Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… I have always found bird feathers fascinating. Not only are they the visual way of identifying many species of birds, they are also interesting plumage. Birds are defined by their feathers and only birds have feathers. They are able to produce them in huge quantities; for example, a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird may have as many as a thousand feathers covering its body or a Trumpeter Swan may have as many as twenty-five thousand feathers. One of the photographs associated with my last column showed the colorful feathers on a Wild Turkey. Most of us only see Wild Turkeys from a distance and their feathers appear to be dark brown. Through my camera lens, I was surprised at what I saw that wasn’t visible to the naked eye.
A view of a feather under a microscope is even more astounding. There are two basic types of feathers which are “vane” and “down”. The vane feathers are external feathers that cover the bird’s body and down feathers are those beneath the vane feathers. A vane feather has a central hollow shaft called the “rachis” (pronounced ra’kis). On either side fused to the rachis are numerous strands which under magnification appear like branches and are called “barbs”. Each barb is also branched and these tiny branches are known as “barbules”. The barbules have minute hooks and they are called barbicels. The barbs, barbules, and barbicels all hook together to form something like a “zipper”. If a bird’s feathers become disrupted the bird uses its beak or bill, drawing it over the disturbed feather, and “zips” it back into place. This action is known as preening. When a bird is not sleeping or eating it can generally be seen preening its feathers.
In addition to the vane and down feathers there is one more type of feather which is a simple “hair-like” feather called a “filoplume” which is attached to sensory receptors in the birds’ skin. When the feathers are ruffled the filoplume alerts the central nervous system of the disturbance informing the bird to preen the appropriate area. There are also a few specialized feathers that herons and hawks have called “powder down” feathers. The powder down feathers can be found in dense patches on the herons or in scattered patches in some hawks. The powder is dispersed while preening and helps to waterproof and preserve their feathers. There is another type of specialized feathers known as “facial bristles” and may be seen around the mouth of flycatchers, swallows, crows, and ravens. It is believed that the facial bristles function like cat whiskers, amplifying touch sensations. Some woodpeckers have facial bristles that cover their nostrils and filter out wood particles.
Feathers protect birds from injury and the elements. Feathers especially tail feathers support woodpeckers while they peck away on wood. The tail feathers on some birds like the Ruddy Duck, act as a rudder when they are swimming underwater. Wild turkeys and ruffed grouse proudly display their tail feathers when courting the females. Colorful feathers are helpful in securing a mate and drab feathers provide camouflage, they most certainly define each bird and are essential to their existence.
Preening, bathing and dusting are a few of the things birds do to keep and protect their feather, but even that will not keep the feathers from wearing out. As humans our skin cells shed, wash away, and are replaced with new cells, birds replace their feathers. The replacement of feathers is known as molt or molting and there are several types of molting. Birds that do not migrate need more insulation in the winter and less in the summer, therefore they molt according to the season. Many male birds will not molt into their breeding plumage until the spring. It might even take five to twelve weeks for most perching birds (passerines) to completely replace all their feathers. It may even take as much as two years for some raptors to replace all of their feathers. A sequential molt is one in which one flight feather is lost and replaced at a time, allowing the bird to fly during this process. Some birds, like Canada geese and some ducks, have an annual molt. In early July through mid-August, Canada geese lose all of their primary wing feathers and are unable to fly, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
Feathers are important in many ways to birds other than just covering their body. Many birds, especially those that arrive in early spring to breed, rely on their feathers to line their nests and keep their clutch warm. Once the female has laid her eggs they must be incubated. Her feathers keep her warmth within her body. In order to provide more warmth to her eggs, she plucks some of her belly feathers and the bare patch of skin will allow for more warmth to the eggs. The plucked feathers will help to line the nest. The plucked belly area is known as a “brood patch” and if the male assists with the incubation he will create a brood patch too. Once the eggs have hatched the area that was plucked will grow new feathers.
When building a nest some birds will seek out lost feathers from other birds. Tree swallow males seek lost white feathers to present to their mates. Feathers in a nest are highly prized for their insulation value. We line our comforters and winter clothing with down feathers. Some birds, especially the horned or the pied-billed grebes eat feathers. Hundreds of their own feathers have been found in their stomachs. They even feed the feathers to their young. The gizzards of these, fish-eating small birds, are insufficient to crush the bones which are ingested. Feather balls in their stomachs provide padding of the sharp fish bones and slow down their digestion, so the bones may dissolve before passing into the intestines. Seasonal uses of feathers are the ones that grow on the feet of a ruffed grouse each winter. A fringe of short feathers grows along the toes and allows the grouse to walk on top of the snow, like it is wearing a pair of snowshoes, in addition to providing extra insulation.
The feathers which birds lose are usually utilized by other birds or mammals in a multitude of ways. I find many discarded feathers in the yard or under the bird feeders. Are you aware that there is an archaic law, which is still effective, which does not permit us to keep “found feathers”? It is illegal to collect certain bird feathers per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It was enacted to protect migrating birds between the United States and Canada because of a decline in bird populations. One hundred years ago hunting birds for their feathers to adorn hats was a lucrative venture that prompted this law. There is a list of eight hundred species that are among the protected birds which include the bald eagle, northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, cedar waxwing, and many more of the backyard favorites. There was, however, an exemption that allows Native Americans, for religious purposes, to possess bald or golden eagle feathers.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org