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Bird Feathers 101: Structure, Types, Growth, Molting & Health


Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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You know a bird is a bird because it's the only creature on earth with feathers. It is thought that feathers evolved from the scales of reptiles. They are used in flight, of course, but are also used for insulation, courtship displays, and, in some species, distinguishing between male and female.

feather structure

Think of feathers as a bird's hair or nails - they are made of the same protein substance - keratin - and are made up of many parts.

Each feather has a central shaft, which extends into the feather follicle (where the feather grows) under the skin. The visible portion has filaments that come off the shaft at a 45° angle. Larger feathers have two additional sets of microscopic filaments, held together with hook-like structures that act like a zipper to hold them together. This forms a tight, smooth surface, maintains the shape of the feather, and allows the feathers to withstand air resistance during flight. When your bird is preening, you can see him or her readjust these structures.

types of feathers

Birds have several different types of feathers that come in many different colors, depending on species.

CONTOUR FEATHERS cover most of the bird's body, providing a smooth appearance. These feathers protect the bird from sun, wind, rain, and injury.

FLIGHT FEATHERS, which are also contour feathers, are the large feathers on the wings and the tail which control and guide flight.

DOWN FEATHERS are small, soft, and fluffy, and provide insulation under contour feathers. Powder down feathers have keratin that disintegrates into a powder, which the bird can spread over his feathers as waterproofing.

FILOPLUMES are tiny hair-like feathers thought to be used in sensory function.

SEMIPLUMES provide form, aerodynamics, and insulation.

BRISTLE FEATHERS, usually found on the head, are also thought to have a sensory function.

feather growth & molting

As a new feather develops, it has an artery and vein that extend up through the shaft and nourish the feather. A feather at this stage is called a blood feather. The shaft of a blood feather will appear dark, whereas the shaft of an older, mature feather will be white.

Although an adult bird will typically replace all of its feathers during a molt, the loss of feathers is staggered, often over several months, so the bird has enough feathers for flight and insulation. A molt is usually triggered by the change in day length or may occur after breeding.

feather health

The condition of a bird's feathers is one indication of health status. Nutrition is very important in feather health, but it's not the only factor. Other deficiencies or problems can affect the quality and condition of your bird's feathers, as well as his skin. Make sure you feed your bird a species-specific, balanced diet, such as our Signature Series Premium Blends. Our diets have all the nutrition birds need, including a guaranteed level of vitamins and minerals, and also contain Omega-3 fatty acids, excellent for skin and feather health. These diets also have fruits, vegetables, and more to benefit your bird's overall health.

In addition, the following checklist may help you be proactive in dealing with skin/feather problems:

Birds need plenty of sleep - 10 to 12 hours every night, with a quiet, darkened atmosphere.

Birds' feathers do better in slightly humid conditions. Your bird may require frequent access to bathing in a cage bath or your shower and you may find it necessary to mist your bird.

Exposure to natural sunlight helps produce vitamins necessary to keep skin and feathers healthy. Indoor birds will benefit from full spectrum UV lighting (please see our AvianSun lamp), or daily exposure to natural light.

Mites can cause damage to the skin and feathers. Treat existing infestations with a mite treatment like Scalex and limit exposure to these damaging pests.

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