Science in School: Fancy Feathers: the Basics


Aarna Pal-Yadav, Columnist

Birds’ feathers are crazy complex. From the snowy white of a Seagull’s wings to the the rusty red of a Robin’s breast to the shimmery blue of a Peacock’s tail, birds’ feathers serve a myriad of purposes. While a variety of creatures can taste the skies – everything from blood sucking insects to peculiar bats – only birds have perfected flight with there highly evolved wings. Birds, believe it or not, are actually descended from dinosaurs. Some of the earliest dinosaurs were covered in “dino fuzz:” whether this fluff served for camouflage, insulation, or even display, it is was a crucial step in the evolution of feathers, which help the birds of today with similar issues, as well as flight and waterproofing.

Wing feathers (remiges) have a velcro-like surface that renders the wings a uniform windproof surface, capable of flight; the leading edge tends to be shorter for improved aerodynamics. Tail feathers (rectrices) have a similar velcro-like structure to ensure uniformity, but their main purpose is to help the bird steer during flight. Contour feathers cover the bird’s entire body, with an interlocking vane region to keep the bird dry and a downy section to trap heat. Semiplume feathers are generally hidden under counter feathers, almost entirely made of downy to keep the bird warm. Down feathers are hidden even further underneath semiplume feathers and act as the perfect ball of fluff to keep the bird warm.

All feather types are made up of the same basic structure. The rachis is the stiff central shaft of the feather and the calmus is its hollow base, where the feather connects to the bird’s muscle. All along the rachis, barbs branch off like hairs, with little barbules between them. In the pennaceous region, the barbules have small hooks so that the barbs hook together like velcro, rendering that part of the feather a smooth, water-proof vane. In the plumaceous region, the barbules do not interlock, so the bards are just a fluffy lump that insulates the bird.

If you are interested in birds – and their remarkable feathers, in particular – I recommend you check out the birding resources provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have tons of information regarding everything about birds, everything from their history to their habits. If you’re more interested in keeping track of birds in your life, however, I recommend Merlin, a citizen-science app that allows you to report bird sightings to help ornithologists understand the situation of birds, especially as climate change progresses and more species are endangered. Merlin allows you to identify birds by answering a basic set of questions, without you needing to know the bird’s name, so it’s great for birding beginners!

Since the start of the pandemic a year ago, I’ve started birding, using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s resources and Merlin to learn more about birds. It has been an amazing reminder that, even though we may feel like the world is falling apart at times, life goes on – birds continue to flap their remarkable wings and fly. These feathered freaks, as they are all too often called, are either disregarded or disdained, but if you really take the time to watch birds, you’ll find that there is more to their lives than meets the eye.