Documents: Special Interest: Wildlife Gardening:

10 Neat Things About Feathers
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

April 12, 2015

1. Heavy feathers.

Feathers weigh as much as two to three times the weight of the body of a baby bird. When ducks moult, the new feathers are filled with blood, making them so heavy that the duck can't fly. The blood leaves the feather as it matures.

2. Efficiency food.

Grebes ingest their own feathers and feed them to their young. Well, why not? Feathers are pretty well pure protein in the form of keratin. Some dog foods contain feathers to help treat allergies. Keratin is a crystal-structured protein that is eight times stronger than cellulose.

3. It's all the same thing.

Feathers are what is called integumentary appendages with the same purpose and made of essentially the same stuff as skin, hair, fur, nails, scales and hooves. These appendages are all designed to regulate temperature, waterproof organs, cushion from damage and excrete waste. They are also sensory receptors, detecting pain, pressure and temperature, synthesizing vitamin D from the sun.

4. Fluffy or barbed.

Feathers come in two basic kinds: vaned (pennaceous) feathers, which have a main shaft from which emerge branches or barbs, which also branch and produce barbules, which in turn produce minute hooks called barbicels used for interlocking all the other parts. These are the flight feathers and grow in the tail and on the wings. Down feathers, growing under the vane feathers and along the neck, fluff because they have no barbs. This allows them to trap air, offering insulation..

5. The root of it all.

Feathers grow out of tiny follicles in the epidermis in miraculous little manufactories of keratin where they also produce the signal that tells the growth it is a feather rather than a scale (on the leg) or a beak or claw. We don't yet know just what that signal is.

6. Moulting.

All birds shed their feathers at least once a year and many twice a year. This is to rid the bird of dead appendages that have worn out or become tawdry and it may also herald the change of a season; the pretty gold finch is a drab little brown bird in winter. As the old feather loses its function, a new one pushes it out, growing very quickly.

7. Fancy dress for dating.

Some birds change their appearance through moulting before mating. The bobolink wears a dressy white and black cloak with a fluffy white hat to attract a mate, but when the job is done, he reverts to his unremarkable normal self, looking much like the female he courted. In late summer, the male scarlet tanager replaces all his feathers with a new greenish coloured new coat for winter. In spring, he dons the famous scarlet cover that gives him his name.

8. Pennaceous.

Of course the vane or penaceous feathers are what quill pens were made of in the early days. The goose was the favoured donor of these feathers. Feathers have been used in fashion (to the extent that some birds were almost made extinct by this trend) to stuff pillows and upholstery, and even to help glue boards together.

9. The evil eye.

Peacock feathers are thought to be unlucky, especially indoors, and some believe that they carry the evil eye. Blue jay feathers bring light and joy. Swan feathers are for beauty, goodness and grace. Hawk and eagle feathers indicate energy. Hawk feathers were used by shamans to detect diseases and eagle feathers also stood for peace and happiness.

10. Theropod dinosaurs.

Some ancient dinosaurs had feathers even though they couldn't fly. These were fairly large beasts which lived about 231 million years ago.

Dorothy Dobbie Copyright© Pegas

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