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Fluffy, Fancy, Fantastic : FEATHERS.

What's this--a colorful piece of seaweed? Nope! It's a frilly-looking fish called a leafy sea dragon.

Sea dragons are cousins of seahorses. They live among the seaweed off Australia, where their fringes and flaps help them hide from enemies.

"Whoa! What's going on?" That's what this cockatoo could be saying by flipping up its fan of fancy feathers. Birds are the only animals with these amazing things called feathers. Turn the page for more.

Dots and Spots


argus pheasant

ocellated turkey

Grey's peacock pheasant

scarlet macaw

These fancy feathers belong to beautiful male birds. The birds use their feathers to send a message to the females: "Pick me! I'd make a really great mate!"

The colors in this parrot's wing can tell another parrot, "Hey, I'm the same kind of bird as you!"

It's easy to tell if an animal is a bird--just look for the feathers! Then look at how many ways birds use them. Stiff feathers help birds fly. Fluffy feathers keep them warm. And feathers with patterns can be good camouflage (KAM-uh-flaj): They help birds hide from enemies.

The flashy feathers shown here can do even more. Without opening their beaks, birds can "talk" with their feathers to say things such as "Be my mate," or "Stay away!" And birds can "read" feathers to find out another bird's species (kind), age, and whether it's male or female.

First Feathers?

Scientists aren't sure when feathers first appeared. Could be that they began as feather-like scales on dinosaurs.

Fancy Colors



Fat bird? (above) No, warm bird! This male pine grosbeak may look fat, but he's just a ball of fluff. Pine grosbeaks and many other birds live where it gets really cold. To keep warm, the birds puff out their feathers. Then the feathers become like a thick, fluffy blanket.

The great tit on the right spreads its wings and tail wide to fly off with a tasty acorn. As you can see, its feathers have different jobs to do.

Kinds of Feathers

Down feather traps air next to the skin, which holds in bird's body heat

Flight feather has a long, stiff shaft that gives the feather extra strength

Body feather gives the bird its color and shape; fluffy end works like down feather

A growing feather The sheath comes through the skin first. The feather grows inside the sheath, then sheath drops away.

shaft sheath


used for steering, the way a rudder steers a boat


give the bird lift (help it rise in the air)


push against the air and help the bird move forward


Conk-a-ree! That's the song of a male red-winged blackbird (above). As he sings, he flashes red-feather "shoulder badges." The color warns other males, "Stay away! This is MY place." It also says to females, "Check me out. Am I great, or what?"

But if this bird wants to sneak off and snitch food in another bird's territory, he'll cover up his red feathers. That way, his neighbor won't "see red" and start a fight.


Feathers may seem weak and flimsy. But they're really "tough as nails"--fingernails, that is. Feathers, fingernails, hair, and animal horns are all made of stuff called keratin (CARE-uh-tin). The keratin in feathers is bendable and surprisingly strong.


The male mallard above can dip underwater and come up dry. What's his secret? He has so many overlapping feathers that water runs right off of them. And like most other birds, mallards waterproof their feathers by rubbing oil over them with their bills.

The birds get the oil from an oil gland near the tail. What a slick trick!

How a Feather Is Put Together

Each barb is like a tiny feather.

Barbules are the teeny-tiny branches on each barb. When a bird pulls a split-apart feather through its bill, the feather gets smooth again. How? The hooks on the barbules act like the teeth of a zipper to link all the parts of the feather back together.

feather shaft split in feather shaft barb barbule View through a microscope


This Forster's tern is bending over backward to look good! It's fixing its feathers, or preening them.

To preen, the bird nibbles along each feather. That removes dirt and tiny insect pests. The bird also may spread oil from its gland onto its feathers when preening.


This Cape Barren goose has made a super-soft nest for her babies (below). Geese pluck their breast feathers to make a warm nest lining.

All birds molt (shed their feathers) at least once a year. And many birds collect feathers for their nests that other birds have shed. Wouldn't you like to snuggle into a feathery nest if you were a baby bird?


This king penguin chick was covered with a fluffy down when it hatched. But now, sleek black and white feathers are growing from its skin, pushing out the fluffy stuff. Say good-bye to the teddy-bear look!

Feathery FACTS

* Light as a Feather?

A single feather seems nearly weightless. But taken all together, a bird's feathers make up about one-fourth of the bird's weight. That's like a 60-pound (27-kg) kid wearing about 15 winter jackets!

* Come 'n' Get It!

People who like to fish often use fake flies as lures. The flies are made from feathers tied onto a hook.

* How Many?

Big swans have about 25,000 feathers, songbirds have about 3,000, and tiny hummingbirds have fewer than 1,000.

* Super Snowshoes

Before winter comes, birds called ptarmigans (TAR-muh-gunz) grow fluffy feathers and longer claws on their feet. The feathers and claws help the birds grip the snow and keep them from sinking in.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Wildlife Federation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:feathers in nature
Author:Berger, Cynthia
Publication:Ranger Rick
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Snowflake Stickers.

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