Feathers! The history behind the plume

When we think of feathers, we immediately associate them with birds. Birds are the only living creatures today that grow feathers. Most birds have different kinds of feathers which are employed for purposes from as varied as flying to attracting a mate. A single bird may have from 1,000 to over 20,000 feathers and every feather is a marvel of design. Each feather is composed of a central shaft called the rachis which is flexible and remarkably strong. The rachis further branches out hundreds of barbs forming the smooth vane of the feather. These barbs contain hundreds of smaller barbules, which hook onto neighboring barbules, forming a kind of a zipper. A single six inch wing feather of a pigeon is thus, estimated to contain some hundreds of thousands of barbules and literally millions of barbicels. The aerodynamic principles built into a bird’s wings and body design surpass in complexity and efficiency that of a modern-day aircraft. When barbules unzip, the bird simply zips them back together by preening itself. You can do the same by drawing a frayed feather gently between your fingers. Feathers that are most visible to us are the overlapping contour feathers. It gives birds the smooth, aerodynamic shape. Contour feathers include the wings and tail feathers, which are vital to flight.

Consider the tiny hummingbird. In Brazil, it is also known as the “bird that kisses flowers” and its other observers call these tiny creatures “living jewels” because of their glittering special feathers around the throat area and the crown of the male hummers. Their feathers have layers of cells filled with air and these cells refract light waves into a rainbow of colour which is like light dancing off millions of tiny soap bubbles.

Joan Ward-Harris beautifully describes a cinnamon-coloured rufous hummingbird in her book “Creature Comforts” as,
His Jewel lies on his throat – the gorget… it extends below his cheeks and under his chin to his throat and chest, like a baby’s bib. The effect of the flared gorget is breathtaking – the bird looks twice its usual size and seems literally on fire.”

Hummingbirds are known for their aerobatics par excellence. For a moment, one will hover at a flower, drink its nectar, but this mighty mite darts forward, backward, sideways or even upside down with 50 – 70 – some say 80 wing beats per second! Researchers estimate that the hummingbird can reach up to speeds of 30 – 60 miles per hour (50 – 100 km/h) and then come to an abrupt stop. However, the hummingbird is capable of doing such amazing feats because of its wings – rigid from shoulder to wingtip, that allow for power in both upward and downward beats, rather than just the downward stroke which is true of other birds. Thus, both strokes provide lift and propulsion, while the shoulder joint allows 180 degrees rotation.

The Owl has feathers quite different from other birds. The air that rushes over the feathers of most birds creates a turbulence that can be quite noisy. However, according to an article in Scientific American, the owl’s wings are ultrasonically quiet; the soft down on the upper surface and the feathery fringes on the leading and trailing edges of the wings apparently serve to reduce the turbulence of the air flow. Thus, the owl noiselessly swoops through the darkness and silently drops down on its unsuspecting prey.

Feathers protect birds from heat, cold, ultraviolet light and help waterproof the bird’s plumage. However, feathers of the birds eventually wear out, so birds replace them by molting – shedding old feathers and growing new ones. Most birds molt their wings and tail feathers in a predictable, balanced order so that they always retain their ability to fly.

Feathers add to the beauty of a bird. However, the beauty and colour imparted by nature to these birds makes them vulnerable to exploitation. We humans selfishly use these feathers to decorate our houses and our clothing. It is not uncommon to see models draped in elaborate dresses made from the feathers of exotic birds. Many species of birds have become extinct from our planet and to some extent we are to be blamed for it. It is time we learnt to appreciate the beauty of feathers on the bird and not as home décor or accessories on the fashion ramp.

Author: Teresa Pereira
Teresa is a content editor working in Mumbai. She enjoys writing & tries to do her bit for the environment by incorporating simple green practices in everyday life.

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