Simply Beautiful Feathers

A display of birds’ useful adornments. /

“The nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather.” — John Cassian (c. 360–435), On Prayer

Feathers comfort. Not only does plumage insulate from cold and rain, but birds can pluck feathers out to line their nests and insulate their eggs and hatchlings as well. Feathers allow flight. They camouflage. They warn. Some birds (most notably grebes) even swallow their feathers and feed them to their young, apparently to help with the digestion of fish bones.

Feathers also beckon. While bright colors, ornamental shapes, and tricks of movement may have a primary use of attracting an avian mate, they have drawn us humans as well. A feather on the ground is a nearly irresistible draw, an alluring gift from above. “You don’t know where it’s been” is both the hygienic mother’s warning and the inquisitive child’s wonderment.

Photographer Robert Clark was one of those children, wandering western Kansas in search of plumes and quills. A longtime National Geographic photographer, he says he became especially interested in birds while shooting for a 2004 cover story on Charles Darwin, then dove deep for a 2011 article on feathers. Five years, thousands of feathers, and hundreds of photographs later, Clark has just published Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (Chronicle Books). Here is a short excerpt.

— The Editors

Liaoning Province, China

This Aves variation, discovered in the Liaoning province of China, shows a member of Confuciusornithiformes, a group of bird predecessors all identified by talons evident on their forelimbs. Named after the Chinese philosopher Confucius, these animals are the oldest known birds to have beaks. ...

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Issue 46 / April 14, 2016
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