Pretty with a Purpose: The Anatomy of a Feather

Posted by Stacey Venzel

How does a feather work? What are all its parts?

Feathers are beautiful but they have a function. While they look quite simple, microscopically, a feather is quite complex.

From its chemical compound to its physical structure, a feather is hard at work protecting a bird from the elements–and playing a role in its social life as well.

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Here’s a breakdown of the way a feather works:

Chemical Component

Keratin is the basis for skin-derived structures in all animals, from a turtle’s shell to human fingernails and dog hair. In birds, the beak, claws, scales, and feathers are made up of these amino acid proteins, too. However, birds and reptiles have beta-keratin whereas mammalian make-up involves alpha-keratin.

Structure

The stalk of an individual feather is called the rachis, extending into the thickened, hollowed shaft–also called a calamus or, more commonly, the quill. The colorful part of the feather is called a vane.

Under a microscope, a web of barbs and barbules branch off each other in a V-pattern. The barbules interlock like Velcro. In mature birds, hooklets then branch off of the barbules for further assistance in keeping the animal dry and wind resistant.

 ASU
ASU

Downy feathers look fluffy because the barbs and barbules are not as rigid or connective as in adult plumage. Lacking hooklets, baby bird feathers function primarily to provide warmth.

Seven Types

Different parts of the body have different feather structures. Some adult feathers in specific regions still retain part of their down, or plumulaceous, characteristics, while others adhere strictly the mature pennaceous anatomy.

Bird Acacemy/Cornell Lab
Bird Acacemy/Cornell Lab

Feathers fall into one of seven categories: down, wing, tail, contour, bristle, semiplume, and filoplume.

Aforementioned, down feathers cover a fledgling. Implied by their name, wing feathers are the flight feathers. Tail feathers are for steering.

Contour feathers are the main body covering, used to attract mates or camouflage. Their overlapping criss-cross is layered much like the roof of a house to be effectively waterproof. Additionally, precise arrangement accounts for aerodynamics in flight.

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Semiplumes are located on top of the down feathers for insulation. Thin filoplumes act to detect the direction of the contour feathers. Even thinner, bristles are typically located on the bird’s head to offer protection.

Preening

Birds will routinely engage in preening throughout the day. For those that have preening oil, they will use their bill or beak to spread the waxy substance from their uropygial gland across all of the feathers, thus maximizing waterproof efficacy and protecting against parasites.

During preening, birds will also arrange out of place feathers so that their body stays dry and warm and they are prepared for flight.

Have you ever seen water roll off a duck’s feathers after it dives down? Hooklets and preening oil make a duck waterproof.

Molting

A feather is essentially dead, so it cannot fix itself once damaged. Because of this, birds will shed their feathers annually and, through preening, remove molting feathers. The feathers are not lost all at once so that the bird can maintain a protective layer.

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One bird can have upwards of 25,000 feathers. In comparison, dogs have roughly 15,000 hairs per square inch of their body.

And now you are a feather expert! Get ready for your next trivia night!

Did you learn something? Tell us in the comments below!

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Pretty with a Purpose: The Anatomy of a Feather