Feathers come in a variety of colors and forms, but they are all composed of the protein beta-keratin, just like snake scales.

Feathers’ barbs and barbules — smaller hooked pieces that come off of the barbs — make up different feather structures that serve different functions.

Wing

Wing feathers are specialized for flight. On one side of the main shaft, there is a flat, windproof surface created by interlocking microstructures.

Photo of mallard duck taking off

Tail

Tail feathers also have interlocking microstructures. These feathers are typically arranged in a fan shape to help with steering precision in flight.

Contour

A bird’s body is covered in contour feathers that overlap like shingles. They have flat, waterproof tips and fluffy bases.

Semiplume

Fluffy feathers that are hidden beneath contour feathers are called semiplumes.

Down

Down feathers are fluffy, with loosely arranged barbs coming off of the main branch. These feathers help to trap air close to the body to keep a bird warm.

Photo of swan chicks

Swan chicks covered in down

Filoplume

These feathers have almost no barbs and are mainly just a shaft with a few barbs on the tip. These are used like mammal whiskers to sense the position of the contour feathers.

Bristle

Bristle feathers are mostly shaft as well but have some barbs near the base. They are usually found on the head, protecting the eyes and face.

Birds have hollow bones

In the spring and fall, the vast majority of birds take to the air. In the spring, they head north to their breeding grounds, and in the fall, they head south to overwintering areas that are warmer and have ample food supplies. Migration can be a long and hard journey, and the bigger the bird,…

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Birds change feathers like people change clothes

You may have noticed that as the seasons change, birds begin to look different. What was a bright eastern goldfinch in the spring becomes a duller hue in the winter. A duck that had vibrant breeding feathers earlier in the year now looks a little drab. That is because birds molt. Their feathers wear out…

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Iowa winter birds

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Make your own backyard birding binoculars

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Will the mama bird take her baby back if you touch it?

We are planning on redoing our landscaping, and a volunteer bush on the corner of the house needs to come out. However, my husband Snapchatted a picture to me of a robin, and she decided to make her nest right in the bush. Needless to say, that bush will not be going anywhere for the…

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