Learn About Bird’s Feathers

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Birds are so unique because they’re the only animals on earth with feathers! And what a complicated and intricate thing a feather is! Feathers provide birds with warmth, waterproofing, flight, camouflage and are often used in dramatic displays to attract a mate. They set birds apart from all others in the animal kingdom.

Because there are so many types of feathers each with a specific purpose, learning the names and parts of feathers can be a little daunting. Let’s start with the types of feathers on a bird:

Contour and Flight Feathers: These are the larger feathers with a central quill and vanes. Barbs extend out from the quill and from them extend hooklets and barbules which lock together to give strength to the feather.  These hooklets and barbules can become separated which cause a gap in the feather. But birds can reattach the hooklets and barbules by running the feather through their beaks when they are preening.

Contour feathers cover the body of the bird. They protect the bird from sun and rain and create a smooth appearance over the body. Flight feathers include the feathers of the tail and wings. The outer wing feathers are divided into three parts–the  longer feathers at the forward tip of the wing are called primaries, next come the secondaries and finally the tertiaries which are the feathers toward the back of the wing. Over the top of the wing feathers are several layers of coverts.

Down Feathers: These feathers are soft and fluffy and are found under the contour feathers. They don’t interlock or have vanes like the larger feathers, which allow them to trap heat and keep the bird warm. And there are special down feathers called powder down feathers. These special feathers actually break down and provide the bird with a substance called keratin powder which the bird will spread among it’s feathers. It helps the bird clean the feathers and also makes them waterproof!

In addition to the feathers noted above, birds also have other feathers that cover the head and some of which provide special sensory information as well as aid in courtship displays, called filoplumes, semiplumes, and bristleplumes.

All of a bird’s feathers are arranged in tracts in a very specific order. When a bird molts, it means that the bird is replacing it’s feathers over a period of several months. When the new feather begins to grow, it has a blood supply which is protected by a keratin sheath. When the feather is mature, the blood supply is closed off and the bird removes the protective sheath with it’s bill. Some birds such as the goldfinch molt more than once a year. During February and March we can watch as this lovely bird molts it’s drab winter feathers and grows beautiful yellow summer feathers!

Enjoy these additional articles and learn even more about a bird’s feathers!

Outside My Window » Anatomy: Feather Shapes

One Response to “Anatomy: Feather Shapes”. # Daniel on 16 Jul 2010 at 11:03 am. “NOTE: It is illegal to possess any feather without a permit.” Uh oh – I have a feather from one of the peregrines that I found on the ground near the …

Publish Date: 07/16/2010 7:23


Outside My Window » Anatomy: Parts of a Feather

2 Responses to “Anatomy: Parts of a Feather”. # Amy on 02 Jul 2010 at 8:52 am. This is so interesting! I like the “feather within a feather”! Thanks for the neat topic… # Jennie on 02 Jul 2010 at 5:22 pm. Very interesting! …

Publish Date: 07/02/2010 7:45


Feathered Dinosaur Plumage

Professors Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Derek Briggs, the Frederick W. Beinecke Professor of Geology and Geophysics and director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and graduate…

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