(Singular nouns: Fr-plume (d’oiseau); Ger-Feder/Vogelfeder; Nor-fjær; Rus-перо)

Last update  22 June 2016

A. Feathers. Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao (Linnaeus, 1758)) Ceremonial Prayer Feather Fan, including 12 Macaw feathers, each about 45 cm long.  Fashioned by Patrick Scott. (© photo by Wolf, from http://www.sedonawolf.com/PrayerFeather.htm)

B. Feathers.  Amerindian headdress (length ~ 1.5 m) featuring barred turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Linnaeus, 1758) feathers;  hand crafted by Native American Artist Buffy Sam of  Laguna (western Pueblo) affiliation.  (© photo by Peggy Boitier, courtesy www.cowboyandlady.com).

C. Feathers.  These are part of a replica of a Dream Catcher.  The following "Legend of the Dreamcatcher" (sic) came along this one, a gift, which is now hanging on my bedroom wall: 

                                       "Native Americans of the Great Plains believe the
                                        air is filled with both good and bad dreams.

                                      "According to legend, the good dreams pass
                                        through the center hole to the sleeping person.
                                        The bad dreams are trapped in the web, where
                                        they perish in the light of dawn.

                                        "Historically, dreamcatchers were hung in the tipi
                                         or lodge and on a baby's cradle board."

Considering the fact that this one , though "Designed in USA," was "Made in China"  I wonder if, for example, the associated belief has been assumed by any people in Asia.

D. Feathers. These two paintings on feathers were by Mary Ann First of Brevort, Michigan (width of the tips of  the feathers of these two paintings ~ 5 - 7 cm.)   The feathers are from wild turkeys -- the one one the left, a breast feather;  the one on the right, a tail feather.  Mrs. First  uses acrylic, and as exemplified by the one on the right, sometimes extends the painted subject on to the surrounding material to which the feather is attached.  One particularly interesting painting of her paintings on feathers was mounted on birch bark.

E. Feather.  The painting(s) on this wild turkey feather was by Robert Reid of Grayling, Michigan (length of feather ~40 cm.).  . 

DESCRIPTION: Feathers consist largely of keratinous cells -- ~ 90 per cent protein, ~8 per cent water, plus "fat" -- i.e., their composition is similar to that of fingernails, hair, etc.    The composition, however, varies with environmental factors such as soil and water, rainfall and temperature ranges, and their bearing on the plants and/or animals that become part of the given bird's diet.  Consequently, bird feathers in different parts of the world have different compositions, especially so far as concentrations of their cations (e.g., calcium, magnesium, sodium and iron) and isotopes (e.g., those of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen).  Despite the differences, the following macroscopic characteristics prevail.
    Colors - "Bird feathers come in all colors of a rainbow ..." (Cunningham, 2004).  See additional information about colors of feathers in the third paragraph under the Remarks subheading.
    H.  (of shaft)   ~2½ <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    S.G.  (of shaft)    ~1.29 <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    Light transmission - transparent to semitranslucent
    Luster -
(of shaft) - waxy;  (of barbs) - dull to silky (satin-like)
    Breakage - Both the barbs and central shaft (rachis) of many feathers can be bent without breaking:  Some barbs will bend almost double and snap back into their original shapes;  the central shafts will also bend, but only so far without breaking.  When they break, they splinter.
    Miscellaneous -The fluffy appearance of down feathers, feathers of flightless species (e.g., ostriches) and some feathers of several other birds manifest their lack of the hooklets that interlock the barbules of typical flight feathers.

OTHER NAMES: I know of none. 

USES: Feathers have been used as integral parts of "Prayer Feathers" (Figure A), made for use in Native American Church services and other religious ceremonies, and Plains Indians' "medicine wheels";  both of these items are also displayed rather widely as "art" by many people other than Native Americans.  A somewhat similar use is their inclusion in so-called "Dream Catcher" hangings, which are marketed as "traditional Navajo..."(see Figure C.)  Another use that is related, albeit not directly, has feathers as the complete or central  "canvas" (i.e.,  surface) upon which artists -- at least one, that I know -- paint (see Figure D.).  The paintings of this kind that I have seen have been framed for hanging on walls.  Feathers have also been used as foci, including inserts, of jewelry (e.g., brooches, earrings, necklaces, pendants and pins) and for other adornment  -- e.g., Amerindian headdresses (See Figure B) and boas.  And, turkey feathers, in particular, have found use as the "canvass" upon which designs have been painted -- especially those dealing with nature.  Also, particularly in the past, stuffed songbirds and  birds' plumes were used widely as add-ons for fine lady’s hats.  Additional decorative uses include the following:  So-to-speak bouquets that consist of colored and patterned feathers, such as those from peacocks and pheasants, have been exhibited in vases;  different kinds of "feather trees" -- e.g.,  miniature, diversely colored feather "trees" have been used as Christmas decorations, and larger "trees" with limbs that consist of, for example, dyed goose or marabou down-like feathers, have been used for based on which Easter eggs or other objects can be hung;  [and] framed mountings of individual or groups of feathers of certain birds  -- e.g., hummingbirds and peacocks -- and designs fashioned from the feathers of one or more birds are common  wall hangings.  A prediction:  It seems likely that  feathers from Archaeopteryx (the earliest know bird) found in slabs of rock in, for example, Bavaria, will become exhibition pieces in homes and offices of people who have the means to procure them.

Uses, which are not chiefly for decorative purposes, include fans, "feather dusters," feather beds and pillows, fly fishermen's hackle bait (i.e., hooks trimmed by feathers, commonly those of domestic cocks), quill pens and shuttle cocks.  But, decorative pieces, shaped to replicate some of these items (e.g., certain feather-bearing fishermen's hackle bait -- usually with their appearances modified/enhanced[?] by adding gold "hooks" and  gems stones) have been created and marketed for diverse decorative uses, including costume jewelry. 

In addition, it seems noteworthy that "The Alaskan Eskimo ... have made use of bird-quills, which, after being stripped of the rami, are split and the pieces woven into designs..." (Orchard, 1982, p.5) along with or in a similar way to such use of porcupine quills (see Porcupine Quills entry).  And, I feel it important also to mention the use of feathers for making  whistles -- my Grandfather Dietrich made me one from the quill end of a turkey feather shaft , more than seventy-five years ago.

OCCURRENCES & NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES:   Feathers occur wherever the species the feathers of which are desired lives;  that is to say the localities are dependent upon what species is being sought for its feathers.  In some countries, however, it is illegal to kill, market or even collect the feathers of many birds (although exceptions relating to one's ancestry may obtain).  See the fourth paragraph under the Remarks subheading.
REMARKS: Origin of the word feather, though shrouded in obscurity, seems to have reached its current meaning in English via "O.E.[Old English] feder 'feather,'... from Gmc.[?Germanic] fethro (cf. O.N.[Old Norse] fjödr, M.Du.[Middle Dutch] vedere, Ger.[German - i.e., New High German] Feder), ..."  (Harper, 2002).

Feather may be defined as "one of the epidermal appendages of a bird, usually in the form of a central shaft or midrib, of a horny nature, in part tubular, for the rest square in section and solid, fringed on either side with a ‘vane’, i.e. a row of thin narrow plates mutually adpressed (the ‘barbs’), which form a rounded outline at the end. Often preceded by some qualifying word, as contour-, covert-, pin-, quill- etc. feather. In pl. also plumage." (O.E.D.).

To continue Ms. Cunningham's (op cit.) quotation about colors of feather "... making birds as colorful as coral reef fish or drab as mice.The colors you see on these birds form in two different ways: by pigments and by structures.Pigment colors. Most feather colors are produced by pigments called carotenoids or melanins. Both kinds of pigment absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect the rest. We see the reflected light as color. ¶ Carotenoids reflect bright yellow, red, and orange light. ... Melanins produce black, gray, or brown colors. ...¶ Structural colors. ... [are] what we see when light hits the parts of the feather (structure)... because light reflects from or scatters through thin layers of cell walls in the barbs. ... ¶White is a structural color. ¶Blue and most green colors are also structural. ... ¶ Iridescent colors, such as a male hummingbird's brilliant throat patch, also are structural. ¶  [In addition there are] Invisible colors. Many birds have patches of feathers that reflect ultraviolet light. [By the way,] Birds can see ultraviolet light, which humans can't see. So what we see as a black or blue bird might look much more colorful to other birds. A female bird might choose a mate based on the brightness of his ultraviolet feathers." (Cunningham, 2004, p.48-49).  Additionally, as is well known by anyone who has spent time observing birds, the color of most birds' feathers differ with time -- e.g., with the age of bird and, for mature adult birds (especially the males), during mating periods (see, for example, Voitkevich, 1966).

Despite the diversity of colors available in natural feathers, many feathers used to fashion decorative pieces are dyed or hand painted:  S
everal are dyed to some tint or brilliant hue unlike any found on any natural bird;  some are feathers of some common bird that have been dyed selectively or painted to resemble the feathers of some other bird -- e.g. turkey feathers painted to look like eagle feathers.
Noteworthy and I hope instructive:  "The Migratory Bird Treaty Act [of 1918] is the domestic law that affirms, or implements, the United States' commitment to four international conventions (with Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Russia) for the protection of a shared migratory bird resource."--The noted impetus was: "the framers of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act were determined to put an end to the commercial trade in birds and their feathers [
etc.] that, by the early years of the 20th century, had wreaked havoc on the populations of many native bird species." (U.S. Fish & Wildlife..., 2002) There are, however, certain exclusions -- e.g., those that relate to objects that are "culturally sensitive" and can be had by Native Americans -- see USCS (1940) and CFR (1998).

A bit of advice about the care of feathers, as originally given for prayer feathers and fans: "The best advise [sic] I can offer is to use them. The air passing through the fan will clean them and keep the feathers looking their best. Obviously, you do not want anything heavy on the feathers. They are light and delicate and should be treated accordingly. Displaying them on a wall is an excellent way to enjoy them and keep them safe too. If you decide to store them, a cedar box is best or put cedar chips in the storage box or drawer you use."  (Sedonawolf, 1997-2005)

Of several things that come to my mind -- and it seems prudent to add here that I have been an ardent bird-watcher for more than 75 years -- when I think of feathers, two old saws seem most worth repeating: 1. the old proverb -- or, if anyone prefers, cliché --  which seems to be socially unacceptable to some people these days -- "Birds of a feather flock together."  [and]  2. the simile "proud as a peacock,"  which appears to date back to at least the late 14th century when Chaucer noted “And yet as proud a pekok can he pulle.” ("Troilus and Crseyde: Book I, line 210).  --  The peacock was Troilus, who proudly smiled at the folly of anyone who falls in love -- lovers are fools and he is not.  This angered Cupid, god of Love, and he became determined to prove otherwise.  So, with his bow he hit Troilus proving that he could pluck ("pulle") the proud peacock (Troilus).]   Also, I think of my favorite Andrew Wyeth painting, "Airborne," with all its windblown feathers. 

Most of the United States and the dominions of Canada and a few countries have official birds.  Do you know yours?  --
If not, see Wikipedia (2006).  It also seems of at least passing interest here that the Australian Coat of Arms (commonly called the  "Commonwealth Crest") has the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)as one of its supporters.

SIMULANTS:  None is known to me.  But, it seems noteworthy here that turkey feathers, for example, have been dyed or painted to resemble eagle feathers.

REPLICAS:  Several materials have been shaped to resemble feathers as such.  Replicas of Individual feathers, that consist largely of bone, glass, copper, gold, silver (including sterling) or pewter, have been fashioned for use as Christmas tree decorations, and "faux feathered headdress[es]" (not otherwise identified) that  adorn dolls made to represent Amerindians, JEWELRY (particularly earrings, pendants and pins, several of which also include gemstones such as turquoise), plume pens and wall hangings.  In addition, all the feathers I have seen included in the decorative fly fishermen's hackle bait pieces, alluded to under USES, are replicas (also unidentified) rather than feathers per se.
Replicated birds with relatively well defined feathers have also been fashioned in glass and several other materials.  Examples include the following:  Diverse ceramics -- e.g., bisque china, china not otherwise described, cast porcelain, raku and
stoneware;  metals and alloys -- e.g., aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, cast iron, steel (including stainless steel), sterling silver and "recycled cooking-oil drums";   minerals and rocks -- e.g., jet, mother of pearl (nacre), turquoise and other gemstones -- natural, synthetic, and simulated;  plastics -- e.g., resin and  polyresin;   stone -- i.e., cast stone utilizing crushed marble;  wood -- e.g., carved wood, recorded as acacia;  [and] something only reported as a fiber optic.   For many of the bird replicas, the predominant material has been cast and painted, stained, enameled (cloisonné) and/or bedecked with gemstones.  The birds commonly replicated include the following (in order of abundance as found in my review described in Appendix A):  Songbirds, with cardinals the most common;  owls, several identified to species with some for use as scarecrows;  chickens, mostly roosters;  penguins, very few with well-defined feathers;  hummingbirds;  peafowl, mostly peacocks; swans -- for a particularly interesting one, see Eggshells entry, USES ;  turkeys > eagles (Does this order support Franklin's often quoted choice for the national bird?);   cranes, flamingos, ducks (many of which are recognizable by species), geese, parrots, pheasants, doves, loons, ostrichs, love birds and a partridge (in a pear tree) plus the mythical Egyptian phoenix.  In addition, Angels, including heralding angels with their horns, with well feathered wings are represented by many replicas (more than any of the birds!), and a small bronze statue of the mythical griffin and a sterling silver pin depicting the six-winged Seraph have been produced and marketed.  [And, some interesting replicas of birds -- but with no wings or feathers replicated -- are made in Zimbabwe from seedpods of the native chamfuti tree (=pod mahogany or lucky bean tree - Afzelia quanzensis Welw.).]

One or more of the just mentioned replicas have diverse uses, including the following (listed alphabetically)
barrettes, bases for small tables, birdhouses, bookends (figures on), bowls (including candy dishes), boxes, caches, candleholders and candles, cane heads, carvings (strictly decorative), Christmas decorations and tree ornaments, clips (for opened bags), clocks (e.g., cuckoos that announce the hours and finials), decoys, door knockers (e.g., those with eagle backplates), figurines, JEWELRY (pendants, pins, etc.), lamps (both oil and incandescent bulb), "lawn [& garden] art," music boxes, nightlights, paper weights, parrots indicated to be "animatronic [&] interactive," perfume bottles, pitchers, plaques, pulls (for fans and light fixtures), puzzles (three-dimensional intrlocking ones), rocking chairs, salt and pepper shakers, "scarecrows" (to scare birds such as gulls away  from docks or animals such as rabbits away from gardens), snowglobes (figures within), spinners, teapots, thimbles (tops for collector thimbles), utensil holders, vases, visor clips, wall hangings, weather vanes (tops on), whatnot display pieces and whirligigs (figures for their tops).  In addition, images or forms of well feathered birds and angels -- several of which are stylized -- have found places on many additional items -- e.g., backpacks, calendars, china, clock faces, clothing (cardigans, cravats, sweat and T shirts, etc.), crocheted angels,  decalcomanias, doorbell and electric outlet fixtures, jigsaw puzzles, kitchen linens (e.g., towels, pot holders & oven mits), mirrors, napkin and paper towel holders, pillow covers, plaques, rugs and mats, sink liners, stained and painted and/or etched glass hangings (including "sun catchers") and windows, tapestries, umbrellas, vases, wall baskets for vegetables and fruit, and watering vessels.  And, even Picasso  -- with two lines and a dash (for the eye) "created" an owl;  but alas, his owl has no obvious feathers. 

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R.V. Dietrich © 2016
Last update: 22 June
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