birds like the Canada Jay and Ruffed Grouse can survive. These species, ducks, and other cold weather birds have greater amounts of down than other species.
Birds often make their nests out of sticks and other plant matter. Some also use mud and other objects, but many birds incorporate feathers into their nests. Some swallow species and other birds actually use some contour feathers as part of the main next structure.
However, for the most part, birds use feathers in their nest to provide a warm, soft place for their eggs. Woodpeckers and other birds lay their eggs on soft contour feathers and down that help to insulate the eggs. Eiders and other ducks also do this with an abundance of very warm down feathers.
Without feathers, birds simply would not be able to fly. Strong and stiff wing feathers help birds take to the air and move through the skies with ease. The long and broad feathers of raptors, storks, and other large birds give their wings enough surface area to soar high overhead.
Those wing feathers also overlap with each other to “capture”, push air, and propel a bird.
However, strong wing feathers are vital for flight, contour feathers on a bird’s body help by overlapping with each other to make the bird more aerodynamic.
Tail feathers are also important because they help a bird soar, slow down, and change direction.
Feathers aren’t just important for flying and staying warm. They also play vital roles in attracting mates and keeping competitors away. Most of the bright plumages we see are related to these purposes.
Trogons, tanagers, pittas, and some other tropical birds also use iridescence to attract mates. There are also incredibly exotic birds that have ornamental plumes with interesting shapes and bright colors. Some such birds include Peafowl, cotingas, egrets, and the birds of paradise.
Most species also have feathers that act as camouflage. This often takes the form of mottled brown plumage that blends in with vegetation and is most commonly seen on female birds.
Other highly camouflaged birds that blend in with their surroundings include owls and nocturnal species that have to hide during the day, and ground birds like quail and grouse.
However, feathers can also provide camouflage in subtler ways. The pale underparts of light morph Short-tailed Hawks help them hide in plain sight as they soar high in the air. Many species also have dark markings on pale plumage that helps camouflage them as they forage high in trees.
When it rains, birds seek shelter. However, if they get wet, their feathers can still keep them dry. Their plumage is shaped and arranged to quickly shed water and keep it from actually reaching their body.
In addition, birds waterproof their plumage with a special type of oil that they generate. Watch a bird in the rain or at the bird bath and you’ll see this feature in action as water beads and flows off the bird’s feathers.
Ducks and most other birds that swim below the surface also have tightly packed and oiled plumage. This keeps their bodies dry even when they are underwater!
How Do Feathers Grow?
Feathers are made from keratin, the same hard material that makes up hair, fingernails, and rhino horns. Like hair, feathers also grow from a type of follicle, one called a “papilla.”
As the spine-like feather grows, it gets longer and has a tube-like shape. Barbules grow and fuse together to form barbs, which then form the rachis. Eventually, barbs extend out from the top of the “tube” and make a vane on each side.
As the vanes unfold, the tube that was protecting them gives way and falls off. At this point, the feather growth process is complete. Whether in adults or baby birds, this is how all feathers grow. However, since semiplumes and down are simpler in structure, they probably grow faster.
Feathers are tough, but birds still have to take care of them. They maintain their feathers by preening; a process that puts feathers back into their proper place. At some point, though, feathers become worn down and have to be replaced.
Replacing feathers is known as “molt,” a process where birds drop old feathers and grow new ones. When ducks molt, they are flightless because they change most of their feathers at the same time. However, most birds only molt a few feathers at a time.
Bird Feathers – Frequently Asked Questions
What are bird feathers called?
Bird feathers are called flight feathers, down, semiplumes, tail feathers, and contour feathers.
Are feathers technically hair?
Feathers are technically hair because they are made from keratin, the same substance that hair is made of. However, feathers have different structures, purposes, and grow differently than hair.
Are bird feathers safe to touch?
Bird feathers are generally safe to touch, but you should still wash your hands after touching one. They can carry some viruses
On another side of the spectrum, there are the feathers of Pitohui species from Papua New Guinea, which are actually poisonous!
What is a bird feather made of?
A bird feather is made of keratin, the same substance hair is made of.
Do feathers fall out naturally?
Feathers fall out naturally. They are eventually replaced by new feathers.
Is it possible to identify a bird using a feather you found?
It is possible to identify a bird using a feather you found. However, it has to be a feather that shows an aspect of a species’ unique plumage.
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