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Bird Tail Feathers

mystery-photo-img_0672Although the number of tail feathers is quite variable across groups of birds, the most common number is 12. The left and right tail feathers are mirror images of each other. The outermost tail feather is highly asymmetrical (narrow outer vane, broad inner vane). The feathers become more symmetrical toward the center, with the two central tail feathers usually exactly symmetrical (vanes on both sides of the shaft equal in width). There is a similar change in the curvature of the tail feather shafts from outer to central, with the shafts of the outermost tail feathers usually strongly curved, gradually straightening toward the center, with the central tail feathers shafts completely straight.

Groups of birds can have certain tail feather traits in common. For instance, the tail feathers of most waterfowl are short (although the pictured female Hooded Merganser’s are relatively long), while many gamebird tail feathers are used in display and thus are boldly patterned and/or elongated. Woodpecker tail feathers have pointed, stiff tips that the birds use to brace themselves against tree trunks. Even within a group, such as waterfowl, there can be specific tail traits such as the drake Northern Pintail’s long twin tail feathers and the drake Wood Duck’s squared-off tail feathers.

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3 responses

  1. Kathie Fiveash

    What a great post! I love the picture, and spent some time guessing what species this was, but got it wrong!
    I have an ethical question about yesterday’s post about the frogs. I was thinking about how wood frogs, pickerel frogs, leopard frogs – the forest and meadow dwellers – are so vulnerable to this kind of death. If you came across the scenario in your post, do you think it would be wrong to gather up the frogs and take them to a pond or lake? I think that is what I would do, but I am not sure how I feel about the whole question of interference in the natural order.

    December 14, 2016 at 11:19 am

    • I’m right with you, Kathie. I try not to interfere, but there are times when I have. (Once when an infatuated eastern newt was courting a spring peeper and squeezing it so hard the peeper had seconds to live.) The person who took the leopard frog photo asked me what she should do. I contacted a herpetologist who said that it was likely that they had already had cell damage. He had rescued frogs in a similar situation and had been told by researchers that it may have made him feel good to release them in an open pond, but they probably had not lived…so to answer your question, I myself would have broken the ice and taken them to an open pond, knowing that it was probably futile, but it would make me feel better!

      December 14, 2016 at 11:34 am

  2. Helen downing

    Found this to be instructional, since I paint watercolors of birds. In particular, I recently did one of a bluejay and noticed the irregularity of the bottom feather! I also am fascinated by the individuality of bluejay tail feather markings. Am I right in saying no two are alike? Love the variations!

    December 16, 2016 at 7:21 am

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