Saturday, February 6, 2010

How to detect ruffled feathers

One of my favorite non-bird books is The Songs of Insects, a fabulous guide to dozens of species of crickets, cicadas, and katydids. Photographer Wil Hershberger's web site has a page where he notes the presence of two small filoplumes on the napes of songbirds he'd photographed. Filoplumes are specialized feathers, long and hairlike, that are most numerous at the base of wing feathers. Special sensory cells at the base of filoplumes transmit information on the position and movement of wing feathers during flight. According to the Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function, many passerines also have filoplumes sticking out of their crown and nape, "perhaps warning the bird when wind disrupts the smooth outer surface of the plumage."

I found this incredibly intriguing, and when I had the time, I looked for these plumes on the birds I banded. Sure enough, there they were! I was able to find them on a variety of species, both male and female, and could even see them on some older head shots I had taken during previous fall banding seasons. Although not particularly easy to photograph (especially with one hand!), here is a little slide show of some of my shots. Look at the back of the neck -- you might have to slow the speed down a bit or pause on some photos. (Note: apparently some Firefox users cannot see the Flickr slide show, a known bug with Flickr. If you have a Flickr account, it might help to log in.)

Species in order: Yellow Warbler (male then female), Orchard Oriole, Black-and-white Warbler, Brown Thrasher, White-throated Sparrow, Tennessee Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male then female), Black-thr Green Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Purple Finch, Wilson's Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat. Created with Paul's flickrSLiDR.

A 1989 paper (pdf) in the Condor, the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society, described the presence of these protruding filoplumes on the napes of many passerine species. The authors noted that species which lacked these plumes had dense, stiff feathering on their napes, while species that displayed the filoplumes had softer and more flexible feathering in this area. They also concluded that these plumes served to detect disturbances in the feathers in an area that birds could neither see nor reach. The looser plumage might have less insulative properties to begin with, and unnoticed disheveled plumage might make a bird even more vulnerable to heat loss. A quick shake or perhaps scratch of the head, or facing into the wind can smooth the feathers once again, correcting the situation.

It's hard to believe I handled tens of thousands of birds -- with part of the routine being close scrutiny of plumage -- without making particular note of this interesting characteristic!

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