Bird Feather Types and Anatomy

Joanna Tatomir, Elizabeth Friedl, Christianlly Cena
  • Author
    Joanna Tatomir

    Joanna holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Michigan and is currently working towards a degree in Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University. She has taught a combination of ESL and STEM courses to secondary and university students.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth Friedl

    Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

  • Expert Contributor
    Christianlly Cena

    Christianlly has taught college Physics, Natural science, Earth science, and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is currently pursuing his doctorate degree.

Learn about the types of feathers in birds and the parts of a feather. Discover how bird feathers are constructed, uses for the different types of feathers, and a bird feather diagram. Updated: 09/24/2021

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Bird Feather Anatomy

Bird feathers come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. These traits reflect the various functions of bird feathers, including protection, warmth, and flight. For the bird enthusiast, feathers also serve as an important way to identify different bird species. Cardinals, for example, can be distinguished from other North American bird species by their bright red plumage.

Unique to birds and their dinosaur ancestors, feathers represent an essential anatomical adaptation made by different bird species to their individual habitats. Feathers represent the bird version of the hair or fur found on mammals such as humans, dogs, and guinea pigs. However, unlike mammalian hair or fur, bird feathers provide more than just a method for thermoregulation. This lesson will examine bird feather anatomy, the different types of feathers, and the functions of these feathers.

Parts of a Feather

Although a feather might look simple in structure to the naked eye, feathers have complex anatomies, which reflect how birds use them. All feathers consist of two main parts, the hard central shaft called the rachis and the softer side branches known as barbs.

Vane, Quill, and Calamus

At the base of each feather lies a naked portion of the rachis called the calamus or quill. Hundreds of years ago, before the invention of modern ballpoint pens, quills were commonly used as writing implements by dipping the tip of the quill into ink. The calamus, or quill, is the portion of the feather that attaches to a bird's skin or bone and the Rachis extends from the calamus. Each side of the rachis has vanes that form the soft portions of the feather.

Rachis, Barb, Barbule, and Hamuli

The rachis provides support to the feather but must be lightweight to enable flight. As a result, the rachis takes the form of a hollow tube from which the barbs branch off. The barbs, in turn, are connected to one another by barbules that possess hooks called hamuli. The hamuli help to interconnect the network of barbs much like a zipper. Sometimes, the barbules are missing hamuli near the base of the feather. This creates a free-flowing plumage that is less structured than the hooked barbules (with hamuli).

Bird Feather Diagram

The bird feather diagram below displays the different parts of the bird feather. It is labeled with the calamus (quill), rachis (shaft), barbs, and vane.

A diagram of the anatomy of a feather.

Feather Anatomy

Types of Feathers in Birds

Feathers are classified as pennaceous or plumaceous. Pennaceous feathers contain hooked barbules with hamuli and are more structured and tightly interlocked with one another. Pennaceous feathers are so stiff that they were used as writing utensils hundreds of years ago. By contrast, plumaceous feathers possess barbules lacking hamuli. Plumaceous feathers are more fluffy and less structured than pennaceous feathers.

Aside from these two broad divisions, there are also six main types of feathers found in birds:

  • Flight feathers
  • Contour feathers
  • Down feathers
  • Semiplumes
  • Filoplumes
  • Bristle feathers

These six feather types will be further described below.

Flight Feathers

Unlike other bird feathers, flight feathers attach directly to the bird's bones. The central rachis of flight feathers is stiff and lined on either side with branching barbs that form flat, aerodynamic vanes. The barbs are connected by hooked barbules possessing hamuli. Flight feathers are long and often asymmetrically shaped, with one vane wider than the other. Flight feathers found on bird wings are called remiges, while those on bird tail feathers are called rectrices. The main function of flight feathers is to support birds' ability to fly.

An example of a flight feather.

Flight feather

Contour Feathers

Contour feathers are the colorful feathers seen on the outside of a bird. Contour feathers provide colorful plumage, which is useful in identifying different bird species. Contour feathers are part pennaceous and part plumaceous. The portion of the feather farthest from the calamus or quill is highly structured, containing hooked barbules. The region closes to the quill is fluffy and less structured. Contour feathers serve as the first line of defense against temperature, precipitation, and wind.

An example of a contour feather.

Contour feather

Down Feathers

Down feathers are soft, fluffy, and smaller in size. Down feathers lack both the rachis and hooked barbules found on other feathers. Located beneath the contour feathers, down feathers provide insulation to the bird.

An example of a down feather.

Down feather

Semiplume Feathers

In appearance, Semiplume feathers look like a combination of contour and down feathers. Possessing both a rachis and side barbs with smooth barbules, semiplumes are located between the contour feathers and provide the bird with extra insulation. In some bird species, semiplumes are also enlarged and play an important role in the courtship rituals of certain species, such as egrets.

An example of a semiplume feather.

Semiplume feather.

Filoplume Feathers

Filoplume feathers are very small in size, containing a rachis and only a few sparse barbs at the tip. These feathers are located on the underside of the bird's body or on the wings. Filoplumes provide sensory information pertaining to temperature, wind speed, and feather movements needed for birds to fly efficiently.

An example of a filoplume feather.

Filoplume feather

Bristle Feathers

Bristle feathers are short and stiff. Located around the eyes and beak of a bird, bristle feathers are also believed to be sensory in nature. Bristles consist of a rachis with a few barbs at the base of the feather.

Types of Bird Feathers Chart

Feather type Description Barbule Function
Flight  long, stiff, asymmetrical hooked flying 
Contour  colorful, part still, part fluffy  hooked and smooth  protection 
Down  soft, fluffy, small in size smooth  insulation
Semiplume  cross between contour and down feather smooth  insulation 
Filoplume  very small, sparse barbs at tip smooth sensory 
Bristle   short and stiff smooth  sensory

How Birds Use Their Feathers

As indicated by the different feather types described above, birds use each of these feathers for different functions. Some of these functions will be described below.

Flight

Despite being lightweight, flight feathers are both flexible and strong in order to enable birds to fly. Flight feathers are located on the wings and the tail. The wing flight feathers, known as remiges, consist of primary, secondary, and tertiary feathers:

  • Primary feathers: the largest feathers, found on the tips of the wings, help to propel the bird into the air
  • Secondary feathers: found along the length of the wing, help to lift and keep the bird in the air
  • Tertiary feathers: located at the base of the wings, do not play an essential role in flight

The rectrices, or tail flight feathers, help the bird to maintain stability and control during flight. The tail feathers also provide birds with the ability to land safely by reducing forward velocity.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Bird Feathers: Crossword Puzzle

This activity will help you assess your knowledge of the types and parts of bird feathers.

Directions

Complete the crossword by filling in a word that fits each of the given clues. For this activity, you'll need a printer to reproduce the following page. With a pencil and an eraser, neatly write your answers in the boxes provided.

Across

2. __________ is the flattened, web-like part of a feather, consisting of a series of barbs on either side of the rachis.

4. Barbs themselves are also __________ and form the barbules.

7. The typical feather consists of a central shaft or __________, with countless barbs.

8. The small white feathers that lie between and beneath the __________ feathers are called semiplumes.

10. The primary function of __________ feathers is to aid the bird in thrusting and flying.

Down

1. Bristles are small, stiff feathers typically found on the __________ of most birds.

3. __________ is the lower shaft of a feather, specifically the region lacking barbs.

5. The filoplume is a __________-like feather with a long rachis and just a few barbs on the tip.

6. The loose structure of __________ feathers traps air, which helps to insulate the bird against heat loss.

9. __________ feathers are mainly concerned with stability and control, allowing birds to twist and turn through the air with ease.


Answer Key

How many different types of feathers are there?

There are six different feather types found in birds. These include: flight feathers, contour feathers, down feathers, semiplumes, filoplumes, and bristle feathers.

What are the different parts of a feather?

Feathers are comprised of two main parts, the rachis and the barbs. The rachis is the stiff central shaft, while the barbs constitute the softer portion of the feather. The barbs are interconnected by hooked barbules called hamuli.

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