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by David Brakhage
When you are out hunting or watching ducks, the coloration of the birds' feathers is one of the first things you notice. Each species has its own distinctive plumage, which is invaluable when trying to identify birds in the field. A drake pintail's long twin tail feathers, white underparts, and soft brown topside can be easily distinguished from a male wood duck's squared-off tail feathers and multicolored plumage.
Feathers are indeed among the defining characteristics of waterfowl and other birds. Birds, in fact, are the only animals that have feathers. And while feathers have many specialized functions, their most important jobs are to protect birds from the elements and to enable flight. In bitter cold, wintry conditions feathers are a duck's first line of defense.
Waterfowl have three types of feathers: contour, flight, and down. Contour feathers collectively serve as a protective outer shell. Each feather is composed of a central shaft with a continuous series of paired vanes that line up on opposite sides of the shaft. Tightly interlocking barbules line the edge of each vane and hold them together like Velcro. They overlap one another much like shingles on a roof, forming an almost impenetrable barrier to wind and moisture. Feathers are also held in place by specialized muscles just under the skin. Using these muscles waterfowl can fluff up their feathers and move them back into position at will.
Located on a bird's wings and tail, flight feathers are a variation of contour feathers that are designed to withstand the stress and strain of flight. Because they must support a bird's weight in flight, they are connected directly to ligaments or bone for greater structural integrity. Unlike body feathers, flight feathers have vanes of unequal width and are always narrower on their leading edge. This characteristic, which is especially obvious in primary flight feathers, helps provide lift and forward propulsion in flight.
Down feathers serve as an inner layer of insulation that traps warm air against a bird's body. They have a short shaft and no interlocking barbules, giving them a light, fluffy appearance. Before the advent of modern synthetic insulation, duck and goose down was widely used by people to line blankets, clothing, and sleeping bags. Even today, the warmth-to-weight ratio of eider down is still unsurpassed when dry.
Have you ever wondered just how many feathers are on a duck, goose, or swan? While the absolute number of feathers on waterfowl is unknown, reports in scientific literature indicate the number varies by species. Researchers counted 14,914 feathers on a pintail, 11,903 on a mallard, and 25,216 on a tundra swan.
Interestingly, smaller birds often have more feathers than do larger ones. Swans are a notable exception because of their long necks, which are covered with a large number of small feathers. Roughly 80 percent of the feathers on a tundra swan are found on the bird's head and neck.
Female waterfowl also use down to line their nests and keep their eggs warm. During the egg-laying process, hens pull more and more down from their body, creating a bare patch on their abdomen. This "brood patch" allows females to more efficiently transfer heat from their bodies to the eggs. When hens leave the nest for brief periods during incubation, they pull a layer of down over their eggs with their bills to protect them and keep them warm while they are away.