An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Feathers

The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

3-14-17 great gray owl2 164

Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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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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Canada Goose Goslings: Contour Feathers Replacing Down

Canada goose gosling 207Within 24 hours of hatching, downy Canada Goose goslings leave their nest and are capable of walking, swimming, diving and feeding themselves. Like many species of waterfowl, their growth is rapid. Contour feathers on their wings and tail begin to emerge in about three weeks (note wing feathers of gosling in photo). Feathers on a gosling’s head, neck and back are the last to appear. Just before a gosling develops the ability to fly, the last fluff of down, which is on top of its head, disappears.

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Male American Goldfinch’s Seasonal Plumage

3-17-15  male American goldfinch IMG_0482Most songbirds have one complete molt every year, in the late summer. Some, like the American goldfinch, have another (partial) molt in the spring. Last fall male goldfinches molted, replacing many of their bright yellow feathers with drab, greenish-gray feathers, so that they closely resemble females during the winter. Goldfinches start their partial molt in February, and in the next month or two, males will once again become bright yellow beacons. No-one can illustrate the subtle seasonal plumage changes of a male American goldfinch better than David Sibley: http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/ (Photo: male American goldfinch in March)

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Horned Larks Seeking Seeds

2-25-15 horned lark 025Horned Larks are named for the dark feathers near the back of their head that sometimes become erect and resemble horns. During the winter, these birds typically form large flocks which often include Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Horned Larks are usually found in fields where the snow has blown the ground bare, but they can also be found hunting and pecking on manure and silage piles. As they walk or run along the ground foraging for seeds on bare ground, these brown-backed birds are very well camouflaged (not so much on snow). There is a wide variation of shades of brown back feathers throughout their range, and researchers have found that their color is strongly correlated with the color of the local soil.

Horned Larks nest on prairies, deserts and agricultural land throughout much of the U.S., as well as the Arctic tundra. In another month, most of the Horned Larks overwintering in northern New England will migrate north.

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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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