Jul 24, 2014 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2014

Fifteen Fun Feather Facts

Great egret plumes adorned women's hats in the late 1800s, and this nearly resulted in the species' extinction. Conservation efforts saved the egrets.
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1. All birds, and only birds, have feathers, although a few species of dinosaurs had them.

2. Feathers are essential to flight; they provide insulation, sunblock, and waterproofing, and can be important in providing camouflage, social dominance, and reproductive success.

3. A bird's plumage usually weighs more than its skeleton.

4. Adult birds molt—replace their feathers—at least once a year. For most songbirds, molting takes five to twelve weeks, shedding only a few feathers at a time. For hawks, a full molt can take several years.

5. After breeding season, most male duck species in North America replace all their flight feathers at once and are flightless for two to four weeks.

6. Birds that winter in cold areas can have 50 percent more feathers in the winter than they do in the summer.

7. Hummingbirds have roughly 1,000 feathers; swans have 25,000.

8. Penguins have more feathers than most birds: about 100 per square inch.

9. Woodpeckers have two stiff tail feathers they use as a prop to stabilize their head banging on tree trunks.

10. Late during the egg-laying process, most birds that incubate lose feathers from their abdomen to provide skin-to-egg warmth during incubation. Feathers are good insulation, after all, and those eggs need body heat! The bald spot is called a "brood patch," and lots of blood vessels there are very close to the surface. In species in which both parents incubate, such as white-eyed vireo, both male and female develop a brood patch, but if only one parent incubates, such as with most songbird species, only the female develops one. When the nestlings fledge, feathers regrow on the brood patch.

11. Owls can fly silently because the forward edge of the first feather on each wing is serrated, rather than smooth. This affects the flow of air over the wing and disrupts the vortex noise created by non-owl wingbeats.

12. The shape of the feathers on many owls' faces into a disk helps them locate prey even in complete darkness. The concave shape channels sounds into the ears.

13. The color of most colorful feathers is caused by pigments, which are chemical compounds. Blue feathers, however, are not the result of pigment, but minute structural particles in the feather that scatter short wavelengths, making the feathers appear blue.

14. A flight feather contains a central vein (rachis), ending a quill; barbs extend off the rachis and branch into barbules, which end in tiny interlocking hooks, called barbicels.

15. Down feathers close to the bird's body have no interlocking barbules, making them soft, fluffy, and extra insulating.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018