by Jennifer Sartell of Iron Oak Farm
The feather is what sets birds apart from every other living species. Birds use feathers to fly and escape danger. Though chickens aren’t the best of flyers they still share in this unique attribute that is specific to birds.
Feathers have been on my mind lately as the fall days grow shorter and the cold weather draws nearer. I’ve noticed a good many feathers on the ground of both the chicken and the turkey coop due to the seasonal moult. It’s a novelty to pick up a feather and admire it’s wonder. The symbolic object of flight.
The seasonal moult is what got me thinking about feathers. Chickens moult for different reasons. Sometimes it’s due to stress like lack of food or water, poor health or being transported. Other moults are age related. As a chick grows, it will experience several moults as it grows into an adult and trades in it’s down for teenage feathers and then finally mature, adult feathers. The last reason chickens moult is because of the seasonal moult.
In the fall, chickens loose their feathers to freshen, renew and replace old damaged feathers. Sometimes this can be a mild loss or somewhat dramatic, leaving the poor chicken almost bald. But soon the pin feathers begin to sprout and before long, they re-grow new fresh feathers just in time for the cold weather to hit. They’ll have a new set of functioning plumes to keep them warm throughout the winter.
The hours of daylight has a profound impact on birds. It regulates many natural functions that a bird experiences. It is thought that the shortening days is what prompts migratory birds to begin flying south for the winter. It also impacts egg production and signals birds to begin moulting.
What do feathers do for birds?
Feathers are unique to birds. No other animal in the animal kingdom has feathers. A feather’s most amazing feature is of course the ability to give flight. Each feather is perfectly designed to direct airflow to create lift. Each feather also works in conjunction with the other feathers on the body to give birds a perfect outer casing of streamline effectiveness.
While chickens are not the best of flyers, they do, none-the-less, use their feathers for many purposes. While they can’t fly hundreds of miles like some birds, chickens do use the gift of flight to their advantage. They can fly short distances to perch in trees away from predators at night. They use short bursts of flight to escape danger more quickly than legs alone, and they use feathers for balance when mating or fighting.
Some breeds do better than others when it comes to flight. Araucanas, Leghorns and Bantams often have more of a stream line body that makes flying easier. Some of the more domesticated, multipurpose breeds have been bred for weight which makes flight something of a challenge.
Feathers can also be used for camouflage, to attract a mate, warmth, bodily protection, brooding young, and for flotation as with ducks and other waterfowl.
Breeds with interesting feathers
The Frizzle is a chicken who’s feathers grow in the opposite direction away from it’s body. A Frizzle can only be bred by mating a Frizzled chicken with a Smooth mate. 3/4 of the offspring will be frizzled. Mating two Frizzles will usually produce smooth offspring.
The Polish chicken dotes a beautiful crest on top of it’s head. In the case of the Top Hat or White Crested Black polish, the Crest is a completely different color from the rest of the body.
The Silky chicken has adult feathers that are more like down. They are incredible soft.
Lack of Feathers
Some chickens like the Turken, or the Showgirl have naturally occurring bald spots on their neck, resembling a turkey or a chicken that is perpetually mid-moult, but this is their normal plumage pattern.
Chicken feathers can come in an assortment of different patterns including penciling, lacing, double lacing, spangled, barred and mottled. For an example of each of these feather types visit this Backyard Chickens article for a diagram.
While human domestication of the chicken has changed many of the feather patterns to create different and interesting breeds, feather color is also a useful attribute. Color can be used for camouflage to help a bird blend into it’s environment or in the instance of many male birds, it can be used as a way to attract a mate. The often, more brightly colored male can also act as a deterrent to distract potential predators away from the more dull colored female sitting on the nest.
Humans have spent hundreds of years creating beautiful patterns and colors of chickens through selective breeding. We now have lavender chickens, blue chickens, red chickens and every color in-between. One of the most fascinating aspect of feather color is the iridescent rainbow that many breeds possess especially darker birds. The black feathers will often glow in the sunshine displaying a brilliant blue, purple or gold. The green of the Mallard duck head also gives this amazing sparkle.
The cause of this effect is “The result of the refraction of incident light caused by the microscopic structure of the feathers. The refraction works like a prism, splitting the light into rich, component colors.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Feathers that move
Many times birds use feathers to change their appearance. The shaft of some feathers are connected to muscles under the skin so a bird has great control over the movement of it’s feathers. For example, when male turkeys or peacocks fan their tail to appear larger. Turkeys also have the ability to rotate their tail always showing the flat, large side to the female as he struts back and forth in front of her.
Roosters will spread their neck feathers to appear larger when fighting with other roosters.
Chickens will also open their feathers to release dirt after a sand bath. They can “puff up” their body feathers to create a pocket of warmth or to appear larger when protecting a brood.
If you’d like to read more about feathers I encourage you to visit the interactive site, All About Feathers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is a fun site for bird enthusiasts to learn the types of feathers, the anatomy of each feather, why feather strands stick together like Velcro and all sorts of interesting facts.