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Bird feathers fulfill specialized functions

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Scientific discoveries have shown the direct link between birds and dinosaurs.

There have been many dinosaur fossils found with feathers and other birdlike features. Birds have been evolving over the course of hundreds of millions of generations leading to modern bird species.

One diverse characteristic of bird species is their feathers. The evolution of feathers began as a simple hollow tube that functioned mainly for insulation. The feather eventually evolved into more developed uses, including not only insulation, but waterproofing, ornamentation and flight.

All bird species have feathers with varying degrees of waterproofing and insulating qualities. Water birds like ducks have feathers that are stiffer and closer together than other species, making it harder for water to penetrate. This allows water birds to safely dive underwater in search of food. Ducks and geese have down feathers that provide efficient insulation.

Owls have developed feathers that are silent in flight. Most owls hunt at night, and this feature allows the owl to sneak up on its prey and to hear surrounding noises more clearly.

Flycatchers hunt and catch small insects in midair. Many flycatchers have rictal bristles which are whisker-like feathers around the base of the bill. These are designed to protect the eyes of the bird from the legs and wings of their prey during capture.

Feathers can wear out, so birds grow new feathers at least once a year and this process is called molt. In spring many male birds grow new, more colorful feathers for breeding season. Birds rely heavily on vision and the brighter plumage helps attract a female during courtship. Many female species are drab in color providing needed camouflage when tending the nest.

Feather maintenance is vital to a bird’s survival and its ability to fly. Birds spend at least 10% of the day preening their feathers. Preening is when the bird uses its beak to remove parasites, and to clean and adjust their feathers for optimal use. Birds cannot reach their head with their beak so they use their feet to preen their head.

Many birds will bathe in birdbaths to rejuvenate their feathers. Some birds such as sparrows commonly dust bathe. Dust bathing is when a bird crouches into the dirt and flutters its wings, throwing dust on its body. It is unclear why some birds dust bathe, however it is thought that dust bathing is beneficial in keeping the feathers in good condition.

Look for birds to perch on a nearby branch to preen when they leave your birdbath. It is especially fun to watch tiny hummingbirds preen.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”


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