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Frolicking with Feathers – Part 1

Frolicking will come, but first a bit of history. The year is 1912, the Edwardian Era, after the death of Queen Victoria and before the First World War. William Howard Taft is the President of the U.S.; the Girl Scouts of America has just been founded; Clara Barton was born a couple of days ago and Fenway Park in Boston is going to open next week. It’s the third week of April, and the world is reeling from the sinking of the Titanic.

The Titanic

What’s the Titanic got to do with feathers?

Because the cargo manifest of the Titanic survived, we know that of all the stuff on board the Titanic – – including sardines, mushrooms, lace collars, and 2,000 bags of potatoes – – the most valuable class of merchandise aboard, and one that warranted insurance claims worth more than $2.3 million in today’s currency, was feathers.

Part of Titanic’s cargo manifest

From Feathers, by Thor Hanson: “The ship contained more than 40 cases of fine plumes bound for the milliners’ shops of New York City, and in the spring of 1912 feathers ranked as one of the highest-priced commodities in the world. By weight, only diamonds were more valuable.”

The plumes of Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets were the most highly valued. Grown by both male and female birds, these feathers are elegant, airy and gorgeous, and because these birds nest in colonies they were easy to catch in large numbers.

A Great Egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage
A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) in breeding plumage

Hanson continues: “At the peak of the trade, an ounce of egret plumes fetched the modern equivalent of two thousand dollars, and successful hunters could net a cool hundred grand in a single season. But every ounce of breeding plumes represented 6 dead adults, and each slain pair left behind three to five starving nestlings. Millions of birds died.” Eventually, egrets survived only deep in the Everglades and other remote wetlands. So, how is it that now, a hundred years later, both Great and Snowy Egrets can be found in nearly all of North America? Here in the Deep South all you have to do hang out near a drainage ditch. Or, look up.

Hanson again: “Ironically, while women made up the feather industry’s principal market, they also proved its undoing. Nearly every local Audubon chapter in the nation was founded by women, and they made up the vast bulk of the early membership. Through countless lectures, teas, luncheons, and protests, Audubon activists mounted one of the first grassroots environmental campaigns and made bird preservation a national and international issue.”

It’s no accident that the National Audubon Society’s logo is the Great Egret.

National Audubon Society logo

Moving from the Audubon Society archives to my own personal history, I’m recalling my high school zoology class on the day my teacher described the microscopic structure of feathers.

I was transfixed. Captivated. I thought this was the most marvelous, delightful, astounding, beautiful fact of nature I’d ever heard.

Mind you, many different types of feathers are found on the body of any given bird and throughout the bird realm. What caught my attention that day in high school was the microstructure of feathers used for flight (wings and tail) and for the outer covering that gives the bodies of flying birds their aerodynamic shape. Collectively, these are called contour feathers.

A Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) showing off its contour feathers and streamlined body shape

You’ve probably held a feather, pulled apart the bits of the vane on one side of the shaft, then rubbed the parts and watched them meld back together again, but what makes that possible? The vane of a feather – that is, the section of feather material on either side of the main feather shaft — is made of tiny branches, called barbs, originating in the feather shaft and directed outward. Each barb, in turn, has branches, called barbules, that stick out on the front (distal) side that’s in the direction of the feather tip, and the back (proximal) side that faces the bird’s body. Barbules have tiny hooklets on one side of the barbule and ridges on the other side. The hooklets on one barbule latch over the ridge on the neighboring barbule, as shown in the schematic drawing below, and the following scanning electron micrograph of part of a flight feather.

Schematic drawing of two barbs in cross-section, showing hooklets on the distal barbules and ridges (“dorsal flange”) on the proximal barbules


Scanning electron micrograph of barbs with barbules hooked over ridges. Main feather shaft is on the left.

If the hooklets come unhooked by body movement or wind disturbance, the bird need only run its bill or toes across the feather vane in order to “zip up” the feather vane. People are using this type of structure as a model for new technologies in aerospace and adhesives. You can read more about that here.

The truth is, I could dedicate this blog to fun feather facts for weeks or even months on end, and it’s no accident that this post is labeled “Part 1,” because I simply can’t stop at just one post about feathers. They’re much too tantalizing and exquisite to stop talking about them quite yet, so stay tuned!

Image Attributions:

The Titanic: Photo by Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart https://www.britannica.com/topic/Titanic#/media/1/597128/7788

Titanic partial cargo manifest: https://www.bookofjoe.com/2011/06/titanic-cargo-manifest.html

Great egret in mating plumage: Photo by Mark Fuller

Snowy egret in mating plumage: Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash

Audubon Society logo: by the National Audubon Society, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297464

Tufted titmouse in flight: Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash

Schematic drawing of barbs and barbules: From Lucas & Stettenheim, Avian Anatomy: Integument, Part 1, p. 247. Agriculture Handbook 362, Washington, D.C. 1972.

Scanning electron micrograph of feather barbs and barbules: Courtesy of the Clark R. Bavin National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, Ashland, Oregon.

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  1. Fascinating stuff and great images. You manage to mix the right amount of technical info and magical musings on all your subjects. I vote for more on feathers! What’s not to like?

  2. Wow! What wonderful information so beautifully expressed. We love birdwatching around here, and now my appreciation takes on a new level. I love that photo of the tufted titmouse–perfect!

  3. Loved this blog. What a fascinating history lesson. I read it when it came out but wanted you to know I have shared the story with many. Thank you for being the wonderful human you are and the writing that comes forth!

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