Tag Archives: feathers

Day 10: Bald spots

Feathers grow from follicles on the skin, emerging from within a protective sheath before the vane we know and love expands. You can see that most of the feathers on these nestlings are only just starting to emerge from these tube-like sheaths. 

But you can see that the feathers don’t grow everywhere. They grow in distinct tracts over a bird’s body called pterylae (pteron for “feather,” and hulé for “forest”). So while a bird appears completely covered, the feathers are actually growing from specific areas on the body to cover all the gaps. At the base of the feathers are muscles that allow birds to raise them—fluffing up to trap air and stay warm or release heat trapped under the feathers when it’s hot—or lower them to maintain aerodynamics and protect the body. 

These nestlings are still growing their feathers, and most of them are still in their sheaths (which we call “pin feathers”).

Because these pterylae leave bare skin in between (apteria, “without feathers”), this has its advantages for research. Birds have such thin skin that when we catch one and hold it carefully with its belly up, we can blow lightly on its belly to part the feathers and see the muscle and fat stores below the skin! This is one way for us to gauge the condition of birds non-invasively, particularly on migration when they’re fattening up in preparation for flight or depleted after one. Take a look at the second video to see this in action as I check out the fat and muscle of a post-flight Blackpoll Warbler!

If we carefully hold a bird with its belly up, we can see through the skin to check its fat and muscle stores!

Day 9: Look, new feathers!

At this point, the nestlings are at about 75% of their adult body mass and their rate of growth slows a bit as energy goes to the fun stuff: feathers!

As adults, birds don’t grow new feathers all at once. They have a programmed molt schedule to drop old feathers and grow new ones in an orderly fashion so they avoid the naked exposure we see in these nestlings. After all, they still need to fly to avoid predators! (Sea ducks, like eiders, molt all of their flight feathers at once and they look pretty awkward flap-running away along the surface of the water!)

Growing new feathers is exhausting, so these nestlings enjoy guilt-free meals

But growing feathers is also energetically expensive. Feathers are mostly protein (like keratin, the stuff of hair and fingernails) and make up about a quarter of a bird’s total protein. This makes molting a very demanding period of their lives, and even when they do it gradually it still takes raises their energy demand by 10% or more. And that’s when it’s a few feathers at a time…imagine all of them at once!