The nature of feather construction

Feather Anatomy 101

Pennaceous barbs
   Part of vane
   with pennaceous barbs

Plumulaceous barbs
   Part of vane
   with plumulaceous barbs.

Base and quill
   Base of shaft
   with whole quill

Whole featherThe quill or calamus is often mistakenly described as being anything from the feather shaft to the barbs themselves. The fact of the matter is that the quill is simply that portion of the feather that is inserted in the skin follicle; nothing more. It is cylindrical, transparent, and hollow. There are no barbs attached to the quill.

The shaft or rachis is that portion of the feather that the barbs are attached to. It is flattened on the sides that support the barbs. It differs from the quill by being roughly rectangular in cross section. Internally it is not hollow, but rather is filled with a pithy material that contains air cells.

The barbs or rami (singular: ramus) come off the flattened sides of the shaft more toward the anterior (face) surface of the feather and in parallel rows generally opposing one another. They point outward and toward the tip of the feather. They are somewhat ovoid in cross-section (thinner side to side, wider front to back), broader near their attachment to the rachis, flattening and narrowing as they approach the tip. Barbs, like the shaft, are filled with a pithy material containing air cells. A feather may have only a couple of dozen barbs or several hundred.

Barbules or radii (singular: radius) extend out from either side of the barbs. From the base to about half way to their tip, they are ribbon-like (the basal lamella). The distal half is more whip-like (the pennulum.) The barbules on the distal (upper) edge of a barb extend outward almost perpendicular to the barb. The barbules on the proximal (lower) edge of a barb lay more parallel with the barb. This is readily visible with a peacock upper tail covert feather's barbs, commonly referred to as "herl". (Herl according to dictionary definition is a barb or barbs of a feather, originating from the Middle English harle or herle which referred to fiber, hair of flax, or hemp.) Barbules extend out from a barb more proximal to the anterior (face) surface similar to barbs on a shaft. Again note the appearance of the peacock upper tail covert feather. When viewed from the anterior surface of the feather, the brightly colored eye is more dominate because the barbules (which often provide the majority of a feather's color) are attached closer to the anterior edge of the barb. When viewed from the opposing surface, the flat, rather dull color is due to the dominance of the color of the edges of the barbs as well as the location and physical shape, and in turn, light reflectance of the barbules.

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Feather Anatomy 101, continued

User comments
GFF staff comment
From: Martin Joergensen · martin·at·  Link
Submitted June 3rd 2013


I'm not sure I get the question...

Birds use feathers for flight and insulation.
We fly-tyers use them for tying fishing flies
Other uses could be pillow stuffing, ornaments, clothing and much more


From: mohan - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted June 3rd 2013

what are the uses of feather and where it is used and mention its purpose of feather

From: Majid · majid1754·at·  Link
Submitted August 5th 2009

it has a quill,barbs and barbules, what is it ?

From: FeatherFederPlumaPenna · treparriscos2·at·  Link
Submitted February 28th 2009

Mossfire: Me too! Can you write me, please? We could make an interesting exchange.

From: a.z romli · ahmadzafirr·at·  Link
Submitted September 10th 2007

Hi there... I am very interested in feather.. did any body know where I can get the info regarding horw the feather grow.. their contents and etc... pls help..

From: Mossfire   Link
Submitted July 30th 2007

I am studing the anatomy of a birds wing and to rember it, I needed to know the atamoy of the feather. This sight was very useful! I was calling the shaft the steam, and I had no ides what to call the barbs (I would have been really embarrest if I showed my little report to some one who know what was what). I collect feathers and I always try to look up what kind of bird it was from, but the books ues these sientific words and I had no idea what they were. Now I do! Thank you so much!

From: Nabeel · agent75·at·  Link
Submitted August 28th 2006

does anyone know what the longest quill feather is called?

From: Nina · ana2388·at·  Link
Submitted May 31st 2006

Thank you for this useful information.

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