Unique to birds and their dinosaur predecessors, feathers have evolved into essential biological structures that come in a remarkable diversity of forms and colors.
Here, we cover the greatness of feather biology by looking at feathers from various scientific viewpoints, including their form, function, growth, and evolution.
From the glorious spiral on a King Bird-of-Paradise tail to fluffy down on a swan chick, feathers are exceptional not just in the way they seem to the naked eye but also for their complex microstructure.
Understanding feather figures at the microscopic level offers insight into how feathers work. For instance, the interlocking Velcro-like structure on multiple bird feathers forms a smooth, resilient, and flexible surface that helps flight and sheds water.
As feathers develop, they mature into deeply branched structures. A thorough study of this process encouraged new opinions about the evolution of feathers through stages of growing complexity.
Feather Science from Various Angles
Complete knowledge of biological structures like feathers needs analysis from many angles. We now realize how feathers function is intricately linked to how they’re structured and how they develop, closely connected to their evolution.
Niko Tinbergen, Nobel Prize winner in 1973 for his effort to understand animal behavior, revealed the four levels of analysis that biologists have been practicing ever since to structure their study. For us to completely understand anything in nature, he stated, we need to consider these four questions:
● How does it work? (anatomy)
● How does it function? (adaptation)
● How does it develop? (Growth)
● How did it evolve? (evolution)
Here we have utilized Tinbergen’s words and analyzed each of these questions to give you complete and amazing facts about feathers.
How do Feathers Work?
Although feathers arrive in an unbelievable diversity of forms, they are formed of the protein beta-keratin and the same essential parts, arranged in a branching structure.
The calamus extends into a central rachis in the most intricate feathers that branches into barbs and barbules with tiny hooks interlock with nearby barbules.
The diversity in feathers begins from the evolution of small changes in this basic branching structure to serve several functions.
Downy feathers seem fluffy because they have a loosely designed plumulaceous microstructure with adjustable barbs and almost long barbules that trap air close to the bird for insulation.
Pennaceous feathers are strong and often flat, a big difference from a small modification in the structure; small hooks on the barbules that interlock to create a wind and waterproof barrier that enables birds to fly and remain dry.
Several feathers have both feathery plumulaceous regions and more structured pennaceous regions.
What do Feathers do?
All feathers on a bird’s body are a finely tuned structure that plays a vital role in the bird’s actions. Feathers enable birds to fly, but they also support them in showing off, staying warm, blending in, and keeping dry.
Usually, we can quickly tell how a feather functions, but occasionally the function of a feather is mysterious, and we require a scientific study to know it further.
The primary and secondary wing feathers, or remiges, allow birds to drive to the skies. The primaries are the largest of the flight feathers. They occupy the wing’s outer half and offer most of the bird’s forward thrust.
While birds cannot control secondaries as extensively, they contribute most of the lift by overlapping to build an efficient airfoil. Rectrices or Tail feathers are also classified as flight feathers.
Few feathers are so deeply modified for display that they actually don’t seem like feathers at all. The bright spiral, for instance, from a King Bird-of-Paradise tail, performs as an ornament during the male’s courtship display.
Birds don’t use all fancy feathers to woo a partner; they also use some to display aggression. For instance, Blue Jays keep their crests dropped when they are at rest or with flock and family members but raise them during aggressive displays.
Have you ever questioned why few birds hatch naked while others are in a coat of downy feathers? Several juvenile birds must be able to swim and forage alongside their parents almost immediately after hatching.
Young Mute Swans, for example, hatch with a soft cover of natal down and, after a few weeks, substitute the natal down with an inside layer of adult down and an outer cover of contour feathers. In contrast, the young of multiple birds are born entirely naked and require lots of parental care.
Arranged in an overlying pattern, contour feathers allow water to flow right off a bird’s back. Birds regularly maintain their waterproof layer through high grooming or preening to ensure that all feathers are fine.
How do Feathers Develop?
Feathers are dead structures that can’t fix themselves when broken or damaged. Because a functional and healthy cover is crucial for survival, every year birds shed their old feathers and then develop an entirely new set.
This molting function is a carefully timed event in which feathers are shed and redeveloped in turn over weeks so the bird can retain its protective outer coating and ability to fly.
Once the new cover of feathers has grown, the molt is complete and new growth only happens before the next molt cycle when feathers are accidentally lost.
The Growth Process
A detailed analysis of feather growth reveals how these complex structures form.
- Each new feather develops from a tiny outgrowth of skin known as the papilla.
- As feathers mature, their tips get shifted away from the papilla, where the new portions of the feather are created. Similar to human hairs, feathers are youngest at their root.
- The feather’s layout develops as protein is passed near the surface of this bump of skin. It’s here that the branching structures form by minor branches fusing at the bottom to create thicker ones, barbules fuse into barbs and barbs fuse into a rachis.
- As the feather develops, it remains curly in a tubular shape enclosing the papilla until it is thrust away from the development area.
- A protective coat protects the feather’s tubular shape until it begins to disintegrate around the tip, enabling the developed part of the feather to unfurl.
- The sheath drops off and the development process is complete.
As the feather unfurls, its interlocking structure is completely formed. Over the year, the bird maintains its mature feathers through preening or periodic care. Whenever the barbules get disturbed, the bird utilizes its beak to perfectly settle them back into place.
How did Feathers Evolve?
Flight feathers, with their complex microstructure, are outstanding illustrations of natural engineering. But how did birds evolve? From fossil history, we know that they evolved from dinosaurs, few of which had feathers. But those primary feathers had nothing to do with flight, they perhaps encouraged dinosaurs to show off.
Scientists recently figured out an assumption to clarify how flight feathers could have evolved. They possibly started as natural tufts, and then slowly evolved through stages of rising complexity into interlocking structures eligible for supporting flight.
- The firstest feather was a simple hollow tube.
- The hollow tube developed into a cluster of barbs.
- The base of the barbs fused to create a middle rachis and the barbules branched from the barbs, as we notice in today’s down feathers.
- The barbules evolved hooks that interlock to give rise to steady vanes as in current contour feathers.
- The feather pattern developed asymmetry with the aerodynamic properties of present-day flight feathers.
These scientific advancements indicate that asking questions from various viewpoints helps produce new testable theories and scientific knowledge. For this reason, it is becoming more frequently popular for scientists to work across disciplines.
Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes
At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.
- Kids Bird Watching Monthly Subscription$10.00 / month
- Kid & Adult Bird Watching Starter Pack Subscription$10.00 / month and a $72.00 sign-up fee
- Kids Bird Watching Starter Pack Subscription$10.00 / month and a $19.00 sign-up fee
Bird Watching Binoculars
The most common types of bird-watching binoculars are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here. Check out the kid binoculars.