Updated: October 12, 2014 1:00:04 am
Down In Jungleland
They’re the birds’ USP — without them, they wouldn’t be birds — and they’re an unparalleled marvel of engineering and aesthetics. They fulfill three vital functions: they give birds the power of flight, they keep them (and especially baby birds) warm and dry and they — according to requirements — disguise them or deck them up in stunning colors.
Feathers are what make birds different to all other living creatures. Made of the same stuff — keratin — as nails and claws, it’s believed that they developed from scales. They cover the birds’ bodies, which is just as well, for a plucked bird is a revolting sight. There are three main types: the contour feathers which is what we see, down feathers, which lie under these and “filoplumes”, which are filamentous hair like feathers sprouting from the base of the contour feathers — you can see these when you pluck a chicken. There are also bristles — around the beak for instance, which serve the same purpose as an insect’s antennae, and “powder down” feathers, which some birds (for example), have on their breasts, which crumble to a powder and are used by the bird as talcum!
The contour feathers include the magnificent flight pinions, which are designed like aerofoils to produce lift and provide thrust for flight (rather like propellers). Strong, flexible and light, they have an ingenious system of barbs and barbules which zip up together when prised apart and “combed”, giving the feather its smooth silky contours. Flight pinions are shed (when worn out) in pairs, so the bird is never unbalanced while flying. By and large, contour feathers are waterproof, or anointed with oil from a special gland. Birds take top care of flight feathers, preening them for hours, to ensure they’re shipshape.
The vibrant colours are either pigment based (reds, yellows, browns) or reflective (greens, blues, purples) and the dazzling patterns and colour combinations are advertisements to good genes and breeding. It’s the males that are normally decked out in vivid hues — the females are usually cryptically coloured so as to conceal themselves and their eggs and chicks better.
Down feathers keep baby birds warm and dry and have incredible insulating qualities. Filoplumes grow very close to the base of the contour feathers and are thought to be very sensitive, serving to keep contour feathers properly aligned.
We, of course, have been pulling the feathers off birds since time immemorial. Desperately envious, we fashioned “wings” out of flight feathers and tried flying with them only to crash ignominiously. We plucked them and adorned ourselves — feathered headdresses became, and still are, status symbols. It was not only the “natives” and the tribes who did this, but the “high society” ladies from the West, who stripped the poor egrets of their plumes (aigrettes) till they nearly went extinct so they could decorate their hats! We’ve stripped the soft down off ducks and geese to make warm light “eiderdowns” for ourselves. We’ve used feathers to fletch our arrows. Perhaps, the only real feather in our caps was to use feathers to make writing quills.
So how many feathers does a typical bird have to look after? A small songbird may have 1,000, a medium-sized bird, like a gull, 6,000, ducks 12,000 and a swan may have 25,000! I once watched a darter preen itself in Bharatpur: its attention to detail was fanatical and after an hour, it was still at it, carefully parting its plumage and tucking it back in properly. No shortcuts here.
I guess, if you fly, you can’t afford tacky maintenance.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher
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