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The stiff, lightweight, often colorful, keratin structure that is the principal covering of birds. Feathers are composed of a central, hollow quill that attaches to the bird's body. For flight feathers, each side of the quill (vane) has a series of slender, closely spaced barbs that interlock to form a continuous, flat surface. Plume feathers (e.g., ostrich, peacock) are less cohesive with unconnected barbs. Down feathers, obtained from young birds or the undergrowth of adult birds, are soft and lack barbs. Feathers naturally occur in a wide variety of colors pigmented with melanin (black to yellow) and carotenoids (red and yellow). Most birds periodically drop feathers as part of a molting process. Feathers and quills have been used since ancient times for decoration, clothing, masks, and as writing utensils. The fashionable use of feathers in the 19th century directly resulted in several bird preservation laws (e.g. eagle).

MFA Acc. #: 1976.514

Synonyms and Related Terms

featherwork; feathers (pl.); fjer (Dan.); Feder (Deut.); pluma (Esp.); plume (Fr.); penna (It.); veer (Ned.); fjær (Nor.); pióra ptaka (Pol.); pena (Port.)

Other Properties

Insoluble in organic solvents. Burns giving odor of burnt hair. Becomes limp in boiling water.

Hazards and Safety

Many natural and synthetic colors in bird feathers are not lightfast.

Additional Information

° Bishop Museum: Care of feathers

° O. Untracht, Jewelry Concepts and Technology, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1985.

Additional Images

Sources Checked for Data in Record

  • The Dictionary of Art, Grove's Dictionaries Inc., New York, 1996 Comment: "Feather" Allyson Rae
  • Rosalie Rosso King, Textile Identification, Conservation, and Preservation, Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ, 1985
  • Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts and Technology, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York City, 1985