an intimate look at feathers, from cornell lab

feathers, Copyright Cornell Lab of OrnithologyAS THE ONLY LIVING ANIMAL TO HAVE THEM, birds corner the market on feathers.  Now one of my favorite places to go birding, in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, is offering us humans a closer look at those protein-packed marvels of design, function, and evolution, in All About Feathers. Spoiler alert: The word “feathers” will never sound quite the same once you tour the rich, self-paced multimedia tutorial.

The new feathers feature is the first addition in the Lab of O’s just-fledged All About Bird Biology expansion to All About Birds, moving it past species-by-species profiles that characterize the original site, into broader matters. Modules on song, flight, “fancy males” (!!!) and more are in the works.

We quickly learn that many feathers have a branched structure that interlocks like Velcro, forming a uniform surface that helps birds to steer (in the case of tail feathers, or rectrices) or to allow for lift (in remiges, or wing feathers), or to shed water. Throughout “All About Feathers,” you can hover your cursor on such unfamiliar highlighted words, and learn to define and pronounce them.

The forerunners of feathers were simple tufts worn by dinosaurs, it turns out. But how did “dino fuzz” become bird plumage–which helps birds fly; or show off (sometimes at the expense of mobility—as with the birds-of-paradise in the video above); or camouflage themselves, plus keep warm and dry? One bird, Ecuador’s club-winged manakin, even uses its feathers as musical instruments, to create sound. Wild—as the video below confirms.

It’s hard to do justice to the experience of All About Feathers, since each visitor can click around in their own chosen order, as deep (or not) as they choose. Let me know what parts you most enjoy—and you can also tell Cornell at the end of your visit, when you will be invited to complete a survey that will help them tailor future offerings.

more birding support from lab of o

(Feather illustration, top, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Feathers.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Karen says:

    Mesmerizing listening to the ‘Ecuador’s club-winged manakin’ clips.
    I am going to check out the Lab O’s Merlin app to try to identify the bird who sounds like he’s playing the same three notes in descending octaves in a well. Common, but I never see the rascal! Do you know what bird is?

  2. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    Bookmarked! Who needs TV when you can delve into something like this. Incredibly beautiful. I remember when I first learned of the Birds of Paradise – a David Attenborough documentary. I was blown away!

  3. Tracy says:

    The feather videos were so interesting. I just love birds. I am not a supporter, however, of the invasive “bird labs” being affixed to migratory birds. What gives us the right to affix something — complete with needle probe to measure uric acid– onto and into another creature, just because we think it might be interesting? Sometimes we humans just need to learn how to stay in our lane.

    But thank you for bringing this information, all of it, to us, Margaret.

  4. Rosemary says:

    I liked listening to the bird it sounded a bit like a mimic I was walking along the foreshore near home a few months ago when I picked two beautiful blue feathers, I looked around but I didn’t see any birds very similar to the ‘wing’ blue bird feather you have on your website.

    I suppose I should try and see which bird it comes from. I like the willy wag tails and of course we have numerous magpies and seabirds

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