Amazing facts about feathers—Bird's designer wardrobe

Peacock with it's tail feathers fanned out.

A peacock struts with its magnificent spread of tail feathers fanned out in a dazzling display of color.

In your garden, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers in all its iridescent glory to draw the nectar out of a lovely flower.

The splendor of these birds, of course, is due to their clothing of feathers.

For the human wardrobe, the tailor, seamstress and milliner select fabrics of many kinds and colors.

What an interesting variety of clothes they produce from their bolts of wool, cotton, silks and synthetics!

However, the clothing of birds is made from just one material—keratin.

This hardy, corneous protein is the substance of your fingernails as well as the hooves and claws of animals.

With it, the bird wardrobes has far surpassed in beauty, variety and utility the imagination of human fashion designers.

Delicate yet strong

Picture of peacock tail feathers.

Just as hollow tubing is known to have advantages over a solid rod, so the hollow basal quill is bone-like for strength, but only a fraction of solid bone weight.

The portion of a feather that is thickest is the quill, the part that anchors the feather in a follicle of the skin of a bird.

Farther along, the quill becomes the shaft, from which parallel barbs branch out on either side.

At right angles to each barb are small projections called barbules on which tiny hooks act much like zippers between adjoining barbs, creating a strong fabric, yet supple enough to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking.

If, by chance, the bird’s feathers become unlocked, he simply preens them until all the barbs are properly zipped together again.

Then, with all his ruffled feathers properly in place, he is thoroughly insulated against the cold, besides having a waterproof headdress and raincoat.

On ducks and other waterfowl it has been observed that their feathers have even deflected bird shot!

How feathers are formed?

Picture of a Easter baby chick.

The feather bud forms in a small follicle in the bird’s skin.

As it develops, marvelous, complicated changes take place.

Within a sheath, unique feather segments, wound snugly around a shaft, develop.

It is so exquisitely packaged that when you see the full-grown feather you might well ask:

How did all that fit into such a restricted space?

With development completed, blood vessels that fed the growth cells dry up, the sheath bursts, the bird speedily removes waste material and preens his new feather into its full shape.

The feather now is essentially dead tissue that no longer needs nourishment from the bird’s bloodstream—a real advantage in economy for the bird’s circulatory system.

Types of bird feathers

Picture of a bawn owl in flight.

Feathers come in a multitude of shapes, sizes, colors and varieties.

Most serve some functional purpose, while others appear to be simply for show.

Birds are provided with feathers, each one in proportion to its needs, larger birds having no surplus, while the midgets of birddom have no shortage.

By actual count, one of the largest birds, the whistling swan, was found to wear 25,216 feathers, whereas the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird, decked out in all its finery, had 940!

Among the functional ones are the fluffy down feathers, delicately designed to provide “thermal” undergarments for our bird friends.

Under a magnifying glass one can see long, finely formed and very flexible barbs and barbules but no hooks.

The very light, formless mass of soft feather branches insulate the bird’s body, keeping it warm in cold weather and cool in summer.

Some birds have more down feathers than others.

The eider duck is one of these.

In fact, it uses the silky-soft surplus as insulation to line a nest with “baby blankets” par excellence for its pampered ducklings!

The Antarctic emperor penguin also wears a downy garment under its waterproof and windproof contour feathers.

This enables it to stand immobile, without food, for about three months, while incubating an egg on its feet, at the same time contending with 80 km/h (50 mph) winds and -50° C (-58° F) temperatures!

Speaking of contour feathers, these are designed to streamline the bird for flight, being arranged in a certain pattern according to the species.

Their centrally located shaft is slightly curved to fit body surfaces, always pointing backward from the beak and toward the tail.

At its base, a downy portion contributes to the “underwear” next to the bird’s skin, being modestly covered by the next row of feathers.

Have you watched a mother hen fluffing out her feathers to cover her eggs or newly hatched chicks?

Contour feathers are attached to muscles and fibers in the skin that can lift them in this way.

This also allows the bird to dry-clean or rearrange its plumage as necessary, or trap more air for insulating or air-conditioning purposes.

Perhaps even more fascinating are flight feathers, the “propellers” that provide lift and movement of the bird through the air.

A single one of these may have up to a million ingeniously designed and fitted parts.

At the extremity of each wing are the 10 or more primary feathers, really the main propulsion unit of the entire wing.

Next are 17 secondary feathers, which, like the primaries, have an exceedingly strong quill and offset shaft attached to the bone structure.

All are able to turn on their axis, enabling them to overlap tightly on the downbeat and open like a venetian blind on the upstroke.

Incredibly light tertiary feathers smoothly cover the rest of the wing structure, making an airfoil of unequaled excellence.

Other flight feathers belong to the tail, where strong muscles allow these to be depressed, fanned out, folded or tilted at will.

Thus, these 10 or more feathers serve the same purpose as an airplane’s rudder, stabilizers, flaps and ailerons during takeoff and flight and as an air brake when coming in for a landing.


Picture of a colorful parrot.

Eye-catching, to say the least, is the display of color marking the beauty of birddom.

Blue, green, yellow and red look well together on the painted bunting, while the male cardinal dares to appear in public with a vivid red coat from the top of his crest to the tip of his tail, with only his black face giving contrast.

Many bird feathers vary in their coloring according to habitat.

The well-dressed ptarmigan changes from shades of brown in summer to an almost pure white in winter—a perfect camouflage for Arctic regions.

Among the luxuriant greenery of jungles, vivid greens are in vogue.

In desert regions birds become quite inconspicuous to predators by the sandy hues they wear.

Color in feathers comes about by a combination of structure, pigmentation and reflected rays.

White feathers have a microscopic structure that totally reflects white light.

To produce blue tones, minute particles in the makeup of the barbules bend, scatter and reflect only blue rays of light.

Green hues result from a combination of a blue structure with yellow pigment, while red-pigmented feathers absorb the blue-green part of white light, so reflecting only red wave lengths.

It is this marvelous design in feather structures that makes it possible for our eyes to be delighted by all the varicolored plumes of birddom.


Picture of a colorful parrot.

An English naturalist described a hummingbird in these words:

“One moment it resembles a ruby, the next, a topaz, then an emerald, and then again gleaming gold.”

The famous American naturalist/artist Audubon spoke of these feathered beauties as “lovely fragments of the rainbow.”


Because of the iridescent quality of their feathers.

What causes this iridescent coloring?

Tiny and precise mirror-like structures produce a complex optical action called interference.

They eliminate some components of light rays and reinforce others by reflection.

The result—a momentary blaze of pure color on the feather’s surface that changes as light rays strike from different angles. Then, just as quickly, the brilliance may fade.

An outstanding example of iridescence is the “eye” of a feather in the peacock’s train.

For its varicolored design, each barb passing through the “eye” can have three or four color zones.

This requires thousands of light-reflecting structures precisely arranged in each eighth of an inch (3 mm) of the barb.

Hence, billions of these molecules must be replaced year by year without the slightest modification as the bird molts and then gets its new feathers.

The colors would be erased if there were even one twenty-five-thousandth of an inch (0.001 mm) of alteration!


Picture of a woodpecker climbing a tree.

In the world of feathers there are many oddities.

Stiffened tail feathers on a woodpecker can, like the climbing spikes on a telephone linesman, support him as he walks up a tree!

The ptarmigan grows quite long, protruding feathers on his feet that serve as “snowshoes” in winter.

Babies of the African sandgrouse receive their daily drink of water carried in the absorbent breast feathers of the male bird.

Some snipe and grouse force air through special “musical” feathers in their wings to make a singing sound.

Geese use their powerful wing feathers as weapons of war.

Not to be forgotten are the courtly gentlemen of the bird world who woo their ladies with special plumes.

Among these are the crowned crane, the heron with its aigrettes, the unforgettable birds of paradise, and the Australian lyrebird.

Truly, feathers are a marvel of design.

Intriguing wonders, indeed, are these masterpieces of engineering!