? To a large extent, birding is nothing but the study of feathers. Except for a bird’s bill, eyes and legs, its entire body is covered in feathers. These miraculously evolved keratin structures not only provide waterproofing, insulation, protection, and of course the power of flight, but also give a bird its shape, colours and markings.
All birds have feathers, and no other animals but birds have feathers. But how many feathers do birds have? This a rather complex question, because it depends on how you define feathers – would you classifiy tiny filoplume bristles with a sensory function as feathers? And how would one count the rather undifferentiated downy undercoat of some birds? At the other side of the spectrum are the large flight and tail feathers – these are easy enough to count, and are relatively standard in birds. But it also depends on the species. Some hummingbirds have only a few hundred feathers – around 940 on a Ruby-throated Hummer for example. Some birds, and particularly those which require extensive waterproofing, have a lot more. Tundra Swans can have more than 25,000 feathers, with 70% of those on the neck and head. Generally larger birds have slightly more feathers (though not in proportion – their indivual feathers are just larger, instead of more in number), and many birds have more feathers in winter than in summer. Most songbirds (passerines) have between 1,500 and 2,600.
…and thanks Neil’s mom for the tupperware!
I set out to test this claim on a beautiful little Black-throated Canary, Crithagra atrogularis, which my friend Niel Cillie gave to me (and thanks Neil’s mom for the tupperware!). This little guy was in perfect condition, depsite having spent the best part of a year in my freezer. With our move to Langebaan fast approaching, my wife made it very clear that I have to get rid of all the bird specimens still hiding between the fronzen peas and ice-cream. From personal experience while I still worked at a natural history museum, I know that making a study skin of such a tiny bird is a fool’s game. And so came my naive decision to “deconstruct” the bird by pulling out, classifying and counting all of its feathers. It’s been a long day…