As Light as a Feather

Great egret
photo: Joe Meche

by Joe Meche

One of Nature’s True Marvels

As long as we’ve coexisted, humans have been fascinated by and even envious of birds and their ability to fly. We’ve been equally enthralled by their most prominent features … feathers. We’ve incorporated feathers into our lives with similes and adages that keep us connected. We speak of something being as light as a feather; doing a good deed earns a feather in your cap; we feather our nests and stick together with birds of a feather. We’ve also used feathers for an array of purposes, such as decorations and adornments, as well as for dusting our furniture and attaching parts of them to fishing hooks. Early historical documents were signed with quill pens and we’ve found the benefits of lining our bedding and clothing with super-insulating down from a variety of birds. And who could forget Yankee Doodle, who stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni?

Birds are the only members of the animal kingdom with feathers and, except for their legs and feet as well as their beaks and bills, they are covered with feathers. The bright colors of the Neotropical migrants have always been welcome sights in spring, especially after the long and colder winter months. Feathers are often the keys to field identification of the birds we see around us.

The origin of feathers is sometimes controversial since they evolved over millions of years into what we see today. Feathers of fossils of the earliest specimen, Archaeopteryx lithographica, are similar to the birds we’re used to seeing but there’s still no evidence of exactly when feathers first developed. The link between birds and reptiles has been duly noted since scales and feathers are both composed of similar types of keratin and are formed in overlapping layers to protect the skin.

Great egret
photo: Joe Meche

Through the process of adaptive evolution, some of the scales elongated into the limbs which became flight feathers and eventually wings. This was followed by contour feathers to cover the body and insulate the birds from weather extremes. The wings, of course, became the features that allow birds to fly in pursuit of prey and weather conditions that are more favorable. The hollow bones of birds make them ideal flying machines capable of sustained flight to expand their ranges and areas of coverage.

One of the most amazing things about birds is the complexity of the different types of feathers that make up the individual species. All birds have contour feathers, along with specific feathers that enable and control flight. The variety of feathers in birds is complex and designed to fit the needs of each species. Feathers originate from follicles in the skin, similar to our hair follicles. This process starts when the bird is an embryo and that’s where feathers begin to develop. A closer look at cross sections of feathers illustrates how amazing they are. Part of the marvelous adaptation of birds is that all their feathers point to the rear in a perfectly natural aerodynamic design.

Form and function of all birds’ feathers follow a similar design and function in basically the same way. From the smallest hummingbirds to the largest eagles and condors, the overall scale of feathers changes with the size of the host. Aside from the wings, contour feathers follow the outline of the avian body. The remiges are the primary and secondary feathers that make up the wing. The leading edges of the wings are narrower to move efficiently through the air while the wider trailing edges provide lift. The rectrices or tail feathers are designed to control speed and direction. If you look at manmade airplanes you can see where we found our inspiration.

Maintenance of feathers is an essential part of survival for birds. Since they are prone to parasites such as lice and mites, preening and bathing are regular parts of a bird’s daily routines. Cleaning their feathers in bird baths and puddles are common while some birds utilize a practice known as anting. Ants secrete formic acid and when the birds place ants into their feathers the acid helps to eliminate pests.

Feathers are not permanent and wear down so birds go through periodic molts to replace their primary flight feathers. Most of these molting periods also change the look of individual birds from immature and juvenile into adult and eventually breeding plumages. Males generally sport the more colorful plumage while females tend to blend in more with their surroundings, especially during the nesting season. Feather changes between seasons and ages of maturity often create challenges for birdwatchers. Birds like gulls can be especially challenging.

Snowy egret
photo: Joe Meche

Human uses of feathers for practical purposes were common, but the millinery trade and the use of the long plumes of snowy and great egrets in the late 19th century almost led to their extinction. The finest women’s hats of the day were adorned with the magnificent plumes of large wading birds. Demand was so high that plume hunters ravaged breeding colonies for the best feathers. Public outrcry halted the slaughter and from it came the establishment of the first wildlife refuges. Along with President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the groups that participated in saving these birds was the budding National Audubon Society. The great egret is still the emblem for this leading conservation organization.

Along with these refuges, and near and dear to my heart, was the establishment of Bird City on Avery Island, Louisiana. This private reserve was founded by Edward Avery McIlhenny, conservationist and heir to the Tabasco pepper sauce facility that still operates on the island. McIlhenny collected egrets on the Gulf Coast and took them back to the family-owned island with hopes they would continue to breed in this protected setting. I grew up just up the road from Avery Island and I can say from first-hand experience on numerous visits that his plan has been a huge success.

Around the world, humans have had an ongoing romance with birds and feathers and celebrated them in literature and the arts. One of America’s most beloved poets, Emily Dickinson, wrote “Hope is the thing with Feathers.” She wrote this as a hymn of praise for the human capacity for hope. She portrayed hope as a bird that lives within the human soul that sings no matter how dire the situation might be. She used the imagery of a bird and violent weather to create a balance between the destructive and the beneficent. As I write this column in mid-June of the year 2020 while considering all the chaos in our country, hope is an essential ingredient for everyday life, for all of us.

Stay healthy!

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.