Why do Birds have Feathers?

Have you ever discovered the old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together” (people of the same class or with the same feelings and interests will be seen together)?

But what if birds possessed fur or scales? Would they flock together? No, that doesn’t sound appealing! We think it’s a good thing they have feathers.

Birds, too, seem to believe so. Their feathers are unique in the animal kingdom. You might say they’re one of the bird’s defining qualities.

Lots of creatures are coated in scales or fur, but birds and their feathers stand alone. Also, other animals able to fly, such as bats, don’t possess feathers.

Feathers are essential to birds for several reasons. Mainly, though, birds use their feathers to support in flight.

Feathers are created of a lightweight substance known as keratin, the same thing our fingernails and hair are formed of, as stated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Keratin lets feathers be lightweight but also flexible yet adequately rigid to overcome the rigors of flight.

Functions of Feathers

Muscles are connected to the bottom of every feather, which lets the bird move them whenever required. When in flight, as a bird waves its wings down, the feathers move altogether. Then, as the bird waves its wings up, the feathers move apart to enable air to pass through.

While feathers themselves are lightweight, their combined weight can be higher than a bird’s skeleton, as reported by Mother Nature Network.

Birds have hollow bones, another significant feature that supports flight, so their skeletons don’t provide much to their entire body weight.

Besides assisting birds in flying, a few types of feathers, including semiplume feathers and down feathers, support maintaining birds’ warmth. Birds are capable of trapping pockets of air near their bodies by using these feathers.

They can even adjust or rearrange their feathers to trap less or more air, relying on the temperature, according to Arizona State University. Occasionally when it’s cold, you can notice a bird fluffing its feathers. It does this to help catch more air and to remain warmer.

Besides regulating body temperature and flight, feathers are also water-proof, which keeps birds dry in the water or the rain. Feathers, particularly dark-colored ones, can even protect against the sun.

Feathers are the central aspect of the bird’s identity. Their beautiful plumage makes it easy to identify a Goldfinch from a Purple Finch or Northern Cardinal from a Blue Jay. The colors of a bird’s plumage are also helpful in inviting a mate.

And while few birds use their feathers to look extraordinary, others use them to blend in. For example, Eastern Screech-Owls are well-known for their camouflage, which they set against the backdrop of a tree’s bark, making them very difficult for others to see.

Just like humans shed hair and are renewed by new strands, birds shed their feathers in molting. Through molting, broken or injured feathers fall out and are renewed by new feathers. Molting differs by species. Some small bird species molt once or even twice a year, while more giant birds with larger feathers lose less often.

7 Types of Feathers

Wing Feathers

The wing feathers practiced for flight are identified by uniform windproof covers, or vanes, on each side of the central shaft formed by an interlocking microstructure.

Also named remiges, these feathers are asymmetric with a more minor, less flexible front edge that blocks mid-air twisting.

Tail Feathers

Most rectrices or tail feathers highlight an interlocking microstructure like wing feathers. Designed in a fan shape, these feathers help accurate steering in flight.

Usually, birds possess six sets of feathers on the tail, representing increasing asymmetry levels toward the external sets. In a few birds, tail feathers have developed into showy ornaments that are worthless in flight.

Contour Feathers

Contour feathers possess most of the bird’s surface while giving a uniform appearance. They protect them from injury, sun, rain, and wind.

Organized in an overlying pattern like shingles, the water-resistant tips are displayed to the elements, and the feathery bases are tucked near the body.

Sometimes brightly colored or uniformly drab, contour feathers can also support the bird to show off or remain camouflaged. Contour feathers on the wing, known as coverts, shape it into an effective airfoil by smoothing across the area where the flight feathers are attached to the bone.


Mostly covered below other feathers on the body, semiplumes have an evolved central rachis but no hooks on the barbules, forming a fluffy insulating structure.

Down Feathers

Like semiplumes with a similar looser branching structure but rare or no primary rachis, down feathers are comparatively short and located nearest to the body where they trap body heat.


Small, simple feathers with some barbs, filoplumes work like animal whiskers to sense the location of the contour feathers.


Bristles are the plainest feathers, with powerful rachis that typically lack barb branches. Most usually seen on the head, bristles may protect the bird’s face and eyes.

Bird Feather Facts

Feathers genuinely are marvels of natural engineering. Prepare to be wowed by the given six enthralling feather facts.

Birds are the only animals with feathers

Other creatures may build nests (squirrels), fly (bats), and lay eggs (lizards) like birds, but none have feathers. In that way, birds are single.

Plumage didn’t start with birds

Scientists now assume that most dinosaurs also had feathers (or minimum feathery fluff) including, Tyrannosaurus rex. That means birds are somewhat today’s dinosaurs.

In origin, feathers were possibly more for insulation or adornment than for flight. But as dinosaurs evolved into modern-day’s birds, the role of feathers also developed to support flight.

The amount of feathers differ dramatically by bird species

In common, eagles and birds of prey possess between 5,000 to 8,000, small songbirds have 1,500 to 3,000 feathers, and swans wear as much as 25,000. Penguins have possibly the warmest (densest) feather cover with around 100 feathers per square inch.

Feathers can weigh more than a bird’s skeleton

That’s especially right for flying birds, which possess the lightest (frequently hollow) bones to keep them airborne. A bird’s skeleton features only 5 percent of its entire body weight in a few species, meaning its feathers estimate for a large portion of the rest.

Flamingos use preen oil as makeup

Scientists have witnessed flamingos rubbing reddish-orange preen oil for more dazzle on their already pinkish chest, back, and neck feathers.

The better the color and feather display, the greater the opportunity for mating

It’s a hard-and-fast rule in aerial life. Research shows, for example, that male House Finches with the reddest feathers attract more women. It’s hypothesized that brilliant colors may be nature’s means of showing spirit and excellent health.

Same for tail length. Studies reveal that female Barn Swallows (and several other bird species) discover males with the most prominent tail standards to be the most handsome. In Peacocks, male attraction is decided by combining lustrous colors, tail size, and how enticingly they shake their display feathers.


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