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Nature Notebook – Feathers

Birds are the only animals with feathers, which are composed of the insoluble protein keratin. Keratin is the same thing that makes up our fingernails and the scales of a reptile.

Feathers help a bird do many things such as regulate the birds’ temperature, help them fly, and use their color patterns for display and camouflage. The number of feathers on a bird varies. A small hummingbird may have around 1,000 feathers, while a swan may have up to 25,000!

All of those feathers take daily maintenance and much of a birds time is spent preening (cleaning and water-proofing the feathers.) The Sarett staff enjoys observing our turkey vulture education ambassador, Val, preen when we bring her indoors and she is relaxed. She will spend hours using her beak and a special oil gland near her tailbone to apply a protective layer on her feathers. This oil helps waterproof, remove parasites, and moisturize the feathers.