how do birds use their feathers

Unique to birds and their dinosaur ancestors, feathers have evolved into impressive biological structures that come in a surprising diversity of colors and forms. Here, we cover the breadth of feather biology by looking at feathers from a variety of scientific viewpoints including their anatomy, function, development, and evolution.

From the fluffy down on a swan chick to the brilliant spiral on a King Bird-of-Paradise tail, feathers are remarkable not just in the way they look to the naked eye, but also for their intricate microstructure. Understanding feather anatomy at the microscopic level provides insight into how feathers function. For example, the interlocking Velcro-like structure on many bird feathers creates the smooth, flexible, and resilient surface that supports flight and sheds water.

As feathers grow, they mature into highly branched structures. Careful study of this process inspired new hypotheseshypothesisan explanation that is testable through study and experimentation about the evolution of feathers through stages of increasing complexity. Newly unearthed dinosaur fossils from China and Canada have supported these hypotheses by providing specimens from each stage in the proposed evolutionary history—a clear example of how investigating biological structures across contexts can create scientific breakthroughs.

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Feather Science From Many Angles

how do birds use their feathers

A comprehensive comprehension of biological structures such as feathers necessitates analysis from multiple perspectives. We now understand that the structure and function of feathers are closely related, and their growth is closely related to their evolutionary history.

The four levels of analysis that Niko Tinbergen created to better understand animal behavior won him the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Since then, biologists have used these levels to organize their research. He said that in order for us to comprehend anything in nature completely, we must consider the following four questions:

  • How does it work? (mechanism)
  • How does it function? (adaptation)
  • How does it develop? (development)
  • How did it evolve? (evolution)

Following Tinbergen’s guidance, we have investigated each of these queries to provide you with a thorough grasp of feather biology.

how do birds use their feathers

Display Wood Duck by

In courtship displays, modified contour feathers on the head are also frequently utilized. For instance, the crest of the male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) forms a vibrant fan that entirely alters the shape of its head. The bird uses muscles just beneath the skin to raise thousands of tiny feathers in unison during this transformation.

Some elegant feathers are used in aggressive displays; others are used to court a partner. The crests of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), for instance, are raised during aggressive interactions but are kept lowered during rest or when interacting with family and flock members. Blue Jay.

Although some birds’ dull contour feathers may appear unappealing, their subtle brown patterns can provide remarkable levels of camouflage in forested areas. The Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus), which is renowned for hiding in plain sight, is covered in feathers that resemble the colors of the tree branches it perches on. To further enhance the disguise, the potoo will slant its head and squeeze its eyes into small openings, giving the impression that it is a part of the tree.

Not all camouflage has to be drab. For instance, male Eclectus Parrots (Eclectus roratus) use their vivid green contour feathers to camouflage themselves when foraging in the rainforest canopy. The male coloration helps in the fierce competition with other males to win female mates back at the nest cavity, where the green contrasts with the brown tree bark. The green coloration of male Eclectus parrots most likely developed as a trade-off between display and effective camouflage. This is a unique instance of a bird’s feathers being able to conceal and display. 1 Mute Swan chicks by.

Have you ever wondered why some birds hatch naked while others are covered in a coat of fuzzy feathers? Many young water birds must be able to swim and forage alongside their parents almost immediately after hatching. These precocialprecocialpree-KO-shuldescribing a chick that is mobile quickly after hatching and requires little parental care chicks hatch with a full coat of natal down to keep them warm in cold water. Young Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) for example, hatch with a fuzzy coat of natal down and after a few weeks, replace the natal down with an inner layer of adult down and an outer coat of contour feathers. In contrast, the young of many songbirds are born completely naked. Purple Martins by

These altricialaltricialAl-TRISH-uldescribing a chick that is unable to walk, fly, or swim soon after hatching and requires parental care for an extended period species stay warm by absorbing heat from attending parents and huddling together in an insulated nest. Utterly dependent at hatch, altricial species, like Purple Martins (Progne subis), require lots of parental care.

Arranged in an overlapping pattern on a bird’s body to expose the waterproof tips, contour feathers allow water to roll right off a bird’s back. Birds constantly maintain their waterproof coat through extensive grooming, or preeningpreenusing the beak to maintain the health and structure of feathers to ensure that every feather is in good shape. The interlocking structure is so important that any disruption to it—such as if spilled oil coats the feathers—leaves the bird waterlogged and helpless. For ducks and birds like the Common Loon (Gavia immer) that spend most of their time in the water, maintaining a waterproof coat is critical for survival. Great Horned Owl by

Some feather functions remain a mystery. Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are frequently mistaken for having ears due to the feather tufts on their heads. There is disagreement among scientists regarding the purpose of these tufts, despite the fact that these altered contour feathers are entirely distinct from the ear and do not aid in owl hearing. Some have proposed that the horns are for display. Some have proposed that owls use them for a more thorough disguise when they roost during the day, but there may be other uses for them as well, and a thorough investigation hasn’t been conducted to date to determine these. 2.

how do birds use their feathers


How do birds feathers work?

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.

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.

How do birds maintain their feathers?

Feathers need constant care, and birds can spend hours a day maintaining them by preening. They do this by combing their feathers with their beak, to make each each strand of the feather lie flat. At the same time, birds also remove lice and other parasites from their body.

What happens when a bird loses a feather?

Often all feathers will not regrow for many months or until the bird goes through a natural molt. In severe cases, the feathers may never regrow or take years to come back.