Feathers are what make a bird a bird.
Even so, they are so intricately constructed that scientists continue to learn new fascinating facts about bird feathers from around the world.
Scientists have used twenty-first-century tools to discover why flamingos are so pink, blue jays are so blue, and parrots are so green.
Using high-speed cameras, they have learned that feathers enable birds to be multitaskers, enabling them to fly, keeping them dry, and signaling potential mates.
Feathers tell us how healthy a bird is and what it has been eating. Feathers even tell us about the connections between birds and dinosaurs.
Birds give scientists a lot of feathers to work with.
It is really difficult to count small animals that can fly, but three scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney estimate that there are between 50 billion and 428 billion birds on Earth.
It is almost as difficult to count the number of feathers on each bird, but there are no birds that have fewer than 1,000 feathers.
This means that there are trillions and maybe quadrillions of feathers on birds all around the planet in every possible color and size.
In this article, we will tell you 10 fascinating facts about bird feathers.
Then we will give you the answers to the 10 most frequently asked questions about feathers on birds.
Feathers Are Perfectly Designed for Flight
Most of us take it for granted that birds can fly, but feathers are wonders of aerodynamic complexity.
Feathers are lightweight but strong and flexible enough to enable birds to fly at heights of up to 20,000 feet (6,600 meters), achieve speeds of up to 240 miles per hour (380 kilometers per hour) in the case of the peregrine falcon, and dive into the water to depths as great as 110 feet (33 meters).
What is it about feathers that makes these amazing feats possible?
The feathers on a bird’s wing are arranged so that they overlap when on the downstroke of the wing but delaminate, opening up during the upstroke of the wing.
The feathers spread apart to reduce wind resistance when the bird draws its wing back and overlap each other to make the wing shorter when the bird is pushing against the air.
You can see an example of this action in slow-motion photography of macaws in the video below.
Feathers Have Tiny Muscles in Their Follicles
Did you ever wonder how a bird can fan out its feathers for a mating display?
Or pull its feathers close to its body to stay warm, or create a larger silhouette to scare off a predator?
Birds have a network of tiny muscles in their skin.
These muscles surround each feather follicle, giving the bird the power to control the movement of its feathers.
When a bird is afraid or stressed out, its adrenal glands release stress hormones that make its feathers stand up, but it also has the ability to control the motion of its feathers even when it is under stress.
Different Birds Have Different Numbers of Feathers
How many feathers would you suppose that a bird has? A hundred? A thousand? A million?
Hummingbirds are the smallest birds and have the fewest feathers.
A hummingbird usually has about 1,000 feathers.
Larger songbirds have more feathers, up to 3,000.
Birds of prey like eagles have 5,000 to 8,000 feathers, and large birds like flamingos may have as many as 25,000 feathers.
Emperor penguins have the densest plumage of any bird on Earth.
Their 100 feathers per square inch (16 feathers per square centimeter) help them maintain a body temperature of 100.4° F (38° C) even in the middle of winter in Antarctica.
Also read: Why Is My Parakeet Losing Feathers?
A Bird’s Feathers Weight More Than Its Bones
Birds need feathers for flight. They also need light bones to make flying easier.
Bones seldom make up more than about 5 percent of a bird’s weight.
The feathers of a non-flying bird, like a chicken, may account for about 12 percent of this total weight, but they make up about 30 percent of the weight of migrating songbirds.
Also read: How to Preserve Feathers From a Bird?
One Breed of Chicken’s Feathers Can Grow Up to 32 Feet (10 Meters) Long
Male onagadori chickens, the cocks, can grow tail feathers that are up to 32 feet long.
You can watch some young onagadori chickens in the video below.
Feathers Get Their Colors In Many Different Ways
Some birds have feathers that are colored black, brown, or gray by melanin.
This is the same pigment that creates brown and black pigments in human skin.
Just as melanin helps human skin resist sunburn, melanin in bird feathers helps them avoid degradation in sunlight and resist decay by bacteria.
There is another group of pigments in bird feathers called porphyrins. These are amino acids that produce red, green, brown, and pink colors.
Porphyrins can combine with melanins to produce a rich brown color, like the color of a barn owl.
Sometimes birds get their feather color from the food they eat.
A group of plant chemicals known as the carotenoids (beta-carotene, gamma-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin) can give feathers red, orange, and yellow colors—if birds eat the plants that make the pigments.
And sometimes feather color is an optical illusion. Blue feathers in some birds, like hummingbirds, are caused by air pockets inside the feather.
These tiny air pockets absorb red and yellow light but reflect the blues in sunlight.
These feathers look more blue in brighter sunlight. This is also the effect that generates the iridescent blue color of peacock feathers.
Veterinarians Can Perform Feather Transplants
For a bird, not being able to fly for even a short time can be deadly.
Humans can help birds that have broken their feathers between molting with a procedure called imping, short for implanting.
The vet or the veterinary technician inserts a thin metal wire or sliver of bamboo into the follicle of a broken feather that is still attached to the wing.
Then a replacement feather is inserted into the shaft and splinted to the broken feather. Finally, everything is glued in place.
Falconers have used this technique to repair broken feathers for hundreds of years.
Below is a video of using the technique to rehabilitate raptors.
This isn’t a technique you should try on your own. You can learn how to do it at your local wildlife rehabilitation center.
Preening Isn’t Just About Looks
Birds preen their feathers with their beaks. Many birds preen each other.
Birds look better after they preen. We don’t know whether birds can be self-conscious about their appearance, but we do know one other reason that birds preen.
- Preening removes parasites.
- Preening arranges feathers in ways that allow the bird to fly more efficiently.
- In most birds, preening activates an oil gland in the bird’s skin that releases a lubricant that ensures smooth movement of the feathers in flight. In owls and pigeons, preening activates special feathers that turn into dust that lubricates the rest of the feathers on the bird.
Fabulous Feathers Help Birds Find Mates
Most birds are dimorphic. Adult males have bright, colorful feathers, while males that have not reached sexual maturity, and females have duller feathers that aren’t as readily noticeable.
Often, it is the most brightly colored male that gets the most mates.
Dr. Kevin McGraw of Arizona State University spent years studying house finches.
Male house finches come in colors ranging from pale saffron to brighter red. They get their feather color from pigments in the plants they eat.
The house finches that found the most berries developed the brightest feathers.
The ability to find berries is desirable in a mate, so these birds reproduced the most often.
The saffron-yellow birds were more aggressive, but the red birds were more desirable to more females.
Penguins Have Evolved Feathers Adapted For Swimming Rather Than Flying
Penguin is a perfect example of a bird that has adapted its feathers for swimming. Although Penguins are flightless birds, their feathers are still essential for their survival as they live in cold, aquatic environments.
Penguin feathers are tightly packed and overlap like shingles, creating a smooth, waterproof surface that helps them stay warm and dry in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean.
The feathers also trap air against the penguin’s body, providing additional insulation.
In addition to their insulating properties, penguin feathers are also designed to reduce drag and improve maneuverability in the water.
The feathers are short and stiff, which allows them to move through the water with greater speed and agility.
Overall, penguin feathers are a remarkable example of how birds can adapt their physical characteristics to suit their environment. By evolving specialized feathers for swimming, penguins have been able to thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth.
Feathers are Made of a Protein called Keratin (also found In Human Hair/Nails)
Keratin is a tough, fibrous protein that gives structure and strength to many different parts of the body, including hair, nails, and feathers.
It is made up of long chains of amino acids that are twisted and cross-linked to form a strong, resilient material.
In birds, keratin is produced by specialized cells in the skin called keratinocytes. These cells produce and secrete the protein, which then forms the basis for the development of feathers.
The structure of keratin is what gives feathers their unique properties. The protein is arranged in a series of overlapping layers, creating a lightweight but strong structure that is ideal for flight.
Interestingly, the keratin in feathers is also what gives them their color.
Pigments are embedded in the protein matrix of the feather, creating a wide range of colors and patterns.
Some birds, such as flamingos, even use pigments from their diet to create bright, vibrant colors in their feathers.
Overall, keratin is a remarkable protein that plays a critical role in the development and function of feathers. Its unique properties allow birds to fly, stay warm, and display a stunning array of colors and patterns.
Also read: Can a Bird With a Broken Wing Survive?
10 Frequently Asked Questions About Bird Feathers
Q. Did dinosaurs have feathers?
A. Imagine a dinosaur. Now imagine a dinosaur with orange feathers.
Science journalist Matt Kaplan has written several papers about evidence of feathers in fossils of a kind of dinosaur known as the ornithischians. These dinosaurs rose up on their hind legs.
They had arms that look a little like wings. These plant-eating dinosaurs, however, were not the ancestors of modern birds.
Instead, birds seem to have descended from the theropods, a group of dinosaurs including the T. rex and the smaller velociraptors.
These dinosaurs differed from modern birds in a very important way: A velociraptor could weigh up to 500 pounds (235 kilograms) but had a brain the size of the brain of a modern pigeon.
Of this second group, one dinosaur, the archaeopteryx, had wings, feathers, and the ability to fly. In other dinosaurs, feathers probably only provided insulation.
Q. What are singing wings?
A. Club-winged manakins can sing a one-note song by rubbing their feathers together.
They have specialized, club-shaped feathers at 45° angles to each other.
One wing acts like a pick, and the other like a guitar string. The bird moves the bent feather back and forth to make its song.
Manakin birds are not the only animals that make songs by rubbing body parts together.
This is also how crickets sing.
Q. How do feathers form?
A. Every feather grows out of a bump in the skin known as a papilla.
Like human hair, the youngest part of the feather is always the part nearest the skin.
While the feather is still inside the skin, it starts forming branches called barbules.
Barbules fuse into barbs, and the barbs fuse into a rachis, the “spine” of the feather. These structures are fully formed when the feather emerges from the skin, but it will continue to grow and stretch out for several weeks.
Q. What does it mean when birds ruffle their feathers?
A. Birds ruffle their feathers to preen them. Ruffling makes it easier for the bird to reach any parasites.
Birds may also ruffle their feathers when they are cold. Ruffled feathers trap warm air.
If a bird sticks its feathers all the way out and shakes its tail, however, it is telling all comers that it is angry or threatened and willing to fight.
Q. Why do some birds have holes in their feathers?
A. Bird feathers can be attacked by feather mites and feather lice. The tiny creatures feed on very specific proteins in bird feathers.
They may eat the feathers of one species of bird, but ignore another species of bird that comes to use its abandoned nest.
These parasites are passed directly from the mother to the chicks. They do not have the ability to travel very far on their own.
Q. What are down feathers? What is the difference between down feathers and body feathers?
A. Down feathers are tiny feathers close to the skin that keep the bird warm.
Body feathers may also help to keep the bird warm, but they are primarily used for flying and for communicating with other birds.
Q. What are feathers made from?
A. Feathers are made from keratin. It is the same tough protein that appears in their beaks and claws, and human fingernails.
The feathers contain air pockets that make them lighter and more reflective than the bird’s beak and claws.
Q. Are there any birds that don’t have feathers?
All healthy adult birds have feathers. Many birds are born without feathers, but they develop flight feathers in the first few weeks of their lives.
A bird without feathers cannot survive in the wild unless it has constant feeding and protection in the nest.
A pet bird that loses its feathers will be very sensitive to cold and heat and unable to fly away from a cat or another threatening pet.
Q. Are there any birds that have hair?
A. At first glance, many birds appear to have hair. These include the birds on this list.
- Crested Partridge
- Great Curassow
- Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
- Himalayan Monal
- Nicobar Pigeon
- Eurasian Hoopoe
- Ornate Hawk-eagle
- Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo
- Silver Pheasant
- Polish Crested Chicken
- Philippine Eagle
- Grey Crowned Crane
Even though these birds appear to have fancy hair-dos, they don’t really have hair. All birds have feathers, and no birds have hair.
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