13 Fabulous Facts About Extreme Bird Feathers

Updated: Nov. 21, 2022

Bird feathers are fascinating! Discover the wide variety of functions that feathers serve, including helping birds fly and attract mates.

Bird feathers serve specific functions, including flying, attracting a mate, staying dry or hiding from predators. To achieve all these tasks, they come in an array of sizes and colors, varying from downright drab to vivaciously vibrant. Here are examples of extreme feathers and their purposes.

251870095 1 Arnold Landsman Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy Arnold Landsman
Great horned owl

Feather Fact: Some Birds Have Fake Ears

Though the feather tufts on top of a great horned owl’s head look like ears, they are separate from the owl’s real ears and do not help it hear. Scientists believe that the plumes help the bird blend into its surroundings. Discover the amazing types of owls in North America.

blue jay photo
Courtesy Dawn Weingartner
Blue jay

Birds Communicate With Their Crest Feathers

Blue jays use their trademark pointy blue crests when communicating with other birds. The jays raise their feathers to intimidate intruders or when they are agitated. When a jay is relaxing with its mate or family, usually the crest is down. Most crested birds use their head feathers in a similar way.

Love blue jays? You’ll adore these delightful blue jay photos.

painted bunting
Courtesy Mary Alice Tartler
Painted bunting

Bird Feathers Are as Colorful as the Rainbow

In the States, male painted buntings get the prize for most colorful plumage. The French call this rainbow bird nonpareil, which means “without equal.” Learn all about bird wings and flight feathers.

California Condor sitting on a rock
Weili Li/Getty Images
California condor

Some Feathers Work Like Neck Warmers

The California condor, similar to other vulturelike birds, has a bald head. When the weather turns, it raises its neck feathers, which resemble a feather boa, to stay nice and warm.

Green Parrot (eclectus Parrot)
Photo by Sayid Budhi/Getty Images
Green eclectus parrot

Birds Can Have Colorful Camouflage Feathers

A bird’s plumage typically helps it either blend in or put on a display, but not both. However, scientists believe the male eclectus parrot evolved to its bright green coloring to hide in the rainforest canopy and show off for a prospective mate.

Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock
Alaskan rock ptarmigan

Bird Feathers May Look Different in Summer and Winter

Ptarmigans, such as willow, rock and white-tailed ptarmigans, are masterful molters, changing color with the seasons to hide from predators. They are brown in the summer, mottled during spring and fall, and white to blend into snow during the winter.

Check out surprising facts about Arctic birds, including ptarmigans.

wood ducks
Courtesy Edward Price
Female and male wood ducks

Birds Carefully Control Feather Movements

During courtship, a male wood duck raises its regal crest, containing hundreds of tiny feathers, by flexing muscles on top of its head.

A male marvelous spatuletail hummingbird perching, bird feathers
webguzs/Getty Images
Male marvelous spatuletail hummingbird

Bird Feathers Come in Many Shapes

The marvelous spatuletail hummingbird in the Peruvian Andes has just four tail feathers, but the birds make them count! Two of the feathers are much longer than the tail feathers of the hummingbirds found in the U.S.

Males have two feathers that are even lengthier, crossing over each other and ending with an iridescent disc for courtship displays.

What makes hummingbird feathers so shimmery?

Male Ostrich, bird feathers
Hal Beral/Getty Images
Male ostrich

Feathers Aren’t Always for Flight

The common ostrich, which can’t fly, has ornate and fluffy wing feathers rather than tightly interlocking and aerodynamic ones. This plumage was such a prized fashion statement on top of hats that ostriches were farmed in the United States in the 1880s. Discover the fastest birds in North America.

Close Up Of Birds Perching On Branch,smith Oaks Sanctuary,united States,usa, bird feathers
Andrea Salas/500px/Getty Images
Roseate spoonbills

Diet Affects the Color of Bird Feathers

A roseate spoonbill’s feathers turn pink from eating crustaceans and other prey containing carotenoids. The young are more pale and develop their rosy breeding plumage in three years. But just like people who lose hair as they age, spoonbills lose the feathers on top of their head as they get older.

Do mourning dove feathers and wings make noise?

251099385 1 Amanda Dunn Bnb Bypc2020, bird feathers
Courtesy Amanda Dunn
Male peacock

Tail Feathers Can Be Several Feet Long

Peacocks have a stunning 5-foot-long train of upper tail coverts, which sit above their tail feathers. The bigger and brighter, the more irresistible it is to a nearby peahen. Despite their length, the feathers don’t slow males down. University of Leeds researchers in the U.K. discovered that male peacocks are efficient fliers both with their full breeding-season plumage and without it after they molt.

California Quail Adult Male On Wire Fence, bird feathers
Stan Tekiela Author/Naturalist/Wildlife Photographer/Getty Images
Male California quail

Bird Feathers Show the Pecking Order

California quails have a topknot protruding from their forehead. It looks like one feather, but it’s really a group of six. When males fight for dominance, the winner raises his topknot and the loser flattens his. Females have matching but smaller topknots.

The California quail is the state bird of California—do you know the birds for the other 49 states?

Adult,male,scissor Tailed,flycatcher,(tyrannus,forficatus),perched,on,a,wooden, bird feathers
Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock
Adult male scissor-tailed flycatcher

Forked Bird Feathers Aid Agility

The male scissor-tailed flycatcher, found in the south-central United States, has excessively long tail feathers that double its total length. The bird opens and closes the elongated feathers like a pair of scissors to improve its agility while catching bugs and as part of its mating ritual.

Next, learn all about the major features of bird anatomy—from bird beaks to bird feet.