All birds are covered to a greater or lesser extent with feathers. We really don’t think about the amazing ability of this simple structure too much.
The very first birds, Archaeopteryx, were huge terrifying beasts. They are one of the first known appearances of the feather, enabling this dinosaur to fly! Several others dinosaurs also had rudimentary feathering.
We are going to take a closer look at this marvel of engineering and see just how amazing it truly is! The next time you find a loose feather, spend some time looking at it closely, it really is a thing of practical beauty.
Despite having feathers, not all birds can fly. Birds can be divided roughly into flightless (emu, kiwi), limited flight (chickens) and full flight (songbirds, hawks).
How Do Hens Make Feathers?
Feathers are made almost entirely of keratin– a type of protein. Beaks and claws are also made of keratin. Keratin contains several amino acids in its make-up- cysteine, lysine, proline and methionine to name a few.
The uses of feathers to the bird are many, some not as obvious as others. They are incredibly strong yet lightweight. About 10% of the total weight of the bird is feathers!
- Flight– One of the main purposes of the feather is flight. The aero-dynamics of the feather allow the bird to fly and maneuver in the air. While chickens cannot fly far, they can use their wings to escape predators, fly to hidden roosts, and as a scare tactic if attacked.
- Insulation– They help to keep the bird warm in winter and cool in summer. The fluffier the feathering, the more cold-tolerant the chicken usually is. For example, the Buff Orpington is extremely well-insulated due to the density of her feathers. On the other hand, tight feathered birds do not fare as well in the cold weather.
- Waterproofing– Feathers can shed off an amazing amount of water. Obviously, ducks reign supreme at this!
- Protection– They help protect the skin against all manner of weather and insects. Feathers also make it difficult for predators to grab hold and kill their prey. So, in a sense, they also protect chickens from attacks.
- Camouflage– Many birds use their feather coloration to blend in with their surroundings. You may not realize it, but a snazzy black and white Dominique rooster is actually quite difficult for a hawk to see.
- Courtship– Not so much in chickens, but in many avian species the color and use of plumage in courtship displays will determine who gets to mate. If you’ve ever seen a rooster do his dance for the ladies, you’ll notice he throws out one of his wings and dances around her. He’s trying to show her he’s in charge, and also trying to impress her with his plumage.
- Sound vibration/air current vibrations– Structures called Herbst’s corpuscles at the base of the feather, are thought to be able to detect changes in air current and sound vibration. Naturally, both of these talents are very useful to a prey species like chickens.
Anatomy of a Feather
The feather is a simple structure to look at. The way that it is put together however, is far from random or simple. There are a few different types of feather and here is a brief description of each.
Types of Feather
Contours- As the name suggests, this is what gives the bird its shape and main color.
Flight- Flight feathers are specialized contour feathers. Sub-divided into primary and secondary flight feathers on the wings, together they are known as the remiges. The tail flight feathers are known as retrices.
Down- These feathers are found at the base of the contour feathers and cover the bird as insulation. These are the same feathers you can find in a down jacket.
Semiplume- These are a cross between the contour and down feather. They add extra insulation in addition to the down feathers.
Filoplume-These are tiny, wisp-like feathers that grow around the base of contour and semiplume feathers. These feathers, unlike the other feathers, are attached to nerve endings. It is thought that they provide the bird with information about the condition of their feathers.
Bristles- You will notice these around the eye and head- it’s believed they play a sensory role.
Map of the Feather
The feather consists of a single stem, known as the rachis. The portion of the rachis that is in and just above the skin is known as the calamus or quill.
Extending outwards from the rachis is the feather vane. The vane consists of interlocked barbs.
The barbs are further divided into barbules and eventually hamuli or hooklets.
The hooklets are cleverly designed to hold the individual barbs together to form a continuous plane.
When a bird preens, they are re-arranging their feathers into a smooth surface ready for flight or display.
Feathers and Molting
Now that you know 90% of a feather is protein, you can better understand why egg production decreases or even stops during the molt!
The molt is an incredible drain on the birds’ resources. Your chicken not only has to produce new feathers, but has to produce them fairly quickly. Adult molting season usually starts around the Fall, but can be much later. Chicks will have three mini-molts before they get their ‘big girl’ feathers at around 12-14 weeks.
The bird needs those feathers in order to stay warm. In a wild environment the bird would need them to evade predators, either by flying or camouflage.
Feeding your flock high quality, high protein feed during the molt is essential for their wellbeing, calcium should also be freely available.
Mans’ use of Feathers
Mankind has always had a fascination with feathers. In the early part of the last century, some birds were hunted to near extinction just for their feathers! Feathers are still used in some religious ceremonies, herbal remedies and in decoration of clothing and homes.
Here are a few more uses you may not know about:
- Fishing lures- fisherman love ‘real’ feather lures!
- Arrow fletches- still used by some archers. The tail of the arrow is made from feathers.
- Feather meal- which is used as a fertilizer.
- Textile fibers- this is a fairly recent development of integrating feather into material.
- Building industry- they are experimenting with fiberboard and flooring using ground-up feathers in the mix.
- Insulation- as in down comforters, jackets, pillows etc.
- Some components of the feather are also used in diapers, plastics and paper.
Birds are unique and feathers make them so. The feather has given them dominion over the skies.
We always notice things like the coloring of the feather- but next time you see a feather on the floor, pick it up and truly appreciate its beauty.
The outward beauty of the feathers is varied and can range from stunningly beautiful to drab; the most stunning plumage usually belongs to the male of the species.
Remember, when your hens molt, it takes a lot of their protein, so don’t be too upset if they stop laying for a few weeks!