When you walk through the aviaries in Lands of Change: Australia and Beyond, it’s hard not to notice all the beautiful colors surrounding you. The stark reds and pinks of the galah, the greens and blues of the Nicobar pigeon, the browns of the kookaburra and the rainbow-esque plumage of the lorikeet may make you wonder why these birds look the way that they do. The answer is in their feathers.
Birds are the only living animals to have feathers. The only other animals known to have these colorful appendages were their ancestors: the non-avian dinosaurs. Because some prehistoric feathers are near-identical to those belonging to modern birds and many non-avian dinosaurs lacked the physical adaptations necessary for flying, we know that the original function of feathers was not for flight.
We may not be certain of the reason these fluffy appendages first appeared, but over time, we do know that feathers serve several purposes:
Flight. Plumage isn’t just about pretty colors; feathers give modern birds the ability to soar through the sky.
Protection. Feathers help shield birds’ bodies from bruises and scrapes.
Communication. Hundreds of bird species use their feathers to “talk,” especially when looking for a mate. For example, peacocks display their tails to demonstrate their health to females; the brighter and stronger the feathers, the fitter the bird.
Insulation. A bird’s feathers play an important role in regulating their body temperature, much as hair does for mammals.
Camouflage. Like many other members of the animal kingdom, some birds have the natural ability to blend into their surroundings. This helps them stay hidden from predators or sneak up on potential prey.
Waterproofing. Not only does their plumage keep them warm, but birds’ feathers also act as waterproof jackets in many cases! A notable exception is the anhinga, who must dry its feathers in the sun after taking a dip.
Unknown. Though we know many reasons why feathers are around, scientists are still looking into other reasons as to why birds carry these ornate displays. Guess we’ll just have to stay tuned!