how do bird feathers work

Feathers are unique in the animal kingdom. All birds have them, but only birds have them. Plenty of animals are covered in fur or scales, but birds and their feathers stand alone. Even other animals capable of flight, such as bats, dont have feathers.

So why feathers and not fur or scales? Feathers are vital to birds for many reasons. Primarily, though, birds use their feathers to aid in flight.

Feathers are made of a lightweight material called keratin, the same thing our hair and fingernails are made of, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This material allows feathers to be lightweight, but also flexible yet rigid enough to withstand the rigors of flight.

Muscles are attached to the base of each feather, which allows the bird to move them as needed. When in flight, as a bird flaps its wings down, the feathers move together. Then, as the bird moves its wings up, the feathers move apart to allow air to pass through. The motion of the feathers aids in flight.

While feathers themselves are lightweight, their collective weight can be more than a birds skeleton, according to Mother Nature Network. Of course, birds have hollow bones, another adaptive feature that aids in flight, so their skeletons dont contribute much to their total body weight.

Besides helping birds fly, some kinds of feathers, including down feathers and semiplume feathers, help keep birds warm. Birds are able to trap pockets of air close to their bodies using these feathers, which allows them to stay warm. They can even rearrange or adjust their feathers to trap more or less air, depending on the temperature, according to Arizona State University. Sometimes when its cold, you can see a bird fluffing its feathers. It does this to help trap more air, allowing them to stay warmer.

In addition to flight and regulating body temperature, feathers are water resistant, which helps keep birds dry in the rain or in the water. Feathers, especially dark-colored ones, even help protect against the sun.

Feathers are also a part of a birds identity. Their plumage is part of what makes it easy to tell a cardinal from a blue jay or goldfinch from a purple finch. The colors of a birds feathers are also useful in attracting a mate.

And while some birds use their feathers to stand out, others use them to blend in. Take the eastern screech owl. These birds are noted for their camouflage, making them very difficult to see set against the backdrop of a trees bark, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Just like we shed our hair and it is replaced by new strands, birds shed their feathers, a process called molting. Through molting, damaged feathers fall out and are replaced by new feathers, the National Audubon Society reports. Molting varies by species. Some smaller birds molt once or even twice a year, while bigger birds with bigger feathers molt less frequently.

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A contour feather maintains its correct orientation due to the tiny muscles surrounding the follicle. These muscles also allow for some control of feather position. Feathers with contours can be freely raised or lowered; however, they usually do so in whole tracts rather than one at a time. Often, birds will compress or fluff their feathers to control their body temperature. But there are other reasons they move their feathers. For instance, to intimidate a rival or a predator, a bird may lift its contour feathers to appear larger and more menacing.

Recall that the tail feathers, or rectrices, are also flight feathers. The shape of the tail itself allows for lift and maneuverability while in flight.

Beta keratins, however, are found in only reptiles and birds. They form a harder, tougher material than alpha keratins. The outer layer of turtle shells, bird beaks, feathers, and reptile claws and scales are all made of beta keratins.

In courtship displays, more than 20 other species of manakins produce noises with their wings. Manakin, the Club-winged one, has just gone to an incredible extent with this.

In Iceland, people have been gathering this eider down from nests for centuries. However, they don’t remove them until the birds have left their nests. Every year, the ducks arrive at certain farms and wade out to sea to construct their nests. The relationship between eiders and their farmers is somewhat symbiotic: the humans offer the eiders with shelter and protection, while the ducks supply the fluffy goods. Harvesting and processing Eider down is quite a process. Thus, it should not be shocking that it costs a lot of money. An eiderdown duvet can cost thousands of US dollars.

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FAQ

How do feathers stay on birds?

Flight feathers on the wing, the remiges, are connected directly to a bird’s arm bones. This differs from other feathers, which are anchored in the skin only. The attachment points of the secondaries to the ulna bone are called quill knobs. They’re visible as little bumps on the bone.

Do birds control their feathers?

Feathers do not have nerves, but they do stimulate nerves that surround where the feather attaches to the bird. Birds can adjust the position of their feathers and posture depending on the stimulation of those nerves.

Can a bird survive after losing feathers?

Birds cannot replace every feather at once; they’d lose their ability to fly, to maintain body temperature, and more. Instead, they replace feathers in their wings and tails just a few at a time.

What happens to bird feathers when they fall off?

Feathers are made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails. Unlike our hair and fingernails, new feathers don’t grow in constantly, but on an as-needed basis. So if a bird’s tail feather or flight feather falls out before molting season, the bird’s body will replace it.