This post explores the biology and ecology of feathers. It’s part of a series I’m doing on using everyday situations to help young kids explore science – particularly ecology and biology – more in depth.
With birds winging their way south for the winter, it’s the perfect time to investigate their most unique trait: feathers. Find a feather on the ground to examine it!
The scientific context:
While feathers are unique to birds these days, they’ve been around for far longer. Unlike when I was a kid, scientists now think that many dinosaurs had feathers as well. Although they didn’t fly, dinosaurs’ feathers probably served many of the same purposes bird feathers do today.
In addition to flying, feathers do so much for birds! They keep them warm and dry; make unique sounds; hide, scare away, or distract predators; attract other birds; and protect their skin. The Common Potoo in Central and South America has such good camoflage that it looks like part of a tree. Many male birds use the bright patterns on their feathers or the noises they can make to show off for female birds. The male Birds of Paradise have elaborate sets of feathers that scientists think are just for them to look beautiful.
Just as birds use feathers for a variety of purposes, there are several types of feathers.
Birds use wing, tail and contour feathers to fly. Wing feathers for flight are evolved to be windproof. By not twisting as the bird flies, they help them stay on course. Some are actually attached right to the bird’s bones. Most tail feathers help birds steer, giving them the immense control as they fly. Contour feathers cover most of a bird’s body. The part facing outwards is waterproof, keeping the bird from getting wet. Contour feathers can be bright to attract a mate or blend into the scenery to help the bird hide.
Semiplume and down feathers keep birds warm and are close to the body. Filoplume feathers “talk” to the bird’s nervous system and help them know the position of the contour feathers. Bristle feathers may help protect birds’ faces.
Because feathers are so important, birds spend a lot of time making sure they are in just the right place. They use their beak to preen their feathers. Feathers also can’t repair themselves, just like our fingernails. In fact, feathers and fingernails are made of the same material.
Things to know:
If you have found a feather, the best thing to do is look at it and then put it back where you found it. In the U.S., it’s actually illegal to collect feathers of native species without a special permit.
After you or your kids touch it, be sure to thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands. Bird feathers can carry diseases that can make humans sick as well.
In addition to looking at feathers, birdwatching is a great activity to share with kids. Bon Bon Break has some great tips on birdwatching with kids.
Questions for Discussion:
- What kind of feather do you think this is? What purpose do you think it served?
- What colors do you see in the feather? Do you think they are meant for camoflage or to show off?
- What kind of feathers would you like if you were a bird? Showy ones or camouflage ones?
Resources to Explore Further
Everything You Need to Know About Feathers – The Cornell Lab, Bird Academy
Bird Feathers – KidWing.com
Feathers 411 – Project Beak
Why did dinosaurs evolve feathers? – Lab Notes, The Guardian
Pierre the Penguin – Great children’s book based on a real-life story of a penguin at the California Academy of Sciences who lost his feathers.