What makes a bird a bird? Feathers. Birds are the only animals that have feathers and they come in many sizes, colors, and shapes. They also serve many purposes, too. Here you will learn about the parts of a feather, why birds have different feathers, and some interesting facts. After you have read through the different sections on feathers, try the downloadable worksheet to see how much you have learned.
Flight feathers are found in two places on birds: the wings and tail. Flight feathers are long, and wing flight feathers have one side of the vane wider than the other. They also have stronger barbules which give them more strength for flight.
Contour feathers give shape and color to the bird. They are found everywhere except the beak, legs, and feet. Contour feathers are colored only at the ends (the only part that we see). At its base, a contour feather becomes downy which helps insulate the bird.
Down feathers have little or no shaft. They are soft and fluffy. Down feathers help insulate birds by trapping air. Some birds, such as herons, have special down feathers called powder down which breaks up into a fine powder. The bird then spreads this fine powder all over its body to act as a water repellent.
Semiplume feathers are a cross between down and contour feathers. Unlike down, they do have a well formed shaft. However, they do not have well developed barbicels which make them soft. Semiplume feathers are found underneath contour feathers and are used for insulation.
Bristle feathers are very stiff with only a few barbs found at the base. Bristle feathers are found around the mouth of insect eating birds where they act as a funnel. They can also be found around the eyes where they work like eyelashes.
Filoplume feathers are incredibly small. They have a tuft of barbs at the end of the shaft. Unlike other feathers which are attached to muscle for movement, filoplume feathers are attached to nerve endings. These feathers send messages to the brain that give information about the placement of feathers for flight, insulation, and preening.
Parts of a Feather
Colors In Feathers
Feathers come in every color of the rainbow. Most colors are caused by a pigment, just like food coloring being added to frosting. If you add drops of red food coloring (the pigment) the frosting turns a reddish color. The same works for the color yellow. But there is a problem with the last primary color, blue. In feathers, there is no blue pigment. So how can a Blue Jay appear blue if it has no blue pigments?
The answer is found in the structure of the feather, or the way the feather is designed. When light hits the blue feather (remember that white light has all of the colors of the rainbow) the feather is designed to reflect back only the blue light to our eyes. This can be shown in a simple experiment. If you take a blue feather and shine a flashlight on it from the top, you will see the bright blue. However, if you shine the light from underneath the feather, the blue color disappears. If you repeat this experiment with a red feather, the feather will appear red no matter which direction the light passes through the feather. Look at the photos taken below of a Blue Jay feather and a Red-lored Amazon Parrot.