an intimate look at feathers, from cornell lab
AS 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
- The new All About Bird Biology begins at this link; or start directly in the All About Feathers area.
- The free online bird encyclopedia includes audio clips of song, life histories and more, and is used by 10 million visitors each year (including me, nearly daily).
- The lab’s video collection, including 90-plus of them, can be browsed at this link.
- Want a bird ID app for your iPhone (Android version coming soon)? Try Lab of O’s Merlin.
(Feather illustration, top, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Feathers.)