Feathers are something that has been fascinating bird watchers around the globe for a long, long time. They're something simple and wonderful, as well as fairly unique. Birds are, of course, the only animals that boast feathers, and so the plumage throughout history, from dinosaur feathers to modern birds' feathers, is curious and fascinating.
In this article, we're going to nail down the answers to nearly every single question you can think of about feathers, from what they are, to their appearance, to different categories. Without further ado, let's talk about feathers!
What are bird feathers?
At the most basic level, feathers are made from keratin. This is the same thing that the hair on our head is made from, as well as the horns of animals like rhinos and elephants. Keratin forms itself on the outer surface of all sorts of different animals, and bird feathers are just an example of this happening.
Feathers grow around a central shaft that is entirely hollow. On either side of that hollow tube, there is a flat area, called the vane. The base of the hollow shaft is an area called the quill. This is the part of their feather that was used for writing, back when quill and ink were used.
The vanes look a little like hairs when you take an extremely close look. They're linked to one another with hooks - each individual hair has only a few barbs, but that's enough to join it to the next hair in the chain.
A bird preens itself by, essentially, going between those hairs within the vanes, and 'zipping up' the hairs with the small barbs.
As well as this zipping process, feathers do have to withstand a rather large amount of wear and tear over time. Each year of a bird's life, it will shed every single feather that it has, and grow new ones. Some birds may even do this twice a year, which belies extraordinarily fast growth.
What a feather looks like is a core part of what it does. This might sound a little odd but, compared to down and contour feathers (some categories we'll mention later) knowing the specific role of a feather isn't too imporant.
Even flightless birds have different colors and patterns of feathers, so there's certainly an argument to be made that the look of feathers is just as important, if not more so, as what they actually do.
What we're trying to say is that as well as having a practical purpose, bird feathers serve a social and aesthetic purpose - they're used to attract mates, and to signify a suite of other important things that need to be addressed between birds.
So, when asking what a feather truly is, it would be true to say that feathers both have physical purposes and visual, and social purposes.
We ran through the specific structure of a feather very quickly in the above paragraph. Here, we're going to break it down into simple terms so that we can be sure we're getting the science across a little better.
The best way to visualize what a feather looks like, up close, is by thinking of a long, rigid, hollow stick - like an empty pipe - that's stood upright. Coming off that stick are dozens and dozens of smaller, solid sticks. These new sticks are perpendicular to the core pipe, sticking out sideways, rather than pointing in any particular way.
The central pipe or shaft is referred to as a shaft. The flat areas on either side of the shaft are called the vane - each small, solid stick pointing out from the main pipe is one small part that forms a sheet, which is called the vane.
At the base of the pipe, there is a gap between the skin of the bird and the first tubes that form the edge of the vane. This gap is called the quill, and is partially inside the bird, as the end of a strand of hair is on a human.
The physics of a flying bird is simple - the vaned feathers are light and push a large amount of air down and away from the bird. This pushes the bird upwards, thanks to the fact that no air escapes between the strands in the vane.
When a bird is preening itself, it essentially separates different strands of the vane, before putting them back together. This allows for a tighter connection between strands, leading to a more airtight surface that the bird can use to fly.
All feathers have that basic structure - a central shaft, with a vane around it. Some feathers may only have vane on one side, while others may have it on both sides. Some feathers may have uneven vane, which allows for birds to flap their wings in exceptionally specific ways, thereby flying more efficiently.
Even non-flight types of feathers have that basic shaft-vane construction, which means that they can still be considered feathers, even by sticklers.
Types of bird feathers
Birds are wonderful creatures that are so perfectly evolved for their flight. This means that while the typical feather looks different for almost every single species of bird out there, the general consensus is simple - there are three types of feather.
Here, we're going to break down what each type of feather is, and speak about how they help different birds.
Flight feathers are a wonderful creation of evolutionary origin - they're perfectly evolved for what they do, and no one could say that they're not efficient.
Different types of flight feathers are arranged in different shapes. The general thought, though, is that every type of flight feather is long and hard. This structure comes from a thicker core to the shaft of the feather, which enables the bird to push down against the air, leading to a strong draft that propels them.
The longest flight feathers are typically arranged as wing feathers and tail feathers. These are called primary feathers since they do so much of the work that brings the bird into the air.
The secondary wing feathers and tail feathers are called just that - secondaries. These are there to provide structural support to the primaries and to generally provide structure and support to the wing structure of a bird. This is important since birds can become damaged, either by accident or through predation.
There are, finally, small feathers that cover the base of the large flight feathers. These smaller feathers appear everywhere across the bird and serve to simply protect the flight feathers as much as possible. These are called coverts. While they're not too important in the day-to-day for a bird, they can be useful for the identification of birds.
Birds, surprisingly, are actually warm-blooded! Given the amount of time you see different birds sunning themselves, a number of people presume that they're cold-blooded.
This warm-blooded facet of their nature means that they have to keep a body temperature of around forty degrees celsius. This isn't too dissimilar to humans, as we use the hair on our bodies to maintain a temperature of thirty-seven Celcius.
Down feathers are exceptionally tiny, covering the majority of the bird's body. They are very fine and not at all dense, which means that they're exceptionally good at trapping air. This air barrier serves to insulate birds, keeping them nice and warm.
Down feathers of birds are so good at keeping things warm that people actually tend to use them for quilts and duvets. The concept is functionally the same as the concept of down feathers on birds - the feathers lie against the body of the human (or bird) trapping air which, in turn, traps warmth.
The smaller feathers across birds, from the tail feathers to the wing feathers, are called contour feathers. These are something that is quite similar to the shape of planes and their wings in our world.
Essentially, they lie flat against the bird's body in order to protect it from wind, cold, and sun. This is their primary use, but it's important to bear in mind that they also give the body a streamlined shape - this is the way in which they're similar to planes.
It's common for faster bird species to have more contour feathers since they need to be as streamlined as possible.
While the above are all the reasons that birds have their feathers and make excellent use of them all year round, the reason that humans are so excited about them is that the colorful feathers make birdwatching a deeply wonderful hobby.
Seeing a fleeting burst of red or green can be thrilling, especially if you've been on the hunt for a specific bird all day.
The vast majority of birds break down into two different camps for their feathers - camouflage and attraction.
The first camp is quite straightforward in the colors that their feathers grow. Generally, their flight feathers and contour feathers will be similar colors to leaf litter on the forest floor - light browns and blacks. This combination results in a wildly effective camouflage that prevent predators from seeing them, aside from in particularly specific situations.
The second camp is a little more intense - feathers can be in a wide range of colors, from pink to blue, and can often be colors found nowhere else in nature. A great example of this is the male peacock, which has bright coloration across its body, and dazzling feathers on its rump.
This is done to attract a mate, along with different mating calls or dances.
There are plenty of birds, particularly in the UK, that strike a balance between these two styles of a feather. These are typically small birds that may be ground feeders, that typically don't fly for long distances, instead of hopping to and from on the ground, or near to it. A great example of this is the bullfinch.
These birds are well camouflaged from above, as the majority of predators that are looking out for them will be looking down upon them. Their underbellies, however, will still be bright and vibrant colors. Bullfinches and robins, for example, have red breasts and bellies, which attract other birds of the same size, while having dark, camouflaged feathers on their backs and wings. Their primary feathers, therefore, are typically brown or black, in stark contrast to the feathers on their bellies.
Birds will often preen their feathers, both for appearance's sake, and to ensure that they're still efficient at lifting them up and helping them to fly.
The preening involves the preen gland, which is something that produces natural oils to maintain the feathers. During the preening process, birds will maneuver oils from the preen gland around their bodies and over their feathers. Typically, they will remove any detritus or similar rubbish that they need to remove.
This process involves ensuring that the individual parts of their feathers are aligned properly and locked together well. This can be done yourself, with a small feather - the individual hairs can be split apart, and then be pressed back together.
This process is repeated across the bird to ensure that there is no rubbish among the feathers and that the oil from the preen gland is spread evenly, ensuring that the bird is, to some degree, water repellent.
20 bird species & what their feathers look like
From the flight feathers to the down feathers, knowing what your favorite birds look like starts and ends with the colors of the feathers themselves. In this section, we're going to run through twenty different species of bird that are common in the UK, and speak about what their feathers look like. Without further ado, let's talk feathers!
The dunnock is a sweet little bird - it's commonly described as quiet and unobtrusive. This tells you a little something - the feathers covering the bird's body are well camouflaged.
The tail feathers and primary wing feathers are dark brown and black, with a contour feather being grey or a light, yellowish color on the underside of the bird. The contour feathers gradient, slightly, from almost white on the belly to dusty grey on the face.
The red kite is one of the UK's most recognizable predator birds. It's got a uniquely beautiful structure, given to it by the shape and size of the primary and secondary flight feathers. The wingtips are black, as are the secondary flight feathers.
Aside from white spots on the wings and tail feathers, the main body of the bird is a red-brown color. This contrasts well with the white of the head, which means that the bird is easily portable in the sky.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The lesser spotted woodpecker is one of the most eye-catching British birds. It's notable in that the contour feathers on its underbelly and the flight feathers on its back, tail, and wings, are inverted in color.
The flight feathers are black with white stripes, while the breast and belly of the bird boast white feathers with black speckles on them. this serves to break up their outline, camouflaging them well.
The goldcrest is a simply beautiful bird - the size and shape of a tennis ball that's had feathers stuck to it. The chubby little creature has an orange stripe on its head, with the remaining feathers across its back and wings being greyish-green. The reason for their name is that, when spotted in sunlight, their color appears almost gold.
The hen harrier is a bird direly in need of conservation. It's historically been a bird that has ducked down to fields, taking wild fowl - hence the name. This has led to it being hunted in regions that hunt birds for sport, which has resulted in a decrease in their overall numbers.
Their feathers are a sharp steel grey color, with black wingtip feathers that serve to help them glide well. They typically hold themselves in a tight v-shape, diving low to scoop up prey.
Interestingly, the males are the birds with the grey feathers, while female hen harriers have a brown and black coloration that varies across their bodies.
The pink-footed goose, unsurprisingly, has pink feet. This is quite notable as the goose itself looks utterly normal when compared to other geese. The contour feathers on its chest and belly are a light brown color, with the flight feathers being a dark grey color. Interestingly, these birds have white undersides, which likely serves to camouflage them against the sky from predators that may surface underneath them.
The robin is, in all likelihood, the bird that even the most amateur birdwatcher would be able to spot out there. Their flight feathers are brown, to blend in with the forest floor, though the contour feathers and down feathers on their underside have a bright orange coloration! This plumage exists to attract a mate, though it catches the eye of many different creatures.
A collared dove may seem a little dull at first, but, really, their feather structure leads to a beautiful gradient of shades of gray across their body. Their primary feathers are a little darker than the down on their heads, which means that they appear to have a slight fade from the back to the front.
The notable thing about their appearance is the collar of fine black feathers at their neck. These feathers are perfectly in line with the shape of the rest of their body, meaning that they can be sure to still be aerodynamic. The coloration, therefore, is solely to attract a mate, as so many different bird feathers are!
The great tit is a simple and wonderful bird - the largest of the tit family, of which there are many in the UK. Typically, great tits will be seen from a distance, as having a black head with white cheeks. They have yellow plumage on their breast and belly contour feathers, and their wings have a blue, almost iridescent coloration.
The main reason that wing feathers can be a slightly different color to adjacent feathers is that more oil comes into contact with those feathers. The oil from the preen gland serves to make the feathers look brighter and more complex, hence the look.
The goldfinch is a wonderfully colorful bird, with feathers ranging from brown to red, and white to yellow.
It's particularly engaging that a contour feather on the face of the bird is typically bright red around the beak - this sharp and distinctive coloration separates these birds from the pack.
The chaffinch is actually one of the UK's most common birds, and since they're so beautiful it's easy to see why: people are happy to attract them to their gardens with specialist food in the bird feeder.
Their flight feathers are distinctly different colors from their down feathers and any single contour feather. The primary, secondary, and covert feathers are all a dark brown color, with some white edges and tips here and there. The distinct coloration across the bird is solely to attract mates.
The wood pigeon has a simple and classic coloration - storm-cloud colors decorate the bird, from the pink-grey of its breast to the iridescent blue of the back of its neck. Despite the fact that this bird is exceptionally common and typically seen as vermin, the bird feathers are wonderfully beautiful when considered outside of that.
With the name of the bird denoting the color of the average male blackbird, you might be surprised to learn that the color of feathers on female blackbirds is actually a varied brown color. The down feathers are a lighter shade, with the flight and other feathers being slightly darker.
The types of feathers that adore starlings are a sight to behold - they're wonderfully beautiful!
From a distance, the bird feathers are quite dark, almost black. When viewed closer, though, you can begin to see how iridescent and blue some of the secondary and covert feathers on the bird's back are.
The blue tit is one of the more common birds in UK gardens, and thanks to its colorful look, it's easy to understand why people find it so easy to see. It boasts a white face with black lines, along with a blue tuft on the top of its head, and a yellow plumage on its breast.
The combined effect is wonderfully eye-catching, with the brightly colored birds sitting on bird feeders up and down the UK. They're certainly a fixture that's sure to stay!
The house sparrow is in decline around the UK, which is a crying shame - it's such a beautiful bird that we'd love to see it stick around. The down feathers on its underside are a plain buff color, with the flight feathers on the wings being more vibrant shades of orange, contrasting with neighboring black. This might seem a little unappealing at first, but there is beauty in its simplicity.
Interestingly, the house sparrow's beak changes color throughout the year! In the winter, the beak is a yellow-brown color, while in the summer, it turns black.
The magpie is notable for being noisy and monochrome! It also has an exceptionally long tail, which means that it often perches off the ground, to allow itself a good amount of room.
The feathers on the tail and wings do have a slightly purple-green coloration to them. While you have to get exceptionally close to see it, it's worth having a close look!
The carrion crow is exceptionally clever, which usually means that they stay away from humans, yet near to nearby sources of food. Their black feathers are uniform all over, serving to disguise and camouflage them from assorted predators and humans.
While it doesn't really look like it, the jay is the most brightly colored member of the crow family. The majority of the jay is a rosy red-pink color, with there being black feathers on the cheeks and wings of the bird. The most striking element of the bird, when you get a close look, is the point at which the wing meets the body of the bird, where the feathers are striped sky blue and black - a beautiful combination.
The wren is a wonderfully sweet bird - one that's small and pleasantly fat to look at. We really appreciate how simple the coloring is across the bird - it's mostly a mid-to-dark brown, with black stripes across the feathers. It's truly beautiful and wonderfully sweet to see.
We hope that this article has given you a little knowledge about the different feathers that birds around the world have. While it would be reductive to say that all birds have wonderfully stunning feathers - it may also be true! Happy birdwatching!