An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Feathers

Ruffed Grouse Nostril Feathers

12-16-14 ruffed grouse nostrils IMG_2376Ruffed Grouse have adapted to cold winter months in a number of ways, from growing “snowshoe” pectinations on their toes to having their legs covered with fine feathers. Equally effective are the feathers covering a grouse’s nostrils, which are thought to heat cold air as the bird breathes in. (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)


European Starling

European starling IMG_8398There was no fooling the vast majority of Naturally Curious readers! As unpopular as the European Starling may be, its plumage is impressive, especially at this time of year. The starling’s summer, or breeding, plumage shows purple and greenish iridescence, especially on the head, back, and breast. Following the annual mid-summer/fall molt, most head and body feathers have whitish or buff terminal spots. Through the winter, most of these light spots gradually wear away to produce a glossy black appearance in the spring.

Most creative Mystery Photo response (from Steve Adams): “ This one’s easy. The bird is Hazel Hainsworth. She was sweet but insane. Hazel had a huge hat made of all different kinds of feathers, and because she liked her scotch, her navigation skills were somewhat dull, and she always made a point of telling people she’d been lost in every state in the nation, including Alaska.”

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Ruffed Grouse Preening

ruffed grouse preening IMG_3515Birds have up to 25,000 feathers, and most birds preen, or clean, waterproof and align their feathers, several times a day. Ruffed grouse, as well as most other birds, possess an uropygial gland, or preen gland, on their rump. (Some types of birds, including owls, pigeons, parrots and hawks, lack an uropygial gland and instead have specialized feathers that disintegrate into powder down, which serves the same purpose as preen oil.) The preen gland produces a waxy substance that helps waterproof feathers and keeps them flexible.

Ruffed grouse reach back and rub their beaks on this gland, and then distribute the wax on their body and wing feathers by stroking them toward the tip. The grouse grasps a feather near the base and draws it through the partly close beak, nibbling as it goes. This distributes the wax and cleans parasites from the feathers. In order to preen its head, the grouse must rub it on other parts of its body. Preening is usually done in a fairly open setting but with a degree of overhead protection, so that the grouse can watch for terrestrial predators, while being protected from hawks and owls.

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American Bitterns Displaying

5-3-14  American Bittern3  058American Bitterns are very secretive marsh-dwelling birds and have coloration so cryptic that you can be looking right at one and not see it, especially if it employs its “look like a reed” stance, with bill raised towards the sky. Like other members of the Heron family, American Bitterns possess plumes. These large, white shoulder feathers are visible only at this time of year, during territorial and courtship displays and just prior to copulation, when they are erected. Not only do these plumes impress female bitterns, but they make it much easier for humans to spot the displaying males.

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Ruffed Grouse Wings

2-25-14 grouse wing imprints  010You can often determine the type of flight that a bird is capable of by looking at the shape of its wings. Long, narrow wings are excellent for gliding, while the short, rounded wings of a Ruffed Grouse allow for tight maneuvering in the dense forests where they live. The shape of their wings and their quick-contracting muscles equip grouse for the short bursts of high speed (not long distances) they take when feeding or evading predators. (Photo: a Ruffed Grouse walked a short way and then took flight, beating its wings against the snow twice before it was airborne.)

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Big Birds

blue jay puffed out in snow 101Is your bird feeder being visited by gigantic Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees during this cold spell? Your eyes aren’t fooling you; birds often appear larger in very cold weather.
Birds that remain in New England year round must not only be able to find enough food in the winter to produce heat and energy, they must find a way to retain the heat. Various strategies have evolved, but feather structure and function play an important role for the winter survival of all birds. There are different types of feathers, each designed for a different function. A (wing or tail) feather consists of a central, hollow shaft on either side of which are many interlocking rows of barbs. The feathers that cover the body of a bird (contour feathers) often have interlocking barbs only at the ends, on the part not covered by an overlapping feather. The bottom-most, unconnected barbs on these feathers are similar to those of down feathers – loose and fluffy. When the temperature dips, birds often puff out their contour feathers (making the birds look huge). This action, and the structure of the bottom portion of the contour feathers,
increase the number and size of air pockets between the bird’s feathers and its skin. This space provides excellent insulation, preventing much of the bird’s body heat from escaping.

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Waterfowl Vulnerable When Molting

8-23-13 canada goose remains 043All North American birds replace their old, worn plumage with new feathers at least once a year, a process known as molting. Most birds have what is called a “sequential molt,” in which their flight feathers are lost one at a time (from each wing). This allows many birds to continue flying while molting. However, during their annual molt, waterfowl undergo a “simultaneous wing molt,” losing all of their primary wing feathers at once, preventing them from being able to fly for a month or more while their new primaries are growing in. During this period, they are extremely vulnerable, as this photograph testifies to. If you look closely at the remains of the Canada Goose’s wing on the right in the photograph (dark feathers), you’ll see that the new primaries have almost, but not quite, grown out of their sheaths, making them not yet functional. It’s apparent that this bird was unable to take flight during its molt in order to escape its predator.

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