Feather Functions

Birds are Unique

©Shem Compion
Flight feathers of the lappet faced vulture.
Feathers are the things that make birds unique to all other members of the animal kingdom. Birds have feathers to enable them to fly, another feature virtually unique to them amongst warm-blooded creatures (except bats). A bird’s feathers are specially adapted to accommodate a number of different functions.

Birds of a Feather

©Shem Compion
Tail feathers, bearded vulture.
The remiges are the sturdy flight feathers that make up the wings commonly known as primaries and secondaries. These are usually reinforced with melanin (black pigment). The bases of the remiges are covered with covert feathers.

The retrices are the tail feathers and are used in steering and stabilising the bird during flight. They are also usually blackened for strength. Contour feathers (tectrices) ‘contour’ the bird’s body giving it a streamlined shape to facilitate movement through the air.

Down feathers are situated at the base of the contours. They are soft and without rigid structure and are used to insulate the bird. Filoplumes are sensory feathers and are found in between the contours. They are long and filamentous and used to detect changes in air currents.

Modified Feathers

©Karl Svendsen
Modified Feathers of a spotted eagle owl.
Specialized feathers may include the rictal bristles found around the mouths of birds such as nightjars. They are also sensory in function and help to direct insect prey into the wide gape of these aerial hunters. Other modified feathers include the water collecting breast feathers of the male double banded sandgrouse and the feathers that make up the facial discs of owls and are used to direct sound into the eardrums.

By Megan Emmett