Is it a bird, is it a plane? Just check if it has feathers and you’ll soon find out.
If clothes make the man, feathers make the bird. When you read of their amazing properties, it may well ruffle your own feathers because you’ll wish you had them too.
The Lyre Bird has the ability to mimic sounds of other birds around them, used as a ‘pulling’ tactic to win the females over. Another property you may wish you had.
Flying: The wing feathers are strong and stiff to enable flight.
Controlling body temperature: Downy feathers trap pockets of air close to the bird’s body. They can adjust their personal thermostat by arranging their feathers to trap more or less air. To keep their temperature steady, birds can either expose their heads and feet to cool down, or tuck them into their feathers to help keep warm.
Sending signals: Feather colours and patterns are used to send signs to mates and rivals. The male peacock has the most extravagant plumage of all, but the reason why vexed even Charles Darwin, the grand master of evolutionary theory. He struck upon the concept of sexual selection, saying the peacock’s ornate fan of feathers gave him the edge against his male rivals. As long as peahens continue to have their heads turned, the stunning feature will survive.
Protection from the elements: The stronger and ridged contour feathers shield birds from wind. Beta-keratin, the tough material they are made from, is water and wear-resistant. Darker colouring might also provide protection from the sun.
Swimming and diving: Some birds use their half-spread wings in a flying motion to swim in water. Penguins have developed their wings into stiff flat flippers that make them great aquabats.
Floating: Using the trapped air in downy feathers, water birds can float on water and be protected from the chill at the same time.
Snow-shoeing: In winter, grouses’ feet grow feathers, which act like snow-shoes and prevent them from sinking into the snow.
Sledging: Penguins flop onto the smooth feathers of their bellies and use their flipper-like wings and feet to move themselves, toboggan-like, across snow and ice.
Support: many birds, including woodpeckers, use their tail feathers as props when on the ground or climbing the sides of trees.
Feeling: Feathers don’t have nerves, but they do stimulate nerves at the point where the feather attaches to the bird. Birds can adjust their position and posture depending on that sensation.
Hearing: Some predators, especially owls, have their face feathers arranged like two dishes (facial discs) to collect and channel sounds into their ears so they can more accurately locate prey in the dark.
Making a noise: Feathers can create many different sounds, such as humming, drumming and whistling.
Muffling: Like a stealth fighter plane, night hunters use their wings to disguise the sound as they approach prey.
Foraging: Birds like herons, who hunt for fish in lakes and streams, will use their feathers to form an umbrella, making it easier to see fish in the water. Other birds use feathers at the side of their mouths to select fruits.
Pollination: When a hummingbird forages for sweet nectar, the feathers around their head transfer pollen to other flowers.
Keeping clean: Small feathers called powder down can be crushed with beaks and feet to rub into normal feathers and keep them conditioned. It also helps control parasites like mites.
Digestion: Some fish eating birds also eat their own feathers to line their digestive area. This helps to protect the bird from sharp fish bones.
Nest construction: A feather lining helps keep eggs in a nest warm and softly padded. Parakeets use the feathers on their bottom and back to move grass and leaves to their nest.
Transporting water: When caring for eggs and chicks, birds will soak the feathers on their belly before returning to the nest. This prevents the eggs from drying out and gives the chicks a drink. Desert birds like the sand grouse have belly feathers that retain water extremely well, meaning they don’t have to nest close to water holes, where predators might lurk.
Escape: When birds are attacked or frightened, they suffer ‘fright moult’ and drop tail feathers. This may help them get away, leaving the attacking bird with nothing but a mouthful of fluff.
Camouflage: Bright may be beautiful but it can lead to fatal attraction. No wonder many birds have feathers that look like dead leaves.
Feather envy in humans
We have always borrowed from the birds to show status and wealth. Traditional Masai men wear plumes as headdresses. In West Africa, a porcupine quill and red Turaco feather in a man’s black hat indicate his position as a traditional council member. In Borneo, the tail feathers of the largest hornbills are used in ceremonial dances and rituals. In New Guinea the skins of birds of paradise have been used in trade since 3000BC.
Feathers are a sign of social standing in Western societies too. Three white ostrich plumes have made up the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales since the 14th century. Waving from the hats of 17th-century Cavaliers, they shouted: ‘Look at me! I’m powerful, rich and sexy!’
Rock star Jimi Hendrix sported a peacock-feather waistcoat and the showgirls of Paris, Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro often wear little else.