Types of feathers

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

mallard duck taking off


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


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


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


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.

swan chicks

Swan chicks covered in down


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 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

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