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a bird feather

Bird feathers have many tiny barbs

Observing bird feathers

You can see how bird feathers work for yourself. First, go to a park or a place where there are pigeons and find a bird feather. Or you can buy nice clean chicken or duck feathers at a craft store.

Evolution of birds
Earlier dinosaurs
Feather fans
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Cut through the feather with scissors

Hold the feather in your hand. You’ll feel that it is very light. Feathers have to be light so the bird won’t be too heavy to fly. Now cut through the tube in the center of the feather (the rachis) with a pair of scissors. See how it is hollow? That is what makes bird feathers so light and strong. A hollow tube is a very strong shape; your bones are made the same way.

Look at it under a microscope

Attached to the central tube are thousands of long hair-like things called barbs. The barbs stick together to block the air so the feather can push against the air, like you have to keep your fingers together when you are swimming. The barbs stick together because they all have many tiny hooks, called barbules or “little barbs”. Each barb hooks onto the next one, like Velcro. You can see the barbules with a magnifying glass, or even better with a microscope.

How did feathers evolve?

Some dinosaurs evolved to have feathers about 190 million years ago. You can read more about the evolution of feathers here; scientists still don’t understand it perfectly. Basically feathers evolved from skin. Reptiles pushed up little skin extensions that were like hairs that held air close to the body and kept them warm.

Evolution of feathers

cross-hatched pattern

Barbules on a feather, thanks to Blister Microscope – Bird feathers

Observing birds themselves

Another great project is to observe how birds behave. Sit down outside, in your yard, or on your front stoop, or in a park, and wait for some birds to fly by. What are they doing? Where are they going? Can you catch them eating something? What is it? Where is their nest? What kind of sounds do they make?

A science project with birds

If you are thinking about a science project, you’ll want to first formulate a hypothesis, then observe the birds to find out whether your hypothesis is true. Maybe you could take pictures of the birds to show how they behaved. Or do experiments with feathers – how much air can they push?

Another bird project
More about birds

Bibliography and further reading:

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