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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … Ruffled Plumage?

What Is That … Ruffled Plumage?


While reviewing some of last year’s cottage photographs we realized we have several atypical images of birds with ruffled plumage.  These photos led us to think it would be interesting to explore the functions of a bird’s feathers and how function relates to some of our ruffled plumage photographs.

Birds are the only animals alive today that have feathers.  Feathers support flight and protect birds from extreme temperatures, moisture, wind, and UV radiation.  In some cases, feathers also provide camouflage, contribute to courting and attracting a mate, and display aggression which in turn helps an individual bird establish and defend breeding and feeding territories.  In addition, some nesting birds line nests with their plucked feathers to insulate their eggs and young.

While researching for this article, we learned that a bird can have as many as six different types of feathers.   The six types are flight, contour, semiplume, down, filoplume, and bristle feathers.   For this article we have focused on the first four types.  Long, sturdy, coloured, flight feathers, situated in the wings and tail, permit birds to fly and control their flight.  Colour-bearing contour feathers cover a bird’s outer surface and provide a first level of protection from the elements.  The smaller semiplumes are located between the contour feathers and the even smaller, fluffy down feathers which are next to the bird’s skin.  The down feathers trap air which is key to keeping birds warm.  The semiplumes shed water and provide an additional layer of insulation.

Once a year birds shed their old, damaged, worn feathers and grow new ones in a process called molting.  Birds typically molt in mid-summer after they have raised their young when they are well fed by the summer’s bounty and prior to fall migration (if they are migrating species).  New feathers will be in place by the onset of colder weather.  This American robin was photographed in mid-August during its molt.  Note the old tail feathers are completely gone and the new ones are not yet visible.  In addition, the contour feathers look scruffy.

The male chestnut-sided warbler shown below was photographed in mid-July during its breeding season.  He was trying to look impressive to compete with other males for mates. The splayed tail feathers, extended wings, and raised contour feathers make this small bird appear larger than it truly is.  We do not know if this individual was successful, but given the number of juveniles we saw subsequently, we are fairly certain of his and his competitors achievements.

The photograph of a common grackle was taken in the early afternoon on a hot day in mid-July.  In addition to panting through its open beak, this bird has intentionally ruffled its feathers and extended its wings to allow air flow next to its skin which helped it cool.  This individual was in the full sunlight when the photograph was taken but shortly afterward it wisely sought out a cooler, shady patch in a nearby bush.

This male common yellowthroat warbler was photographed one cool morning towards the end of July.  Appearing more fluffed or puffed than ruffled, the bird has reflexively extended its down, semiplume, and contour feathers in order to trap more insulating air next to its body.

Paddling past cattail marshes in May, during bird breeding season, can be very distracting because of the constant activity and noise of male red-winged blackbirds.  The males compete aggressively for nesting and feeding areas and for mates.  They do this, in part, by ruffling their feathers to display prominently their coloured wing patches.  Research indicates those with larger and brighter patches are more successful.

We have learned by observing the frenzied activity around our hummingbird feeders that both genders of the tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds are extremely territorial and competitive.  This male ruby-throated hummingbird was photographed in early May as it ruffled its feathers, we assume, to look more threatening, just before launching itself to chase others from one of its feeders.

Our dictionary of Canadian English defines ‘ruffle’ to include “a roughness or unevenness in some surface” and “a disturbance or annoyance”.  We often use ‘ruffle’ to indicate something negatively disturbed.  However, our fine feathered friends show us that ruffled plumage isn’t necessarily a bad thing and often is important to their well-being.

Numerous online sources are available with information about feathers.  We used The Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy at as a general base for this article.  We also referred to David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America for species-specific information.




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