The Nature & Beauty of Bird Feathers
By: Mike Jerrard
Birds have always captivated us not only with their ability to fly but also with their incredible beauty. As dinosaurs evolved into birds they traded their scales for feathers and today around 10,000 species of birds show off an incredible assortment of plumage.
Feathers can vary greatly between bird species with adaptations that suit their respective habitats. Owls have flight feathers designed to make them silent during flight, ducks have oiled feathers to shed water, and many birds like the Lyrebird have incredible feathers used for courtship
Many birds possess feathers with incredible iridescence such as the ones below which change color depending on the angle of light.
From left to right: Glossy Ibis- North America , Straw Necked Ibis-Australia, Green Winged Teal- North America
Bird feathers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors from fluffy down feathers to strong large primary wing feathers. They may all made from the protein beta keratin but the variety of feathers in the bird world is incredible.
The different feathers on a bird serve different functions whether it be for flight, camouflage, insulation, waterproofing, eye protection, or simply display.
You will notice in the Great Horned owl feathers below the special design along the leading edge of the wing feathers which allow for silent flight.
From left to right: Great Horned Owl- North America , Barred Owl- North America
As birds continually shed their feathers you are bound to come across them while hiking. As feathers begin to wear, they are removed and replaced with fresh new ones much like us getting new clothes. With a little research you can see what birds are in your area by the feathers they leave behind.
Some feathers such as with the flicker and macaw below can have completely different colors on opposite sides of the feather.
From left to right: Yellow Shafted Flicker- North America , Scarlet Macaw- South America
Feathers have always caught our attention and we have made use of them as pens, in pillows, and for garment ornaments or decoration. Sadly our desire for them has at times decimated populations of species such as Florida’s wading birds. Birds such as egrets and herons were shot in incredibly large and appalling numbers.
Below are examples of beautiful feathers from wading birds including long egret plumes which were used to make ladies hats. Many wading and seabird feathers also possess a pleasant scent as with the frigatebird caused when the birds preen with uropygial or oil glands.
clockwise From left to right: roseate spoonbill- North America , Great Egret- North America, Magnificent Frigatebird- Galapagos Islands
Thankfully conservationists put an end to this before it was to late, however their are still cultures today which kill birds for their feathers such as in Papua New Guinea.
Below are feathers which show the drastic differences in structure from one species to the next. The emu has very simple feathers compared to the kookaburra’s intricate patterns.
From left to right: Emu- Australia , Laughing kookaburra-Australia
There is no doubt birds and their feathers will continue to fascinate us for years to come. I think we can all agree however that feathers will always look their best when worn by their original owners.
Be sure to check out our bird feather identification guide