Feathers are fascinating things – they are water repellent and protect a bird from the elements, they are so strong that they can support a bird’s weight in flight – even when they are just sitting there doing nothing, they are stunningly beautiful to look at.
Have you ever sat down and really looked at the feathers your bird molts out? I remember when I got my first birds, the cockatiels, I was always excited to collect the molted feathers and I would inspect the birds to try to find where they molted from. I would stretch out the wings, and separate the tail feathers trying to find an area where a feather was missing. Of course, I never had success.
Years later, as my parrot education continued, I began to study the anatomy of their feathers and I came to understand that each feather is designed to serve a specific purpose. Now, just by looking at the feather, I know which part of the body it fell from.
The above photo is an old molted feather from the middle of my quaker, Libby’s tail. How do I know? The shaft (or rachis) of the feather is perfectly centered and the tip is rounded (in other species, like the amazon, the tip will be broader and straighter). The shaft in the tail feathers to the right or left of the tail center moves outward in the feather the closer it is located toward the outer edge of the tail. The outer tail feathers are also shorter than the center feathers.
The tail acts as both the rudder and the brakes for a flying bird. When the tail is pivoted or tipped to one side or the other it will alter the bird’s direction. The tail feathers can also be spread out in flight which increases their surface area to gain lift.
When the tail is spread and tilted downward it offers the resistance, or drag, that slows speed. Without tail feathers, a bird would have a very difficult time landing.
This is a picture of one of my cockatiel’s flight feathers. This particular feather is from the right wing. The shaft in the feather is not centered – the barbs are longest on the side closest to the bird’s body. This design makes them more structurally sound as a group when extended wings are stressed by air currents.
The primary flight feathers are found on the leading edges of the wings. They are most responsible for gaining lift during take off and when the wing joints are pivoted, the primaries create drag which, along with the tail feathers, slows speed for landing.
If you look closely to your bird’s primaries you will notice the edges are turned downward on the shorter side of the vane and upward on the side with the longer barbs. Closer to the bird’s body are the secondary flight feathers which are wider with a more centered shaft.
These feathers were generously donated by goffins cockatoo, Theo. They are contour feathers. These are the feathers that cover the body, as well as parts of the wings and tail of your bird. When you look at a perching bird it is the contour feathers that are most visible. They provide waterproofing, streamlining during flight (and attack!) and protection from the elements.
They vary in size based on their location – i.e. a contour feather on the body will be larger than those found on the head.
This is by no means a complete list of feathers that you will find on your bird. There are more with different names and functions, but these are the ones that serve the most relevant purposes day to day.
For a quick and fun read click here. It is a list of 23 different functions that feathers serve in birds of all types.