Feathers are most important parts of a bird. Only birds have them and although us humans notice them mainly for their beauty, feathers are a marvel of nature. Many scientists would have you believe that they evolved from reptilian scales over millions of years, but I think if you will check out the intricate design and uniqueness of the feather you will have as much trouble swallowing that theory as I do.
What is a feather made of and what does it do for the bird?
Biologically speaking, a feather is an outgrowth of the skin, much like hair in mammals. Like the scales and claws on their feet, and the sheath of the bill, feathers are keratinous or composed mostly of fibrous protein.
They act as insulation for the owner, assist in flying, provide camouflage, help secure a mate, protect against injury and are usually waterproof. There are at least five or six kinds of feathers that have been classified by ornithologists.
A typical feather consists of a hallow shaft from which slender toothpick-like barbs grow. A primary or flight feather may have 600 pairs of barbs. From each side of the barbs grow barbules, several hundred from each barb. The barbules have rolled edges and tiny hooks, or hamuli, which interlock each barb with an adjacent barb, forming a web. Some birds have over a million hamuli or hooks on a single feather!
This intricate amazing design works like a zipper. If the webbing comes apart, the bird simply hooks them back together by running its beak through the feather. The complex system allows the wing to flare and hold air as the bird flies. Some flightless birds lack this interlocking mechanism and instead have a fluffy plumage.
The number of feathers on a bird varies considerably with different species. A hummingbird may have less than 1,000 feathers while a swan may have more than 25,000 feathers. Also the same species may show a seasonal variation in number, the greatest being in winter. A bird molts or sheds feathers in an orderly process that takes place gradually so that bare spots are kept to a minimum while new feathers are maturing. A molt usually takes about six weeks, but can vary with a bird’s health.
Some birds have specialized feathers that are quite visible and justifiably so since they are used to propagate the species. In birds like peacocks, brightly colored plumage serves the male in displays before the female. The (Roseate) spoonbill raises its crest of silver-white feathers in a mating display and the ruffed grouse have special ruffs of feathers about the neck which they raise in courtship displays. In some of our local birds like the cattle egret breeding plumage is manifested in longer than usual topknot or crown feathers.
Some birds have such beautiful feathers that it has lead to their decline. Birds like the exotic parrots have suffered great setbacks in their quest for survival because of man’s desire to display them. These beautiful birds are still taken from the wild through illegal operations and some are dangerously close to extinction.
Birds of a certain feather
Feathers also serve as support in the woodpecker. Specialized spine-tipped feathers called rectices help these birds prop against the vertical surfaces of trees. There are no doubt other functions of feathers are yet to be recognized by the experts.
Part of the fun of being “in touch with nature” is to marvel at the examples of marvelous design. There seems to be no end to unexplainable things in the natural world and certainly the feather qualifies as one of these.
- Birds of a Feather Art Fun Craft by www.segmation.com! (segmation.wordpress.com)
- All about Different Birds (class405.wordpress.com)