Archive for August, 2012

Stylish Feathers

in the 1980s feathers were all the rage, not for birds, but for humans, especially woman. Feathers were the ultimate decoration for women’s clothing especially hats. A hat without feathers just was not stylish. The more feathers, the more style.

Frank Chapman, who was the ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History, led a memorable bird walk in Manhattan in1896  . He wasn’t looking for songbirds in Central Park or pigeons on the streets. He was looking for feathers on women’s hats. He observed 700 hats on women of all classes, 75% of them contain feathers. He spotted feathers from over 40 domestic species with feathers from Cedar Waxwings, Flicker, and Terns being the most common.

The use of feathers in the millinery trade grew and became big business. Originally molted feathers were picked up from the ground, but hunting was more profitable. In 1903 hunter received $32 dollars per ounce of feathers. The rate later reached $80. The long, snowy plumes of egrets and herons became very fashionable. As a results, egrets and heron were actively hunted and killed for their feathers.

Fledging Audubon organizations and other nature and conservation groups rallied in protest at the destruction of birds for their feathers. One of the first Audubon sanctuaries, a large rookery in Florida, was set aside to protect the birds. A park ranger was employed to maintain the sanctuary and prevent hunting. Unfortunately he was killed pursuing his duties.  As a result of his senseless death and many other efforts from conservations groups the use of feathers greatly diminished.   In 1900 congress passed the Lacy Act which banned interstate transportation of birds killed in violation of state laws.  At least, I hope, that common sense prevailed and that the diminishing was not just the end of a fashion trend.

Today it is illegal to have a feather in your possession. This law is intended to protect Bald Eagles and other large raptors. One exception is for native Americans to whom the feathers take on an almost religious significance. Without the law you could imagine hunters killing eagles just to get feathers for making Indian headdresses and other decorations to sell.

Simple feathers look good on birds and on people, but are better left for the birds.

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How many feathers?

Birds have a lot of feathers, more than you might expect.  The exact number depends on the bird.  Not surprising, smaller birds have fewer feathers than larger one.   A large swan, for example, has over 24,000 feathers, mostly on the head and neck, while a tiny hummingbird has 900-1000 individual feathers.

A 1000 feathers seems an incredible number for a bird that only weighs 1/8 of an ounce.  That quantity of feathers illustrates how important they are to birds.

“Light as a Feather” is important rule especially when any excess weight requires added energy for flight.  For most birds, feathers represent 15-20% of its total weight, whereas, the bird’s skeleton weighs less than one half the weight of its feathers.

If you have ever the opportunity to hand feed a chickadee you understand just how light they are.  All you feel is a gentle pinch from their toenails.  There is no sense of weight at all.  It seems more like a puff of air.

I use the postal analogy to illustrate the lightness of feathers.  For the cost of a single first class postage stamp you can mail 2-3 chickadees to anywhere in the country.  Each birds weighs about the same as a single sheet of paper.

Light as a feather.  Or as light as thousands of feathers

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Ask a group of young children what makes birds different from all other creatures on earth. Their enthusiastic response will be that birds can fly. That is true and being able to fly is kind of neat. But the ability to fly is not unique to birds. Other creatures also fly: bats, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and other insects. There are even flying fish and flying squirrels. And don’t forget mosquitoes.

Another good guess is that birds lay eggs. That is also true but also wrong. Fish and frogs lay eggs, as do many insects, dragonflies, as well as butterflies and crocodiles.

What makes birds truly unique are feathers.  No other creature has feathers. Except maybe angels but you won’t see them in your backyard unless you are very spiritual.

Feathers offer many advantages for birds. First they are lightweight. Feathers are the symbol of lightness and weight is critically important for flying. Any extra weight requires extra energy. A typical sparrow may have over 3,000 feathers but still only weighs about ½ ounce. Despite being lightweight feathers are very strong and very flexible. If damaged or bent out of shape they can be easily repaired.

Feathers provide fantastic insulation. If you have ever owned a down jacket you understand how, despite the light weight, the jacket is incredibly warm. Feathers allow chickadees to survive sub-zero temperatures without a coat and allow ducks to swim for hours on the surface of a semi-frozen pond without getting cold. Feathers are quite waterproof. Water rolls off the surface of a feather without soaking in. This keeps birds dry in rain and snow storms and allows ducks and other waterfowl to float for hours without getting water-logged and sinking. And, of course, feathers help protect a bird’s skin from injuries.

More about feathers next time when I will answer the questions you are just dying to ask. Are their different kinds of feathers for different birds? How many feathers does a hummingbird have versus an eagle? Do birds have more feathers in winter? Do feathers wear out? What makes them so strong?

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Ernie Hammer passed along these photos that he took on our BirdWalk to Crestwood Lake



























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13 birders joined Doug and myself for our monthly BirdWalk at Crestwood Lake on Saturday, Aug. 4th , a nice turn out for a, hot muggy morning and a nice group of people.  Although August birding can sometimes be very slow, we were rewarded with both a deent list of species and good views of lovely birds, especially herons.


Participants included ( in no particular order):  Terry & Anthony Cocchiarella, Sonya & Ernie & Hammer, Kathy & Larry Mazzella, Sandy Prosnitz, Alan Soifer, Stuart Madden, Rosemary Parandelis, Sue O’Rourke, Doug and Hank


Below is a complete list of species for the day:


Large Water Birds:  Great Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Canada Goose, Mallard


Small Shorebirds:  Killdeer, SemiPalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling


Others:  Downy Woodpecker, Barn Swallow, Cedar Waxwing, Starling, Grackle, House Finch, Goldfinch, House Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Song Sparrow.


Birds Heard (mostly by Doug) but not Seen:  Flicker, E. Kingbird, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, Yellow Warbler, Cardinal,


Birds thought about by Hank:  Flamingo


Next BirdWalk

Our next BirdWalk will be the first Saturday of Sept, Sept 1st. Labor Day Weekend.  Our probable destination will be The Marshlands in Rye, unless an unusual bird shows up somewhere else.

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In some mountainous areas migration may be measured in terms of vertical feet as opposed to the number of horizontal miles flown.  Certain species spend the breeding season high up on the mountain.  In fall they do not fly south to warmer weather.  Instead from the higher elevations at the top of the mountain they simply move down the mountainside to the valleys below, thousands of feet below their normal breeding area.  A difference of a 1,000 vertical feet may be equivalent to flying south hundreds of miles.  And it takes less energy. 

In spring, they again move higher up the mountain.    Up and down, not north and south.

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