At first glance, you might think all feathers are the same. Most feathers do have the same basic design. But when you examine that design closely, you see it's really very complex.
The two main parts of the feather are the shaft and the vane.
There is a vane on each side of the feather's shaft.
The part of the shaft where the vanes are located is called the rachis. The exposed base of the shaft is called the quill or calamus.
The vane of a feather is very intricate. It's composed of structures called barbs. The barbs are laid out in parallel rows, which extend from the rachis.
Located along the barbs are structures called barbules. A single barb can contain several hundred barbules. These barbules overlap other barbules from neighboring barbs.
At the end of the barbules are barbicels – tiny hooks that connect barbules to each other, interlocking neighboring barbs.
Just as you spend great amounts of time washing and combing and taking care of your hair, birds spend great amounts of time caring for their feathers.
Preening is when a bird straightens out its feathers. You'll often see birds preening themselves. But birds are doing more than trying to look nice when they preen. Actually, they're making sure that all of the barbs on their feathers are in place, so the barbs can hook together correctly. Feathers that aren't hooked together properly might cause problems during flight.
During the preening process, the bird applies an oily substance from its uropygial or preening gland. This oil, applied by the beak to the feathers, waterproofs the feathers and helps them to last longer.
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