This article on bird plumage was inspired by the fostering of a brilliantly coloured Harlequin Macaw parrot in our home.
The local pet shop owner needed him to be housed outside the shop as refurbishment was carried out. His feathers were multi-coloured from crimson, through orange and yellow to green and iridescent blue.
Among animals with backbones birds characteristically have feathers. Feathers are the most complex outer structure covering vertebrates. They have many functions including thermal insulation, waterproofing, colouration, protection, camouflage but especially and uniquely they enable flight which is the ability to overcome gravity, leave the earth’s surface and soar up and up. Some birds can’t fly and some, namely penguins, “fly” underwater. The amazing ability to overcome gravity and rise in the air and stay airborne is only possible because of a birds’ anatomy which includes very light air-filled bones, their feathers and their powerful pectoral (breast) muscles. Flight enables them to search for food over vast distances, migrate and escape predators or predate other animals because of their speed in flight.
How do feathers form and grow and what different types are there? They only grow on certain tracts of skin on each bird and, like our hairs are made of the protein keratin, the same keratin forms beaks and claws and is much stronger than the keratin of our skin, hair and animal horns and hooves. They form in a follicle and at their formation have an artery and vein supplying nourishment to produce vane feathers which are the external feathers and include flight feathers. Birds also possess down feathers which are small, soft, fluffy and free floating which trap air to keep the birds warm.
Vane feathers have a shaft and barbs and branch into barbules which have tiny hooks for cross-attachment, keeping them stiff and close together, whereas the down feathers have no hooklets.
Vane feathers. The original “Velcro”
Tail feathers act as a brake and rudder in flight. It is worth noting that the little extra upward wing tips of jets and the often affixed additions to the tips of crop-spraying planes mimic the outer pinions of birds such as eagles, and grant stability to the birds (and aircraft) in flight.
The base of each feather inserts into the skin and by rotation in time, they are moulted and replaced.
Feathers enable humming birds to hover with a wing beat of anything between 25 and 200 beats per minute and peregrine falcons to reach speeds approaching 200 mph in a dive. Some birds like Arctic tern almost circumnavigate the globe (24,000 miles) in their migrations. Flight is clearly for animals and humans the fastest means of transport! Why? Minimum friction!
We use feathers in bedding (down), making arrows, adorning hats and head-dresses and in old-fashioned pens.
We first come across birds in scripture at their creation on day five of creation,” And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:20-21).
After God sent the worldwide flood Noah used a raven and doves to search out whether the world was dried up and ready to be inhabited once again.
The first time we encounter feathers is when the Israelites wickedly crave flesh to eat and God rained down quail, “He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea:” (Psalm 78:27). This led to the deaths of thousands.
Judgment is also the subject of the prophecy of Ezekiel 39:17 where we read,” And, thou son of man, thus saith the Lord GOD; Speak unto every feathered fowl, and to every beast of the field, Assemble yourselves, and come; gather yourselves on every side to my sacrifice that I do sacrifice for you, even a great sacrifice upon the mountains of Israel, that ye may eat flesh, and drink blood”. This prophesy picturing men as falling prey to all the birds that eat carrion namely eagles and vultures, I believe, pictures the final judgment when all the wicked will be destroyed in hell (see also Rev.19:21).
In the animal sacrifices of Leviticus, just as today in our eating of birds, God commanded the crop and feathers to be removed before the animals were burnt (hope you don’t burn your chicken or turkey!). Any of you who live in the country will undoubtedly have been involved in plucking birds!
In Job 39:13 we read, as God points out the wonders of his creation, “Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?” Now peacock feathers are possibly the most spectacular and longest of any bird and those of the ostrich are also impressive though her running speed makes up for her flightlessness!
Psalm 68:13 in the context of the victory of God’s church, the Lord states, “Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.” This picture is somewhat repeated in Isaiah 40:31,” But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” In dependence upon God and his enabling his people will mount up, above their troubles and afflictions, and see victory over all their enemies.
God’s protection of his people is likened to that of a mother bird protecting her young or incubating her eggs in Psalm 91:4,”He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.”
In Ezekiel 17:3 and 7 we read,” And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; A great eagle with great wings, longwinged, full of feathers, which had divers colours, came unto Lebanon, and took the highest branch of the cedar:…There was also another great eagle with great wings and many feathers: and, behold, this vine did bend her roots toward him, and shot forth her branches toward him, that he might water it by the furrows of her plantation.” John Gill’s commentary on this explains that the great eagle is Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, as it is explained, Ezekiel 17:12;” who is compared to an eagle for his power and authority, that being the king of birds, and for his swiftness and voracity in conquering and subduing kingdoms; see Jeremiah 48:40; so the Babylonish monarchy is signified by a lion with eagle’s wings, Daniel 7:4; longwinged may signify the breadth of his dominion, this the length of them, and both their extensiveness: full of feathers; of cities, towns, people, armies, wealth, and riches:
The other great eagle of verse 7 is Hophra king of Egypt, a very powerful prince, though not so mighty as the king of Babylon; with great wings and many feathers: had large dominions, but not so extensive as the former, and therefore is not said to be “longwinged” as he; and had “many feathers,” but not “full” of them, nor had it such a variety; he had many people, and much wealth, and a large army, but not equal to the king of Babylon:”
The last time we read of feathers or wings in the Old Testament was when Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God and turned into an animal, “The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws (Dan.4:33). What humiliation for the great emperor showing the power of God to abase any of his creatures.
Feathers are a glorious testament to God’s creative genius.
Flight is an amazing God-given ability.
Feathers represent God’s protection of his people and the ability to soar spiritually.
Feathers remind us of God’s ability to humble proud men.
Feathers and wings represent conquest in God’s control of the world’s empires.
Feathers on birds of prey represent God’s judgment upon the wicked world.
Feathers have much to teach us about God’s ways!