I can still recall the first feather I held in my hands. I was 6 years old, walking down a dirt road with my grandfather when I spotted a feather, its vibrant blues and white reflecting the sun’s rays. My new treasure was the tail feather of a blue jay. From that moment on I became one of millions around the world awestruck by birds and the incredible characteristic that grants them the freedom of flight: feathers.
Feathers are the inspiration for fashion fabrics and accessories, for traditional, ceremonial or religious wear throughout the world, and for the beautiful, flamboyant costumes of Caribbean and Central American Carnivals. The beauty of feathers inspiring fashion designers drove several species almost to the brink of extinction. Feather colors vary from vibrant reds of a vermillion flycatcher, bright yellow and green on a displayed yellow-headed parrot to the bald head of a turkey vulture.
Feathers on birds attract a mate, protect them from the sun, repel water and insulate them from the cold. They have the ability to keep harmful bacteria at bay, and most importantly are structurally crafted to give flight, allowing birds to inhabit every continent except Antarctica.
In most species of birds the female chooses her mate. She looks for the healthiest and most vibrant feathers because this means that the male is a top specimen. Feather color is formed in one of two ways: from pigments or light refraction from the structure of the feather, known as structural colors. Birds can have a combination of pigments and structural colors. Pigments are reds, oranges, yellows and can be found both in plants and animals and are independent of the structure of the feathers, unlike blues, greens and iridescence, which are known as structural pigments. Pigments come from melanin, carotenoids and porphyrins. From melanin are black and brown pigments. An example of this can be found on the white pelican wingtips, making the feathers stronger and more resistant against wear. Carotenoids are produced when certain plants are ingested; for instance the bright yellow of a hooded warbler is a direct result of his diet. Porphyrins are produced when amino acids are modified; when exposed to ultraviolet light this pigment causes reds to fluoresce. It produces pinks, browns, reds and greens like the pink feathers of the roseate spoonbill or the bright reds of the vermillion flycatcher.
Structural colors are produced by refraction of light. When light hits feathers, the reflected colors cause shimmering and iridescence. Hummingbirds are a perfect example of structural colors; they appear to have scales instead of feathers. Blue pigments are not iridescent and are actually tiny pockets of air that scatter the incoming light. If you pick up a molted oscillated turkey feather and push on the blue you will pop the air bubbles and the blue will disappear.
A very special color combination can be found on parrots. Parrots do not actually have green pigments in their feathers! Parrot feathers are a combination of red and yellow pigments and structural colors; the green color you see on a yellow headed parrot or the red lored is the result of light scattering and reflecting off the feather structure, giving us the illusion of green. A varied and healthy diet of fruits and vegetables maintain the sheen and glow. Parrots, because they are tropical creatures, have a thin layer of healthy bacteria that live on the feathers that keep the bird healthy. Parrots naturally keep themselves healthy by constant foraging through the trees, but an incorrect diet or mistreatment of a captive parrot can destroy the good bacteria, making way for unhealthy bacteria which weaken the immune system and cause sickness and even death. So the health of a captive parrot is literally reflected in its feathers!
Vultures have no feathers on the top of their heads. As nature’s cleanup crew, picking up road kill and rotting meat, their smooth surface keeps blood and rotting flesh from sticking to it.
Woodpeckers’ tails are very rigid which enable them to keep themselves flat against trees. Stiff, strong feathers of raptors allow them to soar on thermals looking for prey and maneuver to catch it. The soft feathers of owls give them the ability to hunt silently through the night.
A great man by the name of Muir, once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. Let’s not take for granted what we have today but instead cherish it and protect it so our grandchildren may enjoy it tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: Sarah Mann established the Belize Raptor Center in October of 2013. It is hosted by the Belize Bird Rescue in Cayo District and works in collaboration with the Perigrine Fund, the Forest Department and the Belize Zoo. The Belize Raptor Center does presentations for summer camps and schools, at no charge (donations accepted). See ad this page for contact information.