Feathers are unique to birds. Strong, yet light and flexible, a single feather is a thing of great beauty. From July until late summer is a good time to look for feathers when adult birds are moulting: a process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones. Not surprisingly many birds are looking a bit shabby after the efforts raising their young, and are now growing new, strong, warm feathers for the winter. Look for moulted feathers on the ground and try out these activity ideas.
Feathers are made from a strong protein called keratin, the same substance as our fingernails, which is very light and amazingly strong. Most feathers have a hollow central shaft with vanes on either side. These vanes are made up of separate branches known as barbs from which tiny barbules branch off and interlock with tiny hooks and ridges – just like Velcro.
Focus on feathers: Pick up a feather and run it through your fingers. How does it feel? – smooth, light, flexible. Use a hand lens to look at the tiny barbules. Then gently ‘unzip’ a feather and then ‘zip’ it up again by pinching and drawing your fingers along the separated barbs from the shaft to the outer edge. Collect a variety of feathers and look carefully at their size and shape.
Can you identify the following feathers?
Flight feather – these are the longest and strongest feathers in the wings; called the primaries and secondaries, and the tail.
Contour feather – smaller feathers that cover the bird’s body and wings. Many are brightly coloured towards the tip which creates the bird’s distinctive plumage; its pattern and colour.
Downy feather – small and fluffy with a very short shaft with non-interlocking barbs. These feathers are the closest to body and hold the air that insulates and keeps the bird warm.
Now hold a feather towards the light. Many colours in a bird’s plumage are due to iridescence – we see different colours depending on the angle the light is reflected from the feathers. It’s this variety of colour that make birds so beautiful to watch.
Feathers are strong but need to be replaced annually, generally before and after the breeding season, to replace those that are worn thin and damaged by parasites. They don’t lose them all at once, it’s a gradual process – otherwise they’d be unable to fly or keep warm! Growing feathers takes lots of energy and birds often become quiet and inconspicuous. Have you noticed that there is less bird song in the summer?
Top Fact: Small songbirds have between 3,500-5,000 feathers; whereas water birds may have as many as 12,000 feathers to stay warm in cold waters.
Birds spend a lot of time looking after their feathers. Preening is when a bird run individual feathers through its beak to repair and rearrange its feathers back into shape. Put out a bird bath, a large glazed or plastic plant saucer works well, to watch birds bathe in the water and then preen to keep their feathers in tip top condition. Feathers are also waterproof. Simply drop a little water onto a large flight feather using a small pipette to watch how the feather sheds water.
Whose feather? With a little detective work create your own feather guide or journal to help with identification. A small slot can be cut into each page for the feather shaft to sit in. Experiment and make a feather quill pen to label your findings using ink. Have fun!