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Just For the Birds

Feb 19, 2018

Only birds have feathers, and every bird has them. Feathers define birds.

Feathers provide insulation. Soft down feathers next to the body trap air, while contour feathers on the surface streamline the bird and shield it against wind and rain. Feathers can be puffed up or sliced down so birds can warm up or cool off.

Swifts have bristly feathers about their mouths to help them catch insects in flight. Stiff tail feathers prop woodpeckers up against trees as they hammer away. Feathers are also used in displays, as when a turkey fans its tail. The movement of a cardinal’s crest signals its moods. A red-winged blackbird displays his red wing patches to defend his territory and attract a mate. Some feathers even help make sounds. Snipes attract mates with a chattering made by their outer tail feathers as they dive through the air.

Flight, of course, is the most obvious function of feathers. A wing feather may be nature’s strongest material for its weight. Surprisingly, the strength of a feather is related to its color, white is the most brittle, and black the most durable. Thus even white birds, such as snow geese, often have black wing tips. Material sourced from former MDC Ornithologist, James D. Wilson.

Birds of a Feather:

  • Feathers help keep birds warm and dry. They are water resistant and in some birds like ducks, waterproof.
  • The most important and numerous feathers are contour feathers. These cover the body, wings, and tail.
  • Underneath their outer feathers, birds have a softer layer of feathers called down. Down is soft and fuzzy and helps keep birds warm.
  • Baby birds, called chicks, are covered with nothing but downy feathers when they hatch. This keeps them protected until they grow in adult feathers.
  • Feathers are very light but extremely strong.
  • A single feather may have more than a million individual parts. Most of these are microscopic.

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