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Home > News & Events > MAARSianChronicles > Issue 12: April 2005 > Did You Know?: Facts About Feathers

Did You Know?

Parrots, like Umbrella Cockatoo, Bubba, spend a lot of time each day preening their feathers, "re-zipping" the complex system of barbs on each one.

Parrots, like Umbrella Cockatoo, Bubba, spend a lot of time each day preening their feathers, "re-zipping" the complex system of barbs on each one.

Facts About Feathers

by Alayne Rueber & Krista Menzel

They are the one thing that make birds unique among all living things — feathers. These fabulous structures allow most bird species to fly (or swim) by providing lift and contour; insulate a bird's body from heat and cold; protect its skin from dampness; incubate eggs and chicks in the nest; offer camoflage from predators in the trees, sky, water, or on the ground; and serve as decorative "costumes" for elaborate courtship displays.

Those of us who keep birds often pick feathers up off the cage floor to marvel at their structure and beauty. Their colors and shapes are often used in traditional artwork and costumes, and mimicked by engineers working on aircraft design and insulated clothing design.

So how did feathers evolve, and how do they work?

  

 

Feathers are not really "bird hairs" but are probably modified scales passed down from their reptilian ancestors.

 

  

 

Each feather can be raised by a separate skin muscle.

 

  

 

The vanes on each side of contour feathers consist of rows of rami or barbs. This is a system of hooks and flanges on opposite sides of each barb that hook together like a Velcro strip so that the feathers can then hold a strong, rigid position. It is relocked every time a bird preens.

 

  

 

Ostriches do not have a well-developed system of barbs and hooks on the vanes of their feathers, so their contour feathers appear fluffy.

 

  

 

Powder down is special modification of the down feathers where the feathers themselves become very powdery as they develop, creating a fine dust that will cover and protect the feathers.

 

  

 

Birds do not have sebaceous (oil) or sweat glands. The only surface gland is the oil gland, also called the preening or uropygial gland, found at the base of tail.

 

  

 

While all feathers have the same basic structure, each bird has many different types of feathers suited for different purposes, and feathers also vary greatly among species.

 

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