Ed Drewitt is a naturalist, broadcaster and feather expert. He talks of his passion for collecting bird feathers. He explains the role of different types of feathers on the body of a bird. Ed’s interest for all things birds has led him to write ‘Urban Peregrines’. Inspired by Ed’s bird feathers collection? Why don’t you collect and display your own feather collection while learning to identify different types.
Collecting Bird Feathers.
“Ever since I was 7 or 8 I have had a fascination with feathers – I used to collect feathers
that had been moulted by birds near my school. I would then match them up in the order they would be found in the bird’s wing to make them look at natural as possible. This is a great way you can find out more about birds. Try it and marvel at their beautiful colours, shape and symmetry (or asymmetry), the texture and the way they function. Paths by lakes and rivers or in woodlands can be great places to find feathers from garden birds.”
“In the summer, birds moult their worn and faded feathers – the feathers drop out. The bird regrows new ones. Most garden birds moult their feathers one at a time so they can still fly, but ducks moult their wing feathers all at the same time and become flightless. Male ducks also grow new brown body feathers for a few months so they look like a female and are less vulnerable to being eaten by a fox.”
“Often the easiest feathers to identify are the long wing feathers of birds known as the primary wing feathers. These are asymmetrical and give the bird the ability to fly in different ways, to change direction and give them speed. Most birds have 10 or 11 long outer wing feathers known as the primary feathers, followed by between 9 and 20 inner wing or secondary feathers.”
Signs and Symmetry in Feather patterns.
“The tail feathers of a bird tend to be straight and long – most have between 10 and 12 feathers in their tail. The middle or central tail feathers tend to be symmetrical while those on the edge usually have thinner outer webs and thick inner webs. Some birds such as Chaffinches and Reed Buntings have black and white tail feathers that when fanned have symmetrical colours or patterns. While others such as Redstarts have very orange tail feathers that they flick and use as a signal to other birds.”
“The bird feathers that cover the main body itself (rather than the wings) provide the main colour or camouflage. They tend to be symmetrical both in shape and pattern or colour. These will vary in size depending on whether they are on the breast of a bird or on its back. Buried beneath these main body feathers are soft downy feathers – these are short and fluffy with a loose structure to form a warm, snug layer to keep the bird’s warmth close to its body.”
Nerves and Muscles connected to feathers
“In amongst the downy feathers birds have feathers than just have the very thin quill, known as the rachis, and sometimes a tuft at the tip. These are connected to nerves that help birds know whether their feathers are aligned and positioned properly to keep them in good condition and in the right place. The body feathers of birds are attached to tiny muscles that keep them in the right position, while those feathers in the wing and tail are attached to ligaments that help them fan out when in flight. If you watch a bird preening you can often see it controlling and raising certain feathers totally independently of others nearby.”
Symmetry in bird markings is good health
“All these different types of bird feathers combine to provide the overall shape and colour of a bird. Many markings that are striking are those on the wing, particularly small feathers called coverts which lay over the other wing feathers. These often have strong colours which help signal to other birds. In some birds they are also a good indication of health. In a Chaffinch for example, the larger and more symmetrical the white wing patches formed by tiny coverts the more attractive the bird is to a potential mate. Such symmetry is seen as a sign of good health and genes.”
“My favourite feather I’ve ever found is from a Mandarin Duck – a bird that is found in China but has become feral on lakes and rivers in parts of the UK. The male birds have a wonderful inner wing feather that is big and broad, and bright orange! When Mandarin Ducks moult, this feather can easily be lost but one day by a lake I found one laying on the grass. It has been my prize possession ever since!.” Ed has recently written a book ‘Urban Peregrines’ published by Pelagic and is available to buy now Can you tell which of the feathers in your collection is a downy type? or a tail feather? Pin them onto a plain piece of paper to show off the colours and shape. (use a cork pinboard or foam sheet underneath) See images of our feather collection here. Can you collect enough wing feathers to lay them in the correct order and look as real as possible.? No Birds were harmed in the making of this post! If you enjoyed it, please share with three friends. Thankyou! The Smart Happy Project is growing through word of mouth. Join the membership to hear more about activities to connect children to nature.