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How many types of feathers do birds have?

Have you ever wondered how many feathers birds have and what they use them for?

Lucifer Hummingbird displaying its gorget
Gorget feathers of hummingbirds are highly specialized, creating the vivid colors they display.

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What makes birds unique?

What makes a bird unique? (Click the arrow to see the answer!)


Whenever I have the privilege of teaching kids, adults, or weirdos about birds, I like to start with this question. What makes a bird, a bird? What is unique about it? What does it have that no other living organism has? What makes a bird stand out from all other animal species? Is it the beak? Squids have beaks. The ability to fly? Bats can fly (and aren't birds). Talons? Hollow bones? No and no. Birds possess a single trait that no other living organisms have. FEATHERS. The designation of LIVING organism is important, as paleontologists now have rock-hard evidence (see the joke?) that DINOSAURS had feathers!

What is a feather?

Birds have feathers, and dinosaurs had feathers. But what is a feather, and makes it a structure not found on other living organisms? A feather is a complex structure made of intricately arranged layers of cells of keratin that differ in arrangement depending on function. Keratin is a stiff protein that forms feathers, hair, claws, fingernails, and horn sheaths, but its arrangement is what determines the part created.

A feather has two main features that the average person would be able to draw:

  • Shaft - the stiff, central spine of the feather. Consider it the backbone of the feather that all other pieces connect to.

  • Vanes - the flat, broad surfaces that extend from the shaft of the two most recognized feathers.

Wing feathers from a Snowy Owl
Feathers can show a variety of shapes, like these wing feathers from a Snowy Owl.

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Improve your bird knowledge!

If you want to learn more about the biology of birds, we recommend checking out The Handbook of Bird Biology from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


What is plumage?

Plumage is the term used to describe a bird's appearance from the sum of all its feathers or just the sum of the feathers. A bird's plumage is frequently used to describe the seasonal appearance the feathers give. For example, during the breeding season, many birds have more ornate and colorful plumages. Many bird people will refer to this as "breeding plumage" or the "alternate plumage." During the non-breeding season, some birds may be far more drab, often described as the "non-breeding plumage" or the "basic plumage."

In these adjacent images, the drab bird is an individual in basic or immature (formative) plumage, and the bird with the rufous crown is in its alternate plumage. These are both Chipping Sparrows, and these images offer a small glimpse into the plumage changes even the less-colorful birds can go through!

How are feathers classified?

Feather classification is a complex arena. Each feather can fit into a variety of categories, and some feathers may still have uncertainty surrounding them. However, ornithologists attempt to classify feathers based on these four elements:

  • Development

  • Adaptation

  • Mechanism

  • Evolution

Types of Feathers

Applying these critical elements gives us seven broad categories of feathers, though the pennaceous feathers of the wing and tail could be lumped into a single category.

  • Remiges

-flight feathers found in the wing

-typically asymmetrical

-attach to bone

-stiff and large

  • Rectrices

-flight feathers found in the tail

-connected to each other by ligaments

-innermost two tailfeathers attach to bone

-can be asymmetrical or symmetrical

  • Contour

-cover most of the surface of a bird

-streamline a bird's body for flight and/or swimming

-variety of uses including communication and thermoregulation

  • Down

-soft and fluffy

-act as insulators

  • Semiplume

-likely complement the insulating function of down feathers

  • Bristle

-highly specialized

-usually found on the bird's head

-often found in areas that protect the eye

-may appear to look like eyelashes or whiskers

  • Filoplume

-smallest feathers

-monitor movement within adjacent feathers

-consider these like sensors in your vehicle

That should answer the question, but perhaps you are wondering about other feathers that do not seem to fit into any category. Often, feathers that are very unique to certain species are considered highly specialized or modified for distinct uses. For example, the "nuptial plumes" on herons and egrets are highly modified contour feathers.

There are also names given to feather tracts on the body of the bird. These are not feather types but instead are often contour feathers with a different location or purpose.

Tail feathers, or rectrices, from an American Redstart
Tail feathers, or rectrices, from an American Redstart


If you want to study bird biology even more, including learning about feathers, check out these textbooks!


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